Nathan Leslie: Until Further Notice

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I have lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia since 2002.

Until Further Notice

I can keep a secret.  I always could.  So when IBC approached me about running the motel, I jumped on the op.  Living there was no skin off my back.  Anybody who has done time should be grateful they have a place to call home afterwards, and I was.

Now Brown’s Motel was no great shakes.  You could call it a run-down dive if you wanted and you might not be far off.  You could even call it a cesspool.  It’s true:  Brown’s was on the crooked path—our bread and butter—the adulterous.  We were the only motel in the county that booked rooms by the hour.  We even got some whores from the city—out for a country drive, who knows?  But mostly it was local Craigslist whores.  We also catered to the sickly and the indigent and the pathetic.  Call me crazy.  I have a streak that doesn’t allow me to turn away a mother with a starving six year old in the middle of February.  I’d cut breaks, make deals, fix the books if I had to.  It wasn’t that difficult when we only accepted cash.

My name’s Carvell, like the ice cream joint.

Now the two communities closest to Brown’s were also two of our most frequent client bases.  Since them people had homes of their own you wouldn’t think this right off.  Like I said, cesspool.

You had the teacher and the student, the gays, the Meadow Haven whore, the college kids, the woman who sat in 118 all alone.

I never judged them.  I was happy to just accept their money, do my job.  The more dough I brought in the more IBC was impressed with my bottom line.  They already considered Brown’s “marginal at best,” so I was just hoping I could eke out a few more years before I had to give up the ghost.

For several years me and IBC were both rolling in dough—at least from where I sat.  Vacancy rate was under twenty percent even on weekdays.  This allowed IBC to hire ex-high school football star, Jones, who helped out with maintenance and things of that nature.  Back in his football days he must’ve dove on his head one too many times—other than that he was a boon.

You might even say I became friendly with a few folks.  They appreciated my discretion.  They could sense I would look away when it came time for judgment.  They could probably tell I’d been through much worse than what they were mucking around in.

When I first started at Brown’s I was astounded by the police presence.  Because you never knew what junky reprobate or gambling louse might book a room, the cops made Brown’s a regular pit stop.  Quality control you might call it.

The funny thing is what changed everything didn’t come from the outside.  It was from the inside.  In this case, “inside” meaning my family in particular.

See, once the word leaked out to my brothers and sisters that I was on the make, they all wanted to get a piece of the pie.  Though I spent a year in the clink for a justified assault, with our mother dead and buried and our father way out in Seattle I was still the head of the family.

First it was Glenn and Toby who called up saying they were “stopping through” the area and wanted to “say hey.”  Glenn and Toby might have been born together but they couldn’t be any more different.  Glenn is stout and bawdy—all he really ever wanted to do was get drunk and go to a titty bar.  Toby, in comparison, is clean cut and uptight and on the sexually repressed side (we always guessed he leaned gay).  Still, they lived together, worked together, did everything together.

When they showed up, like I said, they initially planned on staying for only a weekend.

“We’re looking for work,” Toby admitted.  Neither one was more educated than me—and alls I got is my high school diploma.  My brothers scraped by.

I offered them a free room at Brown’s as long as I could without IBC finding out about the free ride.  I figured as long as we didn’t flick that “No Vacancy” sign out front nobody had to know my brothers were in 167 at the far end.  I mean, that room smelled like moldy potatoes and had a drippy ceiling and dry rot.  To Glenn and Toby this was a step up.

Soon enough they found work right down Route Seven at an electronics wholesaler and didn’t want to leave.  Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum, I thought.

They came around back of the office where I laid my head each night.

“Boy you have a nice set-up going on,” Glenn said.  I watched him.  He wasn’t ever the jealous sort.  Glenn practiced a to-each-his-own.

“You think so?”

“Oh yeah.”  He reached into his rolled shirt sleeve for a puff.

“No can do, bro,” I said.  “I’m off smoking for good.  Drinking too.”  I was clean as they come, hoping to stay so.

Toby and Glenn looked at each other like they was attempting to understand how this was humanely possible.  I watched Toby’s right eyebrow rise.  Toby didn’t smoke either, but he chewed instead.  Said it brought him closer to the edge.

“Do you have a grand or two you could lend us?” they asked.  “Our pickup is on its last legs.  I mean, it barely starts no more.”

I guess I could see this coming.

“Sure,” I said.  “Okay.”  I only had about ten grand to my name at that point, but blood is blood.

“You’re the bitches brew,” Glenn said, smacking me on the back.  “Let’s go celebrating.”

The only thing:  Loudoun County was too high-class for a titty bar.  Meaning, I had to drive us all into the city and back with those two.  It was a burden.  This rock started pushing its way up on my neck.  Doc used to say I’d get pinched nerves from stress.  Mostly from worrying about Mr. Stine from IBC coming around.  He was a tall man with a severe face, greased-back hair.  I honestly worried he was in the mob or some such.  And he never called before he showed.  That would ruin the whole point.  He’d pop over and inspect half a dozen rooms at random, make sure we weren’t breaking company policy.  He’d take a gander at the books.  He’d hector me on protocol.

Here we go again, I told myself:  I was spinning my wheels around and around again.

As long as Toby and Glenn kept to themselves and didn’t get into the business of others we was fine.  But knowing Glenn, the temptation would be too high with all them people checking in and out.  Pretty soon thereafter Toby told me Glenn up and dropped two hundred clams on “some high class escort” living up in Meadow Haven.  I knew exactly who that was.

“What about the truck?”

Toby didn’t want to look at me.

“What about it?”

“Didja get it fixed?”

“There was nothing wrong with it,” Toby said.

My pulse was racing.  Just like Glenn to do me that way, I thought.  Son of a bitch.  I knew I was talking to the wrong person though.  If I wanted any kind of resolution I needed to go to the source.

Problem was, as I was hunting Glenn down Crystal called.  Crystal is the oldest of all of us, but she might as well be twelve the way she acts.  Always following her latest impulse.  If I can say this about my own sister, Crystal was always attractive—big boobs, pretty face, nice figure.  But honestly, it woulda been better off for her if she looked like the Elephant woman:  she cycled through men like the apocalypse was nigh.  At the time Crystal was on her sixth husband (and I couldn’t keep track of the various boyfriends on the side).  She was only forty six.

“Hi there, bro,” Crystal said.  “How are things your way?”

I gave her the update and she told me she was “breezing through” the area to see one of her exes.  They didn’t have any truck with me; with all the ins-and-outs I couldn’t keep the dudes straight.

“I’m mid-divorce,” she said.  So things were rocky from the get-go, I knew that.  I need the stability of friends and family.  I’m heading your way as I speak.  She said Wilton was getting “downright ugly.  I’m hoping for a temporary refuge,” she said.

“Sure,” I said.  How could I say no?  “Anytime, Crystal.”  Blood is blood is blood.

She must’ve been calling from the Shell station next door because five minutes later she was rapping on the manager’s office in what looked like a pink negligee courtesy of Frederick’s of Hollywood.

“Hiya, Carvell,” she said.  “You look trim, pumped up.”  Her eyes were bouncing all over.  I ignored the contradiction.  Instead, I got her a room next to the twins and told her she could stay as long as she wanted.

“Oh dear, it will only be a week tops,” she said on the phone.

“Didn’t you say two days?”

“Or maybe two months,” she said, not skipping a beat.  “Who’s to say?”  Crystal was missing a shame reflex.

After we got to talking Crystal started laughing hysterically:  “You know why Wilton is divorcing me?”

I shuddered to think, but I knew she’d tell me anyway.

“I went to Rome with a friend.  That’s all.  Two weeks away and he lost it.  He began e-mailing me twenty, thirty times a day.  He’d leave threatening messages at our hotel.  It was God-awful.  I mean, stalker-behavior.”

I wanted to know who the friend was.

“Oh, you know, just this guy I met.  He was just some handsome guy.  But he was just a bon-mot,” she said.  “He was just a Rome fling.  It was nothing.”

A week later Crystal was still there.  Her “friend” never showed, but believe me, she didn’t have trouble meeting others.  On the plus side, she was occupied.  On the minus, Crystal was flat broke.  Lawyer fees and bills were chewing holes in what was left of her bank account.  “They’re termites,” she said.  “They don’t care if I live or die.”

It wasn’t long before she was asking for a few hundred there, a few hundred here.  Just enough to “keep the creditors out of my grill,” she said.

You might ask why I even bothered, why I couldn’t see they were using and abusing my good nature and wallet to boot.  I suppose this is my weakness:  I always wished my family could’ve been together.  Growing up the way we did, Navy brats, shuttling from town to town, it just never felt we was completely united.  I guess moving all over God’s creation would bring some families together.  Not ours.  As soon as we would adjust to San Diego or Newport News or The damn Florida Keys they would up and transfer him somewhere else.  We stayed within ourselves, little islands.

We started approaching crisis mode in Crystal’s second week.  In addition to everything else, Brown’s motel served as a permanent residence for about thirty families.  We rented out at $350 a week, which was cheaper than about all apartments on the monthly clip.  Granted, we didn’t have AC or screens in most windows and our cleaning service was spotty at best—but I had little control over that top-down stuff.  And we did have working locks on our doors and a pool—you can say that much.  We had color televisions.  That’s what the highway sign said:  “COLOR TV”—each letter in a different hue.  No cable.  Well, during that second week I had to get Jones out there to flip the “no vacancy” sign on account of a sudden rush on the permanent side.  It was June, so I’m guessing it was seasonal work—day labor, construction, that kinda thing.  The pressure mounted.

We was in the office when I had to ask Crystal and Glenn and Toby to come stay with me.  It was basically that or the street.  Though I was glad to help, part of me was hoping this would scare them off to a campground or the like.

“No problem at all, Carvell,” Toby said.  “We understand how it is.  It’ll be good to just spend more time with you.”

I swallowed hard.  As much as I loved togetherness and all I was beginning to see that the shit was going to hit the fan and how.  I was trapped.

“I only have a bedroom and a little kitchen,” I said.  “And the lobby.”  By saying this I was hoping they’d get the hint, but Crystal just kicked her feet up on the cinderblock and plywood coffee table.

“Home sweet home, as far as I can tell.  Thanks, Carvell.  You’re the best.”

So then Glenn and Toby and Crystal were up in my grill all the time.  Mostly because my grill was fixed with a window unit.  Yeah, the three of them essentially crashed in the office lobby.  We had two love seats and Glenn and Toby each sprawled out on one.  Crystal was content with the pleather arm-chair.  All day they sat there, eating honey-roasted peanuts and drinking and smoking and blasting The Price is Right.  On top of my daily duties, I had to get on them from time to time about the noise and squalor.  I was cracking.

“Do you have an Internet connection?” Crystal asked.  I just gave her one of those looks that said:  does it look like we are that kind of joint?

She didn’t sulk though.  Somehow with everything the three of them had suffered through they managed to keep a certain level of cheer.  For Crystal this included disappearing for hours at a time—especially at night.  She’d come back sticky with sweat and flushed.

“Boy there are some hunks in Virginia,” she said.  “Why didn’t you warn me, Carvell?”

Toby and Glenn said they quit their jobs.  They’d had it.

“It was just too much,” Toby said.  I didn’t even know they had jobs, but they explained that they went out the other day and spent a few hours at an electronics store than needed a helping hand.

“Too much of what?”

“Too much of everything,” Glenn said.  “Always breathing down our necks.”

It was a few days into this when Joanne showed up.  No phone call ahead of time or nothing.  She sneaked her neck through the door—cowboy hat, plaid get-up, cowboy boots, hair braided in a rope down her back.  She carried a ratty black case in one hand and a ratty floral suitcase in the other.

“Well if this isn’t just a family reunion,” Crystal said.  Joanne is the youngest of the bunch, and the perkiest.  Last I heard she was out in Kentucky somewhere playing to the dregs of Louisville.

“How did you even know we was here?”  I asked.  This took the cake.

“A little bird told me.”  She nudged Crystal, began making chirping noises, flapping her arms.

Right away Joanne began playing music for us—a host of country western and folk songs done up right.  Glenn and Toby asked for requests—Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard.  When she was done Joanne smoked a bowl, took a nap, snorted a line, then played more songs until the moths pinged against the sodium lights.  She slept on my kitchen floor and the others crashed where they were, even if the guests barged in and out.  I didn’t sleep much at all.  I worried about Mr. Stine until the point of exhaustion.  He popped by every week or so, but I never knew when.  I was concerned:  my luck he’d barge in when my brothers and sisters were squatting in the lobby lighting up the pipe.

In all this somehow my mind stopped whirling enough so I could drift off.

The next morning Joanne asked if she could bum five hundred from me.  She had to get some new clothes:  otherwise the bars in Washington would never even consider her for a gig.

“I need something sexy,” she said.  She made coffee and we drank it.  We ate hardboiled eggs and toasted potato bread with margarine.  I was beginning to realize that I would never see any of this money again.  And I was running low.  It took me five years (including a stint in the can) to save what I had and in less than a month I went through a third of it.

Jones and me went through an inspection of the rooms—just seeing if anybody trashed the place.  Most of the rooms was fine.  Anyway, without the detailed notes it was hard to tell what was new damage and what was just the way of Brown’s Motel.

Like a cop Jones always carried a heavy flashlight—for two reasons.  I told him about my financial problems, my family problems.

“I love ‘em and all,” I said.  “But they’re killing me.”

“They need to earn their keep like everybody else,” he said.  “What world are they living in?”  I was torn in two.  On the one hand I tried to explain away their foibles, their flaws.  On the other I was 100% with Jones.  I wanted family, but at what cost?

“Yeah, you need to get yourself a wife.  Have kids.  There’s your family.  The rest of them you didn’t have a choice in the matter.”  He was absolutely right.  I had lost sight of the big picture.

We constructed a plan.

That Friday morning, Jones blazed into the office, clipboard in hand.

“Just got the call from IBC,” he said.  He lowered his eyes, gave me that look.  I pretended to be terrified.  “Health and sanitation is closing us down until further notice.  All residents of Brown’s Motel are to be evacuated by June Eleventh, which is tomorrow.”  He read it well, like a newscaster, almost as if it was real.  Jones even made small-talk, apologizing about the rotten news.  He apologized to me the most, saying IBC will call me later this afternoon to discuss the full report.

“Oh well, it was great while it lasted,” Crystal said.  By the afternoon she had found a guy to shack up with for a week or two.

“He’s a real swinger type though, so we’ll see,” she said.

Joanne said she had a friend of a friend in the city, and that if that didn’t work out there was always a dealer in Baltimore she could crash with.

As for Toby and Glenn, they hit the road.  They dropped a line a few weeks later from some podunk town outside of Mobile.  They found themselves some work at a food warehouse down there, or so they said

“It smells like broccoli in here,” Toby said.  “What can we do?”

When they asked if Brown’s Motel was reopening anytime I told them I hadn’t heard, that I was just waiting it out.  The truth was every room was packed to the gills.

“I’ll survive,” I said.  Little white lies don’t hurt anybody.  Not if everybody gains in the bargain.

It was a good thing too because Mr. Stine showed up the day after my sibs hit the road.  I couldn’t have timed it better myself.

Jones and me began playing cards once a week—gin rummy mostly.  It was a good way to pass the evenings.  I saw women come and go.  I can honestly say I wasn’t interested in any who would set foot in Brown’s.  The fact that I didn’t want to mix business with pleasure is only the starting point.  At that point in my life I was saving myself for the mother of my children.  A new family was all I’d ever need, and I knew if I kept my nose clean it’d happen.  Every morning I’d drink my coffee, look out the grimy Brown’s motel window.  I was ready to begin all over again.  If I could just see how.