When the woman could not find a babysitter for her son, she would take the boy with her to the motor court where she cleaned rooms.
That happened a lot during the summer. The teenage girls on her block old enough to baby sit wanted to spend the day down at Indian Lake or at the community pool flirting with the college-age lifeguards. Sometimes she took the boy because money was too tight. She could not spare the ten dollars she paid the girls to watch the boy she called Little Joe.
Today she brought him along.
His full name was Amos Ray Joseph. She had fought her husband over his choice of name for their firstborn. It was one she had never liked. Amos Ray was the name of her then-husband’s father up in the Dakotas. Amos Ray senior was a big time rancher with a spread holding oil wells, wheatlands and meadows for grazing cattle.
Old Amos Ray was meticulous to the point of preening. He kept a row of expensive soft-bristled brushes in his oak panel office to clean the Stetsons he bought from a Denver hat-maker. There was always a shine on his hand-tooled boots.
The man hated Indians too. He called them lowdown and dirty drunks. The elder Amos Ray said they were leeches looking for a hand out. He’d even say things like that around her.
The boy’s mother—Leanne—had been born among the Sioux on the Rosebud down south. The boy’s father may have named his first child after Amos Ray, but now she and her ex-husband were estranged because of the marriage. The old man disowned his son after he hitched up with Leanne at the justice of the peace in Williston and he shipped out to Vietnam. It was a union that had lasted only for a year or so, but neither Amos Ray nor his son ever attempted to reconcile.
The only thing that remained of their marriage—and Amos Ray’s shadow in their life—was the boy’s name. But even before they left the maternity ward the woman gave the boy a second appellation. The boy’s father and the school system could call him Amos Ray all they wanted. She liked Little Joe. And that’s what she called him. The boy was Little Joe Joseph to her.
Leanne opened the door from a set of keys and dropped her orange plastic bucket full of cleaning supplies inside the room. The hotel’s owner made his mother clean the rooms without switching the lights on. The boy knew it was because the owner, a rail-thin widower with greasy strands of hair streaked across his pink scalp, always complained about his cleaning staff—the boy’s mother and a heavily rouged Mexican woman called Imelda – of needlessly burning electricity.
He scolded the women constantly about the lights, in fact. He was not made of money, he reminded them. And what was the use of spending what little profit the motel earned on electricity in an empty room when there wasn’t a paying costumer there?
She told the boy to wait outside by the pushcart of clean sheets and folded towels while she tied back the sun-faded curtains in front of the window and picked up dirty towels from the floor. The motel faced a highway running north to south, so there was plenty of natural light with door and window open.
After she snapped the bed sheet tight and straightened the heavy comforter, she motioned the boy to come inside. She told him to sit on the edge of the bedcover to watch TV.
The boy was barely old enough for his feet to touch the green carpet, and the TV was too high for him to reach up to change that channel. So the mother asked him what he had been watching in the previous room. The boy told her and she flipped the plastic dial to that channel.
Moving from room-to-room on a day like today, he’d sometimes miss an important thread to the story in the movie or TV show he had been watching in the room they had just left. Little Joe did not complain. Trying to figure out what had just happened in a movie two rooms back was better than sitting in the back of their Impala all day. Even with the car’s windows rolled down, the summer was murderous.
When the mother passed in front of the dingy dresser where the TV rested, she turned the volume down. She told him it was better to be safe than sorry.
You never knew when the old man was sneaking around double checking to see how clean the rooms were, she said.
Trees and houses lined the brow of a line of pretty hills just across the highway. The hills separated the interstate road from the river below and the old town square where church bells clanged in the afternoon. The motel had a large neon sign that read Low Rates, but it was turned off during the day as well. Next to the motel there was an off-ramp and a filling station big enough to handle eighteen wheelers and RVs.
The boy watched TV with the honking and whooshing of passing big rigs and vehicles.
His mother wore a faded blue duster. She kept the large ring of motel room keys in the front pocket. They rattled when she cleaned. If she was in a playful mood, she’d tweak his nose or pull on his ear when she passed by.
Today she wasn’t. The boy could tell something was wrong. She was distracted and would sometimes go into the bathroom and shut the door. He could hear her sobbing. He didn’t bother her and watched whatever channel she left it on.
Even the motel owner noticed something different in her when she showed up for the work. He sat at the registration desk hunched over his cigarette ash smudged racing forms. She was usually scrubbed clean and smelling of soap, but the penny-pinching widower saw how her eyes were red-rimmed and her dark hair was pulled back so poorly that wispy strays hung over her ears like the hem of something terribly frayed. He also winced at the bruises showing faintly beneath the rouge on her cheek.
He didn’t make any smart aleck comments about the need for her to be more judicious with his cleaning supplies or the other amenities that motoring guests expected when she asked for the keys.
The boy was taken aback when the man’s thin lips quivered as he talked softly to her. He almost sounded fatherly through the cigarette smoke. He offered her the day off—with pay.
“Take it, seriously,” he stammered uncomfortably to her.
The boy’s mother didn’t say anything. She just shook her head, retrieved the keys from the man’s dry hand and motioned for the boy to follow her outside to a closet where the cleaning supplies were kept. The old man frowned and pulled a gnawed ballpoint pen from behind his ear and went back to reading his racing form.
Things had been bad since the weekend.
The woman had fought with her live-in boyfriend—Woodrow—on Saturday night. He was a two-time felon just released from jail, strutting around town like he was a badass on the prison yard.
Woodrow rode with a motorcycle club up in the city. Things were strained between his mother and Woodrow because she was unhappy about him tramping around with his old gang. She wanted some stability for her and the boy and thought Woodrow should spend more time at home.
The boy had heard enough muffled arguments and his mother’s tearful accusations from behind their bedroom door to suspect what happened at the club’s parties. The mother believed Woodrow was running around on her and she complained that he spent more money on his biker friends than on her and the boy.
Woodrow would always remind her that the boy was not his kid anyway. That’s what child support was for, he would say.
Woodrow worked at a plant in town, but he disappeared for days at a time when the larder was near empty. He acted like he couldn’t help out with the bills, but he always had money to chrome plate parts on his bike and buy beer for his club friends.
The money his mom earned from cleaning the motel rooms was barely enough to cover gas and groceries. Sometimes they had to stand in line in church basements for day-old bread and government commodity cheese and peanut butter.
The boy never understood why his pretty mother tried to hang onto Woodrow like someone who was drowning. Not even when the boy’s father moved back into town last year to be near them.
The boy didn’t even remember a time when his mother and father were married. But the man almost looked hurt around the woman. The boy just figured the man still loved her.
Woodrow’s motorcycle club ran pot, pills and sometimes guns. His mom was pissed because he came home late Saturday night drunk after a ride down to Kentucky where they unloaded a parcel of homemade sawed-off shotguns to some Aryan power survivalist group. The boy’s mother was fuming mad about it.
They had a big argument in the kitchen. It sounded like a roadhouse brawl: breaking glass and splintering wood. Furniture flying across the living room like something out of a ghost movie – and the yelling.
The mother had shut the boy’s bedroom door, but he heard words like slut and I hate you and shut up shut up shut up for chrissake.
Their house was up against some railroad tracks and the boy was relieved when a freight train would howl by, drowning out the yelling and house wrecking. The next day the boy awoke to a torn up kitchen and upturned living room. Part of the front bay window was broken out.
Woodrow was gone and his mother was slumped on the kitchen floor with her back against the sink. Snotty nosed and bloodied at the mouth. Her dressing gown was ripped, but the crying had stopped at least. The boy saw finger-sized bruises on the mother’s wrists and arms.
She had fallen asleep on the kitchen floor. He gently nudged her awake. He asked her if she wanted to go to church. There was a small one down the road they could walk to, he reminded her. He didn’t understand why she started church hopping out of nowhere this past spring, but something inside him told him it was a good idea for her to be someplace like that today.
She shook her head and told him they would clean up the mess and make pancakes instead. The boy had seen Woodrow hit her, but never this bad. Her hand would not stop trembling when she tried to clean her face in the bathroom mirror.
That was two days ago.
Today on her lunch break, she gave the boy her peanut butter sandwich and bought him a Coke from the vending machine. She put him in a motel room with the TV on while she sat in the open doorway facing the highway. The boy had not seen her smoke since she started visiting churches. Now he saw her pull out a pack of Salem 100s from the duster pocket.
She lit the cigarette with some motel matches and rested her chin on the ball of her hand while she inhaled deeply and then blew it out. The smoke dissipated quickly in the wind.
He tried to focus on the TV screen. The movie on Channel Eleven was about a vampire in the Old West. A cowboy with two pearl handled silver pistols was hunting him down. The makeup on the vampire and the costume was so bad that the boy recognized the actor from a TV game show.
He took a few bites from the food and then set it aside. He stared down at the half eaten sandwich glumly. The soda pop made him burp when he asked her if she wanted some of it. She shook her head, and then she reminded him to say ‘excuse me.’
“But aren’t you hungry?”
“No,” she said. “Maybe later.”
“Sure? You been working hard.”
She turned her head and smiled at him for the first time that day. Her eyes were damp again. She must have been crying while she looked out at the passing cars and trucks on the road.
“I’m sure baby.”
At the end of the day, she put the cleaning supplies in the closet and returned the keys to the motel owner. The widower was on the stool at the main desk. The man pulled out an envelope from the lined registry book and slid it across the reception desk to her. He smiled uneasily at the woman, the second time that day. The boy noticed a nicotine stained overbite.
“No need to count it, but I put in a little extra. I’m sure that boy sure does eat a lot.”
She took the money envelope and slipped it in her duster.
“Thank you,” she said, and then gently bowed her head to the man—a subtle recognition of the gift.
The boy and mother ate at a buffet restaurant near the highway that afternoon. She paid the bill and tipped the waitress from the envelope. Neither one of them spoke much while he ate. She barely touched the food on her plate, but she let him have two servings of ice cream from the frosty machine.
She seemed to liven up a bit in the car, driving through the heights section of the town where newer houses were being built. She even pointed out the new models she liked, saying things like wouldn’t it be wonderful to live there.
Some of the worry that had kept the boy knotted up eased. He relaxed and let himself sink into the backseat.
“Do you like Christmas?” she asked him, navigating the big car down side streets to their little house near the river.
He was leaning against the seat with his head tossed back, looking skyward through the rear window. His eyes blinked in the intensity of the tree-leaf mosaic of sun and shadow. He saw cornices, power lines, telephone wires and blackbirds brooding on green boughs.
The birds took flight when the car passed below them. On the river a line of barges with coal headed south beneath the pale hump of a summer moon—now visible in the early evening. The he heard the wail of the whistle from the river.
“You know I do. Christmas is great. It’s the grooviest.”
The mother laughed. They were near the house, but she popped open the glove-box and pulled out an eight-track tape: Christmas songs.
She slipped it into the after-market player wired to the console. It was the Impala’s only touch of luxury. The first song was Frosty the Snowman. They both sang along to it—sometimes laughing and making goofy faces at each other. It was like the woman was happy again out of no where. Frosty was still blaring when she pulled the Impala into the driveway.
The woman put the car in park. The house was quiet. No lights or movement inside. Woodrow was still gone. She slipped out of the car to open the garage door, looking over her shoulder. She returned and pulled the Impala inside, leaving the engine running when she shut the rattling door behind them. His mother slid behind the wheel and lit another cigarette, cracking the window.
“We can go in now,” the boy said. “Woodrow’s not coming back for a while.”
“If at all,” she whispered.
The mother smiled at him in the rearview mirror. The tape looped to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. She leaned back on the headrest, closing her eyes.
The garage filled with a gray and acrid pall. The boy put his hand on the door-handle. He didn’t like seeing the woman this way, smoking and crying and murmuring to Jesus about stuff that scared him. The air burned his throat and eyes.
“Please let’s go in, I need to pee.”
She turned up the volume.
“Enjoy the music little snow angel,” she said softly. “Close your little eyes. Let’s dream it’s Christmas with all those little snowflakes falling on the ground.”