Jim could hear the busboys clustered in the kitchen daring each other to ask him. Barf, the redheaded lawyers’ son that looked like he was chewing on a fart whenever he smiled, took up the challenge and approached the dish machine.
“Hey, man,” Barf said, “we were just wondering, how old are you?” He glanced over his shoulder at his tittering comrades.
“And you’re still a fucking dishwasher?” the kid belted.
His friends hooted with laughter and skipped around like lobotomized finches.
Jim stacked plates on the dish rack and shrugged. “There just isn’t enough work for gravediggers these days. Not enough people dying, I guess.”
The kid’s face screwed up in confusion. “Oh.”
He backed away as though he’d stepped up on a rattler and rejoined his chortling entourage.
Suddenly, the title for Jim’s book came to his mind. Out of nowhere it came, like a raw nerve set on fire, inspired by the heartless laughter.
He wanted to shout in ecstasy and relief, but he said nothing. He forced himself to be calm, ran the last of the dishes through the machine, and wiped it down.
He threw his apron in the dirty apron bag and went to the head cook scraping carbon off the grills. “Is it cool if I take off early tonight, Carl?”
Carl didn’t look up from his work. “I don’t give a shit what you do, just get off my goddamn line.”
Bussers and servers milled around, flirting, counting tips as Jim headed to the backdoor.
The pretty young hostess with the green eyes and olive skin called out, “Cheer up! You should smile more.”
Jim smiled over his shoulder at her.
The hostess spun around to the others and squealed, “Oh my God, did you see his goddamn teeth?”
Jim stepped outside and closed the door against the laughter.
Cool night air.
Cars sped past the restaurant, tires making wet sounds on the roadway.
Mist draped like cobwebs over the sky. Rain puddles reflected neon signs of fast food places, bars, and gas stations so that the parking lot looked the way the city must appear through a spider’s eyes.
He reached his motel at the end of the strip. The Evergreen Heights sign had died weeks before, but the Hourly Rates sign still burned bright.
Jim’s room was the last one on the bottom floor, next to where the dumpsters were kept. He opened the door to find that rain had flooded the dumpsters again and sent a wave of detritus under the gap beneath his door, leaving behind three cigarette butts in a pile of coffee grounds. He kicked the butts outside and closed the door.
It was a tiny room. The bed took up the majority of the space. There was a metal foldout chair next to the bed, a lamp with no lampshade next to the chair, and that was all.
The carpet made squishing sounds under his feet as he walked over to the lamp. When he turned the light on a centipede startled from its place on the mattress and skittered down the side of the bed, across the floor, and through a crack in the baseboard. Jim watched where it went and took a piece of gum out of his pocket, chewed it, plugged the crack in the baseboard and smiled.
He got a cardboard box from under his bed and took his typewriter and a stack of papers out of it. He sat on his foldout chair and put the typewriter and the papers on the bed like a desk.
The sounds of a professional wrestling match came through the wall from the room next door. He could hear a man and woman talking as they watched it.
The woman screamed, “Kill him! Kill that motherfucker!”
Her man mumbled, “Shut up.”
She was quiet for a moment before the fracas picked up again. “Kill him! Kill that motherfucker!”
A train rumbled around the bend in the valley behind the motel. Jim smiled and closed his eyes as it approached.
The train’s rumblings ran through the walls and the floor and up through his chair and him. The lamp danced lightly on the floor and the bulb shivered in its socket making a sound like chattering teeth.
Jim took a deep breath and held it, pulling the train rumblings and the trash water and the gasoline smell from the highway deep into his lungs and holding it there. Held it and tasted it and let it sink into the cells of his being and told himself to never forget. Never forget.
He opened his eyes and smiled on what would be the last night he would ever spend in that room, exactly one year after moving in and starting the novel, the book done now and only needing a title. He’d been trying to think of the title for three days with no luck.
It had finally come to him when the busboy had approached him. Like electricity it had come, and the moment it did he knew it was right, and more than right, it was the only possible title for the book and had always been the only possible title. From the very first night he spent in that room, one year ago, awakened by a cockroach crawling over his face, it had been the only one.
It had been there all along, through 365 nights of sitting alone listening to train rumblings echo down the long valley at midnight. Smell of fear like diesel in the sheets. Nights surrounded by busboys snickering at life, never wondering for a moment what any of it meant.
Pretty young hostesses with malicious, malignant laughter.
Garbage water in the carpet and centipedes in the walls.
365 nights alone in this with nothing but words and dreams to sustain him.
Bombs exploding over the earth, waves of famine on newspaper’s back pages.
Cold nights on a damp mattress.
Gun shots and drunks screaming through his walls.
365 nights of pounding on a typewriter in a room not suited for rent. Writing something no one else may ever read, paying dues to an art that would never earn him a dime.
365 hungry nights refusing to yield, trying to do right by the dead writers that were his only family.
Until now, at the end of all those nights, the book done and a new morning waiting. All along there had only ever been one possible title for the book. Always only one.
He breathed it all in…the train rumblings, the trash water, the gasoline smell of the highway. He pulled it all deep into his lungs and held it there and promised that he would never forget.
All along, through 365 nights, there had only ever been one possible title for his book.
Always only one.
He rolled the paper into his typewriter and typed: Love.