Sunday 6 September 2020

At the Platte River Motel

by Jim Bates

black coffee

“Matt, could you please get me a can of pop? I’m kind of thirsty.” Janie was sitting in the one chair of their motel room.
            “Sure. Let me just check outside.” He pulled the curtain back and quickly shut it. “Shit. I think the owner saw me.”
            Frightened, Janie cradled their newborn daughter to her chest. “Matt, don’t let anyone take Naomi away from me. I couldn’t stand to lose her.”
            Matt looked at his back pack in the corner of the tiny room. His gun was in it. “Don’t worry,” he said, making up his mind right then and there to use the weapon if he had to. “I won’t.”
Across the parking lot from room number seven, and outside the manager’s office, Linda Creeklow held her two-year-old son Ronny. She’d seen the curtain move and now she was starting to getting mad. “God damn it. What’s going on in there?” she muttered to Ronny, who, by way of response, stuck a finger in his mouth and sucked on it.
Earlier that morning, Clara, the housekeeping lady, told Linda that for the last two days the young couple staying in room number seven wouldn’t let her in to clean.
            “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, when Linda asked her about it. “I knock but they just say for me to go away, so I do.”
            “That’s okay, Clara. You did the right thing.”
            Linda checked her watch before setting Ronny down in the sandbox. Her husband Jack was due home any minute. She’d put him on to it.
            A little while later, Jack’s ten-year-old white Dodge Ram pickup sped into the parking lot kicking up a cloud of dust. He pulled to a stop in front of the office and got out, looking forward to a cold beer and chance to play with Ronny a bit before looking into the leaky faucet in room number fourteen. His wife and son were playing in the sandbox with a tonka-toy dump truck.
            “Hi, sweetheart,” he said, reaching into the open window of the truck and grabbing his lunch bucket. He worked the middle shift at Nebraska Cattle, a meat processing plant north of Grand Island. It was hard work, but that was okay, it paid good money. “How’s it going?” The look on his wife’s face told him he’d better forget about playing with Ronny. And having that cold beer, too.
            Linda left Ronny and came up to him. “We’ve got an issue with number seven.”
            He turned and looked across the parking lot to the string of seven units. Number seven was at the far end. “That young couple that checked in the day before yesterday? What’s up?”
            “Clara said they won’t let her in to clean. I’m worried something weird is going on in there.”
            Jack grinned. “Like what? Maybe they want to be left alone and have a little private time.” He tried to hug her. “Like we hardly get anymore.” He glanced at Ronny, who was oblivious to his parents and completely occupied with his dump truck.
            Linda squirmed away. “Not funny. They could be doing drugs in there. Or making drugs, like speed. Hell, someone might be dead in there for all we know.”
            “We’d smell the speed, honey,” Jack said, joking a little and trying to placate her.
Linda was having none of it. “Jack, I’m serious. I want you to go check them out.”
            “Check them out? What you mean?”
            “Go knock on their door and find out what’s going on.”
            He shuffled his boot in the dust, not enthused. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. They deserve a little privacy, don’t they?”
            “Not on my watch they don’t. I want to know that everyone is safe in there.” She pointed a threatening finger at him. “Go. Now!”
            Jack knew from experience when Linda had her mind made up there was no stopping her. Or arguing with her. He went.
            As he walked across the dusty parking lot, Jack started thinking about how good things were for him and Linda. They were in their early thirties and had a long life ahead of them. They had Ronny. They’d been together since high school and married soon after graduation. In those early years they both had jobs, were frugal with their spending and worked hard at saving their money. When the motel had gone up for sale five years ago, they’d been able to secure a loan, purchase it, and get on with their dream of becoming independent business owners.
The motel was situated near the Platte River just off interstate 80 in the rolling farmland of central Nebraska.  There were fourteen units in two buildings that faced each other across the big, unpaved, parking lot. They catered mostly to cross-country travelers. It was out in the wide-open spaces, which they both loved, and they could occasionally take little Ronnie down to the river for a picnic. Jack’s job at Nebraska Cattle paid enough to cover expenses, while Linda ran the motel and kept the books. One day the loan would be paid off and he could quit his job and they could both work the motel. Business was good and they’d never had much of a problem with any of the customers. Not until this.
Jack, hummed a little tune to try and settle himself down and fought a desire to light a cigarette. He slowed his gait as he approached number seven. Inside he could hear two people talking. He took a deep breath, let it out and knocked on the door. In less than a minute it opened.
            Across the way, Linda watched as Jack stood in the doorway and talked to the young man. She remembered the couple when they’d checked in. The guy was tall and skinny with long greasy hair and a wisp of a goatee. Not much to write home about, as far as she was concerned. The girl stayed in the car, but Linda could see her through the office window. She was a waif of a thing and looked about fifteen but was probably older. The guy seemed fine, though. Polite. Paid with cash through tomorrow. She’d taken his money, given him a receipt and the key, and hadn’t thought anything more of it. Not until today when Clara voiced her concern.
As Linda watched her husband and the guy, it appeared everything was going smoothly: no problems or hassles. Hopefully, Jack would find out what was going on.
            After talking for a few minutes, Jack shook the guy’s hand and started back across the parking lot. He took out a cigarette from the pack in his back pocket and was lighting it as he came up to Linda.
            He’d just taken his first drag and was grinning when she grabbed it and threw it away. “What’d I tell you about smoking around Ronny?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry.” He looked chagrined.
“Now, what happened over there?” She pointed across the way.
            Jack turned and looked at number seven and turned back to her. “You’ll never believe it,” he said, grinning.
            “What? Are they doing drugs? I knew it. Should we call the police? The highway patrol? What’s going on?” She slugged Matt in his muscle on his arm. “Tell me!”
“First off, ouch!” Then he smiled. “And, secondly, everything is fine. You don’t have to worry. All is well.”
            By now, Linda was angry. “What do you mean all is well? What kind of a statement is that to make?”
            “Well, remember what we went through to get this little guy?” he said pointing to Ronny, still playing in the sandbox.
            “Yeah. So what?”
            “Well, that’s what they’re doing in there.”
            “You mean they’re screwing?”
            “I think they prefer to think of it as making love.”
            Karen was silent for a moment, thinking. Then she said. “I don’t believe it. Something doesn’t sound right.” She thought for a moment. “Did you see her? The wife or girl-friend or whatever?”
            “No. She was in the bathroom, but the guy, whose name is Matt by the way, had her call out to me and I heard her voice. She sounded fine.”
            “Hmm.” Linda was unconvinced.
            “Oh, sweetie, they’re just young and in love. Like we were. Are.” He smiled and grabbed for her, but she dodged away.
            “I don’t know…”
            He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “Look, they paid for another week. They’re harmless. Let’s just leave them alone.”
            Linda took the money and counted it.
From the sandbox Ronny said, “Mommy. I’m hungry.”
“Okay, honey,” Linda said to her son. “Jack, you get Ronny and let’s go in. I’ve got a hamburger casserole for dinner.”
            “Great. I’m starving.”
            Linda was just turning to go into their living quarters when she happened to glance over her shoulder. She saw the curtain on number seven quickly being pulled shut.
            “Damn. I’ve had it.” She stuffed the cash in her pocket and said to Jack. “You watch Ronny. I’m going to find out what’s really going on.”
            “Oh, honey…”
            “Don’t ‘oh, honey,’ me,” she said, looking him in the eye. “Something’s not right over there, and I’m going to find out what it is.”
She turned and began marching across the parking lot. Jack watched her. There was going to be hell to pay, and it occurred to him she might need help. Then again, knowing Linda, probably not. He picked up Ronny and followed close behind anyway, just to be on the safe side.
            Matt had been watching the events unfolding over by the office. When he saw Linda come storming across the parking lot, he knew he had to do something fast, so he reached for his backpack and took out his gun. Janie looked at him, horrified.
            “Jesus, Matt! What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to protect you and our little girl.”
Janie stood up and cradled Naomi to her chest. The little baby was only five days old. She’d been born in Omaha and both Janie’s parents and Matt’s parents had wanted them to give her up for adoption. That wasn’t going to happened. The young couple loved the little girl too much to let her go. Plus, they wanted to build a life for themselves: Janie away from her drug using mother and step father, and Matt because he loved Janie so much. And now Naomi.
Matt checked the cylinder of the twenty-two pistol. Six bullets. His grandfather had given it to him on his tenth birthday, nine years ago. He hadn’t shot it much, but he was ready to use it.
He said to Janie, “What if they call the cops? Or your parents? What then? They’ll take Naomi.”
“No, they won’t, Matt. We won’t let them.”
“That’s what this is for.” He waved the gun in the air.
Janie ducked, shielding her daughter and whispered loudly through clenched teeth, “Geez, Matt, what is it with you and that thing?” Still holding Naomi tightly, tears started running down her cheeks. “Don’t, Matt. Please don’t do anything stupid,” she begged him. “We’ll figure something out. Maybe the owners will just let us stay here. We aren’t doing anything wrong.” She wiped her eyes. “Put the gun away. Please, Matt. Please. For me.” And she held out their daughter to him. “And for your little girl.”
Matt lowered the gun. He looked at Janie and Naomi and his heart went out to them. They were his little family and he needed to take care of them. Using a gun wasn’t going to help. It could only come to a bad end. He should have known that.
He put the gun into the backpack and buckled the flap tight. Then he took Naomi from Janie and held her in his arms and kissed the little baby’s bald head. Then he kissed Janie. “I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” she said, holding him tight.
Pounding began at the door. “Open up. It’s the manager. We’ve got to talk.”
Matt handed Naomi to Janie and gave her quick squeeze before letting her go. Then he turned to door and opened it.

About the author 

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in late 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog:

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