“Jesus didn’t walk on water,” I say. “You know that, right? It was ice. Read an article said it was a cold snap and there were chunks of ice right there in the Middle East.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she says. She massages my knee, gives me a peck on the check. “It’s okay, he’ll forgive you for saying that.”
“How about a job instead?”
10,000 envelopes sit in white boxes stacked on the floor. We’re pulling them out one-by-one, sliding the blue and orange Mountain Brook Resort mailer into each one, applying the address sticker. I’m on flyer detail. She gets the stickers—easier job. We save the sealing for the end.
“We’re working right now,” she says. “We should be grateful.”
“Grateful for what exactly? We’re envelope stuffers.”
“It’s something. It’s good for now. It’s money in the bank as long as we don’t make a bonfire.”
“Correction,” I say. “It’s cents in the bank.”
Knee massage again with a hint of sarcastic tickle. This means she wants me to shut the fuck up. But nicely.
It’s not a bad motel exactly. It’s just a bit crumbly—like a coffee cake version of a real motel. The bathroom seems relatively clean for a dive. We heard it was better than it seemed from the outside. For our seventh motel in the past two months I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack.
At five I’m done with the stuffing. We count 6,550 completed, which equals $65.50 for the day. Minus $43.24 and dinner (Wendy’s), we may save ten or eleven dollars.
“Every bit counts,” she says. We’re eating hamburgers.
“No it doesn’t,” I say. “We may as well be indentured servants.”
Losing 1760 Willowcrest wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At least at that juncture the mortgage monkey was off our back for good. Regret is the real demon. I’m sitting on the “comforter” on our queen-sized, looking at the purple and blue and red swirly pattern on it, trying to decide (1) who came up with this hideous monstrosity and (2) why did the White Crescent Motel choose this particular hideous pattern rather than any of the other possible (less?) hideous patterns at their disposal and (3) was there a committee?
A committee is exactly what I needed back in 2008—some team to save me (and us) from myself. Instead, we bought at the peak and suffered like chumps. We’re not unique.
It didn’t help that I was a “consultant.” People used to toss that word around gleefully (almost Frisbee-like), with a sense of braggadocio. “Consultant” equaled someone giving two shits about what you think and paying for it. Now we realize it means jack shit. Consultant might as well equal “freelancer.” I got nothing. Nada.
We’re in a routine of getting our “continental breakfast” gratis in the little “breakfast nook” of the White Crescent. This means de-thawed mini-bagels and spotted bananas with a side coffee so thin you can see the bottom of the Styrofoam fucking cup that may or may not include non-dairy creamer (I’m afraid to investigate the makeup of that). Occasionally White Crescent splurges for individually wrapped min-muffins—the kind you find at 7-11 next to the donuts. Or sometimes they spring for some orange colored version of orange juice (but it’s not Tang and it’s definitely not orange juice—just orange dye and sugar). We snag a couple extra bagels and cream cheese samples for lunch.
I like to get down there by eight to avoid the ruckus; she’s not in a hurry and likes the social scene—as it were—at any rate. Seven days in and she’s everybody’s best friend. I don’t care. Give me my preservatives, food coloring and paltry caffeine injection and let me hole back in my room and stuff envelopes until my fingers bleed and my wife scolds me gently for using the Lord’s name in vain (while in the next breath mentioning that he will forgive my sin, He being the God of all compassion and understanding—good to have him on my side).
We need to purchase some plastic gloves before we run out of Band-aids. My fingers are in tatters.
I’m hacking and coughing so much whatever dust mites or whatnot that are causing this are receiving the workout of their lives—climbing into (and then rapidly finding themselves expelled from) my respiratory system. This gives me serious pause. She’s on both knees in front of the calypso comforter praying for a respite (for me) from the allergens. When we run the window fan it helps.
I have yet to find my bloody lungs splayed on the comforter. Things could be worse. As a sidebar, I’m sure these are not the only disgusting body fluids which have been sprayed all over this comforter. I’ve read the articles. We might as well take a wad of used toilet paper, smear it all over the toilet and sleep on that. And yet, we still used the comforter anyway, like morons. We’ll probably get Ebola from this blanket.
“I wonder if….” She starts.
“It’s too late for this,” I say. At eight thirty my middle-aged brain is fried and I’m ready to disappear into myself. It’s eight seventeen.
“There’s nothing wrong with Pennsylvania,” she says. “We can stuff there, too.”
“I like it here,” I say.
“You don’t sound good.”
“It’ll ease up. It could be stress. Stress makes it worse.”
We have the weather channel going in the background. The screen is showing images of drought staining the Midwest—a big blotch of dryness.
“We could start anew,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with a clean start.”
I don’t respond. I lean back into a stack of three pillows and close my eyes. I regret every stupid meaningless lunch and flat screen purchase and asinine music download and trip to the Outer Banks. I recall one particular dinner at this expensive Italian place in the city. We just kept ordering appetizer after unnecessary appetizer, bottles of wine, lavish desserts—all of it. Why? The bill came to something like $680 for four people. It was something else.
The coughing has subsided with an assist from the maids (we tipped them $20 with the promise that they vacuum everything three times over, please, pretty please).
She has taken to visiting Earl and Kitty in 237 and or Bud and Jocelyn or Aunt Dot—this is what Aunt Dot calls herself, at least. Or having them over to our room.
We didn’t know White Crescent Motel had the reputation for collecting castaways. In school I was Phi Beta Kappa. That meant something to me then. The underground is news to me.
Earl and Kitty come over and they drink a twelve pack of whatever cheap brew is on sale at the Kwik-E-Mark down the block. Then they run their mouths. Kitty says she lives for drinking. This strikes me as possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
They were both in real estate.
I tell her it’s exhausting having Earl and Kitty over, but she thinks the two of them are just lost souls in need of guidance.
When she pays for them at night she asks the Lord if they could please cease and desist with the alcohol consumption. I ask her if she thinks her prayers are going to make a whit of difference.
“It can’t hurt, can it?”
We come from opposite perspectives on this.
But and Jocelyn are depressives, which gives me hope because at least they have wised-up. They have little to offer conversationally, however. When we run out of things to talk about (which is often fifteen minutes in) they sing for us. Gospely/bluesy songs. Sometimes Jocelyn plays the banjo in accompaniment. She was a lawyers a few years back. He was an accountant. Now they do spot temp work, when they can get it.
And they live in this shit hole, too.
Aunt Dot likes to dispense advice.
“You two should quit it,” she says, referring to the envelope packing. “Go to Littleton, Arkansas. That’s where the new Dowdell plant is going to be. Get your roots in the ground there and pretty soon you’ll have your life all over again.”
Aunt Dot doesn’t care for the others. She wears flowing ex-hippie wear and fifteen bangles on each wrist. Her hair looks like kelp.
“She’s an old soul,” she says of Aunt Dot.
“She’s an old something,” I say.
I have so many paper cuts on my fingers they are entirely wrapped in tape and Band-aids. I look like a boxer. All for one cent per envelope for Mountain Brook Resort. As we stuff the envelopes I wonder how many recipients of their flyer (A) Read it and (B) Think their free-weekend sounds like a good fucking idea or (C) Care about a trip to middle-of-the-swamp Florida. I’d say .001 percent, if MBR is lucky. And this .001 percent most likely consists of the senile or schizophrenic who don’t know any better. The whole thing stinks—it’s either a total scam or a cult or a drug thing, or maybe all of the above.
Goddamn, I think. What am I doing? I just want to sleep.
“Don’t you worry now,” she says. I’m half-asleep, face pressed into a pillow. “I believe in us. Everything is going to be fine.”
Somehow, despite the saccharine tang of all of it, she still does make me feel better.
“Holy smokes, if you weren’t propping me up who would?”
She’s patting my back.
I married Sister Theresa.
I look around at the tacky motel art.
I once had a great job and house. Now, nothing.
When I walk I walk slowly, as if it were 500 degrees outside. I’m filled with dread.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I guess you’d be left to the wolves in your mind.”
“How can you possibly retain such optimism? How do you do it?”
She smiles and shrugs and cuts the lights. She knows I know it was a stupid question, though she’d never call it that. She hums to me as I drift off, patting my back.
“It will all work out,” she hums.
I’d love to vanish—disappear to some obscure country where the creditors can’t touch me. I used to believe I had to live in America otherwise I wouldn’t be “in touch” with what’s going on. Now, everything is online anyway. And America isn’t America any longer.
I just want a better me.
She doesn’t believe in divorce, as if divorce were some kind of mythological creature—the Loch Ness monster or Abominable Snowman.
I don’t hold anything against her. I’m simply ashamed of our situation. It would be easier if I didn’t feel responsible.
We stuff envelopes for hours in near silence. I wouldn’t call it inspiring. I’m tired after an hour, but I keep going. Every finger is bandaged and I still keep going.
When I’m not stuffing I notice I move even slower, as if burdened by heat stroke.
I have a recurring nightmare that I will die with a stack of envelopes in between my legs, a flyer in each hand. What a joke.
They’re all there—Bud and Jocelyn, Aunt Dot, Earl and Kitty. Also some newbies—Salvadorians and Hondurans who are unsure if they are going to attempt to return back to their home country or seek another paltry gig in some other town. It’s bad here.
I’m tired of eating potato rolls and spotted bananas.
When she’s asleep tomorrow I’m going to make my move.
We’re sitting there eating our toasted bagels with jam and drinking Styrofoam cup after Styrofoam cup of weak coffee. It’s better than nothing.
There’s a guy who says he knows of a warehouse which is hiring down route 56 all the way out near the chicken farms. He says the pay is pretty decent, all things considered and that it’s guaranteed for three weeks, minimum. They have rush orders to fill. They have cats in the basement—and a cafeteria.
From my position this sounds incredible.
I smile at her as she chats up her friends and I hold her hand under the table. I squeeze it. She must know in her heart of hearts how I feel—how dismal it is right now for me. How I had to pawn off my comic book collection just to scrounge enough money to be where I am now.
I’m looking out the window. It is hot and dusty and dry still. We live in a rain shadow. I can’t remember the last time it rained. If I could live in the shower stall I would.
She’s on her knees, her hands clasped on the bed. She’s mouthing words of prayer. I know she’s desperately thinking of me.
She opens her eyes and stands, says we should get going to breakfast.
“Go on without me today,” I say.
She gives me a quizzical look—it says both that I need the energy and that I should be more social. Even if she doesn’t say it, I know she wants me to reach out more to the others. “Reading out” is about the last thing I’d like to do.
“Bring me back some stuff, okay?”
The door clicks behind her.
I wonder if my mother was alive how things would be different. I bet I wouldn’t be so clingy. I bet I would’ve left a long time before.
That night she’s reading next to me. I can barely close my eyes. All I can think about is what’s next. I pretend to read an old National Geographic someone left in the room, but all I can do is look at the pictures.
When she eventually snaps the reading lamp off I listen to her breathing slow. When I know she’s asleep I place my arm over her torso, I can feel her warmth. I stay in that position for a long time. And then I lift my body.
Nathan Leslie’s eight books of fiction include Madre, Believers, and Drivers. His book of stories, Sibs, was published by Aqueous Books in 2014 and his novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. He is currently fiction editor for a fiction anthology, Shale. He also has a collection of flash fiction coming out soon with Texture Press. His website is www.nathanleslie.com