Fiction from Sarah Lynn Knowles
The Hotel Window
THE MORNING AFTER The Pageants play their show in Philly, we’re all swearing off drinking, and none of us wants much talking either. Back to the van I march after gathering my things, nursing a hangover headache after barely sleeping, after skipping another shower, feeling embarrassed to be awake and alive.
Strategically, I sit next to bassist Joe in the van, knowing he isn’t, as a rule, much for small talk. I flip through photographs I took of last night’s show while my drummer boyfriend, Wes, makes his way through A Confederacy of Dunces and keeps forgetting my request to not say much about it. Again I remind him from across the van that I want to read it fresh when he is done.
Ten days into The Pageants’ first real-deal East Coast tour, we’re all growing used to the snores we hear, the smells we smell—like lead singer Jacob’s rank bacteria socks when he kicks off his sneakers, or the meat stench Drew belches after eating a yet another salami sandwich, his favorite. On day one, these several-hour trips from one state to the next seemed an exciting prospect, the six of us (four band boys plus Cyn, Jacob’s girlfriend and sometimes-backup singer, and me, tagalong girlfriend and glorified merch girl) confined together without much distraction.
But now, two out of six weeks in, I sense little seeds of melodrama sprouting. All there is to think about is our small world inside the van. We can’t help but know everything, and all of the time. For instance, I can easily rank the boys in order of time spent on the phone with their mothers, the most frequent being Jacob, who bickers daily with his bored single mom. Second is meek guitarist Drew, who regularly speaks in indecipherable syllables to his first-generation Polish parents; then Wes, whose mother checks in every few days, cheerfully and proud, usually wishing me well by extension. Last of the four is Joe, who I’ve spied grumbling on the phone to his father only once so far, outside last night’s venue before the show.
Halfway to D.C., we pull into a rest stop. My stomach gurgles interest in something healthy—a fruit or vegetable fresher than the brown-edged iceberg in a packaged salad or the spongy orange tomato slices pressed between an already-assembled deli sandwich. Maybe four times, tops, have I ever cooked a balanced meal from scratch, yet suddenly that’s what I yearn most to do when we return home. At the counter, I add a glossy food magazine to my ginger ale and pre-made turkey sandwich. As Jacob swerves back onto the highway, I rattle off recipes for no-fuss side dishes and desserts, promising to cook for the boys when we get back if they’ll only allow me control of the stereo for the following hour.
“Later,” says Jacob, meeting my eyes in the rear view mirror.
“In a half hour,” I persist.
He shakes his head no, and I sulk.
Across the aisle from him, Cyn silently draws with charcoal pencils in a sketchbook, holding it at a strategic angle so that no one else can see. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku books get passed over seat backs and graffitied with crude margin scrawling. Jacob says we are making good time for the boys’ magazine interview scheduled for that afternoon. In preparation, he and Wes pose questions to the others in loud reporter voices, imitating writers they’ve encountered thus far—well-meaning bloggers who over-analyze lyrics, for instance, or who pose cliché “getting to know you” questions like which five objects you’d choose if you were stranded on a desert island. From across the van, the boys respond with warped imitations of each others’ voices, mocking gestures and inflection with hilarious precision. Poor Drew, as usual, is the most frequent target. In this instance, they spotlight his signature shrug whenever he unexpectedly reaches the end of a story he’s telling. “So,” Jacob says, raising his shoulders and pushing his lips to a pout, “I guess that’s it, then.” It’s so spot-on that even Drew himself can’t stifle laughter as the rest of us get going.
Despite their boisterous nonchalance, though, I do sense a little underlying anxiety. Although the boys have been interviewed a half-dozen times this summer, this is the first time it’ll be in person instead of through email or by phone, and with a photographer forewarned to be present, too. I itch to be there, to observe the camera guy straightening slouching postures and instructing facial expressions to relax. While it’s true all four Pageant boys are such clowning hams in private—they’ve got no qualms posing for my camera or channeling raw energy into an onstage performance—deep down, they’re all varying levels of shy. After their last over-the-phone interview—for a “One to Watch” bit in SPIN magazine—Wes confided that Jacob’s anxiousness had morphed him into a loudly arrogant caricature. That call had been between one reporter, Jacob, and Wes, and after the interview, neither boy could recall a single answer they’d given. Wes said that, for him at least, hanging up the phone felt like coming down from an out-of-body experience.
I gaze at a two-page portrait of strawberry shortcake with homemade biscuits and cream as the boys discuss how they’d want to be styled for a photo shoot, or wouldn’t. “Would you go naked, if they asked?” Wes says, to which Joe flatly answers no, and Jacob shouts yes. Drew hesitates, puzzling over the question. “I’m not sure,” he finally says. “I guess it would depend on the circumstance.”
“The circumstances are it’s today, and the photographer says, ‘Drew, take off your clothes so we can take some nudes for our magazine,'” Wes laughs.
“I know, but like—it would depend how we were posed.”
“Okay,” Jacob jumps in. “The photographer wants to lay your bare body across a white horse galloping into the sunset. Would that work for you?”
“I mean…” Drew scrunches up his face. “I guess I’m just thinking of people like my Mom. You know?”
“Of course,” Jacob snickers. “I think of your mother when I’m naked, too.” We all laugh, but no one as hard as Jacob. Breathlessly he cackles, straining to keep his eyes on the road, holding his belly like it hurts.
“Alright,” Drew says. “Very funny. Okay.”
D.C. is one of very few cities on the East Coast tour where the band’s manager has arranged for us stay in a hotel. Shithole or not, we’re thrilled. Our spines especially are giddy for mattresses after so many days on sagging couch cushions and thin carpets covering concrete floors. A week ago, being half of a couple meant that Wes and I, or Jacob and Cyn, might get dibs on the most comfortable option offered, but after two weeks of drunk, shallow sleep, girlfriend status now entitled me a seat at the merch table and not a whole lot else.
After checking in, the boys toss their luggage into the first of two adjoining rooms on the 14th floor. They take turns freshening up in the two bathrooms and then head back down to the lobby where they’re scheduled to meet the magazine reporter. Cyn heads out, too, for a cigarette and to wander while I hang back, eager to refresh myself with a shower. My skin still feels coated with grime from the night before. I unwrap the oval hotel soap, lather it onto the bleach-white washcloth, and slough off what feels like layers of filth with the water temperature turned up as hot as it will go.
I emerge reborn, it feels like. I wrap my torso in a fresh white towel and open the door to let steam rush out. The dresser mirror shows my skin is flushed rosy. I flip on the TV to the Weather Channel, and as with all hotel televisions, the volume is set boomingly loud by default. I leave it that way, so used to noise now, and begin rummaging through my backpack. I separate clean clothes from dirty and pile the latter into mounds across the carpet, thinking maybe I can get a bit of laundry done while we’re in the hotel.
The TV meteorologist is a pink-faced blonde man with a fuchsia-patterned tie to match. He forecasts another week of summertime temps and chancy thunderstorms. Then a commercial break starts, and I notice Cyn’s small sketchbook, unattended and beckoning on the dresser.
Do I? I think. No, come on. Of course not. Snooping would be rude and wrong, and Cyn has a huge enough chip on her shoulder when it comes to me already. A few weeks before tour, Jacob had revealed her as the band’s new backup vocalist as well as his new girlfriend. As the lone two ladies on this trip, the benefits of friendship seemed obvious to me. But Cyn continually returned my enthusiasm with coldness, as if singing a couple of verses from a stage’s back corner elevated her high above the tagalong girlfriend status we undeniably shared.
So, when I ask myself, If I really want to see her illustrations, can’t I ask her? it’s easy to answer. Sure I can, I think. And she’ll say no.
I swipe the sketchbook fast and perch on the edge of the bed, hunching over my lap like a wild creature protecting its loot. The pages flip open easily at the book’s middle, where a realistic sketch of a Pageants performance spans across facing pages. Here, Cyn’s outlines are thick and dark from a hard-pressed pencil. Jacob stands front and center with a mouth stretched so wide his whole face seems strained. Wes’s over-drum slouch is so exaggerated he looks like a gangly gorilla. The two of them are bookended by angelic-looking Drew and stoic Joe, both of which are drawn so accurately I feel readied for their limbs to animate.
She’s good, I think. And though I’m not exactly surprised, I am a little perturbed at the confirmation. I flip again to see a still life rendition of the Pageants’ van, gear piled up outside of it, each amp and instrument case drawn with grungy crisscross shadowing and tattered texture. My eyes linger on every pencil scratch and smudge before flipping the page again.
When I do, I’m met with Cyn’s own self portrait—her angular body perched on a curb with a cigarette arrowing from her pursed lips. The illustration is as darkly-drawn as the previous ones—making her bob haircut seem extra severe, and her eyebrows’ slant appear extra unimpressed—but behind all of it is a sadness I’m surprised by. Cyn looks lonely in this drawing, I realize. Is it possible that softer sensitivities hide behind her rough exterior?
Suddenly the door slams. I jump, knocking the book from my hands to the floor.
“Um,” Cyn’s flat voice states.
“Oh, hey,” I say, retucking my towel around my chest. I reach towards the book, but she snatches it first. “I meant no disrespect,” I say.
“Mine,” Cyn says, shoving it into her purse. But it’s too large to fit and juts awkward from the opening.
“Your sketches are really good, Cyn.”
“They’re also none of your business.”
“I know. I’m sorry. But since I saw, can I just say—“
“You fucking ask first,” she scolds. “You don’t see me fiddling with your camera or whatever. And why’s the TV turned up loud enough for a deaf person? Next time you snoop through someone else’s shit, maybe have the sense to do it covertly.”
I feel my face redden. Cyn grabs her suitcase by its handle from the floor and stomps through the open doorway adjoining our two rooms. I hear another, farther-away door shut, then water running. It crosses my mind how funny it would be if I snuck in to swipe her sketchbook again while she showers.
But I don’t, of course. Instead I reach for the remote to lower the TV’s volume and end up switching off the set completely. I get dressed, climbing into cut-off jean shorts and a v-neck tee. I wonder what the boys are doing, if their interview came first or the photo shoot. Or is it possible the two parts would happen concurrently? I return to sorting laundry and then go through Wes’s duffel bag to add to my piles. As I toss one of his tube socks across the room, I imagine what kind of answers he might be giving, whether it’s more likely the boys are managing to be witty or if they’re stuttering through dull, painful responses. I consider, also, what it’d be like to be interviewed myself. Would I glide through, seeming clever, or would my answers leave the reporter dumbfounded at the assignment’s purpose?
Suddenly I hear a voice. Cyn, I think, but then realize the sound came from a different direction. I don’t move. I wait. Then, “Up there,” I hear—a man’s voice, straining from the ground outside. I go to the window and push aside two layers of drapes. I peer the fourteen stories down and see cars screeching to stop around a small crowd forming. Outstretched arms point fingers at the building I’m in—to my window, it looks like, but not quite, not exactly.
A faraway siren wails, growing louder as it nears. In the next room, I hear the water shut off. “Cyn,” I say. And then louder, “Hey, Cyn.”
“Are you calling me?”
“Seriously, you gotta come over here. Quick.”
Cyn’s small feet thud across the carpet until she stands alongside me, wrapped in a terry-cloth robe and smelling of soap. She peers through the window, too. “Whoa,” she says. “What’re they all looking at? I mean, geez, The Pageants aren’t the Beatles.”
“What if the building’s on fire?”
“There’d be an alarm. Right?”
“Should we call the front desk?”
“I don’t smell smoke. But yeah, call,” she says, stepping closer to the window. “Whatever’s going on has got to be right nearby. Everybody’s looking in our direction, or like right above us, maybe.”
I lean across the bed to reach the phone. The woman at the front desk finally picks up after five or six rings. “Hi, is there a fire?” I ask. In response, she babbles fast about an isolated incident, assures me we are safe, and hangs up.
“Oh, dude,” Cyn says. “Whoa.”
“It’s not a fire, right?”
“No. Well, she didn’t say, but—”
“I think I know what it is.”
“Girl, I bet we’ve either got a hostage situation or a jumper happening right above us.”
“Look at that cop holding a bullhorn. He’s totally about to talk down some guy right above us,” Cyn says. “I’m opening the window more.”
She kneels down in her robe to shove the frame higher. “Oh my god,” I say.
“I know, right? Brace yourself for a body to come diving past this window any second.”
I nibble at my bottom lip. “That’s not something I want to see,” I say, stepping backwards.
“Damn. More cops,” says Cyn, leaning closer towards the sill until her forehead rests against the glass. “Do you think there’ll be a parachute to catch him? Like on TV?”
“You don’t know that it’s a him,” I say.
“Sure I do. It’s always a him. Only men require this much attention to die.”
I retrieve a comb from my backpack’s front pocket and ease onto the bed furthest from the window. “Where did you get that robe?” I say.
“In the closet.”
“I didn’t see one.”
“That’s because you were too busy snooping through my shit,” says Cyn. “Oh, yup. Here we go.”
“Firemen opening a parachute thing, just like on TV. I told you,” she says.
“Except not,” I say, watching red and blue lights land and sweep along the buildings. My stomach gurgles discomfort. “That’s somebody’s real life, Cyn.”
“Whatever happens is going to happen whether or not we look, you know.”
“It wouldn’t mess with you to witness someone’s death?” I sit up straighter towards the end of the mattress and press the TV remote’s power button.
“Hello, volume?” yells Cyn.
“I am. I know. That’s how it comes on.” My thumb presses against the mute button and begins flipping through news channels as my eyes scan for coverage of the scene outside.
“I wish I could hear what they’re saying. Do the bullhorn thing again,” she chants. “Do it. Bullhorn. Come on.”
Some minutes pass. The 5:00 news anchors return as 5:30 news anchors. Still I catch no glimpse of our hotel’s exterior as I flip between networks on mute. “Do you think the boys will be able to get into the building OK?”
“Shit. I have to get dressed still.”
“Sssh.” Cyn urges, raising a finger to her lips. Our eyes meet and stay transfixed as muffled syllables echo.
“I can’t hear what—” I start.
“Sssh,” Cyn repeats. She looks away from me and back through the window. “If you can’t hear, just come—”
She is interrupted then by a second wave of trumpeted speech. I do stand up and move closer, slowly—hesitant but decidedly intrigued. I approach the window and kneel down onto the empty spot of carpet beside her. I peer through the glass and finally spot the cop with the bullhorn held against his mouth. He stands beside an open squad car door, where he is flanked by two more uniformed officers with crossed arms peering upwards, too. Squad cars are parked on diagonals on both ends of the block, I can see from here, preventing any traffic from entering. This leaves the street to be taken over by a growing crowd of open-mouthed pedestrians whose necks all crane at an identical angle.
I push my half of the drape further aside and press my ear to the window screen. The air outside feels heavy with humidity. I hear the last bit of the policeman’s speech: “They’re coming in. Okay?” he says.
I crane my neck crookedly to try and hear a voice from above, but nothing. I look towards Cyn, and she’s my mirrored image—her body angled strange, balancing on one hip and elbow towards the screen. “What did he say before?” I ask.
“Something about staying calm because professionals are on their way.”
A sound startles us then—one loud, dull thump from above. I gasp, glance up and am met, of course, with the sight of our blank white ceiling. When I look back at Cyn she is rubbing her forehead with her palm. “Ow,” she says. “Stupid window.”
We sit quietly and wait for sound. There’s muffled mumbling and some quiet thumps but nothing too discernable. When our eyes meet again, Cyn’s are very wide, and I’m sure mine look the same. Then finally, a word—one word—from the man on the ledge above us:
It comes out a groan, tired and shaky, strained and basic. More an animal’s sound than a human being’s. My mind draws it out, slowing its pronouncement, so that I’m not quite sure how long the moment realistically lasted.
“See? A dude. I told you,” Cyn whispers.
I look out the window again at our own little ledge. The cement lip extends mere inches—just barely enough space to post one’s feet. I picture the man’s flattened hands pressing back against the glass to steady himself, his knuckles blanching with stress.
A series of beeps knocks me out of my trance. “Shit. My phone. Keep watch,” Cyn says as she races into the adjoining room. Her bathrobe’s belt swings and trails behind her as she leaps over the doorjamb.
Outside, the lead cop holds the bullhorn near his hip. The crowd is an Impressionist cloud of dots, from which several arms extend to point like branches. I wonder what the man above us is wearing, if the humid air weighs damp and heavy on his skin. The sharp angle down from where I sit makes it so only a small sliver of the circular tarp is visible, but I can see that it’s pulled taut and ready.
It hits me then, what I am watching and waiting for. My initial discomfort comes churning back, whirlpooling acid in my abdomen. “Cyn,” my small voice croaks. I place my palms down on the carpet, pressing against them and preparing to stand.
The lead cop raises his bullhorn. He holds it idly away from his face, but close to it, ready. “Cyn? You coming back?” I say, turning my head now to peer through the between-room doorway, impatient for her to appear. “I think the cop is about to say some—“
A soundless shadow passes then. The blob of dark sweeps past my face and the floor and then is gone, leaving light again. I feel my shoulders hunch stiff near my chin. But I do not move; I do not turn.
Noise erupts. A car alarm, a woman yelling. The policeman chants, “Get back, get back.” Cyn rushes into the doorway, gasping. A fire truck’s red lights float and swirl. Sour bile gathers at the base of my throat.
“It happened?” she whispers. “Did you see it?”
“No,” I say, swallowing acid. The window burns its presence into my side. With my palms still pressed against the carpet, I push myself up slowly, carefully, like a creaky-boned old woman would. My eyeballs twitch in their sockets but do not waver from Cyn’s matching gaze. I’m so afraid I’ll turn and see it. My head feels hot with the idea of an image.
Cyn’s fingertip flicks its opposing thumbnail. “Did he land on it?”
“I don’t know.”
She shuffles to the window’s middle. “Huh,” she says.
I think about my hands, how they just hang at my sides. Like children’s mittens, married between coat arms by a string.
“I can’t really see a body or anything, but—” Cyn pauses. “I don’t know.”
“Well, the ambulance guys are just standing there. Like, not doing anything. So.”
“Oh,” I say, considering. “Yeah.”
One side at a time, Cyn pulls the heavy curtains shut. “Let’s just watch TV until the guys get back,” she says.
I nod, then slump towards the bed I’m nearest. Cyn leaves the room and in a moment returns with her sketchbook and a couple of charcoal pencils. I lift the TV remote from the bedside table. I ready my finger to turn the volume down before I even switch it on.
Sarah Lynn Knowles is the founding editor of art/fiction/music journal Storychord.com. Her short fiction has been featured in publications such as Joyland Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Sundog Lit, Perigee Publication for the Arts, and Slice Magazine. She recently relocated from Brooklyn, NY, back to her western Massachusetts roots, where she dabbles in jewelry making, ceramic pottery, block printing, and photography. For more, follow her on Twitter (@sarahspy) and visit her pop culture blog Sarahspy.com.