In the two months Mr. Jackson has been a guest at Lexington Suites, Kyle has come to know his habits: out by six a.m., in by two p.m. A polite man, he always says good morning or good afternoon when he sees the staff—he's so careful about properly referring to the time of day that once, during a rare mid-day return to retrieve a forgotten sheaf of papers, he wished a bellman good-noon. On Fridays he leaves a ten-dollar bill on the bed that Kyle takes as a gesture of appreciation for keeping the room clean. He carries a soft brown briefcase. The girls at the desk say he's a big-shot lawyer.
His closet is crowded with grey and black and deep purple suits, with the shoulders cut so wide on the jackets that they poke out of the closet and make it difficult to shut the mirrored door. He has more shoes than someone with mostly neutral-colored suits has a right to, positioned in neatly ordered rows on the floor and the shelf at the top of the closet: browns of subtle, varying shades, blacks with and without buckles; slip-ons, lace-ups, all shined.
The man should not return for another two hours, so Kyle draws the service cart into his room and latches the door behind him. It's not the only room he's used in the past couple of weeks, but it's definitely his favorite. There's an exotic quality to the scent of the room. The mix of musk and toiletries hint at Mr. Jackson's meticulous attention to himself. He likes to think Mr. Big-Shot Attorney takes great care each morning to sculpt himself into a likeness of the confidence that defines him.
He sits on the end of the king-sized bed, atop a comforter colored with a busy floral pattern. All the beds on this floor have the same dreadful bedspread on them, made from a print that Minnie Pearl might wear. The rooms themselves are no better, no newer. They feature maple furniture with bronze fixtures and trim. Underfoot lies pale green carpet, wall to wall, dotted with little red diamonds to hide spills and stains. Rustic watercolors hang on the walls. Furniture, carpet, bedspreads, paintings—all in diluted shades. Spring without end, amen.
Bending over his knees, Kyle unlaces his black boots and removes them. He leans back, unbuttons his black canvas pants and slides them down his legs. He flexes his ankles and the pants drop in a heap at the foot of the bed. Then he raises himself, grabs the neck of his white polo and pulls it over his head. Socks off next, then T-shirt. He stands and drops his underwear to his feet. He takes a plush towel and a small green bottle of multi-purpose shower gel from the service cart bottom. Just the things a boy needs to get clean.
In the bathroom, Kyle leans into the shower and turns the water on; a stream patters the tub, flicking at the edge of the beige plastic shower-curtain. He yanks the curtain across the tub to let the steam build and the water warm. His pink silhouette moves like a ghost in the misted glass.
Plastic tubes and bottles litter the counter-top around the porcelain wash basin. Mr. Jackson has a tin of pomade for his hair, Crest for his teeth, Old-Spice deodorant for his under-arms, Tend-Skin with aloe for shaving (the label says it reduces shaving bumps), and Johnson's baby oil.
The shower is sorely needed, because after three long days without, Kyle's scent has gotten strong—like fried bologna sprinkled with brown sugar, he thinks. His skin is thick with the stain of half a week's work and his hair slathered to his scalp like he's been styling it with lard. Minuscule pieces of cotton from his socks, underwear and T-shirts have lodged between his toes, between his buttocks, in his armpits. The little balls of fabric, made sticky with sweat, have dried from the heat of his body.
Kyle lays the towel on the toilet-lid but keeps the shower-gel in his hand. He moves the curtain a foot to the side and climbs into the shower. The water hits him just below the navel. He bends forward and lets it soak his matted hair. It's been worth it to leave Slocum County for the improvement in water pressure alone. Kyle steps back from the water jet and squeezes the plastic gel bottle, letting the green liquid ooze into his palm.
He rubs his hands over his body: face, chest, stomach, arms, underarms, genitals, legs, buttocks, the skin between his toes. He massages the shower-gel into his scalp and steps into the stream, letting the water beat against his skull. The lather drains into his eyes, the wrinkles around his mouth, behind his ears. The pulsing droning water quiets his mind. It is good to be clean.
When Mr. Jackson sweeps the curtain aside, Kyle reels back against the wall, shocked. He screams once, loud and short, like a frightened child, then he falls silent, blinking through soap-soaked eyes at the giant black lawyer. He holds out his hands to shield himself from an expected blow. After several silent seconds pass without his being struck, he cups his hands over his crotch.
“O God. I was—”
Mr. Jackson holds out the towel.
“I can't hardly see.”
Kyle takes the towel and presses it to his face.
“I can see.”
Mr. Jackson crosses his arms. He traces Kyle's body with his stare. Kyle lowers the towel over his privates.
“I'm taking a shower. I didn't mean no harm by it—”
Mr. Jackson's nod says he's expecting more in the way of an explanation. But Kyle says nothing. Mr. Jackson turns the water off and tells Kyle to finish drying, then he walks into the room, slamming the bathroom door behind him. Kyle stands wet and pitiful, like a drenched mutt. He dries himself and cinches the towel around his waist and steps from the tub. Deep breath. He opens the bathroom door.
The room is cold. Mr. Jackson sits at a desk, by the window. He's outlined by the light of mid-day, which bleeds through the sheer curtains. His wrist is bent backward, a menthol cigarette cocked vertical between his index and middle fingers. A grey suit jacket drapes over the chair back. His crosses his legs at the knees. White shirt open at the collar. Grey silk tie, loose knot.
“Sit down,” he says.
Kyle sits on the edge of the bed, facing Mr. Jackson, next to the clothes he'd dumped in the floor. Mr. Jackson has folded and stacked them, shirt on socks on underwear on T-shirt on pants. Kyle touches the pile with his finger.
“I'm sorry about using your shower, please don't tell nobody, I—”
“What's your name?”
“Kyle Mullins, why are you showering in my room?”
Kyle looks into his lap.
“I was getting ripe. I ain't showered in a few days.”
“I noticed that. These clothes here could get up and clean by themselves.”
“Nice of you to fold them, all the same.”
Kyle nipples harden. He reaches for his shirt.
“I don't like messes—and don't put those on. They need laundered.”
“But I ain't got nothing else to wear.”
“Why not shower at your own place?”
“I ain't got a place.”
“A friend's place, then.”
“No friends, neither. Not here anyway.”
“How about an empty room? Did you ever think of that?”
“Hotel's been booked solid for two weeks. Conventions and all that.”
“It has been busy, I've noticed.”
Mr. Jackson pauses, takes a drag.
“Your accent is very pronounced, Kyle. Where are you from?”
“Slocum County. Out east, close to Virginia.”
“What brought you to Lexington?”
There are so many reasons, all piled together, that they've become a big blob that's more feeling than justification, and he's got no words for the feeling, so it floats over all his other thoughts like a storm-cloud, complicated and nameless.
“I ain't got the slightest,” he sighs.
Mr. Jackson smiles. He has a hundred teeth. Leaning out of the shadows, he gestures toward Kyle with the first two fingers of his right hand like he's about to throw the cigarette across the room. He takes a breath, as if to speak, but instead of speaking, he stands and walks over to the bureau.
“You want some clothes?”
“Yeah, I'm cold.”
Mr. Jackson pulls a red sweatshirt and a pair of blue Umbro shorts from the bureau. He tosses them onto the bed. Then he picks up the phone and leans against the bureau, twirling the phone cord in his finger. Kyle takes the clothes into the bathroom to change, but he doesn't close the door. He takes his towel off and hangs it over the curtain rod. He can hear Mr. Jackson's conversation as he steps into the shorts:
“This is Mr. Jackson, 217. Send up two orders of filet. I think green beans will be appropriate. Uh-huh. Bill it to the room. Oh, and can you connect me with the concierge, please? Thank you.”
A pause. Kyle hears him suck on the cigarette, then:
“The tickets were fine, thank you. Can you do me a favor? I have some laundry I need taken care of. Nothing large, just a pair of slacks and a shirt. Can you send someone up? I've got room service coming. Perhaps you can kill two birds. Yeah. That'd be great.”
Mr. Jackson is sitting at the desk again when Kyle returns. The clothes are too big, but anything is better than prancing around in that towel.
“You'll only have to wear them until we get those things cleaned.” Mr. Jackson laughs. “I've ordered some lunch.”
“There's rules. I couldn't eat with a guest.”
“Don't worry about that. You've broken rules already. Sit.”
“So. What's it like?”
Mr. Jackson tamps the cigarette into an ashtray on the desk.
“What's what like?”
“Hills, mostly. Ain't you been there?”
“I have not.”
“I tell them it's pretty ugly—mountains pretty, people ugly.”
“Nonsense. I'm sure the people are very beautiful.”
“We lived up in Dale Holler. I had my own trailer. But it ain't like you think. It was a nice Pathfinder double-wide.” He rubs the end of his nose with the sleeve of the sweatshirt. “I bought it after the flood, but you can't tell except for a brown mark six feet up on the walls. Real faint though. I thought it looked like a decorator's border myself. Didn't smell or nothing. The Food Lion had that sticky wallpaper on clearance—”
“Right. I was able to buy enough of it to cover all the walls, so it was nice.”
“What made you leave?”
“I didn't get along with the rest of them.”
“I ain't no briar.”
“Well, what are you?”
“Just different is all.” He pauses for a moment, with his bottom lip sucked under the top row of his teeth. “I like to watch movies and read. Mr. Riddle let me splice into his satellite, so I got to see some good old movies. There was On the Waterfront, I liked that one. Any of them old movies. And Funnyface—”
“Audrey Hepburn. Black & white.” Mr. Jackson nods.
“She's gorgeous.” Kyle lets gorgeous dally in his mouth. “And I got books from the Slocum County library—Beats, Jesse Stuart, Faulkner—Ms. Blevins, the librarian, said
I was her best customer. So that's what I am. Somebody's best customer, I guess. Reading and watching movies.”
“You work there?”
“Daddy got killed in the mines. I got social security, but they cut it off when you're eighteen. So now I'm here.”
“Where's your mother?”
“Belle had me after she got out of the reformatory. Took to oxy when I was in high school.”
“You call your mother by her first name?”
“We're more like brother and sister.”
“Did you finish school?”
“It was hard,” Kyle shakes his head. “They called me names.”
Mr. Jackson rises to answer a rap on the door. He motions for Kyle to hand him the stack of filthy clothes. At the door, Mr. Jackson negotiates an exchange of food for soiled clothing. Kyle thinks he might recognize the voice, but he's not sure. He crosses his arms and stares through the sheer curtains. Outside the window cars crawl up Route 27. The day is overcast, but bright.
The door shuts. Mr. Jackson walks past, carrying a big tray of food, which he sets on the desk. He returns to his place before the window and motions to the chair in front of the desk, telling Kyle to sit. The tray looks nice: two silver domes stretch across the plates and in the middle of the tray; two wine glasses stand beside an uncorked bottle of red wine.
He smells melted butter on the green beans and charcoal on the filet mignon. Hunger pangs grip him; his stomach is like a fist. For the first time since getting caught in the shower he remembers that he hasn't eaten since yesterday.
“Smells good,” says Kyle, moving from the bed to the chair.
Mr. Jackson unrolls his napkin. He raises the cover from his plate.
Kyle uncovers his plate too. He saws the steak.
“Mine's got a toothpick in it,” he says.
“You can take that out.”
Kyle points at the filet with his fork. Through a mouthful of green beans and steak he says: “This is a neat idea. Wrapping it in bacon.”
“Would you like some wine, Kyle?”
“That all we got?”
“I'll have some, then. Mr. Jackson—”
“Call me Peter.”
He pours the glasses half-full. Kyle smiles.
“I don't know. It don't seem right.”
“Fine, Peter. I reckon you're not going to tell on me?”
“This is a very difficult situation. You've been cleaning my room—with access to my things, for two months. You know me better than some of my colleagues and clients, though we've never spoken at any length before now. You know what kind of deodorant I use. You know my schedule, probably—don't you? We see one another every morning as I'm leaving.”
“By the elevator. I'm just coming up.”
“You know when I get back, too. You never expected to get caught in here, I bet. You're always sincere. That's what I look for. Sincerity. It's a rare thing to find in a person. That and gentleness. I think you're sincere and gentle, Kyle. You've not stolen from me, though you could have, I suspect. You're friendly. And you leave this room spotless.”
Mr. Jackson's voice sounds like sap looks. Kyle blushes. He's not sure why.
“It's nothing. And I've tried to leave a little token of my appreciation now and then. I was angry when I came back today, but I thought about it and I figure you were using my shower for a good reason. Not having a shower of your own is a good reason to use someone else's, I guess.”
Peter shrugs, looking at Kyle over the edge of his wine-glass.
“I been living in my Pontiac.”
He says it before he can stop himself.
“I ain't had a job long enough to get an apartment.”
Peter raises the napkin to his mouth. He clears his throat.
“You sleep there, too?”
“Yeah. It's near the campus. I think the cops just figure I'm drunk if they see me all curled up in the back seat. They ain't bothered me yet, and I move the car every morning. I been pulling it off.”
“You came to Lexington without money?”
“I had money.”
Peter looks relieved.
“But I used it for gas.”
The strain returns to Peter's face.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Since two months. I'm saving my checks, though. Most of them. I'll be all right soon as I can get first and last months rent.”
They enjoy a small silence. Peter attends his steak. Kyle sips wine and grimaces, his taste-buds haggling with the hot-dry taste of Cabernet. Peter seems concerned with something he can't or won't say. He cuts his green beans into successively smaller pieces he doesn't eat. Kyle feels vulnerable, almost more so than when he stood naked before Peter. Nobody knew about him sleeping in the car. Kyle pushes a pallid sliver of fat around the plate with his knife.
“I grew up in Atlanta,” Peter says finally.
“I seen the Olympics on the satellite,” he says quickly. “Atlanta looks nice. I ain't been, though.”
“You never saw my old neighborhood on your satellite. Tuxedo Park. You never heard of it, I'm sure.” Peter makes a cross on his plate with the cutlery and licks the inside of his upper lip. He leans back, crosses his legs and lights a cigarette. “I didn't fit in there too well. I didn't go for sports or gangs or hanging out on the corner or any of that. I didn't feel real doing that. I'm a big man—there's a lot of pressure on a brother to do certain things, to act a certain way. Everybody wants to know why you're not playing ball. People have expectations, see? Gett-o thinking. They're challenged when you don't act like they expect you to.”
“My cousins spent most of the time up at Tuck's Branch drinking, chasing tail and smoking pot.”
“Yeah. So you get what I'm saying. I was smart, for one thing. My family took that as acting white, which it isn't. I liked music. Not just booty-shaking shit, though there's a place for that, classical and Jazz, too. And art—I used to take the bus to the museum, haunt that place, hang out. I even got to know the guards.” He points across the table at Kyle. “I was there so much they knew my name—when they saw me they'd say Hey lil Peter. I felt real when they did that. Someone knew me. You get it? Me. Art aff-ic-ian-ado, the pee-wee expert on Kouros sculptures. They knew my habits. Me, instead of some silly expectation that they'd stitched together from the behavior of all the other boys they'd known.”
Kyle's heart begins to beat faster. “You feel like they're the only ones who know you. Mr. Riddle's like that.”
Peter takes a long drag. “Tuxedo Park was pressure. Understand me?”
Kyle mumbles yeah, shoves a forkful of green beans into his mouth.
“There was a role they expected me to play, but when I could get off by myself I was real. Now. Lying's a sin, right? They love that shit back in the country. I've got some country people myself. Crazy into that hell and sin scene, I know how it is—but the only sin I believe in is lying. But sometimes the only way to survive when they hand you some fake-assed role to play soon as your born is to lie, lie, lie.”
Peter punctuates the repetition with karate chops at the desk.
“I got a scholarship and got the hell out of Tuxedo Park. Kissed the brothers on that corner goodbye. Found places where Peter Jackson could be Peter Jackson and not his mamma's baby or that big lazy nigga who thought he was too good to be a baller. People like you and me got to get out of those poisonous environments. Even if you have to drive across Kentucky with no money and sleep in your car. Otherwise we got to keep lying, and lying's a sin. It's terrible. Lying will kill you.”
Kyle feels like Peter's been in his head, rifling through his thoughts and memories like a lawyer rifling through a file drawer, locating Kyle's ineffable ideas and calling them by their names.
He stands abruptly, hands shaking. Kyle's knees are so weak that he must concentrate to keep from involuntarily sitting down; he backs away. “Thanks for the food,” he says. “And for not getting me in trouble.”
“You're uncomfortable. Kyle, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. But I know where you're coming from. Can you see that?”
“You didn't make me uncomfortable.”
Kyle grins, laughs nervously, points toward the door.
“I just. They're probably. Downstairs. I should've clocked out already. I just remembered. They're probably wondering about me. They probably think I took off with the cart.” He offers his hand; Peter stands and clasps it gently. Kyle realizes he's still wearing Peter's shorts and sweatshirt.
“Oh, your clothes,” he says.
Leaning across the table, Peter firms his grip and meets Kyle's lips. Kyle sees Peter's face moving toward his and he knows Peter's going to kiss him but there's a disconnect between his eyes and mind, as if he were inside his body but not in control of it. He feels like a visitor in his own skin. Instead of avoiding the kiss and directing Peter toward his zipper, as he might have done in the darkness behind the Slocum County Greyhound station, he remains still and allows Peter's mouth to fasten wet and sweetly upon his own.
It's different, here in the light, with names exchanged and bodies and faces and hands in full view. This is not a desperate, frenzied coupling in an alley behind a dumpster. This is something else entirely. Kyle receives Peter's tongue for a moment, but as he does his chest heaves, trembling with conniptions of lust and self loathing. Hs penis thickens and he presses his hand against Peter's chest, pushing him back.
“I have to go, Mr. Jackson. You think you know me, but you don't.” Kyle shakes his head and steps quickly toward the door. “You don't know. You don't know me.”
“Kyle. Kyle wait.”
The door-handle is already in his fist when Peter says his name again, but Kyle's so confused that Peter might as well be calling his name from the street outside. He thumps barefoot down the hallway. The door slams behind him as he gathers speed. He knows how to run. The elevators at the end of the corridor rush to meet him, growing larger with each stride. Breathless, he presses the downward-pointing arrow button. It winks orange, but he can see by the row of back-lit numbers embedded into the stainless still cornice above the elevator that the car is still on the 18th floor. That won't do: he needs motion, action, speed. He needs them now.
Kyle presses the metal bar on the door to the stairwell and once inside he descends the stairs two and three at a time, skipping more as his pulse moves faster. He holds the banister loosely, leaping from one landing to the next, and when he reaches the first floor he bursts through the emergency-door. The sirens wail. He gasps. His lungs fill with cool fall air.
The street outside is Lexington as usual: numb white people in business suits shuffling from one office building to the next. How can they move in this world, he wonders, walking and talking but still asleep? Somewhere in this city hillbillies and lawyers are French-kissing, hopeless wives are taking lovers, horny teenagers are fumbling with one another's bodies, randy husbands are dropping two hours pay for a lap-dance, and worse, oh worse, a million people are telling lies that nobody believes about what and who they'll do and what and whom they won't.
Kyle runs faster—his long country feet are callused and the concrete is kinder than the gravel and mountain mulch to which they've grown accustomed—he runs and runs and runs, block after block, weaving through the crowds as he meets them, refusing to acknowledge startled or judgmental faces. There is no time to deal with their concerns. They might run too, were they him.
As he moves away from the hotel, the buildings grow smaller. Trees dot the hills of the university neighborhood; wet rotting leaves grind beneath his feet as he turns left onto Leader Avenue. He crests the hill and his nose fills with a smoky smell. It's like a tease of the gentle overwhelming autumn that will have by now seized the hills. He sees the mountains in his mind, low and rolling and old as fear, bowing to the season as it washes over them, leaving the hollows dappled gold, red and brown. As he trots to a stop at his car, Kyle thinks for the tiniest moment about fleeing home to those hills. A dark and terrible place, yet familiar and comfortable all the same. But that thought vanishes as quickly as it comes.
Trying to catch his breath, he leans on the roof of his Pontiac and rests his head into his arms. Sweat stings his eyes. He meant to sit inside the car while catching his wind and ordering his mind, but he feels torn in half; the impulse to keep running pulls him this way, the impulse to crawl into the Pontiac pulls him that way. Neither direction is right. Lies and false-reasons and make-believe swirl around him like dithering leaves, but Kyle decides he will not allow them to settle; they will not pile up and cover this day, those truths, that kiss, not again.
He pounds the roof of the Pontiac with the side of his fist and it rumbles like a timpani. He raises his head to light and wipes the sweat from his forehead. There's no sense in fighting it. He will go back and knock on Peter's door. When it opens he will go inside, and once inside, he will stay.