Monday, January 27, 2014

Stuck at the Traveler's Inn

From a creativity challenge; the theme was 'loss.'

The mirror shook as a Semi rumbled by out front. Frank tapped his yellowed fingernails on the microwave and stared at the dingy wall. He turned to look in the room. The loose-jointed, cigarette burned furniture could be traded out for newer, but the walls had a patina that yet another coat of paint just couldn't cover. From the nicotine stained curtains, to the psychedelic clouds of corroded silvering creeping at the edges of the mirror, the room was more than 'lived in,' the dark film of 'suffered in' was on everything.

No one aspired to be a weekly tenant at the Traveler's Inn, it was the kind of thing that snuck up on you. The place was usually quiet, especially the weeks when the cops hadn't come. Frank couldn't remember exactly how long he'd been in the room, or at the motel for that matter. He thought he had moved once from one room to another. There were a lot of things he couldn't quite put his finger on lately.

A king sized bed, two chairs, a table, a small fridge and the microwave for a hundred and twenty five bucks a week. He paid four weeks at a time even though he didn't have to. Since he only got a check once a month, it was safer to have his room all paid. They changed the sheets and vacuumed the floor, but the sad air never seemed to circulate.

Though it had hummed fine when he first arrived, the microwave sounded broken. Frank's life was kind of like that; it used to just hum along and now there was a grinding noise in the background. It wasn't bad yet, but it was just enough noise that he knew it would eventually stop working. Worse was the feeling that something was missing, but not really knowing what. The timer dinged at him expectantly. Damn, he'd gotten so far in his head about the grinding that he'd forgotten until just then that he was hungry.

He jumped when the steam rolled out of the styrofoam container to nip at his fingers. From the dusty milk crate on the floor, he pulled out a roll of paper towel. After he had torn off a couple sheets and carefully folded the towels into layers, he stopped to wonder why he had wanted the towels. He might have just blown his nose and sat down again, but the oven door was ajar. He saw the steaming clamshell and remembered. Thoughts just didn't stay with him like they used to. They seemed to sneak up behind him, tap his opposite shoulder and then giggle when he got distracted.

He tugged the clamshell out over the paper towels like a hot pad. Frank carefully turned and walked the long way around the bed to where the table was. After tussling with the chair, careful not to bump the table where he'd set is his food down, he backed up to the chair. His old legs wouldn't let him sit down like a gentleman anymore, so he gingerly bent at the waist and knees, concentrated on lowering himself slowly. He grabbed at the chair's arms to make sure that he was aimed at it. About six inches above the chair, the ache in his knees got bad and his hips let go, he plopped into the chair. It wasn't good for the rest of him, especially his back, but it was the only way down.

He scooted the chair so that he couldn't see himself in the mirror. When he'd had a desk job he never liked facing the wall; though he'd had to a few times. If he happened to catch sight of himself in that big, corroded mirror, he felt like he was living in some kind of fish bowl. The last couple jobs Frank had weren't real jobs. They had just gotten an old man by for a time. He knew he had built things before and worked in a hospital once.

Steam rolled up off the noodles when Frank flipped open the container. Pork Lo Mein from Mark's. He liked Chinese food; didn't know why. It helped that Mark's was right next door. It was a ridiculous name for a Chinese place, but Amy, Mark's wife, talked a lot and was real nice. She and Mark were both actually Chinese, but had taken American names. Mark had been Mark for so long that even when he decided to open his own restaurant, it could only be Mark's. Frank was always more than welcome there and he didn't have to go far. Once, when he was sick, Amy had brought Hot and Sour Soup to him every day for a week. They even let him pay for the soup at the end of the month. There used to be a lot of people that came by, but Frank didn't think he saw too many of them anymore.

When he was loneliest, it was nice to have other tenants around, just to hear people walking outside or talking; sometimes yelling. Even the ones who were a little noisy weren't bad when Frank was having a rough night. There was a TV on the low dresser, but Frank almost never turned it on. He'd rather listen to the radio. He couldn't always remember the station he liked. Their tower was out behind a school and he could see it from the sidewalk outside his room, but no one had thought to post the frequency on the tower. Most days, he just listened to his neighbors outside and the noises at the edge of the city.

There was a neighbor who drove a truck and was only around a few days a month; a couple next door who always argued; even a mom and a couple kids in one of the rooms toward the office. Every once in a while, some hard looking guy would land there after just getting out of jail. Some of those guys were fine, but most of them kind of scared everybody. None of them stayed long.

One of the ex-cons had been real nice to Frank though. Jerry liked to talk about the meditation he had learned in prison. Really, he just liked to talk and told Frank all about having dropped out of school, the drugs and stuff, kidnapping that woman, and how he thought meditation had helped him settle down. Jerry had checked on Frank almost as often as anyone, then one day Jerry just never came back. Ben and Judith, the manager couple that lived out back, had to clean out the room and gave away what Jerry had left. Frank hadn't gone up to see the empty room.

Frank's room was a little dirty, but Vanny was coming tomorrow. He couldn't remember Vanny's whole name because he only called her Vanny. She had come from somewhere far away. He could tell she was Oriental but didn't want to hurt her feelings by asking about it again. Every week, Vanny came and changed the sheets, cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed a little. Once in awhile, he would give Vanny a little money to clean the little refrigerator out. There was never much in the fridge except cheap beer, leftover Chinese food and milk for his Mini Wheats.

Frank had been uneasy all day. He couldn't place it, but when he looked around the room, he felt out of sorts. Something nagged at the back of his mind. He was sure that something was missing but he couldn't think of what it was.

The Lo Mien cooled as Frank looked around the room. He had to start from scratch when he was having trouble remembering. The door was closed, the curtains drawn. He knew the carpet stain just inside the door. It was a simple square room but for the encroaching space of the bathroom. To the left of the bathroom was a nook with a counter and sink, and that mirror above them. On the wall opposite the bathroom was a rack to hang your clothes. The rack used to have those special hangers with just a little ball on top, but they were long gone and Frank's two coats hung off each end. Left of the rack was the microwave sitting on top the small fridge, then a nightstand, and the big headboard that hung from the wall rather than off the bed. Between the bed and the window, was the table where he sat.

He fidgeted, plinking at the edge of the stryofoam with a finger, trying to think. It seemed like the missing thing was something that he needed or that he had always had with him. A hollow feeling oozed into him when he thought he might never know. He couldn't remember stuff, how could he ever find it if he didn't know for sure that anything was gone? Frank had stewed on it long enough that he decided it was something precious. He knew that it was terribly important that he find whatever it was. His stomach grumbled and he felt sick just thinking about the missing thing. He looked down at the cool, congealed Lo Mein and realized he had been going to eat.

Frank pushed himself up off the chair to get a beer. He'd be up and down to the bathroom all night, but he needed another drink. Maybe it would quiet the nagging thoughts. It occurred to him to take a leak while he was up and he ambled slowly passed the foot of the bed. It was then that the little plastic orange caught is eye. It was sitting on top the television. When he had found the orange at the Goodwill store, someone told him it was used to catch fruit flies. It reminded him of Florida. He always thought he'd get to Florida. Frank just liked to look at it. He didn't have any damn fruit flies anyway.

Someone knocked on the door and scared him half to death. Nobody ever knocked. Well, Vanny knocked once a week when she cleaned but not this time of day. He turned toward the door and there was another knock.

“Mr. Frank, are you in there?” Vanny called.

Vanny. What is she doing here? He flipped the chain off the door and turned the knob. Vanny stood out on the cracked sidewalk with her granddaughter. The cute little kid had been cleaning with Vanny since Vanny's daughter started waiting tables again.

“Mr. Frank. So sorry. She took your boat.”

The little girl looked sheepish. As sheepish as a four year old could look when she knew she was cute enough to get away with almost anything. The little girl smiled at Frank with her glistening dark eyes.

The little ceramic boat was exactly what he'd been missing. It was a cartoon-looking tugboat sitting on a little patch of ocean waves; all primary colors, red and yellow, orange and blue. More than a little silly for an old man to keep around. On the port side, a ribbon banner floating across the waves said “Love You Boatloads.” Frank just stared.

Suddenly, he could remember the whole bit. He remembered a summer long ago and he remembered her. They had walked along the river at St. Joe arm in arm for weeks. More than a whirlwind romance, they met and were like old friends straight away. They were inseparable in a clichéd summer romance movie kind of way. Many couples reach a lazy kind of détente where neither is very happy but neither can imagine any other, better possibility. Lucky couples manage to settle into a casual joy. Deep in his gut, Frank remembered their unassuming, easy joy. His brain twisted and cramped to remember her name.

St. Joseph sat on a bluff over a beautiful white sand beach on Lake Michigan. The city had swanky boutiques, touristy souvenir shops and lots of restaurants. Frank knew they had eaten out all over town, but especially at the Chinese place. Frank was motionless as he fell deep into the moment he first saw the boat.

They had been eating Lo Mein and Spring Rolls in the middle of the afternoon. She had wanted to go into the shop next door. It was a garish tourist trap, but she had forgotten her sunglasses and wanted a cheap pair. Frank waited in the beach town sidewalk sunshine. Inside, she searched the racks for a reasonable looking pair of sunglasses among the bright colors, star shapes, and over-sized lenses. At the counter, while the clerk cut the tag off a pair she'd found, she noticed the tugboats.

Frank could still see her dance out of the store. She moved like an avatar. Her hair and her cotton dress flowed around her like an aura. The earth seemed to tilt to the gravity of her presence. She put a hand on his collarbone and her face shined up into his.

“I got something for you,” she said and presented him the tugboat.

“Mr. Frank. You OK?”

Vanny looked worried. The little girl strained as tall as her arms would reach, still holding the tugboat to him. Frank didn't know how long he had stood there. His legs were heavy, he'd become some sad statue built for all the broken hearts of the world. He smiled, more a grimace.

“Oh ... sorry ... thanks,” he managed to say.

“I should not have let her play with it, Mr. Frank. And then she took it home. We're sorry.”

“Vanny, I . . .” Frank struggled. “It's OK. Don't worry about it.”

Frank took the tugboat from the little girl. It felt as heavy as a medieval altar icon. He smiled at the little girl. She will break hearts someday he thought.

“OK, see you tomorrow. I just had to bring it back right away, Mr. Frank.”

“Thanks, Vanny,” he called after her as she walked back to her car, her bleach cracked hand on the girl's shoulder.

Frank carried the tugboat back to the dusty TV and placed it next to the plastic orange. Just as he set it down, he remembered the pain and the tug had suddenly glowed red hot. He could see the wrinkles on the chest of his shirt where she grabbed it in her fists, crying for him not to go. He thought she would change her mind and come along, but she just cried in the driveway as he left. She hadn't changed her mind at the last minute and he was stuck. It was a blindly selfish assumption and he had got it all wrong. He had never liked gambling but ended up betting his happiness on a sure thing that backfired.

Suddenly, the urgent need to pee. Frank struggled to get into the bathroom and undo the front of his pants. It was always like this now. He thought he was about to burst and then . . . nothing. He waited patiently, staring at the black and white tiles. There was no reason in straining. His prostate would let a little by in a minute. He chuckled about the “stolen” tugboat. There was one last little pain and he heard the pitter patter of relief. The worst was this tortured waiting, he thought.

Satisfied he had peed all that he was going to, Frank zipped his pants and walked back into his room. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and shuffled to the radio. What was that damn station number? He nudged the dial one way and then the other until a decent sounding song crackled through the tiny speaker. He sat down at the table and shoved his half eaten supper out of the way. Cleaning up could wait.

Today was alright, he thought. Sipping at the beer, he threw his left foot over onto the edge of the bed. He felt kind of good today for some reason. Damned if he could remember exactly why, but he'd take it.

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