When the motel’s air conditioner finally cooled the room off to an acceptable level, that’s when my real troubles began. I had just gone to sleep when the jet engine next to my bed came to a halt. I woke to the unaccustomed silence and sensed there was something horrifying about to happen.
I was alone in bed, as I have been for close to twenty years. I had always slept on the right side of the bed when I was with my wife and still do, even though she’s long gone. Gradually, my mattress at home developed a lump on the left as my great weight hollowed out a cave on the right. When I first observed this, I attempted to sleep on the left side but would have the uncomfortable sensation of being perched on a mountain and teetering on the peak. Once, I flipped the mattress, as is recommended, so as to even out the dent, but got so out of breath from the exertion that I never tried it again.
I had decided that if my mattress was going to provide me with a sleeping partner, I would collaborate with it. I began to align an extra pillow parallel to my body and sometimes threw my arm over them in a tender embrace. I even named the extra pillow Ann, not because I knew an Ann and fantasized sleeping with her, but because I didn’t and figured the name was available. At times I would comfort myself right to sleep by imagining I had met Ann shortly after my divorce. She was a CPA I had gone to for help with my taxes and we had begun to flirt while discussing The Home Mortgage Deduction. By the time we got to Capital Gains, we were in each other’s arms and my hand was up her skirt, searching for new tax shelters. It was a whirlwind romance and, by the time, the fiscal year had ended, we were filing joint returns.
Ann was there in bed with me, although her size was much diminished due to there being available only small motel pillows and there was no dent. I cuddled with what there was of her and must have dozed off when the air conditioner came again to life. I flung aside the sheet, turned on the light, and studied the air conditioner’s controls to see if there was a way to make it stay on and provide me with a steady, if high decibel, white noise. I determined that the only way to make it steady was to turn it off. When I pushed the off button, the resulting silence revealed a faint knock at my door.
I opened it to find Natalie in a long shirt, scratching her legs. Her eyes were puffy with sleep. She shielded them from the light.
“Can I sleep in here?” she whined.
Before I answered her she had crawled into Ann’s side.
“Of course, Honey. I’m sorry we had a fight.”
“There’s bedbugs in that fucking room.” She scratched some more. “Arrrgh, I can’t stand them.”
She was asleep in a minute. I don’t know if I was more surprised that she had come or that she swore, but I knew that bedbugs can drive you to extremes.
I crawled back to bed and my daughter woke slightly to grab the edge to keep from rolling into me. I gave her a respectful distance and teetered on the edge, my back to her. I thought about patients at the emergency room who came in, made mad by the bedbugs in their transient housing. No one knew how to eradicate them. The epidemic had gone on for two years before anyone: health officials, the media, hospital administrators, had taken it seriously.
I must have gone back to sleep, for the next thing I knew it was just beginning to get light. It had been a restless night, filled with fitful dreams of former emergency room patients, bedbugs, hospital administrators, Natalie, and Jerry Falwell, of all people, all mixed together, disappearing and reappearing in and out of the darkness like the okra in Curt’s gumbo. Oh, that’s right, he was there, too, ushering people in and out to see me. I was an impatient executive, presiding behind a big desk. The last person he brought in was Ann with some numbers for me on a spreadsheet. She swept aside everything on my desk and hiked up her skirt. I was astonished by the softness of her skin; softer than Egyptian cotton, softer than silk.
“Woo, baby,” said Curt as he closed the door.
When I regained consciousness, I saw that Natalie must have let go of the side of the bed and rolled onto me. I must have rolled over too. We were embraced, my arm over her, her leg over me. I was appalled to note that I was erect with what, for a man at my age and circumstances, is seldom enjoyed first thing in the morning: a piss hard on.
I shot out of bed as quickly as I could without waking her. I didn’t want her to know what I knew. I didn’t want to know what I knew. I swiped her key and hid out in her room with the bedbugs, insufficient atonement for the worst horror imaginable.