For the last fifteen or so years I've been living with a bunch of dead guys at a motel in West Texas. Like the characters in my stories, I'd really like to move on, see the world, go places. But I'm just like them. Anchored by love, worn down by circumstances and fascinated by how much there really is underneath it all. So I keep writing their stories and tell myself that someday, when I've got this all out of my system, I'll write deep, meaningful literature about... something else. In the meantime, this is a place for the short attention spanned. I'm making a commitment to keep it small here. Flash fiction and scenes from the life inspired by, The Bella Vista Motel.
Clark Mannish was pacing around in the lobby bellowing, "Hello? Anybody here?" when Romeo stepped out of the hallway to greet him, mere moments after he had banged on the desk bell. The guy was a mess, as guys always are after untold days on the road in varying states of shamed anxiety, or angry resentment, or depressed resolve, or some combination of all that and more for having been exiled from New York City. Romeo wasn't yet privy to what Mannish had done to earn himself a stint at the Bella Vista, but sooner or later, as he always did, he'd find out. Mannish was god damned enormous and that annoyed Romeo right off the bat. Romeo was a respectable six feet tall with a fine muscular build, but this guy stood a whole head taller than him and though not exactly fat, somehow seemed to overfill the space he occupied in a way that made you want to step back and give him more room. Mannish scratched his fingers through beard stubble that would have made a scrub brush look soft, and continued up the side of his head to rake his disheveled mop of black hair as he said without pause, "Oh, good, glad somebody's on the night shift here, you got a room ready for me, sure you do, Mr. G said I'd be expected, listen, I'm starving, have a couple of sandwiches sent to my room and I'll need my suitcases out of the car right away... say, aren't you Romeo... sure you are, I remember you used to be something of a big shot a while back," he giggled in that way that set Romeo's teeth on edge, "how do you like that, well, we're all in the same boat now."
Madge lay in Romeo's arms, sleeping in her soft way, as light as a doll against his chest. He felt his body begin to settle against the mattress, the tension of the day loosening its grip on his muscles, his jaw unclenching, his mind giving way to allowing the sounds of crickets, night birds, the soft click and whir of the oscillating fan, and his own steady heartbeat to blend together and fade out into beautiful, blank sleep. The jolt that went through his head when the front desk bell rang––unreasonably clear and as loud as if it had been on his bedside nightstand instead of all the way out in the lobby––was like a cramp in a cold muscle. He glanced at the alarm clock as he slid quietly out of bed, 4 o'clock in the god damn morning. He pulled on pants and a shirt on his way to the lobby and wondered, as he had many times before, if he could get away with just shooting every inconsiderate bastard who showed up after midnight, sending them straight to the incinerator and telling Mr. G, "Hey, I don't know where so-and-so could be, must of bugged out and kept on driving right over the border into Mexico." But he knew that would never do as he shuffled down the hall in his slippers to check in that giggling ass, Mannish, because after all, even if he could successfully lie to Mr. G, having to dispose of all those cars would be a real headache.
Romeo had to laugh at the sight of Joe, the man's big, simple face smiling beneath his undersized Yankees ball cap had always reminded him of the apes back in the Bronx zoo, but also because now he knew what was going on; he'd just dozed off somewhere, that was all. He looked around for his friend in gray — surely agent Ramiel would come along any minute to harangue him about all the harm he'd done to his immortal soul — but he saw no sign of him, just big Joe, doing up his fly and shaking his head as he said with a grin, "Romeo, for a smart guy, you sure can be dumb." Romeo raised his eyebrows, and put his hand out in a, "come on, let's hear it" gesture, so Joe went on, "We're signed in to the guestbook 'cause we're still here, and you can't get rid of it, 'cause you can't get rid of us, not the way you been doing things anyway..." Joe wasn't making any sense to Romeo, but he reasoned, that's how dreams are... except, he heard the sound of footsteps on dead leaves and saw that Madge had stepped out into the clearing, and though she was looking right at him and he could see her lips moving, he couldn't hear her voice, even as she came closer and stood right in front of him, right next to Joe, all he could hear was Joe, saying, "You're just going about this thing all discombobulated and if you don't figure it out..." Romeo felt a slight, "Pop," in his ears as Madge stepped in front of Joe, put her hands on her hips, cocked her head and asked, "What's the matter with you, why are you just sitting there staring at me?" Her quizzical gaze fell to the guestbook lying open on his knees and he looked down at the ledger columns, filled with various signatures, real, fictitious, dead, then smiled back up at her as he closed the cover and said, "It's all right, honey, I was just day dreaming."
Romeo expected Madge to walk out into the clearing from the way the dogs were stepping from foot to foot, grinning like the fools they were, tails wagging madly, but before he could confirm his idle hunch, he felt a flash of warmth on his hands and had just enough time to drop the guest book and jump back before it burst into flames at his feet. His first instinct was to stomp out the flames, but living at the Bella Vista Motel had taught him that a man needs more than one instinct, and he stood back rubbing his palms on the front of his pants, watching the book consume itself in a ball of blue fire. "Well," he thought, "as many times as I've burned that book, I guess it's only fair it tries to burn me back." A woman's laugh, clear and loud, rang out from the trees behind him, not Madge, but a laugh he'd heard before, and he spun around to peer out into the grove. He saw nothing out of the ordinary in the pathway that lead back through the trees – lazy drifts of tiny, tear-shaped leaves floating down through sun dappled air, flashes of bird wings as they flitted from branch to branch, the two graves off to one side that his predecessor Mack had done a poor job of choosing a concealed location for, and that developed into obvious sink holes every few months – but the urge to walk out into the grove and just keep going was suddenly strong. He heard the hiss and sizzle of water hitting fire and turned around to find Joe, large, dark, and slightly apish, his faded yankees ball cap at a jaunty one o'clock angle on his big head, pissing on the remains of the guestbook, shaking his head and tsking at Romeo as he said, "Only you can prevent forest fires..."
Madge stepped into room number 12 reluctantly, ready to run right back out should she find that something awful had happened again. She gazed around the room, taking in the perfectly made bed, the dust-free night table with a sparkling clean glass ashtray, the mirror above the dresser spotlessly reflecting a tray that held a water pitcher, glasses and a big, black telephone, everything just as it should be, cleaned and arranged exactly as Madge had instructed, but she saw nothing that could have been the source of the glass shards all over the floor. Just as she was thinking that the girl must surely have broken something by accident, panicked and run away out of shame or fear that she'd be beaten for it, Slappy walked in, looked around also, shrugged, and picked up the broom that lay on the floor near the dustpan, his shoes crunching on the scattered glass. Then it hit them both... a wave of odor that permeated the room – burnt, metallic, bloody, with a strangely female edge – a smell like sex gone wrong that caused Madge to gag a little, cover her nose and mouth with her hand, step back and nearly slip where the glass fragments had dissolved into fat globules of water spreading out on the floor and diluting the blood into meaningless pink puddles. The smell disappeared as she caught her balance, cursed the wet floor and hands on hips, complained, "If that girl thinks she can walk off and not finish her work, she's going to learn different when I get a hold of her." She stared into Slappy's eyes briefly, challenging him to make a smart remark, but he just shook his head and brushed past her muttering, "I'll go get the mop."
The suicides irritated Romeo. As he scanned the names in the guest book – noticing three that had checked out the hard way – he heard the creaking moan of rope against tree limb coming from behind him, and sensed swaying movement heavy with death and alive with malice. In his experience, the ones who did themselves in had a deep, ugly kind of anger that wouldn't come out in the open to be dealt with man to man. You couldn't have a good fist fight with one of those guys, then shake and have a beer. They were more apt to scheme, and hold grudges, to wallow in self-pity and plan their exits in the best possible way to leave behind mess and upset for all – like the guy who blew his brains out in the pool, turning it into a giant bloody punchbowl, or the one who'd been so motivated to hang himself, he'd broken through the plaster in the ceiling of room number 11 to expose a beam – oh yes, suicides loved to make dramatic messes. And just because what they seemed to want more than anything else was the last word and unending attention, Romeo refused to acknowledge the possibility that there was really anything hanging in the tree behind him, and instead looked up at the dogs who stood watching the walkway leading back out into the motel courtyard with expectant expressions and wagging tails.
"God damnit," Madge cursed aloud, once she had made a thorough search of the motel grounds and accepted that the young half-breed mexican girl she'd gone all the way out to the flats to procure, had left her work unfinished and run off. The cart with the cleaning supplies sat abandoned on the walkway outside of room number 12, and through the open door, she could see a dustpan lying on the floor, surrounded by scattered debris. Madge had ridden all the way out to the ruined adobe chapel that had been serving as an outpost cantina since the days of apache raids and missionary massacres had settled into contemptuous government neglect, but her spanish had been too rusty to keep up with what the serving woman, a middle aged indian with cunning black eyes and a hard edged mouth, had said to the three teenage girls she'd called out from the kitchen. She'd got the gist of what was going on, though – the older woman was keen to take the money she was being offered and wanted to send the oldest girl, but the tilt of that girl's hip, crossed arms and set jaw said she had other ideas – so, impatient to get on with it, Madge had stepped up and pointed at the middle sister, homelier then the other two, quietly shifting from foot to foot off to the side, and said with authority, "I'll take her." Madge covertly gritted her teeth as Slappy walked up, hands in his pockets and a satisfied smirk on his face, no doubt primed to begin his inevitable needling – he had called it correctly when Madge brought the girl back – "Those people got no work ethic, Madge, you're wasting your time." But his expression changed when he glanced in the open doorway and saw what Madge had missed; that the debris scattered on the floor around the dustpan was sparkling with bits of broken glass, and worse, as they both stepped nearer to get a better look, that the broken glass was mixed with a violent spatter of dark, glimmering drops of blood.
Madge put her hands on her hips, blew away a stray strand of auburn hair and contemplated the tub full of bloodied sheets soaking in cold water next to the washing machine. Considering the hours of cold water soaking, the borax rubbing, the lemon and sunlight bleaching that would have to go into this current batch, just to end up with ghostly outlines of mayhem marring the white cotton anyway, she thought to herself for about the hundredth time, god damn it all, we need to hire help. She had learned to tolerate the smell of fresh blood mingled with stale carpet, the texture of brain and bone when reduced by gunfire (or some heavy object, a frying pan, say... but no, oh no girl, don't think about that) to sticky pudding jelling up on surfaces or stiffening in the weave of textiles. It might not be easy to find help who could be trusted to say nothing of what went on, who had been dulled to her level of pragmatic tolerance by repeated exposure to the messes men make, but even Romeo had begun to consider the idea that the motel was too much for her and Slappy alone to maintain. Sometimes she got angry at the motel and took it out on Romeo, saying things she later regretted about throwing her life away, wasting her youth, her talent, her looks, all so she could stay with him, all because he wouldn't run away with her. She wiped her hands on her apron, and fingering the embroidered poppies along its edge, remembered some insult her daddy had snarled at her years ago about the Mexican half-breed women that lived out on the flats, how they were better at housekeeping and knew enough to keep their mouths shut around men and she thought, hold on now, one of them just might do...
Everybody thought Dicky Two-Times got his name because of his way with the ladies, but Romeo knew better. As he sat there under the trees going over the night Dicky died, he remembered that there had been a dame involved, but she'd been no more responsible than the gun that killed him, she didn't pull the trigger. Romeo continued to ignore the blur of grey beside him, though he flinched at the lightening flash of white light from just over his left shoulder, like a flashbulb "pop" going off, as if the picture in his mind of Dicky holding up his hands in front his face, the word "no" forever frozen on his lips, had just been snapped by an unseen camera. The dame bothered Romeo though, because he couldn't remember where she came from, whether she'd arrived along with Sy or with the flock of whores from Violet's and Sy had just called dibs on her – but either way, he did remember she had been a real looker, and she'd made herself scarce as soon as things got ugly. It might have been Dicky's passes at the dame that got Sy started, but what pushed him over the edge was the weird way Dicky had to keep touching Sy's stuff, casually like he was trying to be unnoticeable, the side of his whiskey glass, one, pause, two, the back of Sy's chair, one, pause, two... with guilty, feathery fingers and a twisted mouth like he couldn't help himself, like he hated what he was doing. Romeo thought the incident had been unfortunate, but didn't see that he could have prevented it, because the only ones responsible for Dicky's death had been Dicky himself and the guy he made sore, Sy, who'd said, "Dicky, you touch my head one more time, and I'm gonna fucking kill you."
Romeo could hear the dogs sniffing around somewhere behind him, the orchestra of birdsong and lazy wind through the trees high above, interrupted by the occasional rude cackle of crows. He opened the guest book and scanned the names, frowning at the blank spaces that held faint impressions of fake monikers he'd inserted in the first book to round things out, and guys like Geo Caletti and Mo Ragola who seemed to come and go without incident. Only the dead men had left their marks clearly, indelibly, the signatures unique to each in deep, rusty brown ink. The first name, right at the top still caused a sick feeling in the pit of Romeo's stomach, the smell of burned flesh coming to mind as clearly as the image of Jack... taking a head-first dive into the white hot incinerator. Every name had its own story, some as bad or worse in their own way as Jack's, and as Romeo's gaze fell on Dicky Two-Times, he tried to remember the sequence of events, wondering if somehow he could have prevented the outcome. A cold chill ran up the back of Romeo's neck, but he knew not to turn around, not to look for the man in the gray suit, the man with the rainwater eyes, the man he'd shot dead two years earlier – he knew Agent Ramiel could only be seen out the corner of his eyes unless he was asleep and dreaming, and then, he was all too clear.
Romeo walked out into the clearing behind the motel, an area of about twenty or thirty yards, a hushed threshold at the edge of the grove. The grove went back a long ways, nearly two acres deep, about an acre wide at the far end, big enough for Romeo to squint his eyes and look out into the trees, imagining central park. The largest trees surrounded the edges of the clearing, their branches spreading out above in a cathedral ceiling of leaves so that it was always shady, even when winter stripped the branches down to a skeletal tangle. On the left side of the clearing, a huge old stone fireplace and its chimney stood completely intact and functional, the cabin it served in 1870 stripped away by hostile fire. On the far right side, a modern cement block incinerator, big enough to serve ugly purposes, with an extra wide metal door and a high chimney of its own, smoked calmly, like a lit cigarette lying in an ashtray waiting for lips. Usually when the guest book came back, Romeo pitched it in the incinerator without pause or remorse, but this time, tired of lying to himself, tired of doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, he decided to take a seat on the edge of the stone hearth and face what the book had to say, to see if the names written in deep brown ink would come alive long enough for him to understand what he was supposed to do.
Slappy, the kid, appeared from around the corner, hip first and jaws flapping as usual. Romeo still had the phone receiver in his hand, even though Mr. G had hung up, and could feel his pulse battering senselessly against the dead, black bakelite. "I hope you're ready to go," the kid said, "'cause when I pulled the truck up and looked back in the rear view, there's the mutts in the back again, just like they always ride back there, like it's all of a sudden normal or somethin', but unless you let 'em ride in the back when I ain't lookin,' I don't know where they keep gettin' the idea they're goin' somewhere, and I gotta tell you, I'm fed up with their gettin' in the way and being so obstinate about it - those dogs are some big heavy bastards when they don't want to move - but I did finally get 'em out, so... we goin' now or what?" Romeo replaced the receiver, closed the cover of the guest book and tucked it under his arm. He couldn't help sighing as he looked out the front window at the road that lead beyond sight to wavering, intangible horizons and said, "Nah, you go on without me and just get double of everything on the list." Slappy's elastic eyebrows shot up, but before he could ask, Romeo said, "I got some work to do before our new guest arrives..." and he gave a whistle for the dogs to make it easier on the kid as he headed out the door and down the walkway to the grove of trees behind the motel.
Romeo squinted at the guest book, read the name at the bottom of the list - Clark Mannish - but it didn't ring a bell, did he know this guy yet? That bloody metallic taste flooded the back of his tongue and set his teeth on edge, the hair on the back of his neck prickled and an electric tremor ran up his spine. He looked at the big, black phone on the desk as it began to vibrate with the force of its warning bell and thought of air raid sirens, fire alarms, parochial school, death, disaster, confinement. He answered it before it could finish ripping open the silence and said, "Bella Vista Motel, how can I help you?" even though he knew it was Mr. G. "Romeo, ever at the ready..." Mr. G said, his black skull grin evident in his voice, "good thing I caught you before you did your shopping, you'll need to set another place at the table tonight." Romeo listened to Mr. G's instructions, trying his best not to clench his jaw, unsurprised when he was told the new guest's name and got a sudden picture in his mind - a man of gigantic proportions with eyes by turns needy and cruel, a man with a deep voice and a high, girlish giggle.
Romeo was in a hurry when he breezed through the motel lobby, keys in hand and the temporary freedom of the road in mind. A supply trip to San Angelo wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise, but hey, he knew how to savor fresh air sucked through a straw. And anyway, he had a good feeling that a new shipment of records from Sha-Sha was waiting for him at the post office, brand new recordings from jam sessions at 3 Dueces, Billy Eckstine's, Jimmy Ryans' and who knew where else – anywhere Sha-Sha could drag his wonderful recording machine and capture the wailing beat, beat, beat. Each shiny black disc he acquired gave him back a piece of himself, let him close his eyes to the dry, stir-crazy day after day and fool himself into thinking he was back home in the city. If he'd kept going right on through, he wouldn't have noticed the guest book, spread-eagle lewd right out on the front desk. But there it was, taunting him with its pages of tombstone roll-call, all the names he didn't want to see and more – a new name, a new guest, a new stain that wouldn't clean away, no matter how many times he burned that god damned book in the incinerator.
For the last fifteen or so years I've been living with a bunch of dead guys at a motel in West Texas. Like the characters in my stories, I'd really like to move on, see the world, go places. But I'm just like them. Anchored by love, worn down by circumstances and fascinated by how much there really is underneath it all. So I keep writing their stories and tell myself that someday, when I've got this all out of my system, I'll write deep, meaningful literature about... something else. In the meantime, this is a place for the short attention spanned. I'm making a commitment to keep it small here. Flash fiction, scenes from the life and Six Sentence serials inspired by, The Bella Vista Motel.