It’s cold. He’s wearing a jacket – because you never put your jacket in your checked luggage – but it’s only a light jacket, and he’s only got a thin T-shirt underneath, and here it feels like it’s capable of snowing. He’s waiting on a concrete platform outside the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting for a minibus because he has missed his connecting flight. He’s not the only one being put up at the Comfort Inn, but none of the others are looking at him, or paying him any attention. No one is talking at all. A girl in a leather jacket flicks a cigarette butt into the gutter. A mother smacks her child.
The lady at reception is fat and understanding: ‘Well, sir, that is an awful long way to come.’ He accidentally brushes her clammy hands as she gives him the key to his room, which is not a key but a plastic card twice as thick as a credit card. She is smiling, but her left eye is bruised and puffy.
His room is at the far end of the corridor on the fourth floor (he can take the elevator on the other side of the lobby), but no one is offering to show him the way. He doesn’t have any bags, either. He supposes that his luggage is in transit.
So this is America, he thinks. I’m not even supposed to be in America, I’m supposed to be in Mexico. The elevator walls are lined with mirrors, and he sees that he’s not looking too good after the flight. His face and his hair get so greasy. He pulls a stray nose-hair from his left nostril, which makes him sneeze all over the mirrored wall.
The stench of stale tobacco pervades the corridor of the fourth floor. He knows the windows of American hotel rooms don’t open because you might jump out and kill yourself. But he also knows that you’re allowed to smoke in hotel rooms; they even supply the ashtray. This makes him smile.
He feels like a shower but he also wants to go out. See the sights. The underclass of America. He stands with a craned neck, head out of the flow – he doesn’t want to wet his hair. It’s cold out there. He gets out of the shower and grabs a small towel – hotel towels are always too small. His friend Miles once told him that everyone dries their own body in the same order, every time, for their whole lives. Unless there is a particular reason not to, like a plaster cast, or a rash or something. Is being in America a particular reason?
Over the drone of the bathroom fan he can hear thudding. It’s coming through the wall. With the towel around his neck, he turns off the fan and stands listening, watching water drip off his pubic hair. He can hear thudding and voices speaking in a language that he thinks is probably not English, because it’s going up and down too much. Then he hears what sounds like a slap, or at least the sound of skin on skin, and then a muffled squeal, definitely from a woman. He thinks they must be fucking in there. He thinks about calling Lisa.
He has to put back on the same clothes he’s been wearing since he left home. This is unfortunate. There is more thudding going on next door, but it’s not consistent, not rhythmic, and this makes him wonder how they are having sex. He decides to turn on the television, just to let them know he’s there. There are so many channels that he can’t help flicking through all of them twice. But now he is fairly certain he can hear sobbing through the wall. The beds on either side of the wall must mirror each other. He turns off the television, hoping they aren’t fighting in there. It’s not so much that he hopes they’re not fighting, he just hopes that the woman (he’s sure it’s a couple in there, although he can’t say why) isn’t being beaten up by the man. He doesn’t want to feel involved. He doesn’t like being involved.
He decides to go out. The slapping sounds are starting again, and he can hear moaning now, too. They might be moans of pleasure. He’s going out and into America. He’s already got dollars (greenbacks) and he’s going to find a petrol station (gas station) where he’ll buy lots of American lollies (candy). He imagines he can get oceans of soda and wads of chewing gum in flavours like cinnamon and those sponge cakes called Twinkies – all for under five dollars.
He doesn’t cross anyone on the way to the elevator. At the reception desk, the lady with the black eye tells him it is ten to two. She says he can use his meal vouchers here in the hotel restaurant, that it will be open all night. But she says he ought to hurry before they switch over to the breakfast menu.
The restaurant is Mexican-themed. The tables are mostly empty, but he can see by the half-finished plates of rice and salad and beans that people have recently been eating there. He decides against the restaurant, even though he can eat there for free, because to tell the truth, he’d rather try out some Twinkies. The receptionist nods and smiles. He’s not the strangest guest she’s had at ten to two in the morning.
It’s a lot colder outside. He crosses the empty car park – no, the empty parking lot – and looks up at the hotel. He doesn’t count the floors, but guesses there must be about fifteen altogether. From most windows comes the erratic flashing of televisions, in blues and greens and pinks and reds, and they’re all flashing, but out of time. It’s like a Christmas tree with multiple sets of lights on it. Hardly anyone seems to be watching the same channel.
It’s a Chevron gas station. His father would have compared the petrol prices to back home, but it’s all in gallons, anyway. He selects a bottle of cherry-flavoured Dr Pepper, some Big Red chewing gum, a packet of Jolly Ranchers and two Twinkies, stuffed with the whitest of creams, sitting in plastic wrapping on a shelf. He gets change from his five dollar bill. But how many cents is a dime worth?
He feels awkward about eating his Twinkies inside the gas station, like he’d be rushed about it. So he goes back outside, but it’s too cold to eat them there. Just as he is thinking about walking back to his hotel room he has a better idea: a diner. An American, cup-of-Joe diner.
They’d just keep on filling his mug until he left. He could eat something warm there, too. He doesn’t want to go back to that room, that television, that thudding. He has no trouble finding a diner, but it turns out that the only one open is more or less right next to the hotel.
He walks in and sits himself at a table in the far corner, where he’s got a good view of both the door and the counter. A lady, another fat lady, comes over wearing an apron and clutching a notepad. He looks at his hands as he orders a coffee, and asks about what there is to eat. When she offers things like hotcakes and cheeseburgers and turkey sandwiches, he asks if he can just have a plate of fries, and she says, sure thing honey, just fries. How about I melt some cheese on them for you?, and he says, yes, okay, still inspecting his hands. There are bottles of ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise pushed to the side of the table, next to a pile of napkins.
There are two couples in the diner, and they’re talking in hushed tones, their eyes darting about the room. No brassy dames or square-jawed types just yet. He strains to listen and manages to catch snatches of the closest couple’s conversation. He’s not certain, but he thinks the man is telling the woman about how much he likes to hit people. About the feeling of teeth caving in against his knuckles when he hits them in the mouth. But then he thinks that the man can’t be saying those things, because the woman is laughing, her eyes are glistening.
His coffee is hot and watery and when the fries come they’re on a huge plate. The cheese is orange. He gets to thinking about what time it is and that he could call Lisa, though he has no idea what time it is at home or if she even wants a call from him, and other things, too, like whether only he can smell the odour from his armpits, or if it’s generally more noticeable.
There’s a tinkling sound as a woman enters the diner, and the bell nestled above the doorframe gives a final clink as the door falls back against the jamb. She’s like a vision. It might be the same girl from the platform, but it’s hard to say. She’s wearing a plain white T-shirt belted into tight black jeans, with a leather jacket and red high heels. She walks over to his table and sits down opposite him. He sees that she is wearing thick red lipstick, and that her top lip is bleeding, or at least has recently been bleeding.
She smiles and says her name is Victoria, then asks if she can have a coffee with him. He nods, looking at her directly in the eyes, before scanning the room, as if seeking confirmation from the other customers. They’re not paying any attention. It must look like he’s been waiting for her.
When she flicks her hair from her face he sees that her wrists are almost purple with bruising. The lady running the diner asks her if she wants anything, and Victoria asks for a cup of coffee. The lady smiles at him, thinking that perhaps they make a nice couple.
Victoria says nothing more until her coffee arrives, then pulls a packet of cigarettes from the breast pocket of her jacket, and in what seems like one smooth movement places it between her lips and lights it with a black plastic lighter. The diner lady hurries over: you can’t smoke in here ma’am, you need to put that out. Victoria glares and drops it into her mug. It gives a little sizzle. Then bring me another cup, is all she says, pushing the steaming coffee towards the lady. Victoria turns her eyes towards him, still sitting behind a pile of orange fries, and asks him what his name is. He pauses, and then says that his friends call him Metal Shane. That’s not true, but he likes to lie to strangers, especially when he’s overseas.
He finally smiles and asks, so what do you do, Victoria?, and her first response is to cackle like a witch. Then she begins to talk, and she talks for a long time, uninterrupted, in a smoker’s voice, a voice with an accent, maybe Spanish or Italian, he can’t really tell.
She’s a translator. She does subtitles. Well, she did subtitles, until last Thursday, when she was fired. She did a lot of work subtitling from English into Spanish for cable here; she says the market is booming. And in America she doesn’t have to translate ‘fuck’ as ‘rayos’ or ‘go fuck yourself ’ as ‘vete al carajo’, which is a relief. That doesn’t mean an awful lot to him, but he nods anyway. He’d like to be sucking on a cigarette.
She mostly did daytime stuff, made-for-television movies and the like. Once she did a movie that starred Kyle Chandler, and she got to meet him. He doesn’t know who Kyle Chandler is? Hasn’t he seen that television show called Early Edition, where every day, the hero gets tomorrow’s newspaper, today? And then he saves the day, stops the crime? She wonders if he’s even watched television, and where the hell is he from, anyway? He just shrugs. She says she was getting on real good at the office, and it looked like she might get moved to the daytime soap operas. But that never happened. Some other Mexican bitch, called Lupe or Juana or something, slept with the section chief and stole her show. Literally. So that’s when she started to edit scripts. She began by tweaking the scripts in her subtitles. Subtle changes at first: improvements. She’d improve the register of the conversation, or heighten the tension if it needed it. She went on like this for months, unnoticed, but then she started to get assigned worse and worse projects, terrible daytime dramas with C- or D-grade actors. This is when she really started to change the films, really twisting the plots. She says this was easy, because the films had such low budgets that most of the scenes, and most of the tension, had to be built in dialogue scenes, wide-angled shots and close facial shots. She says she could fairly easily change a spineless housewife into a murderess or a sexual deviant, or simply turn all the male characters into simpering pigs. Those are the words she uses: simpering pigs. In one movie, called Interrogate Your Teaspoons, about a murder that takes place at an antiques convention, she turned the female murder victim from a piano teacher into a lady who had sliced off her husband’s hands, and then sewn them back on again, only back to front. And all this she did through dialogue. She did other films too, like Mouth of the Wolf, Love in Natty Boomtown, The Silo of Knavery and Four Horsemen of Acapulco, but she doesn’t think he’ll have heard of them. If he doesn’t even know who Kyle Chandler is. She tells him that when they found her out, she told her section chief to go hide himself up Lupe’s ass.
Victoria stops talking and stares at him, as if daring him not to believe her. Since her abortive cigarette, the diner lady keeps coming over to their table, refilling their cups of coffee and shooting him glances that are meant to say things like, is this lady a friend of yours?; or, is she bothering you, mister?
He doesn’t have anything to say about Victoria’s subtitles. Instead, he takes a huge gulp of coffee and asks her, in a roundabout way, if she is staying in his hotel. He mentions his room number, then asks if her busted lip is sore. He doesn’t mention her bruised wrists.
She smiles, like a spider, and says no way is he fucking her tonight. She gets up and leaves. He doesn’t try to explain himself.
The diner lady comes straight over, asking if he’s going to pay for her, and he says yes, that he will, and that he’ll have one more refill.
When he exits the diner he notices that it’s first light. He can see over to the other side of the road now, and he can’t help smiling. It’s a graveyard. That’s why there weren’t any lights. Now there are planes taking off over the top of it and someone has already unfurled and raised an American flag in the middle-distance. It’s hanging limp.
He figures he’ll have at least five hours until his flight if it’s just about dawn now. It’s unlikely he’ll sleep. There’s a new lady at the desk, and she doesn’t smile at him. He takes the elevator up to the fourth floor, and kicks off his shoes as he enters the room. He stretches out on the bed. And he doesn’t have time to close his eyes before he hears the thudding again, thudding and slapping and cries coming from the room next door.
What’s going on in that room, on the other side of that wall?
He thinks about the receptionist and Victoria and Lisa and the diner lady, and then he thinks about himself for a while.
Who’s in there, being beaten against the wall, in the room next to his? He puts his ear to the wall, and closes his eyes to listen.
What’s going on in there?