I’ve spent days staring out the window. It’s at least a little less depressing than looking at my other surroundings.
“It’s just a room,” I tell myself. “A stopping point, a way station on the route to home.” There’s moments where I almost believe it. The room itself is fine; it’s actually better than some I’ve been in. The walls are a shade I think would be called peach, if you saw it in the Home Depot catalogue. They’re clean, uncracked. There’s a giant square mirror, a pair of generically pretty prints. Matching little desk in the corner, dresser under the mirror and entertainment center. King size bed in the middle, with a clean and well-mended green couch beside it.
It’s not home, but it’s homey. Still, it feels rather sad. It carries the reek of people trying to do better than life wants to let them, struggling to make something nice grow in acidic, toxic soil.
The window, though. That’s life. Just perhaps not the life I ever wanted.
It takes up almost the entire front wall. Seven feet tall, ten feet wide, draped with grey suede and a thin white sheet if you wanted to let the light in but keep at least a little privacy. The view wasn’t much. Just a steep angle down into the parking lot, which was cracked and littered with pigeon shit and cigarette butts that danced with each other in the frequent gusts of wind.
But the people. They were what brought it to life, made it so fascinating. Between the motel’s desk and the little market that dominated the parking lot, folks were always coming and going. The bus stop across the street brought even more, and if you craned your neck to see around the corner of the windowpane, you could see the sidestreet beside the strip, and even more people were cutting across in that direction.
I saw an elderly Cuban man wearing an ancient but perfectly-maintained zoot suit, walking with a bamboo cane that gave him an air of gentle authority and smiling beneath his heavy sunglasses and wide-brimmed straw hat. I wondered if he was someone’s visiting grandfather, or maybe a widower looking for a fling before he hung up the cane and hat in favor of a harp and halo. I wondered that until I made one of my own trips down to the corner store, and he approached me while I was trying to pick the cellophane off a stubborn pack of menthols. I smiled, said hello.
He asked me if I had any heroin.
I shook my head, tucked down into my shoulders, and returned to my room. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Sad? Amused? A little of both. The man had style, though, I’ll give him that.
I saw a spontaneous dance party, as a couple from one of the lower level rooms argued in the parking lot and a beautifully kept Toyota came flying through the lot, screeching to a stop in front of the store, and four young men of multiple colors, ages and manners of dress practically flew out. From the opened doors the heavy bass of something I didn’t recognize but could classify as techno poured out, along with a generous quantity of smoke. The arguing couple turned to watch, and the young men started dancing as they walked into the store. When they came out, they were still dancing, but they saw the couple.
“C’mon, guys! Dance! Live a little!” I think that’s what they said. Hard to make out over the music and the insulation of the glass.
The couple’s angry faces dropped. Their upraised arms lowered. One of the young men moved towards them, putting an arm around the man and then the woman, and started an impromptu, totally off beat and quite frankly atrocious River Dance. But it worked. Soon all of them were laughing and dancing. Other doors were opening on my floor, to see what was happening, and when they saw, they danced, too.
It was beautiful. I wanted to join them. I should have. But I didn’t. I could only watch.
I was never much of a dancer.
The one I’ll remember the most though is Carlos. At least, I think that was his name. It’s what the screaming woman seemed to be saying.
I’d seen him a few times. Always bebopping up and down the street. He was on the short side, with a wiry build that looked like it was hiding strength most wouldn’t suspect. His hair was tangled, sweaty and dirty, tied into a ponytail at the back of his head. The curls were tangled into a knotted mess than hung limp at the base of his neck. I noticed him because of his shoes.
They were white flip flops. Very girly. When I’d see him go by, swaying and flailing about as if to music only he could hear, it was those that made me wonder. What was the story behind the shoes? They seemed to be crucial to understanding him. The second time I saw him, he was wearing capris, pulled down below his hips to show off his boxers, and no shirt. That also seemed important, though I couldn’t have said why. His back was scarred, long gouges running from one shoulder to the hip, and I wondered what had done that, and why. A tattoo, faded and poorly done, of some kind of bird perched above that, with writing I couldn’t read from my spot.
The third time I saw him is when the trouble happened. He was slipping through the lot – a change from his previous passes, where he stuck to the sidewalk – and bumped into the Cuban gentleman. The Cuban turned, looked at him over the rims of his glasses, and murmured something. I don’t know what, since I couldn’t hear and it was impossible to read his lips behind the thick and vibrant mustache that hung above them, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been anything too inflammatory. His facial expression didn’t change, and my earlier interaction with him and the times I’d seen him talk to others seemed to imply that despite his addiction he was a polite, calm and quiet fellow.
Carlos didn’t take it well, however. He snatched the old man’s cane and threw it against the wall. The old man cried out, and this time I heard it. I saw him stagger. Carlos was spewing a stream of invectives that imaginative sailors would have blushed at, still bobbing and weaving, sweat flying from his face and hair in a rainshower that dotted across the old man’s glasses and left smoking pits in the asphalt around him.
I heard someone upstairs bellow out. “You leave that old man alone!” I heard the thuds as doors all around opened, residents summoned by the telepathic warning of trouble. They looked like birds roosting on telephone wires, all leaning against the railing on every floor as they stared down at Carlos.
The old man was spared. He hop-hobbled towards his cane, and with a final frightened look at Carlos, slipped away. Carlos didn’t seem to mind. He had new targets. He started with the one who had told him to stop. Calling him a bitch. A pussy. A faggot. The voice sounded calm, confident and icy when it answered him.
“Keep talking, boy, and you’re gonna find out what a hole in your head feels like.”
I heard it clear as day, as if the man who’d said it was sitting next to me and talking about a newspaper headline, instead of shouting it from three floors up.
Carlos seemed disbelieving. “What’d you say?”
Other birds on the railing threw their input in. Murmurs and shouts of agreement, mothers cautioning their children and ushering them back inside, a few cigarettes – not all of them tobacco – or small alcohol bottles were thrown, the missiles pelting Carlos and adding new steps to the drug-induced dance that he seemed to be unable to stop.
More hurled insults. A new player was coming. A white Bronco was pulling into the lot, screeching to a stop. A woman fell out of it. Older. Maybe 50. Whore-red hair coming out at the temples. A body that might have been good once, before kids and stress and whiskey had stolen it, leaving a shapeless mass beneath a Spongebob sweatshirt and booty shorts. She screamed Carlos’ name, tried to drag him towards the car.
He shoved her away. She bounced off the hood, gouging her hip on the bumper and leaving a streak of blood across the still open door as she stumbled backwards. She screamed his name again, but now it didn’t matter. There was a new sound. A thunderous crash from a cloudless sky.
Carlos fell back, one hand going to the side of his face. He looked like someone slapping their cheek in surprise. If the someone no longer had a cheek, and the surprised step back was going to take them directly into the hood of a Brono that had been white seconds ago but now looked as though someone had destroyed a cherry pie on the hood.
Some of the birds had fluttered down, slipping down the stairwells to surround him. Some of them grabbed the woman and drug her away, holding her back while she thrashed and screamed.
“I told you, boy,” the icy voice of Death said from somewhere above.
The brave birds who’d gone downstairs, those who weren’t keeping the woman out of it, descended on Carlos. He was still screaming, but there was no venom in it, not even words. Just pain, sorrow, and the dim realization that he had chosen the wrong time and place to strut like an angry chicken, that he had picked the wrong grandfather to run into.
There were grunts. Shouts. Thuds. They were pecking, but with heavy-booted feet and curled fists rather than beaks.
It went on for so long I began to think that the movie outside my window had been placed on an infinite loop. They would beat him to death forever. Or at least until I stopped watching. But it finally ended. His cries stopped. The woman was no longer screaming, only sagging in the arms of those birdies who had been holding her back but were now holding her up as she sobbed and tore at her whore’s hair.
“Let her go. It’s done,” Death said from above.
As one, the other birds flew from their prize, scattering across the lot and to the four winds. Those holding the woman set her down, gently. One of them even hugged her and kissed the top of her head. They are not without compassion, these ragged angels of death. Perhaps that is what is so horrible about them.
I slid the drapes closed. I no longer wanted to watch. God help me, I’d seen enough.