The Inn & Out
short fiction by Alia Volz
originally published in
winter issue, 2008
The Inn & Out Edith leaned into her cane and waited for the maid to quit ignoring her. The backs of Conchita’s thighs jiggled as she scrubbed. She bent down into the pink tub and the hem of her dress rose, revealing a tiny smile of white cotton with a few black hairs curling around the sides. Edith struck a match and sucked a puff. Conchita jerked upright. "Señora Edith!" She placed a hand on her chest, emphasizing the sheen of sweat on her bosom. Edith said, “I paid that Carlisle glutton $2,500 to lacquer the sinks and tubs. You’re scrubbing too hard.” Conchita held up the sponge, and ran a finger along its blue underside. “This very soft,” she said. Dimples puckered her pudgy cheeks. “No hay problema.” Just that morning, Edith had heard Conchita talking English to another Mexican. If she could talk English to a Mexican, why did she talk Mexican to Edith? One of her kids squatted in the corner, staring at Edith round-eyed. Edith disliked cats equally, and for the same reason.
"He ain’t got business in this place,” said Edith. Conchita turned the shower on and sloshed the water through the soapy tub. “Juan Pablo, he’s my helper. ¿No cierto, Juanci?” Conchita peeked over her shoulder at the child and Edith saw a conspiratorial smile slide between them. “He’ll break something and I won’t pay for it. You’ll pay for it. You COM-PREN-DO?” “It’s OK,” said Conchita. “He help me.” The child put his dirty fingers in his mouth and drooled on them. Edith’s guts churned. On her way out of Room 6, she saw her reflection in the mirrored wall. She didn’t look directly: she was a curved line, a question mark, an ironed dress. “Just get your rugrat off my property,” Edith said in the doorway. “This sure as hell ain’t a daycare center.” She hobbled into the soupy glare outside. * Edith slurred, gimped and was plenty old. A stroke had knocked her left side out of order. She’d wrested back just enough control to drag
herself around the Inn & Out without wheels. The cigarettes had cobwebbed her lungs and sucked her skin yellow-gray. Edith’s beauty had not faded over the years; she’d never had any to begin with. The Lord gave baby Edith a hooknose, hen eyes, and a landslide chin. Town talk had it that Ivan Snivey only married Edith for her white Ford truck, which was new when they got hitched in ‘64. The first thing the newlyweds did was pack it up for a honeymoon across the border. Ivan was just 18—three years Edith’s junior—and couldn’t get enough of his ugly bride. He favored the by-the-hour motels just outside Mexican towns. “Pull over, Edie, there’s another one!” he’d say. Edith didn’t argue. She liked them too. Her favorite rooms had hearts stenciled on the walls. But some had grease stains, cracks, water damage, holes plugged with toilet paper. Others had mirrors on the ceilings, above the beds. Some crawled with palm-sized roaches and some smelled of bleach. One had a snake. They were all hot and loud with funny Mexican music. They were all private,
which no inch of Dalton pretended to be. One wet and naked honeymoon afternoon, Ivan smiled to Edith in a ceiling mirror and said, “You know what, baby?” “What?” “Dalton could use one of these places.” Ivan sucked his mustache between his lips, which Edith knew was his planning face. “Eeeee!” said Edith. “Can you imagine what would happen? You think they’d be as bad as us?” She laughed and Ivan grinned. They spent hours betting on who would cheat on whom with whom. A few days later, Edith won the Grand Prize. They were driving into a dust-choked town a couple hours south of Nogales when they passed a girl walking beside the road. Her hair reached almost to her knees and shone like an oil slick in the late afternoon sun. Ivan slowed the truck. He leaned right across Edith’s lap to whistle out the window. Late that night, Ivan revved up the truck and headed for the local cantina, claiming he needed a beer. Well, it was a tall one. Ivan didn’t return—not that night, nor the next day, nor the one after. Edith waited in the room, quiet as a mouse, while music and
headboards bumpety-bumped the walls. She watched herself float in the mirror over the bed. She stayed there for a week, dumbly hoping Ivan would crawl back, knowing all along that once he’d got away from her, he was gone. Edith returned to Dalton by bus, shamed. But she had a feel for what the town was missing. So when Matilda Mathers asked publicly why Edith couldn’t keep a man even two weeks, Edith just pretended not to hear. She curled into herself and waited. When her daddy kicked the bucket, Edith sold the family house and bought three bone-dry acres a few miles outside of town, along Old Highway 12. The Inn & Out was Ivan’s belated bastard child. Each room at the Inn & Out had a private garage to hide patrons’ cars from nosy eyes. Everything inside was either light pink or blood red (the exterior was pink) and it was all bolted down. A menu hung above each bed, offering booze, cigs and sex toys. Edith took phone orders and passed the merchandise through sliding drawers built into the walls. Only Edith and Conchita knew what went on in the rooms, because they mopped up the aftermath. It seemed to Edith she was the only
Dalton-born who really knew anything about the town. * On Saturday night, at 11:11 by the digital clock, a thin boy in thick-rimmed glasses entered the reservation office, interrupting Edith, who was staring at her uneven fingernails and hating Conchita. The boy had a crooked nose and his forehead was lumpy with acne. Edith judged him to be 17-18. “I’ll take a single,” said the boy, without looking up. He had a funny accent. “We only have kings.” He nodded, barely moving. “How many hours you want it for?” The boy cocked his head. Edith realized she was drooling and wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist. “Speak English?” she said, “How many hours you want?” “Uh, give me a week.” Edith squinted. She didn’t give a damn what people did to themselves, but she’d been shortchanged enough times to dislike junkies, and they were the only people that stayed for more than two
nights running. “Wait,” said the kid. He rocked back on his heels and shoved his hand into first one pants pocket then the other and produced a fistful of bills, which he heaped onto the countertop. Edith unfolded more than enough twenties to ease her mind. She handed over the key to Room 14, saying, “Don’t make a mess.” The kid tried to open the glass door from the hinge side, then pushed instead of pulling. He shuffled out to a dark hatchback. The car coughed like a packa-day smoker then disappeared into the shadows. Edith heard the garage door of 14 roll up and then down. Just after 1:00 in the morning, the boy called and ordered a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. He sure wasn’t 21, but Edith was too curious to turn him down. She scraped across the lot and pushed the bottle through the sliding drawer. She leaned close to the opening and listened. The drawer nearly bonked her in the face when it slid back out. A twenty and a five came back to her with no words. The only sound was the air conditioner, chugging away.
* The next morning being Sunday, Edith donned loafers and a gray cotton dress to match her gray hair and drove her rattletrap station wagon four miles to the First Methodist Church of Dalton. It was a squat white building shaped like a shoebox and surrounded by square-cut hedges. She arrived late, as always, and sat in the back row, by the open door. A few children screwed their heads around to gawk. The congregation sat on folding chairs and sang. Edith mouthed the words because she didn’t care for her own voice. Edith felt the comfort of Sunday wash over her. There, in the far corner of the room, shone the rimless spectacles of Dr. Kelman. And there was his little wife with her perfect hair. Wouldn’t Mrs. Kelman love to know that her husband and his hygienist had left a head pillow speckled with semen on Tuesday morning? “Joy, joy is in my heart,” sang Dr. Kelman. Edith saw Mary McGaff’s strawberry blonde curls near the front of
the room. Miss McGaff turned her head, showing an attractive pink flush in the cheeks. She taught Algebra at Dalton High. She brought Danny Rossing, one of her students, to the Inn & Out on Wednesdays after school. Once, she had a Two-Eyed Jack double-headed dildo delivered to the room. “Joy, joy is in my heart,” sang Miss McGaff. “Joy, joy is in my heart,” sang Mr. and Mrs. Rossing. “Joy, joy is in my heart,” mouthed Edith, thinking it was a shame Danny Rossing no longer attended Sunday service. The song ended. Pastor Shreve was blonde and young and had big ears. He gripped the plain wooden pulpit and yammered. “We live in a landscape dotted with shrines not of golden calves but of Golden Arches,” said Pastor Shreve. The sermon had something to do with gluttony. Bloody Jesus hung behind him, looking bored. Edith was not bored. Bob Garcia and Larry Dole sat nearby, each surrounded by his family. They sometimes had sex after Monday night football. Bob took his wife’s hand and smiled. Edith choked on a laugh. She
gave the loose skin on the back of her hand a hard pinch to regain control. The ridge stayed. Terrance Cole and Melissa Dunn sat only three seats away from each other, but faced straight ahead. Melissa was a screamer. Edith noticed Officer Camen front and center, and a chuckle escaped through her nose, which she masked by making her chair squeak. Officer Camen was a messy homosexual. He sometimes came late at night with a drifter or drug-kid slouched in the back of an unmarked car—and left the sheets smeared with shit and sometimes blood. Conchita had burned more than one set of sheets after a visit from Officer Camen. There in the back of the church, Edith took her fill of entertainment. She struggled to her feet before the sermon ended and fired a cigarette in the doorway. Matilda Mathers tisked and shook her head. They had been friends as schoolgirls, but hadn’t exchanged a word in decades. Edith blew a puff in her direction. She hobbled out to the car and bumped back down the road to the
Inn & Out to await her customers. * Monday afternoon stretched out dumb and yellow, like the fat rat snake Edith sometimes caught sunning on the tank behind the laundry room. Edith dragged her body around the In & Out, checking the rooms after the weekend rush. In 8, Edith found a rubber cock ring under the sink. In Room 12, Conchita had neglected to restock the complimentary condoms. The wall mirrors in Room 13 were still smeared with sweat or semen or spit. Edith hesitated by the garage of Room 14. The boy hadn’t turned off the air conditioning unit once since Saturday night and she was worried it would eat up all her profit. But since he’d paid in advance, there wasn’t much she could do. Instead, Edith hobbled in search of Conchita, to share a piece of her mind about the mess. She twisted the cock ring between the fingers of her good hand. Edith found the maid mashed against the wall of the laundry room, under Ed Finkle, the plumber. Edith gonged her cane against the washing machine.
Conchita shoved Ed off of her—making a big show of it. She scurried passed Edith out into the parking lot, tugging at her dress and gulping like a beached fish. Edith didn’t buy it for a minute. She’d seen what she’d seen. Ed got a kerchief out of his pocket and wiped his brow. Edith pointed the end of her cane at him. “Get that clog fixed?” she said. “You’ll get my bill in the mail.” “I hope you won’t charge extra for roto-rooting my maid.” “You ain’t one to judge.” “Next time I call the Morrisons with my plumbing needs. You can get off my property now.” Ed gobbed on the floor. “You ain’t one to judge, Edith. You built the Devil a house in this town.” He stalked out to the parking lot, climbed into his F-250 and headed out the driveway, kicking up enough dust for a stampede. His tailgate said FINKLE CAN FIX IT! Edith leaned back against the washing machine and it vibrated all through her bones. Broken things stayed broken—no matter how many nails or years you stuck in them. The pink sheets falling down and flying
up in the dryer made her want to upchuck lunch. * Conchita minced into the office with her eyebrows inverted like a cherub’s. “Ay Señora Edith, you save my life. That desgarrado, he attack me, and if you don’t come, I don’t know what happen to me.” Her fingers fluttered up to cover her eyes. Edith could tell she was faking: fake tears, fake nails, fake gratitude. Edith gave her a long hard look to shut her up. “You cleaned 14 yet today?” she said. Conchita plopped onto the arm of a red pleather sofa opposite Edith and the reservation desk. Some of the fat from her rear ballooned into her breasts. She sniffled. “I try. He don’t come to the door.” “You ain’t cleaned once in three days?” “No!” Conchita’s eyes were round and sparkling. “The guy, he don’t come to the door! He don’t even say go away. Nothing.” She crossed her arms over her breasts and pushed the fat back down. “He is doing drugs in there. Va a destruir el cuarto.”
“DO NOT DISTURB sign up?” “Sí, all the time.” Edith slapped the desk with the flat of her hand “What the hell do you think that means: DO NOT DISTURB? It means you keep clear of that room!” * Edith pulled the garage door of Room 14 down behind her. The rusty Subaru looked abandoned; it had that settled attitude, though it had only been still for three days. Edith scraped gingerly past, feeling like it might jump up and bite her. The DO NOT DISTURB sign hung undisturbed from the doorknob. Edith knocked. Nothing. She pressed her ear against the door and heard the air conditioning unit humming away. Edith extracted the knot of keys from her dress pocket, found the one marked 14 and put it to use. The door swung open. The room was tidy and pink and red and mirrored, just as she had left it. There was nothing to see but a dead boy on the bed in his underwear.
The boy’s face was turned sharply away, like he’d been slapped. His body looked long, narrow and paper white across the room. One leg was bent and his arms were extended, like a ballet dancer mid-turn. The liquor bottle lay supine on the bed next to him, its guts spilled. The whisky reeked. Edith cleared her throat. “That’s a ruined mattress,” she said. She thumped her cane on the floor. But no apology came. Edith had never seen a young corpse, only Granny J. laid out in her casket, strangling a bouquet of forget-me-nots, and her daddy gone stiff in his hospital bed. They’d both died a bit at a time over decades, so they looked about the same alive as dead: rotted on the vine. But here was something done. Here was a weight. She locked the door behind her and hobbled to the bed. She sat facing away from the corpse. On the pink night table, between the red telephone and the red ashtray, the boy’s glasses were folded nicely. Beside them was an orange prescription pill bottle with a white top— erect and clean. Sure, it was empty. Edith tipped back against the headboard and pulled her bad leg up
with her good arm. She wiggled down to examine the stiff up close. His skin reminded her of wax paper, shiny and semitransparent. Bluish veins spidered under the surface. The boy’s lips were purple-gray and the tip of his tongue rested in the nook. He had a bruised and puffy neck, like he’d been choked. Here the kid had come to die a quiet and private
death—surely doing himself and the world a favor—and it was violent anyway. She squeezed the boy’s forearm. It was marble. She fought to unbend the fingers of his hand, but didn’t have the strength. In the end, she closed her hand over his. Edith struggled her old body down next to the boy’s and rested her head on his shoulder. She flopped her lame arm across his ribcage. In the mirror above, Edith saw her grayness curled around his whiteness, the two of them floating. The mirror shook and blurred. Quietly, she wept.
“The Inn & Out” originally appeared in ZYZZYVA, an internationally noted literary journal representing west coast artists and writers. Discover this wonderful magazine at your local independent bookstore, or online at http://zyzzyva.org.
About the Author Alia Volz is a writer and Spanish translator based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Instant City, and The First Line, among others. She was honored with a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2006. Please visit http://aliavolz.wordpress.com for stories, excerpts, and information about Alia’s rollicking non-fiction book, Sticky Fingers Brownies.