THE DEATH OF DEL AMICO
Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.
When the headlights come in, Miriam regards herself in the dirty mirror.
I look like something blown in off a dusty highway, she thinks. Dirty, torn jeans. Tight white tee. Bleach-blonde hair, the roots coming up, those dark, earthen roots.
She puts her hands on her hips and cocks them this way, then that. With the back of her hand, she wipes away a smear of lipstick from where Del kissed her.
“The lights need to be on,” she says to nobody, foretelling the future.
She clicks the lamp by the bed. Piss-yellow light illumines the ratty room.
A roach sits paralyzed in the middle of the floor.
“Shoo,” she says. “Fuck off. You’re free to go.”
The roach does as it’s told. It boogies under the pull-down bed, relieved.
Back to the mirror, then.
“They always said you were an old soul,” she mutters. Tonight, she’s really feeling it.
In the bathroom, the shower hisses. It’s almost time now. She sits down on the side of the bed and rubs her eyes, yawns.
She hears the squeaking of the shower knobs. The pipes in the walls groan and stutter like a train is passing. Miriam balls up her monkey toes and flexes them tight. The toe-knuckles pop.
In the bathroom, Del is humming. Some Podunk fuckwit country tune. She hates country. That music is the dull, throbbing pulse-beat of the Heartland. Wait. This is North Carolina, right? Is North Carolina the Heartland? Whatever. The Heartland. The Confederacy. The Wide-Open Nowhere. Did it matter?
The bathroom door opens, and Del Amico steps out, wreathed in ghosts of steam.
He might have been attractive once. Still is, maybe, in this light. He’s middle-aged, lean as a drinking straw. Ropy arms, hard calves. Cheap, generic boxer-briefs pulled tight on bony hips. He’s got a good jaw, a nice chin, she thinks, and the stubble doesn’t hurt. He smiles big and broad at her and licks his teeth—bright pearly whites, the tongue snaking over them with a squeak.
She smells mint.
“Mouthwash,” he says, smacking his lips and breathing hot, fresh breath in her direction. He rubs a scummy towel up over his head. “Found some under the sink.”
“Super,” she says. “Hey, I have a new idea for a crayon color: cockroach brown.”
Del peers out from the hood formed from his towel.
“What? Crayon? The hell you going on about?”
“Crayola makes all kinds of crazy colors. You know. Burnt umber. Burnt sienna. Blanched almond. Baby-shit yellow. And so on, and so forth. I’m just saying, cockroaches have their own color. It’s distinct. Crayola should get on that. The kids’ll love it.”
Del laughs, but he’s obviously a little confused. He continues toweling off, and then stops. He squints at her, like he’s trying to see the dolphin in one of those Magic Eye paintings.
He looks her up and down.
“I thought you said you were gonna be out here . . . getting comfortable,” he says.
She shrugs. “Ooh. No. Truth be told, I’m never really that comfortable. Sorry.”
“But . . .” His voice trails off. He wants to say it. His mouth forms the words before he speaks them, but finally: “You’re not naked.”
“Very observant,” she says, giving him a thumbs-up and a wink. “I got bad news, Del. I am not actually a truck stop prostitute, and therefore we shall not be fucking on this good eve. Or morning. I guess it’s morning? Either way, no fucking. No ticky, no laundry.”
That jaw of his tightens. “But you offered. You owe me.”
“Considering you haven’t actually paid me yet, and further considering that prostitution is not exactly legal in this state—though, far be it for me to legislate morality; frankly, I think what people do is their business—I don’t think I owe you dick, Del.”
“Goddamn,” he says. “You love to hear yourself talk, don’t you?”
“I do.” She does.
“You’re a liar. A liar with a foul little mouth.”
“My mother always said I had a mouth like a sailor. Not in an arr, matey way, but in a fuck this and shit that way. And yes, I am a big fat liar. My dirty, torn-up jeans on fire.”
It’s like he doesn’t know what to do. She sees it; she’s really steaming his bun. His nostrils are flaring like he’s a bull about to charge.
“A lady should be respectful” is all he manages through gritted teeth. He pitches the towel in the corner.
Miriam snorts. “That’s me. My fair fuckin’ lady.”
Del takes a deep breath, moves over to the dresser, then slides a grungy, ain’t-worth-nothing Timex over his bony wrist. It isn’t long before he sees what she’s laid out for him next to the watch.
He holds up photos, picks them up as a bunch, flips through them. A woman and two young girls at a Sears portfolio special. The same kids on the playground. The woman at someone’s wedding.
“I found those in your car,” Miriam explains. “Your family, right? I thought it kind of interesting, what with you bringing a prostitute— er, supposed prostitute—back to a motel room. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a good husband or daddy would do, but what do I know? Then again, maybe that’s why you hide them all the way in the glove compartment. It’s like a mirror—if you can’t see them, they can’t see you.”
He pivots, heel to toe, the wallet photos in a quaking grip.
“Who are you to judge?” he seethes.
She waves him off. “Oh, hush, I’m not judging. I’m just waiting. Since we’re waiting, I should probably also tell you that I’ve been following you for a couple weeks now.” His gaze narrows again, and he’s looking at her like maybe he recognizes her, or is trying to. She keeps talking. “I know you like hookers. Pros and hos. All kinds, too! You’re the kind of fellow who’ll eat every candy out of the chocolate box. Variety is the spice of life; good for you. I also happen to know that, outside of some relatively boring sexual proclivities, you like to hit women. Four prostitutes. Two with black eyes, one with a cut chin, the fourth with a busted lower lip—”
Del moves fast.
Bam. A tight coiled fist hits her right in the eye and knocks her back on the bed. Capillaries burst. Fireworks on a black background. Gasping, she scrambles backward, thinking he’s going to advance and try to beat her or choke her, but by the time she’s in a crouch and ready to kick, bite, or collapse his throat with a forearm, she sees he hasn’t moved one inch.
He’s just standing there. Shaking. Angry, sad, confused; she can’t tell.
She waits it out. He doesn’t move toward her. He isn’t even looking at her now— Del’s staring off at a nowhere point a thousand miles from here.
Gingerly, Miriam reaches over to the nightstand and turns the alarm clock so she can read it. It’s an old-ass clock, the kind with the numbers that turn like Vanna White’s flipping them. Each with a click.
“It’s 12:40,” she says. “That means you have three minutes.”
“Three minutes?” He narrows his gaze, trying to suss out her game.
“That’s right, Del, three minutes. Now’s the time to ask yourself: Any thoughts you want to share? Grandma’s cornbread recipe? Location of a buried pirate treasure? Any poetic last words? You know, Either the wallpaper goes, or I do?” She waves him off. “I know, an Oscar Wilde reference. I reached too far for that one. My bad.”
He doesn’t move, but he tightens up. Every muscle pulled taut to bone.
“You think you’re going to kill me?” he asks. “That what you think?”
She clucks her tongue. “No, sir, I do not think that. I’m not the killer type. I’m more passive-aggressive than aggressive. I’m a wait-and-see kind of girl. More vulture than falcon.”
They stare at each other. She feels scared and sick and a little excited.
The 0 flips to 1.
“You want to hit me again,” she says.
“I just might.”
“You think, I’ll hit her again, and then I’ll fuck her like she deserves—that’s, of course, provided you can get Little Dale Junior to race. I saw the dick pills in your glove compartment. Next to the OxyContin.”
“You shut the hell up.”
She holds up a finger. “Let me ask you one question, though. You hit your wife and daughters?”
He hesitates. She’s not sure what that means. Does it mean he feels guilty about it? Or that he’d never consider touching a hair on their pretty little heads and would die if they found out?
“At this point,” she says, “it’s not like it matters. I’m mostly just curious. You bang hookers and punch them in their faces, so we’ve already established that you’re not gonna win Father of the Year. I’m just trying to feel out the depth of your character—”
He lets out a frustrated whoop and swings at her— a clumsy, wide throw, telegraphed loud and clear like his body was using a bullhorn. Miriam leans back. The fist catches the air in front of her nose, whiff.
She stabs a heel out and catches him in the balls.
He staggers backward, buttbone thunking against the wall, moaning, grabbing.
“You only get one freebie with me,” she hisses. “Swing and a miss, asshole.”
The time is now 12:42.
“One minute,” she says, easing off the bed.
He still doesn’t get it. They never do.
“Shut up,” he whimpers. “You fuckin’ whore.”
“This is how it’s going to go. Any second now, we’re going to hear a car honking out in the parking lot—”
A car honks outside. Once, then twice, then a third time when the driver lays on the horn just to get the message across.
Del looks from Miriam to the window, then back again. She’s seen the look before. It’s the look of a caged animal. He doesn’t know where to go, where to run, but the truth is, he can’t run anywhere. He’s trapped. What he can’t understand is how or why.
“What comes next, you ask?” She snaps her fingers. “Somewhere, outside, someone starts yelling. Maybe it’s the car-honking guy. Maybe it’s the dude the car-honking guy was honking at. Who cares? Because . . .”
She lets her words trail off, only to be replaced by someone yelling out in the parking lot. The words were indecipherable, just a muted, Neanderthal rant.
Del’s eyes go wide.
Miriam forms her thumb and forefinger into a gun, and points it at the alarm clock. She lets the hammer—her thumb—fall.
“Boom,” she says, and—
The time is now 12:43.
“You have epilepsy, Del?”
The question registers, and she knows now that he does. It explains what’s about to happen. A moment of calm strikes him, a kind of serene confusion, and then—
His body tightens.
“And here it is,” Miriam says. “The kicker, the game ball, the season-ender.”
The seizure hits him like a crashing wave.
Del Amico’s body goes rigid, and he drops backward, his head narrowly missing the corner of the motel dresser. He makes a strangled sound. He sits upright on his knees, but then his back arches and his shoulder blades press hard against the matted Berber.
Miriam rubs her eye.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says as Del’s eyes start to bulge like champagne corks ready to pop. “Jeez, why doesn’t this broad stick a wallet under my tongue? Couldn’t she do me a solid? Or maybe you’re thinking, Hey, I’ve had seizures before, and none of them killed me. A guy can’t actually swallow his own tongue, right? That’s just a myth? Or maybe, just maybe, you think I’m some kind of batshit highway witch with magical powers.”
He gurgles. His cheeks go red. Then purple.
Miriam shrugs, wincing, watching it unfold with grim fascination. Not that this is the first time she’s seen it.
“Not so, my friendly neighborhood whore-puncher. This is your destiny, to choke on your own mouth meats, to expire here in this God-fucked motel in the middle of Hell’s half acre. I’d do something if I could, but I can’t. Were I to put the wallet under your tongue, I’d probably only push the tongue in deeper. See, my mother used to say, ‘Miriam, it is what it is.’ And this, Del Amico, is that.”
Froth bubbles out over Del’s ashen lips. The blood vessels in his eyes burst.
Just like she remembers it.
His rigid body goes limp. All the fight goes out of him. His wiry frame slackens, his head tilts at a bad angle, his cheek hits the floor.
Then, insult to injury, the cockroach runs out from under the bed. It uses Del’s twisted upper lip as a step ladder, and squeezes its fat little body up into his nostril before disappearing.
Miriam takes a deep breath and shudders.
She tries to speak, tries to say she’s sorry, but—
She can’t stop it. She runs to the bathroom and pukes in the toilet.
Miriam kneels like that for a while, her head leaning up against the base of the sink. The porcelain feels cool, calming. She smells mint. The clean scent of cheap mouthwash.
It often hits her like this. Like some part of her is dying along with them, some part that she has to gag on and purge and flush away.
And, as always, she knows what will really make her feel better.
She crawls out of the bathroom, over Del’s cooling body, and fetches her messenger bag from the far side of the bed. Fishing around, she finds what she’s looking for and pulls out a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights. She taps one out, plugs it between her lips, and lights it.
Miriam exhales smoke, a jet from each nostril. Like steam from a dragon’s nose.
The nausea recedes, a septic tide washing the poison back to sea.
“Much better,” she says to whoever is listening. Del’s ghost, maybe. Or the cockroach.
Then she goes back into the bag to find Item Number Two: a black notebook with a red pen tucked in the spiral. The notebook is almost at its end. Just ten more pages left. Ten blank pages, a great gulf of awful potential: an unwritten future that’s already been written.
“Oh, wait,” she says. “I’m getting sloppy over here. Can’t forget this—”
Miriam goes and grabs Del’s pants and digs in for his wallet. Inside, she finds just shy of fifty bucks and a MasterCard. Enough to get her on the road, put a meal in her belly, move her on to the next town.
“Thanks for the donation, Del.”
Miriam props up some pillows against the bed’s headboard and leans back. She flips open the notebook, and she writes:
I did it again.