At midnight, Thanksgiving arrived on a bitter-cold wind. In a few short hours, the southern town would wake and warm itself around home-cooked foods and fires. Smoke already curled from a number of neighborhood chimneys and scented the frigid air with a woodsy nostalgia.
Jack needed a place to hole up—someplace with no music, decorations, or cute children in mittens. He drove to a certain corner of town not known for being family friendly. He heard himself snicker when he saw the flickering sign: End of Days Inn. The moment felt scripted, like some writer picked this very motel for him, just to be funny, or clever, or sarcastic—or prophetic.
Hesitantly, he steered the truck onto the broken pavement of the lot. Headlights reflected shattered glass. A rusty carport sheltered the office. The wind pushed hard against the awning and chilled Jack to the bone, more than the zombie stare of the night clerk.
The empty-eyed girl (perhaps thirty-something with meth teeth) didn’t smile at him from behind the protective, smudgy glass. After a brief coughing fit, “May I help you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’d like to order a Thanksgiving with no turkey, no side orders, no dessert, no parade, no ball game, no relatives, no music, no singing or dancing, and no children, please.”
“You come to the wight pwace. Shmoking or non-shmoking?”
Speech impediment, came to Jack’s mind, like Elmer Fudd. Try not to embarrass her, he told himself. Maintain good eye contact.
Don’t blink! He heard his two tiny ghost girls laughing. If they were still alive, he would wink at them, tell them to shush and be respectful.
“I’ll take smoking.”
“We don’t got none availwable.”
“Then why did you ask me in the first place?”
“I don’t know.”
Jack looked at her with one eye, “Okay . . . I’ll take non-smoking.”
“You bettul not shmoke in thell.”
“Okay . . . I’ll just drink coffee” (and vodka, he thought). He toasted Robert’s drink to her, now down to a few tepid swallows in the chill of the night.
“We don’t have any coffee.”
“Okay . . . do you have soap and towels?”
“Yes—but no shampoo.”
“How much do I owe you for one night?”
“I onwy have one woom weft—105—but it’s fuhl the handicapped. Do you mind? You’ll have a weefrigerator and a micwowave. Sixty dollwuhs.”
Jack opened his wallet. The clerk noticed the most recent picture of his wife and children.
“Them’s youl famiwy?”
Jack was signing the receipt. He didn’t look up. “Yeah.”
“Thank you.” He fingered the clerk’s pen back through the narrow slot. She slid him a key card in return and a handwritten note with a WiFi number on it: 0626. (The script writer again, he thought, being cruel. June 26. That’s the day his life changed forever.)
“You faw away fwom home?”
Jack took his eyes off the numbers and looked at her. “No—they’re far away from me.”
Staring back at him for a moment, she started to nod off. Narcolepsy, Jack thought, or Norco.
“Well, um, goodnight.”
She didn’t answer until the breezeway door was an inch from closed. “Don’t shmoke!”
(Excerpt from the short story entitled, “Jatinga Bird”)