PINEOLA INN: sixteen rooms and a toilet-sized pool. Little black-headed fist of a gal, Lureen, kept run of the property, run of the books, worked a sort of magic when diddling in congested toilets.
("Alls you got to do," she explained, wielding the plunger, "is hit the sweet spot.")
In exchange she kept a cot and hotplate in back of the lobby, red paisley curtain clipped shut with a hair clip when she practiced setting curls for the beautician certification course she was taking by mail. Twice a month her cousin Honey came in to take a night shift, let Lureen drive up to Salt Gorge to see her kids, living with the grandparents because otherwise they'd have been separated and sent to foster homes. Lureen, bleeding love, was working her way back to them. But for the time being she belonged somewhere. She had Pineola Inn. And she wasn't sore about it.
"She wouldn't be," said Leslie Barnum, passing the joint. "Them kids of hers aren't laying in a goddamned coma in a hospital down the street."
It was an obscene thing to say, and I gave her a hard look for it. But Tricia Books nodded piously. "Lureen, she's in a sad situation. I'm not trying to say otherwise. But Lureen's got options. She's not sitting around in this goddamned motel waiting for somebody she loves to wake up like-"
She stopped herself, but I knew what she wanted to say.
Like we are.
I looked around the room and wondered what the hell kind of pride it was to be one of us. What a goddamned litany of catastrophe: Tricia Books' elderly mother had taken a baseball bat to the head during a convenience store robbery; Leslie Barnum's thirty-one year old daughter had jumped off a freeway overpass clutching a cough syrup bottle; the pretty blond, Lisa, her twin brother ran a yellow light and slid his motorcycle under the carriage of a UPS truck; the old English teacher, Henry Paternaski, whose wife suffered a stroke and tumbled down a marble stair case at the public library in Waast
It reminded me of something my sister Joeleen once said about people in AA. "You lost your wife? Somebody lost two wives. You got drunk and hit a kid going to school? Somebody hit a whole fucking school bus full of kids. You can try, but you won't win the loser game with these people."
I knew Tricia Books was speaking out of spite. A week back Lureen was learning to do frosted tips and Tricia Books offered herself for Lureen to practice on. But Lureen refused. She said it wasn't ethical, doing a procedure on a real life human when she hadn't even done it on a wig yet.
"Procedure,"Tricia Books had huffed. "You'd think I asked her to do a goddamned liver transplant."
Still, spiteful or not, it wasn't prudent to talk about the comatose waking up. You could wish for it, but you shouldn't mention it out loud, you shouldn't say it into the air like that, lest you draw the attention of the Fates.
And anyway, what you wish for and what you believe are two different things.
Because after six months, what did I believe about John? What could anybody believe?
From her corner by the patio door Lisa let out a yawn. There were real tears in her eyes. I licked my fingers and rubbed out the joint.
"I guess that's goodnight," Henry Paternaski said.
A round of nods but nobody moved.
Finally I crawled across the bed and gave Henry a kiss on the cheek. I kissed everyone on the cheek before sending them out of my room.
Henry was the first one down in the lobby every morning. Lureen, setting out a carton of juice and a bowl of pinwheel mints, went and knocked on the room if somebody was late waking up, went in with the master key and yanked off a blanket if that's what it came to.
When everyone was accounted for, we marched single-file like factory girls down Salamander Avenue, past a Kinko's and a junk store that had-or claimed to have-a lock of Marilyn Monroe's hair in the window. Well, it may be and it may not be. You never can tell in a place like SaIIe, on the edge of an ancient lake bed where archeology students bussed in every summer to dig for only the Lord knows what. But treasures were found, enough were-bones of old pygmy lions maybe, or even a freshwater seal-so that lock of lustrous blond in the window may well be Marilyn Monroe's.
The coma ward was on the third floor of Sedge County Medical Center, eight beds beneath eight windows like some faerie nursery. If you wanted some fresh air you couldn't just open a window. You had to go to the nurses' station and ask for the handle to fit into the crank and crank the windows open, one by one.
Leslie Barnum fanned her daughter's hair in her palm. "That's her real hair color. All that blond, grown out at last." She said Lureen had taught her how to cut bangs, how to divide the hair in sections first, and she was going to give her daughter a nice summery cut soon as Lureen lent her the scissors.
I didn't have too much to do. John was balding. I kept the back and sides of his hair neat, worked a dab of moisturizer into his face, then sat and massaged his hands, his arms, pulled back the sheet and worked on his bare feet and legs.
"She can hear us," Tricia Books liked to say, painting her mother's fingers red, taking that off, putting on a coat of plum. "Hook up her brain and you can see the line jumping when I call her name."
At one end of the ward lay a middle-aged woman, whose name we knew was Nancy, who had been in her coma for so long-fifteen years, we heard-that she no longer had any visitors. Her hair was long, long, going white, but at least the nurses kept her nails short. We stayed clear of the area around her bed, of that whole side of the room, as if some invisible curtain, some unspoken superstition, kept us from looking in her direction let alone go near. But I did once. No one was in the room and I went and leaned over her. She had a broad smooth face, the skin pale and thick as soap, eyes moving beneath their lids. She was breathing faintly, a slight sour breath, which I leaned in to smell. Then I felt sorry. What the hell was I doing? I might as well have been spying on somebody taking a shower. I never went near her again.
At lunch we trudged along lines in the cafeteria, received bologna sandwiches, stole gossip magazines from waiting rooms. We shared cigarettes huddling on fire escapes, cups of ungodly coffee, chatted up the nurses on their breaks. Our favorite nurse was Darnell-gay, black and cheery, "full of beans," as my mother would say-who told us that two of his ex-lovers landed in this very hospital, in this very ward, and died of AIDS before his very eyes. He told me that Lureen's twenty-eight but looks like a child because she had three babies before she was even sixteen, and all that baby-making just sucks the nutrients out of you, that a young girl needs herself to grow.
"Three?" I said. "I thought there were only the two."
Darnell sighed. "Two now, but that's now."
He changed the subject. He said there was a nursing shortage and they were paying him an ungodly salary to work here. Every few months he and four or five other nurses rented a charter plane to Vegas, stayed at the best hotels, ate three square meals of lobster a day. That was where Darnell met a very famous and very overweight male R&B singer, who he can't name because the singer's lawyer had made him sign a gag order when they broke up.
"I know the singer he's talking about," Tricia Books said.
"You do not," said Leslie Barnum.
Back at the Pineola Inn, we took our showers, took our naps, then gathered in my room while we waited for the pizza to arrive.
I asked Lureen if I could braid her hair. "OK," she said, "but wash your hands first."
Pretty soon we were all good and stoned, picking a stem from her tongue.
"My cousin Honey's real fat," Lureen said.
We all nodded.
"I guess with a name like that, she'd have to be."
I got to telling about my sister Joeleen, disappeared for eight years now, ran off one night with her goddamned sponsor in AA with two of my best wool sweaters and forty dollars out of my purse. A few years back I'd hired a private detective to look for her. He had some idea that Joeleen was in San Francisco, or Houston, or Buckinghamshire.
"Buckinghamshire?" I'd asked him. "As in Buckinghamshire, England? Are you sure she's also not in fucking Johannesburg, South Africa?"
"Did he find her?" Tricia Books asked.
"No," I said, "no," and then I got very sad. What if it was me who had run away, not Joeleen? Who would I be then? Would I be a junkie like Joeleen? Sleep in cars and doorways like Joeleen? Or maybe Joeleen had found something better. Maybe she'd hit her head somewhere and forgot all about who she was and met a gent from Buckinghamshire and had wonderful, tall children who wore ribbons in their hair and rode little ponies around the estate. Maybe it was better to believe, as my mother did, that Joeleen was dead.
Leslie Barnum told me to shut my mouth. "If you really think it's better to be dead, then what are you doing here? Why not pull the plug on your husband, be done with it?" We'd turned on the heat and she'd stripped down to her slip, laying on my bed, while the blond twin, Lisa, sat on the floor rocking back and forth, humming, holding in a lungful of smoke.
Sometimes Lisa talked, if she got stoned enough, mentioned an apple tree and Denny, her brother, kissing her when they were six. One night I heard splashing in the slushy pool and went to my window and saw a blond head beneath the water, body limp. I was not alarmed. I knew it was Lisa and I knew she was holding her breath in that water.
Henry Paternaski knocked on the door, holding a box of chocolates someone had sent him. His wife's eyes were open. It was disconcerting. Henry claimed that once he'd waved a finger before her face and she'd followed it with her pupils. Leslie Barnum said that she had been angry with her daughter the day she jumped off that freeway overpass. When they tested what was in the cough syrup bottle she was holding they'd found Ketamine. "Know what Ketamine does? Ever heard of a K-hole? Ever heard of ego-disintegration? She didn't know what she was doing. Lord, she didn't know she was jumping off a ledge." Tricia Books said that when she menstruated for the first time, her mother ironed her panties with Holy Water. The men who had bashed in the old lady's head made out with forty-two dollars in cash. Tricia Books was in the back of the store during the robbery, heard the crunch of bat against her mother's skull like boots on potato chips, claimed she turned her head in time to see the blood leaping over the tops of shelves. Lisa stopped rocking, let out her smoke, tendrils of it filtering through the curtain of her golden hair. She'd heard all of this before, we'd all heard all of this before, but we went on telling the same stories.
For me, I always told the story about the turkey.
My husband John and my son Damien had driven off some no-name bridge off Highway 45 in Roanoke County while coming home from a football game on Thanksgiving Day. Damien was twelve. He'd won the football tickets after selling the most items for his band fundraiser, crappy Christmas things that you ordered out of a gaudy catalogue. A pair of thirty-dollar green velveteen slippers with long curled toes? Why not! This is my son! He sells something, I buy it! But what if it was those slippers that won Damien those goddamned football tickets? Thirty dollars! What did I think? That I would actually wear those slippers?
("Don't blame yourself," Lureen said, squeezing my hand. "Don't do that to yourself.")
The car hadn't hit water. Maybe if the car had hit water he would still be alive. Instead, the car tipped sideways and fell on a jagged tree stump, which drove big and ugly as a giraffe's head through the passenger-side window. Damien was instantly killed. John's neck was snapped.
When the call came I didn't jump in the car right away. I packed up the turkey first and put it in the freezer, which took some time because I had to clear out the compartment firstbags of frozen peas, stacks of TV dinners, rounds of sealed steak. Where would I put these things? When something big and unexpected as a turkey needs to fit into the freezer, where does everything else go? The mind is easily confused. The mind hears that its two lovely and golden boys are dead or dying in a hospital an hour away and seizes on the idea that the turkey should go in the freezer first. It thinks, Calm down Harriet. Here's something to do. Don't rush! Isn't that what you're always taught? That in a moment of crisis it is best to breathe and slow down, before you go rushing slapdash into the whirling world?
I went next door, asked my neighbor Joan if she had room in her icebox. They were in the middle of their Thanksgiving dinner.
"Icebox?" Joan asked. "Harriet?"
("Ha!" cried Tricia Books.)
The first thing they had me do when I got to the hospital was go down into the morgue, where Damien was. It was awful, awful. All I could see was the round head, the freshly cut hair. With his head tipped back I noticed a little lump in his throat, the seed of a little Adam's apple, and a slight shadow above his lip where a mustache was starting to grow. The month before I had found his towel stiff with semen. It seemed indecent to me to find such a thing. Where was my little boy? I wanted them to peel the sheet back so I could look at all of my son's body.
That was when I fainted.
Metal things skittered on the floor, that they had used to open and sew closed my boy's body.
("Oh," Leslie Barnum cooed. "Oh Harriet.")
But there were things I hadn't told them, things about John, that seemed too private, too indecent to share, just as Henry Paternaski never told us about Lureen's cousin, Honey, who he was screwing those two nights a month when Lureen was up in Salt Gorge to see her kids. Lureen was right: Honey really was fat. I saw her coming out of Henry's room one night, woozy with sex, lolloping breasts and stomach flopping so low it covered her crotch. At the same time she seemed to be actively starving: her flesh had a dead, hanging look about it, as if at any moment it would slough off her bones and lay around her feet like a pile of sweaters. In spite of everything she painted her lips a tawdry red and cut her hair in a pert bob, with sprightly Midwestern bangs. We stood there in the hall, looking at each other. Nothing was ghoulish or gawking. But I turned away, quickly, face hot. I needn't have done that, felt ashamed. She wasn't. She wiggled her fingers at me-toodaloo!-and sauntered down the hall.
They didn't have raucous sex. Old Henry fucked her in long controlled strokes, and her moans were full of leisure and entitlement, soaking through the thin walls between our rooms. I knew what John would say if he were here.
They must do it with the lights on.
Said in that mocking but harmless voice, full of nasty enjoyment:
How else would he find her cunt?
John's first wife, Greta, came to visit me one day. We'd barely sat down by John's bed before she had to duck out to answer a call from her lawyer. When she returned she explained that she was in the middle of divorcing her current husband, a real estate tycoon who didn't want to give her the shirt off her own back much less even one of his precious houses.
"It's a nightmare," she told me.
"Is it?" I said.
"You can't imagine."
Before long Greta had hustled me out of the hospital. We ate lunch and shopped for sweaters. She took me to a beauty parlor and treated me to a mud facial because she thought I looked so sallow, and made sure I got the good French mud, not the Egyptian mucky-muck they tried to sell you if you weren't careful.
She said she had been talking to John's doctor on the phone.
"Quacks," she told me. "All of them. You're in the wrong place."
"I didn't choose this hospital," I said weakly.
"I'm looking into having him moved to a place in Jersey," she said.
"The doctor?" I asked.
"John," Greta said, "John!" and laughed, the mud crackling. "You poor dear," she said. "Isn't this mud wonderful? Isn't this divine? Have you thought about suing the car company?" She said that she had read the police report and taken it to her lawyer who agreed that the case was worth looking into. Faulty antilock breaks, happens everyday to poor unsuspecting Americans, and those bastards oughtta pay through the nose.
"It was just an icy road," I said.
"Don't be so tiresome, Harriet. You've lost a son. Everything you love has been destroyed. I understand you need time to grieve, time to find your anger, but there's a matter of the statute of limitations to consider. Am I overwhelming you? I don't mean to overwhelm you. Everything must be so strange for you right now. You must feel so alone, so helpless. I didn't come down here for John. It makes no difference to him one way or another. I've read up on people in comas. Do you know what they do? They have wonderful dreams, Harriet, they dream and dream. This is his time. Don't cry, don't do that. We must be happy for him. It is you, my dear, that I am worried about."
She closed her eyes. Soon women knelt at our chairs, massaging our hands and feet.
"Do you know what I have always loved about you? You make do, you endure. Endurance is lost to us. What a little role model you are to me, Harriet. Do you know that?"
Greta and John were childhood sweethearts, married a year out of high school, the same year that she was a first-runner up for Miss Montana. After the marriage broke up, twelve years later, Greta propositioned me on a subway platform, just walked right up to me, a complete stranger waiting for the train, and asked if I might be interested in meeting her ex-husband. She told me that she had followed me for three blocks. That she had been appraising girls all morning and saw me, in my natty tweed coat and Artmajor boots, and knew, just knew, that I was the right girl for him.
The force of Greta is not to be underestimated. She looked like she had stepped out of the society pages of Vogue, so tall and aristocratically stooped, from among the Greek princesses and perfume-house heiresses. The truth, I learned, is that her father owned a car lot and her mother was a dancer. But standing there on the subway platform with her cold lacquered fingers gripping my elbow, I thought, How is this not every girl's dream? To be plucked from the faceless crowds and whisked away to her rightful fate among the degenerately rich?
I was mistaken. I was not gorgeous or virtuous. Greta had chosen me because I was the most plain. She was going to remind John of where things stood. That the world was full of ordinary girls like me. And that she, Greta, was the one thing in his life that he can never do better at. The joke was on her, I thought. But now I'm not so sure. What I wanted to tell Greta was, This is what you handed me. This is the fate you palmed off on me, a husband on a respirator who, even if he woke, would never walk again, or talk, or wipe his own ass
"Or cheat on you and make you feel small," Greta would have said.
Yes, that's true, that's true.
We said goodbye in the parking lot of the Pineola Inn, under the neon sign coughing pink light into the street.
Not forty feet away, Leslie Barnum and Tricia Books were stoned out of their minds in Lisa's room, Lisa on the floor in the corner, rocking back and forth, back and forth, hiding in her hair, wanting to be alone, wanting to float in the pool once everyone had gone to bed. Lureen was off in Salt Gorge with a pan of seven-layer dip that she'd made squatting over her hotplate because she didn't know how to tell her kids that she loved them, that she was sorry she had failed them as their mother, which only meant to me that I'd have to spend the night listening to Henry Paternaski make love to that fat gal Honey.
"Have you thought what you'd do if John dies?" Greta asked, clutching my hands.
I stared at her.
She was talking about the money.
A year later John's life insurance would come through: eight hundred thousand dollars. By then Greta would've finalized her divorce from the tycoon: the yacht, an Audi, plus two properties in California. So there we'd be. Both single. Both rich. Things are really going to happen for us now, she'd say. She was completely serious. Within the year she'd meet another man, learn to ride horses, develop a cyst in her lung that would eventually kill her. One summer, in London, my mother and I would see Joeleen-with her daisy face, aged now but still unmistakable-in a crowd at Harrod's. So the private detective was right about England. But what would we do? Call out her name? Push through the throngs of people? No. We'd stand there, among the creamy sweaters, my mother clutching my arm and both our voices caught in our throats, until the crowd surged around Joeleen, swallowing the space between us. Back in our hotel room, my mother would cry. We'd never go back to England. Never again will we see Joeleen. Many years later, when my mother was dying, we'd both think the same thing: so much loss, and one thing could've been recovered, but we did not call out, we did not call out.
I saw all of this in an instant. I did. Just as suddenly I glimpsed another future. Maybe I have got a job at the hospital, mopping floors or making sandwiches. And every day, during my lunch break, I'd go and sit by Nancy's bed, alone in her side of the coma ward, and I'd paint her nails, read aloud to her, on and on like that, the both of us withering sweetly
Or maybe nothing so specific. Just a sense, in that moment, of Lureen's plunger rooting through the muck, taking hold of a sweet spot in the porcelain.
What I never saw was a future in which John has woken.
What would we do? Stay married? Without our son?
I couldn't see it.
I'm sorry, but I couldn't see it.
In the meantime I stared at Greta, who still had not gotten her answer.
Soon she let go of my hands and I went into my room. I soaked my underthings in the sink, scrubbing them with a little shampoo, then laid them flat over the air conditioning where I knew they would be dry by morning.
Berkeley writer PHILIP HUANG, whose short story "Pineola Inn" appears in this issue, spent his first few years in the U.S. living in a chain motel, so motel settings pop up regularly in his stories. The transitory setting was the appropriate backdrop for this story, which he calls an exploration of "how people live day to day in a sort of limbo." Huang, who recently finished a collection of short stories called The Widow Season, says his work is also "habitually obsessed with grief and widowhood-blame it on being gay."