Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and mature content.
With six gallons still left in the fuel tank and the distinctive taste of lime jerky on his tongue, Noah had not expected any delays save for fault of his own. So when a Hispanic man toting hot-dog rollers of belly fat made obscene gestures at him from an adjacent car, he froze.
“Yo! Pendejo! The light is green!” The man said after maneuvering lanes to get a better look at the perpetrator. Noah stared straight ahead, pretending like he didn’t hear. A cacophony of horns responded to the stall in traffic.
After the initial shock had worn off, Noah tapped the gas, leaving behind a livid cluster of sedans. It’s not like they knew what was happening, anyway. They didn’t know anything about his life, or what he’d seen.
Noah drummed his fingers against the steering wheel as he scanned for an exit sign on the I-15. Thankfully, the lanes weren’t any different in this state, not as much as the people were anyway. He signaled to a yellow bug his intent to cross and swiftly pulled right, slowing into a curve.
Murray was his destination. He chose it only because it bore resemblance to his deceased grandmother’s maiden name. Streets unfurled grandly before him, presenting a myriad of side street entrances and uncanny hotels. Noah rubbed the bridge of his nose before pressing on towards a vietnamese Pho restaurant with dirty windows and a shoe-less man perched on its front steps.
Without noting his parking spot, Noah stepped out of his car and found himself stifled by a torrent of oppressive desert air. Damn dry heat. He concentrated on the wedge of ground beneath his sneakers, ignoring the pulsing of his cheeks and the unsteady feeling racing up his legs.
With the restaurant door shut behind him, Noah waited on dismally, his shoes shuffling against the carpet. The owner raised his eyes briefly before they settled back onto the empty reservation list in front of him.
“One, please.” The words passed through his lips like a small whine. He used the counter to steady himself, a behavior that the owner found appalling. This, combined with the so-called “customer” approaching the front desk twelve minutes before closing, was almost enough for him to order the kitchen closed.
“Sit.” The owner beckoned Noah over towards a coffee-stained booth. Noah brushed off his pant legs and sat down, figuring it would be best not to argue. Back home, he would have scoffed at the idea of sitting in a hallway adjacent to the bathrooms. But something about the way this man’s eyebrows were taut, combined with the intent focus of his eyes, demanded compliance.
“One milk tea, thank you.” Noah said unconsciously, pulling out his iPhone. The owner whisked away with a curt nod. Noah hardly looked up from the table while scrolling through the invitation, possibly for the 30th time. Ellie always had the most flawless penmanship, so much so that invitation via email seemed both ironic and reserved. Perhaps Mark had pressured her into it?
It was an invitation he would capitalize on, so long as he performed his duties. He was required to be present at the wedding reception at precisely 5:15, just long enough to deploy his camera equipment and help with last-minute preparations. Noah thumbed through the neat gold calligraphy, past the names of the betrothed— it's a shame really, Ella Paige Brooks already possessed some sort of magic appeal. Mark Offrey, not so much. Sounded more to Noah like Plain old Mark, stark Mark, Mark the Narc.
A woman with a sharp chin and wide, voluminous eyelashes presented Noah’s drink on a plastic serving tray. Her soft smile suggested submission as she lowered the tea onto the laminate table and shuffled off towards the back kitchen. Noah took slow, deliberate sips as he scrutinized the dress code. Navy blue attire, preferably a double-breasted suit with accompanying dress shoes.
There was no additional instruction for the photographer. Noah firmed up his shoulder blades on the upholstery, a straw clenched between his lips. He decided to put away the phone for a brief, detoxifying moment before an evening FaceTime call to his mother would commence.
The hotel was a few short miles from the restaurant. Noah took another loud, wheezing sip from his drink before tossing a few miscellaneous bills onto the table. He left without saying goodbye to anything besides the remaining dollars in his wallet.
A portly man with a sickly sheen on his upper lip confirmed Noah Winchester’s identity and issued him his hotel key without incident. He crossed the bright peach linoleum floor with the keycard swinging against his thigh, stopping only to fill up a plastic water bottle. A long elevator ride awaited him: unfortunately, he hadn’t bothered to check his room assignment until check-in. Thankfully, the only thing that kept Noah company was the persistent draft and the anemic thrum of the water heater as he made his way to the fourth floor.
Halfway into a bottle of Prosecco, she rang. Three times actually, one of which Noah made a half-attempt at answering, dropping the towel around his waist in the process. A brief, sardonic thought sailed through him: maybe she has the video feature enabled. He fumbled for his towel once more, draping it around his starved waist.
“Hello? Mom?” He said briskly into the phone, arming himself with another glass.
“Noah! I was hoping you’d pick up sometime this decade,” she spouted accusingly. Noah threw his neck back, taking a swig which heated up his veins like overcharged cables. Wearing a placid expression, he traded his half-drained cup for the t.v. remote. Images of hot massage tables and handsome female masseuses in their pressed uniforms clung to him even as he skated past the hotel’s main menu to direct cable.
“It’s not past eight yet, is it?”
“No. But I was hoping you would call soon. My eyes have just been moving about in my head like crazy.”
Noah’s mouth stretched into a thin, tight line as he contemplated settling on a sports channel. “You really got to quit that, you know. More doctors aren’t doing you any favors.” He paused delicately, “Why don’t you put on a feel-good comedy or something? I bought you new groceries. There’s carrot sticks in the bottom left hand shelf. And fresh milk.”
“I don’t like carrots, Noah. They’re bitter, like radishes.” Her words came out in a half-trickle, like a child’s plea. She was barely audible over the high-speed Mission Impossible chase taking place on the screen.
“I have a budget to work around. And you did say your eyes were giving you trouble.” Noah inhaled sharply, his mind caught on a bramble, “I could stop helping you altogether.”
Noah’s mother appeared illuminated on the phone screen, her jaundiced eyes tilted towards something out of frame. She must have hit the goddamned button again, Noah thought. “No, I appreciate you honey.” She said, her eyes lolling about. “I don’t want you to get that twisted.” She brought an arthritis-ridden hand up to her cheek and scratched, long and deep.
“Okay, then please don’t argue.” He snapped, resolute. “Some healthy food will do you good. Have Hermann set a plate out for you and put on the t.v.”
“But I’m so sick of the t.v.,” she drawled, her image fading into distorted pixels on the screen.
“Look, I’ve got to go,” He responded, feeling his armpits grow sticky hot. It was the telltale sign of guilt. “Love you, mom. Take care of yourself.” She rasped what sounded like the beginning of another request before the phone went click. It made Noah’s breath stall up to see her like that, wan and dark faced, with runnels of sweat forging a path down her thinly covered bosom.
Noah folded his arms over his chest, sinking backwards into the formless pillows. He thought of his mother sitting in front of the t.v. with her stunted breathing, the arc of her tongue as she flicked it back and forth— vapid, watching. Sleeping on his back proved an enormous task.
Breakfast reminded Noah of his elementary school cafeteria days— stale, slightly metallic tasting food that went directly to the bin. The service had been swift, though, and with a map of Utah spread over his lap and a pen between his lips, Noah was keen on making himself busy.
He figured that heading west out of Wendover would be easier than trying to circumvent the Great Salt Lake, as long as he could beat the wave of midday traffic. Noah pounded a glass of two percent milk and left it, along with a crushed up bran muffin, on the serving tray. He counted four sets of clothes and set them aside. It would take him around seven hours to make the trip to Elko, where he would rest for another day before making the last leg of his journey.
So it went. The front desk woman surveyed him with her wide, periscope eyes as he slapped down the room key along with his credit card and a generous tip. 10:36— the time looked good; not great, but good. He slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and left before the woman had time to ask him where he lived.
In the cover of his Buick, he recalled the conversation that led him to this moment. It was a dull Sunday, half past ten, when his mother called. She told him that her ocular pain on the left side was intolerable and proceeded to moan about it for a solid twenty-five minutes. He tried in vain to console her. Brought up Hermann. Hermann was a good partner, Noah supposed, with his solemn vows to keep Angie in constant comfort. This opened up a whole new realm of discussion, namely her son’s relationship status.
“I’m not seeing anyone.”
“You’re absolutely stuffed full of it.” Noah held his tongue.
“Come on, a name at least.” She goaded, with persistence bordering on a dread-filled ache.
“Okay.” He thought for a moment. “Her name is Ellie.” She was the only name he could think of, and the prettiest girl conjured up by his memory.
“Ellie.” She murmured. An elapsed silence. “I bet she’s beautiful.”
“Of course she is,” Noah asserted, knowing there was no turning back now. “Because she’s mine.”
Time to hit the road. Noah pulled out of the hotel parking lot, waving ironically at the concierge who seemed strikingly familiar, like a fleck of gold on the edge of a flat pan. From his view allowed by the tinted windshield, it looked as though she gave him a little wink, or a half-smile.
Cutting across junctions, Noah imagined a beacon of new possibilities on the horizon line: worlds away from dry brush, from earth that broke easily beneath his feet. He entered on the I-15 N with few regrets other than a missed pub crawl. Murray became just another stop on the way to Elko: Murray and its stale bed sheets, its tart milk, and worst of all, its barely maintained outdoor pool.
Within thirty minutes, he had bested the traffic, racing past billboards for dental implants and laser hair-removal treatments. It was amusing to him, the whole hair-removal gimmick being pitched at young, neanderthalic men who were more concerned with losing their hair at twenty than stopping its growth in unsightly places. His phone pinged on the dashboard. He started to reach for it, then decided against it when a large semi changed its trajectory two lanes away.
The phone pinged again. Against his best judgement, Noah picked up the phone and scrutinized the text. It was Ellie Brooks, with more updates on the wedding. Hey all, she says. The weather we’re expecting on Wednesday is not-so-nice. Make sure to bring along an umbrella because the outdoor ceremony will continue as planned. I am not overly concerned, just being cautious. Mark and I are looking forward to seeing all of you shortly in celebration of our union! Cheers.
Noah couldn’t explain why the e-mail left him with a sour taste in his mouth. He stuffed his phone in the overhead compartment without entertaining it a moment longer. The two were to be married. He would snap his photos and leave as planned. The whole thing would be settled over the next 48 hours: payment would be arranged, and he and Ellie would go their separate ways. But he didn’t relish going over the numbers, didn’t fantasize about clean hundred-dollar bills fluttering in his jean pockets: not like he once had.
It was a shame. Nothing could rouse Noah like the promise of payment.
6/30 - Evening
Noah arrived at the Blue Buck Inn around a quarter to 4, a good few hours shy of his prediction. He gathered his duffel which seemed even heavier than he last remembered it and slipped through the automatic doors of the lobby, not so much as arousing a glance from any of the half-clothed patrons in their double wide chairs. They seem comfortable, Noah thought. Maybe that’s what’ll happen to me if I extend my checkout. I can ditch out on my plans and fan my legs out on couch cushions all day.
He was already beginning to feel the inklings of sleep as he received his card from the new receptionist, this time a male with a crooked hairline and large teeth. He was rather eager for conversation, which Noah would have appreciated any other day than the thirtieth of June, exactly two days before the wedding.
“Need any sort of special accommodations, just let us know,” He said with a genuine glint in his eyes. Noah nodded dazedly, collecting his room key before the man could make any recommendations about local cuisine. It was always the same spiel with a touch of variety. “They have the best ham in the Southwest, seared fat off the top with fresh pineapple glaze and roasted pine nuts,” he would say. To which Noah would smile politely, maybe ask a few leading questions to show his interest.
Anyway, he didn’t have time for that. Not now. Besides, mother would be expecting her evening call soon. Taking one quick look over his shoulder, he set his bag down on the elevator floor and watched the receptionist bend over a computer to type in his details.
The first thing Noah thought as he sank into one of the queen beds— strangely enough, he always preferred two rather than one —was: I wonder when the call girls will be out for the night. They functioned a lot like strange lemurs, with their cartoon eyes and their dexterity, getting most of their sleep during the day so they could climb between legs like branches in the evening.
He wondered blankly whether these girls took mid-afternoon requests. He figured many of them were washed-up, with unsightly sores and scars that could be muted only by lamplight streaming from covered windows. Even still, he hoisted his laptop onto his lap and pulled up an incognito tab— this would at least allow him the option. Cute redheads, he started to type, and just as quickly changed his mind to mixed race girls.
He scrolled through many profiles, some obviously aided by the eye of porn directors. Swollen breasts held together by neat, eye-popping corsets, eye shadow smoothed as far as their orbital bones, lip injections and other strange phenomena like tongue splitting— a form of mutilation he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do. Noah extended his legs on the hotel comforter, no less comforted by the thought detour.
His mind still rang clearly on Ellie, Ellie who would be stuffing herself into a princess ball gown in two short days. Her mother would probably convince her to lay off the horderves for those dwindling hours, and so she would resign herself to cucumber water, reorganizing her closet sans fiancé just to assure herself that the room was still hers, if only for a few days. Noah could imagine Ellie as the same go-getting type she had been in high-school. Always the star student, never the star of her own story— just a scrap of junk metal hurtling through space.
And he understood better than anyone the listlessness that came with years of maintaining others’ burdens. After all, his mother was a prime example of this— she acted just as helpless as her porch side carnations strangled to death by the plastic New York air. She had actually gone as far to empty a full bottle of Gatorade onto her plant collection, the same one that the doctor had ordered her to replenish her electrolytes with.
By the book, the two were a perfect match for each other. Noah shoved these thoughts away with a physical movement of his hand— he sometimes wonders whether he should have saved his money to enlist in mime school —and doubled over on the bed. It was his job to be on the ball, so to speak. He had to think like a good Facebook pen pal and ditch the images of her hair tossed into wisps of salted caramel taffy. He had to forget the compulsive little twitch of her eyes that happened whenever she laughed, as if she was telling a secret in Morse code.
Noah blinked back to the screen. He settled on a tight-waisted blonde with a forgettable face and waited.
The blonde was as late as she was unremarkable. Noah scarfed down the remaining pizza crust and stood idly by the kitchen sink for a while, listening to the residual drops of the tap. A light knock at the door sent vibrations up his spine.
He swung open the door without looking as she crossed the threshold just moments before her Kate Spade cross body bag. Her eyes traveled over his belongings as she crossed the living room floor, “Do you want to talk pricing?” She sought out a spot on the couch that wasn’t occupied by torn fast-food papers.
“I got funds,” Noah followed her to the couch and sat down. Her face was bent away slightly, but even with the low lighting he could see small wrinkles forming a bow-shape on her forehead, a cocktail of distaste and apprehension. Her upturned nose and pinprick eyes did nothing for him, his only consolation were those great tits which ballooned underneath her V-neck choker like yeast in an oven.
“That’s fine,” she said, grabbing Noah suddenly by the neck. She hoisted herself on top of him, lunging towards his ear. She grazed his earlobe with her bottom lip and jammed her tits onto his chest without much movement, rendering his legs useless as he sat there dumbfounded. He tried closing his eyes for a moment, but her smell— grapefruit and forgotten Altoids from the glove department of her car —lingered.
Each time she molded her lips to his, he had to muster up the strength to push back harder. It was burdensome, keeping her off him, and by the time she worked her way down to his belt buckle, he was doing a series of mental gymnastics. He was thankful she couldn’t see his expression— one of pure horror —as she fumbled with the belt, jerking it back and forth as if that would make it any easier.
3/5- Ellie -3 months before the wedding
While firing up some omelets on the stove, Ellie’s eye caught the glint of her engagement ring and instantly she thought to herself: well, it’s a bit lackluster. The swelling had gone down at least on her ring finger, but even so, she wasn’t sure whether her adorned finger looked like mashed putty between a four-year-old’s hands.
Looking at it reminded her of the childhood toy Silly Putty that occupied most of her attention in the second grade, because she found that anything she stuck it to would leave a textured indent. It felt like the most creative thing in the world: an invention that could take on the shape of any other with a little pressure aided by a child’s thumb.
She pressed a little air between her lips to release a slow-forming knot in her stomach. The omelets were almost ready; the sharp scent of Mexican style four-cheese invaded the kitchen island where Ellie stood with a hand on her hip. The eggs looked a bit crispy on the bottom, with the chives sprinkled on top beginning to meld. Ellie didn’t mind. She was the one to always eat the crust off her friend’s plates back in high-school, and her motto was: eat anything and everything. Literally. It used to be her Instagram caption.
Mark would be coming home anytime within the next hour. She flipped the omelets over once more, basking in the smell. They sizzled like they were ready, but Ellie didn’t think to take them off the burner. Would anyone help her in picking out the dress? She thought of Mara back home in Ogden. She was probably hanging out on the trellis with Shawn while their two dogs-- more like ferrets, really --busied themselves by lapping at their ankles. Mara was kind about it. But Shawn, he would lose his mind. Put them behind their pens. I told you two dogs were too many.
Mara called less and less frequently since the day she got married. The more Ellie thought about it, the better she recalled the last time they had truly hung out: talking over a simple brunch that they had decided to relive shortly after the wedding ceremony. They sat on two stools overlooking the window of Pig and a Jelly Jar, studying the motes that swirled around in the air like broken promises.
Mara had much sallower skin than Ellie had remembered, and she walked with the characteristic burden of carrying twins. She ordered biscuits and gravy, which arrived as tardily as her reply to Ellie’s last remark-- How are Shawn and the puppies doing? --and watched absently as the gray mush sloughed off her fork. She barely ate.
It was that image-- gravy sliding off of a restaurant fork --that stuck with Ellie as she lowered her carefully folded omelet onto a paper plate and began to eat. Mark would be back anytime soon. They would play some simplistic games like Connect 4 or UNO while discussing their wedding plans: who to invite, what style cake to order, which songs would be played. With each prolonged chew, she had to remind herself that she wasn’t Mara and Mark wasn’t Shawn.