Welcome to the Fireworks

By Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger

The hard light of the hotel vacancy sign lit up the parking lot in electric blue, made the muggy midnight hour feel cold. Amanda shivered, though her skin was hot and clammy to the touch. She needed to shower again. Days like this made one want to shower three or four times just to keep the sheen of sweat off the skin.

Another motel, another parking lot. She didn’t want to think about how many of them she’d visited this week, how many of them she’d become acquainted with in her search. As of an hour ago, the ATM refused to give her the last bit of money she’d cobbled together, and still she kept on, knowing the longer she looked, the more pay-by-the-hour motels she visited, the harder it would be for her to get home before dawn to get ready for the work day.

Her car had run out of gas at the last motel (or was it the one before?), and she’d had to have it pushed in by a vacationing family who saw her struggle on the final fumes. She’d gotten beyond the point of being embarrassed now. At some point, she’d stopped caring about what others thought of her bedraggled clothing and sleep-deprived eyes. She’d stopped caring about anything on the periphery of her search since it was the search that drove her, the thing that pushed her beyond the rational mind her friends knew she possessed.

Pure passion never played with pure reason. Oil and water, those two. Poorly behaved siblings born of unstable parents. When she first felt herself going down the rabbit hole, she smiled grimly, remembering the stories of musicians and artists who fell prey to two mistresses—the one of the physical, their lovers, and the one of the abstract, their art. She was neither artist nor musician, but she finally understood the complexity of loving what one does and loving who one does. And that rational mind, the one that was back home curled up asleep beneath the sheets? Gone. As if candlelight had been snuffed out leaving one to fumble around in the dark by intuition alone.

She looked down at her hands, blanketed in blue from the steady neon above. They were inflamed and the skin was breaking open in several places. She’d turned her engagement ring around and the diamond had begun to break the skin of her palm under the weight of knocking on so many doors every night.

There were flimsy doors that allowed the quiet sound of disappointed sighs to slip through them. There were heavier doors that kept the sounds of sex (paid for or given freely) from floating up into the night like prayers to lesser gods. There were doors with numbers and brass knobs. There were doors that used key cards. There were white doors and brown doors, wood-paneled and corkboard. The knocks reverberated differently but all meant the same thing.

There were windows with curtains and others with blinds while some doors gave way to rooms with sliding glass doors in the back and not the front. There was orange carpeting and brown carpeting, carpeting with intricate designs and carpeting with solid colors like congealed paint spilled throughout the hallways.

But there was always a single bed, maybe two. Two lamps on either side, a dresser (though she didn’t believe anyone ever put it to use), a television, a single chair (hardback or plush), and a tiny table upon which one could dine from takeout delivery. The rooms always felt the same regardless of the color schemes or the laughable art hung up on the walls. The rooms were always laid out the same, no originality to the set-up whatsoever. It was as if everyone had bought into the illusion of the room being a home away from home without fully committing to the idea. A crude patina that remained effective.

At this hour, the beds were rarely made, the sheets an ocean of a wilted and poisoned imagination, making her believe (every time) that he was here or had been here or that he would be here soon. She believed she could smell the scent of him floating on the air blowing from the AC unit by the door. She could envision him there, head on the pillow and legs wrapped up in the white sheets (they were always bright white), smiling. She knew this to be irrational and still the thoughts bubbled up inside her.

She looked up at the neon: Starlite Motel. Weirdly appropriate as the light seemed to block out the stars above. She shoved her hands in her pockets, shivered again, and strolled up the stairs to start knocking. God, how she fucking hated the intentional misspelling of these places. Like they wanted you to know exactly how much class they lacked so they didn’t have to advertise it overtly.

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PAST EXPERIENCE TOLD HER that it wouldn’t take long for someone to call the motel manager, who would then call the cops. She’d figured she had a finite window of time to knock and question the people that answered this late at night. She made the mistake of pounding on the door of an abandoned (but well-lit) room last week. She must’ve imagined movement behind the swaying curtains, imagined black figures scrambling to hide from her persistent knocking and eventual screaming through the thin walls. By the time she’d given up, frustrated, a police cruiser was pulling into the parking lot of the complex, and she bolted down the stairs. Bolstered by a strange sense of calm, she walked right up to the officers as they exited the cruiser and explained that there was a woman who had been beating around on doors and that she’d run out the back of the complex. And like that, they were off to hunt a phantom midnight knocker. Just like in the movies, she’d thought to herself, laughing as she drove off to the next motel.

Starting with the second level (and there were always only two levels) of every new place was risky, but she was less visible from below, so there’d be fewer spectators that could point her out. Usually, multiple exits existed throughout the elevated row of rooms, so it would be easier for her to dip out and run in several directions unless more than two cops showed up, which would certainly complicate things.

Stop overthinking it. You’re totally allowed to be here. Your search is a serious one, and screw anyone that can’t see that for what it is. These people would go back to bed eventually.

And that was true; eventually, anyone she awoke would slide back underneath the covers muttering to their significant others about the crazy woman at the door. Some would raise suspicions about infidelity and arguments would break out, lasting for weeks, sometimes months. Other times, the utterance of ‘just some crack-head’ or ‘some crazy woman’ would keep them up a little longer than they were comfortable with.

But often it’d be a single occupant (man or woman didn’t matter) who would be rattled for a bit, but would then turn off all the lights and leave the television on. No sound, just the late night picture lulling them back to sleep as they could hear the crazy woman knocking on the next door and the next door and the door after that until finally it stopped and their eyes opened up to sudden morning. They’d wake up late, haggard and exhausted, but they’d forget it all by the next week.

She would become an apparition in all of their subconscious memories until the next time they set foot in one of those rooms. They might unpack and relax for a bit before the vision of her would glide back to the forefront of their minds, or they’d get far enough to slip beneath the sheets, but that first knock heard through flimsy walls would bring the experience back to haunt them.

She climbed the stairs, each step covered in gaudy and decaying Astroturf carpeting. So tacky, but it made sense in dealing with the elements, she supposed. And it’s not like she was thinking of buying a room here, she was just having a look around. She’d be gone soon, one way or another.

At the top of the stairs was a blank wall with two signs in the shape of arrows pointing to the left and to the right: Rooms 201-240 and Rooms 241-280 respectively. Left or right? Which direction felt good? She looked to the left and saw two teenagers leaning over the balcony, having a spitting contest on to the cars below. They must have felt her staring because they turned to look at her and stared, instantly quieting. Right. We’ll go right.

She walked all the way down to room 280, wondering what kind of view of the busy expressway one was given from this room. Even this late, semi-trailers hurtled down the road, diverting gusts of wind in every direction. It was breezier up here than it was down on the ground. Small consolation.

The Astroturf continued down both lengths of walkway, some parts in need of patching or full on repair. The doors here were an ugly muted red, most pockmarked with black streaks at the bottom from shoes or luggage and never covered up or painted over. The brass tack strip leading into the rooms was tarnished and barely glistened in the glare of the neon, which covered everything in a ghostly hue as if this were all just a Christmas-colored moment in the afterlife. She turned and looked back down the long walkway. The two teens had disappeared, but where they previously stood seemed ages away.

Amanda knocked repeatedly and let her hands fall to her sides. This was the moment she hated the most, that weird in-between time of purest optimism and purest cynicism. She began to sweat, wondering who would come to the door. No matter how many times she practiced the speech she would give him, the nerves always got her for a brief few seconds. After that, it was all improvisation. Would room 280 be the last time she knocked? She hoped so, but expected to make her way down a few more rooms without finding him.

She knocked repeatedly again and saw a light flicker on and light up the peep hole. A chain slid into place while the deadbolt came undone. The door opened and spilled soft lamp light out onto the walkway.

Cigarette smoke came wafting through the gap. A single eye, older, the skin around it wrinkled and mottled with liver spots, stared out at her. She tilted her head a bit and stood on her tiptoes to try and see more of the room. The bed was still perfectly made and hadn’t been disturbed at all.

“What?” the voice croaked from behind the door.

Amanda cleared her throat. “I’m looking for my husband. His name is Roy. Is he here? Please let me talk to him. I need to speak with my husband, Roy.”

“No Roy here,” the eye said gruffly before exhaling smoke in her direction. The door slammed into place and the deadbolt slid back into the jam.

She coughed and fanned the air in front of her before knocking again, this time with the flat of her palm. Over and over and over and over.

“I know he’s in there!” she yelled. “I know you’re hiding him. I don’t know why, but you’re hiding him! Is he cheating on me with some old man? Has he always been gay? Is the elderly thing a fetish? Let me in, dammit! Let me talk to my husband! I’m not leaving until I do.”

She saw the flicker of light and movement through the peephole. The deadbolt unlocked. The door opened an inch and more smoke emerged. The eye was less pleasant this time, narrowed to a dangerous slit.

“Look, bitch, I’m tired. I’ve been working all day and I’ll be working all day tomorrow. I don’t know any Roy, I’ve called the cops, and if you knock again, I’m gonna pull the trigger of the .38 I’ve got pointed at your stomach through this door and I’m not gonna be sorry for doing so. Go the fuck away. Ain’t no Roy here.” The door slammed in her face, wooshing the last of the smoke into the walkway.

She kicked the door and felt it shiver in its frame. “Dammit.”

Amanda saw the fluttering of curtains in the window of the next room over and turned to try the other side of the motel. She looked out over the balcony railing in the parking lot and noticed that the teens from earlier had gone down to share a smoke on the curb. They stared up at her, saying nothing to each other. She stared back as she walked quickly down the corridor.

She came to a hallway lined with vending machines and headed out to the back balcony where another strip of rooms lined the length of a separate parking lot. More available exits here too, and no one loitering outside to see her. She looked up and down both directions and saw only a few lights on, decided to choose one at random.

Same red colored doors, same tarnished brass tack strip on the floor, but the Astroturf on this side had seen more action. Ratty holes lined the floor, exposing brown and rusting metal beneath. She checked her watch again and realized exactly how little time she’d have to find her way home. Did the buses even run this late this far on the outskirts of the city? There was no way she’d be able to afford a cab.

A light flickered on beyond. Amanda made her way over to it and stared inside, keeping herself well out of view as she kept a lookout for anyone else around. She saw the woman’s face, a pretty blonde with a satisfied smile, poking up out of the bedsheets. The man, wearing only boxers, had his back to the window, but it certainly looked like Roy from behind. She watched as he motioned for the woman to get out of bed. The woman was completely naked and had the kind of body most women worked their entire lives to achieve. Amanda felt her face get hot. She clenched her hands and felt her ring digging hard into the soft flesh of her palm, breaking the skin again.

She watched as the man (Roy!) led the woman into the bathroom. The door closed behind them. Amanda pressed her ear to the door and thought she could hear the shower running. It took her no time at all to choose, but she waited a few minutes to make sure. This close to finding out, she had to force herself to be patient. Things could turn very ugly very quickly if she wasn’t careful.

She counted three minutes off in her head while listening at the door. She looked down at the doorknob and wondered. No one could be this careless…could they? She tried the door and, to her surprise, it opened easily. She looked down both sides of the corridor before stepping into the room.

The sound of raw, unbridled physical lust emanated through the shower door, steam gently streaming through the crack below. She could hear the woman, but not the man (Roy!). Roy had never been much of a noisemaker during sex, but most of her lovers before him never did either. She needed proof.

Clothing was strewn about the floor. The man’s (Roy’s!) suit hung limp and folded over the back of the single chair at the small table by the window while the woman’s dress lay crumpled near the corner of the bed. Amanda noticed there was no luggage, but saw keys and pocket change—the detritus pulled from good slacks—laid out along the dresser by the television. Where was the damn wallet? She searched through the man’s (Roy’s!) suit quickly, fumbling through all the pockets of his pants and then down the inner pockets of his jacket. Nothing. She threw the outfit to the ground in disgust. Had she caught him in the act or not?

The sounds of lovemaking from the bathroom had stilled, replaced with sighs and short, low laughter. The water stopped running and Amanda looked around frantically for a sign of anything in the room that would prove Roy’s presence here.

She put her hands to her head, panicked for time. She looked at the table again and—there!—underneath a folded up batch of papers was a glasses case. Same dark grey color as Roy’s, but she’d have to open it and see the glasses.

The handle of the bathroom door jiggled as she reached out. She looked up and cursed beneath her breath as she bolted out of the room and shut the door quietly behind her. She scurried several doors down and leaned over the balcony, breathing heavy. Angry at Roy. Angry at herself for finally finding him. Angry at pushing so hard to look for his infidelities. Angry that now she’d have to walk home and show him what it was like to turn a relationship into this kind of smolder.

 

TWO HOURS LATER, Amanda hiked up the driveway to their house. By her watch, it was nearly three in the morning, but it felt much, much later. Maybe that was the exhaustion taking over. She had to walk through some dicey parts of the city to make better time, but figured even monsters had to sleep, quickening her pace anyway. She was too filled with rage to care much about the outer world and that anger kept her warm as the morning chill came and cooled off the humidity of the evening slowly.

She fumbled with the keys in her pocket and unlocked the front door. The house was pitch black, and she heard picture frames tremble against the wall when she slammed the door behind her. She stared up at the wall lining the staircase—a menagerie of photos of her and Roy—and growled. She wanted to rip each of them off the wall, scratch out every image of him until the paper beneath gleamed white.

She turned on lights in the hallway and rooms as she went to the kitchen, looking around in wonder. Furniture they’d bought together, tokens from trips they’d taken dotting the accoutrement of the landscape of the home they shared. Each artifact contained a different memory spark, each piece a reminder of their coupling over the years. She picked up a vase, a marbled blue color filled with dying flowers, and turned it around in her hands. The soft lip of the opening seemed to be taunting her, laughing at the fact that she would never forget him as long as the vase remained intact. She felt the heft of it in her hands, imagined it begging to be thrown through the air.

So she acquiesced, shattering its porcelain smile against the living room wall, and immediately felt calmer. Not perfect, but better.

She went to the hallway and gathered up the knick-knacks on the table where mail and keys collected, strode back into the living room and threw it all—pictures and ceramic figurines and little metal nothings that thudded, then twinkled, until she’d worked up a sweat while the sun began to rise. More than an hour of therapeutic anger displacement until finally she showered and got ready for work. She called a coworker for a ride into the office when she dried off, having decided on one slow, final act, a façade of accident to cover up the years of lies and hurt, to eliminate the artifacts of memory and wipe things clean. She would start over, and what would he think when he came home? She no longer cared.

She gathered up her purse and jacket when her coworker called to tell her she’d arrived. Amanda needed another minute and she’d be out. She strolled through the wreckage of the house and picked up a stack of mail before heading into the kitchen. She slid the mail into both slots of the toaster and depressed the button. Satisfied, she went to the gas oven and turned a single knob to the ‘light’ function, heard the rapid succession of clicks that meant it was trying to light the gas pouring forth from the burners below.

She locked the door on her way out and waved a friendly hello to her coworker before getting into the car. It was like nothing was wrong, like nothing was about to turn the day into so much ashen memory. It was like nothing.

 

Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger is a 36-year-old writer from Kansas City. He has been published in Agua Magazine, Alors, Et Tois?, Aphelion, Bluestem Magazine, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Cahoodaloodaling, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Glint Literary Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, L’allures des Mots, Lunch Box, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, Offbeatpulp, Pen-duline Press, Phoebe, Poydras Review, The Santa Clara Review, Serving House Journal, Sheepshead Review, Slice Magazine, Up The Staircase, Fox Spirit’s Girl at the End of the World: Book 1 anthology, and has been shortlisted for the Almond Press “Broken Worlds” fiction contest.

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