The desk clerk at the Day’s Inn was reading a book propped on his wide stomach.
“Yes, ma’am?” A starchy shirt collar cut into his neck, forcing the fat up and over.
“How much for a room?”
My grandmother had pressed a $50 into my hand when I kissed her goodbye. Egg money, she whispered. “Okay.”
The clerk shifted his weight to his left buttock and hoisted a ledger to the counter.
“I missed the train.” It burst out.
“The Crescent? Happens.” He turned the ledger around and read my name. His eyes flicked up at me as he sucked in an audible breath.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
“Huh?” In a flash I see that the fat book is leaved in gold.
“Have you invited the Lord into your heart?”
“YES!” I hollered.
He jerked back like I was a biter. “Two H. Check out time’s eleven.” A key tossed to the counter.
The room smelled of bleach and cigarette smoke.
If I called my mother; she would just hang up. But I picked up the receiver.
“Who’s this?” A knowing leer.
“I’m in a hotel in Charlotte. Is my mother there? She has to come–”
“You’re in a hotel.” Big sigh.
“I missed the train.” He doesn’t care. He isn’t going to help me.
“I don’t know where your mother is but she’s not going to talk to you.”
“Could you come get me? Gene?”
“Now?” Another sigh. “I’ll come in the morning. Be ready.”
He hung up.
It was what the desk clerk’s Bible would call a dark night of the soul. At 2am, lines of static transformed the TV into torture. I lay, light on, humming like a refrigerator. I go over my inventory: sour milk, Eugene, the small scar by my mother’s mouth in white relief as she hissed, He would never–You . . . Get . . . Out!
He won’t show. Tomorrow I will walk back to the depot and sit on a bench until eleven tomorrow night. I had enough money for one meal at the cafe and another on the train. I can make it to New York.
A knock as hollow as a knight’s tin suit. I rubbed sleep from my eyes.
There he stood, curly hair uncombed. Pale as he always was in bright light, brows beetling as he scanned with loathing appreciation the two-tone shag, the ringed dresser, the bed clothes rumpled along a narrow trough.
“You must have been so scared,” he purred.
“Huh? Why couldn’t you come last night? Where’s Ma?”
“Last night, you poor girl.” He lifted his arms and wrapped them around me. I felt myself choking up as he hugged me close. The wings of his bony shoulder blades were under my hands.
“Everything’s alright.” Then his beard was soft and prickly against my lips. Then his lips, soft as a loved blanket, were against mine.
I feel sometimes as if everything is old to me; pieces of toast, movies, even the view from the front porch. I can’t recapture how it tasted or looked before the world was only striated lines: land, river, sky; columns on a page of newsprint: news news old news. But that morning, from 9.30 to 11.15–and after, when I checked out and sat in the hotel café eating pancakes as Eugene watched–was brand new. Is anything so exciting as the touch of skin under flannel? Like barbed wire, crisp and sharp and dangerous? And beneath the belly’s skin those serpents from the fat clerk’s bible: yes, yess, hissing in my ear.
I disappeared for good in that room behind curtains pulled against the dark, opening them hours later to anemic Day’s Inn daylight. Opened so he could see me against the white sheets. That was me.
I can almost see her.
And I can see him: barbed wire curling on his chest and legs and in the nest where my hand lay. The strangeness of touch: skin like mine but not mine. None of this is mine, I said to him.
“Not this?” he chuckled. “I think this might be yours, Mia.”
“This way, mad-de-mwah-zelle,” called a porter, just like Chuck Berry would say it. Close up, the train was the dirty aluminum tube of an Electrolux.
“Thank you,” as he lifted my suitcase to the rails above.
“Have a good trip to Noo Yawk Cit-tah.” He was all business. I felt shelved like a can of corn at Winn-Dixie.
Alone and cold and I couldn’t quite gather the courage to lift down my luggage and fish out socks and a sweater . . .
“How you?” said the man as he fell into the seat beside me.
The yellow cabin light couldn’t sap the chestnut sheen of his face.
“I’m a railroad man,” he said.
I couldn’t help but smile: I’m a railroad man! That’s what I am!
“I inspect the rails.”
“What kind of problems with the rails?”
I pictured pennies flattened.
“Classified. Everyday they’s accidents but be a helluva lot more if I weren’t making sure tracks are safe.”
“Huh,” I say, bored already. Outside, an etch-a-sketch of tree branches shook to graphite as we slipped into a tunnel.
I slumped in my seat and closed my eyes. I hadn’t been this tired since my mother’s parties when I was little. Those all-night revels when it seemed like the grown-ups would never go home.
I opened them again, alert. My head was resting on the window by the dawn’s streamers of pink and purple. I felt it again–a stealthy pressure. The railroad man was spooning my hips. Like a glass birdie dipping its beak into water: down, pause, pause, up, pause, down, pause, pause, up . . .
I caught my scream in my throat. I took a breath, rolled to a sitting position, dislodging him, and yawned stagily. The railroad man muttered something, his face dark in the dark cabin, got up, and disappeared down the dark aisle.