It looked like the last room on earth. That was his first thought when he opened the motel room door. The last room on earth. The bed sagged in the middle as if it had borne some terrible weight for most of its life, like dead hookers or all the sorrow of man; the thin carpet was worn clear through in some places to reveal splintery particle board flooring underneath. And then there were the pictures—paintings of the ocean scenes, blackish-gray skies, tiny boats beating desperately against massive, spray-topped waves.
He set his suitcase on the luggage stand, flopped onto the creaking bed, and immediately stood up again. He should have kept driving, he thought, even though he had been nodding off at the wheel. He just should have kept going.
He turned the TV on. The sound didn’t seem to work. He flipped idly through the channels. A crowd of people staring numbly into the distance—perhaps the aftermath of some disaster. A war scene in which a cannon fired repeatedly. An angry-looking man on stage, shouting into a microphone, as his audience swayed before him, their eyes closed. He switched the television off.
He realized he was spinning his wedding ring, rotating it with his thumb. It had become a habit lately. A bad habit. With a conscious effort, he willed his hands back to stillness.
The phone rang, harsh and mechanical, making him start. Who would call him, he wondered. Nobody could possibly know he was here.
“Open the bed stand drawer,” a voice said.
“Open the bed stand drawer.” The voice was pleasant enough. A woman’s voice from some indeterminate space between youth and age.
“Who is this? Is this the front desk?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. He looked at the drawer, the cheap brass handle, the plastic laminate veneer.
He set the receiver down slowly, took a long breath and then shook his head, giving a little chuckle. He would make a story of that later, back in the main office. Just one of the fucked up things that happens on the road.
With a jolt of annoyance he realized he was spinning his ring again. The divorce was finalized ten months ago—why was he even still wearing it? On these long, dreary trips, he would sometimes strike up conversations with women, only to see them look at his ring and then look away. He had removed all of her photos from his wallet. Since then, it seemed that she was defined entirely by absence—her empty chair, the empty half of the bed, the silence of his apartment when he returned home. He could no longer even remember what she looked like, but he still had the ring.
Once, in a fit of anger he had tossed it into a dumpster behind a bar, and then had spent 45 minutes searching through slimy bags of garbage until he found it. His suit jacket and shirt were covered in filth up to the elbows. He was forced to throw them both away.
He stared at the drawer, wondering what was in it. A gun? A glass eyeball? A human hand?
He walked over to the sink and rinsed his face off. The water had a sour chemical tang, but some clarity returned. He’d been on the road too long. Singing to himself in the car, seeing his own eyes in the rearview mirror. It was a Gideon’s Bible. He was sure of it. They were still around, right? Whoever they were, the Gideons. Leaving Bibles in shitty motels rooms just like this in order to snare men in low moments. It must have been the woman from the front desk, calling the rooms to make people think they’re getting a sign from God.
He felt instantly better. It was strange, the tricks the mind played when one spent too much time alone, how some little thing could get blown all out of proportion. He picked up the phone and dialed the front desk. He was a paying guest. He shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of thing. As the phone rang, he tried to visualize the face of the person he had talked to when he checked in, but realized that he couldn’t. There had been so many cheap motels just like this one, so many anonymous people handing him keys. He hung the phone up without waiting for an answer.
He found himself staring at the drawer again. He spun the wedding ring on his finger, around and around. He should at least look, he thought. Before he did anything else, he should look at what was in the drawer. He reached out slowly. The handle, when he grasped it, felt frigid, and he snatched his fingers away. A new, horrible idea entered his mind. What if it was empty? That would be unendurable, he thought. He simply wouldn’t be able to stand it if it were empty.
John Haggerty’s most recent work has appeared in New Orleans Review, matchbook, Monkeybicycle and Hobart. He is the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine and holds MFA from San Francisco State University.