Posted on: April 10, 2014

“Hey, Hazel,” Miriam says, “just the hour, please.”

“Usual room?” Hazel asks. She peers down bright pink reading glasses, perched precariously on the tip of a bony nose. She is all angles and anger today, irritated because Miriam is late. Hazel’s already deep into her puzzle book, a flimsy tome that manages to occupy the same shelf as the Holy Bible and a warped paperback so worn its spine bears no identity.

“If you can spare it,” Miriam forces a laugh and it comes out like the squawk of the territorial swan on the 7th Hole, the one she always warns the kids against taunting.

“Shit, ‘course I can,” Hazel mutters under her breath. Twice offended already. Miriam hands over an extra twenty, locking eyes with the woman. Hazel says nothing, but she smirks as she slides the crisp bill into her puzzle book and hands Miriam a worn key with a chipped plastic key ring, the number 202 fading in dull, gold letters.

Miriam pulls her scarf over her hair as she exits the office. She does not anticipate running into anyone here, but she won’t take any chances. Friends and acquaintances know the buxom blonde as Miriam Ashley; strangers mistake her for a well-preserved, resurrected Marilyn Monroe.

The road by the motel is quiet. No cars pass, and Miriam lets her guard down as she climbs the stairs. Her heart pounds as she slips the key into the lock.

202 is Miriam’s favorite. Hazel told her once that she wanted each room to be a little unique, like one of those boutique hotels. The exteriors are Miriam’s point of reference. She has only ever stayed in 202, worried that after the first time here the experience might be compromised in any other room. 202 is Miriam’s, and when she closes the door she breathes in her air.

Miriam takes out her iPhone, the unlock sound a familiar echo. She sets the timer for an hour, making her usual personal vow: she will not touch the phone, not until she hears the shrill sound of the alarm, a stark trill that slams her back into reality, into responsibility and selflessness and goddamned duty.

Miriam places the phone on the old dresser. It still smells of varnish, and she catches her hand on the sticky patch. Sometimes she does not think about what the tacky substance could be, and sometimes it is all she thinks about during the hour: the pleasure of endless possibilities, permutations of something meaningless.

A low moan interrupts the stillness. It is the man next door, the one Miriam has seen the last few weeks. He wears his graying hair long and thick, giving him a savage and primal appearance.

Miriam takes a deep breath, ignores the sound: this is her hour and she doesn’t want to share it with anyone, even aural interlopers. She closes her eyes, going through the list of options for how she can use this time.

One day she sobbed: thick, heavy wails muffled into a lumpy pillow and itchy comforter. Miriam cried until the skin under her eyes thinned and bruised, tears eroding makeup. But she is not in a maudlin mood today, so Miriam eliminates that activity from her list.

Miriam takes off her clothes and places them on the bed, each piece forming a preppy outline. She stands naked and stares at the silhouette; this is how it will look when the Rapture happens.

The Rapture. The fear of it, instilled by a lifetime of Southern Baptist services, makes her heart pound. Instinct compels her to pray, to get down on her knees on the worn rough carpet and call on God for salvation.

Miriam turns her back to him and the rest of the world.

“My hour,” she says, her voice heavy with guilt, “I’m sorry, but my hour.”

Miriam knows what she wants to do. She walks to the bathroom and turns the faucet as far as she can. The shower sputters to life, and after a moment the water is a steady, scalding stream. When she steps in, the steam envelops her. The water doesn’t feel as hot as she knows it is; she thinks of heated pools and warm summer days at the lake.

Howard maintains that a long, hot shower will cure almost anything mental or emotional that ails you. And Miriam gets it now - but Howard hasn’t been in her shoes. He hasn’t missed a long, hot shower in months. At best, Miriam gets five lukewarm, tepid minutes. More often than not, there’s a perpetual repeat of this morning: a speedy cold shower with a tantrum or fight (or both) happening in the background.

Miriam spots a bar of soap and unwraps the flimsy paper. It’s cheap, breaking in her hands, but she scrubs herself until her skin smells medicinal and floral. She wants to stay in the shower longer, stay all day and not have to worry about screaming kids or meals or whether she should keep the door open or closed, but the heat and possible allergic reaction to the soap have turned her skin a violent red.

When she steps out of the shower, residual steam clings to her in a warm embrace. Miriam smiles and wipes the mirror down. Her hair is half-wet and limp, but she’ll let it air-dry, tell everyone she’s just trying something new for a change.

Miriam has just finished dressing when the alarm shrieks its warning. She slides her finger across the iPhone and pulls sunglasses out of her bag. Even with the extra $20, her therapy is pretty darn cheap.

Howard calls her as she drives home, the windows down and the air fresh and cool.

“Hey gorgeous,” her husband’s voice radiates love, “what’s for dinner?”

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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