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The Gray Gull by Rebecca Dunham

The Gray Gull by Rebecca Dunham

Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013

I hate motels, won’t stay in them. My boyfriend jokes about it, and I think to him it’s no different than when I waited tables at the Armadillo but refused to eat there—if you’d seen what’s in the kitchen, I would tell him, you wouldn’t touch it, either. He knows that I worked as a motel chambermaid the summer before I went to college. But it’s not the roaches I fear. I refuse motels the way I refuse to marry him. If he’d seen what lives in him, somewhere, he wouldn’t touch it, either.

Jenna knew. Jenna, who sat next to me in Chemistry, and whom I let cheat off my exams; Jenna, who helped me land my first real job—not babysitting or helping out part-time at my father’s office. Sometimes I wonder what we would have said if we had ever talked about it. I even practice what I’d ask her now, given the chance. The York High alumni newsletters have listed her as “address unknown” for at least ten years, though, with the request for anyone who knows anything to get in touch with them. If they posted a fuzzy black-and-white copy of her yearbook picture, it could be the kind of thing you’d find on a milk carton.

“They’re hiring at the Gull,” Jenna said that day in Chem class, bending over to adjust her pink leg warmers. The pinnacle of style in spring 1988 was tight jeans, legwarmers, nylons, and leather flats. And Jenna was always in style.

“Already?” I asked.

In Maine, school-year jobs were hard to come by. Everything shut down on Labor Day, and didn’t open again until Memorial Day. All the restaurants and shops at Long Sands beach were boarded up. In the fall, my younger brother and his friends would sneak into empty pools behind the cheap motels and party there.

“Half-time now, full-time starting Memorial Day,” Jenna said. “It’s chambermaiding—better pay than the boardwalk. Plus tips.”

I couldn’t picture Jenna working anywhere, period, but I guessed that she must. Most of the kids did. I’d been busy studying for my SATs last summer, and filling out college applications all fall, and I had just assumed I would do some filing work at my father’s office this summer—I’d never even considered working down at the beach.

“Maybe,” I said. I pulled out my notebook and fiddled with the metal spiral. It says a lot about where I fell in the social hierarchy that I was willing to scrub toilet bowls in a cheap beach motel if only I’d get the chance to do so alongside Jenna.

I looked over at her. Nodded. “Why not?”

~

Jenna gave me a ride to the Gull after school.

“My aunt’s been hounding me to get someone reliable to apply,” she said as we turned onto Route 1.

“It kind of sucks because you have to get there early, clean the lobby and restock, and then turn the rooms over,” Jenna explained. “But you’re done for the day by 4 and still have time to go to the beach.”

I hated the beach, hated the sand gritting my legs, hated the water that in Maine never got warm enough to swim in.

“Cool,” I said.

I’d forgotten that her aunt and uncle owned the Gull—The Gray Gull, according to its sign, even though they’d painted the place a horrid peachy-pink that was probably supposed to summon up images of a conch shell or Floridian resorts. No one could miss it. The Gull practically glowed, garish against the sun-weathered rental homes, perched on stilts, that lined the rest of the street. The motel looked particularly ridiculous now, in early April, with a scrub of gray snow clinging to the parking lot’s edges.

Jenna called out as the lobby door swung shut behind us. Her aunt was in an office off to the side. She came out after a few long minutes that involved me staring at my shoes and floor tiling. Billows of cigarette smoke trailed in her wake.

“Jennie,” she said in a thick French accent. “Where were you yesterday? I had to vacuum the office myself, with my bad back, you know?”

Most of the people in our area were French Canadian, and it was another way that my family stuck out, another thing that made me different from everyone else. The kids at school didn’t have accents, mostly, but they also had grown up on a strange mixture of corrupted French and English at home.

Jenna shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to study for the Chem test today.”

“You did well?” her aunt asked.

“Sure,” Jenna said, glancing at me. “My study partner wants to work here this summer.”

Jenna’s aunt, about three inches shorter than me, stepped closer. I could smell the talcum powder on her, and the scent of her body beneath it, could see each coil of her close-cut, iron-gray hair. She probably had it set once a week, and didn’t wash it between.

“You going to show?” she asked. “I don’t need another like this one.”

Jenna rolled her eyes.

“Auntie Di,” she said. “She’s going to college.”

Auntie Di raised her eyebrows. Then she turned back to the counter, tapped a cigarette out of her soft pack, and picked up a lighter from next to the ashtray.

“College, huh?” she said, inhaling until the tip of the cigarette glowed. “You willing to get your hands dirty? You willing to watch them crack?”

Jenna said something to her in French, too quickly for me to follow.

“I’ve been cleaning my father’s office for a long time,” I said. A bit of a stretch—it had been an occasional weekend job back when I was in junior high—but it was really my only qualification.

“You know French?” she asked. “What’s your last name?”

“Andrews,” I said. “I take French at school.”

“Don’t know them,” Auntie Di said. Took another drag of her cigarette, as if considering. As if there was a line of girls out the door dying to chambermaid at the Gull. I stood still, self-conscious, worrying about my prep-school hair and the L.L. Bean sweater my mother insisted I wear.

Jenna’s aunt looked at her again. “You going to train her? I don’t have time to be training.”

“Sure,” Jenna said.

Her aunt nodded. And I got the job. Auntie Di never even had me fill out an application. She paid cash, $8.00 an hour under the table, and I got to keep any tips or stray quarters that the guests left. Plus a bonus at the end of the season, if I lasted that long.

~

First off, The Gray Gull was a motel, with pretensions to be a hotel. This is an important distinction. In a hotel, you get a lobby with a check-in desk, nice carpet or shining marble, and no office in sight. You get key cards and room service. There’s an elevator. You get air conditioning. You get a shower with water pressure that never runs out of hot water. You get a room with framed watercolors of ocean scenes and a color television with cable and HBO.

In a motel, you get keys with enormous plastic tags, the room number nearly illegible and worn with use. Each room has its own entrance to outside, and a space to park in front. You get a thin cadet-blue carpet stained from flooding, and the musty smell that comes with that. You get a door that doesn’t quite close. There’s no air conditioning, and the window opens onto the main drag, so you hear motorcycles and souped-up cars flexing their muscles all night long. You get plain walls, cracked paint, and popcorn-foam ceiling tiles yellowed from cigarette smoke. If you’re lucky, there’s a TV with rabbit ears. If you’re really lucky, like at the Gull, it’s a color TV.

In the community circular my family got in the mail every week, you’d never read about hotels in the crimes section. But the motels—during June, July, and August, they filled most of the section.

“Get this,” my father would say over breakfast, reading. “Some girls got arrested last night for assault. Over a hairdryer that one stole from the other, they say. The guy who witnessed it took off before the cops got there.”

He’d shake his head in disbelief. “A hairdryer,” he’d repeat.

Things like that. So I knew what I was getting into, and so did my parents.

~

 “There’s no way,” my mother said when I told her I’d be starting at the Gull the next afternoon.

“It’s better than working on the boardwalk,” I said. “Eight dollars an hour.”

“You know you won’t be working at the boardwalk. Your father could use some extra help while everyone takes off for summer vacation.”

“Well, I already said yes,” I told her.

“I don’t want you around those kind of people,” she said.

“What, French Canadians?” I asked. Most of the tourists in July came down from Quebec, when the factories closed for two weeks.

My mother’s face tensed, rock-hard. She dropped the last silverware into the dishwasher with a cymbal-like crash, and then slammed the door harder than she needed to. I watched her push the buttons, punching them in. The sound of water rushing and the engine’s hum filled the silent kitchen.

“What goes on there—” she broke off. “You don’t know what you’re in for. Puke, pubic hair in the sheets, all of it. You won’t last a week.”

“Then there’s no problem with me trying it out,” I said, even more determined now to outlast whatever indignities the job involved. “You’ll get to say you told me so.”

“I don’t like that the pay is under the table,” she said.

“I’ll be moving to Orono in a few months,” I said. “And it’s not like I haven’t been to parties.” She shot me a pointed look. We didn’t talk about the parties. That was understood.

“There’s parties, and then there are parties,” was all she said now.

My mother took the yellow sponge and began to wipe bread crumbs from the counter into her palm. Swipe, gather. Swipe, gather. Like a teacher erasing the white board, this safe, clean kitchen. Her hands, red from hot water, cupped the pile of debris and then dropped it in the sink.

“Why do you really want this job?” she asked, not looking at me. “You’re better than that.”

My mother was the worst kind of snob—her own mother had had to wash her one pair of underwear in the sink every night and then hang it over the shower rod so that it would be clean in the morning; her father had been an auto mechanic. Just like ex-smokers are the most virulent anti-smokers, my mother couldn’t forget the tenement house she’d come from.

She didn’t understand that neatly creased jeans and turtlenecks from Bean’s were as bad as her hand-me-downs; she didn’t care about the guys at school who gave me a wide berth when I walked down the hall, or the clutches of girls I couldn’t talk to.

“I should have asked Dad,” I said.

We both knew he would have said yes, that he would think it’d build character.

She wiped wet hands on her pants, leaving behind a starfish-like imprint on each thigh.

“There are some things your father doesn’t understand,” she said.

Then, “Go clean your room.”

That was the thing about my mother; she never backed down, didn’t know the meaning of giving in. If she couldn’t win, it had never happened. As long as I didn’t mention the job again, she could pretend I wasn’t working as a chambermaid at the Gull.

I climbed the stairs to my room. The carpet was a lush lawn-green, the walls twined with papered roses. I kicked dirty clothes under my bed, laid down, and thought about summer. I’d never even kissed a boy, and there was no way I was going to college like that. I closed my eyes, imagined Jenna inviting me out after work. I tried to picture the boy she’d introduce me to, could see his lanky figure and hunched shoulders, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t put a face on him. Just a blurred oval of tan skin, baseball cap on backwards. Nobody I knew. Perfect.

~

Training amounted to Jenna bringing me to the laundry room, located at the far end of the Gull’s L-shaped building. Industrial-sized washers and driers churned and buzzed so loud she had to raise her voice.

“Back there,” she said, pointing. Several housekeeping carts lined the back wall; they were basically metal shelves with rollers and a canvas laundry bag hanging from one side.

“Room supplies go on top of the cart,” Jenna said, pointing to the stacks of clean black ashtrays, toilet paper, and small, individually wrapped bars of soap. This was before the idea of “nonsmoking rooms” and “green cleaning”—jugs of ammonia, bleach, and other chemicals stood in haphazard order on the shelves.

“Here’s where you write it down if we run out of anything,” she said, and tapped the clipboard that dangled from a nail in the wall.

I nodded, trying to keep track of the different cleaning supplies, sponges, and wipes as she loaded them into the cart’s underbelly.

“They iron and do the laundry,” she said, and tilted her head at the two women busy running white cloth through a rotary iron wide as a piano. “You can grab the folded ones from shelves over there.”

Jenna grabbed a stack of white sheets and towels and added them to her cart’s bottom shelves.

“Now you,” she said, pushing a cart to me.

“We’ll do side-by-side rooms today. Actually, we all like to try and do side-by-side rooms whenever we can,” she added. “You know.”

I didn’t know, and I hadn’t known I’d be cleaning rooms by myself. I’d pictured the two of us working in the same room, laughing and vacuuming, and snapping a starched white sheet in the air so that it settled slowly, like those parachutes in PE.

I bit my lip and looked at the cart. Decided to throw a few of each thing on it, just in case. Jenna wasn’t even watching. She chewed on a hangnail and stared out the room’s single window at the Gull’s snow-scummed backyard.

“Ready?” she asked, still not turning around.

“Okay,” I said. “I mean, I think so.”

Jenna said something in French to the two women working on the laundry.

“They’re going to bring the vacuums out for us,” she explained. “So we don’t have to come back again. It’s our job, though, so don’t ask them if Auntie Di’s around.”

The Gull had thirty-six units, but there had only been a few guests the night before. The cart shuddered as I pushed it forward, working about as well as a grocery cart with a loose wheel. I had to lean in hard with my right side to keep it going straight.

The first couple of rooms made my shoulders ache. I floundered as I stretched across the mattress and tried to drag the fitted sheets over each corner. I crumpled the old ones up and shoved them in the laundry bag without even looking. Pubic hair, my mother had said. And worse, I imagined. I didn’t even want to know.

In the first room, the guy had left a wet towel balled up on the floor behind the toilet. I got down on my hands and knees to pick it up. In the second, I opened the night table drawer and saw a bunch of balled tissues and a porn magazine next to the Bible.

“Jesus,” I said. I went and got rubber gloves from the cart. Pulled them up over my wrists and listened to them snap into place. They were going to come in handy, I could already tell. I used my forefinger and thumb to lift the used tissues one at a time into a garbage bag, then dumped the porn magazine in after them.

“That was just nasty,” I said to Jenna after we’d both finished two rooms apiece. I opened the garbage bag far enough for her to see the porn magazine inside.

She shrugged. I felt like a prude now, and tried to laugh.

“I should have left it next to the Bible,” I said.

I hadn’t seen Jenna crack a smile since we got here, but her eyebrows lifted and she grinned at me. “Let’s do it.”

“You,” I said. “I’m not touching it.”

“You already did,” she argued, her voice pitched high as a toddler’s, teasing.

That was the thing about Jenna: when she smiled at you, when she really looked at you, all of a sudden you became someone, became the person she wanted you to be. I never saw anyone turn her, or that feeling, down.

“I have to wear the gloves,” I said as I pulled the right one back on.

Jenna gave an exaggerated eye-roll and, still grinning, followed me into the room. I pulled the drawer open and dropped the magazine neatly beside the Bible.

Jenna slammed the drawer shut with a screech and grabbed me, laughing hysterically. We bolted back out the door, the two of us giggling so hard that our breath hitched in our chests.

“Don’t even dare open that drawer for the rest of the summer!” she managed to gasp out. “It’s Auntie Di’s problem now.”

“I don’t want to even see her face,” I said.

“No, you really don’t,” Jenna said. She pulled her features into an imitation of her aunt’s and that set us both off again.

~

“I’ll vacuum your rooms for you,” Jenna offered once we’d stopped laughing.

“You can take Room 26. He’s a regular, stays over during the week when he’s here on business. Big tipper. You’ll have to clean around his things. Don’t move them, don’t even touch them. Don’t worry about cleaning the john or changing the sheets. Just towels, straighten the bed, new soap, and vacuum. Spray some air freshener before you leave so it smells clean.”

I moved toward the door, reaching for the handle.

“And knock,” Jenna said. “Say housekeeping.”

She grabbed the handle of the vacuum and hauled it back into the porno guy’s room, not looking back.

I knocked and put my ear to the door to listen. I couldn’t hear anything but the rumble of cars going down the road, and the spray of slush kicked up by their tires.

“Housekeeping,” I called as I knocked one more time. No answer. I turned the key in the lock, but it gave quickly. The room was open, which seemed wrong, but I backed into the room anyway, hauling the cart with me.

The door swung shut, and I reached for the lights. The curtains were drawn. In the dim light, I could feel the room’s dank humidity. He must have taken a shower before he went out.

I heard his deep inhale, even before I saw the cigarette ember glow in the dim light, the air clouded dishwater-gray. Then the long exhale.

“Where’s Jenna?” he asked. My eyes adjusted to the light, and I could see him perched on the heating unit’s ledge. Legs crossed at the ankles and debonair as a man in a 1950’s film. Naked but for a pair of briefs and socks pulled up to his knees. I couldn’t make out his face, but from the way the pale skin of his chest and abdomen sagged like melted wax, I guessed he was my parents’ age.

“I’ll come back,” I said, quickly, turning to the door. Tried to pull it open and hold it there while I shoved the cart out. I couldn’t get the door to open wide enough, could only jam it half-way open, banging my shin on the cart. I reached over it to push the door open the rest of the way. Muscles in my back pulled, protesting, my hand grabbing at empty air, impotent as a fish drowning on a pier’s wooden planks.

He pushed off the heater and walked across the room to me.

“I’d like it if you cleaned it now,” he said. “The bed needs fresh sheets.”

I had never even kissed a guy. No one had ever approached me with the look I saw in his eyes, the same look that I saw the boys give Jenna when she walked down the hall.

I’d thought I would like it.

I couldn’t breathe.

This is the part no one gets. I stayed. I rolled the cart back into the room and let the door swing closed. I knelt down on the bathroom floor and cleaned while he sat, smoking, on the edge of the bed in the next room. I changed the ashtrays. I wiped the vanity, careful not to touch his razor or shaving cream, the still-wet brush he must have used to apply it.

I felt hot, could feel a horrible flush creeping up my chest and neck, eyes smarting. I wanted to believe this was normal. This was how it worked. If I walked out there, said no, and left the room, I’d be admitting to something. I didn’t know what that something was, but I did know that if I ignored it, it would go away, it wouldn’t be happening, it would stay a normal day.

I heard the rumble of the vacuum next door. Jenna would be here soon. I sprayed the mirror, obscuring my face, and kept my eyes on the paper towel’s ridges as I wiped it clean.

In the room, I knew he was waiting. I hadn’t heard anything from him, other than the occasional inhale and exhale as he smoked. Back in the room, I didn’t meet his eyes, but pretended to be busy pulling linens off the cart. He sat on the bed, still watching me, in just his underwear and those socks that puddled round his ankles.

“Thanks,” he said. “There’s nothing like sleeping on fresh sheets.”

He stood to grant me access to the bed, his body not quite brushing mine as he moved aside. So close I could almost feel his torso’s dark hair comb my bare arms’ light fuzz.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No problem,” I said. “You enjoying your vacation?”

He laughed. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m here on work, but I find the Gull very relaxing.”

I pulled the cheap bedspread off and let it fall to the floor, then ripped the sheets off as quickly as I could. I knew he watched my body bend, that he could see the strip of bare flesh between the top of my jeans and the bottom of my shirt that was exposed when I reached across the mattress.

“I’m guessing you’re eighteen,” he said. “Getting ready for graduation, am I right?”

I made a noise of assent, tucking, tucking, tucking the sheets. Squatting open-legged to get the corners tight.

“I remember my graduation night,” he said. With my eyes cast to the floor, I could see him cross his ankles, and lean back. “Lots of drinking. We got a hotel room and stayed up all night.”

“I remember Donna Carlson, too. Who could forget her—she was my first, and I can still feel her skin under me, the way she pushed me back, spine arched like a cat in heat, begging me,” he said.

Now I was arranging the pillows. Almost done. Almost gone.

“I fucked her right on the hotel floor, between the beds, right where you’re standing.”

The sound of the vacuum stopped. The door next door slammed shut. I waited for Jenna to come to the room. Please, God, Jenna.

Then the sound of the cart rattling away.

I turned to face him. Acted like this was a normal conversation.

“I doubt my parents will let me go out,” I said. “They’re pretty strict.”

“They let you work here,” he said. Then, “I think you should take this room for graduation night. I’d like to think of you here, carpet burning a track down your skin—”

I started crying, nose running. I didn’t wipe my face, didn’t move.

“That’s normal, too,” he said. “Afterward. They don’t tell you that, but it’s true.”

I nodded.

“Please,” I said.

He moved close to me. I could smell him, could smell the hotel soap mixed with sweat and cigarettes. “Please? So polite.”

“I have to go,” I said. “Jenna’s waiting.”

“I doubt that,” he said.

I shook my head, still crying. Then he stepped back, reached his hand down into the front of his briefs, and pulled out a wad of money.

“Here.” He reached for the hand hanging limp at my side, opened my palm, and squeezed it closed around the bills. “A tip.”

The bills were damp and hot in my hand. I took a shuddering breath and waited for whatever was coming next.

He stepped back, smiling.

I shoved the money into my front jean pocket, and his eyes followed my hand into and out of the pocket.

“You are lovely,” he said, then sighed. “It was a pleasure.”

I moved toward the door as he laid out on the bed, the mattress moaning beneath his weight. “Lovely,” he said again.

It took me what seemed like forever to back out the door, pulling the cart with me, hands and legs shaking, still crying.

The parking lot was empty except for his Volkswagon Dasher in front of Room 26. Auntie Di must have gone home. Jenna, too. I tried to be angry, but felt too raw for it, scraped bare.

I left the cart out there on the concrete walkway and just ran. Away from Route 1, away from people, and away from the Gull. I felt my ankle turn as I made my way onto the beach, the thick sand giving way. I kept going, all the way past the line of driftwood, down onto the packed sand, into the water. Frigid waves lapped me, hard and cold and like a hand that could somehow slap me awake. The light leaked out of the sky, gray gauze netting the beach. When I looked back toward the buildings, I could see lights coming on. I imagined Room 26 behind each window, could see him waiting by the glow of a fluorescent light. I let the sand grind into my skin, my forehead to the ground, and felt my body finally go numb.

~

 “Jesus,” Jenna said, hauling me away from the water’s edge. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“Where’d you go?” I asked. I didn’t have any more tears.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. Her voice like sandpaper.

“Your car was gone.”

“Come on,” she said, tugging me up. “You have to get back.”

I felt a surge of panic. “I’m not going back to the Gull,” I said.

Jenna didn’t say anything for a minute.

Then: “Whatever. Anyway, I parked down at the public lot.”

We walked down the shore together, her hand in mine. Not in a good way—she dragged me forward with it, insistent. I don’t know how long we staggered like that, hand in hand, two paper doll cutouts ripped away from the rest of their chain. The ocean was in my ears, in my head, the salt and crash of it enough to drown out the rest.

When we got to her car, Jenna wiped the sand off of my clothes before folding me into the passenger seat. “Sorry,” Jenna said. For manhandling me, or the other thing, I wanted to ask. But that would mean admitting the other thing.

She turned the heat up to high. Hot air burned my skin as it warmed, as if all of me were suddenly pierced by needles, like the woman at the fair who could lie down on a bed of nails, and then let another board of them cover her frontside, sandwiched between them. But she always came out unhurt, summer after summer. That was the trick, I thought, to hold still enough, poised in perfect balance, if you wanted to emerge unscathed.

“You look like shit,” Jenna said to me. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I feel like shit,” I said. “You could have told me.”

“Look, it is what it is,” Jenna said. Her voice steeled. “You’re the one freaking out.”

I looked over at her and studied her profile. Her eyes on the road, hair sprayed back in stiff waves, she thrust her small nose and chin up, as if daring me. I knew that look. It was the same one she wore when she walked down the halls at school. I’d thought that was the tilt of pleasure, her glorying in the light of the boys’ eyes.

“I’m not,” I said. And it was true, I wasn’t anymore. I caught sight of my reflection in the window as we passed under a streetlight. I didn’t know that girl, found her wanting, and looked away.

It changed things to know what those boys were thinking when they watched a woman’s body slide into a desk chair, or stretch as she reached up to the top shelf in her locker. I knew what they were seeing: her body on the Gull’s cheap carpet, night table at her head, her mouth twisting as they made of her what they would.

We pulled into my driveway. “You going to say anything?” Jenna asked, foot pulsing on the gas pedal just enough to rev the engine.

He hadn’t even touched me. It is what it is, Jenna had said, and there was nothing to tell. If there was a word for what had happened, I still don’t know it. She was right.

“No,” I said. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Do you want me to pick you up tomorrow?” Our shift at the Gull started at seven.

I looked down at my clothes, wrinkled and wet and matted with sand. I could go in the back door and my parents, watching TV in the family room, wouldn’t even know.

“Sure,” I said. “Six thirty?” There was nothing else to say.

~

If you can understand that, if you can get how I went back to the Gull and took Auntie Di’s end-of-summer bonus to college with me in the fall, then you know the rest. You have your own Room 26, your own there-is-no-name-for-it.

You already know how I stared at the ceiling that night, and instead of white plaster swirls I saw the yellowed popcorn tiles of Room 26. In a glass jar on my desk, the wad of bills he gave me sat alongside my week’s allowance. The sheets beneath my body felt sharp-creased as the knap of cheap carpet and across town, I knew, he was gazing down at the floor beside his bed, envisioning me until I became palpable.

You know how I watched him watch me.

And still do, almost thirty years later. If he’d done it, if he’d balled my jeans around my ankles and just done it, if he’d done more than shove that wet ball of cash into my hands, I could maybe find a way past it. But there’s nothing to tell or get over. It is what it is. That’s the worst part.

I lost my virginity later that summer, but Room 26 was my first. I think Jenna would agree. He was the first to spread my body like a feast at his feet. The back of my skull, rocking against the motel room floor. And he was right about the tears. Always the humidity radiating from his skin, his thighs, and part of me is always still there, open and wanting and wasted and flayed to nothing beneath him.

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