The gravel parking lot held old, low-slung buildings in a U-shape around an empty pool. A Model-T and a golf cart were parked under an awning at the office compound, a soda machine humming around the corner. A rusted-out washing machine sat to the right of the door, and a buzzer sounded when she pushed herself inside.
The "Office" sign flickered, about to burn out. Behind the short counter, a curtained doorway led to a residence. She could hear canned laughs from the television and smell bacon fat clouding in a cold pan.
A man she assumed was the owner stepped through the curtain, scratching his belly, smoking a cigarette.
"Could I get a room for the night?"
The man propped his cigarette in his lips and turned to the key boxes on the wall, pulling out a pair from a cubby marked 36. They were real keys, not the thin cards of the new hotels. On the tag was the hotel address with "Drop in any mailbox. We guarantee postage."
"I'm going to put you in room 23," he said, handing the keys over, pulling a small, yellowed form from somewhere under the counter.
"These say 36."
"Go by the keys, not the tags."
Etched into each key was a small "25."
"The keys say 25."
He took them back, studying each key closely. "Cleaner must've put them back in the wrong spot."
He turned around, rooting through the cubbies, pulling keys out, putting them back, trying new slots. He finally handed over the keys from slot 12.
"There we go. Room 25."
The tags said 36. The keys said 23.
But she didn't say anything.
"Now, I'm putting you in 23 because we only have one section open this time of year. Only traffic we get is them ice-climbers and with the winter we've had, they're not too thick. You an ice-climber?"
"Didn't think so. Anyway, you've only got two neighbors. The fellow to the right of you—he works nights, so you won't hear nothing from his way until about five. He comes home, turns on the TV and smokes 'til it comes through the walls. I just want to tell you straight, it'll seep through."
"It's empty on the other side of you, but on the other side of him, there's a guy who's on the construction site next door. He'll be up around six, but I don't think you'll be able to hear him."
"Anything else I should know?"
"The pool's out 'til the summer. We used to keep it going through the winter, but the heating bills were too damn high. Oh, and you'll probably need to crank the heat in your room—we keep it low when there's no guests."
He slid the form over to her.
"Sign right down here. We'll even up in the morning."
Her room was about 50 degrees. There wasn't a light switch near the door, which she left open to get some of the bluish flood light from outside to help her find the bedside lamp. She turned it on. The light bulb popped, throwing off a spark of light. She unscrewed the bulb and shook it, listening to the broken filament, a baby's rattle. She stumbled back toward the bathroom. The single switch in there turned on a bare bulb mounted on the wall, a fan and a heat lamp overhead. Her father was an electrician. He'd be back in the hotel office saying he had a deal for the guy—trade the room for a bit of rewiring. You're asking for trouble with all those running to the same switch. Should be an easy fix, though. What do you say? He was always trading services when he could. The sheetrock, plumbing, cement in their house had all been traded, like the old VW pickup he'd driven—more car than truck—even after he could afford something newer, nicer. He hadn't driven for years, but the VW was still parked next to his shop. He was too loyal to sell it to the local junkyard, where they'd scrap it out for parts.
The bulb cast enough light to show her another switch, near the bed, that turned on a lamp on the desk. She closed the door, discovering the main switch tucked into the two inches between the door and the wall she shared with her neighbor.
She found the thermostat and turned it up to 90. She pulled the comforter from her bed and sat down on the ratty blanket underneath, tucking her hands into the pockets of her coat. The wind beat dust from the parking lot against her window.
Her fingers grazed an old tin cigarette box that had been her father's. He'd used it for the same purpose. There were only two joints left and the bag in the bottom of her backpack was empty. Maybe she'd wait up for her swing-shift neighbor, feel him out.
Her lighter was low too. She had to shake it a couple times to get a flame. Joint lit, she took a deep drag and tucked her feet up underneath her, cross-legged.
The walls were covered in wooden paneling and the sole piece of art was a framed cross-stitch of a big-horned sheep.
She needed to check her email. There wasn't even a phone in the room. She pulled her cell out of her pocket to check for coverage. Three bars. Good enough. She had a text message from her mother.
She closed the phone and took another hit.
It would be good news. She'd never put something bad in a text message, would she, this woman who hated the phone she'd gotten for Christmas from her daughter, who hated the very idea of email?
"Why can't you just write me a nice letter in your beautiful handwriting? I can keep those with your old stories. They're meaningful, sweetie. Nothing you guys do any more is meaningful."
"Are you saying my life's without meaning, Mom?"
"Oh, come on, honey. You know what I mean."
Neither of them really did though.
She wanted to hear from her father first. He'd send an email. She took one more hit and squeezed the coal out from the end, sliding the rest back into the tin box.
The wind drove into her as she crossed the gravel back to the office. Dust gathered in her eyes, even though she narrowed them to slits and ducked her head. Her hair whipped out of its ponytail and slapped her face.
The buzzer sounded again. The man emerged from the back. He'd stripped down to his undershirt.
"Something wrong, miss?"
"Not really. I'll take a spare light bulb if you have it."
He ducked down behind the counter and pulled up a single bulb.
"Just took this one out of one of the closed down rooms. Should get you through the night."
She took it gently by the threads, holding it down at her side.
"And I have a question that might be silly. You don't have wireless Internet, do you?"
The man smiled. "Just got it! How about that, huh? You're the first to ask."
"Is it password protected?"
"Sure as hell is. I don't want them folks across the street bringing in customers with my wireless and not giving me a nickel. If they wanted to do some kind of partnership or something, I'd go in, sure, but takin' it for free ain't what I'm in for, you know?"
She nodded. "Could I get the password? I promise not to slip it across the street."
"Hell, I trust you. It's for my guests anyway. I'll write it down."
He grabbed another form from under the counter, wrote something down on the back and slid it to her.
"Let me know if it's slow, huh? I've been downloading all afternoon."
She smiled and walked back outside. The password was redneck82414.
The wind pushed her back to her room. The air was possibly five degrees warmer. She screwed the light bulb into the bedside lamp. It glowed before she'd finished tightening it. She should've turned the switch back off before putting the new bulb in.
The light lent the room a little comfort.
She kept her coat on and pulled her laptop from her bag, sitting back down on the bed. She relit her joint while her computer started up.
The connection was quick. She opened her email. There were seven messages from the boy. Three from eBay. Two from Amazon. One from her father.
The subject was "Sorry kid."
She put her computer down on the bed next to her and took a long drag. Then she rummaged in her bag for the bottle of whiskey she'd bought in town. She unscrewed the cap and took a pull. Her father had taught her to drink, walking her through the burn. "Just wait, kid. Wait. Give it a second. Just a second. See? Feel that? Feel that belly warmth? That's the why."
She didn't think she could read it.
She picked the computer back up and opened one of the messages from the boy.
"Where are you at, love?"
The next one: "Running away isn't going to fix it. It isn't going to make him better, that's for sure."
They got needier and angrier, the last ending with, "You could at least write me back or answer your goddamn phone to let me know you're alive."
She looked back at her father's name in the Sender column. Sorry kid.
It didn't take. He'd have a week, maybe two, if he stayed in the hospital. Hours, maybe a day, if he didn't.
He wasn't any good at it either. When she'd broken her arm at the park near their house, a sunny summer afternoon, after second grade, some freak fall from the monkey bars that gave her a compound fracture, bone boring out of the skin, he'd rushed to her, then turned away when he saw the damage, vomiting, unable to switch off the hardwire, to find a ground.
Email had been their way around it. She didn't have to see him sick; he didn't have to see her choke.
She looked around, studying the big horn sheep. The yarn looked sticky, covered in smoke and dust. Her father would like the place, the tacky décor, bad wiring, mislabeled keys. He'd pick it over the chains clustered in their rows, promising indoor pools, free continental breakfasts. "The older something is, kid, the more you can trust it. All these new strip malls and plastic future-rama cars are like zitty adolescents asking you to bed before getting your name."
She could make it back. Her mother wouldn't let him leave the hospital immediately. The doctors would keep him hooked up to their machines. A town with an airport was only a couple hours away—she'd driven by the signs. She could leave right now.
She squeezed the roach of her joint between her nails and held it close enough to her lips to get the last of its smoke.
The first time she'd smoked was through an apple in her father's shop, discussing circuits. "Don't tell you mother, huh?" he'd whispered as they sneaked back into the house for food. "Let's see if we can get in and out without her catching us."
But she had caught them, spreading mayo on bread for sandwiches, rustling chip bags, popping lids off beers.
"Tom, you shouldn't be giving her beer at this age."
He'd laughed and said, "That's not what you said back when I was deciding whether I wanted to have kids with you, so I won't buy it now."
And they'd closed their sandwiches, gathered up their drinks and snacks and headed out the back door. She'd stolen a glance at her mother and thought she was smiling, just a little, just enough.
She replied to the boy's last message. "I'm alive. Thanks."
A car pulled up outside, loud, a missing muffler.
She looked around for a clock. She'd rolled in late, but it couldn't be 5:00 already. There wasn't a clock in the room. She pulled her cell out again. It was 2:00 and there was another text message from her mother.
The door to 25 opened and slammed. The shared wall wobbled a bit. There was quiet, then the low murmur of the TV. She wondered if her smoke seeped through too. Her heater banged and gave off the smell of burning hair.
She closed her email, shut down her computer and took one more sip from the bottle of whiskey. She stood and switched off the lights. Then she lay down, still in her coat, pulling the sheet and ratty blanket up to her shoulder, putting her head on the smoky smelling pillow. She closed her eyes, listening to the tinkle of dust on the window like broken filaments.
The wind was quieter in the morning. She left a fifty dollar bill in her room with the keys and a quick note in her beautiful handwriting, "I was up early. Didn't want to wake you. Thanks for the hospitality and speedy wi-fi."
Her mother would be jealous.
She pulled out onto the road. In the rearview, she could see the other side of the reader board. "Wi-Fi(ght) it Stay Here!"
She smiled and slipped her last joint to her lips, listening to the sizzle of the paper against the car's cigarette lighter, pulling air through, getting it to burn, a completed circuit. She took a long drag and turned up her music, her father's tin box sitting empty on the seat next to her.