What I Saw in Room 319
by Sylvan Allen
Lillian didn’t see the fingernail at first. She snapped the bathroom lights and headed straight for the shower. Mold grew like Bermuda grass on her side of the hotel. She had to squirt straight bleach across the caulking, hose down the rest with a 40% mix. No real help for it. She was done when her spit felt like sand.
Routine was the shower, the toilet, then the sink. But the puddle caught her eye as she turned with the towels. It must have been six inches standing on the counter; softer than water and the color of dirt. The fingernail sat at its edge. Not fingernail clippings, but a whole fingernail, pulled from the root and crusty shovel-side up. The other side was three coats of bright green shellac with a silver thunderbolt. Lillian traced the nail’s blunt tip. It ran the length of her life line; weighed no more than a quarter. She thought, How the hell did I miss that?
Downstairs, it was close enough to 2:00. The other maids were already camped by the pool. Maria and Constance sunned themselves on the loungers, their faces turned skyward. Lan perched on the concrete, peering into the deep end. She drew circles with her toes on the motel’s blank reflection.
“I need backup.” Lillian shouted from the bathroom window. Constance visored her plump face against the glare. Maria cracked an eye.
“Backup!” Lillian said. And when they didn’t move, she ran down and tossed the fingernail on the patio table.
“Can you believe this?” she spit. “Of all the human nastiness.” She snapped off her gloves and paced the concrete where the Coke machine hummed. A prickle at her neck meant a migraine coming on. She pressed her fingers hard into her temples, filled her sandy throat with air, and let out a low baleful moan.
“Ohhhh,” said Lan. Lillian looked up to see the little Filipina with her eyes rolled upward and two fingers pointed at her head like guns. Maria hooted, pounding coughs from her chest. Constance bit the glossy smile from her lips.
“You mean all that hollering was over this little thing?” Maria picked up the fingernail with her bare hands and held it blood side up to the sun. She studied it like she might put it in her mouth.
“Come on, Lillian,” said Lan. She plucked a gum wrapper from the water and thwacked it on the concrete. “A fingernail’s, like, next to nothin’.”
All three of them had their good laugh about it. Maria knocking at her chest and rolling in the lounger. Constance tapping her eyes so the makeup wouldn’t smear. Lillian leaned back against the Coke machine and felt its warm purr against her skin.
Maria sighed. “Now I could tell you some shit make your knees give.”
“Resist,” said Constance. She was all muscle in an instant. She thrust a finger at Maria’s blunt nose. “I can’t hear about that girl again.”
“Why you gotta act like that?” said Maria. She held Constance’s eyes until Constance looked away. A silence fell over the pool. “You dance around here in a push-up bra and pumps. You had 145, if I remember.”
“You remember,” said Constance.
Lan winced. “Grey matter in the curtains,” she said.
The Texas sun was like staring into headlights. The fingernail was just a shadow from where Lillian stood. Maria patted the empty chair beside her. She offered Lillian a cigarette. “It’s just a fact,” she said. “You work here long enough, you’re gonna get the whole enchilada.”
“Lan ain’t got the whole enchilada,” said Constance.
“Got a hundred bucks from 113,” Lan said. She flicked water from her feet. It was already 2:20. Break time was over.
“You see?” Constance wagged her finger at Maria. She yanked her skirt straight as she got up to leave. Lan was not far behind. You were there for an hour, if you got stuck with Maria.
Lillian stood to stab out her smoke. “Going someplace?” Maria held her by the elbow. “I gave you that cigarette. It’s piss rude not to finish.”
“I promise I’ll be quiet,” she said.
And, for a minute, the two of them did sit in silence. A group of kids set up directly across. Two blonds in bikinis, sipping from straws; their hammock-eyed boyfriends shirtless. They weren’t more than twenty-five, but they were bloated and pink from too much partying. The boys cannon-balled from the diving board. They rough-housed, spraying water. Then they hoisted themselves, slapped across the pavement, and climbed up to do it again.
Maria took a long drag and closed her eyes. “You know I found that girl in 319,” she said, smoke falling across her lips. “Pretty girl,” she said. “Had this long black hair smoothed over the pillow. Skin like cream. The works. I thought she was sleeping it off, but she was still right there when I came back at checkout.”
Lillian touched the sides of her head. At this point not hearing might make the migraine worse. It happened like that sometimes. So she let Maria tell her about the girl’s dreamy look. How she held her thin shoulders and pulled back the blanket, expecting to get off easy with the top part so good.
But the girl had cut a line down the inside of each leg. The mattress was soaked; her thighs were shriveled, and her toenails were black. “It was like looking at two pictures at once,” Maria said. “Dead and alive, good and bad, all at once.”
Lillian’s hands shook so hard, she couldn’t hold her cigarette. After all this talk, the old lady should have a secret, something that would feel like cool water on your knuckles. But Maria just laughed until her cheeks swallowed her eyes. She ashed onto the concrete, blew smoke at the sun. “Lan claims she found a hundred in 113,” she said, “but it was just a twenty.”
That night, Lillian couldn’t sleep. She popped a Xanax, then drank a couple beers. Nothing helped her head. She had that same humming feeling like before she left Billy. The nerves beneath her skin sung like hot wire. There was no air in her closet of a bedroom.
Out on Mopac, the taillights crested the hills to Rollingwood. They disappeared on the other side, heading home. She missed Travis, her boy. He wouldn’t talk to her now, not since she left. She called for her scheduled hour, and he hardly answered her questions. “Fine. Whatever. Don’t worry about it.” His voice coiled tight as a fist.
Where was that kid she loved in the thick of things, when she and Billy were fighting every night? She’d creep into his bedroom and rock him awake. “You had a bad dream,” she whispered. He shoved over long after he stopped believing it. He told her jokes from a book Billy gave him, talking her into daylight, his body warm beside her. “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?” he asked. “How is Star Trek like toilet paper?” She laughed so hard she cried.
The phone rang five times before she hung up and tried again. Travis could sleep through a hurricane. It rang five more times. She tried again and again. Finally, Billy picked up. He installed attic heat pumps for a living. His cough rattled like two bolts in a bottle.
“Any idea what time it is?” he said, once he finally caught his breath. He barked at her like she was one of the Mexicans on his crew. “It’s 3:00, Lillian—least, in our part of the country.” Outside, a car snaked through the parking lot. Headlights caught the chain link fence like a negative; the juniper trees and the highway disappearing in an instant.
It always started this way. Her needing something, needing it bad, and Billy getting pissed when she asked.
“I just want to talk to Travis,” she said and lit a cigarette to calm her nerves. “No bother for you. Just put him on a sec.”
“You were supposed to call two days ago,” Billy said. “Sundays at 3:00 p.m.”
Lillian traced her lips with the cigarette’s filter. Travis was a shit on Sundays, and Billy knew it. The last week, she had to act like a fool just to keep things going. She told her son things he didn’t need to know about, like how she’d gone down to Galveston and kissed a man whose mouth felt like mud inside, which was true but still not right.
“I was trying not to bother you,” she said.
An old heaviness slipped into the silence between them. Billy cussed, and the mattress creaked beneath him. She listened to his callused feet brushing the hardwoods, the sharp exhale as he pulled himself upright. A woman’s voice, husky-like, asked what was going on.
“Who’s that?” Lillian said. Her aching head cranked in a notch. “What’s Travis going to think? You sleeping with any old body rolls around?”
Billy made a sound deep in his throat. “Any old body? How about any old Edwin?”
“He left, and you know it. End of story,” Lillian said. She laid her head against the window. Taillights crested the hill. “Why don’t you just forget I called?” she said. “Hang up and go back to sleep.”
His footsteps brushed down the hall. She heard a scrape and sigh, something heavy against Travis’s door. The light clicked on. “What the fuck?” Travis whined.
“Your mother wants to talk to you,” Billy said.
“What happened?” said Travis. Lillian felt a tingle in her stomach. She imagined Travis squinting at Billy, his eyes grey as pebbles. His bony chest rose and fell.
“No problem, bud,” said Billy, softer now. “She’s fine.”
“Why’s she calling at night then?”
Lillian’s bedroom clock ticked as she waited. Billy cleared his throat in the background. “You gonna say hello or not?” he asked.
Travis groaned. “Tell her I have a test tomorrow.”
The nastiness came like an avalanche after that. The next week, there was a rotten umbilical cord in 335 and a clot big as a crabapple in 332’s toilet. In 329, she found a towel smeared with poop in the tub. The guy who left it dyed his hair black and wore new cowboy boots. A guy like that ought to know better.
Lillian took her frustrations to the pool. She kicked the Coke machine and pounded the table. She chewed out a preschooler running on the concrete. He stared up at her with his fingers in his mouth. “Are you listening to me?” She poked at his chest, and the boy wet his pants.
“Why don’t you keep your bad luck to yourself?” said Constance. Every time Lillian went rough, Maria cranked up, working the conversation back to the girl in 319. The hair, the thin shoulders, the shriveled feet.
Like Lillian could close Maria’s mouth.
Still, she quit taking her 2:00s. She called home instead from the motel’s phones, smoking out of the parking lot windows and punching their number until someone picked up. Billy threatened to change it. He swore he’d turn the phone off, but the home phone was for emergency repairs—all those widows who never learned to flip a fuse box. If he changed the number, he’d have to change the signs on his truck and a closet full of business cards. He’d have to change the Mexicans’ t-shirts, and Edwin was the t-shirt man. That’s how he and Lillian met.
“Why don’t you just send Travis out here for a while?” Lillian said. “He would change his mind if we could talk.” That particular day she was smoking out the window of 322, where a software guy from Toronto had stayed two nights. Fat and balding by the looks of things. He left clumps of hair in the ashtray, fast food bags on the table, wax paper wrappers in the trash. They scattered into her cart like leaves.
“Sweetheart,” Billy said. He did still call her sweetheart. “I don’t think you can handle him. You know about those smoke patches? Him getting caught at the mall?”
“A change could do him good,” she said. She flicked the salesman’s bathroom lights and held her breath. Mold behind the curtain. But only hair in the sink. Only paper in the toilet. She closed her eyes against the white tiles. She tried to make her voice sound easy. “You and whoever could have a few days to yourselves.”
“Cheryl,” he said.
Lillian studied her pinched face in the mirror. She reached for a stack of clean towels, held them to her chest, and breathed in the smell of bleach. “Oh God, Billy. That’s so corny—Cheryl. Where’d you find her? I bet she wears pink lipstick,” Lillian teased. “I bet she plucks her eyebrows down to nubs.”
“I knew it,” she said. She smiled at the mirror, trying to feel it. “Billy’s sweet little Cheryl with her baby-blue eye shadow.”
“Shut up,” he said, but it had no teeth.
By late August, she’d needled out three days. Travis’s band camp ended Thursday. School started Monday. She had the time in between.
She sent a hundred bucks for her part of the ticket. Then waited in ABI all Friday afternoon, sitting under the huge milky windows. People came in waves. They crested with rumble and heat, and like a wave, they washed away. The red-faced techies paced, already too hot in their sweaters. The skinny mommies—the kind Maria laughed at running laps—yanked their kids into the middle of the swirl. A harp in a black case zig-zagged past the ticket line. The threat level was orange, anarajado, naarangii.
In a world this big, Lillian might not know him. The way Billy talked, Travis could be some kind of thug, with tattoos and heavy arms pressed tight to his body. He could have a full-blown mustache like Maria’s son Mikey, or swollen hands from working the crew this summer.
Passengers hustled down the concourse. She spotted him at once. There were his long bony cheeks and pointed chin. His shoulders popped inward. He was trapped behind a cowboy with a chest like a linebacker. She watched Travis weaving back and forth, trying to edge past. His hair was nearly past his ears. His Black Sabbath t-shirt pulled snug across his chest. In one hand, he carried Billy’s old helmet bag.
“Hey Travis,” she yelled, cupping her hands around her lips. He turned at her voice, but his eyes drifted over. She had to wave before his face rested on her.
“Oh, my baby. It’s so good to see you,” she said. She fingered the summer-white tips of his hair. Then she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. His smells were new—spray-on cologne and sour laundry.
“We need to get out of the middle of the floor,” he said. He studied her a moment, tight-mouthed and blinking, and before she could tell him it was okay—that this was a time she’d imagined for weeks, and if he could just stay here one more minute—he turned and stalked off toward the doors.
The sun had lifted over the clouds when they finally made it out of the parking deck. It bleached the highway and the scrub bushes on the slopes. This far from downtown, the buildings were low and concrete and crouched like bugs in the dirt. She hated it here when she first came with Edwin. He crowed about the music and the parties—so much better than Charlotte—but, to her, the place was worn out. Everything looked like it was meant for something else. Even the DMV was burned out and hidden as a triple-X video store.
Travis watched the dust and concrete. His face said this was a movie he’d seen before.
“What do you think?” she finally asked. They were crossing the bridge into town. Mist hung like smoke above the skyline.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“You come a thousand miles, and that’s all you’ve got for me? Dunno?”
There was no way she could take him back to her apartment, with all her stupid life on display. She’d scrubbed the cabinets; framed and hung her few pictures. She’d bought a real set of silverware just for him. Lillian cut the wheel south and headed toward work. She would take him to the beach. She would pick up her check and take him down to Port Arthur, like she did with Lan and Constance some weekends. It was the beach; it didn’t have to be dreary.
She was careful to park facing away from the pool. But it took half an hour to nudge a check out of the manager. By the time she came back, Constance was sitting on her hood. She wore a pair of light blue jeans and a button-up sweater. Lillian had never seen her in clothes that fit. She was all hips and boobs and those inch-long eyelashes in her uniform. But beside Travis, she was as small as a girl. She squinted at the smoke of a joint and passed it over. Travis held her fingertips. He licked his lips.
“He get that from you?” Lillian asked.
Constance clambered off, twisting to straighten her sweater. Her voice came an octave too high. “I never knew you had a son looked so much like a movie star. Look at all that blond hair.” She ran her fingers across her own slick chignon, trying to read Lillian’s face.
“Constance, I said, ‘Did he get that from you?’”
The girl’s face cut to Travis, asking him what to say. He held Lillian’s eyes as he drew on the joint. His jaw pushed forward, warning like a dog might.
“Give it,” Lillian said. She was so hot, she couldn’t see straight. She knuckle-punched his thigh, and he scurried backward, leaving her with a knee full of grille.
“Everybody here knows you’re a fucking nutcase,” he said.
Beside him, Constance’s face was long and frightened. She had a sheen of sweat on her forehead. “I didn’t mean anything,” she said. “We were just having fun.” She reached out to help Lillian, and when Lillian shrugged her off, she said, “I promise, Lil, it’s gonna be all right.”
Travis stabbed the joint on Lillian’s paint job. The spot was as dark as a bullet hole. “You’re happy now, I guess,” he said. She meant to tell him no, that she had never been more unhappy in her life. But he heaved himself up and opened the passenger door.
Lillian waited as Constance crossed the parking lot, teetering on her platform tennis shoes, before they pulled back on the highway. The drove east through the city, down into more scrub hills and bright flatlands. Nothing but billboards and cattle fences from here. Darkness moved in with the clouds. Travis watched them from his window. The air between them eased.
“Why didn’t you mention me?” he said.
“I show your picture to everybody,” she said, but the words came out flat. Even Maria, old as she was, had Mikey to come and see her. She filled his pockets with jelly packets and raisins from the breakfast bar. How could Lillian tell them what she’d done?
“Everyone except for Constance,” Travis said. His grey eyes met hers. She saw the flecks of gold inside them.
“Constance?” said Lillian. “She’s the one who said I was nuts.”
The times Lillian went to the beach with the other maids, they mostly sat by the water and waited for the oil guys to come out. Lillian perched in damp bars with these men. She let them trace the hollow outline of her face. They fingered the ticklish spot under her ribs. Their hands were rough and their nails were packed with grease, but she let them toss a couple dollars to keep her glass full. She didn’t have real plans when it came to Travis, only a vague knowledge they would not do these things.
And so she took him to the beach the next day, and they watched the refineries churning black smoke. She took him down to the pier where some guy was catching kingfish. He had bony knees and dark sunspots on his arms. He’d been camping out all week, he said. The old guy stood and Travis leaned in, studying the angle of the line. Finally a silver fish shot up from the water. It arced through the sky, catching sunlight on its scales. Then it dropped to the wood and started flipping for air. Travis stared at the fish like it might bite him. He always looked at things too close.
She offered him empty clam shells in consolation. They were smooth and purple inside. She gave him driftwood warmed by the water. Together, they walked the gravel road to the sound, and she coaxed him onto a platform that looked like a deer blind. A set of binoculars was mounted in the middle, and they took turns resting their chins on the frame. Their eye sockets pressed to see yellow finches and flycatchers in the reeds. Lillian thought she saw a streak of color, but Travis said she was making it up.
He didn’t want to go to the aquarium, but they got out and paid anyway. They watched the nurse shark swimming blue circles. The red frogs on the glass. The water moccasins. At the touch tank, he shoved his hands in the water and shook them until the whole thing was muddy. She didn’t dare tell him to stop.
“Remember that time we went to the Atlanta aquarium?” she asked instead. She walked closer to him and put her hands over his. The water was soft and warm. “Remember, when we were visiting Mama Fran and Papa Mac? You liked the otters,” she said. “I painted whiskers on your cheeks, and you wouldn’t let me take them off. Remember?”
“I was four,” Travis said. He pulled his hands out and wiped them on his jeans, pushing a long dark smudge across his thigh. Water dripped on the floor. He stabbed it with his toe. “What?” he said. “What am I supposed to do?”
That night they ate at a diner shaped like a boathouse but decorated inside with a fifties motif: black-and-white tiles and records stapled to the walls. Every table had its own miniature jukebox. Lillian’s palms sweat like she was on a first date. “Tomorrow.” She smiled up at him nervously, “I thought we’d head back to the city and hang out at the park.”
“I’m going home,” he said.
“Not until the afternoon.” Lillian sipped a beer and searched his face. “It’s been a long time,” she said. “I don’t know what to talk about.”
“We could rag on Dad,” Travis suggested, resting his arms on the table. “That’s always fun.”
It was true; there were times, driving back from band practice, she’d loosened her face and slapped her forehead. “Lil,” she said, her voice deep and dopey, “what are we gonna do for money? Lil, we’re in deep.” She’d taken great pleasure in seeing Travis laugh at Billy, in seeing the gleeful crinkles of skin around his eyes.
“I guess we were kind of silly back then,” she said. “I was kind of silly.”
Travis started fiddling with the ketchup, spinning the bottle like he was playing a game. “Dad talks enough shit about you,” he said. “I think you’re working on being even.”
“Like what?” Lillian asked. She felt a warm surge of pleasure.
He glanced up and shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
She asked again, and he still wouldn’t tell her. He smiled a little when she asked a third time, watching the ketchup bottle spin. Lillian stopped the bottle. “Tell me this,” she said. “Is Cheryl pretty?”
“Fat or skinny?”
“Not either,” he said. He read her disappointment. “More skinny than fat.”
“What color is her hair? Is she tall? Have good teeth?”
“You ask too many questions,” said Travis.
He said, “I think I’m done talking.”
The last of Lillian’s paycheck was still in the envelope from the bank. She pulled it out of her purse and laid it on the table. “What if I gave you a hundred dollars?” she said, snapping the bills like cards. “You can tell me five things. Twenty per.”
Travis smiled slightly, like she’d told a dirty joke. “All right.”
Lillian held his eyes. “What does Daddy say about me?”
Travis slipped the first twenty closer. Lillian leaned forward. His pupils inched open; she felt his breath on her cheeks.
“He says you’re a bitch.”
Lillian laughed. “Put it back,” she said. “That doesn’t count, and you know it. I meant things I didn’t already know. Things I hadn’t heard a thousand times before.”
Travis shrugged and kept the bill under his hand. He’d worked it in his pocket by the time the food came. They sat the plates around the money. Lillian tapped the stack together. “You gonna take the rest or what?”
Travis took a swallow of her beer, considering. “One time I heard him say he can’t wait till you come back, so he can tell you to get lost.”
Lillian exhaled. Now they were getting somewhere. The words felt snug as a blanket across her shoulders. She could feel the edges of her body against the seat, feel her elbows pressing into the table. She put her hand over the money. “Who did he say it to?”
Travis shook his head.
“All right,” said Lillian. She slid the bills closer to him. “Three more.”
They ate in silence, silence surrounded by the clatter of plates, the buzz of people talking, the swoosh swoosh of the waitress’s stockings. Travis stabbed at his fries. His jaw twitched as he chewed. He nodded now and then, like he had a conversation playing out inside his head. He plucked a twenty from the stack. “Edwin’s moved back to Charlotte. He called us up about the t-shirts.”
Lillian’s heart pounded in her ears. Her neck muscles pulled tight. “Is that a fact?” she said, squinting up at him. “Daddy gonna do it?”
Travis watched her, then took a long sip of her beer. “He’s the cheapest by a lot.”
“Well, then,” said Lillian. She pushed two bills across the table, trying to keep her fingers steady. “I guess that’s two for you.”
Minutes passed. Travis drank the rest of her beer. Lillian took a bite of her hamburger to calm her nerves. The meat was soft and warm in her mouth. Grease coated her tongue and slid down her throat. It seemed such a long time since she ate something good. She took another bite, and Travis breathed a laugh. “Mom, you should see yourself. Chewing and chewing, like your life depended on it.” He worked his jaws like a blowfish, imitating her. “I hate the way you eat. He shrugged. “Daddy says he hates it too.”
Tears flooded her eyelids when she swallowed. “He doesn’t say that. I don’t do that,” she whispered. Around her, the diner hummed and swirled. The waitress hustled past, her white tennis shoes a blur. Travis stared at her under the table light, pleased with himself.
“This is what it looks like,” he said. He shoved a handful of french fries into his mouth, ketchup gathering at the sides of his lips. He snorted and groaned and smacked his lips. The family beside them tried not to look.
“Stop it,” she said. And when he did not, her hand came down hard on his head. What a sound. Like a rock falling on dry dirt.
“Jesus, Mom.” He drew back. “You asked for it.” His face was smeared with food. He had grease in his eyelashes. She grabbed his wrist and felt his pulse thumping.
“I know I asked for it,” she said. His eyes went glassy, and for a second, she saw the outline of her face.
Travis slid the last twenty from the table.
She tossed him her napkin. “I swear this is the last question. Do you want to go home?”
“Should I call your dad, then?”
“I guess not.”
Lillian ordered another pitcher of beer, and the waitress went ahead and brought Travis a glass. The quarters in her pocket were the last money she’d see for two weeks. “Okay moneybags,” she said, “find something decent to listen to.”
He picked a song from the jukebox she’d never heard before. It was gentle and sweet; not screaming like the music he played at home. Travis drew cartoons on the placemat as they listened: a family with bobble heads and frizzy hair and seal eyes, sort of like the people who’d been staring at them.
When the last song ended, Lillian spoke through the quiet. “I’ve seen a dead body,” she told him. She sat back and closed her eyes. She saw it so clearly. “It was a suicide,” she said. She felt his eyes watching her.
“I walked into the room and saw this beautiful woman under the covers. She was the prettiest woman I’d ever seen. Her hair was dark and spread out on the pillow. Her cheeks were soft and pink.
“I left her the first time. I thought she was drunk, but when I came back, her eyes were open. She had this look on her face. Dazed, you know?”
Travis nodded, breathing quietly through his mouth. It was just him and her under the table light. “What happened next?” he said.
“I pulled back the covers. There was blood everywhere. Her chest was purple. Her toenails were black.” Lillian paused. “It was the worst thing I’d seen in my life.”
Travis swallowed. He took a deep breath. “Then what?” he said.
Lillian did not know. Maria never took her story that far. She’d never thought to ask that question herself.
“Just the normal stuff,” she said, smoothing over. “The police came and took her. I pulled the sheets off. I scrubbed the mattress till there was just a shadow. Then I put on new sheets. I spread the blanket across the pillows.”
She knew what she was doing, talking like this. She was calling it into being; the body. It would be there at the motel Monday, or the next day, or the next. She could see herself quietly folding back the covers. She could see the blue veins and hear the crackle of her sponge. They were already hers.
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