At the Boarding House

You pick this town; you get off the bus. A fishing village. A forest of shrimp-netted masts. A blinding early sun. A quick survey of surroundings. The smell of salt air crinkles your nose. Low frequency traffic hums. Drivers chat with passengers, speak on cells. Occasionally glimpse what lies ahead.

Carrying your torn suitcase you toddle down the street past old gray storefronts, past redbrick buildings, past crusty men in ball caps and flannel shirts. Men with rough tanned skin. One greets with nasty teeth, an upraised hand. You block emotion, pass by, ruin any chance of acquaintance. Work boots over cement slide and scrape, echoes of a receding human step. A noiseless creek flows beneath a bridge and feeds a bayou. A motel stands with its neon not yet turned off this clear morning. You enter through Plexiglas doors. Jingle jing.

Upstairs through the window you gaze across sparkling waters. It wasn’t here but in some other body of water connected to this one that you helped your brother carry the john boat to the edge of the shore on your great adventure before dawn. He had got it into his head to row from the inlet near home to the Gulf of Mexico. He brought fishing poles. You brought a loaf of bread and a roll of bologna. Briny black waters rippled under the night. You imagined sharks of monstrous proportions ready to swallow you up. For your sake he gave up the adventure. Fear had always lived inside you. But most times you avoided its ravages. He gave comfort when fear utterly assailed you. But no matter how tight his embrace you could not feel close enough to him and he must have sensed this in your frail mayfly features and deserted you.

You open the suitcase on one bed and toss out panties, a short skirt, and a long two-piece t-shirt onto the other. Pulling out stray hair you stare at your reflection in the mirror. You shower until the hot stream prickles your skin like papercuts. Then you sit naked facing the mirror. Your body is packed with memory. You rummage around its shape. The past is happening right now, at once in this smooth sleepy moment. The pleasures are few and melancholic. Not to mention the pains.

Lashes come out by the handful. It’s one of many bad habits you’ve tried innumerable times to quit. But you’re unstoppable. These self-inflicted habits distort your looks, make you appear worn out, distracted. You pull on your skirt. A man once said you were beautiful. The mirror reflects an image you do not believe. You have salamander skin and blackcat bones. You finish dressing and wear no make-up. Truth should be startling. Your blue-blond hair clumps together in dark wet streaks particularly in front where it’s always been thick. You comb through it with your fingers and yank the loose strands, pulling out roots before you notice the frenzied action. Finally, when the hair flows smoothly, hangs straight down, you muss it up one good last time and leave it there.

The motel diner is where you sit at the counter and brush sugar grains onto the floor and go through your pockets for last dollars. The woman behind the counter is looking unwell. She is fat and greasy and dumped into a flowery dress showing bra lines beneath a frayed collar. The last package of cigarettes you take from the pocket of your shirt and place on the counter next to the syrup container. She smiles at you with gray lips. The last thing you hear before you tell her you want coffee is her broad feet screeching across the oily floor.

“Sure you don’t want something else, honey?”

You tell her you’re sure.

“Arno! Arno, you there!”

Arno with gray bristled hair and craggy face and long nose shoves his head through the service window.

“What!”

“Take a look at her, willya?” She points at you, the only one in the place. “Fix her up something, willya?”

“Whaddoes she want?” Arno’s arm pokes stiff in the hole.

The woman bellies the counter, spreads fat elbows out, irons a menu flat. “Tell me what you want, honey.”

“Coffee, that’s all,” you tell her.

“Look at you,” she says. “Haven’t eaten for days I bet. Tell me what you want. Anything on here. It’s O.K. Won’t cost you nothing.” She leans back in grand plumpness. “Arno! Get her something!”

“She don’t want nothing!” Arno’s greasy-gray t-shirt has small holes around its collar. “Leav’er alone!”

She waddles coffee over and pours into your cup then bowls her body against the counter as you fix sugar on a spoon and stir into the smoking black liquid. You find yourself smiling at her. She is overly gray. You wonder about the marks on her arms, the hairy puffiness, like moldy bread.

“Is there a bookstore around,” you ask, as she stands over you with her moldy hairy arm on the counter.

“Down the road a block or two,” she says. Her big-claw fingers scratch under her nose. “Used and Rare on the sign, it says, but ain’t much in there.”

Coffee smoke curls past your nose to the ceiling and you are blocked by the white cup in front of your face. You sip gingerly. Arno comes around with a tub of silverware and sets the tub in front of her on a low place behind the counter.

“Dry these,” he says. His gray paint-stained pants have drooping cuffs. “Don’t get to talking. Finish what you start, you hear?”

She waves him off, grabs a white-with-thin-red-stripes rag, and watches you drink coffee while you watch her polish spoons. It goes back and forth like this for several minutes until she hums and you look around the diner.

“This disease I got,” she says, pulling you back to her, “is getting all over me. It’s what you see when you look at me.”

You tell her you didn’t notice.

“Most people do,” she says. “That’s why I tell ’em right off what I got. Most people want to know though they don’t come out and say it—and they hope it ain’t catchin’.”

She clucks as she clanks spoons on a pile and goes on. “Don’t bother me none though. You know what I’m saying, right? Dying and all. What can you do? I’m old, right? I ain’t afraid or nothing. So guess what they give me? Go on. Guess?”

You tell her you don’t know.

“A month!” She slaps the counter with a spoon and it clinks to the floor. She groans over to get it and comes up saying, “Three done gone by since then and I feel a hundred more to come.” Then you notice the decay in her black eyes, how it leaks out, tints the skin beneath her eyes. She sees that you’ve seen it and leans close and serious and says, “But it’s going to get me, ain’t it? Same as anyone.”

Coffee falls from the pot in her hand into your cup. “My father,” she says, “I remember when he was an old man.” She wipes the pot lip with a rag. “He grew blind in his old age very slowly. Not all at once like some. But a bit at a time. And so slowly he didn’t like to admit it was happen’ to him. And it used to hurt me to watch him get, what’s that word, withdrawn. He didn’t like eatin’ out with mama and us ’cause if the place was too dark he couldn’t see a thing. But he wouldn’t let no one help him, neither. ’Cause he was stubborn. So we’d have to get him in a secluded spot in the restaurant. And then after all that trouble he wouldn’t eat. Damn mule. Not a durn thing. I think about it now and that’s what hurt me then. Him sitting there smelling all that food and not eating ’cause he was afraid he might drop somethin’ on him and wouldn’t be able to see it. Couldn’t find it to clean it off. Made me sad then now that I think on it. All that food and he’s too afraid to eat.”

She’s got the done spoons in a neat pile on a clean blue towel. She goes between the grooves of the forks with her rag several times each.

“This disease don’t scare me none,” she says, rubbing all up and down a fork. “But I tell you there is something. It’s all the moving around, all the getting ready to go that I don’t like. Too much fuss for such a little thing. Arno back there’s a lot like my father. He don’t admit nothing.”

“He’s your husband, then,” you say.

“Couldn’t tell, could you?” She chuckles. “Well, he is. Has been a long time. Bet you couldn’t guess he was a jazz musician. Sure was. Lit up the night in the Quarter in his day.” She glances out the window. It’s a look like she’s feeling velvet across her skin, a dress she wore on an unforgettable night, though it’s clear from the sorrow pulling on her face that she is forgetting, perhaps even wonders whether she’d ever been a vibrant young woman. But you aren’t sure.

“So that’s that,” she says. “What happened, you want to know? Wasn’t good enough. Couldn’t keep steady work. Time and trouble. He wore out. So here he is. Gave it all up for this.”

You hear Arno in the back scrubbing metal. She turns to listen, too. She clucks and smiles.

“Yep,” she says again, her hands never stop working on the forks. “Mm-hm.”

You taste coffee, all warm in your mouth. She hums and now cleans knives. Your eyes move around, settle on the stacks of dishes in the sink. Her huge potato elbow comes around every second or so. There are photos tacked up next to the salad cooler. Stoic faces captured flat on paper. Firm lips hiding bad teeth.

She fills your view suddenly. “Pie?” Her brown arms are as thick as hamhocks.

You tell her you’re not hungry. Not at all.

“See when I was a little girl,” she says with a bottom row of amber teeth jutting forward. “My mama ran a boarding house. People used to stay with us. Days or weeks. And then they’d leave. Passing through is all. One man held on for a nearly a year. But then he left. Just like the others. Just like all of them. And all day long mama’d be in that kitchen fixin’ up some of the best food you ever tasted—and it smelled so good! And we’d be around the corner watching all them boarders stuffing their faces. But we weren’t allowed to eat not one little thing until they were all done. Oh, and they’d come out of there justa rubbing on their fat bellies! And after that we’d get to go in there and grab a biscuit or two. Whatever they didn’t eat. And you know to this day I just hate fat bellies. Just can’t stand a fat belly. I hate ’em!”

People filter into the diner for lunch. You edge off your seat and, outside, shield your eyes from the midday sun and wander down the sidewalk toward Used and Rare. After you cross the concrete bridge you stop and watch the golden brown water flowing over smooth rocks and slender grass. The creek runs around an embankment of scrub and pines behind a used car lot. You leave the bridge and cross a sandy flat and step down a short slope onto white sand. Turning, you can barely see the used car lot. Here on the sand behind the pines you feel tickled that no one can see you. It’s as though you have found a lonely wilderness. Fast cars pass over the bridge with sounds like whispers bouncing off mountain walls. You step ankle-deep into the cool water racing past you with a passionless eye. It’s like some faraway horse galloping in the night. Bunching your skirt you slip to your knees. Sin beats horribly in your belly, twists you like a damp rag. You search for prayerful words. A vanishingly sweet voice gives a moment of relief. You cup your hands in the stream and splash water on your face. Looking up at the sound you see a mockingbird dancing on the limb of a cherry laurel. And what did you expect? The voice of God?

You feel foolish leaving the creek and walking back to the bridge. You wonder if anyone noticed. The heat in your head is unbearable. What you thought was a solitary wilderness was really a crowded arena. One thought is that you are only imagining people looking at you in bewilderment. But self-doubt always goes you one better. These are not people around you, but judges, and all the evidence has been exhibited.

You skip Used and Rare and return to the motel. In your room you remove your clothes and look once more at the girl in the mirror, at the brutish body that has been cannibalized by so many undressed hands and sloppy mouths. The tub water crinkles over your skin and needles your fingers until you are well in it. Steam rises over your face. Sweat drips from your hair, plinking into the water. And you take the razor you have carried for so long. And your wrist. And then the other one. You slice.

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