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Richard D. Hartwell

Richard D. Hartwell

Richard D. Hartwell is a retired middle school English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California, with his wife, their disabled daughter, one of their sons and his ex-wife and their two children and twelve cats. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his druthers, if he's not writing poetry, he would rather still be tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon.


He'd learned a long time ago not to agonize over names. In fact, he even remembered he'd been taught to make up a name when he was learning to read and couldn't decode a name in a story. He wasn't worried that he couldn't remember her name, the woman in the bed. She probably didn't remember his either. Hell, he couldn't remember the one he'd given her when he introduced himself. He'd probably told her it was Ben, as he usually defaulted to that when he was too drunk to remember his own. He'd read somewhere that, except for cases of out-and-out amnesia, you couldn't really forget your own name. He wasn't so sure of that. At least when he was drunk, thinking about it really slowed him down. It was better to have a plan. He always had a plan. He thought he was pretty good at plans.

From around the familiar sour taste in his mouth, he got out a greeting. "Wake up, honey, I gotta get goin'. I got an appointment this morning." He also couldn't understand why he'd remembered an eight o'clock appointment, but he had. It was probably part of a plan he just wasn't awake enough or sober enough to remember yet. This time he shoved the large mound sunken in the middle of the bed under the blanket. Probably her butt. "Come on, wake up. I gotta get outta here."

He walked back over to the sink to finish shaving. He took a drag on the cigarette he'd left on the edge of the counter, parallel to the orange slashes melted into the gold-flecked, fake marble. He'd left the water running in the basin, partly to spite the "Please Conserve Our Water" sign, stained and fluorescent-bleached on the mirror, and partly to muffle the usual hangover sounds of morning. He continued to watch the mound in the bed, catty-corner through the mirror. Maybe the warp in the cheap motel glass added a few pounds. Then he thought that not even carnival glass could do that much damage. He wasn't that far gone yet. He squeezed his eyes, shuttering the view, and forced the sting of salt and irritation to distract him.

When he opened his eyes he was looking at the image of his half-lathered face where the razor hadn't nibbled away enough of the grey. The moustache was striped with dull white also, but he wouldn't shave that. He'd been told once that it covered a weak upper lip, so he kept it bushy in spite of the grey. A casual thought struck him that grey must be his signature color of the morning. Grey dawn. Grey hair. Grey life. He pursed his eyes shut again to squeeze away the approaching headache, took a deep breath and refocused on the mirror.

He finished the backstroke up to his sideburns, rinsed out the razor and laid it on the counter for tomorrow, next to the shaving cream. He took a final pull on the cigarette, doused it under the tap and threw it in the wastebasket. He bent over the sink and threw water on his face, first hot water to wash away the shaving soap and then cold to brace his skin and stop the slight bleeding. He always scraped himself shaving at the motel. He blamed the water. It was either too hard or too soft. He never could remember which and he usually tried to talk Mayra into letting him shave at the house on the way into work. The distraction of shaving or the impact of cold water had jogged his memory. He was running late this morning for her appointment and he wouldn't have time to stop.

He looked left again, his view ricocheting in the mirror, and saw that the woman had fallen back from the edge of the bed. Her curdled and dimpled legs hung over the side, feet with purple-painted nails not touching the mottled-brown shag. One arm was slung over her eyes blocking the bathroom light and the day, and the other arm cradled her breasts. One enormous boob peered from under her elbow, rivaling the mound of her belly, and he noticed a rosette mole on the side of it. He also noticed her panties were on inside out.

"Damn it, get up. I'm leaving now, honey. Ya' either gotta get a cab or get some clothes on now." He'd remembered to throw in the "Honey." It seemed to help. She mumbled something incoherent, slightly blocked by the arm, but he didn't care enough to ask "Huh?" and she sat up and started looking for her clothes.

"Got time to take a shower?" she asked in that tone that indicated she was pissed at having to repeat herself. He noticed she didn't call him anything. Not Ben. Not Honey. He was distracted only for a moment with the slight thought that he probably hadn't performed too well last night, or this morning, or whenever. He didn't waste time agonizing over it and his "No" seemed emphatic enough to displease her into action.

Through the mirror he could see that she was taking her time putting on her clothes. Now it was he who was getting pissed, thinking about how long it was taking her to put on what it had only taken her moments to skin out of earlier. He started to laugh aloud when he realized he was no longer looking at her through the mirror but was recalling another image, another time, deep within his own eyes.

"What the hell you laughin' at?" she asked with an edge of malice.

He picked up on the warning and quickly deflected it. "Nothin', honey. Not you. Somethin' else." She said something more under her breath he didn't need to hear to understand, but at least she was dressing faster now: wide-strapped, purple bra; ruffled, sleeveless, pink blouse—her badly-dyed hair looked like some two-tone paint job on a big-finned Detroit model from the sixties—matching pink socks; white jeans. She fell back down across the middle of the bed and struggled to button the fly of her jeans. The sight behind him distracted him for a moment from the thoughts ahead of him or those even farther behind. He thought she was wise not to trust a zipper.

He turned his head to the right and looked back at himself in the glass. Not for the first time he noticed the sagging wattle, the flap of loosening flesh under his chin, now reddened by the scraping of the dulled blade. His eyebrows were sticking out again. He wet his middle and ring fingers on his tongue, and attempted to smooth them flat.

"Well, we goin' or what?" was said plenty loud enough for him to hear this time. He turned left to her image behind him in the mirror, but was cut short by the ringing of the motel phone. He drew the pearl-buttoned sleeve of his shirt back from his wrist to look at his watch. It wasn't there. It was still on top of the TV along with his wallet, keys, cigarettes, and comb. He didn't really need the watch to tell him he was late. The phone was doing that already.

He pictured Mayra at the other end of the line, head cocked to one side, cradling the phone against her right shoulder, tapping her pink nails against the patterned tile of the kitchen counter top with her right hand, and curling the coiled receiver cord in and out of her fingers with her left. He always appreciated the details, almost as much as he appreciated having a plan. It was the big picture that sometimes seemed to elude or overwhelm him.

"Ya gonna answer it or what?" brought him back. He looked from the phone to her, the one now standing plumply in her lavender boots next to the tousled bed, and realized the phone had probably rung more than once. He was struck again by how much memory could be compressed between unguarded moments.

As the ringer began again, he responded. "Yeah. Step in the bathroom, would ya, honey?" She glared at him and said something not quite inaudible this time, but she did go into the bathroom, solidly shutting the door behind her.

He walked over to the built-in nightstand, veneered next to the bed, and reached for the handset. His brain calculated that it had been too long since the last ring at just about the same time his ear registered the dial tone. He started to replace the phone and then dialed double nine and his home number instead. She must have been at the counter still because she answered during the first ring.


"Yeah, honey."

"Where the hell are you?"

"I'd just locked the door when the phone rang and it took a moment to get the key back out of my pocket and then I dropped it and . . ."

"Bullshit! You told me you'd take me this morning. Nora's got the kids next door and the appointment's for eight. I can't be late; not for this!"

"I know, I know, take it easy. I'm sorry, honey. I'll be there in about a half hour. I gotta stop for gas."

"Why in hell didn't ya get it yesterday? I'll be late. The doctor said it's almost too late already. He won't do it if they have to reschedule."

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, honey. It'll be fine. I'll be there in twenty, twenty-five."

"Screw you, Muir. You're always sorry and I'm always late. Well not today. Not anymore. I guess I can borrow Nora's car. Meet me at the clinic!?" She hung up without waiting for an answer, if it had even been a question.

It actually surprised him when the silence on the phone was replaced by dial tone and he re-cradled the handset, cutting off the interruption to his thoughts. He grabbed the wallet and comb and shoved them in his rear pocket, stuffed the cigarettes and a book of motel matches under the loose flap of his shirt pocket, re-snapping it, and then grabbed the keys, clearing off the top of the TV except for the remote. He was on his way to the door when he turned back. "You can come out now, honey."

He drove the woman back to the Birdcage. Somehow it looked lower and meaner in the dim, foggy morning, just a squat cinderblock and clapboard pillbox. Without neon and the night, it was just another faded idea. He had now categorized her as "the lavender one" and it was easy to spot her car among the four left in the lot overnight. He waited to make sure her car started. She didn't let it warm up but jammed it into gear and spun out immediately, spattering his pickup with gravel that made a sound as if the light morning fog had turned to hail. Enwombed in her car, she turned right, heading back into town.

He waited until the gravel attack had subsided and then headed for the driveway through the resettling dust and mist. The fog was too slight and his wipers were just scoring the windshield with a layer of grime. The gorge of the headache was increasing. He turned left, towards the freeway and Carl's Cafe. He felt he needed some coffee more than he needed another ass chewing.

He sat down at the matte-orange, Formica counter. He unsnapped his shirt pocket and withdrew the pack and the matches, jogged a cigarette up which he plucked with his mouth, and lit up, inhaling deeply. He exhaled toward the slowly revolving ceiling fan, thinking, and only looked down when he heard "What can I get ya? Coffee and . . .?" Muir looked past the waitress at his own image, blurred back at him, reflected off the brushed, stainless-steel appliances. Both the brief, crowded memories of the lavender woman and older, longer thoughts of Mayra faded as Muir concentrated on the details of his plan for the day. He looked at the waitress. His smile returned.

"Yeah. Some coffee, black, and a menu. Thanks honey!"


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