from Rat of the World
Eugene Marten

The motel stood at the edge of the city center, near the foot of the West Hills. During the day the manager was an old guy with a white mustache who told them that summer would be hot but not as hot as they were used to, and dry. He told them about the rain. He told them where the zoo was, and Chinatown, and to stay out of Old Town, which was right next to Chinatown. At night it was a college kid who sat over an open textbook, the phone pressed to his ear.

The room was on the second floor. Two doubles. There was no pool but they had cable and air. They were new to cable and spent most of the first day watching MTV and public access, the road still moving under them like a treadmill. There were no movie channels, you had to pay extra for a movie. Miss D giggled at a Korean soap opera.

Jelonnek looked in the phone book, but if he had one it wasn’t listed.

“If I could call long distance,” Littlebit said.

“Are we still in the United States?” Miss D asked.

You could see the mountain from the bathroom. There was a small square window in there and when you sat on the toilet you could see the top half of the mountain, its white peak against the blue sky, and nothing else.

At night a man went past their window carrying a red and white lunch pail. He was small and walked as though one side of his body were dead weight. He had a room on the second floor.

In the morning Jelonnek went to the office and paid for another day. They had a weekly rate but Jelonnek declined; they weren’t going to be here that long. You just had to lay low for a while, till things blew over.

He went to Dunkin Donuts across the street and bought a dozen, glazed. Miss D ate four of them and watched cartoons. Somebody knocked and said in a Russian accent, “Room to clean.” They sent her away and left before she came back, drove around town getting no more lost than they already were. Miss D asked the question that had by default become the slogan of their situation, which was such that Jelonnek was almost beyond annoyance.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, partly because he’d never been there himself, but it already seemed they’d reached the end of the line; what else was left but to drive off the edge?

They wound up in a vast park on the other side of the hills. The zoo was there, and so were a Vietnam veterans memorial and tennis courts and twenty miles of trails. There was a rose garden with five hundred kinds of roses and a Japanese garden with tiny waterfalls and bridges and a pond of big orange fish that went for anything you dropped in the water. Miss D watched them eat her spit. The trail was shady and cool and they made way for joggers wearing bright chemical colors. The trees had small placards nailed to their bark. On the placards were the names of the trees, in English, and below that was Latin or Greek. Miss D moved ahead like an advance scout, tree to tree, reading off the names with no little difficulty, and anything that wasn’t fir or pine was news to Jelonnek. There was one she couldn’t read at all. Its bark was ringed with black and white stripes and Miss D said, “I’ma call that a zebrawood,” and Jelonnek had to admit it was a good name, and wondered what he might have named it had he been in Adam’s skin.

Littlebit strolled behind, taking her time and muttering.

The trail led to a clearing on top of a hill where there was an old carousel and an ice cream cart. A friendly kid with a shaved head and pierced ears operated both. Jelonnek wouldn’t buy Miss D a popsicle, then changed his mind, and then they each got on a horse. Littlebit sat on a bench. Miss D invited her to join them and Littlebit said, “Is you mad? Feel like I just got off one.”

The kid turned the carousel by pumping a long wooden lever. The buildings of the city and the mountain spun by, then Littlebit on the bench. Jelonnek kept expecting the bench to go by empty on the next pass, but it didn’t happen.

After the park they bought fast food and took it back to the motel and paid for a movie. You called the office and they added it to your bill. They sat and lay on the beds with the lights off and the air conditioning on, while before them played out the story of an evil android from the future who comes to the present to kill the boy who will otherwise grow up to . . . . Jelonnek wished he’d thought of that, too, though it was a sequel whose plot was identical to its predecessor. He thought about Armageddon Zero, still locked in the trunk of the car. He thought about money, how he could feel them running out of it. It seemed to be something that was always happening, even just sitting there, like a slow leak, a meter running somewhere.

He went to the office and the kid glanced up from an histology manual. Jelonnek asked if there were any copies of yesterday’s paper lying around. All that was left was the entertainment section but that was what he wanted. He took it back to the room and Littlebit was on the phone.

“You got the best hand,” she said to someone. “What time it is over there?”

“I wanna call somebody,” Miss D said. Jelonnek looked at her. He’d thought about making a call of his own.

“You ain’t never lied,” Littlebit said. “Yuppies, Japs and dykes. They bums dress better than we do.”

Jelonnek opened the paper and poured over the music listings the way he had the White Pages.

“Did he . . . hell, no.”

Miss D whispered in her mother’s ear.

“Be easy then,” Littlebit said. “Miss D wanna bother you.” Jelonnek reached over and pressed the cradle button before she could, and Littlebit almost slammed the receiver down on his finger.

“Goddamn you tight,” she said.

“Is you tight, Jelonny?” Miss D said.

“Yeah he is,” Littlebit said. “He too cheap to sweat.”

Then she said she didn’t mean it. She said she was playing.

Jelonnek sat by the window. “Find anything out?”

She hadn’t found out her cousin’s phone number or address, but whoever she’d spoken with had told her something about Sunday night. If it was true. If it was true, maybe it was just as well they could no longer afford to go back.

Later the man with the red and white lunch pail limped past the window. Jelonnek peeked through the curtain. One arm was short and had fleshy nubs at the end like rudimentary fingers.

Littlebit had trouble sleeping, Jelonnek could hear it. Early in the morning he found her sprawled on the bathroom floor because the tiles were cold.

“Don’t feel good?” he said.

“I sure damn don’t.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I need twenty dollars.”

“Make it ten,” Jelonnek said. “I’m cheap. I’m cheap and this is the last time,” he said.

He remembered why the day manager had told them not to go into Old Town, so they told Miss D they’d be back with breakfast and hung the sign on the door. They drove through the gate to Chinatown. The gate had five roofs and marble columns and was guarded by two lions, one male and one female. There were restaurants and red lampposts, cherry trees, the street signs in two languages. Then Old Town, which was what it said it was. Buildings that looked like they should have had horses tied out front, and some of these had been converted into galleries, shops, or office space. One was being demolished and only the facade was left, like a set in a Hollywood western.

They drove around blocks. The streets were in alphabetical order and some people crossed them slowly, without looking. Jelonnek beeped at one of them, a white-haired woman in a baseball cap, who stopped and turned and looked at them, a bag in each hand.

“She’ll suck your dick for ten cents,” she said, and spat on the windshield.

“I’ll do better than that,” Littlebit said. Jelonnek ran the wipers.

A shelter, train depot, comedy club, a bar where everybody was on their feet with a man standing outside, looking at pedestrians and drivers in a certain solicitous way.

“Him?” Jelonnek said.

“Look for a white one,” Littlebit said.

They saw him on a block where one whole side had been razed, pacing before mounds of rubble. Jelonnek pulled over, looking around. The guy came near and leaned in Littlebit’s window. Jelonnek didn’t look at him; he could barely hear what they said. He passed the bill across the seat. The guy took it and opened his mouth and something dropped from it into Littlebit’s lap. Jelonnek drove carefully away listening for sirens. He told Littlebit after that she was done.

“Sure damn am,” she said.

“This was the last one.”

“I mean.”

They passed a laundromat and he said they should wash clothes soon.

“I’m sayin,” she said.

 

They took the sheet from one of the beds. Filled the trash can with store brand soda and cheap beer and ice, then covered it with the plastic the ice came in. They bought fried chicken and biscuits on the way.

Heading west there were more tree-covered mountains and sometimes they had strange-looking bald patches where the trees had been cleared away. Miss D asked which were mountains and which were hills, and she asked about the chicken. She wore her bathing suit for the first time since Nebraska. When the grades got steep Jelonnek drove in low gear as he had the night before they got into town, and if there was only one lane traffic would stack up behind him like he was leading a pilgrimage. Once he pulled onto the shoulder and let them pass, and they read the license plates. Out here people expressed themselves through their license plates.

After two hours or so they saw a sign and turned off the highway. A narrow road twisted through a rain forest so dense Jelonnek turned on the lights. Ferns brushed the car. The road led to a parking lot on top of a cliff. Shorebirds cried overhead and when they got out of the car it was rock and trees and then just water and sky. Miss D forgot about the chicken. A trail zigzagged down the face of the cliff and she forgot to be afraid of heights. When they got to the bottom she ran to the water’s edge and waited for them, Jelonnek with the trash can and the sheet folded over his shoulder, Littlebit carrying the food. The waves kept chasing Miss D back toward them.

They took off their shoes and held down the corners of the sheet with them. The sand was soft and not too hot, then damp and smooth and firm as a floor where the waves came in. Up close the blue was almost gray. Littlebit stayed just out of reach, wearing a dark sleeveless dress that dropped off her shoulders like it was still on the hanger. Rumble-rush of the breakers, the water so cold it made the bones of your feet and ankles ache, and Miss D screamed in pain and joy. Your feet sank in mud and the surf rushed back out as hard as it came in, wanting to pull your legs out from under you. Jelonnek threw out his arms. Miss D screamed. The ocean withdrew in layers, hissing white foam subsiding to cloudy brown, and then sheet upon sheet upon clear sheet shedding each other in as many directions. The sand smoothed to a shiny unbroken slickness in which for a moment everything was reflected.

“Jelonny we standin on the sky!” Miss D yelled.

They got as used to it as they were going to get, and still you couldn’t do anything but wade. No one was in deeper than waist-high except the dogs, and even the guys with surfboards wore wetsuits. Miss D remembered she was hungry. They went back to the sheet where the breeze had flipped one corner and half-covered it with sand. The ice had melted but the pop was cold enough and so was the beer. Sometimes you could feel the spray lightly on your face and Miss D said, “It feels like I’m growin freckles.”

Everything was far away from everything else. Behind them the bluffs fell away to dunes and beach grass, refreshment stands and beachfront property. In between a row of striped tents where you could change your clothes. A group of teenagers picnicked on a blanket nearby, in the shadow of a smoldering log. One of them kept throwing bits of hotdog into the air, and a big white bird would swoop in and catch it before it landed.

“You see that shit?” Littlebit said. She threw her bones in the sand and lay down on the sheet with an arm over her face.

“You good, Ma?”

“Good as I get.”

The gulls cried through the surf.

Jelonnek looked down the beach, where everything became vague and misted. A couple of big rocks rose out of the water there, and one of them looked to be the size of an office building. Jelonnek finished his beer and got up and headed that way. Littlebit stayed where she was but Miss D followed. He’d had two beers and didn’t stop her. People flew kites, sat under umbrellas. A gang of kids were building a fortress as if preparing for an invasion from the sea. Seagulls hovered over a big scaly carcass as if tethered to it and there were dead jellyfish to avoid, transparent blobs with tendrils going yellow and brown in the sun.

They passed two women in broom skirts holding hands, one of them saying, “It’s an angry coast.” Miss D wanted to know why two women were holding hands, and Jelonnek said he didn’t know. She asked him if they could and he said they couldn’t.

It was farther than he’d thought. The rock was much bigger now but still gray in the mist, like it had yet to become real. You could see the birds flocking on and around it like bees at a hive, and there were big green patches of grass or moss. They sloshed through clear shallows between sand bars and came to a stretch of boulders covered with tiny black mussels. You had to watch your step because the boulders were slick and in between them was another kind of life, bulbous dark-green gourds that opened like a chorus of mouths when the tide came in, closed when it went back out. Jelonnek showed them to Miss D and she touched one. It opened up and she screamed and ran back up the beach. Jelonnek slipped, gashed his knee. He looked down and saw blood. Then the ocean took it away and he swore with the sting of saltwater.

When they got back to the sheet Littlebit was sitting up with her hands behind her and a cigarette in her lips. “Ready to raise?” she said. Jelonnek’s arms and legs were pink. Miss D drank another pop and seemed to have forgotten all about the boulders and the terrible green things that lived in them. They let her wade a little while longer, then dumped the water out of the trash can and stuffed the sheet into it. There were a couple of beers left for the road. On the way back up the bluff Miss D said goodbye to the waves and the sand and the birds, and Littlebit told her to watch where she was going. Jelonnek kept looking back. Sand met water met sky like the seams of the world, and the world got bigger the higher they climbed.

At the top Littlebit pointed. On a cluster of rocks maybe a hundred yards offshore, sea lions had gathered. Miss D couldn’t see them for the life of her but said goodbye anyway, waving in a stiff little gesture like she was leaving home again.

 

Two men came to the motel in a taxi. They took a room on the second floor at the corner of the building. Jelonnek and Littlebit watched from the window. The two men wore loud, outdated clothes that looked like they’d been purchased new, and one had a ponytail. When Jelonnek turned from the window Littlebit had her face by Miss D’s crotch.

“Why you sniff my privacy?” Miss D said.

“Cause you nasty. Now go get with that rag like I showed you.”

Miss D slammed the bathroom door saying something. “Maybe you should go in with her,” Jelonnek said.

“Maybe I’ma go for a walk,” Littlebit said.

“Where to?”

“Gimme the rent,” she said.

“What rent?”

“For the room. You been paid it?”

“We got time.”

“Give it here,” Littlebit said. “I’ll take care a it.”

“That’s alright,” Jelonnek said. He was looking in the Yellow Pages. “I’ll get it on my way out.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“I got an errand to run.”

“Then go ahead with yourself.”

The old guy was in the office, his cheek bulging with tobacco. Jelonnek asked about the weekly rate. He didn’t have enough cash so he tried his credit card. He’d used it up on the road but he tried it anyway. The old guy came back and said, “Better call your bank.” Jelonnek paid for another day and headed downtown. On his way through the parking lot he looked up. The man with the ponytail looked back from the second floor balcony, picking his nose.

The girl at the temporary employment agency said they weren’t taking applications at this time. She was very nice and gave Jelonnek a key to the bathroom down the hall. He returned the key and took the elevator down to the lobby. He asked the security guard there if they were hiring. The guard didn’t know but he told Jelonnek where he could go to find out.

It was bright and warm on the street. Jelonnek walked past an old courthouse, crossed the street to a square where a pole bristling with signs told you your exact distance from certain major cities of the world. At the corner a bronze statue of a businessman with an umbrella. The square was sunken like an amphitheater and Jelonnek crossed to the other side, through skateboarders and office workers and past a recess where people spoke and listened to their echoes. The bricks under his feet had names written on them; you could buy a brick for a hundred dollars. Young people sat on the steps or leaned against the walls asking for money. “Wanna look in my box?” one of them asked Jelonnek. On his lap was a cigar box, and next to him sat a pretty girl with a smudged face. They were much younger than the bums Jelonnek was used to.

“Okay,” he said. The girl opened the lid and an eye painted on the inside of the box stared back up at him.

“Cost you a quarter,” the kid said. Jelonnek told him he was crazy and got going.

“I can sing you a song,” the kid said.

“Have a better day,” the girl yelled.

The next kid had a guitar with about three strings that made a dry buzzing sound like a trapped insect. A case was open on the ground and a sign propped against the lid requested donations with which the owner would acquire lessons and strings and become a proper musician. A spattering of change shone in the lid and there were even bills, but Jelonnek didn’t add to it.

A man outside Starbucks kept asking people for the precise amount of a dollar thirty-seven. He would follow you a little ways.

But everyone else you saw was nice-looking and they drove nice cars and wore carefully chosen clothes. At the corner Jelonnek took a drink from a fountain and the water was cold, as if it came from some deep dark place.

He explained his situation at the security firm. They told him things were slow right now, but they let him fill out an application and said they’d call him if anything turned up. They even let him watch a training video. He sat at a tiny desk in a small dark room with two other people. The video took a humorous slant; a vastly corpulent guard eating a turkey leg at his post, snoring in oblivion while a pair of intruders cleaned out the premises. Only Jelonnek laughed.

When he got back to the motel Littlebit wasn’t there. Miss D lay on the bed watching The Real World.

“She gone for a walk.”

“Where to?”

“Don’t start me lyin.”

Jelonnek looked out the window. Later they heard a door slam from the other end of the building. Littlebit came in with a look on her face like she’d discovered something amazing and was about to share it with them. They’d seen this look before.

“Where you been, ma?”

“Around the world.” She lay on top of Miss D and kissed her.

“Your mouth smell,” Miss D said.

“I love you too.”

Miss D looked at her. “Your eyes all bugged.”

“I love you too,” Littlebit said. She looked at Jelonnek and loved him as well, then loved everything in the room for the next five minutes or so. She put a cigarette in her mouth but didn’t light it. She picked up the remote and clicked it at the TV with such finality that every channel she changed might also have ceased to exist. She clicked it around the room in a sort of experimental way, then aimed it at Jelonnek, said, “Smile,” and threw it against the wall over his head and locked herself in the bathroom.

In the evening Jelonnek went back to the office. The young guy was there, leaning over his book with a lump in his cheek. Everyone here chewed, it seemed; Jelonnek had even seen women.

“Those two guys that checked in today,” Jelonnek said. He said the room number and the night manager spat into the same coffee can the day manager used.

“I think they’re up to something,” Jelonnek said. “Selling dope or something.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” The day manager looked at his book.

“Well,” Jelonnek said. “I think . . . The police?”

“Can you prove anything?”

Jelonnek wanted to press the night manager’s face into the book so he couldn’t breathe, into histology or calculus till he never breathed again. Instead he went to the store across the street and bought the cheapest twelve-pack in the cooler. When Littlebit saw it she said, “I thought we ain’t had the money.”

“We,” he said. A piece of the remote cracked under his foot. “It cost four bucks.” He needed ice. He took the bucket down to the machine under the stairs and filled it. There was a room next to the machine. The door opened and a woman stood there for him. Jelonnek saw flat sagging breasts, veins, stretch marks, a belly under a belly. He couldn’t look at her face. He backed away with the ice as if she might drag him inside and went up the stairs. The door slammed shut.

He sat in a chair and drank beer and smoked. Littlebit asked for one. “You had yours,” he said.

“Naw she ain’t,” Miss D said.

“Shut up,” he said.

“You ain’t my daddy.”

“Won’t be the last time you say that,” Jelonnek said.

He watched TV and drank, and after they went to sleep he was still watching TV and drinking. The show on public access consisted of a naked man sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, meditating. The beer was bitter. Jelonnek had to press the buttons on top of the TV since the remote was broken, and each time he passed the public access channel the naked man was still meditating. The beer was bitter but he got used to it and drank every can before he felt like going to sleep. He was still sleeping in the chair when another taxi came and brought visitors to the two men in the corner room.

They stopped buying fast food. They went to the store across the street, and while Jelonnek bought a loaf of bread Littlebit shoved a pack of baloney into her purse.

They filled the ice bucket and put the baloney on top.

Later they told Miss D they were going to play a game.

“Like hide-and-seek but it ain’t,” Littlebit said. Miss D and Jelonnek were to go hide somewhere. If Littlebit couldn’t find them, there would be a surprise.

Miss D was dubious. “I wanna hide with you, Ma.”

“Next time,” Jelonnek said.

“I don’t know.”

“Well you playin anyway.” Littlebit stood at the window, barefoot, wearing that long t-shirt. She kept looking past the curtain. The man with the red and white lunch pail pulled in every night around this time and limped past their window.

“What if he keeps going?” Jelonnek said.

“He ready,” Littlebit said. “He more ready as you.”

Miss D said, “What kinda surprise?”

Littlebit looked out the window once more and covered her eyes.

“One, two . . .”

Jelonnek gestured at Miss D and moved quickly to the bathroom. She seemed to have forgotten her misgivings. They went inside the bathroom and Jelonnek shut the door. Light from the street came through the small window but at least you couldn’t see the mountain.

“Get in the tub,” he said. Then he drew the curtain over the window and stood in the tub with her. He drew the shower curtain but not all the way.

“I can still see,” Miss D whispered with a kind of disappointment. They crouched and Jelonnek told her not to say another word. He was practically begging.

The door rattled. Jelonnek felt Miss D stiffen next to him. It rattled again and they heard the room door shut. A muffled conversation.

“Who that?” Miss D whispered.

Jelonnek hushed her, then said, “TV.” They could hear traffic outside. Littlebit’s voice got louder: “Ain’t nobody in there.” The bathroom door opened and the room brightened and Miss D shut her eyes like it would make her invisible. The door closed but not all the way. Somebody sat or lay on the bed. The TV got louder and that was all they heard till Littlebit moaned.

Miss D stiffened again. Littlebit moaned again. A succession of harsh grunts and Miss D said, “Ma.” She was still whispering like she didn’t want to break the rules, but she was standing, too, and Jelonnek lunged and grabbed what he could. They fell back against the wall with Miss D against his chest, and Jelonnek was sure they could hear it over the TV. He covered Miss D’s mouth and she bit his hand. Her hair was thick and dry and he pulled it till she stopped.

The man out in the room said something. He said it like he was talking in his sleep. It was hot behind the shower curtain and Jelonnek smelled Miss D. He was sweating. He kept one hand in her hair and one tight over her mouth. The breath from her nostrils was hot. Snot and tears. If Littlebit got into trouble she would call his name, that was part of the game, too.