The buzzer on the door goes, and Dustin ass-firsts his way into the room, pressing the tight black of his jeans against the glass, just below the push-bar. "Hot-crossed buns!" he shouts. "Black coffee!"
Hot-crossed buns, Alice thinks, taking the coffee and roll he holds out to her, intentionally laying her fingers over his. They're inky—her fingers—black around the cuticles. She's thinking about things that could make them this way. Dyeing t-shirts, she thinks. Painting a white dog black.
She has a list of excuses.
"I changed the oil in my car," she told a guest earlier.
"I weld," another time, though she isn't sure that welding causes black cuticles. It seems likely.
"There's ink near your ear," Dustin says, tapping his own for emphasis. "I'll get a washcloth," he says, heading around the counter to the shelves in back, the shelves crammed with thin washcloths and thinner towels, small bars of soap, tiny shampoos. There's also a stack of shower-caps, but the guests never seem to use those. The housekeepers don't even take them on the carts anymore.
She takes a drink from his coffee while he's gone, putting her lips on the plastic lid where his lips had been.
"Kiss me," she whispers to the lid.
"Give me that," Dustin says behind her. "What are you doing—smelling it? You think I got myself better coffee than you? You think I'm that kind of friend?"
"Turn your face toward the door."
"What is that shirt you're wearing?" he asks, rubbing at her face with the washcloth.
She pulls back the flaps of her motel vest.
"Is that a dead dove?"
"Yes," she says.
"You're so dark," he says, rubbing harder at her face.
"Skinned?" she asks.
"Funny," he says. "I wish you were dark-skinned so these goddamned spots wouldn't show. This is not coming off. Are you using a new ink?"
He's still wearing a scarf though it isn't cold—a long, narrow scarf. The ends of it dangle near his belt. I make belts, Alice thinks, noticing the sting near her left ear.
"Stop," she says. "Maybe it's not ink. Maybe I have a new melanoma."
"You don't have any old melanomas, so how could you have a new one?"
He throws the washcloth into the back and leans against the counter.
"Tell me about the night," he says. "Anyone notice your shirt?"
"I'm wearing the vest."
"You think to notice."
"What's that mean?"
"You try to notice," she says, picking at her thumb.
"What are you talking about?"
"You want to seem critical," she says, thinking, I polish hubcaps.
She looks at him. "Why are you wearing that scarf?"
"It's a nice scarf."
"Tell me about the night," he says.
She's tired, even with the coffee and the bun.
"Seven by my count," she says, looking past him toward the lobby. It used to be the living room of the manager's quarters—plaid sofas huddled around a white stone fireplace. I sweep chimneys, she thinks.
"Did they use brooms, those chimney sweeps? Is that what they'd use—real brooms?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" he asks. "Alice," he says. "Seven hits or seven different parties?"
"Seven different parties."
"On a Tuesday? This early? My goodness."
Goodness gracious, Alice thinks. There was a night at the press when he didn't wear a scarf and didn't say goodness. She'd been there with Sally, a housekeeper from the motel, and he'd peered in the glass of the door and watched. She'd watched him watch before he turned the knob. "Grampa wouldn't approve of this behavior, ladies," he'd said, and Sally had started crying and Alice had realized how ugly she was—Sally—the small forehead and the extra space between her nose and lips—like it was waiting for something to fill it, a moustache maybe, which Sally could probably grow.
"You should go," Alice had said, and Sally had looked at her hopefully.
"No," Alice had said to Sally. "You should go."
The manager had hired a guy who called himself Pretzel to take over Sally's cart when she didn't show back up for work.
"How many rings?" Dustin asks.
"Four," Alice says. Dustin leans in.
"Come on," he says. "Let's have it."
She thinks of all the its she could give him. She could jab a pencil into the back of his left hand. She could lick his ear. She could say, "Remember Sally? Maybe Sally would've made me really, really happy."
"The four with rings—two of them could've matched, but they arrived in separate cars and they parked at opposite ends of the restaurant lot next door," she says. "See those beige sedans—the women arrived in those. Creepy, huh? Who drives a beige sedan?"
"Adultresses," he says.
"The other two were wearing rings that didn't match," she says.
"Easy ID. How different were they?"
"Oh, one pair—his was gold with the field of crushed diamonds—you know those ones—the field next to a bigger solid diamond and then a strange smooth black part. And she's wearing this little silver band—really quiet. A bad choice, I say, stepping out on the poor man who marries you with the small ring to meet the rich guy who'll fuck you at the Royal Seven."
"What's so bad about getting fucked at the Royal Seven?"
"I get fucked at the Royal Seven every day," she says.
"What's that mean?"
She shrugs again and looks at her nails.
She inherited the press from her grandfather when she was still in high school. "Who gives a sixteen-year-old a goddamned printing press?" her mother had shouted at her father, days after the funeral. "That's just what she needs. You think her grandfather's press is going to get her a date? Have you noticed the clothes she wears?"
"Clothes?" her father had asked and Alice had decided to walk into the room at just that moment to announce that she was moving into an apartment with a guy named Jerry and three of his friends.
"Well, congratulations, Alice!" her mother had said. "If you didn't look just like a little boy, I might be worried these men were taking advantage of you."
"You look like a model," Dustin had told her that night after Sally left. He'd run his hand from the lobe of her right ear to the well of her collarbone.
"A male model," she'd said.
"But a model nonetheless," he'd replied, and then he'd taken her pants off.
"Pawy?" Dustin asks.
"All but the last ones," she says. "They were subtle."
She's picking her nails again. She scrubs them every evening before coming on shift at the motel, scrubs them with the grainy soap her grandfather had sworn by. He'd ordered cases of it that he'd store in a closet at the press. They're still there, all those boxes. Alice hasn't even gotten through the box that'd been open when he died.
She holds up her hands, ducking fingers as she talks, "Giddy. Loud. Nervous. Separate luggage and very light. No touching, Cash." She looks at the fingers still up and thinks, I'm a machinist.
"That's only six," Dustin says.
"Separate luggage and very light," she says. "Those are two hits. Separate's a hit and light's a hit. Two."
He stares at her.
"There might have been other things," she says. "Why do they call them that—hot crossed buns?"
"Because there's an x on the top and they're hot when they come out of the oven—I don't know, Alice. What's with you?"
I am a hot air balloonist.
"What's up with you this morning? Did you even record them?"
She looks at the credit card machine. They keep a list taped under it, notes in the margins, sloppy stars indicating continuations in other free space—the upper right corner, a gap between lines halfway down. She prints a new version every two weeks.
I collect garbage.
"'If I were to print her, I'd have to use a light roller'? What does that mean? That's not a record. And what do you mean, 'He could be his own font—a little inconsistent, a bit slanted'? Alice, we're documenting a phenomenon. How do I add 'light roller' and 'his own font' to the trends? How do I map those out? They don't say anything about these people."
"Letters don't lie," she says.
"What does that mean?"
"Pretzel's taking the shower caps," she says. "He's been wearing them when he makes his rounds."
"He has quite a mop up there—I bet he was leaving hairs in the rooms."
The coffee is cold and her bun looks stale.
"I'm selling the press," she says. I am a gardener.
"No, you're not."
"I am," she says. "I mean, I did. It's sold. Remember that guy Lionel who has the stamp shop? He's going to join the two. You know—wed obscurity to the obsolete—stamps and handset prints. He'll get to make all my grandfathers' buddies' estate sale signs and the fringe kids' graduation announcements and still get to make custom pelican stamps for the scrapbookers."
"He'll still print the lists for you," she says. "I got him to agree to it. And the pages of the book too."
"What are you doing?" he asks and it's then that he touches her, brings his hand to her face, cupping it like she's been wanting him to, like she's been waiting for since the Sally night.
She puts her hand over his.
"Are you attracted to Pretzel?" she asks.
"God, no. He has breasts—haven't you noticed those?"
"So it's the breasts, then."
He looks at her, watching as she takes his hand and sets it on the Royal Seven logo over her left breast.
"They're not so bad," she says.
She squeezes his hand, which presses against her. She can almost imagine him doing it on his own.
"I'm sorry, Alice," he says.
She holds his hand there, moving it in slow, barely discernible circles, willing him to take it up.
"Alice," he says again.
I am a roofer.
"Why aren't I close enough?" she asks him, pushing his hand into her body.
She sees his eyes look toward the door. The early risers will start trickling in soon. He should get the house coffee going, pull the mini-muffins from the fridge.
"Alice," he says, and he's easing his hand out from under hers. Her chest feels empty—the weight of his hand already recorded on the registry. She feels herself gripping his fingers, pulling them to her. She is only vaguely aware that it has become a struggle.
And then Pretzel is in the doorway to the back, looking at them with his pancake eyes.
"You guys playing tugboat?" he asks.
Dustin and Alice turn their faces toward him.
"You know," Pretzel says, "whoever tugs the hardest wins?" He smiles showing his crooked teeth, then hooks the fingers of each hand on the tips of each other, holding them in front of his sad, lonesome breasts, pulling with what seems like all his might.
Alice and Dustin watch as Pretzel pulls.
Finally, he lets out a big breath, fluttering his lips, yanking his hands apart.
"I can never tell which side wins," he says, shrugging. "Want me to judge for you guys?"
Alice looks down at hers and Dustin's hands, looser now, sagging between their bodies, and she hears herself say, "Yeah, Pretzel, you judge. You tell us who tugs harder."