He had come for the coffee. The eggs looked strange with an unappetizing sheen. Resisting a bruised banana he continued out to the hallway that led to the conference room. It was cold, a vast chamber good for echoes…”
by laine perry
In his room at the Howard Johnson’s Ken Wilkes unrolled his cashmere socks and lay them in the top drawer of his dresser; an early birthday present from Maria. He started the hot water for his shower, had second thoughts, turned the water off and cleared fog from the vanity so he could determine whether his nose hair needed trimming. Maria liked to describe him as hirsute. He didn’t mind his wife describing him that way. Neither did he mind performing the daily ablutions involved with that particular characteristic. More time was needed in the mornings but Ken had always been early to rise.
What made a thing work? This is what Ken wanted to know. Curiosity was what he had always had going for him. He pushed on his cartilage for a better view of the offending nose hair. Ken had never felt mechanically inclined. Each product he sold was a battle for him. If the mechanism was simple he would grasp the fundamental operational principal though he had never understood his own rise at the company. He didn’t know how the products he sold achieved their effects. When he thought about it he realized he didn’t know much about the business he was in. He was in it for his family, for Maria, and their daughter Casey. His daughter had a full ride at Stanford, but what if that scholarship hadn’t come along. Ken wasn’t a risk taker. He was solid. He dressed in his usual ensemble of navy slacks and blue button down and combed his silver mane to one side. He snapped his watch tight on his wrist. Maria had the same watch, a Tag-heuer. That was the splurge on their twentieth anniversary. She was probably in the garden now, up to her knees thinning dahlias. He should have brought her this time. She had wanted to come along. But what was there for her to do while he worked? Henderson was a small town. The pool was shut down. It was not a destination. Only vaguely interested in breakfast he wandered down to the hotel lobby. Ken needed a kick-start.
He had come for the coffee. The eggs looked strange with an unappetizing sheen. Resisting a bruised banana he continued out to the hallway that led to the conference room. It was cold, a vast chamber good for echoes. He let one go, “Hello?” he asked. “Hello?” It came back. It was a little like being in a coffin until he saw Fogerty shuffle in. Arnasson was bringing up the rear. Together they were hauling the new “lock-tite compressor,” touted as the year’s best kept secret. “How’s the wife and daughter?” the guys asked Ken. “Casey’s just made crew captain at Stanford,” Ken told them. They shook their heads in unison. “Sure she’s your offspring Wilkes? Weren’t you lucky to make it out of the 8th grade?” There was a lot of ribbing and laughing. Ken didn’t mind it. This is how they were with each other at these conventions. There was a lot of camaraderie. “Bum a smoke?” Arnasson pleaded. “Course,” Ken offered. He had quit a few months back but he kept a pack on him because he didn’t want to feel whipped. “So this is what all of the buzz is about, eh?” Fogerty tightened his belt a notch and patted his newly trim middle. “That’s our girl!” He said and gave a thin whistle. “I plan to retire on these orders!” Arnasson said. “Sure she’s a looker but can she perform? “ Ken teased his cronies. “Have a go at her!” Fogerty tempted. “Go on, she won’t bite Wilkes, that’ll be next years edition,” the three laughed. Ken checked his watch. The hair on his wrist was damp. It was 8:00 in the morning and people with name tags had begun to file in. The room was coming to life and Ken was trying to catch up. “Get her warmed up for me boys.” So they’d already sealed it with the lock-tite. Well, there were other fish to fry.
He headed back to grab another cup of coffee.
Where was the real cream? Almond Delight, Cinnamon Pleasure, Chocolate Heaven? Ken moved his cup under the milk dispenser. The fluid was thin and blue. It would have to do. He didn’t like all of those flavors. He liked the genuine article. He took a sip and scalded his mouth. “Jesus!” Ken yelled, and slammed the cup down on its saucer. A woman in line behind him touched him on his right arm. “I guess they don’t believe in unadulterated cream anymore,” she said. “I cussed. I’m Sorry,” Ken said. He took his coffee to the overstuffed sofa. Black coffee jiggling, she moved toward him extending her hand and a wealth of metal bangles. “I’m Phyllis Sherplee, with Anchor Motors,” she said taking a seat beside him. “This is my year you know!” she told him. “Your year? Oh, Anchor, so you must mean the lock-tite eh? Everybody’s talking about it.” “Everybody’s talking about me,” she said smiling. “Confidence,” Ken said, “I like that.”
Seated at the kitchen nook, Maria Wilkes found herself staring at her personal Jesus. Her husband’s artist friend Albert had carved Jesus in his crown of thorns out of an old Saguaro cactus. The two of them, Ken and Albert, had gone on a midnight desert run for that Saguaro. Albert was the other reason for their move to Tucson. She liked the old Indian. She approved of the bond he shared with her husband who did not have many close friends. She was glad Ken would have Albert when she was gone. It wasn’t an idea she could easily get her mind around, the fact that she was dying. For certain parts of any particular day Maria felt strangely healthy and as strong as a teenager and then she felt her disease coming on like a bull out of a pen, raging with intent. Maria understood that the world couldn’t support every one of us living forever. The numbers would be impossible. Still, it was hard to take. She hadn’t even smoked. Cancer had found her anyway. She looked at Jesus waiting for him to explain the rules to her. In the furthest reaches of her soul she knew that if she kept looking she would live to see the blood roll in beads from his temples curling down along his angular cheekbones until they fell to the wood floor.
Ken wished he had not let this woman in to his motel room. She was loud, coarse, and talked too much about herself. He kept picturing his wife Maria in her garden, her long slender shoulders, softly freckled, her blonde curls peeking out from under her straw sun hat, her gorgeous, wide smile. He felt so strongly aroused by the comparison of his wife on her knees in their garden, to this nitrous red-head pawing at him that for a moment he could barely breathe. Where another man might have pulled up his pants and caught an early flight home, Ken moved, compelled by something that was beyond his comprehension, an essential component that he had skimmed over so many times he believed him self familiar with it. “Don’t think this means you’ve got the deal,” she said. He hadn’t even been thinking about the lock-tite. Jesus, what was the matter with him. She was practically shoving the offer at him. His boss would be floored if he managed to tie up a thing like this. Ken winked at his guest. “Cigarette?” he asked, pulling a second from his pack. “Not bad,” she said, “I’d heard you were kind of a tiger in bed,” she said giggling. “You’ve researched me?” She tucked the sheet around her waist exposing her heavy breasts. “No, I just overheard the guys joking about your success at these conventions. You’re the envy of your peers you know.” Looking at her now Ken wondered why he had let it happen. Sure, Phyllis was a little charming. She was not a stunner, but there was something about her he had liked. He sat at the foot of the bed trying to figure it out.
In the afternoon he heard Phyllis’ sharp laugh and the clatter of her jewelry and knew she was motioning to him. He excused himself to his customer, handing the kid a brochure, and moving swiftly to the Anchor Motors booth. “Not much of a courtship Tiger,” she chided. “Hell of a day though huh?” he said wiping his cheek. “Where do I sign?” he asked. “Well I kind of thought we’d take care of all of that tonight,” she said, “and anyhoo, I think it calls for a decent celebration Tiger.” She touched him on his forearm smiling. “Can’t do. I’m flying out at seven sharp, and you?” Ken asked. “Another time then,” she said. “Sure, maybe next year,” he said. The air shot right out of her, her confidence too. “Well, what about those papers Phyll?” he said. “Yeah, all right,” she said. “What’s the harm?”
Coming up the paved driveway Ken spotted Maria’s straw hat in the garden. “Good,” he thought, “this air is the best thing for her.” He was glad his wife was starting to regain her strength. This disease had been a tough one to fight. Maria didn’t deserve it. It was Ken who was the pack a day type. Maria didn’t smoke, never had, not even in college. God, he was happy to be home again. He wondered if Arnasson had it like this. Coming home he was like a puzzle piece snapping in to place. Next year he was going to get into a desk job at the company. He was tired of being on the road. He’d expanded enough territory.
It was time for a young guy to step in. Maybe he and Maria would travel to another country; maybe they’d even take Casey with them the way they had always talked about doing. Casey might like that. Maria would like it, Ken was sure. God, he felt right. “Maria,” he called as he walked through the garden alongside their lake, “Hello?” he called. He touched the brim of her hat. It sat atop a rake that leaned against a newly planted tree. “Hello?” he called, moving hurriedly toward the house. He was running up the stairs to the house now, yelling, excited to wake his wife to his return. “No more nonsense,” he said to himself. He had never meant for anything to happen with those women. He loved his wife. He couldn’t remember even one of their names, except this last one, Phyllis, whose name stuck in his mind like a spade in fresh earth. What an unexpected coup though, securing the exclusive on the “lock-tite.” The thought of it invigorated him in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ken liked the feeling he had. He wanted to hang on to it. He hoped he could, even once his wife had finally gone. On the sofa where his dead wife lay, Ken lay down beside her, forgiving himself for forgetting that he was human.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Laine Perry grew up on the road with her mom, making music and telling stories. Many more of these stories from Laine can be found in the Vault of Smoke.