by Andrew Rooney
The little girl’s face looking out of the car window had unnerved Jana and she quickly stood to watch it pass. When she sat down she saw the face again and it triggered a memory of the times her family, she and her father and brothers, used to travel from Denver in their big sedan to Destin, on the Gulf. They would drive through the South to see her grandmother, her father’s mother, every year for two weeks. Her own mother would stay home to “recuperate.”
Jana had been sitting in the window of a coffee shop poking holes in a paper cup, thinking about her life, the recent past, but mostly how hard it had been over the last couple of years. She watched the sun move from left to right, across the window and the sidewalk. When a friend called and asked what she’d been doing with herself, she told her she’d been working on a memoir, and that was why she’d been spending time at this and other coffee shops. There were plenty of notes on the pages, ideas, even some kind of time frame for a memoir, but not much in the way of sentences or paragraphs yet.
One of the things Jana remembered so clearly from the trips was her father’s hair, the smell of it, and that it was black and wavy. Standing behind him she would often stroke it, and he would murmur “That’s my girl,” or “You’re the love.”
She could see her brothers playing word games with billboards and highway signs and hear them squabbling while she knelt on the back seat and watched the road disappear behind them, her father driving, seemingly forever, and often late into the night. They mostly took the two-lanes and stayed at small, inexpensive motels, eating sandwiches in the car. The two boys slept together in one bed and she would sleep in the other, with her father. To relax he would read the newspaper at the table, and she would fall asleep to the soft sounds of drinking and pages turning. Sometimes she would wake during the night and find them intertwined.
That day, Jana put her hands around her coffee and tearfully whispered “Oh, Daddy” when she was in the middle of one her flights, and then wrote down the names of her brothers, Karl and Dale, and underlined them.
Robert Jeppersen had visited that afternoon and they talked about what she was writing, any progress toward getting another job, the news from his office, and how the other Boys were doing. They never discussed his wife or children. He took her to dinner, at a salad buffet restaurant, and then they went back to the Bel-Care for the night. In the morning, when he left, he put a hundred dollars on the night stand.
Jeppersen was one of three men who’d been attending Jana since high school. The others were Harris Donaldson and Richard Levens. In high school she was a beautiful girl who had a way of shaking her hair out and allowing herself to be adored. They began the group when they were sophomores and she was a junior. Another boy, a fourth, Oster, moved away. It was Harris who started them off when he mentioned her vulnerability and her ankles and how perfect they both were. They would go on to discuss her fingers, lips, and breasts, and the unimaginable. The three followed Jana to college after they graduated and had been admirers and supporters through her marriages, jobs, disagreements with her son, and now, especially, because she had lost the house her mother gave her and had been staying at a motel.
The four had taken vacations to Vail and Cozumel and other places together, and the Boys all told their wives it was a special friendship from high school and college. They made it clear it was an arrangement they were going to keep, though. Sleeping with Jana, surprisingly, was not something the three pursued early on. In fact, they would’ve preferred the relationship as it was, worshipful, but once, when she was between her first and second husband and the quartet was in Santa Fe, they had to draw straws and Levens ended up sharing a room and then a bed with her. Donaldson and Jeppersen, to keep it in balance, started a few months later.
Regarding her house, Jana had been given a reprieve – she hadn’t been making the refi payments – for a short period because there was confusion and her bank couldn’t find the new mortgage, but they said she’d have to move at some point, maybe even on short notice, and until then she could stay. That day eventually came.
The day after she and Jeppersen were together, Jana had lunch with girlfriends at an Indian restaurant. She enjoyed herself enormously, but she was distracted, more so than usual. She was hoping one of the other women would pick up the check because, after paying the motel bill, she was almost completely broke. She would have to make up something about forgetting her wallet or her credit card and then there would be the awkward moments that followed.
The waiter had written out separate checks for everyone when they were done and when he came to Jana told her a gentleman had covered it. She looked around the dining room and asked which one.
“Just now gone,” the waiter said wagging his head, and then pointed at the big window next to the door. She hurried to see if the payer was still there. A car was pulling away with a man driving and Jana rushed out to see if it was him. He was directly in front of the restaurant and she waved him down.
“Did you pay for my lunch?” Jana asked through the passenger window.
“Excuse me?” the man answered, dipping his head toward her.
Jana could see he didn’t have the vaguest idea what she was talking about.
“Never mind,” she said, and met her friends as they were coming out.
They escorted her to her car and on the driver’s side window there was a sticky note.
“Didn’t know if you’d remember me. Give a call and we’ll have dinner. Keith Ammonds.”
Keith Ammonds, Keith Ammonds, she said to herself. The only Keith I can think of is from high school and the neighborhood.
When she got to the motel, she waited until that evening and then called the number. When Keith answered she absolutely could not place the voice. She asked if this was the person who left the note on her car and who paid for her meal.
“It is,” he said. “Are you having a hard time remembering me?”
Jana apologized and said that she was. The only Keith she could remember was from growing up and that person was fifteen or sixteen at the time. She didn’t say this but the one she remembered had been a pest, had asked her out repeatedly, and was unattractive.
“Same kid,” he said. He told her he’d been infatuated with her as a boy and she could see his picture on Facebook.
She had to go to the library to use the computer there because the Internet was down at the motel. He was nice-looking now, even handsome, and was dressed in a sport coat and ironed shirt. They agreed he would come by a few days later and go to a nice restaurant, catch up.
In the morning she called Levens and asked if he remembered Keith Ammonds.
“I think he became some kind of chemist,” and then he asked if she was really going to go on a date with him, because, he said as though joking, he wasn’t sure the Boys would approve. Levens called later, as did Donaldson and Jeppersen, but she let the calls go to Voicemail.
Jana decided to dress up, get her hair done, and she stopped at the Saigon Beauty College on west Mississippi because she’d heard they had discounted cuts, and she’d retrieved just enough quarters from the jar to pay for it. She normally would have gone to the shop next to the motel, but it had recently closed.
“Man Hair Cut, Ladie Hair Cut, All $6,” it said in the window.
When she wandered in, the manager at the front counter wanted to know if he could help her and she asked how well the students were trained.
“Very train,” the manager said. “Some already working before in Vietnam.”
“Do you have anybody who could cut my hair for a special event?”
“Walter available today. Very experience.”
Walter was in one of the back booths shampooing his own hair and the manager called to him in Vietnamese. He finished and hurried to the front to introduce himself. He was short, tiny in fact, but the towel on his head made him look much taller.
“You hab such ni hair,” Walter said, showing Jana to a chair.
“I just need my bangs shortened and a little on the ends trimmed, Walter,” Jana said before sitting down. “You think you can do that? I have a special date with someone.”
Walter said he could and began by massaging Jana’s neck and shoulders, which she allowed but wasn’t quite comfortable with. He told her he was from a village outside Saigon and that he’d come to the city to be trained in his aunt’s shop before emigrating. He’d only been in America for three years. Jana saw the story as a ploy to raise his tip.
“You so pretty, such ni skin; you marry?”
“Am I married?” Jana repeated. She wondered if he meant now or had she ever been married. “Not currently. But I’ve had three along the way.”
Walter asked what their names were and Jana paused before telling him.
“Mr. Celebrity, who thought he was a big shot and wasn’t; Mr. Contractor, who built houses but wouldn’t take care of mine; and Mr. Realtor, the last one, who lost all his money with the crash and didn’t have any left for us.”
Walter said yes, yes, as he cut her hair and pretended to understand everything she said. In response he told her all about living in America and everybody being so busy. He said he’d been attending community college and she asked what in.
“Computer,” he said.
“How can you study computers when your English is so bad?” Jana asked, and wondered what Walter’s real name was.
“My English pretty good now. Not so good three year ago.”
Jana looked at her hair in the mirror and thought it seemed asymmetrical. She put her hand up to touch the sides and the back and Walter grimaced and rolled his eyes.
When he resumed he took the long scissors and began trimming close to her head. Walter looked away when another customer came in and during that moment of distraction, he cut the top of one of her ears. She didn’t see or feel the trickle of blood initially, but when she did she screamed and jumped out of the chair.
Everything suddenly stopped at the college and other students rushed to see what the problem was.
Walter took the towel off his own head and tried to wipe Jana’s blood with it. He managed to smear some on her face and clothes. When she saw what had happened she slapped him and ran out. Students and their customers lined up at the windows and in the door. The manager ran after her in the parking lot in an attempt to collect the six dollars she owed.
In the car rearview, Jana saw that her ear was still bleeding and it continued until she was able to pinch it off. She daubed a wad of saliva on the side of her face and around the parts of her ear, to clean them up with a tissue. There was a crimson stain the size of a medallion on the shoulder of her blouse, but she left it alone because she knew she could probably scrub it out later. On the way home she had to stop once to deal with the bleeding and while she waited she could see Walter chattering away in Vietnamese, explaining to the manager and other students what had happened.
There was only one car in the motel lot when she arrived, and she parked next to it. In her hurry to get to her room, however, and because her nerves were still a shambles from the college, she clipped the tail end of the vehicle. It was a bigger car, a luxury S.U.V., and Jana rationalized that that was the reason she’d hit it. No one was around to witness the accident, including the Indian couple who owned the Bel-Care, and so she decided in the short term to do nothing.
When she got to her room, Jana fell on the bed in her clothes. Moments later, though, she lurched up to check her ear in the mirror when she thought it might be bleeding. It hadn’t bled again, but she sponged it with a washcloth, then put make-up on it and the cut was almost invisible. She wanted to rage at Walter, slap him repeatedly and call him obscene names, but she was too busy thinking about Keith.
After her shower and before she dressed for her date, Jana brushed her dark brown hair and shook it out like she had in high school. In the mirror, she posed with her chest forward and swung her hair and hips seductively, feeling almost as good as when she was seventeen.
That night Keith arrived late and it was clear he’d been drinking. He asked about the motel and she explained how the bank had taken her house after missing a few payments and that she had just not had the energy to rent an apartment. The motel gave her a discount and they were nice to her, so she put the big things she wanted to keep in a neighbor’s garage and moved in. There was a clothes line strung across the room, but Jana had taken all of her lingerie down and stuffed it in a drawer.
In Keith’s new car they drove to an up-scale Thai restaurant. Jana was not fond of this type of Asian food and had it not been their first date, she would have requested a change.
Jana talked about her three husbands, one of whom Keith knew, the Jana Boys, all of whom Keith remembered, and her estranged son, who was now living in Emeryville with his unattractive girlfriend. When Keith attempted to explain what he did as a chemist and the difficult path to getting his doctorate, Jana listened for a few minutes and then changed the subject. She had a third glass of wine and asked rhetorically why she was unable to get a job at her level and why so many foreign people had such good jobs.
Because it was a beautiful evening, Keith drove them around the city with the windows down and stopped at Washington Park. Jana initially refused to get out of the car, but after some coaxing they wandered past the big playground and stood in the old boat house. There were many couples strolling, some walking their dogs.
Keith pointed out the lone pelican on the lake amidst the geese and egrets. He showed her the night herons on a sand bar, who stood poised to spear any little fish that happened by, and the ancient cormorants perched high in the trees with their wings adrape. When he held her arm as they walked she let him, but she didn’t know what to make of the nature tour.
Jana could see Keith watching her whenever she spoke and it made her uncomfortable.
“Do you ever look back and think about the person you were and the person you’ve become?” Keith asked. “I mean, think about who we are now, how we’ve grown and changed, our paths.”
Jana considered Keith’s question and didn’t know how to respond. She was never comfortable talking about her personal psychology, especially with people she didn’t know that well. And she didn’t want to talk about the rough period she was in, or she might start crying.
“What about you, Keith? You’re working for a corporation as a chemist. You probably have a lot of responsibility.”
But Keith ignored her question. “I mean, doesn’t there come a time in a person’s life when they just have to put the defenses down and say this is who I am, okay, a little rough around the edges, but this is me. Not that we can’t continue to learn things, change, you know, get better, but….”
They were sitting on a park bench and Jana looked at Keith without responding.
“What are you thinking about, Jana?”
“Today I went for a haircut to the Saigon Beauty College. I like to help those people out whenever I can. I didn’t think I was going to tell you this, but while I was there, the beautician – if that’s what you call a man – the beautician, Walter, with a big towel on his head, cut my ear.”
“The guy at the beauty college cut your ear? Bad or just a little?”
“I thought I’d have to have stitches,” she said. “And it must have been near a vein because it bled, it really bled. I almost passed out driving.”
Keith motioned for Jana to show him the cut and she obliged by lifting the hair away from her ear. The make-up covering the wound had rubbed off and he could see that the nick had already started to scab.
Softly Keith put his hand in her hair and smelled it. He looked as though he liked Jana this way and kissed her on the temple. She shook her hair out, licked her lips, and closed her eyes. She could see this turned him on enormously and reminded him of the way he used to feel in high school. They sat together for a time and when it began to get cool, Keith led Jana back to the car and opened the door for her.
When she got out of the car at the Bel-Care, Jana saw Nisha, the owner of the motel, and they waved at each other and paused as though they were about to speak. But when neither did, they nodded, smiled, and continued on their way.
At the motel, Jana invited Keith to come up and he followed her. There was a folded piece of paper taped to her door, and she had an idea what it was about. She looked around the parking lot and then went in.
In the room, Keith took his sport coat off and threw it on the bed. He flopped down on top of it and kicked off his shoes.
“I have a chance to go to Azerbaijan with my company,” he announced. “Do consulting work in one of their refineries. Pay would be double and they’d cover all expenses. I’m thinking about going. Know where Azerbaijan is?”
Jana tried the name out in her mouth and when she couldn’t think of where it was or one thing about it, she said, “No, no idea.”
“The company will allow me to bring a spouse or significant other. They tell me Baku is a beautiful old city, pretty nice. Ever think about going someplace like that?”
Jana had to stop for a moment and ask herself: Is he asking me to go abroad with him or just speaking in general?
“When is this? When are you going?”
“They want me to be there June 18. It’s right on the Caspian Sea.”
“Keith, are you asking if I want to go with you?”
“Jana, it could be an interesting change. Seems kind of sudden, I know, but it would give you a chance to get away from this motel for a few weeks. Give us a chance to get to know each other. And hey, could be a lot of fun too.”
Jana lay down next to Keith and before long they were both asleep. But in the middle of the night he got up and took off his clothes. She let him take hers off and then they made love. He woke her at around five and they made love again. Jana was hesitant to show him her special way of having an orgasm and when she fell back asleep she wandered in another country, a sandy country with women wearing scarves.
When she woke for the final time, Keith was propped on an elbow looking at her.
“What happened, Jana?”
“What happened with what?”
“The Jana I knew in high school was different, full of life, curiosity, energy.”
“People change, you know, things happen. I’ve had a bad year, and I don’t need somebody reminding me of it.”
Jana got up, went into the bathroom, and closed and locked the door. She turned on the shower but didn’t climb in. She only wanted the white noise to cover the sound in her head. Who is this Keith to say something like that to me? Oh, stop it, stop talking like that. He adores you, so why not go, Jana, she said out loud, but became irritated. What do you have here? You’re staying in a motel run by foreigners, with no Internet and no job, and your friends are immature men you’ve known since high school.
She wanted to look at herself and wiped the mirror over and over, but to no avail. Jana ran her fingers through her long hair and then gripped the sink.
“Keith,” she said as she opened the door, “Keith.” She was smiling but Keith was gone and the door to the room was open. There were two twenty-dollar bills tossed on the night stand and when Jana saw them she immediately began to sob.
“No,” she said trembling, “no, no.”
Jana lay down on the bed and fell back asleep. When she woke, around noon, she tried to call Keith. She tried several more times and only got his Voicemail. Jana went online at the library and began searching for information on Azerbaijan. I could go there, she said swallowing hard, I’ve never travelled, but I could visit there, especially after seeing pictures of the old capital. And Keith would love it if I went with him.
By evening, when Keith hadn’t called, she tried phoning each of the Boys – Robert Jepperson, Harris Donaldson, and Richard Levens, but none of them picked up. She wanted to tell them about Keith’s offer and that she might be going to Azerbaijan.
Jana opened the note that had been taped to her door. It was the person downstairs whose car she’d bumped. He threatened that if she didn’t contact him and give him her insurance company’s name, he would call the police and report a hit and run.
But Jana was happy and nothing could dissuade her. She thought of Keith’s Facebook picture and saw the two of them strolling together next to a seawall in a European city. She had spoken to the universe and the universe had answered.
In the morning she would begin sorting the things she would require for the trip. She knew to travel light because all the magazines said she could buy much of what she needed from outdoor markets and avoid the airline baggage charges.
Then she began thinking of things she could teach the people, whatever it was they called themselves, like English to the children. She would bring trinkets for babies and household items for the women. She would get books and surprise Keith by learning some of the language. And while he worked during the day, she would go off in the city or the countryside.
This is one of a linked set of short stories called The Indian Motel Stories.
Andrew Rooney teaches writing at Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, and has published numerous stories and novels.