By Katie Gergel
Sometimes the guests left things in their rooms – a couple of dollars, a beer bottle or two, or the occasional stuffed animal unintentionally abandoned underneath one of the beds. Lena never took the drinks, and always felt a little sad thinking about a child realizing the loss of their favorite toy. But she appreciated the money, stuffing it into the apron around her waist and fantasizing about what she would do if the dollar bills were one hundred dollar bills and the extra pennies were gold coins.
Her fantasies started off with such grandeur; she pictured herself as royalty with a wardrobe of sequined dresses and a garage teeming with cars of all shapes and sizes. She imagined not having to work another day in her life. She would never have to scrub another sink or strip another bed or clean another carpet sticky with congealed orange soda carelessly spilled that morning. But as the days wore on and Lena spent all of her days doing just that at High Hills Motel, her fantasies became more realistic. She held the meager money in her hand and thought, If this were one hundred dollars, I would be one step closer to paying that bill or If this were a gold coin, I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping food on the table.
One Monday morning, Lena arrived to work with deep purple bags drawn beneath her eyes. She had stayed up most of the night, trying to figure out how she would manage that month’s rent. Ideas that had once seemed outlandish found reconsideration in Lena’s mind: searching for an additional job, or working overtime into the only hours Lena had for herself, which she usually spent pressing the keys on her old, slightly-out-of-tune piano. Lena nearly cried thinking of having to sacrifice her music, her only source of liberation in a life dominated by the constant tension of making ends meet. But if it came down to her piano or having a roof over her head, Lena admitted to herself – albeit reluctantly – that she had to be sensible. She pulled her hair up and tied on her apron, then headed to the cleaning cart bay. “Start with Room 12!” her boss called out to her as she went.
The squeaks of the cleaning cart wheels sent shots of pain to Lena’s temples. After so many years she had gotten used to the recurring migraine that always seemed to reappear at the first screech of the turning wheels in the morning. The High Hills Headache, Lena called it. It had become a part of her, a companion of sorts, like the bags under her eyes and the odd, ever-present sensation of her tired skin weighing down on her like leather. She opened the door of Room 12 with a sigh.
Someone interesting had been here. Lena could tell. Red feathers were scattered across the carpet and the room smelled of perfume and cigarette smoke. High Hills had a no-smoking policy, but it was often overlooked in wake of the motel’s desperate need for business. Lena picked up one of the feathers and examined it. When she was a performer she used to wear boas with feathers like these all the time. A wave of nostalgia hit Lena in that moment; images of her younger years flashed before her eyes as if her memories had begun to play like a movie.
Lena had been voted “Future Name in Lights” her senior year of high school. Her photograph graced the yearbook pages for the musical and performing arts clubs, and her name was engraved in awards placed throughout the music wing at North Copperdale. Back then she believed her life would be devoted to music. She thought she could study music and become a famous singer, a renowned performer. Everyone assumed she would do something big with her life. No one assumed she would end up at High Hills, listening to music from her ancient radio rather than making it herself.
She had attended the local university and majored in musical performance. Her professors and colleagues always talked about Lena’s potential and encouraged her high hopes for the future. Lena had never before felt so complete. The music that surrounded her every day was the blood pumping through her veins, and the air rushing to her lungs. The melodic voices and harmonious instruments blended together in a symphony that sounded like what Lena believed pure love would sound like if it could be heard.
On that Monday in Room 12, Lena sat on the lumpy motel bed and felt what she felt for so many years of her life. Happiness flooded through her body, sending sharp satisfying pain to her chest and goosebumps up her arms and legs. She basked in the moment as if sitting in a patch of sunlight and felt the good feeling for as long as she could. The fantasies of grandeur resurfaced in her mind. Lena pictured herself on stage again, with sleek hair, rouged lips, and a microphone in her hand. She could feel the keys of a new piano and hear the sound resonating throughout a concert hall. She saw the audience, all there to see her, their cries and screams drowned out by the profoundly beautiful music. The line began to blur between fantasy and reality, and one more thought entered Lena’s brain.
It’s not too late.
It’s not too late to feel that feeling again, she thought, but for real this time. She was still relatively young, only 33, and she knew there was beauty beneath her hardened exterior. She could do it. She could quit her job, run off to a city somewhere with nothing but the money in her pocket. If she had her passion, and her determination, she could make it.
Suddenly the door slammed open and Lena snapped out of her stupor. It was her co-worker, Margaret. “The new shipment of towels just came in, if you need any,” she said. Lena nodded solemnly. She couldn’t ignore the dread that had overtaken the momentary joy.
Who was she kidding? She could never make it as a performer. There would always be someone out there with more talent and a prettier face and a younger heart. In a desperate attempt to revisit her fantasy, Lena found that some things had changed in a matter of seconds. Her lips weren’t as red and the piano wasn’t as new. The faces of people in the crowd were blurred and their screams weren’t as loud.
Lena picked up her broom and began to sweep the feathers into a pile. She thought they were too beautiful to be thrown away, but it wasn’t like she could hang on to them forever. She gathered the rest of the trash from the room and cleaned the shower. She made the beds and replaced the soap.
Then Lena spent one last moment in Room 12, looking for traces of her fragmented fantasy in the dusty corners or behind the T.V. But eventually she had to stop searching. There were plenty of rooms to go, and she had run out of towels.