Hunched over the wheel, Mitch squinted into approaching headlights, shaking his head to jumpstart his brain. “SUMMERLAND,” a sign read. “AN ALL-SEASON DESTINATION CITY.” Mitch had been driving all day and it was seven hours, probably more in his exhausted state, to his home on the outskirts of Ottawa. Summerland sounded fine.
He chose the second exit, hoping for the motel strip. Mitch passed the Loyalist farmhouses and perfect lines of fruit trees—apple, peach, and pear—for which the area was famous. The cherries were ready, their redness almost incandescent in the hazy summer moonlight. As the horizon took on a faint orangish glow, Mitch remembered visiting the city once on a high-school trip to an annual theatre festival honouring some dead Englishman.
Soon the rows of grapevines gave way to farm equipment dealerships and used-car lots. Streetlights appeared next, spreading a warmth over the empty parking lots of drug and grocery store plazas, as the highway became Watts Street. Mitch sat at a red light alone. The humid night air wove halos of colour around the neon lights of carpet outlets and roadhouses. He felt he should eat something, too, but wasn’t attracted to the red lipstick kiss of the Dairy Queen or the yellow glow of the Denny’s.
After the gas stations came the motels, most featuring glimmering swimming pools. The Orchard Inn needed its mint green paint replaced and there were three bikers smoking cigarettes beside their machines in the parking lot of the Coward Motel. The North American Motel looked better maintained, but was beside the red and white Kentucky Fried Chicken. Another had what were obviously long-term residents sitting out front. Mitch wanted the national chains, which provided fewer surprises.
Beyond the next traffic light, beside a cool, watery blue Chevron station, Mitch saw a Holiday Inn Express. A Super 8, a Comfort Inn, and a Howard Johnson soon followed. Mitch looked now for somewhere to turn around. Then, ahead, just before the first of the maples that covered the old centre of town, Mitch spotted the familiar yellow sunburst sign of a Days Inn. Across the street from it was an Applebee’s restaurant, a chain he and his wife, Emily, sometimes visited at home.
The Days Inn consisted of two parallel rectangular buildings separated by a swimming pool and a parking lot. Mitch pulled his maroon Hyundai up in front of the office in the building on his left. The evening air, after the air-conditioned cool of his car, was thick and smelled of exhaust. Bathed in the yellow of the overhead sign, Mitch stretched out his long limbs. The submerged lights of the swimming pool illuminated a pale green fog of humidity above the still water.
Inside the office, a chubby black girl was watching one of the new million-dollar game shows from behind a cluttered counter. Despite the chilled air, she looked hot and bored. “I’d like a room for the night,” Mitch said.
“For how long? ” she asked. The television audience broke into applause.
“One night,” Mitch said. “And just myself.” In his scrambled head he was still careening down the highway. He placed the company’s American Express card on the counter and flipped through a display of tourist brochures, thinking he and Emily could visit one weekend.
“Smoking or non, Mr. Dickinson? ”
“Oh, non. And call me Mitch, please. Reagan is my first name, but everyone calls me by my middle name, Mitchell.” The girl had a faint accent he couldn’t place—African, maybe, because it wasn’t Caribbean. He filled in his address and cell number on the card the girl had provided, thinking now that, despite her chubbiness, she was pretty, her hazel eyes sparkling and her hair pulled back into a girlish ponytail. Early twenties, he guessed, a whole decade younger than he was.
“Eighty-seven thirty-seven is your total. Will you be watching a movie? ” Mitch now saw that her blouse was missing a button, revealing a diamond of brown tummy.
“No, thanks,” Mitch said, smiling at her blunt efficiency. “TV’s fine.”
“Then you’re in 237. That’s the building opposite,” the girl said, pointing with her pen to a laminated diagram of the motel complex. “That’s on the other side of the pool. Our continental breakfast starts at seven.”
“Oh, I’ll be long gone by then,” Mitch said, as he took the card key from her.
Confronted by warm, stale air, Mitch turned on the air conditioner in his room to its highest setting as soon as he entered. He found the converter on the bedside table and clicked on the television as he flopped onto the bed. He changed the channel three times while dialling a number into his cell, settling for coverage of some seniors’ golf tour on the sports station.
Emily answered after four rings, her voice thick with sleep. “Hi,” Mitch whispered. It was a little after eleven. “Sorry I woke you.”
“Where are you? Is something wrong? ”
“Summerland. No, everything’s fine. The meeting went late ’cause they postponed it twice. I didn’t think I should be driving this tired.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Emily breathed into the phone.
Then there was a pause, during which he lowered the volume on the television and flipped the channel over to one of the new sitcoms set in the nineteen-seventies. Same shows as what he got at home, just in different places on the dial. Mitch kept flipping. “How are my girls? ”
“I got Liana down as usual, but Erin wanted to wait up for you. I told her that wasn’t going to happen, but you know how she gets.”
“Tell her she’ll see me after lunch tomorrow. And I’m sorry you got stuck being supermom for a couple of days.” On the television was footage of an overturned tractor-trailer Mitch had passed a few minutes before leaving the highway; he’d found the local news station. “You go back to bed, honey. I’ll do breakfasts for the next week.”
“O.K., deal. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Emily said before hanging up.
Mitch watched the coverage of the truck wreck, then stared blankly at commercials for grocery stores and an American amusement park. Sinking deeper into the floral duvet, Mitch wondered if he were wound too tight from driving for sleep. He removed his shoes and socks, then his shirt, feeling his flesh grow cold in the chill pumping from the air conditioner. The news anchor returned, a handsome, sandy-haired fellow with freckles. He reported on a smog alert for the elderly and then threw to the station’s meteorologist, who was none other than Gillian Beer, Mitchell Dickinson’s former high-school sweetheart.
Or was it? Mitch slid to the foot of the bed. Gillian’s curly blond hair was now cut short, but Mitch could see it was Gillian, even on the television, from her deep green eyes. Her face was fuller, too. He listened as she bantered—in slightly deeper honey tones than he remembered—with the sandy-haired anchor before launching into her coverage.
“Muggy weather will continue,” Gillian was saying. Ten years, Mitch was thinking. Ten fucking years. No. Ten since he’d last heard of her, when he left for Vancouver, but more like fifteen since he’d last seen her. Now all of her beautiful hair was gone and she was in a peach pantsuit.
There were commercials on again, one for a used-car dealership, another for a fundraising draw for the local hospital, and Mitch realized that the complete weather was yet to come. How did Gillian Beer become a weathergirl in Summerland? Hadn’t she wanted to be a vet? He recalled the horse she had kept, a big bay mare she called Chloe after an aunt who had died. He couldn’t believe that he remembered so much.
Then Gillian was back on. She stood before a full-screened radar image of the peninsula and upper New York state, across which clouds swirled. “We can expect some relief by Saturday when a system of cooler air moves in from the American Midwest. So it should be cooler by Saturday for those Founders’ Day barbecues.” Mitch sat mesmerized by her voice, her presence, the way her arm reached over her head to trace a spiral of the clouds; there were things about us that we can never change.
He remembered Gill’s butter-yellow, girly bedroom with the mounds of plush toys on the bed. She only ever allowed herself to be called “Gill” when they were fucking and he wondered quickly if that rule remained intact. Mitch and Gillian had been together for the last two years of high school, but it was only in the last year that she let him have sex with her. And with others, as it sadly turned out.
“Chance of thunderstorms tonight and Friday evening. That’s normal when the two varying systems collide.” Gillian was now in front of a screen displaying the weather outlook for the next five days, her small, round hand flitting over graphics of yellow sunshine and dripping rain clouds. Mitch, however, was still in her girlhood bedroom.
As he listened to Gillian describe the expected conditions on the lake for the next few days, Mitch unzipped his fly and took hold of his erect penis. Choppy gusts to twenty-five kilometres an hour. They’d have sex immediately after arriving at her house on those afternoons, usually an energetic romp about her bedroom. He remembered how her small, pink-tipped breasts shook as he thrust into her, and how he never lasted long.
They would sleep, but hunger always woke Mitch an hour later. He would dress and drift down into the Beer family kitchen to heat soup and make sandwiches. He’d have to call Gillian a few times to get her downstairs. She’d arrive in a dark-green silk kimono, and he couldn’t get his lunch down fast enough in his haste to get her back upstairs and into bed.
Now spread-eagle on the bed, Mitch was overwhelmed by the poignancy of these memories. Sex was that comforting thing he did with Emily once or twice a week. He was surprised, too, to remember he was ever so young and allowed to engage in anything as frightening and mystifying as sex. He must have been fearless then.
Their pace was more languorous in the later afternoon. Gill often took control and seemed to enjoy herself more. They never got into the same position and sometimes, seeking a thrill, fucked on the living room couch or, once, when she was mad at them, on her parents’ bed. There was more petting and tenderness, and, on the hotter afternoons toward the end of the school year, they would soon be covered in a sheen of sweat. Mitch could remember slipping off her backside and could still taste her sweat as he pushed his face through her blond hair. Girls wore Gloria Vanderbilt perfume then, or maybe Charlie by Revlon. He got her to suck his cock and could soon expect it from her. How could he ever have forgotten the way she flipped that blond hair out of her face?
When Mitch looked up again, Gillian was gone. In her place was a late-night talk show host and his movie star guest engaged in some pointless banter. Mitch found the converter and shut the television off. Then he walked to the washroom and used toilet paper to clean up the mess from his stomach and hand. He flopped onto the bed and fell instantly asleep.
Mitch was woken by female voices speaking a language he didn’t recognize. Housekeepers, probably, which meant it was later than he had hoped to waken. Hunger pangs rumbled up from his stomach, reminding him that the last thing he had eaten was a Burger King cheeseburger on his way to his meeting in the Falls the previous afternoon. Days ago, it now seemed.
Mitch saw he was naked beneath the bedcovers, which hadn’t been turned down. The air-conditioning was off, leaving the air in the small room close and vaguely musty. He must have risen in the night, freezing cold, to shut off the air conditioner and climb beneath the covers. Now he was sweating.
Nine-thirty, if the clock radio was to be trusted. Even if he left immediately, he wouldn’t be home until late afternoon. And he had to eat something.
He called home, and after five rings wondered where the girls might have gone so early, especially without a car. Then Emily answered, breathless: “Hey. Where are you? Is something wrong? ”
“No, nothing like that. Why are you out of breath? ”
“Oh, I was doing laundry and Li Li stole that pair of tights she likes and I had to chase her around the basement because that load was ready to go in.” Emily paused to catch her breath. “Then I had to run upstairs to the phone because, if you remember, there’s no extension down there.”
“I remember. Where’s Erin? ”
“In the backyard with little Gail from three doors down. Everything fine? ”
“Oh yeah,” he said assuredly. “Except that outfit in the Falls wants another meeting. I just checked my messages when I stopped for breakfast and Turner says they want to see me back again today. I don’t think I’m going to make it home today. Sorry about this, Em.”
“No, you said this was an important account. These things happen.”
“Will you guys be all right? ”
“We need groceries, but I can get milk at the store around the corner. Mitch, I should go. I hate leaving Li Li down there by herself for too long.”
“Sure,” Mitch replied. “I’ll call you when I know what’s going on.”
Mitch went directly from the bed to the shower, thankful for the motel soap and shampoo. Yesterday’s clothes, a wrinkled pair of pleated chinos and a light-blue, short-sleeved shirt, lay in a pile at the foot of the bed. He would need fresh clothes. Razors, too. The disposable kind. He turned the air conditioner back on before he left the room.
The morning he stepped into blazed white-hot and was suffocatingly humid. Mitch blinked rapidly as he crossed to his Hyundai, then stopped suddenly to sneeze twice. There were two cars parked beside his own that hadn’t been there the night before, big new Buicks with Ohio plates, one beige, the other white.
Mitch found his wraparound mirror sunglasses beneath a pile of papers on the passenger seat. Not bothering to wait for the air conditioning, he rolled down his window and drove back along Watts Street. Traffic shimmered in the heat. At Denny’s he wolfed down the biggest breakfast he could order—eggs and pancakes, sausages, toast, home fries, and coffee. Then he drove across the street to the Wal-Mart, where he purchased another pair of beige chinos, two more blue golf shirts, as well as socks and underwear, deodorant, disposable razors, and some allergy tablets. He had to leave the checkout line to hurry back for a toothbrush and toothpaste.
It was almost eleven-thirty when Mitch parked back in front of his room and skipped around the swimming pool to the motel office. The girl from the night before was working again—or still—in the same blouse with the missing button. “Mr. Dickinson,” she said. “We were worried you’d left without checking out with us.”
“I’m going to need my room for another night. Two maybe.”
“I don’t know about the second night. We have a tour arriving on Saturday. When would you know how many nights you needed? ”
“End of the day, latest.” Mitch sneezed twice again. “I’m here for some meetings, only I don’t know how long they’re going to last.”
“That’s fine.” The girl hesitated, mulling something over. “I also have to tell you that there was a problem with the credit card you left last night. It was declined three times, so I have to ask you for another.”
Mitch pulled all his cards out, the company Amex, plus the Visa and MasterCard he and Emily used. Odd that the company card had been declined. He offered his MasterCard, confident that the company would redeem the previous night. “I’m going to try this new card first, Mr. Dickinson,” the girl said. “Then we’ll see about the additional nights.”
“Call me Mitch, please.” A cold drop of perspiration was running down the centre of his back. “What’s your name? ”
“That’s pretty,” Mitch said, though he failed to receive a smile. What he really wanted was to hear the electronic hum of approval from MasterCard. He didn’t have much cash on hand and knew the Visa was full. Then he remembered that Emily would have to charge groceries to the MasterCard. “They sure work you a lot around here.”
“I help my family as much as I can,” Aqua said in that accent Mitch still couldn’t place. “When I’m not at school.”
“Where do you go to school? ” Mitch asked. The machine hummed and clicked and the girl offered him a receipt to sign. The amount was larger than he expected, but there was nothing he could do about that now.
“In Toronto. I’m doing a Ph.D. in molecular biology.”
“Smart girl. Research, I bet,” Mitch said. An overweight and sweating old woman in lavender stirrup pants and a massive floral shirt slowly entered the office. Mitch didn’t want to stick around to hear what she had to say. “O.K., Aqua, thank you. I’ll let you know about tomorrow night.”
“And if we don’t have a room we’ll find one somewhere else,” Aqua said.
Outside again, he walked along a shadeless Watts Street, in a hot wind stirred by passing traffic, to the busy Chevron station. He purchased a city map and was surprised to find Gillian’s home number in the telephone directory at a pay phone. A few years before, a sportscaster in Ottawa had been murdered outside the station he worked at.
As her number rang, he realized he should have driven to the gas station instead of walking over; it was people without vehicles in suburban areas that got noticed. Even trees looked out of place among so much concrete and steel.
Henceforth, Mitch resolved to remain in his car. Gillian answered on the third ring, said hello twice, and then hung up.
Gillian’s home, at 729 Hancocks Street, was a new, two-storey, red brick townhouse near the lake on the other side of town. In the driveway sat a silver Acura. The short lawn against the driveway was already burnt brown by the summer sun, which was all Mitch needed to conclude that there wasn’t a man in the house. There was no sign of any person either in or outside the house, so Mitch turned around at the nearest cross street.
The television station, which was only two streets over from the Days Inn on Wiley Road, he found just as easily. It was a sprawling, single-storey complex hidden behind some pine trees in an industrial park. Both the building and the parking lot were surrounded by a chain-link fence. Mitch couldn’t imagine himself needing to get any closer to the station than where he sat parked outside.
It was two o’clock when he returned to his room. Mitch dropped onto the unmade bed and watched a Yankees-Red Sox game, reminded again of how close to the border he was. But the ball game soon bored him and, without realizing he’d done it, Mitch turned on a pornographic film. On the screen, two women and a man were having sex in a variety of positions on a deck chair beside a swimming pool. Mitch didn’t think he’d seen pornography since before he was married, almost four years ago. The man, who kept his sunglasses on, never got out of a prone position in the deck chair, the two women, their bikini pieces hanging off their necks and thighs, moving over him.
The scene ended abruptly when the man orgasmed. Another started, this time just one man and one woman on a living-room couch. Mitch thought the woman, a pale, thin redhead, was very pretty, but was somehow repulsed by her activities. He couldn’t understand how a woman could so easily enter into intimacies with a man who had probably been a stranger half an hour before. Her willingness seemed to cheapen the sex Mitch had enjoyed in his life.
A third scene commenced, another threesome, this one consisting of two men and a woman with unbelievably inflated and unmoving breasts. Mitch noticed that his erection had subsided. Too much thinking again, Emily would have said. Sex had always been stressful for him. Yet sometimes he suspected that he might have missed out on something, that there was part of him that wasn’t satisfied. Mitch clicked the television off.
When he woke an hour later he felt ashamed of watching the film. The pornography he’d seen when he was younger had been silly sex farces with laughable plots. He thought about Erin and Liana, how the acts of their conception were so different from what he had seen on the television.
Outside, the stifling, breathless afternoon felt stalled. The overweight woman in the lavender tights he had seen earlier in the motel office was leaning against the front bumper of the white Buick in front of the room next to his own. She was smoking a long, brown cigarette. Mitch nodded as he passed. “Pretty hot, eh? ”
“Too hot to sleep, too hot to screw,” the lavender woman laughed in a deep, raspy American voice. “Say, you one of the actors in the shows? ”
“No,” Mitch said quickly without looking back. He pulled his sunglasses on and jogged around the swimming pool.
“Should be,” he heard her say.
“Mitch,” Aqua said, genuinely and warmly, as Mitch entered the freezing office. “I was going to call your room. I’m afraid we’re full tomorrow.”
“That’s O.K.,” Mitch said. “Listen, I accidentally turned on one of those pay-per-view movies. Can I settle that now so it doesn’t show up on my bill? ”
“That’s not a problem,” Aqua said. She looked into her computer monitor. “Oh. I see. Fourteen ninety-five plus tax comes to $17.20. How do you want to pay? ”
“Cash,” he said, setting a twenty on the counter. He had only two left, but didn’t anticipate many more expenses. “So I’m gone after tonight? ”
“But the good news is there’s a room for you at the Summerland Motor Inn. It’s just as nice and they have rooms available right into next week.”
“So, do I need to go tell them that I want it or what? ”
“No, I can do that for you. So, will you be going to any shows while you’re here? The new production of Hay Fever is good.”
“Hay Fever,” Mitch muttered as he accepted his change. “Unfortunately, I’m in meetings all weekend. But thanks for the advice.” Aqua simply smiled and nodded. Mitch didn’t know what to make of that response—it was acknowledgment, at least—and so he retreated back outside.
Twenty minutes later he was parked three houses down from and on the opposite side of Gillian’s townhouse. He sat as low as possible and, despite the heat, had his scarlet company windbreaker wrapped over his head. He had rejected the same light rock and mixed pop crap he heard on the radio in every town, and was listening to Erin’s Curious George book on tape, which he had found beneath the windbreaker in the back seat. Mitch didn’t have to wait long—George had only just fallen off the big ship while trying to fly when Gillian, in faded blue jeans, sandals, and a loose white blouse, walked from her house to her Acura.
Mitch let her get out of sight before following. Gillian drove along Watts Street, toward the station. But then she turned into a crumbling, half-empty shopping plaza near the older motels. She drove up to a pink store beside a vacant unit called T.L.C.: Tender Loving Corn Gourmet Popcorn.
Mitch had difficulty hiding himself and his Hyundai. There were few other cars at the plaza and he eventually chose the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. After waiting five minutes, Mitch popped the Curious George tape back into the deck. He assumed the half hour Gillian spent in the store was an owner—not a manager or employee—length of time. And she didn’t have any popcorn with her when she left the plaza. Mitch let her go; he had pressed his luck enough for one day.
Driving by the Days Inn office, Mitch saw that Aqua was still at the counter. In his room he turned on the television to catch the stories that had made Summerland hum that day. The news was read by the sandy-haired fellow again, whose name, Mitch learned, was Dan, and the sports were covered by a young blond kid named Jody.
But it was Gillian’s show. She was in a full-length, old-fashioned lacy pink dress, a costume piece for the Founders’ Fair, which accentuated her perfectly shaped breasts. Gillian explained that, after another full day of sultry weather, storms were expected sometime Saturday evening. Until then, mariners could expect safe, if breezy, sailing. Mitch enjoyed watching her, but was disappointed that he didn’t get another erection.
After the news, Mitch drove over to the Applebee’s across the street and sat in the smoking section to avoid the many noisy families in the main dining room. He parked back in front of his room, thankful that the two big Buicks were absent, and stood to contemplate the beautiful twilight sky. Clouds low over the northeastern horizon were lit orange and red and then purple and black by the mercifully setting sun. He knew he was admiring the smog people like himself and the scary Ohioans produced every day.
Mitch stretched out on the bed and called home. Remembering that Erin had recently started answering the phone, Mitch was grateful to hear Emily’s tired voice. “Hello, old bean,” he said. “How are you making out? ”
“Oh, it’s you. Are you coming home anytime soon, Mitchell Dickinson? ”
“Not tonight. I’ve got another meeting early tomorrow morning.”
“You can’t expect me to just hang in here alone like this!”
“I know this isn’t fair,” Mitch said. The sound of Emily’s breathing changed as she walked through their house. “But I’m committed to this now.”
“Oh, I know you are. I just don’t know what to do, whether I should call my mother to come for a few days, or maybe Brenda—”
“You don’t need to call your mother. I’ll be home by this time tomorrow, I promise.” Mitch could hear splashing and squeals. “Is it bath time? ”
“Yes,” Emily said. “You picked another great time to call.”
“Let me say goodnight to the girls, O.K.? ”
“All right, you win again,” Emily said. Mitch could hear her ask who wanted to say goodbye to Daddy. Mitch only heard Erin speak, though Liana, in her defence, probably hadn’t understood the question. Then Emily was back on the line.
“Come home as soon as you can.”
“Of course I will. Saturday night, Sunday at the latest.”
Mitch found a James Bond movie on a Buffalo station. From Russia With Love, or maybe You Only Live Twice. He’d expected to feel guilty for the lies he’d told Emily, but was instead strangely calm. After half an hour he found himself fighting sleep and so he walked around the parking lot in the sticky night air. He could see Aqua in the motel office, watching television again, and skipped over. He felt like a thief.
“I thought I might have a cup of your coffee,” Mitch said as he walked toward to the kitchen area where breakfast was served.
“That’s been there all day,” Aqua said. “There’s a coffee maker in your room, you know.”
“Oh, why dirty that when all’s I want is a little cup? ” Aqua was watching the same Bond film. Mitch took his time preparing the coffee in the Styrofoam cup and thanked her before leaving the office again.
When the Bond film was over at eleven, Mitch drove over to the television station. He parked across the street in the lot of a factory, turned off his cellphone, and sat in the dark with the car windows open. He listened to the crickets chirp in the breathless, summer night air, the scarlet windbreaker over his head again. Gillian left the station at eleven-fifty. This time, Mitch waited until she was out of sight before even starting his car.
Gillian drove straight home. Mitch passed 729 Hancocks Street, turned around, and then cruised back to park four doors away from her house. He watched as the lights in the townhouse winked on and off. No one else arrived and after an hour all of the lights were extinguished. He waited ten minutes more before driving back to the Days Inn, jockeying with Friday-night teens in their cars, in another fog of illuminated humidity.
By nine o’clock, Mitch was showered and shaved and dressed in the clothes he’d purchased at the Wal-Mart. Outside, the morning was deceptively cool, though the sky had already taken on the featureless whitish hue of the last few days. Tossing his old clothes and few other belongings into the back seat of the Hyundai, Mitch suspected that Gillian’s prediction of another blazing hot day would be fulfilled. She must be pleased with her work.
Aqua was speaking with an elderly couple in the motel office, loud Americans who were demanding their change in American funds. Mitch fixed himself another Styrofoam cup of coffee. Instead of her uniform, Aqua wore a dark green tank top, black walking shorts, and sandals. It was the first time Mitch had seen her out from behind the counter. She was slimmer than he had first thought; it was just her breasts that were large. “Is that your Saturday uniform? ” he asked when the Americans finally left.
“Oh,” Aqua said. “No. I’m off on weekends. I’m just covering for my mother while she takes my sister to her football tournament.”
“I want to settle up. And what’s that other motel called again? ”
“The Summerland Motor Inn. It’s down the street toward the highway,” Aqua replied. Mitch felt his eyes drop back to her breasts. She really was a lovely girl. “But I don’t think they would be ready for you yet.”
“Oh, I’ve got more meetings and some errands to run for awhile. So what are you going to do with your day off? ”
“I’m going swimming this afternoon.”
“If you’re not doing anything later, would you like to meet for a drink? ”
Aqua froze and Mitch thought she looked concerned. “I don’t know,” she said after a moment. “I’ll have to think about that.”
“Why don’t I call you here later? ” Mitch said. He folded the receipt she handed him and slipped it into his wallet.
“O.K., that’s fine. But I’m not making any promises.”
“Sure.” Mitch was sure she’d warm to the idea as the day progressed. “Thanks for all your help, Aqua. You sure made me feel welcome here.”
“It was my pleasure. Have a nice stay in Summerland.”
“I will,” he said from the door. “And I’ll give you a call later.”
The Summerland Motor Inn was just beyond the Chevron station where he’d bought the city map. It was an L-shaped, three-storey motor court of white brick and brown wooden trim across the street from a mini golf. In front of each room sat one red and one yellow plastic bucket seat. There was another swimming pool, too, beside which two teenaged girls were sunbathing. Mitch thought he could spend the night here if he needed to.
His next stop was the drive-through of the McDonald’s, where he ordered two breakfast burritos, an orange juice, and another coffee. There was a confusing detour around the street festival and it was after ten when he stopped at a plaza half a block from Gillian’s townhouse. He would have to watch 729 Hancocks closely from that distance, but felt less conspicuous in front of a convenience store and a tattoo parlour. He settled in to wait.
In the first hour he thought about other friends from high school, only two of which he was still in contact with. After high school, Mitch worked at nothing for a few years before drifting out west for the skiing. Eventually, he enrolled at a college in Vancouver, where he got a diploma in sales and marketing. He’d had a couple of girlfriends out west, too. One, Jennifer, had told him that she wouldn’t have sex until she was married. Soon after Mitch broke it off she started sleeping with his friend Craig. Mitch had found it easier to spend his time with his college buddies on the ski hills.
When the sun became too hot on his face, Mitch took Liana’s Winnie the Pooh sunshade from the back-seat window and placed it on his own. By the end of the second hour he’d decided that he would have dated more women if he had known that almost as soon as he moved back to the Ottawa area he would re-meet Emily Green. He had known Emily in high school, too, though she was three years younger. They dated for a couple of years, in which time he got his present job with the company. Then Emily got pregnant with Erin and Mitch was a father at twenty-nine.
Down the street, 729 Hancocks shimmered in the heat like a mirage. Mitch had almost decided to knock on Gillian’s door and say hello when she left the house. She drove toward him, back into town and the confusion of the Founders’ Day parade. Mitch slipped the Curious George tape back into the cassette deck and listened as George mistakenly called the fire station. When he lost Gillian in the side streets of the detour he felt a rage well up within him and slammed his fist against the dashboard. Only after five minutes of frantic driving was he following her at a safe distance again.
But instead of driving on to the television station or the Tender Loving Corn store, Gillian turned into the parking lot of the Silver Moon Motel. It was one of the older motels Mitch had rejected, a single row of about fifteen dusty, pale-blue and white units stretching straight back from Watts Street. In the time it took Mitch to park across the street in the lot of a Kelsey’s Roadhouse, Gillian had left her Acura beside a blue Ford Bronco near the centre rooms. He wouldn’t know which room Gillian was in until she left it.
Mitch had no doubt that Gillian Beer was involved in a motel room affair. That was part of her allure. Never far from his mind since rediscovering Gillian was the memory of the evening she admitted to having sex with one of his buddies on different afternoons than the ones set aside for Mitch. He had had no choice but to quietly break up with her then. In those days her activities would have reflected more poorly on him than on her. He’d long ago forgotten how stupid she had made him feel.
After an hour, Gillian, wearing the same blue jeans and white blouse from the day before, emerged from Room 8, followed by a dark-haired man with a moustache and greying temples in a blue sports jacket and khaki dress pants. Instead of getting into their vehicles, they walked the length of the motel patio toward Watts Street. They were halfway across the street before Mitch realized they were heading for the Kelsey’s behind him.
He immediately opted to stay in his car and duck down rather than risk Gillian recognizing him on a dash across the parking lot. He stuck the Winnie the Pooh sunscreen up again and reasoned that it was unlikely she would look directly at him. But as she and her now obviously older companion passed the car Mitch stared at them. Gillian looked older than she appeared on television, and her heavily made-up face looked puffy and tired, like she had been crying. She seemed not to see Mitch or his car. He watched them enter the restaurant through his rear-view mirror.
He wouldn’t follow them in. Gillian Beer looked miserable and Mitch couldn’t blame her. She lived alone in a small city and was the aging weathergirl on an obscure little cable station. She had a failing business in a derelict strip mall. And whatever arrangement she had with the older gentleman wouldn’t allow the man to visit her at home and Mitch had to wonder how an almost-thirty-four-year-old woman could be satisfied with that.
Beyond Mitch’s windshield, Watts Street was now busy with Saturday shoppers. Mitch drove over to the office of the Summerland Motor Inn. There, a bald, hunched old man dribbling cigarette ash checked him into Room 23. Mitch’s Visa, by some miracle, was accepted. He felt a weariness settle over him as he climbed the wooden staircase to the third floor. He barely glanced around the room before flopping onto the bed.
The voices of children running by outside his room woke him. Mitch lay sweating in the dark, hot room, unwilling to rouse himself any further. The bedside clock radio read six-thirty; he had slept the entire afternoon away. He hauled himself into the washroom, unwrapped the paper from a tumbler, and swallowed some lukewarm water. Then he dug the receipt from the Days Inn from his wallet and dialled its phone number. An older woman with a thick, African accent answered. “Can I speak to Aqua, please? ” Mitch asked.
“She’s not here,” the woman answered. “Can I leave a message for her? ”
“Yeah, O.K. Tell her Mitch will call her again, all right? ”
Mitch closed his cell and sat on the edge of the bed. If Aqua returned to his room with him he would like to have something to offer her; snacks, maybe a bottle of wine. He remembered passing a Sobeys grocery store on his way into town and walked back out into the thick, wet heat of early evening. He was still tired, yet felt strangely elated.
His cell phone rang as he drove and, hoping for Aqua, Mitch answered. “Where are you, Mitch?! You haven’t called all day,” Emily demanded.
“Can’t talk right now, Em,” Mitch said quickly. “I’m headed into a meeting.”
“On a Saturday evening?! What the hell is going on with you? ”
“I’ll call you back just as soon as I know, O.K., honey? ” Mitch snapped the phone shut again.
After the warmth of his motel room and his car, the chill in the grocery store felt unnatural to his skin. The aisles were thronged with boisterous families doing their weekly shopping. Mitch grabbed a basket and found an in-store boutique selling local wines. In another aisle he chose a box of crackers, an expensive, gooey looking French cheese, and some aged cheddar. In front of a long deli counter he contemplated cold cuts, pickled vegetables, and rice wrapped in vine leaves. The twelve-dollar bottle of white wine would account for a lot of his remaining cash. Yet he was hungry now, too. He placed an order with a teenaged girl for olives and some Hungarian salami and waited.
“Are you having a little party? ” The voice belonged to a tall, deeply tanned woman with long, stringy blond hair who had slid up beside him.
“Something like that,” Mitch said. “Only I’m not sure yet. This might be my dinner.” She was wearing a purple tie-dyed dress that barely concealed her full, brown breasts. There was a tattoo of a lizard or a salamander around her left ankle and one of a rose on her right bicep.
“I hear you. I’m taking the kids over to Six Flags tomorrow and would rather pack a lunch than let them eat the crap they sell over there.”
“What’s Six Flags? ” She was older than Mitch, her brown skin almost leathery, but still an attractive woman.
“It’s an amusement park over on Grand Island in the States. I didn’t think you were from around here. Where are you staying? ”
“The Summerland Motor Inn. I’m here on business.”
“I’m Lorraine,” the woman offered her hand. “Pleased to meetcha.”
“Mitch. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Listen, if your little party doesn’t get started and you still want some company, tell Rick to give me a call for you, O.K.? ”
“Come again,” Mitch said.
“Old Rick. On the desk,” Lorraine said, slowly and sweetly. “The Summerland Motor Inn, right? Tell him to call me. You won’t regret it.”
“Oh,” Mitch said, suddenly understanding. The girl behind the counter was handing the salami to him. “No. I don’t think so. Nothing personal, though.”
“Of course. But if you change your mind, tell Rick to call Lorraine.”
Left alone again, Mitch stared blankly at the selection of salads beneath the deli counter. He had never been approached like that before, not even as a young man, and wondered if he emanated a sense of desperation. He felt sick to his stomach, like he had to use the washroom, and noticed he was sweating in the icy cool of the store. When the girl returned with his olives, he said: “I don’t need them now. Sorry, O.K.? ”
Mitch walked away from the counter to return the other items he had selected. In a panicky daze he wandered into a squabbling family as he rounded a corner. The three young children had dirty faces and one little girl was crying; their parents looked as if they hadn’t spoken to each other in months. Mitch thought he might vomit. He set the half-filled basket on top of a display of mineral water and left the grocery store quickly.
Outside, in the warm early evening, Mitch sat on a parking curb while his stomach slowly settled. The sun had begun its long descent behind the escarpment. The air was clearer now, the sky finally blue, and a strong breeze whipped up dust in the parking lot. Mitch looked into the back seat of his Hyundai and saw the clothes and toiletries he had thrown in there that morning, and, most importantly, his briefcase. He didn’t think he’d brought anything with him into the room at the Summerland Motor Inn.
He rested his head against the steering wheel, feeling calm return. What was it he had decided about not leaving his car? Mitch rolled onto Watts Street, instantly indistinguishable in the Saturday evening traffic. Along the road the sun winked in and out of the rows of fruit trees and grape vines. Just before the on-ramp to the highway he stopped at a roadside fruit stand and purchased two pint-baskets of cherries. These he ate, spitting the pits out his open window, as the fading sunlight slanted into his eyes and the day slipped into night along the many miles of highway that separated him from his home.