Their motel room, a carbon copy of hundreds of others scattered along America’s highways, contained the standard Howard Johnson bedspreads and matching curtains, a pattern designed to be as bland as bread. Fred had seen so many of these rooms in his career as a travelling salesman; he felt he would be uncomfortable in a room with alternative décor. The only difference this time was that he and Harry had to share a room, they had secured the last available space in the motel, finding the place booked out by the Microsoft Convention taking place in Des Moines. Bill Gates’ army had taken every available sleeping space for a twenty-mile radius, and Fred inwardly cursed the computer giant for its arrogance and sheer size.
Dropping his load, he sat on his chosen bed, the one nearest the
door, reached for the phone, and dialled his home number. A series
of clicks and whirring sounds came over the line as the wires transported
his request across the continent. Finally the ring was answered.
“Lo please, mummy’s not here!” said one of his sons. The telephone promptly went dead. Oh no, Pete had disconnected him again. Couldn’t Shirley put the phone out of his reach somewhere? Pete was rapidly turning into the worst operator Packard Bell could find. Fred sighed again, and redialled. This time the line was engaged. He chuckled out loud, knowing what had happened to the receiver; it would very likely be in the wastebasket, as often before. His son had a penchant for throwing the telephone away, as if he regarded the instrument as pure rubbish and designated it to its rightful place in the bin.
“No dice?” asked Harry, emerging from the bathroom. He fumbled in his coat pocket, extracting a pack of Lucky’s. As he lit one, Fred moved across the room to open the window. Fred was a non-smoker, Harry was a one pack a day man, although he didn’t smoke in the car, a concession that Fred had won on their first trip together.
“No, Pete just threw the phone away again. I’ll have to call my Mom to go over there, Shirley won’t notice until she tries to make a call.”
“Maybe she’s in the back yard,” offered Harry. He looked around the room for an ashtray, and seeing there was none, used the glass from the bathroom shelf. Fred tried not to look. He was a neat, organised man, believing that a glass was for drinking, and not a receptacle for cigarette ash.
“Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to wait until later. I’ll take a bath, do you need to use the bathroom?”
“Nah, I’ll go find the bar while you soak away the day’s aches and pains. Dinner in an hour?” he said, gathering up his jacket. Fred nodded, and Harry left the room.
Later, as they sat at their dinner table, sated with T-bone steak
and fries, Harry scanned the dessert menu while Fred sipped a small cognac
with his coffee.
“We did well today, I reckon Radcliffe will take another year’s supply of goods if we can just get Old Simpson to agree the price,” said Harry, signalling the waitress. He ordered a slice of strawberry cheesecake; the waitress refilled their coffee cups with a bored expression. She had been on her feet since two, and was anxious to get back to Merv and their new hot tub.
“I don’t know if there’s much room to manoeuvre, he has very tight parameters. Still, we can try. I hope you have the paperwork ready for tomorrow’s meeting with Yarrow, he wants to re-stock his entire staff with new uniforms, and even the cleaning staff must have new coats. I believe it’s a re-launch of their product new management, new product, you know the drill. There’s a media thing happening there in a month, so we’ll have to be ready a week ahead, is that OK with you?” asked Fred.
“Sure thing,” said Harry between bites of cheesecake. “I have the last figures to insert tonight and we can go ahead in the morning.”
“Good. OK, let’s go get some shut-eye.” Fred folded his napkin neatly next to his coffee cup and stood up. Harry usually paid the bill; he was responsible for their mutual travelling expenses while Fred was by far the better salesman. Fred could charm the customers into buying his old socks if he wanted to, he was such a sweet talker. That’s what made him number two salesman in the firm; number one being Simpson’s son George, who was in line to inherit the company when his old man exchanged days in the boardroom for golf on a full time basis.
The two men strolled back to their room, settled into their respective
beds and turned out the light.
“G’night,” said Harry.
“Sleep well,” replied Fred. Both men breathed deeply, and soon nothing could be heard but the occasional snuffle from Harry. Fortunately neither man snored.
It was at around three a.m. that Harry felt a warmth which he hadn’t felt for a while, arms enfolding him tightly. He stirred, dreaming of his past girlfriend Jennifer, with her big breasts, and motivated hands. He snuggled closer to her, murmuring endearments. She replied in a deep voice.
“Sure honey, just let me get my pyjamas off.”
Pyjamas? Jennifer never wore pyjamas. Harry stirred again, this time, the blanket of sleep lifted off and he snapped awake. Darkness filled his sight. Where the hell was he? Realisation spread through his mind.
“Jesus!” he cried, springing from the bed where Fred slumbered on, blissfully unaware of his gaffe. The sudden cold draught rapidly brought him also to consciousness. He opened his eyes when the lamp flicked on, to see Harry standing next to the bed, glowering at him.
“What’s the problem, is there a fire?” he mumbled, rising on one elbow, blinking sleep from his eyes.
“No, just that you were in bed with me, that’s all,” replied his friend. Fred sat up, pulling the bedding around him.
“What? How? Oh no!” He wasn’t feeling very eloquent just at that moment. The thought of cuddling up to Harry disgusted him, and he broke into a sweat. What must the guy think of him? He must imagine I’m gay or something! Oh my God!
“Harry, I’m really sorry, I didn’t think when I drank that extra cup of coffee. I remember Shirley telling me I sleep walk sometimes, I didn’t believe her until I walked into the garage one night. Maybe that’s what happened. Please don’t be offended, I wasn’t after you or anything like that.” He tried to keep the panic out of his voice. “I guess I thought I was back home, must’ve got in with you by mistake.”
“Sure, no harm done,” said the bigger man, pulling on his pants. He pulled out his cigarettes. “I’ll go out for a breath of air, OK?” He closed the door quietly and stood, listening to the night sounds, smoking languidly. It took a while for his hand to stop shaking. What did his companion think he was doing? Fred had never acted like this before; perhaps Harry should request another partner.
Fred’s embarrassment was palatable. He hadn’t done anything like this for years, not since he’d walked into a tree on a camping trip in Vermont. Shirley had laughed, telling him he was a bad navigator and he should come back to bed. Somehow the atmosphere between himself and Harry was less relaxed. He sensed a barrier had been erected which would take some time to dismantle, if ever. Regardless of his generally liberal views, Fred found homosexuality a difficult subject, something a little too close for comfort. Now he felt that his companion had him pegged as a faggot. Lord knows what damage it could do if this story were repeated; Fred could lose his job, his family, and everything he’d worked for over the last few years. The idea was not appealing.
Harry extinguished his second cigarette before returning to the room. He hesitated, hoping Fred was asleep. Perhaps he should sleep in the car, as there were no rooms to be had. No, don’t be dumb Harry, he told himself, just sleep in the bathtub. Opening the door, he peered into the room. The light from the bathroom illuminated Fred’s supine figure, back turned to the door, feigning sleep. Harry crept to the empty bed, pulled off the duvet and pillows, and retreated to the bathroom. He locked the door, wrapped himself in the duvet, and climbed into the bathtub, cursing its hard surface. Fred listened to this activity with mounting alarm. He felt the need to use the toilet. What the hell was he to do now? If he knocked on the bathroom door, Harry would very likely have a heart attack. He lay in the dark, trying to work out the best course of action. His bladder would wait no more, and Fred climbed out of the bed and went out into the warm night, searching for an alternative. He found a secluded spot behind a tree at the end of the walkway, and gratefully relieved himself against its dark bulk. It was then he cursed his lack of footwear, as he felt a warm, wet sensation over his feet.
To compound his misery, when he returned, the door was firmly closed
and Fred realised he was locked out of the room. Now what would he
do? He pulled his tee shirt down in a vain attempt to cover his naked
thighs, now covered in goose bumps.
“Oh Lord, please help me,” he muttered, tapping on the door. No reply. Of course, after the two cognacs at dinner, Harry must be dead to the world behind the double thickness of the bathroom door. He wouldn’t hear nuclear war break out. Poor Fred shivered in the early morning air, wondering what to do. He thought about the car, and limped across the gravel to find the doors and windows locked securely. His own policy, always lock your car, even at the gas station. Why, in the name of all that’s holy, did he always have to be so wonderfully organised?
He thought about knocking up the neighbour, but couldn’t bear the embarrassment of having people think he was a crazed pervert; he wasn’t used to turning up at a stranger’s door at three a.m. without proper clothes. He mused further on his predicament as he wandered toward the reception area, trying to keep his feet away from the sharp gravel, not easy given the design of Howard Johnson’s motels. Through the glass doors, he saw two couples were standing at the reception desk, where the night clerk was on the phone. At the sight of the women, Fred’s resolve crumbled and he slunk away in the shadows. He crept back to his door, wishing it would dissolve in front of him. If only he had put on his trousers, he could always explain bare feet but bare ass? Not what folks want to see in the early hours in an Ohio motel.
That was when the dog appeared. He trotted up, sniffing him suspiciously. Fred was leaning against the door with eyes closed, praying for guidance when he felt another stream of warm wet liquid on his feet. Looking down, he saw the small, scruffy mutt and cursed, reaching down to remove his non-existent shoe to throw at the creature, only to cover his hand with puppy pee. The dog slunk away, into the darkness. Fred felt like crying. What had he done to deserve this? To which faith must he convert to get this put right? It was obvious to Fred that his personal God had forsaken him completely.
Suddenly, a door opened a few yards away to his right. He looked in that direction to see a man on his way to the ice machine at the far end of the walkway. The man’s back was turned, and Fred moved quickly to slip through the open door. An old movie was playing on the flickering television, and a half-empty bottle of scotch stood on the night table. An open suit carrier lay on the other bed. Fred concealed himself in the large closet; at least it was warmer than outside, and no clothes hung on the rails. There were, thankfully, extra blankets and pillows. Fred made himself as comfortable as he could, as silently as he could. The room’s occupant returned, and Fred heard the clink of ice cubes in glass. The man coughed and the TV hummed. Fred soon fell asleep.
Waking painfully, he slid the door open a crack and eyed the scene.
The rumpled bed and scotch bottle were both empty. Fred crept
from his hiding place and stretched, noting the sharp pain in his middle
back. He never could sleep on floors. He went into the bathroom,
staring at his dirty, unshaven face, and was about to splash water on his
cheeks when a noise at the door disturbed him. The maid had arrived.
Fred looked out of the bathroom as she entered the room. Her shocked
expression told its own story, she screamed something in Filipino, and
ran out, waving her arms about. Fred took his chance, grabbed a large
towel, and held it around himself as he ran out after her. Fortunately
for him, the walkway was empty. He approached his own door and banged
on it furiously. Harry opened at the third attempt.
“What’s up, Fred?” he asked, staring, unbelieving, at his friend’s attire. Anyone would think he was just coming from a bathhouse. Wasn’t that where those gay guys hung out? Harry’s fears of the previous night had not dissipated.
“Don’t ask, let’s just get out of here,” muttered Fred, grabbing his clothes.
“Are you all right?” Harry was astounded at his behaviour, he was normally the reserved one.
“Sure, why shouldn’t I be?” snapped the disgruntled Fred, “Come on, let’s go, chop chop, we have to get to Yarrow’s by eleven.”
“OK, but do you mind if I travel in the back?” asked Harry.
“Sure, whatever, sit in the trunk if you must, just let’s get out of here.”
The Highway Patrol was parked at the front of the motel when they
emerged from the parking lot. Apparently, one of the maids had reported
a pervert running loose around the place, and they were determined to catch
him. They waved the Buick through their mini roadblock, unaware that
the state’s most wanted had slipped through their fingers as easily as
he had slipped into the role of midnight prowler. As for Harry, he
swore he would never share a room with Fred again, and vowed in future,
not to accept his invitations to dinner. To Harry, there was no smoke