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Winter/Spring 2020

Who's in 22?

H.W. Walker

 

When Marjorie told Allan to leave, he knew that this time she meant it. It was in the tone. It was in the way she swept her hair over her shoulders before she spoke. He needed to get out, she was serious, don’t come back, she’s getting a restraining order.

He packed a suitcase of clothes and his typewriter and some paper. His wife flicked her wrists at him and he said, OK, OK, and he left.

The Budget Inn was down the street. It was a yellow building just off the highway. The parking lot was nearly full of old cars but the vacancy sign was lit. From the street, he could see a pool. It was clean and lit by little orange globes and there were even a few chairs left around it. He parked the car and went inside and gave his name to the woman behind the counter, an old woman with a slouching throat and weary eyes, and she gave him a key.

Second floor, she said.

Yes, he said, ok.

Second floor. 21.

He took the key and went back out to his car. He opened the trunk and removed the suitcase and the typewriter case. He put them on the ground, closed the trunk, locked the car, picked them back up. He carried them up the stairs and down the landing to the room marked 21.

Beside each of the doors was a large rectangular window. The window to the room next to his was glowing, sending little slices of light, like layers of a cake, out onto the landing. As he put the key in the lock, he heard the screeching sounds of violent sex coming from the room next to him. He didn’t think it would bother him much. He didn’t plan on sleeping.

The room had a single bed against the right wall and a cheap TV on a stand against the left. In the back of the room was the door to the bathroom. Next to it was a small black plastic round table and a fold-out chair. The bed was made with an ugly paisley duvet. Allan put his things down and sat on the bed. He sighed, rubbed his knees, took off his shoes. He threw his legs on top of the ugly cover and listened to the thumping coming from the other room.

After a moment, the thumping stopped, and Allan got up from the bed and picked up the typewriter case and walked it over to the desk. He put the case down, opened it, removed the typewriter, closed the case. He went back over to his suitcase and put it on the bed. He opened the suitcase and removed the paper he’d packed inside. He walked the paper back to the desk and loaded a sheet into the typewriter. He sat down. Nothing came to him. Was that smoke he smelled coming from the room over? He tried to focus again.

Then he got up and left to buy some beer.

***

Returning with an eighteen-pack, Allan trudged back down the landing to his room. As he entered a guy emerged from the room next to his. The guy was tall and fat and he had a long beard. He was wearing sunglasses that were tinted a vomit color green.

Hey, the guy said.

Allan held up the case of beer, thinking, Why are you doing that?

Gonna have a party? the guy said.

Yeah, I guess. Allan put the key in the lock, fumbled, and opened the door.

Right kind of night for partyin, the guy said, and Allan closed the door.

He walked over to the desk and put down the beer. He checked the room for a refrigerator. There was none. He walked into the bathroom. The sink was filthy but there was a tub. Allan plugged the drain and filled the tub with cold water. Then he opened the case of beer and dropped seventeen of them into the water. He opened the last as the howling from 22 started again. He left the bathroom, took a drink, looked at the typewriter, took another drink. He sat down. He put the beer next to the typewriter, where he could see it, but turned the label away so he couldn’t read it. He pressed some keys.

Alone in an alleyway, Kelley found herself fighting for…

He removed the sheet, twisted it up, threw it on the floor, loaded another sheet. He took a drink from the beer. Then he started again.

Who’s in 22? he wrote. A seamstress? A pianist? A dope-fiend? Probably a hooker.

 He sat back in the chair and looked at his work. Something was wrong with it. He decided it was the final line. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t convey the absurdity of it all. Allan took his beer and stood up, deciding he was finished working for the night. He would try again tomorrow. He went over to the bed and lay down. He did not remove his shoes nor did he get under the ugly cover. He lay there and just as he dozed off, the banging on the walls stopped.

***

Allan came to in the fold-out chair. Beer cans surrounded his feet. His neck griped at him as he sat up. Now there were five twisted sheets on the floor. He stood up, rubbing his neck, and went into the bathroom. He checked the tub. Three lonely cans floated in the tub that was now nearly drained. He removed one and cracked it open and drank the whole thing in six gulps. He crushed it and threw it in the pile on the floor as he walked by.

His next series of actions were as follows: he opened his suitcase and retrieved some underwear and a shirt. He took a shower. He brushed his teeth. He drank two beers.

When he was ready he went down to the office to get a garbage bag.

There was a girl behind the counter, much younger than the woman he met the night before, that said, You don’t need to worry about it. We’ll get it.

No, Allan said, I don’t need housekeeping. I’d rather housekeeping not come. I just need a garbage bag. A big one.

Well, the girl said and she disappeared into a room behind the counter and came back out with a black garbage bag in her hands. She flailed her arms to open the bag and handed it to him.

Thank you, he said.

No problem. Do you need anything else, sir?

No, I don’t think so. Allan turned and started to leave and then turned back and said, Do you know who is staying the room next to me?

In 22? the girl said.

I’m not sure.

Well, no one is staying in 20.

Well then I guess I do mean 22.

The girl shrugged. Not really.

Not really?

I don’t really know who is staying in 22. I know she’s a woman, though I couldn’t say how old. Old-ish, like you.

Thanks, Allan said and turned again.

Her name is Sarah, the girl called as Allan walked out the door.

***

Now that the beer cans were cleaned up, Allan could set about to work. He sat down at the typewriter, loaded a sheet. Then the banging started again. The woman was wailing. She seemed to be in great pain although he imagined that’s what the guys are paying for. He pressed his ear against the wall. The man was making these whoo whoo whoo sounds. Allan couldn’t help but smile. He went back to the desk and sat back down and typed a few words but the banging was irritating and captivating him now so he tore out the sheet and twisted it and threw it on the floor. He paced about in the room. He checked his suitcase to see if he’d forgotten something. The banging stopped.

Allan went over to the window and lifted the blinds and peered out. A guy, this guy was short and had a mangy ponytail, was exiting the room next to Allan’s, adjusting his belt and looking over his shoulders. Allan let the blinds down, walked back over to the typewriter. He looked at it a moment, looked at the dwindling stack of papers next to it, and decided he couldn’t stand to waste any more if he wasn’t going to write something worthwhile.

He decided to go sit by the pool. Nature is inspiring, right? He was wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, but he didn’t think he would look too ridiculous. Not in a place like this. In a place like this, people tend not to judge.

As he left, another guy was going into room 22.

***

Allan entered the pool area, took a seat on the far side. The slats in the plastic chair were sagging and he could feel his ass almost scraping the ground. There were two kids in the pool splashing each other. One had on goggles, the other had on shoes.

An old man was sitting across the pool, shielding his eyes from the sun, watching the kids. Then his gaze shifted to Allan. He stood up and shuffled around the lip of the pool, his arms moving back and forth in an exaggerated manner. He took a ludicrously long time to come over to Allan, giving him enough time to really hate this situation.

The old man sat down in a chair next to Allan. He made a whoof sound that reminded Allan of the commotion in room 22. But this wasn’t the guy. The guy had a ponytail, this was an old man.

Nice out, the old man said.

Uh huh, Allan said.

You from around here?

Yeah, Allan said.

Oh? Where from?

Right there, Allan said, and pointed. About a mile that way.

We’re from Arizona, the old man said.

Uh huh.

The old man yelled at the kid in the shoes to stop teasing the kid in the goggles. Then he was silent. He took short, wheezing breaths. He checked out the wrinkles in his hands. He plucked at the few remaining grey hairs on his head and sighed.

What room are you in? Allan said.

18, the old man said.

On the first floor?

Yep, the old man said. Right at the far end, by the office. I like being by the office. It makes it easier to get coffee. See, my hips aren’t what they used to be.

Have you been here long?

Yeah, about a month. I’m from Arizona, see—I think I said “we” earlier—but the kids aren’t.

You did, Allan said.

Did what?

You said, “We’re from Arizona.”

Oh ok, the old man said. Well the kids aren’t from Arizona. Only I am. Their mother is my daughter. She’s from Arizona too. She lives here now, been living here like twelve years. Had the first kid about eight years back. But then she got locked up, see, and I had to come up here to take care of the kids. Couldn’t take them back because of school. Can’t take kids out of school. Makes them weird.

Why are you staying here?

Where else would we stay?

At your daughter’s house.

Oh, see my daughter lives with her boyfriend. But her boyfriend isn’t the kids’ father. So when she got locked up, and I came up here, he didn’t want us to stay with him. I don’t think he’s a very good guy.

You don’t say?

Nope, I don’t think so.

There was silence between them again. The kid in the shoes splashed the kid in the goggles. They were both squealing.

So you’ve been staying here a month? Allan said.

Yep, the old man said, just about.

Have you met Sarah?

Who?

She’s the woman staying in room 22.

Oh, the old man said. His voice took on a confused and exasperated tone only the elderly can manage. No, I haven’t met her.

But you’ve heard of her?

Heard her, yes. We’ve heard her many nights. Sometimes days too. Always gotta make up some kind of lie to tell the kids. Getting pretty good at it, telling lies.

What do you tell them?

I tell her she’s an opera singer and that she fell off her bus when they were coming through town. So now she’s shacked up here, practicing all day.

And they buy it?

Sure! They’re just kids. See, if you say it with confidence, they’ll believe anything.

The old man cackled and then hacked and smacked his lips. Then he shouted at the kid in the shoes to please, stop teasing the kid in the goggles, and Allan got up and left to get some beer.

***

Returning with another eighteen-pack, Allan paused outside of his door, waiting for a guy to come out of 22. But no one did so Allan went inside. He filled the tub again and dumped the beers inside. He fished one out, shook it off, went back to the desk. He sat down, sipped the beer, and wrote. And when the banging came, he didn’t tear out the sheet.

For the next six days, Allan’s routine looked much like that. He would come to somewhere in the dingy room, get up, go to the office for a bag. When the young woman offered him two he said, No thanks, I don’t think I’ll need it tomorrow. But he always did. He would pay for another night. He would shower and drink a beer, sometimes two, but more often it was just one. He would go down to the pool and wait. Someone always came. August was turning in and there seemed to be an air of panic around the pool goers. Maybe they wouldn’t get to swim next year.

He would sit in the same chair at the far end of the pool and wait. Someone always sat next to him. One day it was Frank from room 19. Another it was Chloe from room 26. And yet another time it was Gertrude, an old lonely widower from room 14. They would talk, usually dancing around the circumstances that brought them to the Budget Inn. Only on that first day with the old man had Allan experienced such swift frankness.

It was a variation of the same story. So-and-so did such-and-such and now they’re stuck at the motel, spending their nights scratching their heads and their days chit-chatting by the pool. Eventually there would always be a pause and Allan would always ask, Have you met Sarah?

Who?

The girl in 22.

And they’d always say, No, but I’ve heard her, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes they would offer their speculation as to what was going on in room 22. Gertrude said that the sounds were of a Pagan sexual rite. She’d heard about it on one of those late night evangelical shows. The witch, Sarah, would allow many many men to sodomize her so that she could take their spirit energy to cast black magic. Gertrude offered that Sarah must have some enemies, to need such a strong spell. As if tainted by imagining such things, she crossed herself and bowed her head. Allan wasn’t sure of this, in fact he doubted it mightily, but he didn’t know much about witchcraft nor did he want to upset Gertrude who was otherwise a congenial woman. She would stand outside her room as if it were her porch and as Allan walked by she would wave and say hi, completely oblivious to her absurdity.

Frank said that Sarah was probably a government agent. See, he said, agents like her prefer coming to these kinds of motels to conduct their ‘interviews’. The kind of low bottom whatevers that reside here usually keep to themselves and if they were to talk they would be totally unreliable in a court of law. Frank said that the sounds coming from her room were the sounds of torture and that she was just standing right up against the wall that joined her room with Allan’s, moaning for effect. To throw him off. She had probably installed covert cameras in and around his room when he was out so that she could monitor his activities. And if Allan knew what was good for him, he’d stop asking about her. Then Frank said his goodbyes, pulled on the bill of his cap, checked over his shoulders, and walked away.

Chloe’s hypothesis seemed the most reasonable. She said that, unlike everyone else here, Sarah was here by choice. In fact she probably had a nice house. People with shitty houses don’t do this kind of thing, Chloe said.

What kind of thing?

Cuckolding. She said that Sarah was undoubtedly married and her husband liked to watch her have sex with other men. It’s a humiliation thing, Chloe said. You get a guy to come fuck your wife and you watch and they make fun of you all the while. And I guess you masturbate somewhere in there. But, Chloe said, they’re not actually bringing the other guy into the relationship. He’s just a tool. Like a dildo that talks. So if that’s the case, why would they have this guy over to their nice house? Doesn’t make sense does it? So Sarah and her husband keep this room here to conduct their business. It wouldn’t be that expensive either if you were as rich as they probably are.

But she’s here all the time, Allan said. When do they go to work?

Chloe shrugged and said, Fuck if I know. You’re the one askin.

***

On his eighth day, down by the pool, Allan met Sarah. He was alone, brooding in the silence. Sarah came clomping down the stairs on the front of the building. At first all Allan saw were her legs through the small spaces between the stairs. She was wearing wedged flip-flops. She came down the stairs and rounded the corner and walked towards the pool.

She was wearing a black kimono, cheaply made. Allan could see it coming apart at the seams. Her bathing suit was black as well. Her skin showed her age, old-ish, just like the girl said. Pores yawning. Hair the color of the twilight sun. The way her thin legs crossed in front of each other as she stepped, the way her eyes were forward, not up or down, or rolling around like Frank’s, gave off an air of majesty.

She walked over to the edge of the pool without looking at Allan. She kicked off a sandal. She dipped a toe in the water and swirled it around and took it out. She put the sandal back on. She looked over her shoulder, at Allan, and walked towards him.

A little too cold for me, she said.

Really? Allan said. I haven’t tried it out. He had his shoes and his socks on and he wiggled his feet for show. He was wearing jeans again. His button-up shirt was rolled at the sleeves, but the collar was closed.

Sarah laughed and said, You come out here every day though. You haven’t gotten in?

You see me come out here?

Sure, she said. I hear you coming and going. Sometimes I look out the window. She pointed up. Midway through the backside of the building was a small window. That’s my bathroom, she said. Lucky huh? I get a window. Didn’t know I’d get a window when I checked in.

And you see me from the window? Allan said.

Sometimes.

Why don’t you come down?

I’m busy more often than not.

There was a predictable pause between them.

Sarah turned to Allan and sighed and said, I know you wanna ask it.

Ask what?

She smiled. She had enormous white teeth. She said, You’re in the room next to me. I know you hear us sometimes. I’m sorry about that. I guess I owe you an explanation, if you really need it.

Frank says you’re a government agent.

Did he?

He’s in room 19.

Is that what he said?

You’re not a government agent?

Sarah smiled again. She let out a booming laugh. She reached up and ran her hand through her hair. No, she said, I’m not a government agent. Care to try again?

Wiccan shaman?

No. And I don’t think ‘shaman’ would be the right word anyways.

Now Allan was smiling. He said, Then I give up. What are you?

I’m a prostitute, she said. She never moved her eyes away from Allan. She never stopped smiling.

Oh, Allan said, his smile and he stomach shrinking. His face flushed with embarrassment. Oh ok.

It doesn’t have to be awkward, Sarah said. And you don’t have to feel bad for me.

No?

No, she said. I choose this. I don’t have a pimp. I don’t have a nasty scary drug habit. I make a grand a week. And I always use protection.

Oh.

Not as interesting as a government agent huh?

No, Allan said, I suppose not.

Sarah laughed again and said, You know, that’s the same reaction I get from everyone.

Everyone?

Yeah when I tell them. They just look stunned and disappointed. Like you do now. It should be obvious though. Is it not obvious?

But everyone says they haven’t met you.

Oh, that’s not true, she said and flopped her wrist. I’ve been here going on a year. Met a bunch of people. Some have left, but some are still here. I’ve met Gertrude. And Frank. They’re just pretending, keeping the stories going. It’s been like this the whole time I’ve been here. As soon as I walk away, it’s like they’ve never even seen me.

Why would they do that? Allan said.

I don’t know. Something to talk about? I mean look around man. Reality must be pretty bleak for you if you’re here. I guess they just want to believe that something bigger can be going on. Maybe the mystery is the distraction they need. The real question is, why pick me?

Allan thought for a moment, then said, Maybe it’s because you’re the only one who chooses to be here.

 She frowned and tilted her head down. She swayed her feet and wiggled her toes. She glanced at the small watch she had on her wrist and said, Listen, I gotta’ go. But maybe I’ll see you around?

Yeah, Allan said, feeling like he’d pushed her away, judged her in his silence, but he was hurt too. Yeah I’ll be around.

Good, she said, and smiled. Then I’ll seeya around.

Sarah got up and walked back around the pool and up the stairs. Allan sat in silence again. And a few minutes later, some guy followed her up.

***

On the tenth day while Allan was reading by the pool, a man came down the stairs. He was young, chubby, wearing a short-sleeve button-up shirt. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looked around, saw Allan. He walked over.

Hi, the man said.

Hi, Allan said.

What’s your name?

Allan, you?

Craig.

Hey there Craig, pull up a seat.

Craig sat down hard, his eyes expanding when his ass went further down than he expected. He had a mustache that hung down over his mouth. He was working some of the hairs with his tongue.

What room you in? Craig said. No! Let me guess! I’m good at guessin. I guess…19!

No, Allan said, that’s Frank.

Craig lowered his head and snapped his fingers. He was either deeply disappointed with himself or was trying to come off that way. Allan couldn’t figure what was weirder.

I’m in 21, Allan said.

No shit? Craig said. I’m in 23.

Then I guess we’re neighbors, Allan said, looking back at his book, wanting to read it.

How long you been here?

Ten days, Allan said. You?

Just got in last night. Had a drag out with the wife. You ever have one of those? Figured I’d come stay here while she cooled off. I was so tired. But I got no sleep. Some lady, I think she was in the room next to ours—22?—was having wild sex all night it seemed.

Yeah? Allan said.

Yeah, man! Do you not hear it?

I hear it.

So what’s the deal with her? You meet her yet? She hot?

Allan lowered his book. He looked over at Craig. He smiled and said, No, I haven’t met her.

 

[Check out H.W. Walker's back porch interview]