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.
Madge had seen women come and go at the motel. They fell into two categories as a rule, whores who tagged along with the men who came to stay, and whores from the Shy Violet in San Angelo who came over to service the men who came to stay. Either way, other women were an infrequent and insignificant presence at the motel and Madge had very little cause to do more than ignore them politely. Madge was the woman of the house who held her own among the ever changing gang of men by doing what she had always done, keeping her guard up and projecting a strong attitude of unavailability... as well as relying on their fear of Romeo to keep them in check. The vulnerability of a young girl in a servant's position hadn't occurred to her when she'd gone out and picked up Maria, but she worried about it now that Maria was missing and hesitated, grasping at the first thing that came to mind to hold Maria's little sister back, "Shouldn't we let your mother know?" she said. The girl whirled around and glared at Madge, her black eyes flashing indignation and contempt as she hissed, "Esa bruja no es mi madre."
By the time Madge made it out to the flats, the late afternoon sun slanting sideways and brushing the rocky landscape with vivid gold, she nearly had herself convinced that Maria would be there, maybe hiding in the back at first, but then coming out into the cantina at her mother's urging to face Madge with apologies and regrets for having run off. The cantina was closed, and there was an overslept siesta quiet all around, but the youngest sister peeked out of the window when Madge knocked on the door, and opened it right away with a perplexed expression. She was prettier than the middle sister, though they all looked very much alike, waist-length black hair hanging down in a single fat braid, large obsidian eyes and high indian cheekbones in a face as brown as toast, but not a day over fifteen, Madge guessed. Facing the girl, Madge found herself unable to muster the determination that had propelled her out there, and instead, her pulse began to race and her voice came out higher, more alarmed than she would have preferred to sound when she said, "Your sister Maria didn't finish her work at the motel and I can't find her, I thought perhaps she came back here." She wasn't sure how good the girl's English was, but her expression said she understood enough to be worried, and she quickly stepped outside and closed the door, ready to go with the lady who had taken her sister away only that morning and somehow managed to lose her. Madge hadn't intended to just replace the missing girl, she hesitated in front of the cantina staring at the youngest sister and thinking to herself, Oh no, what have I gone and done... what if I lose her too?
Slappy scratched his unruly mop of dark curly hair, and said, "Humph," in response to Madge's insistence that the cleaning girl had "run off." He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he looked at her, glanced at the wall, and then walked over to the edge of the clearing to gaze out at the featureless wasteland surrounding the motel grounds. He pulled his pack of Luckys out of his shirt pocket, stuck one in his mouth and turned to look at her again as he struck a match with his thumbnail and lit it. She straightened her shoulders and stuck her chin up, ran a hand over her hair to smooth it unnecessarily and started back toward the courtyard. "You want me to go out to the flats with you?" He asked before she stepped into the walkway. He saw her hesitate briefly before she glanced back over her shoulder and met his eye with that stubborn expression he had come to know so well and assured him, "I got myself out there just fine the first time, thank you all the same."
The West side of the Bella Vista motel suffered the full force of the afternoon sun every day, but the last room, number 12, gained a small advantage from the shade of the trees in the grove, and the back wall never saw the sun. Madge felt the improbable coolness of the smooth plaster next to her ear, and on her palm as she steadied herself against the wall. The scent of the plaster came up softly, a clean smell to her nose, its mineral chalkiness, strangely, causing her mouth to water and stirring up a fleeting image of her own small hands squeezing white clay. She swallowed and listened to the sound of nothing happening; a blank wall and her own pulse stretching out the minutes. Slappy stepped out of the walkway into the clearing, stopped, put his hands in his pockets and swung his face around to meet her eye before he said, "All cleaned up in there, any sign of her out here?" She took her hand off of the wall self-consciously and wiped it on the side of her skirt as she turned to look out at the vast open land outside of the clearing and answered, "I think she must have run off back home, and I mean to go and get her back."
Madge ran into the clearing behind the motel, the afternoon sun marking her body with crisscrossed shadows from the tree branches above. It was quiet and still, but for the birds flitting from branch to branch and the tiny, tear-shaped leaves that always floated through the air like soft rain. She could hear her own heart pounding as she peered out through the trees, down the long irregular path that led out deep into the grove where the light gave up to murky twilight and losing your way was as easy as taking a stroll. She could also hear the girl crying, not hysterically, not wailing, but softly, indistinctly, muffled as though she was still inside somewhere, a pause, a few words in Spanish, then quiet moaning sobs like a child who knows they've lost sight of their mother in a crowd, but aren't yet convinced they've been abandoned. Madge began to walk out toward the path into the grove, but heard the sound grow quieter as she did so, and she stopped to call out, "Maria!" There was nothing for a moment, even the birds went silent, but then the crying started up again behind her and Madge had to clasp her hands together to steady herself, to make herself walk over and press her ear against the wall of the empty room she had just left and listen... though it made no sense at all.
Madge turned to leave room number 12, working herself up into a huff, overriding her unease with irritation at the cleaning girl's disappearance and locking on to the idea that she had run off. Before she made it to the door she heard a sound coming from the other side of the wall, a sound like a cat meowing far away and it stopped her cold. Room number 12 was the last room in the row on the west side of the motel and on the other side of the wall, there was a clearing that led into a deep grove of trees. She moved nearer to the wall listening to the muffled sound as it faded in and out like the stations on the radio when the strange voices cut into the usual shows. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear listening closer and caught two words in spanish that she understood, "perdido," and, "ayuda." She stepped back from the wall and hesitated only a moment before she ran out the door and around the corner into the clearing, hoping she could get to the girl before she wandered too deeply into the grove of trees.
Dawn was creeping in all around him as Romeo hung up the telephone and took a few shaky breaths. He wiped his hand across his mouth and felt the slick smear of blood spatter, stared at his palm for a moment, already moving his mind past what had just happened and on to what came next. Assess the situation... remove the corpse from the lobby, big heavy bastard, going to need help, wake up the kid and get him in here, blood, good amount of blood on the floor by the kitchen table and trailing out to the front desk in the lobby, but not too bad, not on the ceiling or the walls, with any luck, Madge didn't hear the phone and would stay asleep back in the bedroom for another hour. He heard Slappy's shuffling footsteps coming up the walkway outside the lobby, and turned just in time to see the boy throw open the door and stop short as he caught sight of Clark's body. He let out with a low whistle and said, "Heard the telephone ringing, figured nobody was calling with good news this hour of the morning, Jiminy Christ, he's enormous, where'd he come from?" But Romeo didn't answer him right away, he was staring at the guest book, spread open on the front desk, the ink gleaming wet on the signature at the bottom of the page, the paper speckled with the same spatter as Romeo's grim face, then he reached out and smacked the cover closed as he said, "Help me take care of this mess before Madge wakes up, you know how she feels about blood in the kitchen."
The ringing telephone pulled Romeo into the lobby, the shattering bell sending waves of sound pounding against his back and throbbing with his outraged heart. Back, away from the monstrous error, the man, the abomination, not dead, though the knife Romeo had put in him still protruded from the precise place where his beating heart could not be beating any longer, but yet, the blood coursed from around the knife in regular throbbing rhythm, so maybe, holy Christ, maybe... Clark moved slowly toward him, his huge body heaving with effort, the whites of his eyes filling with blood, as if the burst heart in his chest was squirting its contents everywhere inside him, his voice wet and gurgling as he said, "Let me tell you all about Dee Dee, the midget whore who wasn't a whore at all, who wasn't a midget, who wasn't even really a woman..." Romeo's hand reached out behind him, leading the way, pulling him back to the telephone, itching with the need to pick up the receiver, answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the phone! Clark loomed as Romeo bumped up against the front desk and wrapped his grateful hand around the, answer the phone, answer the phone, spraying Romeo's face with a fine mist of blood as he went on in that strangely calm, gurgling voice, "Let me tell you how she called those guys over and set them on that other girl, and how she laughed when they tore her open, and what was in her eyes when she turned her face and looked at me, what I saw inside those black eyes of hers, and what it did to me to know that thing saw me..." Romeo brought the receiver to his ear with teeth gritted at the metal wrenching sound of Mr. G's voice coming out of those tiny black holes, "You should always wait until you're told, Romeo," he said, as the big man's body hit the floor like a hundred pounds of lead, the click of the connection cut off like the click of a trigger pulled on an empty gun, and the silence rushed in to surround the mess on the floor that Romeo would be more than happy to clean up.
Stabbing Clark in the heart was the simplest, most obvious solution, so Romeo picked up the guy's empty coffee cup, slipped a knife up his sleeve while he refilled it –– halfway, no sense wasting a full cup of coffee –– then held it out to him like the gracious host that he was. When Clark reached out and took the cup, Romeo leaned in and drove the knife into the sweet spot, without so much as a, "Sorry, pal." Romeo expected the gasp of shock, the tumbling coffee cup and the gush of blood, even the low gurgling scream that gave out with the guy's last breath, he expected all that and then he expected silence and a mess to clean up. He didn't expect the telephone on the front desk to cut in with its shrieking ring, jarring the tiny bones in his ears and echoing obscenely in the predawn darkness. He didn't expect Clark to stand up, towering above him and clutching at the knife plunged in to the hilt exactly where a knife would need to go if you wanted to skewer a guy's heart, and he didn't expect him to get that disappointed look on his face as he said, "I know you had to do it, but couldn't you have just listened to me first?" He didn't expect Clark to keep coming at him as he backed out of the kitchen into the lobby, the big, black telephone getting louder and louder behind him, but not loud enough to drown out the sound of Clark insisting, "It was all that little dame's fault, 'cause she wasn't just a dirty little tramp, there was something evil hiding inside her eyes, and I saw it, I tell you, I saw it..."
"I'm not up for the scenic route," Romeo said, "get to the point." Clark frowned, stared at Romeo for a few moments, rubbed at his unwanted beard, then resumed his story, "It was like this, the little dame was trouble, they liked her, especially next to a guy my size, because she looked... younger, but she was nothing but trouble and it was her that set those guys on the other girl. I didn't mind the artsy stuff so much at first, the other times, regular girls, more normal situations, but she, Dee Dee was her name, she was really dirty in a way that, you know, put me off." Romeo thought, set those guys on the other girl...ahh, Christ... and then suddenly got what the guy meant when he said the girl looked younger next to him... and despite his efforts to keep his temper out of things, he was instantly mad as he said, "Wait a minute, you guys were making smut about underage girls?" Clark protested quickly, "This dame wasn't underage, she was just, undersized, and anyway, I'm telling you I didn't like it, they wanted me to do things that were..." he struggled with how to put it, "unmanly." This was exactly the kind of situation Romeo hated, and he regretted not checking the guy into a room and waiting for the call from Mr. G to punch his ticket, because no doubt about it, this guy was on the schedule, but having given in to the urge to experiment, his thoughts turned back to how to do him quick and clean so he wouldn't have to hear him anymore... maybe a little blood in the kitchen would be worth shutting him up.
"It wasn't like a regular gig or anything," Clark said, "just every once in a while to pick up some extra cash." Romeo didn't say anything, though his upper lip was slowly betraying his disgust. Clark went on, "I got started with the photo shoots, really easy money, just my hands holding ladies shoes and touching their feet and stuff." Romeo said, "What?" Clark rolled his eyes and sighed over dramatically, then explained, "The guys that produced this stuff didn't want to just make the usual nudie smut, they had a particular... artistic slant."
"Anyway," Clark said, ignoring Romeo's incredulous expression, "what started the trouble was this dame they found that was a real looker, but very petite, almost, but not a actual midget, and the dirtiest mouth you ever––" he held up a hand as Romeo began to protest, "just wait, you're gonna see that none of this was my fault if you'll just listen."
"You know those guys that work for the Boss out in Jersey?" Clark asked, after staring down into his empty coffee cup for a long moment. "You know the ones," he insisted when Romeo gave him a look like, guys... which guys... "they all look alike, dark, hairy, can't hardly understand them, their accents so thick, but not like regular Jersey guys..." "Like they come from the old country, but not our old country," Romeo said mostly to himself, remembering the strange pack of "brothers" that would show up at the motel from time to time. "Yeah, those guys, yeah," Clark nodded, "you do know, the ones that always just show up out of nowhere when there's real work to be done, like moving big crates of goods or building stuff. We had a warehouse out there, you know, out in Jersey, set up like a little film studio for pin-up photo shoots and stag films, and I, you know," he shrugged and moved his hand around in a circular motion Romeo wasn't sure he got the meaning of until Clark continued, "I did some acting, with the girls..." "Aww, Christ..." Romeo muttered into the back of his throat, it was going to be one of those kinds of stories, and the dark hairy guys were involved... his stomach went queer in anticipation and he wondered if he had any bromo tablets close to hand.
Romeo took another sip of his coffee and swallowed the small lump of dread that tried to crawl up his throat. He'd seen this before, the guy was going to tell some crazy story, some unhinged shit that was supposed to justify his innocence, but instead would only prove they should have sent the men in the white coats after him. Romeo hardened his mind as he brought the plate of eggs and bacon and the other cup of coffee to the table where Clark sat, the food still steaming as he set it down. Clark looked up at him, eyes bulging with that needy desperation to let the poison out of his head, to share his misery with the nearest pair of ears, but was clearly used to soothing himself with food – he grabbed at the bacon as soon as Romeo pulled his hands away and crammed a piece into his mouth, folding it in like a stick of gum. Romeo went back to the sink, leaned against the comforting solidity of cool, clean porcelain and prepared to resist whatever infecting madness Clark would spew out. "So," Romeo said, watching as the guy gulped down his coffee like an antidote, "let's hear it."
Romeo was not a deer in the headlights kind of guy. He gave Clark a steady, noncommittal look to answer the man's inappropriate question, then turned back slowly and deliberately to the cooking food on the stove. He put the eggs and bacon on a plate, poured them both a cup of coffee, took a sip of his and looked at Clark's reflection in the night mirrored kitchen window. "What did you do?" he asked. The man met his eyes in that dark reflection and all thoughts of a quick easy end for the guy evaporated from Romeo's mind. "I didn't do nothing," he said with an ironic smile, "I saw something, something nobody was meant to see, and what's worse," he paused to poke his chest, strangely aggressive, "it saw me, too."
Romeo had to make an effort to keep a friendly look on his face as he made a fresh pot of coffee and got busy with eggs and bacon for Clark, because every word out of the guy's big mouth – though he seemed oblivious to his effect – grated and annoyed. "I can't believe you been gone from the city so long, I don't know how you keep from going nuts after being such a big shot and all, and then," he punctuated the observation with his weird, high pitched giggle, "to end up out here making beds in some fleabag motel." Trusting in the intoxicating effect of frying bacon to keep Clark salivating in the kitchen and off guard, Romeo ticked off options in his head; shoot the guy...no, too much noise would wake Madge, stab the guy...no, the kitchen, while easy to clean was still not a place he wanted blood all over, bludgeon the guy...no, that was one thick skull, poison the guy...hmm, maybe... Romeo turned around to consider what and how much he would need to use and was startled to see that Clark was staring at him, his eyes moistening with despair as he said, "Maybe you're the lucky one, getting out of town when you did, Mr. G ain't right on top of you out here, not like how it is back there now, the pressure..." he paused heavily, "a guy can't get a break." Romeo leaned on the counter and watched the expression in Clark's eyes shift from mushy self-pity to angry resentment, to cold calculation as the bacon sizzled, the fried eggs popped and the coffee perked. The big man sat forward on his chair and considered Romeo a long time before he said quietly, "Is it true what they say about this place, what they say about you," he pointed a sausage sized finger at Romeo, "is it true you're Mr. G's gun?"
Romeo smiled a smile that was little more than a tightening of the muscles at the corners of his mouth and considered Clark through narrowed eyes. Clark yawned, exposing Romeo to every tooth in his cavernous mouth, lifted his arm to reveal sweat stains as big as continents on a map, and sniffed at himself unhappily. “I’ve never needed a shower worse in my life,” he said. Romeo remembered the dream he’d had in the grove about the guest book, Joe’s voice saying, “You’re just going about this all discombobulated...” and the thought he’d had upon waking to kill Clark before he could make trouble, but he knew he couldn’t just off the guy before Mr. G said to. Then the thought hit him –– what if he didn’t check the guy in, what if he made it so somehow the guy was never a guest to begin with? Romeo spread a friendly grin across his face and said, “Hey, first things first, come into the kitchen and I’ll do better than a sandwich, big guy like you needs a decent meal...”
Romeo started a pot of coffee and stepped out of the back door to survey the vegetable garden in the soft morning light. If he didn't look beyond the edge of the neatly arrayed plot, he might be able to take comfort from its lush bounty, the glowing beauty of ripening tomatoes, the safety of picket fence incarceration. The road was too near not to draw his eyes, and then his feet, and he found himself standing in front of the Bella Vista Motel gazing out at a land that seemed to have no order and no end. The road mocked him, as ever with its false promise of escape. He could smell the coffee on the clean morning air and he knew what every monotonous minute of the coming day would hold. As he went back to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee for himself and Madge, he wondered if things would ever start happening again, and he tried not to hope that she was coming back.