Stephanie Kilgore watched as they turned off of I-70 on a motorcycle and pulled into the motel parking lot. They were young. Steph never saw young people on motorcycles anymore. She had been one herself, but that was a long time ago.
The girl climbed off first, redid her ponytail, shoved her sunglasses up to take care of the bangs. Neither of them had been wearing a helmet. The girl put a hand over her eyes, perhaps to cover a spike of sun from one of the few cars in the lot, or perhaps because this was what she thought she was supposed to do. She seemed to be admiring what she saw, though it was only cornfields and two stories of pink stucco, windows glowing with sunset. Steph recognized the look for what it meant: a night in a cheap motel with a young handsome lover, the romance and the squalor, the movie of someone else’s life.
The handsome young lover wasn’t all that handsome, Steph could see, even from the office. He had a long mess of hair that draped a pockmarked face, dazed eyes, and a jaw that hung open at an angle. He wasn’t tall either. The girl, wearing shorts that exaggerated the length of her legs, was a good foot and a half taller despite her flat sandals and slouch. The hand at her lower back as she spun about only seemed to draw attention to the bony rod of her arm, collapsed like a tent pole. But the boy was fit in his T-shirt and tight jeans. Steph leaned forward on her stool and watched his belt buckle as they approached the office, the way it caught the remaining sunlight and the way his hips rocked around it. She looked away just as the screen door swung open.
There was a moment, as there usually was, of looking around, as if it were only polite, as if this were Steph’s home, before the boy said, “Got a room?”
Steph stayed on her stool behind the desk. “Two?” she asked, and the boy grinned. Steph knew the question was stupid, but decided she didn’t care. “Single or double?”
“Single,” the girl said. She bit at the stem of her sunglasses.
“You got them king-size beds?” the boy asked.
“Course,” Steph said. She was used to guests feeling embarrassed about these questions. Sometimes it was two men who needed a room, one of them typically waiting in the car. But these kids didn’t seem embarrassed at all, and Steph, from years of experience, had learned to forget embarrassment. In fact, she wished she had more questions to ask that would somehow elicit further details about what these two people would be doing in that room, but all there was left was, “Smoking or non?”
“Smoking,” they both said. The girl slipped her sunglasses on and watched the sunset through the door. A large moth landed on the screen in front of her and she jerked her head. She tapped at the screen but it didn’t flee. The boy set his wallet on the counter. He certainly was ugly, Steph thought. Had to have been an accident. Perhaps a bar fight. A knife to the face. Something. Ugly as hell, but even so, already, she wondered.
“Gonna be sixty-five,” Steph said.
“Sixty-five?” the girl said over her shoulder. “The sign says thirty.”
“Starts at thirty,” Steph said. “King-size costs extra. So does smoking.”
“You gonna give that woman sixty-five?” the girl said.
“Angela,” he said, under his breath.
“Just saying,” the girl said. “Sign says thirty, and that’s why we stopped. Seems like false advertising.”
Steph was ready to mention the small print on the sign, but she waited, wanting to see what the boy would do. The boy looked at his wallet, not at Steph, and he said, softly, an apology, “All’s I got is fifty, and I need at least ten for gas in the morning.”
“Manager doesn’t like it,” Steph said, but she was already warming to him. He was gentle. She wouldn’t fight him.
“Can’t you just put that we were in one of them other rooms?” the boy said. He looked at her now with worn, worried eyes. Maybe he wasn’t as young as Steph thought. The girl, Angela, watched from behind.
“Need to see a license,” Steph said, and the girl smiled.
The boy’s name was Rick Little. He looked better in his license photo. He wasn’t smiling in it, but his face seemed brighter, like he was about to smile, and the exposure blotched out the pockmarks and made the copper of his eyes stand out. Here in front of her, his eyes were black, all pupils. Maybe he was on something. Steph had him sign the book and jot down his license plate. Then she gave him the key. “Lower level,” she said. “All the way at the end.”
Rick Little nodded and turned about. Steph felt the abrupt removal of his eyes and decided she didn’t like him—or the girl, for that matter, though she’d already made up her mind about that. Still, she watched them as they walked back to their bike, then to their room. She watched the tightness of their asses in their jeans, the girl’s a foot and a half higher than the boy’s. His hand was on her back.
The toilet flushed in the bathroom behind the office and Steph’s daughter, Madison, came out. “Thought they’d never leave,” she said.
“What’s it matter?”
“I hate interacting with them,” Madison said. “They always creep me out.”
“It ain’t just people who stay in these kinds of places.”
“Starts to seem that way after a while,” Steph said. “How you feeling? I heard you ralphing in there.”
“Almost over with that part, I think. Least I hope so. Were you this sick with me?”
“Nope,” Steph said. “It was the easiest thing. It all just seemed to happen.”
Madison laughed. “Easy? Good God, I never worked so hard. And Tyler, he stands there at the door all pitiful, watching me. It’s cute, I guess, but irksome at the same time. Who wants to be watched puking their guts out, let alone by their husband? He gets all teary and, you know, dumb looking, like he should do something but he doesn’t know what, and he wants me to see that he knows he should do something, like it’s for points, like I’m taking a tally and not, you know, just sitting there trying not to die, and I get to yelling, ‘Dammit, Tyler, get the hell out!’”
“I know. I should be nicer.”
“Yes, you should.”
“Don’t start or I won’t tell you things.” She kissed Steph on the top of her head as she walked by, smelling of the lotion she was rubbing from her hands to her elbows. “See you in the morning.”
“Hey, what are we gonna do when you get too big to drive me?”
“Will I get too big to drive?”
“Well, you get to where you don’t want to be driving.”
“Jeez, I didn’t think of that. Can’t Uncle Jim drive you?”
“Uncle Jim don’t get off for another twenty minutes.”
“Guess we’ll have Tyler do it.”
“I hate to put him out.”
“Well, maybe if you get what’s-his-luck to put you on the day shift, or better yet, if you quit this dump and go back to cutting hair.”
“I like it here,” Steph said. “It’s peaceful. I can watch late-night horror movies.”
“Yuck. Don’t it give you the creeps?”
“They’re just gross-out B-movies. They’re funny.”
“You’re gonna make me sick again.”
“Anyway, I like it, and I don’t like looking back.” If she looked back, she’d have to remember that before she cut hair she was at Wendy’s, and before she was at Wendy’s she was cleaning houses, and before she was cleaning houses she drove a school bus, back when she was still allowed to drive. “Suits me fine is all.”
“Poor Tyler,” Madison said. “I should do something nice for him.”
“Yes, you should.”
After Madison left, Steph stepped outside for a cigarette. It was dark now, just a rim of light on the horizon, and the moths started beating against the halogen lights. She leaned against the window and smoked and found herself looking down the row of doors to the one at the far end. They might be making love by this point. No. Not yet. They’ll have brought a bottle of wine. Angela will find the tiny wax cups in the bathroom while Rick Little removes his boots and lies back on the bed. His hands will be folded over his stomach and she’ll place the cup there, screw it in between his hands, and she’ll pour the wine. She’ll spill a little and he’ll flinch and she’ll laugh and rub at the wet spot on his stomach and he’ll say it tickles. She’ll rub harder until he starts to guffaw, the loud bouncing guffaw she only hears when it’s the two of them and he’s not worried about anyone else hearing. His pockmarks will fade as he guffaws and spills more wine, and he’ll pull off his shirt, and she’ll sit in his lap and she’ll stay there, even as his legs fall asleep, and they’ll kiss, and they’ll drink their wine out of their little cups.
Steph’s cell phone started ringing in the office. She took one more quick puff, then ran in to fetch it. It was Jim, her brother.
“What you want on your sub?” he asked. “Quick, I’m in line.”
“The usual is fine.”
“Really? Ain’t you supposed to be watching your numbers?”
“Well, what are you having?”
“Meatball, but I ain’t watching my numbers.”
Steph switched on the television, already turned to a horror movie, a busty teenage girl walking scared through a moonlit house. “I can’t sit here smelling meatball and eat some veggie wrap.”