Wayland Delray rocked his 1984 Dodge Ram over the tongue of the Comfort Inn parking lot, one hand palming the steering wheel in big, round circles. He tucked it in between two other trucks; one a Ram and the other some foreign-made piece of crap. He grabbed his duffel from the space behind his driver’s seat and slung the strap over his shoulder. His boots made a satisfying heel-on-gravel crunch in the quiet of the fading day. He could see into the tinted windows of the bar that sat in one corner of the parking lot, just opposite the motel doors which made for an easy stumble in any kind of weather. A couple of guys sat at the bar, beers in hand, with the identical shoulder slumps of a long day’s end. On an average day, Wayland would be right there next to them, bloodshot eyes rolled up to the glare of the television, transfixed like blind moles seeing the shine of God for the first time.
Instead, Wayland walked toward to lobby doors, which swished open as he neared.
“Welcome back, Wayland.” The woman at the counter wore a small rectangle of burgundy plastic pinned to her coordinating polo. It bore a white strip with the raised letters of “Donnette.” Donnette often worked the front desk in the afternoons. “Checkin’ in?” Her permed curls were pulled back into a white banana clip, and her bangs were teased into a pouf of hair set with what Wayland often imagined must be a fortune in hair spray. She always had a different color eye shadow swept across her upper lid; today it was bright turquoise. Her lips glistened with a soft pink gloss. Wayland suspected that she thought there was something between them, that his business brought him to Blackwell but his heart brought him to her motel. He thought she might be right in that, but hadn’t had the time to court her in the ways his papa had showed him was proper. Besides, tonight would be his last night. By next week Donnette will have found another man to fancy herself engaged with, and Wayland would be nothing but a bad memory.
“Staying all week again?” Donnette’s fingernails clicked on the keyboard of her computer.
“No, ma’am,” Wayland replied. “Just the night.”
Donnette stopped typing and she looked up at him with her icy blue eyes, one darkly-painted eyebrow arched up. “Is that so?”
“Work’s just about finished.” Wayland didn’t meet her gaze until he heard her fingernails start to tap again.
“Well maybe you’ll be over at the bar for a drink tonight. I know I will,” she paused, “when I get off at nine.”
“May be,” he replied, making sure not to inflect the word one way or another.
Donnette dropped his key onto the counter and let her fingers linger a moment, so he had to wait before he could take the key. Finally she moved her hand away and he took it, the plastic card scraping against the worn particle-board edge of the counter where the burgundy paint had begun to chip.
“You feelin’ ok, Wayland Delray?” Donnette looked hard at him.
“Yes, ma’am.” Wayland turned away.
Donnette usually gave Wayland room 127 out of habit, and today was no different. It was easier on motel staff to give regulars the same rooms. Wayland turned right past the front desk and walked down the hall. About halfway down, a room door opened and a man came out tugging his cowboy hat on. Wayland tried to avoid it, but the man caught his eye and so they exchanged straight-faced nods. After the man passed, he waited until the hall was clear, then stopped at room 125 and put his ear to the door. He held his breath, and his heart was pounding so loud, but he didn’t think he heard anyone on the other side. He decided to knock, and when he did he scooted down the hall to his own room and stuck his key in the slot to unlock it. There was a grinding noise and the little light flashed red at him. He cursed, but 125 hadn’t opened so he let himself breathe a little. He tried his key again, this time drawing the card out slowly, and the light flashed green. There was a heavy click. He turned the handle and pushed the door in.
Wayland dropped his duffel in front of the mirrored sliding doors of the closet, then closed and latched his door. He walked to the door that adjoined his room to 125 and pressed his ear against it, his palms flat on either side of his head. Still nothing. Carefully, he turned the deadbolt lock until it clicked, and put his hand on the handle of the door, slowly pushing down. The door swung open onto the backside of 125, and Wayland took the handle of that door. His palm was sweaty, so his wiped it on the thigh of his jeans. Then he took the handle again, and slowly pushed down.
The door cracked open onto darkness, and Wayland let out a woosh of breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He pulled the door shut again, not so much as glancing into the quiet of the room beyond. Then he closed the door on his side, but left it cracked. He stared at the door until he heard the talk and laughter of men moving down the hallway outside.
Wayland took a shower. He used all of the shampoo in the little free bottle, and half a bar of soap, scrubbing the work and sweat of the day off himself. As he soaped down, he stared at the web of blackened tile grout in the corner of the shower, where mold had stained it. He left the evidence of his shower in a disheveled pile on the floor behind the toilet, and he used his forearm to wipe away some of the steam so he could comb his hair. He parted it down the side as always, and let the short hairs in front curl over. There was more gray streaked through the dark brown than Wayland remembered.
He dressed all the way to his belt and boots, then repacked his duffel and zipped it closed. Then he unzipped it and pulled it open so that it yawned wide. He moved the duffel closer to the adjoining door so that it sat next to where the door opened. Then he pulled the bag open wide again.
Wayland took up the television remote and sat in the upholstered chair. As he flipped stations, he noticed that the upholstery had probably never been cleaned, and years of working men’s hands rested on the ends, leaving their mark in layers of dirt that turned the gold-flecked burgundy fabric to a shade of dark pink. Dusky rose, his momma would have called it.
At some point, Wayland fell asleep. His head jerked up, and he looked around the dark room wildly, trying to fix his eyes on a source of light. Then he heard it, from the room next door: his neighbor had come back. Wayland could hear all too much through that adjoining door. The clink of glasses, the laughter; it sounded like a celebration. Wayland spat on the floor in front of him, then used the toe of his boot to rub the wet mucous into the carpet. He used the remote to turn the television off, and he sat in the dark staring at the door with intent. He would not fall asleep again.
Finally the sounds quieted, and he heard the door open and close. As he listened, Wayland could track his neighbor’s actions through the room: the final trip to the bathroom, boots kicked off against the wall, pants falling to the floor, the belt buckle hitting the wire frame of the suitcase stand, the squeak of bedsprings. Twenty minutes later, the sound of snoring.
Wayland stood and stretched. He walked to the window and slid it open. Cool autumn air spilled in, and he looked out onto the dark, quiet parking lot. The bar was closed, its neon signs shut off. His truck sat just two spaces down from the window. Wayland turned and made his way to the adjoining door, stopping to reach into his duffel bag. He pulled out a long-handled knife, the blade rusted from the execution of rattlers who’d had the misfortune to cross Wayland’s path. He had one more rattler to kill. He gently pulled the adjoining door open, paused, and opened the other door, slipping into 125.