The CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE CHAMPION at the Holiday Inn told me how to grieve people who are still alive. That yes, alive and away is somehow harder to grieve than here and dead. That there are people you care for more than you should and then there are people who should be more important to you, and there’s room for everyone in this imbalance.
Well, okay, she didn’t say all that, not in so many words. But she did tell me about guests coming and going quickly, about repeat customers, rewards points. There was a lot in her stance, her standing there and simply knowing things.
Like before, outside, when the cop had the hotel entrance blocked and we couldn’t check in. We were stuck with our car under the overhang, still running, the tailpipe’s plumes exaggerated in the freezing air.
She had come through the automatic doors and released a rush of heat from the entryway. She nodded to the cop and beckoned us in with one hand. How she knew we had reservations is anybody’s guess.
This extra security was because a man was on the loose. He was supposedly very close, possibly in the woods right behind the hotel.
Nellie went straight up to her room while I parked the car. There’s fifty percent less risk of someone denting your car if you park in an end space. The grass beside the space had a hardened mound of poured concrete in the middle of it as sort of a monument to giving up.
I nodded to the front desk woman on the way back in. Her name tag not only described her as a CHAMPION but also listed her name as TBD.
“Are you waiting for your name tag? Is that a temporary one?” I asked.
“No, I’m afraid that’s what’s on my birth certificate,” she said like she had probably said many, many times before.
“Do you like having that name?”
She changed her face into a kind of smile that was more like a grimace.
I imagined Nellie watching HGTV in collared flannel pajamas in the other room. I don’t know her very well but I do know that the more stressed she gets at work the more elaborate her hairstyles become. She’ll twist and tug and braid in meetings like she is assaulting someone but it looks overly elegant when she is done.
I pulled out my laptop, eager to continue my search for flat-earthers online. Because I need to believe that they believe it. I need to believe it’s possible for someone to know, not just think, something like that.
Sleeping would be difficult. The conference itself wasn’t anything exceptional but I was going to meet a professor for a drink afterward who I hadn’t seen since college. This professor had informed all of my fresh opinions, replacing the murky thumbprints of my parent’s worldviews in my teenage frontal lobe.
I laid out my suit on the extra queen bed and pulled the deodorant that actually worked with all its toxins from my toiletry bag.
I didn’t know that this professor, Kiffin, wouldn’t even show up to the conference. I didn’t know that the next day the marriage and family therapy speaker would mirror his laptop screen on the projector to show us a PowerPoint but leave up his desktop for too long, long enough to see that one of his folders was labeled CHILD SUPPORT DOCS.
I also didn’t know how much this conference would affect me. How I would become a pickpocketer a few months later. Except one that sticks things into pockets rather than taking them out. Maybe I will be tired of people leaving impressions on me that seem ferociously meaningful and want to make some of my own. Either way, I will start leaving Mad Hatter Club matchbooks, paper airplanes, chewed gum, Hot Wheels, etc., in coat pockets, pants, dress shirts, even a fanny pack. I will sense that I am giving these strangers something they truly need.
I just knew at the time I was going to rehearse potential dialogue with Kiffin in my head for the next few hours before hopefully getting something like sleep.
Thankfully, I abstained from opening the Just for Men Touch of Gray I had bought on the way there before picking up Nellie.
Driving back post-conference, I couldn’t wait to forget about the whole experience and return to my house across from the bus graveyard. The same one I’d grown up in with pink flamingoes faded to white. So trite they are no longer trite. And Longaberger baskets topping the kitchen cabinets to fill the space between the ceiling. Nothing inside of them of course but they’ve been there for at least three decades and have probably since filled with thousand-leggers, roly-polys, dust tumbleweeds: a wholly original and unexplored ecosystem.
Plus, there’s something comforting about seeing old classmates in the grocery store who used to crush thumbs in Heads Up 7 Up now pick up fruit snacks presumably not for themselves and say things to you like “Well, I have a lot of freezer stuff, so…” before darting in line.
There was another employee running the front desk the morning we left but if it had been TBD, I would have told her what I had just read. That in China, tombstones are marked with QR codes that do the retelling of the dead’s stories for them. So maybe we really only need to bear the freight of the living.
I would ask her about the manhunt, whether anyone had found him, what he had done to get in that situation in the first place. I’d admit that I wanted to find him but only so that I could join him. To hide in the woods and to learn how to be less hypocritical. I would confess this to her while staring at her, moving closer and closer until we were just cross-eyed and blurred.
Claire Hopple’s stories have appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, (b)OINK zine, Heavy Feather Review, Timber and others. Her story collection TOO MUCH OF THE WRONG THING (Truth Serum Press) will be released in November 2017. More at clairehopple.com.
Also by Claire Hopple Monitor
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