Lindie lit an Old Gold, letting it catch on her upper lip as she peeled a tangerine. Her long fingers slowly pulled the skin into a snake, one she could mold into a hollow sphere and use as an ashtray through morning. With the ritual complete, she set the fruit on a napkin, next to a tube of peach lipstick, a plastic unicorn lighter, and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, dramatically lightened with powdered cream and sugar. With the cigarette still hanging from her mouth, the ash bending to gravity but never breaking, she leaned over and unfastened her sandals, deliberately emphasizing the length of her legs.
Lindie knew the man was watching from his room. Where else was there to look? The motel, constructed during the Cold War, had no windows facing out. From within its walls, there was no way to view the medians stuffed with palm trees and crab grass, the causeway beach, narrow and crowded, laid out beyond the lines of interstate. There was no bar, no pool, no cabana or casino. A giant echo, all the motel rooms above the second floor looked down onto the sundeck, its surface a smooth, brown rock at the bottom of a well. Lindie pressed her toes against the tiles, each oval a turtle on its back, the smoothness cold and slick with morning dew. She set her sandals on the glass top table, along with most everything else she owned, and pushed her sunglasses closer to her brow.
. . .
“You kinda got a funny eye,” the man said as he lifted Lindie’s hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ears.
“It’ll be alright soon.” Lindie shrugged. He smelled like candy, Sweet Tarts, the motel’s shampoo.
“How’d it happen?”
“Nothing too interesting.”
“I’d think almost losin an eye’d be a pretty good story.”
“Alright, I’ll give you three— one’ll be true.” Lindie watched the man’s hand, resting on the lid of the washing machine, next to her knee.
“Good nough, keeps me from knowin much of anythin.”
Lindie nodded. “I was playing tag with my cousins when I fell. A palm frond went straight through.” She pointed a finger to her face, slowly moving it closer and closer to her eye, the color buried beneath a filmy skin.
“Not a hole big enough for that one.”
Lindie grinned. “Alright, my daddy didn’t like that I was born with one green eye and one brown. Said it was the devil’s work, and tried to pluck it out.”
“So you livin here?”
“For one reason or another.”
The laundry room, saturated with the smell of lavender dryer sheets, was growing dingy in the dusk.
“Alright, tangerine,” he said in a sing-song voice.
“Had a baby, gave her away without saying much to her daddy. He put me out, but not before a beating— knocked my eye into the door knob a couple a times.”
The man nodded. “Seems bout right.”
. . .
Lindie sighed heavily, pulling all the air from her chest, holding her breath. She surveyed the sundeck with her good eye, the other a milky haze behind her sunglasses.
She watched the woman walk towards her.
Her body moved like melted wax in a lava lamp—slow and hypnotizing. Her heavy breasts, her hips and belly, rushed and pulled, each part keeping its own rhythm, completely indifferent to the rest. Lindie liked to watch the woman walk. She liked when the woman was far away, when she was a mirage, and the small baby on her hip remained out of focus, a hazy ghost.
“What’s the use of building a hotel in paradise if there’s no windows in the walls?” The woman laughed, high-pitched and strange. The baby cooed, his head tottering as it navigated the shifting movements of his mother’s body.
“There’s doors to walk out of,” Lindie said, and snuffed the cigarette out on the tangerine skin.
“But nowhere to go, not really.”
Lindie turned away from the woman and dragged a chair into the sun. The shrill grating of its metal legs against the tile ricocheted between the stucco walls. She hoped that if the man was not watching—if he was still sleeping—the sound would wake him, and he’d know it was her calling out.
. . .
“You makin all that racket for me?” the man said when he leaned into the laundry room and found Lindie sitting on a washing machine, banging her bare legs against its hollow drum.
“Nothing to do round here but chain smoke and eat free tangerines.” She looked at the three rinds she had already separated from the flesh of the fruit, each skin slump-shouldered in a bright pile at the bottom of the washing machine.
Lindie stuck out her tongue.
The man laughed. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to know no good can come from answering that question.”
The man grinned and kicked his work boots against the concrete, as if Lindie had just said the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Some of the teeth in his mouth were missing, but the ones still there were gleaming and bright. Lindie liked the look of it— the empty spaces proved something calculated and dangerous. She imagined the man pulling out his own teeth as he drank a bottle of whiskey, laughing at the porcelain and roots piled high in an ashtray. She imagined teeth in the pockets of his jeans, their endless chattering at every movement of the man’s wiry body. Lindie licked her teeth. They had become too soft, too much like moss in her mouth.
“Well, ya kinda look like a girl who needs a donut.”
“I need more than that.” Lindie kicked her leg against the washer again, the sound a thunderbolt that she alone conducted through the room.
. . .
“That’s alotta noise so early in the day.” The woman shook her head and pulled the baby to her shoulder, his face hidden in her hair, a limp net of breast milk and drool.
Lindie laid out on the sun chair. She pressed her hips to the plastic weave of the cushions, stretching her narrow limbs, her jean shorts too big, the waistband suspended far above her skin. Lindie imagined she was waking up in the man’s bed, the sheets bleached and threadbare. She kept her eye on the fifth floor, on the doors and windows hooded in the shadows of each climbing story. She watched the man’s room, the closed-up world of brown tiles and damp carpets, baby rattles and diapers. The woman’s cotton dresses hung across the portable baby pit. The smell of spit up and cigarettes.
. . .
“I wish my old lady woulda done the same as you, then I’d be happy, short one old lady, one baby.” The man’s laugh was grainy before it grew into a coughing fit. He leaned over Lindie, spit into a drain on the laundry room floor, the phlegm caught in the plastic grating, inches from her face.
Lindie didn’t say anything; she didn’t flinch. Instead, she half-smiled and held her breath as the man’s hand traced the space between the bottom of her t-shirt and the top of her shorts. His fingers were worn, the skin peeled back and calloused. They matched the texture of the blanket he had pulled from a dryer, rough and tan, almost the same color as him. The space where her skin had been cut open and stapled shut was a stranger to her. Lindie knew most everything hurt, but she couldn’t feel anything around the scar, a half-smile across her body, the real joke. It was the color of someone else’s flesh, nerve endings dead, the numbness eventually taking hold of everything.
. . .
Lindie thought she saw the curtain move. She thought she saw the man’s hand, the shape of his body between the sheer fabric and blackout shade.
“There’s nothing to do around here,” the woman said again. She stood over Lindie, the roundness of her body deflecting the sun. The woman’s skin was greasy, the pores on her arms bloated with dirt. During her slow course to the sundeck, her thighs had devoured her shorts, bunching the pink terry cloth at her crotch. Lindie watched the woman tug at her shorts, struggling to hide her belly and thighs. She watched the baby watch her. She watched the man’s blue eyes in that soft skull, shallow and dim, still balanced on the woman’s hip.
Lindie smirked at the woman, the baby. “You’re kind of a mess.”
“You should talk.” The woman grimaced, letting go of her shorts. She lowered her body into a chair at the table, supporting herself with one arm, nestling the baby in the other.
“You always have those giant sunglasses on.”
Lindie was pretty sure the woman was older than the man. If she could just see the woman’s eyes, she’d know. But the woman wore drugstore sunglasses, black with impenetrable lenses, and frames larger than the shape of her shiny face.
“So do you.”
“Only in the daylight. You wear em always, I bet when you get a bucket of ice at midnight, you’re still wearing those glasses.”
“Don’t see why it matters.” The woman’s cheeks and nose were peeling, blistered from days of burning without end, which only further obscured her features.
“Don’t you worry he won’t recognize you?” Lindie tilted her chin towards the baby.
“I don’t even know what I look like anymore.”
“If you’d take better care of yourself.”
The woman sighed and held the baby’s fingers in her hand. “All my care’s on him, and he’s too young to remember much right now, thank God.”
“If you cared, you wouldn’t have him out here,” Lindie said.
“You have a lot to say today.”
“It’s not my rule.”
“Can’t keep em inside all the time.” The woman kissed the baby, his mouth chapped and red. She pressed him to her breast and tugged at the strap of her tank top.
Lindie shook her head and pointed to a sign on the deck. “No, I mean, kids are supposed to stay on the bottom floor.”
The motel was too old, too empty of tourists, grandfathered in with the rest of the stucco structures built inland. The supports above the sundeck were too thin, spaced too far apart to ensure the safety of children. So the motel booked families in the rooms on the main floor, behind the lobby’s breakfast cart, keeping them from the pitfalls of every stair and rail that guided the upper stories.
The woman shook her head. “He doesn’t count— can’t even crawl, let alone climb. And they’re all nonsmokin rooms.” The woman laughed again, and as if startled by the hollow sound, she raised her hand to her face and gently touched her jaw.
“But you don’t smoke.”
“My husband does.”
Lindie winced. Her eye avoided the woman’s breast, the baby’s mouth and hands. “Baby’s fall all the time.”
“Butch’s never without me.”
“Happened to Eric Clapton’s kid, and he’s rich.”
“That doesn’t mean much—easier to keep an eye on a kid in a small place anyway.”
“Clapton’s kid always had people watching him.”
“Well that just can’t be true, can it?”
Lindie looked at the woman’s bare feet on the tile. Her legs we filthy, scratched and bruised.
“Well, I don’t like to smoke around kids,” Lindie said.
“I wish my husband felt that way.” The woman sighed and patted the baby’s head, his yellow face and yellow hair ripening in all that sunlight.
Lindie turned away from the woman, her eye returning to the fifth floor hotel room. She tried to imagine what the man was doing. Probably, he was awake, unshowered, her smell still on his skin. He was probably smoking a Marlboro Red, stretched out in bed, naked beneath the scratchy sheets, watching T.V. But Lindie couldn’t know for sure if he was watching cartoons or the news. It probably didn’t matter. She knew she’d find out soon.
. . .
Lindie’s scrawny legs were a wishbone pulled apart under the full weight of the man’s hands. Her knees pressed wider than the scratchy blanket, bleeding, the cuts textured in feathered lines, mimicking the pattern of the concrete floor.
“Keep it steady,” he said as he pulled her red hair across her face, hiding everything but her mouth.
And through her quilt of hair, Lindie watched the man, but she could only see his neck and chin. He stared straight ahead, at the wall with the Garfield clock, its digital screen flashing midnight on repeat.
It ended with him saying, “Alright, alright” as he patted her on the knees before pulling himself up. Leaning on one of the washing machines, he adjusted his boxers back into his jeans. “Almost a working girl.”
“I can try it again.”
“No time tonight— my old lady’s upstairs by now, and she’s got money.” The man looked at the Garfield clock again.
Lindie raised her arms above her head, stretching as if to shake herself awake, not giving anything away beyond the feeling that she had just woken up from a dream. “Time’s off by at least an hour.”
The man grinned again, but it was too dark to see his teeth.
“We’ll work it all out tomorrow, Tangerine.” He kissed Lindie on the forehead.
“Anything I gotta hide when I see her again?”
He shook his head. “She knows how it goes, specially now that Butch is around.”
“Mouths to feed.”
“That’s what she says.” The man said and unlocked the laundry room door.
Lindie stood up to pull on her clothes, her legs shaking. She could hear the man whistling as he walked down the hall. She listened to his song, the strange trill of air escaping the dark spaces of his mouth, his work boots beat time back to the fifth floor.
. . .
The man was in the breezeway, barefoot, finally. His gold-framed aviators reflected the sun porch, reflected Lindie, the woman and the baby.
Lindie grinned in the man’s direction. She began to pull off her tank top. She wanted to remind him of her yellow string bikini, its knots hanging loosely.
The woman raised her face to the fifth floor and shook her head. She pulled her stringy blonde hair, sticky from the baby’s spit up and drool, into her mouth, and sucked on the ends.
“Hear he’s gettin somewhere,” the woman said.
“Where’s he gettin to?”
“Gettin with you— put me and the baby out last night because of it.” Still sucking her hair, the woman raised her sunglasses, slightly. Her eyes were bright blue, a paler shade than Lindie had ever seen. The still point of a hurricane’s eye, their blueness a kind of calm surrounded by dark bruises and swollen cheeks, watching the wake break along the edges of her face.
“You probably asked too many questions.”
“You’re too young to know.”
“Age’s got no matter to the things people see.”
“So you’ve just been floppin around, waitin for someone like him to come along?”
“There are worse things.”
“It’s too risky. You get caught, it’s on him—then where’ll Butch an me be?”
“He said you were worrying about having mouths to feed.”
“Well I haven’t been makin much lately.”
“You can’t walk a street with a baby.”
“It’s easier when I don’t have to leave.”
“I bet you used to be pretty, before you had that thing.” Lindie pointed at the baby, still breast feeding.
“You’re gonna ruin everything.” The woman sucked harder on her lips and hair.
“He’s got to move on now that you’re tied up.”
The woman shook her head and slowly turned her body to look at the man. From the fifth floor railing, the man grinned. He slowly pulled his hand way from the cigarette in his mouth, and pointed his fingers into a gun, pretending to fire off six chambers at the woman.
Lindie laughed. “You’re spent.”
“He doesn’t like that I’m talkin to you.”
“Probably knows you’re not saying anything good.”
“Said if I welcome you to the family, he’d let us back in.”
The man grinned, turning the barrel of the gun into two fingers beckoning Lindie upstairs. Lindie nodded. She watched the man press the full weight of his body against the railing, which bowed beneath him. Arms bent, he launched himself backwards, across the breezy way, and through the door of his motel room. The rail shook wildly, the metal a manic laugh in his wake.
“I’m on,” Lindie said.
She folded her clothes slowly, the cotton damp and dirty from days of tanning on the sundeck, sleeping in the laundry. She poured the coffee on the tiles, pulled on her sandals, reapplied her lipstick and fluffed her hair.
“Tim and Kim,” the woman said.
“Tim and Kim— I thought it was cute, you know, when we got married—I thought it meant somethin.”
Lindie shook her head. She didn’t want to know their names. “Nothing means nothing to anyone,” she said and lit another Old Gold. She rubbed the baby’s head before leaving the sundeck for the stairs.
Lindie was happy.
She was happy.
During the walk across the sundeck, Lindie stomped out the word hap-py beneath the wedges of her sandals. First, she pretended she was walking on a rainbow, the word pulsing from her heels. But the sound—the heavy step of her wedges against the concrete stairs—was too heavy.
So she said it again and again. She said it as a chant: ha-ppy, ha-ppy, ha-ppy. But the melody had her moving too fast. She didn’t want to get there too soon, to the door held open with a brass bar, another gold finger pulling her into a room. Lindie just wanted to be on her way. She wanted her whole life to take place on those stairs, beginning to end, between where she was going and where she had been.
She stopped on the third floor, her sandal slipping away from her foot, her hands sweaty on the rail. She watched the woman and the baby in all that light, wrapped into each other. Lindie knew the baby was a trapdoor. He saved his mother, helped her escape one kind of fate, forced her into another.
“I’m happy,” she said again, louder, her voice echoing between the walls of the motel, hushed and snuffed out on the rails.
Lindie took the fourth story slower than she thought she should, slower than she knew was probably good. But there was nowhere else to go. She rubbed the scar on her belly, one step in front of the other, she imagined all the things she didn’t know. She climbed the stairs to the things she was learning to do. Lindie imagined the silence, the food, the bath and bed. She imagined writing letters at the little desk, the stationary and pens. She thought about the Bible, the cable TV and ironing board as she hit the fifth floor. Walking through the breezeway, she thought she could be happy in the time she’d have alone, the time locked in and warm.
She was happy. She knew it as she pushed open the door. An Old Gold hanging from her lips, she pulled the brass knob closed, and went to the man on the bed, a wrench heavy in his hand.