Please Come Back by C. M. Barnes

Please Come Back by C. M. Barnes

Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014

So early in a warm motel hallway. The drone of hidden coffee machines coming to life. Waffle fumes steaming up the elevator. A thin vapor of existence rising here: the third floor. And the cleaning cart, with its donkey load of white towels and white toilet paper and white spritzer bottles, drifts in front of #312.

She has been here before. She is here now, ignoring the red exit signs overhead, the blue tabernacle of vending machines in the alcove, the green fractal of carpet stretching out along the linear eternity of the hallway. The triggers of those spritzer bottles creasing her palms. The chemical steam folded into the towels.

Outside, the missing sun has left a gap between itself and the night, a gray space that is not morning but only something less than darkness. Call it the void misting against the windows. Easy to feel close to the void this early in the morning in a warm motel hallway. Easy to let one’s imagination fixate on the scuffs spiraling the toilet bowls, the dark matter rimming the sinks. Many showerheads are about to baptize. Better, she thinks, to focus on the cart, the one drifting in front of #312, the one entrusted to her questioning hands.

The question is the absence of a tag on #312’s knob. No red Please Come Back. Also no green Come On In. Only the steel lever knob, its slit eye sullenly dark. In the absence of a tag, she is supposed to knock, even though knocking at this hour is an act of hostility. She is not un-empathetic toward whoever might be on the other side of this door. But she is running behind. Right now she needs to be scouring out #316’s bowl, not contemplating #312’s.

But it’s strange. When he checked in last night, he was very conscious of the tag. It was part of his plan. Not that its absence would have changed anything. Ultimately the tag was minor—although of late, he has been unsure as to what is and is not truly minor.  He even caught himself scanning the lobby for a waffle iron. The receptionist mentioned the heated pool, and for a second he thought, why not? But then reality—the one he perceived—reasserted itself.

The absence of response to her knock only deepens the question. There is supposed to be someone in #312, a single, a man. A single man. Now she has to crack the door with her master key and whisper housekeeping into the dark of this single room. It is always a horror, cracking one of these doors along the hallway, tracking through the void. Past incidences of door-cracking come to mind. The piercing cries of the sinner discovered. The glare of white flesh between threadbare towel flaps. People are up to all sorts of things at this hour.

He knew he would be discovered. That’s why he made a plan, brought the speakers and enough cash to leave an otherwise unthinkable tip. He didn’t want to leave anything to chance—even if there was always a chance. He really might be pressing that waffle iron come morning. It wouldn’t be the first time. But nothing is ever really the first time. He reminded himself of this often: that everything has happened an infinite number of times. It is only a question of long but finite loops on an infinite scale. Endless eternal rearrangements that are, in fact, always the same.

She gets no response from the inner darkness of #312. The chain hangs loose, inviting her and her toilet paper and her spritzer bottles inside. The toilet paper is the last thing she handles, long after the mirror has been scoured, the remote sanitized, the soaps replaced, the squealing hot water knob in the tub manipulated. Often, people take the soaps and the paper. Less often, they take the remote, even the knob. She has opened the door on a few remote-less, knob-less rooms. One time the television was gone, the desk chair. Someone might take the mirror if it was not screwed to the wall. These kinds of people tend to leave early. They never check out. She leaves the door open behind her and steps into the dark.

According to plan, he intended to open his eyes again at birth—countless years from here and yet exactly here. Or maybe the next room over. It didn’t really matter. No sound of infantile crying had yet seeped through the wall, but the walls were thick. The receptionist had promised him privacy. The receptionist had also promised an outlet by the sink. The presence of an outlet had not been minor.

No sense reliving old finds: all the impossible things she has located between the sheets. Not surprising that her work has steeled her against most evidence of human behavior. She finds it works best to expect the worst and be routinely surprised. Room #312 is hopefully no exception—not that she is averse to the occasional thrill.

He was selective about the music. He decided against the nocturne, the impromptu, anything clichéd and minor. Instead he chose the cello suite. Pretty optimistic. It wasn’t his favorite—why, he thought, should he pick a favorite?—but it worked well on loop. He imagined listening to that gasping plateau at the end, that astonished surmounting, as if his eyes had finally been lifted over the edge of a stockade to glimpse a brilliance coming into view—one he’d long imagined but never really believed in. He trusted everything to sync.

She could be working somewhere other than here. She could be validating her existence in other ways. She has abilities that transcend towel-folding, spritzing, the placing of tiny mints. But who is she to cast aspersions on herself? Better to flip the light in this stranger’s dark room, expecting the worst, hoping for the best.

He wanted to be considerate. He didn’t want to trouble anyone more than necessary. In this interest he had closed his life off into a chamber within a chamber, a cell within a cell, the innermost belly of an armored nesting doll. He was confident no one could penetrate these barriers—at least not until he was ready.

She finds an untroubled bed. Thank God. Or do not thank God, seeing as God has no agency this early in the morning, not in the vicinity of warm motel hallways that also happen to be the arterial roads snaking through the void. They break off into numbered cul-de-sacs of nothingness. Too dramatic? She doesn’t think so—not when she finds a supposedly occupied room empty at this hour, as if the spirit somehow fled the tomb before the waffle batter comes out.

He was always thinking bathtub. Warm water. Opening things up in that big-hearted classical way. The stoics were helpful in this—also some other ancient schools. Not that it was all helpful. There was some debate, but one good thing about finality was its stark retort to doubt. The stoics were helpful in this as well—also on what was and was not minor.

The prone and shrouded form. The telephone cord hardwired to larynx. She has long expected it, never encountered it. All motels have stories. That her thoughts should fly to them now seems prescient, but she believes in the anecdote as a form of knowledge. She believes in the collective unconscious, with all of its darkest archetypes present in desk lamps, luggage racks, and murky duplicate prints of sailboats.

But he had to keep running the hot water. He would just get comfortable—or at least achieve some kind of equilibrium, the cello looping nicely through the speakers—when the water would cool and prick his skin. What did it matter? he thought. But it had mattered. The water, just like the music, had to be right. Otherwise what were you going to get right?

She finds the tag. It’s not on the hall door. It’s on the bathroom door and, naturally, it is the red Please Come Back. This is a first, and she can’t be sure—who could be sure of anything at this hour?—but she thinks she can hear music playing behind the knob.

He just couldn’t stop running the hot water, draining it sometimes, refilling it to the edge, obsessed. But never moving from his position. Never rising to adjust the volume on the cello—which paused for breath once every two minutes and thirty-seven seconds before rasping its way, pointlessly, ecstatically, over the stockade again. Just a question of long but finite loops. Endless eternal rearrangements.

If someone really is playing music in the bathroom, at this hour, with a Please Come Back tag on the door, then this is another first. Two firsts in one morning. It’s enough to make her want to do a crazy little dance. But, of course, she can only knock. Whoever is in there will have to understand.

In the end he was forced to give up on equilibrium and settle for pure heat. Painful as the heat was, it was preferable to the slow transition to cold.

In fact she needs whoever is in this bathroom to understand that, around here, time is not measured in hours. It is measured in scourings. The scourings that have come before. The scourings that will come after. This is the nature of scouring—both of toilet bowls and the soul. And there are few clean souls. She is not foolish enough to consider herself one of them. She waits for a break in the music and knocks again.

In response, she gets only the squeal of the hot water knob.

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