Thursday, March 18, 2010

Off the Beaten Path

The noise of the buzzer near the entrance forced him out of bed. He was accustomed to the sound and his robe hung within easy reach. After putting it on, he walked the few feet to the front door and opened it to an attractive woman with hair perfectly coifed and surrounded by the perfume of lavender and cigarettes.

Rarely before had he felt this uncomfortable checking in a guest. “Good evening.” He pulled the tie of his robe tightly around him, then took in a deep breath. She didn’t seem to notice.

The woman fumbled with the purse hanging at her side. “You have a vacancy, right? The sign…”

“Of course. How many nights?”

“Oh, only one, thank you.” At the reception desk, her shallow laugh sounded of tinkling glass as her eyes fixed on the paper he handed her to complete.

He reached for the key from the board behind him. “This is one of our nicest rooms. Very secure.”

When she looked up from the page, the puffiness beneath her eyes that he’d barely detected before came into view in the muted light. Her smile illuminated her face and momentarily disguised her fatigue.

He looked at the paper, then reached over with the key in his hand. “Miss Crane. Have a good night.”

“And you do the same.” She took the key. “Thank you.”

As she walked away, he thought of how his life revolved around that hotel entrance ever since his father’s death. Even if the buzzer rang during the night, which was rarely the case, he rose early, tended the flowers in front—even though the garden fell under the responsibility of the handyman—then settled in with a cup of tea behind the heavy mahogany reception for the rest of the day.

And so it was that morning. With the thin local paper laid out in front of him, he took in the smell of oiled wood and waited for what the day would bring. That morning, she would be dressing perhaps. She might still be sleeping, as it was only 10am. Not every room was as well maintained as her room that he reserved for special guests, for those who showed respect, who treated him kindly. The room was not intended for the cranky salesman who came through twice a month on the way to Montford, or the old crone who visited her daughter in nearby Oak Grove.

The phone rang. Her voice on the other line quivered. “Can I have the room one more night?”

“Most certainly.”

“I’ll come by later this morning with the payment. This room seems so…safe. I appreciate it. Bye.”

“Take your time, Miss Crane.”

The door slammed just as he hung up the phone.

“What needs fixin’ today, Mr. B?” A man in ill-fitting overalls sauntered in, a slash of white forever marring his red right cheek.

From behind the desk, Mr. B glanced at the newspaper articles. “3E has a dripping faucet. Take a look at the begonias in the side yard. And make sure that Miss Crane’s room, 2F, is in satisfactory order, please.” He did not look up. He suspected that the man would not make it to the end of his assigned duties, as usual.

At midnight, just as every night, Mr. B made his way back to the house behind the hotel. This ritual was something he’d never ignore, even though it left him drained and sometimes unable to sleep afterward. But she had to be attended to, her needs met. A little food, some conversation, a listening ear. An ear to hear the antique words and accusations that had never dissipated even after almost a decade of their hovering in the air, hiding in the cracks of the walls, and nestling beneath the cushion of the sofa from where she judged him.

When he was through with the visit, her command to him was clear. His last thought was of the old crone and the salesman, why he’d never bothered to dispense with them in this way. But she had never spoken of the crone. She had never judged the disheveled and unkempt salesman. Only Miss Crane.

He stumbled down the pathway with the question why playing over and over in his head, clutching her gift in his hand, the gift she had given up to him from the sheath of her ribs to take care of it once and for all. To end his lust for the guest in 2F.

When he reached her room, he took out the key from his pocket, opened the door, and heard the shower going full blast. He stepped inside. “Do it, Norman!” he heard the voice hiss in his ear as he pulled back the curtain. “Do it once more for your mother.”

Her words, the last sound he heard.

The police detective knelt down and reached over to turn off the water with his handkerchief, pessimistic that he’d get any prints anyway. “Two knives, huh? All the blood’s on the one in the tub.” He looked over at the back of the head of curly hair, face to the floor. "And her."

His partner picked the knife up carefully. Some blood still streaked across the blade. “Bet it’s her blood. But not her knife.” He pointed to the old woman, a second knife lying on the floor not far from her hand. “Who found her?”

The first detective surveyed his notes. “Handyman.”

“He didn’t see anyone?”

“Not this morning. Said that the last guest left sometime in the night but he never got a good look at her. Didn’t get a plate number off her car either.” The first detective pointed to the dead woman. “And he’d never seen this one before."

The second detective scratched his head with his pencil. “One thing’s for sure, he won’t be seeing her again.” He punched a cigarette between his lips, then they both went about finishing their routine and grisly job.

Friday, March 5, 2010


The truck’s steel skeleton rattled as it moved along the side street, shaking the metal bed and the wall that separated it from the broken road. Hovering in that place between dreams and waking, Nina recognized the noise before panic set in, a panic caused by the shaking ground that would force her from sleep and through the door. Every morning, the same.

For almost a month, Nina woke up in a country where the ground often trembled under her feet. Everyone said it was a good sign. The more the earth shivers, the less likely it is to convulse. The shaking earth always unsettled her.

She wondered what Brynn would say about it. Brynn, whose Kreyòl was always better than Nina’s. Who gathered friends around her with ease. Whose jokes were only funny because of the way she told them.

The last night, Brynn studied the ragged edges of her sun-bleached hair. “We come here to fracture our hearts. So we can put them back together again.”

Nina reached over and flipped the switch on the travel alarm before it went off, then stretched her arms over head. She got up slowly. I hope there’s hot water today, she thought to herself as she turned on the faucet. A stream of cold water trickled loudly onto the gray concrete of the shower floor.

Just as she started to search for the words in Spanish to explain the problem to the handyman, the propane flame of the water heater exploded with a “poof” just outside the bathroom window. Soon, the water ran warm through her hands. Precious water.

The pastor who owned a jeep, the only vehicle in the small town Nina had left behind, loved Brynn like one of his daughters. “I should not have sent her to the meeting,” he confessed. Nina did not know how to respond. What happened to Brynn was not his fault. The pastor did not dwell on his remorse as the needs of the town’s residents were too great. On the eighteenth day, he took Nina in his jeep to the capital to release her from that place.

A trickle of water drizzled down Nina’s body. She slipped along the rough side, her palms against the wall, until she sat down. She grasped her knees and let the water continue to run over her. The large drops slapped against the rough surface of the concrete. Wasteful, but she felt too weak to stand. Her parents’ frantic words came back to her, their surprise, relief, distress wrapped into a few sentences over the crackling cell phone. “You’re safe! Come home!” they called out to her. And she did come home. For a while.

Loud chattering from children on the street filtered in where Nina sat and she got up quickly to shut off the faucet. She shook the water from her hair and wrapped herself in a thin towel, then peeked through the window to see the girls in dark blue uniforms making their way toward the busy intersection.

Nina missed teaching her classes. She missed the girls from a different place who looked up at her and asked her questions she did not want to answer, and giggled as they asked them. She missed their parents who wanted to learn to read and write. She missed all the things that she had once hated, that had made her want to leave—the dust, the insects, the uncomfortable bed, the grinding poverty she could do nothing about. Instead of going home, she came here, to this place of volcanoes and shivering earth. This place of women wearing bright huipiles and dark braids down their back, and men with straps across their foreheads bearing loads of firewood.

A horn beeped and she quickly dressed and stepped outside. “¿Otro grupo?” The driver asked her when he saw her.

“Yes. Another group. Un momento.”

Just as she reached for her bag, her body gave way and she sat down hard on the bed.

Two months ago, Nina said goodbye to Brynn that last morning, wishing that she was the one going to the meeting in the capital and to a comfortable hotel room. Nothing unusual about that day, or Brynn lifting her tanned arms to hand her bag to the man on top of the bus, then turning to wave goodbye.

Once the shaking started that night, the earth continued to tremble eternally. Two small children clung to Nina as all three lay on the soccer field, too afraid to sleep inside. One child lost both her parents and later went to live with her uncle, the other found his mother the next afternoon.

But that night they had no one but Nina who pressed her hands against both of them, comforting them. She calmed herself by concentrating on the band of light over her head, the arc of the Milky Way. See, she told the children. The boy pointed at one particularly bright star. “Etwal.” His voice rasped from the dust.

Seventeen days later, they pulled Brynn’s body out of the rubble of the hotel.

“Are you all right?” The driver stood at the door and looked into the room, but did not come inside.

“Estoy bien.” Nina got up from the bed. “We’re taking the group from the airport to the clinic in Camanchaj.”

“I know.” The driver stood back from the door and let her pass as she walked toward the van, then climbed inside.

On the road to Guatemala City, the driver respected the silence, humming softly under his breath as he drove. Nina busied her mind by checking off all the tasks—the construction supplies purchased, the hostel reservations made, the translators hired. Another group, here for only a week or two. Another group of fractured hearts, to be remade again. For a while, Nina knew that hers would not be alone.