The late wives’ suite

Manic Mumbling | The Late Wives' SweetThere had been an argument down the hall. Raised voices, a thump, then silence. Martha harrumphed and reached over Larry’s head. He flinched as she grabbed the key off the pegboard. She turned and pushed through the swinging door, disappearing around the corner before it could swing back.

Larry closed his binder after laying a pencil across the spreadsheet to save his place. He stood, pulling himself up at the counter. He propped a sign near the edge of the counter to face the lobby. It was a dog-eared, peeling from its cardboard backing. A cartoon bird was wearing a watch on one wing, pointing to it with the other, its beak open in a wide smile. “Be Back Soon!” in letters that always reminded Larry of that pig and his “That’s all Folks!” at the end of the cartoon.

Larry bent to collect items he’d stowed near his feet. He shuffled after Martha at half her pace. He could hear her before he turned down the hall and saw her, both feet planted at the second door down. She was knocking, her knuckles stern on the wood.

“Manager,” she said, her lips tight.

“Martha, there’s no one,” Larry said.

Four more doors down, there was the sound of a latch. Light threw itself against the opposite wall. Larry saw the shadow of a head. Right. They weren’t completely empty. Never completely.

“Nothing to worry about,” Martha said, holding up her hand, palm out, still looking at the door. “Sorry.”

The head pulled back, the light thinned to a sliver.

Martha blew hard out of her nose. One beat. Two.

She inserted the key and pushed her way in. Larry followed.

The late afternoon sun filtered through the drawn shears, the air frigid and stale. The bedspread smooth.

The door swung shut with a quiet click that Larry found satisfying. He’d had special hinges put in last year.

Martha pursed her lips. Vacant. But, just yesterday she’d heard … something from this same room. Moans. A woman’s voice. Weeping. Weeping? And then scratching near the wall that separated this room from the next.

The room next door where she’d been sitting on the bed.

She’d been preoccupied with her slip, finger-combing her hair, rushing to smooth the bedspread back into place. The faint noises next door soon forgotten, obscured by the sound of her companion, running water in the bathroom.

Then, just now, those noises from this same room. A room normally empty this time of year.

Even during the low season, solo travelers came through regularly. Businessmen, with small cases and wrinkled suits. Those who knew Martha watched for her lowered chin, her eyes on theirs as she passed them their key, fingers brushing palm. Suggesting.

Later, she’d let them trace the curve of her shoulder, the underline of her breast. Their eyes lively.

Nothing like Larry’s, whose unfocused stare was something Martha always thought well suited to the low-ceilinged damp of this place.

These interludes, with the travelers, they were how she tolerated it all. And how she tolerated Larry. His eyes so dull. Even his skin lacked color.

Martha took care of Martha, making do without drama. Not like that last wife, the one who’d left abruptly one night. Not even packing, not that she could blame the woman. Martha pushed air through her nose again and crossed her arms, exasperated. It was so cold in here.

She bent to the unit by the window blasting air like a walk-in cooler.

“I just can’t. Anymore. Martha.” Larry’s tone made Martha stand and turn. She let out a yelp, her hand flying to her chest.

There were two standing there. Larry and a pale woman just to the left and behind.

Like to scare me to death, Martha thought. Her chest stung where her hand had hit it. She didn’t hear the folded tarp Larry dropped, or notice way Larry’s fingers tightened on the bat at his side.

“Where did … ” Martha started, annoyed, and then stopped.

This woman. She’d seen her before, pausing before retreating down the hall, or in shadows near the stairwell.

Now, close, Martha knew the face from the photo in the paper. The one on the posters. The one who left without her things.

In those pictures, though, the face wasn’t grey, the hair dark hair full, not matted and dripping on one side, like now.

The woman moved her lips, a wordless plea, and raised a hand over Larry’s shoulder, whose cheeks flushed as his eyes, suddenly shining, took focus on his next, late wife.

***

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