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Motel Check-Out

First published by the Acentos Review in 2019, the published, unfiltered version is 5,000 words! Below is an updated version.

Revised 2023: Motel Check-Out:

“Mommy, who is that man behind you?”

The sound of Alexander’s voice jolted Lulu from a restless sleep. She was dreaming of her little boy, who was looking at her with curiosity. He tilted his head to look past her shoulder and asked the question that had woken her with a start.

She sat up in bed, swaying and dizzy. Her eyes landed on the tattered sign below the peephole stating that the motel’s check-out time was 11:00 a.m. Beneath that was a map with emergency escape information indicating, “You are here,” with an angry red X. She reached up with her left hand to feel the throbbing knot on the back of her head.

Lulu looked around the room. How had her life come to this - trapped in a dirty motel, out of luck and with no money? Sure, there’d been some fuckups in her past, but she’d always found a way to do her penance. Bringing Alexander into the world made her realize she needed to get away from Jack and his predisposition for slapping her around. She massaged the tender spot where she’d been hit so hard her eyes rattled in their sockets. The room danced around as she tried to see through a blurry haze.

She reached across the bed to pick up the ancient rotary phone on the nightstand. She held the yellow mouthpiece away from her face as she dialed ‘O’ and watched the dial spin around.

“Front desk,” droned a hollow voice on the other end.

“Hi, um, do you allow for late check out?” she asked, twirling the worn phone cord in her hand. She hoped the soul on the other end of the line would sense her desperation and understand that sometimes all we need is more time.

The operator informed her that each additional hour would cost $15.00. Her stomach clenched as she watched Alexander sleep, oblivious to the darkness around him. A shudder ran through his body the moment she realized that they’d soon be back on the road.

“Ok thanks,” she said disheartened. “We’ll be checking out at 1:00pm.”

Two more hours would eat their last $30.00, with no clue where they’d go next. As she hung up the phone, she knocked over the thick, glass ashtray resting on the phone book. She tried to grab it before it hit the ground but missed. She froze as it crashed to the floor, looking at Alexander. He remained asleep with his mouth open.

She assessed the room and considered the impossible task of getting their belongings back into the car. She couldn’t recall packing any of it but had a flash of a memory of getting Alexander’s things together when Jack had gotten home and caught her trying to leave. Lulu remembered putting herself in front of Alexander as Jack stomped in their direction.


Mary, the motel’s maid, was a short, round woman who rushed around delivering towels and shampoo, talking to guests and helping them feel comfortable. She was five feet tall in her nurse’s shoes, the ones with the extra thick comfort soles that added a good two inches to her frame. She liked to say they helped her tired feet, but she enjoyed the extra height. In an uncanny coincidence, Mary had been Lulu’s grade school crossing guard back when they were referred to as ‘crosswalk ladies.’ Mary helped Lulu cross Excelsior Avenue starting when Lulu was in kindergarten to the time she was in seventh grade and said a tearful goodbye to Mary as she departed for high school. Mary used to knit colorful spiral ponytail holders for Lulu and the other schoolgirls, who would skip around as the spirals swayed and they giggled.

Mary’s husband, Frank, worked at the hotel as groundskeeper. He was a tall and jovial man with a dusting of white hair, his potbelly the pleasant result of 60 years of Mary’s cooking. He kept busy although there didn’t appear to be anyone else staying at the motel. Still, the place was old and the list of repairs was long. The absence of other guests wasn’t a surprise given the motel was on a long, deserted stretch of Interstate 25, and the solitude was a welcome refuge for Lulu, who decided it was a place for weary travelers on long, exhausting journeys and not a destination anyone would seek out. As far as Lulu was concerned, with nothing for miles in either direction, it was perfect.

Frank nodded his acknowledgement the few times he’d seen Lulu leave the room to fetch more items from the car, one of two that sat in the parking lot. He’d glance up when she walked by, then get lost in his work again. Once, after walking past him as he stood trimming hedges, she turned around and found him gazing at her as she walked back to Alexander. He wasn’t looking at her, though – he was looking over her shoulder.

Frank tended to the motel’s garden, a dirt and gravel pit with grayish-looking plants dotted with a generous sprinkle of bright red roses with an exaggerated aroma that rest on the air over the motel. Despite the desert heat, the roses bloomed in neon red glory. Lulu thought they looked like droplets of fresh blood scattered among the bushes.

“Everything will work out, don’t worry, viejo,” Mary said to Frank who sat at the dinner table as she shuffled through the kitchen.

“Lulu is taking her time because of the boy, it’s not as though we’ve never seen this before,” she continued as she set a bowl of watery refried beans – Frank’s favorite – and warm flour tortillas made by hand in front of her husband.

“’Til death do us part,” hadn’t applied to Frank and Mary. Mary died first, after spending 59 years married to Frank. They planned to celebrate their 60th anniversary surrounded by a lifetime of family and friends so when she died, Frank’s will to live went with her. After languishing for three months in the most profound sorrow experienced by any human, the gods themselves could no longer bear his anguish. His intense and absolute need to be reunited with Mary was so pure that the spirits felt his pain as their own. Finding it unbearable, an exception was made, and he was allowed to cross over and reunite with Mary. Frank’s grandchildren found him lying on his bed in his day clothes, clutching his wedding photo with tears still on his cheeks. Abelardo, the youngest of their grandchildren, noted that the room smelled of roses even though there weren’t any around, what with the garden being neglected in the months since Mary’s passing.

“Mary, we’ve seen a lot of resistance before from crossers, but I’m telling you, this one is different,” Frank replied with gentle urgency. “I came pretty close today, but she won’t let go of that boy, and he can’t let go of her. I’ve never seen them hold on this strong. It’s dangerous for them both if she won’t let him go.”

Frank tore off a piece of tortilla, folded it and used it to scoop beans into his mouth. A bit of watery beans dripped off the tortilla and splattered on the table.

“You remember how it happened with us, Mary,” he said in a low voice as he wiped up the beans with his napkin.

Mary sighed. What the old man was saying was true. There had to be something Mary could do to get Lulu safely across. They needed to move fast.

“If she gets in that car and leaves, we will lose them both,” Mary said. “We can get her to let go of the boy if we keep her here.” Mary walked to the sofa, picked up her knitting, and started on a rainbow spiral. Knitting helped her think. She grabbed the stitch with the needle and worked on the next loop.


“How am I going to get this crap back in the car?” Lulu exhaled as she surveyed the room, holding on to the counter for balance as her head continued to throb. Spread throughout were clothes, Alexander’s toys, books and blankets, a tennis racquet, shoes, makeup bags, two suitcases that had since been emptied, an array of overstuffed photo albums, the official dissolution of marriage, a stack of cd’s, paintings she’d done in her 20’s, and an old trusted machete handed down by Lulu’s grandfather for protection. She was replaying the confrontation with Jack in her mind and was about to lose it when she heard a faint tap on the door. She recognized the gentle knock as Mary’s but looked through the peephole to be safe. Mary was so short that only the silver bun on her head was visible through the tiny glass lens. Lulu opened the door and invited her into the room.

Mary stood before her. “I made something for you, I thought you might like to wear it,” she said as she placed the knitted hair spiral into Lulu’s hands. Lulu recognized the gift and walked over to the sofa and half sat, half fell into the cushions. She couldn’t bear Mary’s kindness. She realized she was crying as she recalled being seven years old and skipping across the street so that Mary could see her ponytail bounce back and forth, the knitted spirals swinging with it.

“Mary, it’s been so many years since I’ve seen one of these, it brings back so many memories.” Lulu wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and looked at Mary.

“You were the sweetest little girl, I always thought of you as one of my own,” Mary said, causing Lulu to break down further. “I still do,” Mary added, triggering an emotional torrent.

“Mary, you have no idea. I was such a horrible kid,” Lulu objected through tears and a runny nose, which she was now wiping on her sleeve.

“Nonsense,” said Mary. “You were a dear child, how can you even possibly think that?”

Lulu sat upright, hardened. “Thank you Mary, it’s very kind of you, but I’ve got to get our things back into the car and hit the road soon.” Her tone had gone cold, signaling to Mary that she was losing Lulu.

“Do you want to talk about it? Maybe I can help,” Mary offered. Lulu’s shoulders dropped and she rested her head in her hands, elbows on her knees. Mary watched as Lulu retreated into her mind. After an extended silence, Mary took the ponytail holder and began to sweep Lulu’s hair away from her face. The feeling of Mary’s gentle hands in her hair was soothing to Lulu, and she realized that her head had stopped throbbing. Mary maneuvered Lulu’s hair into the knitted holder as she spoke.

“You know, the day your mom died I went to see her, to check on her. With your dad leaving and you kids all grown, I wanted to make sure she was okay.”

Lulu was shocked. She didn’t know that anyone had talked to her mother on the day of her death. Her mother lived in isolation for a year after her father left. Lulu thought her mother died in her sleep and hadn’t talked to or seen anyone in weeks.

“Please tell me, what did she say?” Lulu pleaded.

Mary looked at Lulu’s hair tied into a long ponytail, smiled, and took Lulu’s hand in hers. “Your mother was so proud of you, she was grateful that you were doing well. She told me that you, most of all, had the biggest heart and she was looking forward to seeing you again.” Mary kept her eyes low, avoiding Lulu’s after the last comment. Lulu was now sobbing as she slumped into the sofa. Mary never let go of Lulu’s hand as she offered her a tissue from her sweater pocket.

“My mother was proud of me?” Lulu asked in a small voice.

“Of course, dear,” continued Mary. “She saw what a good mother you’d become, the fine young man you were raising, and she was at peace knowing that you and your boy would be alright.”

This made Lulu cry harder.

“Oh but Mary we’re not alright at all! Jack is violent, he’s crazy and said he’ll kill me if I try to leave. It’s horrible!”

Mary knew she had to move quickly.

“Lulu, I want to show you something, but I need you to come with me.”

Still holding Lulu’s hand, Mary led her outside. As Lulu’s eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight and came into focus, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. In front of her was the most glorious garden, with colors so intense and vibrant it hurt her eyes to scan the once dry and desolate motel grounds. She could see bursts of reds and oranges, sprays of yellows, tufts of greens, blues and purples. So many flowers, only some of which she recognized: the red roses, purple hydrangeas, tiger lilies, pink carnations, yellow and white daisies, orchids, every possible flower and plant – and so many trees! She had never seen anything like it. She stood taking in the beautiful colors, flowers and greenery. How had this gorgeous paradise appeared? It was Frank, she thought. Frank made the garden come alive!

Lulu looked in the direction where the road had once been and saw that in its place was a bubbling river with a little bridge, and Frank on the other side standing next to a swing. Frank looked happy and peaceful. Younger, even. How had this happened? What was going on? Lulu felt excitement and awe, and realized that her mouth was wide open as she took it all in.

“Mary, what is this – where are we?” she asked.

“Lulu, you’ve spent your entire life running. I can’t tell you everything – it will come later – but I can tell you that Alexander is going to be okay. So much better than okay. I need you to believe me. It’s time for you to let him go, and come with me.”

“Wait, I don’t understand …” Lulu began then trailed off. Flashes began to click in her mind like Polaroids from the 80’s. Before her were scenes like bits and pieces of her life on a screen. The misshapen cakes her mother would bake on her siblings’ birthdays. The family crammed into the white station wagon going to church. Her first communion. Picture day in grade school. Bad haircuts and worse hand-me downs. Cutting class in high school. Dropping out of college.

Lulu started shaking and sobbing as she struggled to make sense of what Mary was saying.

“I’ll never see or hold Alexander again?”

Lulu looked down and realized she was seven years old, the spiral ponytail holder still pulling her hair away from her face.

Seven years old – the last time she could remember being truly happy.

The wound on the back of Lulu’s head was gone. There was no more pain. She was wearing her favorite red dress with white lace in front. She remembered how much she loved this dress, how pretty it made her feel. She was wearing her favorite Buster Brown shoes and white socks with lace trim. She held Mary’s hands as she leaned over to look at the little boy in the motel room. He was in bed sleeping. She felt the urge to run to him. Her eyes shifted as she realized that the room was now clean – all of the clutter she had filled it with was gone.

“Lulu, look at me,” Mary said. “I need you to trust me. Just like in the old days, I need you to walk with me. I will guide you across. Everything is going to be okay.”

Lulu closed her eyes and shook her head. “It hurts too much, I can’t let him go Mary!” She pleaded, as though Mary could reverse the decision that had already been made. Had anyone witnessed this, it would have been a strange and unbelievable sight, the words coming from the mouth of this seven-year-old child, expressing the desperation and pain of an adult. Of course, nobody was there to see it. Only Frank, who was waving to her.

Lulu heard a familiar melody from her childhood… the tune from her little radio. It had been her favorite toy. It was a small wooden block with a yellow, plastic dial attached to the front. The back featured a painting of a little boy with his friends buying ice cream, with the words to the song in red letters: “My name is Michael… I got a nickel… I got a nickel… shiny and new.” Lulu heard the song at first like a memory. She felt giddy and wanted to run towards it. She realized Frank was holding the music box, turning the dial to play the song. Lulu felt a rushing sensation through her body as everything heavy that she carried left her. She felt carefree - excited and happy for the first time in decades. Lulu broke away from Mary and twirled around in her dress, her hands lifted up in the air as she looked at the radiant sky. Lulu twirled in circles until she was dizzy, giggling as she tried not to fall. She had let go. She knew the boy was going to stay behind and that he’d be ok because Mary said so.

Lulu was eager to run across the bridge to Frank.

“Let’s go play, Mary!” little Lulu squealed as she started singing aloud, “My name is Michael… I got a nickel…” She skipped down the pebble path that would lead her to Frank, who was now crouched down with his arms open wide, ready to welcome Lulu home.

# # #

Photo credit: Laura Reed


Screenshot 2024-04-19 at 2_edited.jpg

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