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A blue Chevy Impala parked at a gas station on the side of I-92. It parked in front of the store against the harsh blazing sunlight, and out from it walked Henry Langdale, a man of no consequence and dreams no horizon could limit. What he was searching for along the outskirts of a desert-riddled area, nobody knew. Henry wasn’t sure he knew either. He came driving out here looking for something he liked to call unfinished business. What kind of unfinished business, you ask? Well, to explain that, you’ll have to understand who he is.
Henry was, in many respects, the average business man: a steady nine-to-five dead-end job, a small house in a community suburb, and a wife who loved him for his career and not for who he was. Yes, he was a man with no future before him. He couldn’t have been happier with what he had, so you might think it a bit strange for him to want to get away from the city and find tranquility in a small town. However, if it made sense to Henry it would make sense to anyone else. At least that’s how his best friend Leigh Anne put it.
Anyways, he walked into the store and towards the counter, a straight and subtle smile on his face. There he met Tyler Varney, who had been looking at Henry’s car, admiring the finish on it. Varney was impressed. Chrome trim on a cruising car like that? He must have made a lot of dough to even consider putting that kind of fancy finish on.
However, Henry wasn’t much in the way of clothing. For a hot-shot corporate suit, he was lacking the one thing that gave him that namesake. Sporting khakis, a blue Hawaiian shirt with white flowers, and tennis shoes, he appeared as though he had come back from vacation, if anything else. To top it off, Henry was even wearing a dark pair of aviators. Varney guessed that he had come from the beach or something along those lines, but that was not the case.
“Can I help you, son?” Tyler said while Henry was looking at postcards.
“Only if you know of any towns around this arid dump…no offense,” Henry said while approaching the counter with two postcards in hand.
With a chuckle, Varney replied “None taken. I know I don’t seem to have much of a life, owning a store in the middle of the desert. But at least here I can get away from the noise.”
Henry smiled at the old man, who was wearing a white undershirt underneath a gray pinstriped button-down shirt. Varney’s forehead revealed five deep wrinkles whenever he lifted his eyebrows to look in the distance. Henry considered him wise due to this, as the wrinkles seemed deeper than the Mariana’s Trench. The man’s thinning hairline, which left behind only a horseshoe path along the back of his skull, was also evident of this in Henry’s eyes. This guy knows a lot, Henry thought. Might wanna learn a thing or two from him before I leave.
“Well you still didn’t answer my question,” Henry said.
“Quite right you are,” Varney retorted. “Just keep going down the highway and you’ll hit a little town called Hunter’s Bay. There’s a motel where you can stay the night before you head off to wherever it is you’re going to.”
“Hunter’s Bay, huh? Kind of an ironic name for a town in these parts, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be fooled, son; it hasn’t run anybody off yet. The name’s what draws folks to it.”
“Like ‘an oasis in the desert’ of sorts?”
“Of sorts, as you say.”
“Well, only one way of judging that.” Henry moved towards the door, but was stopped by Varney chortling.
“Leavin’ already?” The old man said. “I’m insulted.”
“Why? We were having such delightful banter.” Henry laughed as well.
“You’re not even thinking of buyin’ something?”
Henry slapped a sweaty bottle of soda on the counter. They had spent all of this time talking, and he had been holding an ice cold bottle of suds. Varney rung it up, gave Henry his change, and nodded goodbye as he watched Henry get in the blue Impala and drive off towards Hunter’s Bay. It would be nice to see him again, Varney decided. Maybe he would take a trip into town sometime after closing; see the guy before he left town.
Henry drove ten miles away from the gas station and arrived at Hunter’s Bay with few problems. A few potholes in the road here and there, but they were nothing that his car couldn’t manage. As he rolled past the last few holes, he came to a yellow and green neon sign which read HUNTER’S BAY MOTEL.
He had found the town.
Contrary to its namesake, the place had to be drier than a prune. The sidewalks were dusted with sand, leaving them brown and grey walkways leading towards the shops that lined the four-way traffic intersection that was the center of town. Not much color to the buildings either. Faded white on the hardware shop, a deep maple brown primed over what appeared to be a saloon-styled bar, and a silver building with a black roof overlooking a used car lot weren’t the example of modern art in the architectural world. Henry didn’t mind it. It was simplicity that made him appreciate the town more than skyscrapers and obnoxious pedestrians.
Henry pulled into the parking lot of the Hunter’s Bay Motel and walked towards the front door. The bell rang, startling the desk clerk while she was reading a magazine. She stood up and greeted the stranger who was approaching the front desk. Henry saw the woman jolt out of her seat, but resisted the urge to find humor in it and make her feel more embarrassed than she probably was.
He then went on to see what else she was gifted with. The first was a fair amount of wavy hair raining from her head, puffing out enough to hide whatever was behind her. Her face was long and narrow like an Italian’s, with a nose that screamed “I’m part Jewish”. Tall and slender, the few things that kept her from being mistaken for a guy were those that protruded from her chest and behind her hips. She wore a crimson T-shirt that hung off of her left shoulder, a pair of dark blue skinny jeans that showed off her legs, and a black studded armband on her right wrist. Henry liked all that he saw.
“You guys don’t have a vacancy sign outside,” Henry said.
“Well, there’s not really a need for one,” the woman said. “Last time we were full was when people were on the way to the Daytona 500.”
“People drove the extra hundred miles to watch cars going ‘round in a circle?”
“Nah, most of ‘em go to see cars crashing in a circle.” Both of them shared a laugh.
“Well is it NASCAR season yet?” Henry managed between chuckles.
“Not for a few months it isn’t. Lookin’ for a room to stay in, Hun?”
“Whatever empty one you got will suffice.”
The woman looked back at the key rack and handed him the keys to room 208. Henry signed the motel register, picked up his bag, and walked towards the door. He stopped just before walking into the dry desert air and away from the small, air conditioned lobby.
“By the way, what’s your name?” He asked.
“Name’s Clarissa,” she told him as she viewed the motel register that he signed. “And you must be…Henry Langdale.”
“Any other Henry’s I should know about in this place?” With a chuckle, she told him that there wasn’t.
She couldn’t explain why, but he amused her. She didn’t know why; humor didn’t always come with handsome guys in her experience. Henry, with his dark brown hair cut down to where it just missed the skin and bright aqua eyes, didn’t give her cause to think he would be a problem. Other guys who came into the motel were either sleazy or drunk, always wanting to cop a feel of her well-proportioned assets so that they would not have to pay. He didn’t give off that kind of vibe, she decided. Maybe she would talk to him a little more once he got settled.
Henry had tossed his suitcase onto the bed and unpacked his clothes for the day after entering his room. It was a long trip from the car and up the stairs to room 208, so he was relieved to know that the baggage he carried with him would feel lighter after his stay. It was a comforting room, tinged in a shade of creamy white. It was much like the color of hand lotion, and to Henry it felt just as soft on the soul as the lotion would on a cracked and peeled hand.
He laid out a gray T-shirt, some boot-cut jeans, and a red pair of boxers on the light-green floral pattern bed. He was going to wear that outfit that night for when he asked that desk girl––Clarissa, he reminded himself––out on a date.
Exhausted, he went into the bathroom to take a cool shower. He took his change of clothes so that he wouldn’t have to startle room service––he had ordered a turkey sandwich and soda while he unpacked. Upon cleansing his body, he pulled on his clothes and went back to the main room. His meal was sitting next to his bed, complete with a plastic cup for the beverage and his sandwich on a paper plate. It must have been wheeled in while he was bathing, because he didn’t hear a knock or anything. Remember to tip them for a speedy delivery, he told himself as he lifted the plastic wrap off of his sandwich and took a bite. They even chilled the meat. He liked this place more and more. It was a shame he wouldn’t be staying for too long.
A hard knock at the door made him almost mistake his tongue for a fat slice of turkey. He went to the door and looked out of the peephole. He could barely see the face, but the pile of neat crunchy-looking waves made him remember who it was. He opened the door and let Clarissa into his temporary home.
“You always make house calls with newcomers?” Henry asked as he unlocked the door.
“Only the interesting and cute ones,” she told him as she entered.’
“And which one am I?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Her subtle wink made Henry laugh. “So what do you think of my motel?” She sat down on the bed after grabbing his soda.
“You own this joint?” This was said with a mouthful of bread and turkey.
“Well, my family does; I just work at the desk. But since my folks are on vacation, I’m in charge of managing it for as long as they stay in Mexico.”
“Nice. So you’ve lived here all your life, I take it?
“Yeah, pretty much.” She sighed as she relaxed and slouched, looking as if she were going to slide off the foot of the bed. “If I could leave, I would. Not many opportunities for education nearby. Closest college is fifty miles away, and my parents will never pay for it.”
“Sounds like you think you’ll never leave.”
“Hah! Why would I want to leave this place?” She stood up and walked towards Henry, who was leaning against the wall opposite the bathroom door.
“You just said you’d leave if you could.”
“Yeah, but not for very long, I wouldn’t. I’d just come back here eventually.”
“Well, home is a magnet for those who know it well; pull far enough away and the attraction weakens. We forget what kept us home in the first place after that.”
Clarissa went silent. Why wasn’t she retorting the statement with her usual wit? Had he struck something in her that made those words ring true within her soul? It was as if what Henry had just told her was the most honest thing she had heard, and her denial had been torn down. It took her a minute to summon up the words that could reason with this visibly thirty-year-old man and his incredible wisdom.
“Is that what happened to you?” She looked at his face for an answer. However, it was hard to do so while he was smiling.
“Yeah, something like that. I’m on what you call unfinished business.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“It’s complicated; you wouldn’t understand. Anyways, now that you’re here, I can invite you to have dinner with me tonight. Your pick, since I’m just a newbie around town.”
She could not help but flash a big toothy grin when he said all of that. She felt like a school-girl wanting to giggle at anything the cute guy talking to her would say. She felt embarrassed. Then again, it was rude to say no to such an offer. She told him she would love to, and soon they were both on their way to dinner.
The restaurant Clarissa chose for the date was called Berkley’s. Technically it was a bar, but the wings, as she put it, were spicy enough to burn your taste buds twice over in one shot. Henry couldn’t resist that kind of challenge with any type of food. So off to Berkley’s it was, and off Henry was to take the nuclear hot wing challenge Clarissa gave him.
They walked the five blocks it took to get to the bar, making small talk about topics ranging from favorite animals to most awkward sexual experiences along the way. Normally Clarissa was opposed to anybody knowing about her escapades with men, of which she had more than she felt comfortable with. Yet she was relaxed enough to give details about those moments.
This man, she thought, is pulling my life out in front of me. And I’m okay with that! Maybe it was his calm voice that felt like rabbit fur against her ears. Maybe it was the way he gestured with his eyes; an idiosyncrasy that made her think twice before analyzing his actions or words. Whatever it was, she found enough comfort in those quirks of his to grab onto his arm halfway into their journey. She didn’t let go until they arrived.
If anybody drove near Berkley’s they would most likely miss it. Wedged between an enormous hardware store and the local movie theater, it seemed an insignificant block of concrete that only those who lived in Hunter’s Bay could appreciate. Henry was one of those who, at first glance, didn’t think much of the place. However, that’s where Henry saw the beauty. For is it not the small things we take for granted that give us the best experience? Henry thought that, at least.
When Clarissa stepped into Berkley’s clinging onto a man, the barkeep took no notice. After all, the bar was the woman’s hunting ground for another lay in the sack, as George Berkley would tell any newcomer. There’s no shame in this old geezer, most thought when they spoke to him. Then again, he did help out some of her more promising prospects, so he earned some respect in that regard.
“Who you brung with you this time, Claire?” George said while topping off a glass for a patron sitting at the bar.
“Not a keeper,” Clarissa said with a smile. “But who knows? I could just run away with him and never see this dump again.” George laughed. Clarissa always joked about how run-down his bar had gotten since people started skipping town.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Henry added while George had his amusement.
“Aw, why not?” Clarissa’s eyes widened and her lip quivered to show both her sarcasm and her honest disappointment.
“You wouldn’t like it where I’m going. Just trust me on that.”
“Well you weren’t planning on dumping me here, right? You have a challenge to own up to, buddy-boy.”
“You told him about the wings, haven’t you?” George asked as he whistled to the lady in the kitchen. She knew what that meant, and with a grin as crooked as a table with a bad leg she got to cooking.
“She told me a lot of things about this place,” Henry replied, tearing up when he caught a sudden whiff of the sauce emanating from the kitchen. George almost doubled over howling while Clarissa went behind the bar, grabbed a clean glass, and filled it up with an ice-cold draft.
“Here, drink up,” she said while handing Henry the full glass. He took a swig that left no more than three-quarters of beer remaining. “Damn, you sure can handle your booze.”
“You learn how to when you work where I did,” Henry told her as he belched his satisfaction with the brew. George and Clarissa both laughed some more as Henry was served another glass.
Right when the glass had arrived next to Henry, so too did a steaming plate of assorted spicy chicken wings and legs. He smelled the food on the plate, and took another sip of beer to wash down the mucus dripping down his throat. He wasn’t going to back down, but the power of the spice made him think twice about going for the meal all at once. He took a wing, drew it close to his mouth, and bit into a small chunk of skin. His tongue wasn’t lit aflame to the extent Clarissa had warned him about, but it burned enough for him to take another gulp of beer to calm the hot tingling sensation down.
The patrons who witnessed this sight were hooting and hollering. Never have they seen a man handle even a single Berkley’s wing without running towards the back for some ice-cold relief. George slipped Henry a piece of paper under the plate of wings. Thinking that it was a napkin, Henry picked the paper up without a thought, but noticed that he smudged a word with his orange fingers. He put the paper down, licked his fingers clean, and read what it said.
“Says ‘on the house’,” George told him. “You took those wings like a real man. Last time someone took the challenge, the bathroom had to be closed for a week.” Henry chuckled as he grabbed a leg and gobbled it up.
Clarissa had walked towards the jukebox while Henry ate his wings. She was waiting for him to notice her sudden relocation. That way she could pop in a quarter and jam to some tunes. When Henry turned his head towards the machine, he saw Clarissa’s smile, which made him walk towards her. He saw her hand move towards the machine’s coin slot, and asked her “what style you like?”
“Anything I can dance to,” she answered as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” began playing. It was a song too slow to go wild over, but it was still excuse enough for Henry and Clarissa to share a slow dance with. He pulled her close to him as they wrapped their arms around each other. Henry’s arms were on her waist; Clarissa’s arms were around his neck. Together they swayed to the rhythm of the music, smiling at each other, not a care in the world beyond what they were looking at. As the song reached the chorus, they each felt the other invading their personal space. Once their chests were pressed together, they weren’t bothered by it one bit.
After a night of slow-dancing, watching the drunks play their meaningless games, and singing horrendous renditions of popular songs, it was time for both Henry and Clarissa to call it a night. They made their way back to the Hunter’s Bay Motel, staggering a bit from having five cold pints each. They laughed and talked and slurred while approaching Henry’s room. They stood there for a minute or two before Henry invited Clarissa inside.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I have to get home to my dog before he starts diggin’ through the trash again.”
“I’m not asking you to stay,” Henry replied. “I just wanna talk some more is all. What do you say?” At that, Clarissa walked through the open door and sat on the nearest bed. Henry followed, sitting to her left.
“Let me ask you something,” Clarissa said.
“Go right ahead,” Henry retorted.
“Why did you decide to come down here?”
“I hated the noise of the city. I’m sure you would too if you lived there for a while.”
“Bullshit!” They both laughed. Clarissa continued: “What’s the real reason, pretty boy?”
“It’s complicated; you wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” Clarissa stared at Henry, waiting for him as he stared at the ceiling.
Henry sighed and then spoke. “Here’s the thing: I’m not in the best of times right now. I’m…unemployed as of yesterday.”
“You lose your job, so you lash out by going where jobs are scarce? Smart move, dude.” He chuckled while she smiled sincerely. She meant no harm in what she said.
“Well, how about if I said I was also divorced as of yesterday too?”
For five seconds, Clarissa couldn’t find an appropriate reply. She finally said, “Ouch! Getting canned at work and dumped by your wife in one day. I wouldn’t wanna stay in the city either if that were the case.”
“Yeah, I know. I just wanted to…I don’t know, escape from it all. Like something was telling me to pack up and leave, go towards the badlands––no offense. I just wanted to be somewhere, anywhere away from the apathy of city life.”
“Hey, you couldn’t insult this place if you lived in it, okay? And besides, what happened is in the past now. You gotta learn to live and let go; move on from it all when it gets heavy.”
Henry let Clarissa’s words sink in, allowing them to simmer in his broken mind. They were the same words everybody else had told him, just in a different context. So why did he feel like they meant something? Was it because of the person who had said them? After all, what man denies a beautiful woman?
Henry’s next words were a little less grim. He said, “Well, I’ve never had it put that way. But now I have to wonder: is your kiss as sweet as your silver tongue?”
“Come find out, cowboy,” Clarissa replied with a subtle lick of her lips.
Not two seconds later did the both of them stop talking and let their lips speak closer together. For Henry, it was like that first taste of sweet maple syrup on a high stack of pancakes. For Clarissa, it felt more like the first bite of a fresh apple in the spring. All they could do was kiss as their bodies began reacting to the heat and passion behind the kiss. They felt each other’s smooth hands caressing warm skin, and soon pure pleasure would unite them in that room, on that bed, for the entire night.
All Clarissa thought before she had fallen asleep was: Wow! City boys really know how to please a woman! It’s such a shame he has to leave tomorrow!
The sun had beamed down on her face, waking her up from a deep sleep. She lifted herself from the bed, clutching the bed sheets against her breasts. She looked to her right, and found that her bed mate had risen earlier than she had. She released the sheets and decided to go hunting for him in the bathroom. Hmm…might as well give him a repeat in case he forgot about it already, she thought as she opened the bathroom door, naked as a mole rat.
She splashed some water with her feet. The bathroom floor had been soaked in water. Perhaps he’s taking a bath, she thought. However, something was wrong with the water. It had a pinkish look to it, which grew to a deeper red the closer the got to the tub. Her smile turned downward, and her eyes grew wider. She didn’t want to believe what her head was telling her, but she wanted to see to believe.
As her head turned so that her face was across from the tub, her fears had transformed into a scream. There, in the bathtub full of brownish-red water, was Henry. His arms were sliced up and down with a piece of glass he had dropped on the floor. His head was leaning back against the lower left corner; his eyes closed permanently to the sight around him––that, at least, put Clarissa at some form of ease. He was still naked, which meant that he must have done this in the middle of the night after he and Clarissa had finished rolling around in the sheets.
Clarissa ran up to him, careful not to slip on the wet surface below her. She slapped him on the cheek as hard as she could dare; hoping that if he were alive, he wouldn’t be mad at her for hitting him while he was sleeping. “Wake up, Henry,” she kept saying while trying all she could to make him respond. There was nothing.
She fled the bathroom and went to the nightstand between the beds to call 9-1-1. As she gave them the information and address, she sat waiting, trying to wrap her head around what Henry had done to himself. Clarissa could not for the life of her understand why he would off himself after such an amazing night––in her mind, anyways. There were no indicators for this kind of behavior…except for one thing. What was it he said the other day; something about unfinished business? He had a good life taken away from him, and yet he seemed so calm, almost…happy with it.
Clarissa lifted her head, suddenly realizing what it was that Henry had done. The night at the bar, the meeting of her (whom he claimed was beautiful), the passionate night…it was all a part of his plan. His life had gone to hell before he arrived to Hunter’s Bay. All Henry wanted to do was have a little piece of heaven before he decided to go and meet the big man upstairs. Clarissa knew what he wanted to do, and oddly enough couldn’t feel happier for him. To help him indulge in the simple pleasures of life before he left it behind was enough to make her feel like it was worth it. She cracked a smile behind a stream of tears. “I hope it was worth it, Henry,” she said.
As she heard the sirens, she went back to Henry’s body, crying and smiling in her towel. For the first time in her life, she felt like she did somebody right.