She sat on a tin chair outside of her room at the Florida Motel and thought about her children while she drank an iced tea. Her girl was thirty and had two children of her own now. Her baby boy was twenty-seven, an alcoholic in Olympia, Washington. Neither of them had time for Gertrude anymore, between the babies and the drinking. They had escaped, which she thought was probably as it should be. But most days she missed them.
The Florida Motel had started somewhere in the middle then gone far downhill. The swimming pool was half full, shopping carts poking out of the green water. The air-conditioning unit under her window was striped all the way down the front edge with burnt black lines where somebody had put a cigarette down to rest and then forgotten about it. Only the big neon sign, a green palm tree and the red letters florida, survived from when 441 was the busy highway through town and not a potholed backwater. Evening heat radiated off the beige concrete. Flattened swamp creatures lined the edges of the road: snakes, lizards, armadillos, possums.
Adele the maid came out of the office, dressed to go home in an orange tank top and cut-off jeans, barefoot. ‘Y’all can go on up if you want,’ she said. ‘215’s empty now.’
‘He checked out?’
Adele laughed. ‘No,’ she said, ‘he never checked out. But he’s gone. Three-in-the-morning gone. They got the key in the office.’
‘It’s why I came here.’
‘Well, good luck,’ Adele said. ‘Y’all crazy if you ask me but you didn’t ask so good luck.’
Adele got into her Focus, blond hair in a cascade of wooden multicolored beads, and drove off trailing sparks from a dragging muffler pipe. Maybe she wasn’t turning tricks after all, Gertrude thought. She would be driving a better car.
‘You want to rent it or you just want to look around?’ asked the manager.
‘I just want to take a look,’ she said. ‘I can rent it if you want me to.’
‘No, no,’ said the manager, a small, sweaty man in a white shirt and with a rodent face. He seemed to be made nervous by her. He put the key on the counter so he wouldn’t risk touching her. ‘Go right on up,’ he said. ‘Take your time. As long as you like.’
‘Why, thank you,’ Gertrude said. She took the key and left, as glad to be rid of him as the manager was to be rid of her. Lately she alarmed people. She didn’t know why and possibly didn’t care.
Gertrude took the key to 215 up the stairs and along the second-floor balcony. The parking lot below was almost empty, cracked and oil-stained near the green rectangle of the pool. On the patio sat tin tables with attached metal umbrellas. She could sell them for a small fortune if she could get them home to Portland. They were Americana.
Gertrude was killing time. She didn’t want to go into 215. Come all the way from Oregon and she couldn’t bring herself.
She counted to eleven, a technique Bill taught her for jumping into cold water. The mind tricks itself, hesitates, plunges.
An ordinary ugly motel room.
Oh, she thought. Too much of a dream. Bill’s last pictures. This slant of afternoon sunlight, through the curtains, onto the faded brocade of the bedspread. This knotty-pine desk with its cigarette burns, and through the open doorway – she knew before she saw it – would be a tiled shower stall with random tiles missing, like
a message in code. An after-image, double exposure, a ghost in the room. Gertrude shivered, rooted in place, smelling the dust as it drifted through the yellow sunlight.
Bill had been her husband once, a long time before. He was a photographer and a drunk. The last pictures he ever took were here, in 215. He took pictures of the parking lot, the pool, of Adele the maid without her shirt on. He took pictures of everything. In his last days, he would pay strangers to drive him around and he would shoot roll after roll of Tri-X through the window of the moving car. When he died, he left behind 10,000 undeveloped rolls of film.
Left them to Gertrude, his ex, executrix.
There was really no reason for her to be here. Nothing but her own curiosity, which seemed morbid to her now. A long way for nothing. As the déjà vu faded away, she saw that she was in an ordinary rundown motel room, devoid of magic. A transient, public place, a bed that a thousand people had slept in. It was just an accident that Bill’s life had ended here. It could have been anywhere. A room that was made for sleeping with strangers, or drinking alone.
Not just a regular bottle of vodka, either, but the big one, the kind with a handle. He drank the whole thing. Adele was the one who found him, a day after the fact, when he wouldn’t answer her knock. A bottle, a body, a few dozen rolls of film. They shipped the film to her, along with his wallet, his watch, his battered Leica, a pamphlet of Catholic prayers. He carried pictures of their children in his wallet like any common salesman.
But had he meant to drink it all? A sober man would know that much alcohol was poison. But a drunk man wouldn’t, necessarily.
No answers here. Gertrude sat on the edge of the bed with the sunlight falling across her legs. It was four o’clock. She had slept alone for several years now, or mostly so. She had lost interest, or had the interest beaten out of her. Men had worn her out.
Four o’clock on a hot afternoon.
The sound of slamming doors woke her out of her trance. The asphalt crew was home. They stood in the shade of the balcony, opening cans of beer and shouting insults at one another. Ate up with the dumbass, said one of them, and another replied, Cocksucker. Gertrude took one long last look around but the room was empty. She didn’t even know what the question was.
She went to her room and changed clothes. The ones she had on felt dirty somehow, though the room had been slept in and cleaned a hundred times since then. She put on a red sundress with a low-cut neck and looked into her suitcase and thought fuck it and pulled her cowboy boots on. Ray-Bans and her hair tied back. She couldn’t stand her hair in this kind of heat.
Purdy sat at one of the round tables on the patio, in the shade of the candy-colored metal umbrella, drinking a can of beer out of a foam rubber koozie that said florabama lounge. He was the foreman of the asphalt crew, a big solid man in a dirty Panama hat and a short-sleeved shirt, untucked. The curve of his belly, the faint smell of diesel and sweat, even now, fresh from the shower. He reached into the cooler by his feet and handed her a dripping cold can of beer.
‘What kind of day did you have?’ Purdy asked.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘strange.’
‘Did you get up into the room?’
Gertrude looked at him, trying to guess what she had told him on the bar stool the night before. More than she meant to. Drinking gimlets for Christ’s sake.
‘I was just up there,’ she said.
‘And nothing,’ she said. ‘No clues. I thought that I would get a feeling or something, I don’t know. It was kind of creepy walking in there, right at first. But after that, nothing.’
‘Well, now you know,’ said Purdy.
‘This is his watch,’ she said, holding out her left arm toward him. He took her wrist in one big hand and turned it this way and that.
‘Nice watch,’ he said.
And, yes, there was a kind of man who would always find her attractive and Purdy was that kind of man. Gertrude had blond hair which she was not about to give up – no natural grey for her – and the big tits that Bill had loved so. Maybe these days it took a little intentional blurring to make her pretty, an uncritical eye. It was all fading, all falling apart, bit by bit. But not yet.