The air trembled with heat in the doorway of the motel. I shut the door quickly behind me, spinning on the carpet, synthetic red and orange fibers trampled shiny and slick from decades of pacers and vacuum cleaners and sad, sad stories. It was the cheapest hotel I could find. I wasn't sure how long I would be there.
The odd musty smell never quite dispersed, and bothered the cats. They seldom emerged from beneath the beds anymore, except to sneak out at night, gobble down some food, use the litter box, and sneak back. I felt bad for the little guys. I drove my rental car to town every day, where I sat alone making shoes in a bright room above an abandoned church for hours before driving back and watching the results of paternity tests and surprise makeovers on one of the few stations the TV in the motel could pick up, on its heavy, outdated televisions with their analog receivers.
I poured some cherry cola flavored whiskey out of an aluminum bottle in the fridge into the single small plastic disposable cup that had come with the motel room on the day I checked in, sat down on the edge of the bed, and turned on the TV. The buzzing was intense. The air conditioner hummed tunelessly but diligently, happy to be of service in the half-abandoned old building. The maintenance man had told me many horror films were shot there. I believed him. Another tenant had warned me not to let the maintenance man into my room at night.
A loud pop and a puff of smoke relieved the pressure from the buzzing and the humming in the airless red orange brown room. The stench of burning electronics spread quickly-- I was already at the door, fanning it back and forth after pulling the plug out of the wall outlet. I carried the TV to the porch and set it down. The porch was a balcony, really, a from-a-distance still stately feature of the once-elegant facade of a neo-classical plantation-styled two-story building, remnants of some day when perhaps the motel was less seedy or perhaps there were still hopes that this street would become enveloped into more of a city than the huddled grouping of truck stops and hotels and diners off the highway which it remains. The two twirling spiral staircases, slippery eggshell from the many coats of high gloss paint that rendered them a bit perilous on wet days, glistened in the sunset, hazy peach and rose. My neighbors were, for once, nowhere to be seen.
I went back inside and shut the door. The air was heavy but the stench had dispersed. The air was always heavy. The lights were so yellow and the sunlight through the window was so red. It was like being in a box. Like being in a suitcase. A dead fly sat forlorn next to the sink on the far wall, where it had been for several days. No housekeeping at the Magnolia. I kept intending to clear it away myself, and then forgetting. I sighed at my reflection, and how old I looked. How much older I look now. How much younger I looked the previous year. The previous month. I raised a hand to turn on the water at the sink. The dead fly rattled back to life. The air was pure static. It buzzed and fluttered its wings and unfolded its legs, shaking them accusingly at me, before settling back down, inanimate, quiet. My ears roared, full of imaginary noises. Had the lights flickered? The cats were silent.
The next morning I parked the rental car and headed into the church. Unlock the door, walk down the hallway, a left turn, down 4 steps, down another hallway, then up the stairs to the bright room. The same as always. Despite the dearth of windows, it was fairly bright. I had a nice bowl of soup for lunch, at the sandwich shop a couple blocks over. It was a hot, rainy, gloomy day, humid and sultry, sweet and fresh yet bitter to the nostrils from the faint yet pervasive sulfur stench that often lingers there from a nearby paper mill. It was well after dark by the time I left the room to head back to the motel. I knew the halls so well, knew each turn and step and stair and inch of floor from the many times I had walked along them, that I didn't bother flicking on the light switch in the hallway on my way to the door. Down the stairs, around the corner to the right, down the hallway, then up those last four steps.
Today, there were five steps.
I stumbled on the last one, barely catching myself in time to not go sprawling across the floor. I pulled out my phone and turned it on so that the faint glow illuminated the stairs behind me. All four of them. Must have been my imagination. Must just be tired. I think I'm a bit sick today.
The Magnolia was damp that day, wet and slick up the spiral staircases to the balcony and damp indoors with a hot clammy feel to the carpet and the bed. The cats greeted me by running away and crawling back under the bed. Someone had brought me a television from an unoccupied room, but I didn't turn it on. The clamor of the air conditioner was enough, for now, drowning out the voices from outside and the trucks exiting and entering the highway. I made a sandwich and ate it while standing and staring at myself in the mirror. I was unrecognizable to myself, but who else could I be? Some conjoined lovebugs had gotten inside somehow and alighted on my shoulder. I brushed them away absent-mindedly. They were everywhere outside, enacting the dramas and tragedies sung by the cicadas and painted by the lightning bugs.
I walked into the bathroom and stood on the mat I took when I moved out of my apartment in Richmond, after quitting my job. Soft and pale, it looked much cleaner than the floor. I took my boots and socks off and squished my toes into the plush fabric, before leaning down and turning the big knob in the shower. There was a deep sad lowing noise and a slight rattle. A couple of drops dropped from the spigot, and then nothing. No shower today. I put my socks back on and walked into the main room again, the long counter with its single sink stretching in front of me below the huge mirror. I stared blankly at myself again. My eyes shone a pale clear blue in the dim lights. I blinked. My eyes were a dull dark brown, the same brown they had always been. I slept.
It was hot and stagnant outside, by the time I started heading north the next morning. I passed a few stands of tall brushy trees and a roadside diner with a giant sign out front in the shape of a pig. The radio blared what seemed like the same 4 songs over and over. It must have been more than that. I stopped for gas and a Diet Dr. Pepper, and sat at a dusty picnic table outside the restroom area, smoking a cigarette and drinking the soda and eating a granola bar as the heat in the air brushed palpably against the skin of my arms. More driving. I passed a few stands of tall brushy trees and a roadside diner with a giant sign out front in the shape of a hat. The further I got from the Magnolia, the less eerie things became. Fewer reminders of my isolation. I was pointed in the direction of friends; and though I neither could nor wanted to stay long, I felt the heaviness leave the bottom of my brain through my forehead, through my eyes, through my ears, like sleep evaporating in the morning, like a fever passing.
But, the fever, like the cats, awaited my return.