Atlas at the Starlite Inn
IT WAS ARNOLD’Sgraveyard shift at the Starlite Inn. In the lobby, the Christmas tree made of fringed green PVC emitted a whiny carol whose notes corresponded to the changing lights. As he hooked plastic angels onto the branches, he thought of the tree at home with June. He could stand with his face pressed to the needles and inhale its alpine tang, return to the tree lot and the time before he found out the awful thing about her. It would remain a naked blue spruce this year. No one to keep up appearances for—not even themselves.
The lobby phone bleated. Tripping over one of the empty boxes wrapped in eighties Christmas paper—cardinals posing in sprigs of holly, children carving ellipses over ice—Arnold shuffled towards the front desk.
“Hello, Arnold at the Starlite Inn, how can I help you?”
He lifted a corner of his square gold frames and repositioned them on the crooked knoll of his nose. He rolled one stiff shoulder and said, “I understand, ma’am. Room 28, you say. No, no, pets are absolutely not allowed.” His wedding band clicked as he drummed his free hand on the table. “Our staff will make sure that both the guest and the dog are escorted off the premises. Yes. I’ll call to confirm. Have a good night, ma’am.”
Arnold tucked the receiver back into its cradle and peered through the blinds of the main office to see Ted Alleman’s socked foot wiggling on the desk. Ted, the 23-year-old night manager, had been on academic probation when his uncle offered him the position at the Starlite Inn. He spent his shifts dozing in his leather chair or streaming reality television on the computer. Ted kicked up the other foot and nudged the wire mesh pen holder out of the way with his toe.
Sighing, Arnold retrieved the suede jacket from the back of his chair and zipped it up to his throat. He crossed the empty lobby, its worn red couches, its glass coffee table smeared with back issues of Us Weekly, and strode into the silver-edged coldness of winter in the high desert. His breath fogged under the lights of the parking lot; his knobby hands curled in his jacket pockets. The heels of his boots clapped against the wooden stairs to the inn’s second floor balcony. Arnold passed the silent rooms: a half-drawn curtain blanched by the glare of the television, a man pulling a T-shirt over a tattooed back, a dark room containing a pale limb. At the door of room 28, he cleared his throat and rapped three times.
The girl who answered the door had faint purple rings under her dark eyes and a hoop through her eyebrow. Her sweater was pulled taut across her belly, and Arnold saw, with a pang in his chest, that she was about four months pregnant—this he knew from watching the wives of his friends grow bright and round. The girl swatted the door from palm to palm and glanced down the length of the mezzanine. “Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” said Arnold, “but we’ve received a complaint down at the front desk. A neighbor called in about your dog. As you know, it’s against our policies to have pets in the room.”
“Yeah.” The girl’s nostrils flared as if she were stifling a yawn. “That’s why I don’t have a dog.”
Arnold stepped forward and put a slight pressure on the door to keep her from closing it. “Do you mind if I come in and take a quick look?”
“I do mind,” she said, stepping back, “but yeah.”
The girl stood in the center of the room with her arms across her chest. Arnold’s knee popped as he lowered himself to the orange carpeting and checked under the bed. A crumpled condom wrapper, a cracked M&M. The strange sensation that he was looking for his wife. He used the mattress for leverage as he straightened, then patted the pile of blankets, thinking of the last time he’d slept. He skirted the bed and opened the closet door that rattled on its track. He pushed aside the single black coat to check the corners. Nothing in the overhead storage, either. The neighbor could have misjudged, could have heard the bark echo from across the lot.
“Well, miss, I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I’ll be out of here quick,” said Arnold, turning towards the bathroom.
The girl sidled in front of the bathroom door, scratching the skin around her piercing. “Cool, well, I have to get an early start tomorrow, so, you know, gonna pass out soon.”
“It’s late, I realize. If you’ll allow me—”
Arnold reached around her for the doorknob and twisted. The lights sputtered on, revealing a toilet with the seat installed askew and a plastic shower curtain, fully drawn. Setting his lips into a firm line, he crossed the tile and swept the curtain aside. He readied himself for an animal to leap out and skitter around his feet, but what he discovered in the tub was a pot of water on a portable camping stove.
Arnold looked to the girl, who shrugged and muttered, “Just trying to make some ramen, you know? Haven’t eaten all day.”
He gestured at the tub. “A propane stove in a hotel room. Not only is that against the rules, miss, but it’s a fire waiting to happen—”
“Sucks that your place is so flammable,” she said.
“—I’m afraid this is going to have to go in your car for the night.”
A knock at the front door punctuated his sentence. The girl threw up her hands, and her sweater rode up to reveal the curve of her pale, distended stomach. “Jesus, how many people you gotta send? Who’s next, the SWAT team?”
“Excuse me,” said Arnold, and paced out of the room.
“There you are,” smirked Ted when the door opened. He had pulled on a furry trapper hat before leaving the office, and now spirals of red hair sprouted like a mane around his face. He slapped Arnold on the arm. “Folks over next door keep calling to ask if the dog situation’s been handled yet. It’s driving me nuts. Can’t get any work done without my sidekick there to answer the phone.”
“There’s no dog, Ted.”
“Okay, well, right on. Let me step in? Take a look-see?”
Arnold hesitated, thinking of the stove in the bathtub. Ted often overcompensated for his lazy management, and it wouldn’t be out of character for him to toss a woman out of her room for heating noodles at 2 a.m. “Well—”
Ted bounced once on his heels. “Some of our guests can get pretty creative with their animal companions. You check the safe, for example? Bet you could stuff a teacup poodle in there.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but I honestly do not have a dog,” interrupted the girl, approaching the doorway with her arms held incredulously out to the sides. “Unless you’re gonna strip search me, you can leave.”
Ted cocked his head at Arnold, who made no effort to move, then wrinkled his nose with a series of hoarse giggles. “Holy shit,” Ted said, propping an elbow on the doorframe, “you’re totally boning this girl, aren’t you, Arnie?” He lowered his voice and leaned conspiratorially toward Arnold’s ear. “Listen, old man, I get that you’re trying to get back at your wife, but don’t you think she’s a little on the, er, young side?”
“Lay off the reality TV, Ted,” said Arnold, and slammed the door on his manager’s woofing laughter. He heard a train roar past on the tracks behind the inn and imagined that he himself were making the sound.
Thinking about his wife made the world seem strange and two-dimensional. His fingers were flesh-colored strips flattened against the door. Everything was paper thin except for that blue morning almost a month ago; that morning was dark and deep and filled the space that opened inside him. He remembered all of it: pulling off Mojave Drive and arriving at his squat pink house two hours early after a night at the Starlite Inn. June’s face gone slack against a stranger’s chest. Their dozing feet alternating small and large at the edge of the quilt her mother had gifted them on their wedding day.
Arnold massaged the skin under his right eye. He dreaded the lobby, where the plastic tree piped its rudimentary songs and Ted snickered at the TV. He hated to sit and imagine what June might be doing.
“You know, there’s a diner across the street,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “They make a decent plate of huevos rancheros.”
“Thanks,” said the girl, dragging the hem of her jeans across the carpet, “but I’d rather save the money than eat it.” She opened a suitcase at the foot of the bed and extracted a bag of instant noodles. Catching the red plastic between her teeth, she stole a sidelong glance at Arnold. “Um, I’m sorry, was that supposed to be a date or something?”
Arnold sucked in a breath. “No, no, I just—” He broke off, reluctant to confess his loneliness. She raised her eyebrows, prompting his response. Arnold sensed the fact of himself—a strange man with sparse hair and smudged glasses—hardening in the room, becoming a thing. He straightened his jacket and apologized, “I was just going. Have a good night.”
“Wait, hold on—I’m sorry—that sucked. You okay? I kinda heard that about your wife.”
“Right. Touchy subject. I get it. My mom pulled one over on my dad.” She padded into the bathroom and returned with the camping stove. She placed it gingerly on the table and dialed the gas burner until a blue skirt flared up under the pot. “Don’t worry, once she signs the divorce papers, it’s a whole new life for you. Maybe you’ll marry a catalogue model, like he did.” She smiled wanly at Arnold. “I’m Charlotte, by the way. Thanks for not selling me out to your dick manager. You can hide here for a couple minutes, if you want.”
He accepted her small kindness, a balm. “Arnold. Thanks.” He smoothed the front of his red checkered shirt. Lowering himself onto the edge of the bed, he considered the room, the walls pockmarked from the fists of lovers and drunks, the faded paintings of tropical birds. It had been a long time since he had entered one of the rooms at the inn. The weariness of the place surprised him. He had fallen in love with June in a place like this in Las Vegas: he, winning the pot with just a two pair hand, and she, a cocktail waitress with a sweetheart neckline. They had rented a room at the Four Queens and discovered each other with the awed slowness of desert walkers finding water, at last passing from the utter stillness and heat of life. It took years to reach the edge of the mirage. By the end, after false positives and other people’s baby showers, Arnold suspected that it was his fault.
Arnold watched Charlotte prod a brick of yellow noodles into the water. Her quick, childlike movements, anchored by the weight in her stomach, inspired a tenderness and jealousy in him. He had longed to see June just like this—heavy, self-satisfied, her flushed face shaped like an upside-down egg. He still did.
“Actually, the trouble is—she’s trying to serve me the papers,” he said, wagging his head in disbelief. He caught Charlotte’s face puckering with confusion and laughed dryly. “It’s hard to understand for my buddies, but I know June. I know that she belongs with me, and I know that, given time, this will all even out. I don’t know. You probably don’t want to hear this.”
“You don’t think, like, she’s fallen in love with the guy?”
Arnold reached over to the bedside table and absently prodded the buttons on the telephone receiver. It was a possibility he wrestled with every night, and one he never let win. Come morning it was always clear that June just hadn’t thought about the family they could still have. They could save up, go to a doctor. They could adopt a child. Clapping his hands together as if to squash the subject, Arnold said, “Congratulations, anyway. You’re what—four months along?”
As if his noticing exhausted her, Charlotte slid sideways into a wooden chair. “Yup,” she said, and her black bangs caught in her eyelashes as she blinked into a swamp of private thoughts. “Maybe they’ll put me on an episode of Teen Mom. That’ll pay for diapers.”
“It’s a gift, Charlotte.”
Charlotte smiled like it wasn’t the first time she’d heard it. “I married Benny when I graduated last year,” she said, her face suddenly brightening with youth, the rash of pimples across her chin more triumphant. “He swore he’d take care of me, and any baby that came along, too.” She giggled, bit her lip. “It was actually his idea to rescue that dog outside, you know, for baby practice.”
“That dog outside.”
“Shit.” Charlotte grit her teeth, then rose with a grunt. “Yeah. Well, I figured it was some hotel man coming up the stairs after Atlas freaked out at the TV, so I hid him out there,” she explained, unlocking the front door. “We’re cool, right?” Arnold joined her at the threshold and leaned out into the frigid air. It was like pressing his face against a still blade. At the end of the balcony, at the top of the far stairwell, was a black dog, crouched and misshapen in the darkness.
“Atlas,” called Charlotte in a stage whisper. “Come on, boy!” No movement, no tinkle of dog tags. “Kid fell asleep in his little nest,” she muttered, stepping into the cold.
As Arnold approached, he realized that the black shape he had seen was not a dog at all, but a duffel bag. Except for a jumble of shirts and a gnawed plush bumblebee, it was empty. Charlotte chafed her hunched shoulders with her hands and surveyed the parking lot. Her breath came jerkily through chattering teeth. “He probably went to go take a piss,” she said. Across the street, two red taillights swam towards the diner.
“What kind of dog is he?”
“A boxer.” Charlotte wiped her nose with a finger. “He’s dark brown, got white spots. They look like continents.” She walked along the balcony, clicking her tongue, then descended to the parking lot. Arnold followed her as she wove between the cars, their bodies reflected darkly in windshields blinded with frost. Somewhere, a vending machine grunted. The sound startled a desert cottontail that streaked across the asphalt into the black landscape behind the Starlite Inn, where the train tracks ran. Charlotte spun to watch the rabbit’s panicked escape, her nose pointed in the air like a dog’s, and started briskly after it. “Atlas would never leave me,” she said, more to herself than Arnold. “He’s just a dumb puppy on some rodent’s tail.”
Arnold trudged after her. He felt, oddly, like he owed her something. Their shoes crunched through the pebbles and dry grass as they left the parking lot, and out of the darkness the sudden brambles of white bursage clawed their legs.
“Atlas!” she called intermittently, her voice rasping in the dry air. Creosote brush rattled its spiny fingers in the wind.
Arnold shed his jacket, and Charlotte untucked a hand from her armpit to receive it. “Thanks,” she croaked. The jacket waistband swung around the tops of her thighs; the extra length in the arms flapped uselessly through the brush.
Eventually, their eyes adjusted to the moonlight; the silhouettes of Joshua trees and their many furred heads maintained a dim celestial glow. When Arnold lifted his head, his eye instinctively found Betelgeuse, the red shoulder of Orion, and the seven distant faces of the Pleiades. During their early years he would bring June to an outcropping of Aztec sandstone to sit, knee grazing knee, under a coarse blanket. He would feel her gaze and turn to watch her features form in the darkness, like watching the stars come out in someone and naming the constellations.
“I shouldn’t have brought him with me,” said Charlotte, her voice low with misgiving. She picked at hair that had blown into the corner of her mouth. “I just couldn’t imagine moving down there without Atlas.”
“Where are you headed?”
“San Diego. I left before Benny could get home. Plan is to spend Christmas with my cousin and stay on her couch until I know what to do. Or until she kicks me out, whichever comes first.” Charlotte retracted her arms from the sleeves of the suede jacket and hugged herself. Arnold could see her hands traveling over the globe of her stomach. “It’s not that I’m a bad person,” she announced. “A person who splits. It’s just, like, how is he supposed to be a dad if he can’t even hold down a job? The last gig he landed, he got fired for yelling at the manager. Before that, he got caught stealing money from the cash register. Sometimes he’s like, basically a baby himself.”
“No one called you a bad person.”
“Like, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to trust someone who takes a ten-dollar bill when he knows there’s a fucking camera on him? A ten. Not even a twenty.”
“It’s not even the type of thing where he doesn’t care. When he found out I was pregnant the first thing he did was crack us a beer to celebrate, but then after like, two sips he locked himself in the bathroom and came out five minutes later with his eyes all red.”
“Just a minute, Charlotte. Do you hear that?”
She stopped talking and turned in a half-circle, running both hands through her hair. “Hear what?” she snapped. Just then, the sharp yipping of coyotes rose on a distant terrace, followed by a dog’s single bark.
Charlotte broke into a run. “Atlas!” she yelled hoarsely. “Atlas!” Arnold hurried after her, thrashing through the vegetation and catching nicks on the back of his hand. The soles of his boots rolled forward over loose stones. He had almost caught up when Charlotte shrieked and fell to her knees, palms scraping through the sand.
“Careful!” he cried uselessly, lifting her by the arms. He spotted what she’d tripped on and bent to disentangle her from the old fencepost twisted in the ground, freeing her pants leg from the coil of barbed wire. He heard the rumble of an approaching freight train. Charlotte sprang up and brushed him aside.
“Atlas!” she hollered. She issued a violent cough before cupping her hands and calling again, but this time a mechanical train whistle blew through her voice. The headlights illuminated forty yards of harsh terrain before dragging back the night; the sound of boxcars clunking past turned in Arnold’s chest. Breathing heavily, he watched the cargo lights blink over the rails. Out of habit, a childhood ritual, he counted the number of cars that passed—ninety-five, a hundred—and then they were gone, leaving the desert to its alien stillness.
Charlotte sniffled. Wiped her palms on her thighs. “He’s gone,” she said. “I’ve lost Atlas.” She looked at Arnold in the dark and nodded slowly, agreeing with herself. “I’ve totally and royally fucked up.”
“He might turn up,” Arnold forced himself to say.
“Yeah,” she scoffed. “Like you believe that.” She crouched down and muffled her voice in the cradle of her arms. “You know, at the shelter, we had to fight to take him home. They looked me and Benny over and knew right then: nuh-uh, it wasn’t gonna work.”
She raised her head with a sharp inhale and continued, “Yeah, sure, great idea, Charlotte! Go ahead, walk out when things get rough. Sounds like a real solution.”
Arnold was standing again at the foot of the bed in that squat pink house. He was watching his wife turn over in sleep and reveal the freckled top of a naked breast. He was retracing his steps through the hallway of a house that was humid with sex and sleep, returning to his car, reclining in the seat that still carried the warmth of his previous life. It was again the morning that he had pounded the tabletop while his wife formed those resolute words—it’s over, Arnold, let’s stop pretending—though he had ordered her not to, insisted that she stop.
“I wish my wife felt the way you did, Charlotte,” said Arnold, and was surprised at his vision clouding, finally, with the small tears that he had forbidden because to cry would mean that it was all over. He shivered, feeling the desert grow endlessly around him.
“You probably deserve better,” she said. The suede material on her body smelled both strange and familiar, like a family member wearing new cologne.
Arnold removed his frames and wiped the glass clean on his sleeve. His body ached from being in the cold, and he clapped his hands to get the blood moving. “I have to get back to work.”
Charlotte pinched her lower lip with her fingers. “I think I’ll stay out here a little longer.”
When Benny pulled into the Starlite Inn two hours later, the sky was beginning to lighten and Arnold sat on the curb outside the lobby with a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He watched a gray hatchback veer into the parking lot. It had bumper stickers plastered over the backside and a greasy takeout bag shoved over the dashboard. A thin man in an oversized hoodie and a beanie, Benny slammed the car door and glanced around with deep-set eyes. He took the stairs to the mezzanine two steps at a time. Before he could knock, the door flung itself open, and Charlotte appeared in a breathless rush, her red-rimmed eyes closing against his shoulder as she collapsed into him and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was such a coward, I’m sorry.” Arnold sucked at his coffee, lidding his eyes against the steam. He herded an ant with his boot heel. As the door to room 28 shut again, he stood and rattled his car keys in his hand.
The time was a half hour before sunrise. He owned the road. A blush was rising behind the desert peaks, and the skeletal shadows of vegetation crept across the land. The radio played a static-pocked version of The Little Drummer Boy. He felt clean, rinsed out. He thought of June but tried to unlearn her: her slow smile when she used to wake next to him. Her throaty voice singing Ma Rainey. Arnold turned up the volume and focused on the orange flush of the desert, the straightness of the land that always trued his thinking.
Then he saw it: a brown thing limping by the far side of the road. Arnold jerked forward to peer through the streaked windshield, swung his car wide in a U-turn, and parked in a flurry of dust.
“Atlas!” he hollered, pushing the door open. He’d forgotten to unbuckle the seatbelt and struggled to free himself. “Atlas!”
Dust had mixed with the dried blood on the dog’s coat. Charlotte was right: the coloring resembled white continents on dark parchment. Atlas growled as Arnold approached, but his wrinkled face still carried the wide-eyed uncertainty of puppyhood. The boxer stumbled backwards and drew lines of retreat in the dirt.
“It’s okay, boy,” said Arnold, holding out a palm for the boxer to sniff. “It’s okay. Yeah, the coyotes got you, didn’t they?” He winced at the dog’s open wounds, loose fur falling into upwelling blood, and then examined its front leg. Here, the flesh shimmered an angry red, and bone was visible near the knee. “Yeah, they got you good.” Arnold spread his jacket over the ground and wrapped it around the quivering dog, hushing him as he worked. With a groan, he gathered Atlas into his arms and lurched towards the car. He arranged the dog in the passenger seat, where Atlas moaned and rolled eyes that glowed amber in the oncoming light.
“You’ll be okay, Atlas. Just sit tight.” Arnold jogged around to the driver’s side and yanked the door closed. With the nose of the car easing back onto the asphalt, he noticed his white knuckles on the steering wheel. The fingers were marked with blood. Arnold loosened his grip and waited for the dizziness to pass, the nausea of quick sadness following joy. That was what his life would be now: starting and stopping, and starting again. The thought filled the car with the smell of pinewood. Arnold breathed the fragrant air and listened to Atlas panting beside him. “Let’s get you fixed up,” he said, and let the weight of his boot lean into the accelerator.
Jenny Xie was born in Shanghai, raised in Orange County, and fully realized in the San Francisco Bay Area. She now lives in Baltimore, where she is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Monarch Review, Riddle Fence, Bound Off, and Ninth Letter Online, among others. Her short story “If You’re Reading This” won the 2014 Driftless Prize in fiction.