Christopher Michel CC
The pin on my plastic nametag jabs my right breast, again; I can feel a constellation of tiny welts emerging. I duck into the sticky recess between the wall and the humming Coke machine – the one refuge from the CCTV – trying not to think about what Darryl and Brittany got up to yesterday – and fumble inside my blouse to remove it. Then a car pulls into the entranceway, four-way blinkers flashing.
A middle-aged man – paunchy, pleasant, acutely aware that his mere existence embarrasses his two tweens in the back seat – lumbers in with a cowboy’s bandy-legged strut, resulting from too many hours in the car. “You’re the night manager?” he asks, disbelieving my five-foot-nothing and baby face, but willing to be convinced.
“Yes,” I say, sliding back behind the desk. “How can I help you?”
“We didn’t expect Cleveland to be full.” A hint of indignation that The Mistake by the Lake should host any event that forces him so far off the highway. “Where are we, anyway?”
He doesn’t even nod. “The man at the Best Western said it’s the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
“The induction’s this weekend.”
He chuckles. “You a fan?”
Indians games every other weekend with my dad, in matching t-shirts, whenever they were in town. When the Midway Mall opened and his music store folded, we moved up a deck and packed our own food. “No.”
“Wasted on you, then.” His lips curl upward. “As a boy, I –”
Though I’m sure his childhood exploits in – I’d guess, the Chicagoland suburbs – will prove fascinating: “Will you need one room, or two?”
He snuffles, extracts a wallet bulging with receipts and small bills. “Just one, two double beds.”
“That’s right,” he says, with the self-satisfied accent of a man patting a Labrador.
“Room 117 –”
“Haven’t you got anything on the second floor? Hate to have just anyone looking in from the parking lot.”
My dad said something similar to the hospice director, once.
Lee staggers in, displaying both full sleeve tattoos (parrots screeching obscenities) and wafting in amid a skunky cloud. He snickers uncertainly. His eyes shift from the customer to me –
The paunchy man shifts, nose wrinkling.
I spot James, silhouetted beneath the parking lot’s lights. He waves. I can’t read his expression, but if he’s going into Bennett’s now –
I do a quick mental count: this should be his Friday off.
I nod to Lee. “The ice machine by the far stairs needs your attention,” I say firmly. He isn’t so far gone, and toddles off obediently.
The paunchy man observes, “It’s clear why you’re in charge.”
“Room 214 is available,” I say, readying two keys. “Our July rate is $64.95 plus tax, which comes to –”
He leans toward me – confidentially, he thinks – but if his wife weren’t refereeing the battle royale in the back seat, she’d be giving him the wife-brow. “Can you do any better than that?”
I don’t blink. “I’m sorry?”
“Well,” he begins; I’m forcibly reminded of Uncle George explaining bunting strategy to my seven-year-old brother Mike, while Mike slouched behind his Wii controller – “I had to experience that –”
“My instructing an employee to check the ice machine?” I reply, evenly. Four years of corralling drunks and shuffling prostitutes into Ubers and Clorox-ing every bodily fluid imaginable have transformed my late-night voice into liquid steel.
Taking ten (or even five) dollars off the price would probably make him perfectly happy.
“He was clearly – on drugs…”
The clock reads 11:56 p.m. I wouldn’t bother normally, the corporate bottom line interests me less than this conversation, but – I venture a glance toward his tweens, now sulking in opposite corners. “If the rate doesn’t suit your budget,” I say, “you can try the Hampton Inn or the Country Inn & Suites, but their prices are usually –”
He half-turns his head toward the car, then, reluctant to confirm his suspicions, he snaps, “I’ll take it, I’ll take it.” He painstakingly deals out four twenties and insists on counting his change twice.
I wave him away, take two phone calls in rapid succession about our (non-existent) pool and our (equally non-existent) continental breakfast, and high-five Jerome when he slides behind the counter.
“Only eight minutes late, little sister,” he announces, proudly.
“Huge improvement,” I smile. I don’t mind, not really; he occasionally brings me leftovers from his wife’s barbeque catering business. “By the way, Lee’s high again.”
He shrugs. Then smiles. “My daughter in Washington, she says the daycare charges her a dollar for every minute she’s late.”
He pulls out his wallet – its leather lobes polished from long use – and withdraws a ten. “I figure I owe you at least that.”
“You don’t have to –”
“Go get yourself a drink, Megan.”
I shrug, thank him, grab my purse; my Indians keychain tinkles at the bottom. I should just check how they’re doing this year, but –
I wave to Lee as he leans against the ice machine, smoking, then I head to Bennett’s. Our parking lots connect.
Kate and Diego are behind the bar. I can see them half-expecting Hayley – another of my manager-colleagues – too, but she quit to go back to school six weeks ago. I shrug – Just me. Kate’s scowl probably indicates a fresh argument with her newest girlfriend, Courtney. A fresh installment in their Netflix-able series, ‘Should We Try to Make It in L.A.?’ Diego looks, if possible, less cheerful; he’s reaching for the cigarettes he threw away. I take an empty stool. Kate says, “Hey, Meg. James is in the back. Under his pile of textbooks.”
“I’m not – I just came for a drink.” The bar seems very loud and hot, suddenly. Kate shrugs, and smirks. I pull out my phone, and look down at it without seeing. “What’s your pleasure?” she asks.
“I don’t know. What do you recommend for someone who still doesn’t like the taste of alcohol?”
“Pop,” says Diego, rightly offended that I only ever order Cokes.
“What have you drunk up to now?”
“Beer, wine… I didn’t hate the hard lemonade my brother used to get.” I was seventeen. Dad was giving his hospice nurse grief, along with everyone else. Mike was investigating the half-life of looming grief while playing Call of Duty: Black Ops III in his underwear. He said, “You should be applying to college,” and I said, “You should get a job,” and that was pretty much the last time we talked. Despite sharing the apartment for a year afterward. “Nothing sickly-sweet.”
“Rum and coke?” says Diego. I can’t tell if he’s kidding.
“What if I make you something?” sighs Kate.
I nod. She makes a performance of turning her back and pouring with a flourish, like Dr. Jekyll on Broadway. I watch the other customers. Buck and Ace, whose nonsexual bromance helps keep Bennett’s in business, are polishing off a pitcher. Red (a reference to her unpaid tab, not her hair) has found a mark, a recent college grad driving cross-country. Joe and Stephanie appear to be ‘on again’, since his hand rests in her back pocket. Kate presents my drink with the gravitas of a failing magician, and bows.
I dive back into my phone.
“Hey,” says James, appearing in front of me before I can take a sip.
“I thought this was your Friday off.”
“Carl called and said Diego wanted to leave early.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“It’s not like that. His uncle died; his family’s taking turns sitting up with her until four.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, encompassing, I hope, my regrets for Diego’s uncle’s death, Diego’s aunt’s insomnia, my own presumption. Mike used to stay up until daybreak, playing video games; Dad died and the lease ended pretty well simultaneously. Mike kept the TV.
He shakes his head; I’m absolved.
“When do you graduate?” I ask.
“December,” he says, almost ruefully. “Three years late is better than never.”
“Temping until I can get my insurance license, probably,” he says. “How was your night?”
“Usual. This time I drew a line in the sand, though, and the guy backed down.” I feel a rare note creeping into my tone, but James doesn’t smile; he looks, instead, almost dissatisfied. Then he peers at my glass. “That’s not Coke.”
“Kate’s surprising me.”
He pours a thimbleful of my drink into a shot glass, downs it. “Savvy choice.”
I sip it. Sweet, sour, a hint of raw power.
“Good,” I murmur, taking a second sip. Great, possibly. Where has this liquid lucid-delirium been all my life? “What is it?”
“Sea breeze. Tip generously,” he says, and shifts away… as the words “Maybe we could go see a ball game sometime?” die on my lips.
Diego waves goodnight and exits through the back door, bringing a gust of balmy air.
For perhaps the dozenth time tonight, I re-navigate toward the Lorain County Community College website: Apply for the fall semester, the banner says. It’s not too late.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in over sixty literary magazines, including Drunk Monkeys, Storgy, and Newfound.
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