The motel is faded now, but maybe it was always faded, tossed off the highway along a stretch that bakes life to cinder and dust, regardless of the season. The low buildings sit exposed to the angry dust devils that ride in behind the semi trucks in summer and the moaning winds that blow them back in winter. Years ago someone, maybe my mother or my aunt, planted yucca grasses and black-eyed-susans in the planter boxes in front of the office. Now, the potting soil has dried to cement. It’s all a bleached tan, the color of old bones.
I step out of my car, parked in a space claimed by a crooked reserved sign, and juggle a ring of keys in my right hand. It makes music like the night janitor walking the concrete halls of the theatre basement but instead of keeping time for the low brass quintet, a pickup engine crests and falls. I walk around and pop the trunk. The shovel, price tag still stuck on the handle, is waiting.
The first call came two months, at the beginning of the semester. My roommate took the message. “Trouble at home. Call.”
Trouble was shortness of breath, Dad so blue he looked like he was auditioning for Papa Smurf. Then, trouble was no one to run the motel while they held him hostage with an oxygen tank on the third floor of Our Lady of Mercy. Trouble was two weeks of lost rehearsals, two weekends of giving wedding gigs to Chessa Ridley, and what felt like an eternity renting rooms to misplaced travelers with vomiting children and hayseed hookers turning daylight tricks. The dust of high school crept back under my fingernails while I sat behind the fringe of plastic cactuses with Oliver, Dad’s arthritic dachshund, caramelizing beneath my feet.
When the verdict came — cancer, stage 3 — I put my foot down.
“One more year, Dad, and I can start auditions. My teacher says I have it, that I’m as good as any other trombonist in the Tuscon Philharmonic. But I can’t be driving back and forth every weekend to babysit this place.” I looked down at him, his bulk filling the hospital bed, and I needed him to hear me. I continued, “If I miss one more rehearsal, the maestro will kill me.”
“What do you care about that homo? You’re paying money, they can’t throw you out.”
“Dad, I’ve told you before, Maestro Guiliani is not gay.”
He grunted. “This isn’t about school, or your gay boy conductor. This is about the motel. Donna, you know how close we run to the margin.” He strangled my hand and I saw how deep the creases in his fingers had gotten. The way the veins seemed to swell up out of his skin to remind me that we were the only ones left. Us and eight wind-roasted rooms for $50.00 a night, or $35.00 an hour. And then there was Oliver.
“I can’t keep coming home. Please, hire a high school kid.” He never agreed, neither did I back down. I guess I can be proud of that.
Beneath the shovel in the trunk of the car are two pairs of gloves, a gas mask and an old flannel shirt. I put the shirt on first then elbow-length rubber gloves. My hands sprout sweat on contact with the breathless rubber, but that’s the point. I want nothing to get though. I pull leather gripping gloves over the rubber and balance the gas mask on my forehead. Finally, I lift out the shovel and slam the trunk.
When he called again, two weeks ago, I refused. I called his room at the hospital daily, gave him lists of other options, but he didn’t budge.
He begged me, in his way. “There’s Oliver. He needs food. And water, you know how hot it gets this time of year.” He said it slowly through the morphine.
“Dad, Oliver can live off his body fat for weeks. Anyway, call Mrs. Travis. Or get that girl who makes the beds on the weekends, what’s her name?”
“She left last year. Got a kid or something. It’s got to be you.”
“It won’t be, Dad. I told you.”
At the front office door, I falter. My little tantrum, thinking a scholarship and a little talent exempted me from the rest of my life, put me here. And now I am afraid to deal with the evidence.
To postpone confrontation, I decide to dig the hole first. I strip off gloves and gas mask, leaving them on the doorstep, and circumscribe the motel to a stretch of skeletal sagebrush and stone. I choose a spot a few yards from the back of the office and dig. No sense hauling the body any further.
It was the final phone call, and not from Dad, that broke me. Just a day before the dress rehearsal, two days before a quintet booking for someone’s graduation party, and I let it all crumble. Mrs. Travis had found my number taped to the phone, because Dad could never remember the last three digits.
“You’d better get down here and take care of this. I’m sure it violates all sorts of health codes and… well, it’s god-awful, that’s all I can tell you.” She hung up before I could draft an excuse. It took only a minute, holding the memory of last semester’s concert against the hang of my father’s own slow death, and the decision grew easy.
At the front door again, I slide the gas mask over my face so sweat steams instantly along the seals. With double gloves, I fumble for the right key and use both hands to insert it in the slot. I turn the knob and, even with the mask, hold my breath. Oliver lies where he’s always lain, beneath the chair at the check-in desk, and flies crawl slowly across his vacant, open eyes.
Christie Isler is a poet, writer, musician, and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. She has poetry and prose published in online collections, including Shoots & Vines, The New Flesh, Identity Theory, Infinite Windows, tinfoildresses and Bolts of Silk. Christie makes her physical home outside of Seattle, Washington and her online home at thetriptakesyou.wordpress.com.