She lay on a motel bed, perspiration beading, cigarette ashes
tumbling to the floor. From a lamp beside her, a thin illumination
was thrown on stained, bare walls, wallpaper curling and ripped.
From her hand, a narrow column of smoke ascended through the still,
She heard the day's remaining murmur. Plumbing whined, doors slammed,
running water whispered in a dull rush. Outside the door were
footsteps sliding and grinding on the sand strewn cement. There
was the vague disjointed sound of distant voices, distant laughter.
In time she rose, her body swaying, her movements enervated, graceless.
She stole a step, then found three more to the window sill where
she leaned and held with both hands.
Beside the air conditioner, she dropped to her knees.
She tried its buttons again, pressing each, pressing them two
and three at a time. The hush in the room wasn't interrupted until
she brought her hand against the case, hitting and hitting again.
A squared clear bottle lay on its side on the dresser, a stain
of liquor remaining. A torn pack of cigarettes was beside it,
cigarettes splayed wide. She bent forward and ran her hand across
the dresser's surface, her searching fingers a desperate sound
in the silence.
There came a restrained knock upon the door. The woman, startled
from her languor, stood and drew a robe tightly about her. She
opened the door to where an older man waited, a soiled canvas
bag beside him. He squinted in the light of a rusted carriage
lamp swirling with insects.
"Maintenance," he said, his voice nearly buried by the
roar of the highway. He removed his cap and arranged greasy strands
of hair across his scalp. Hard light from outside fell into the
room, across her face run with tears, a blue-black bruise at her
She held his gaze for only an instant, before her heavy eyes drifted
downward and darted away. Letting the door stand wide, she stumbled
toward the bed and slumped down, the thin mattress arching below
her. She pressed herself to the headboard and drew a pillow to
her chest, staring at an empty wall.
"Hot as hell in here," he said. He entered, leaving
the door open.
There were unlit candles scattered around the room, an unopened
bottle of champagne in a bucket of water. The telephone lay in
a tumble of cord against the far wall. He saw her small case,
a snarl of lingerie hanging from the opening.
"Switch or the fuse I should think. One thing or another,"
he said. "Hard to complain though, old as they are."
Sinking to the floor, he ran through the machine's controls, then
leaned back on his heels and pulled on his stubbled chin. He cast
open the bag with a muffled metallic clatter.
Shuffling through it, he removed only a worn screwdriver.
He started on screws at the base of the unit and, with the last
removed, drew back the bulky cover revealing dull steel coils
and fins choked with knots of dust. The weight in the ensuing
stillness made him turn and he saw her silhouette and the glisten
of fresh teardrops.
"I'm sorry, you know," he said.
She didn't look up.
"All his carrying on," he said, "your husband,
and all. Hollering-"
He stopped short and turned back, setting himself against a small
plate on one end of the unit, first removing a fastener, then
using the screwdriver to pry the plate up. He wiped his forehead,
exhaling patiently. Dust floated around him like a haze in the
"I thought he might kill your friend," he said.
He rattled the screwdriver in the hole that the plate had covered.
Moving it circularly, it caught and he slowly pushed down upon
it until a two-inch plastic cylinder, banded at each end, popped
into his hand.
He rolled the cylinder in his hand absently, his eyes focusing
then drifting. It was a minute before he concentrated on it again,
bringing it up to the light, brushing at it with his thumb.
After turning it fully around, he put it under his nose and sniffed
"It's finished, I'd guess," he said holding the cylinder
The man rooted through the bag, turning out tools and broken fixtures.
When he reached the bottom he pulled up handfuls of small objects,
which he let filter through his fingers.
Finally he picked a familiar looking cylinder from his hand.
He pressed the cylinder into the machine, tapping to be sure it
was tight, then drew a breath and pressed a button. The air conditioner
began to rumble, fans spinning, motors humming.
A pulsing reverberation grew in the room and the air stirred.
He turned, his face a look of satisfaction, and she met his eyes.
As she wiped dampness with a sleeve, a subtle smile grew.
He reassembled the machine, working without conversation, leaving
it running. He brought each screw tight and set each panel straight,
running his hand across the case when he was finished. He then
collected the remaining items on the floor, and got up to leave.
"I didn't think you'd stay," he said.
She held his gaze for a time then nodded as if she knew.
He lifted his bag and stepped outside. She saw him for a moment
standing in the sallow light, the spinning shadow of moths against
his face. He adjusted his grip on the bag, and pulling the door
shut, she could see his head shake.
She extinguished the remaining lamp, and with the curtains drawn
there was only shadow.
Light from the highway skipped across the furls of the curtain-tops
like the bulbs of a nightclub stage. She felt only the movement
of air. For a time she lay staring, eyes moving with thought.
The air conditioner produced a drone that filled the room, vibrating
the air such that nothing else was audible. A damp, unhealthy
coolness issued from it. Yet, these qualities allowed her to imagine,
in the darkness, that she was somewhere else.
~ * ~