By the time the beds had been made, the toilets scrubbed, the carpets vacuumed but still stinking of cigarette smoke and french fries, dusk had painted his motel in dingy purple. Tom Jemmett stood at the edge of the swimming pool, inside the chain-link fence. The giant neon arrow was popping and buzzing to life above him. A hot breeze brought his hair up on its short ends and gave him a whiff of his own sweaty armpits. He stared down into the murky pool water at a fuzzy, disintegrating turd left there by those kids in room eight. He hadn't even found time to skim the bugs off the water in the last five days. The pool had always given Tom trouble. He'd have to drain the damn thing now.
He left it as it was, turning the Pool Closed sign to face the nearly empty parking lot and padlocking the gate. It was July, 104 degrees that afternoon on the bluffs overlooking the Columbia River in eastern Washington State. His guests, the few he could expect, would demand refunds.
In the office Tom's twelve-year-old daughter, Sienna, was wedged into a tight corner between the wall and the battered metal file cabinet. An electric fan blew the heat around the tiny room in slow, side-to-side repetition. He glanced at her and snapped the fan off.
"You can come out now," he said, dropping onto the stool and looking across the counter at the lobby. The plastic tree in the corner needed dusting, and he could smell this morning's now stale doughnuts, which were drawing flies to the half-round table along the wall.
Sienna emerged from the corner, pointing at the television. "Six," she said.
Tom looked at the photo on the news. A woman, bandaged, her face scratched and battered.
"Six," Sienna repeated.
He looked more closely and finally recalled the woman on TV. She'd splattered him with her complimentary morning coffee a few days back because it wasn't hot enough. He leaned over and turned the volume up to hear that she'd been mugged while visiting her sister in Portland.
"Yup, that's the woman," Tom said. Sienna's memory was extraordinary. She could point out a guest from a year ago and remember the exact room assignment. He wondered, though, if all people were nothing more than numbers to her. Did she remember their hair? The color of their eyes? Whether they smiled? "Serves her right. She was a vile woman," he said.
Sienna didn't seem to hear him. She picked up the glass paperweight on the counter and began running the tip of her finger around its circumference, tracing the vibrant colors beneath its surface. Tom imagined she'd wear a groove in the smooth glass for the time she spent enamored with it. He opened the daily ledger and checked off the rooms he'd rented the previous night as having been cleaned and made ready once again. As he jotted notes about broken lamps and leaky faucets, a tall, neatly dressed man lumbered in trailed by a squeaky-wheeled suitcase.
"Evening," Tom said, pushing the ledger aside.
"Got a room?"
"Twenty-six," Sienna echoed without looking up from the paperweight.
The man grinned with coffee-stained teeth. "I only need one."
"Pool is closed." Tom didn't want to be cleaning a room that he'd given a refund on.
"No problem. I haven't got time for swimming, anyway." He scrawled his name on the registration card that Tom slid toward him. Cologne wafted from the man, musky and thick. When he finished, he paid cash for the room, all the time smiling at Sienna, who acted as though he didn't exist. "Pretty girl you got there."
Tom grabbed the first key that caught his finger, glanced at it, and thought, What a coincidence. He handed it to his guest. "Room six. Just down the end of the parking lot in the corner." The man was still trying to catch his daughter's eye. Tom had recently become more aware of how people, men mostly, looked at Sienna. She was tall for her age and slender. She had her late mother's Latina complexion with eyes so dark they appeared black.
"She's quiet. Won't say hello," Tom said.
With a polite nod, the man was out the door and on his way, his wheeled suitcase skipping behind him on the cracked sidewalk.
Tom read the man's name on the registration card: Carl Warren of McCall, Idaho. From the looks of him, his tie and pressed trousers, Tom concluded he was a salesman. He turned to Sienna. Wanted to suggest that she say hello when people address her, but why would she start now?
Tom had checked in two more guests when Lauren Kent showed up shortly after eight o'clock and dropped a bucket of fried chicken on the counter.
"That smells good," he said, accepting a rushed peck on the lips. Lauren, a compact woman with the strength of a man, smelled like antiseptic soap. "I wasn't sure if we'd see you again. It's been . . . what . . . a week? Ten days?"
"I didn't think you'd be in the mood to cook." She brushed wisps of red hair off her sweaty face and her flat green eyes met his. "Not in this heat."
"I'm never in the mood to cook. Heat or otherwise. It's nice to see you again, though."
Lauren studied Tom, giving him her full attention and a warm, engaging grin. "If you weren't so damn good-looking I might be able to stay away for good."
"Is that your goal? To stay away?" He didn't know why he was making an issue of her long absence. He rather liked their loose relationship. So far Lauren hadn't demanded he consider marriage, an idea too remote and raw to imagine. But still, he needed a little more from a girlfriend than dropping by unannounced every seven to ten days. A little more regularity, consistency. He needed the female company to help him remember the important things in life.
"Hardly. But you do need an air conditioner. At least turn on the fan." Lauren didn't wait for Tom to do it, but rounded the counter and clicked it on with a jab of her finger.
Sienna froze as the air rushed over her bare shoulders.
Tom turned it off again. "You know she doesn't like the fan." He began placing napkins on the counter.
Lauren watched Tom without commenting, then her eyes drifted to Sienna. "Do we have to eat out here?" She gestured at the lobby and the large windows facing the parking lot and the highway beyond. The dimly lit units opposite the pool stood silent like ever-present spectators. "Can we take this back to the apartment where there's a little privacy?"
"It's a mess back there," he warned. "Spend all day cleaning other people's shit and I can't get to my own place."
"Shit," Sienna said, pulling the lid off the bucket of chicken.
Lauren scooped it away from her before the child could grab a piece.
Tom halted in the middle of restacking the napkins and looked at his daughter. He turned to Lauren. "She always tricks me into thinking she's not paying attention." He looked at Sienna again. "That's not polite and I shouldn't have said it. Don't use that word."
Sienna's gaze passed right through him.
"How are the dogs?" he asked Lauren as he set the night bell on the counter. She was right; eating in the lobby afforded them no privacy. He started for his apartment through the door at the back of the lobby.
"Cats today; it's Wednesday. Dogs on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays."
"How are the cats, then?"
"Missing all their little testicles. That's how."
"You ever get tired of taking care of people's animals?" Tom found a sour sponge in the sink full of dishes and wiped the stickiness off the dinette table in his cramped kitchen.
"Sure," Lauren said. "Although, today we had a cat with a perforated diaphragm. That was interesting. Was shaken by a dog; lucky to survive."
Tom didn't say what was on his mind straight off. She scared him a little, Lauren. Ever since she kicked his ass at pool the night they met. He was a master with a cue stick and used to being the victor, but she'd surprised him. They'd bet a beer and when he paid up, she swallowed it down within two minutes and ordered another one on his tab. It was a miracle he'd even met Lauren; he got away from his motel so infrequently. They'd been through the topic of living arrangements before. But the last time was months back. He opened the fridge and handed her a Henry's beer.
"Could move in together," he said. He wasn't sure he really wanted that, but he knew she wouldn't agree to it, anyway.
"How do you figure?" Lauren splayed her fingers, sweeping her hand widely at the single-bedroom apartment crammed with odd piles of paper and scraps of plastic. Buttons littered every surface, tiny shirt buttons, large coat buttons, yellow buttons, brown buttons, green buttons. Some were stacked in neat rows along the edges of the furniture, some displayed in geometric patterns, all sorted by color and size. There was a red nylon sleeping bag flung across the sofa where Sienna slept when she finally got tired of whatever had gripped her attention during the day.
"Sienna's a bit of pack rat, I know. But we could make it work. This button phase will pass." He turned to his daughter, who was cramming a drumstick into her mouth, grease oozing over her chin like a toddler. "You'd pick up your stuff, wouldn't you, Sienna?"
The child said nothing, and Lauren nodded as if she'd made her point.
"I'd suggest my place, but that wouldn't be practical with trying to run a motel seven miles away. Besides, Rocket is too crowded for a guy like you."
Tom believed Lauren was grasping for excuses now. Rocket was an eight-block stretch along Highway 14, with a school, a post office that doubled as the newspaper office for The Rocket Rocket, an IGA, and three bars. He imagined Lauren's reluctance had a little to do her with snobbish sense of style and design, evident in her carefully renovated bungalow, a place that set him on edge because he was afraid to touch anything, and a lot to do with his daughter. Lauren had been solicitous of Sienna in the beginning, but over the months her interaction with the child had turned to curt little statements spoken loudly, as if Sienna were deaf. They'd only been dating about eight months, but Tom had hoped that having a woman around might be good for Sienna. Lauren and Sienna's relationship had been more disappointing to him than he'd been willing to admit, and perhaps that was why he was pushing the issue. Some misguided hope that it would get better if they spent more time together. Wiping Sienna's chin with a napkin, he wondered if he even liked Lauren anymore. Maybe he shouldn't be seeing other people. Being tied to a business like his wasn't exactly conducive to meeting women or having a rich and varied love life.
"How long have we been dating?" he asked against his own better judgment.
Lauren sighed. "Can we talk about this later?"
Tom awoke well after sunup, alone in bed. He stared at the ceiling. A note lay on the pillow next to him, but he didn't pick it up. He'd dreamed of Maria again. Dreamed she was still alive, still lying next to him in this bed. He'd reached an arm around her shoulder and cupped her small breast in his hand, where he held it like some glorious treasure. The memory caused an ache in the center of his chest. Had it been Lauren's breast he'd caressed in the night, believing it was his dead wife's?
Tom became suddenly aware of the low rumble of a man's voice. He flew from bed, turning a circle in the tiny bedroom as he searched for his pants. Dressing in haste, he whisked up the note and rushed out into the living room, where he found the door between his apartment and the lobby standing open.
His salesman guest, Carl Warren, was talking to someone. Tom searched for his daughter, but her sleeping bag was in a crumple on the floor.
In the lobby, Tom found the coffee made, the doughnuts set out for his three guests. "Sienna?" he called. "Sienna?"
"She's right here," Carl Warren said, pointing at the stool behind the counter. Tom's daughter was carefully perusing the pages of a large book with bright pictures. "She's reading about Africa. I sell educational books for early readers." He pulled out a business card and handed it to Tom. "National Foundation for Literacy," Carl said. "Mostly I visit rural areas that don't have access to what urban kids have."
Tom let his breath out, aware for the first time that he'd been holding it. He took the business card, but didn't read it. Instead, he opened the now-crumpled note from Lauren.
Sleep in, baby. I'll take care of the coffee & doughnuts today. Luv, L.
He blinked at the words. Her gesture stung, only because he'd believed in that split second that Sienna had done the coffee. A silly idea.
"Is it okay if she keeps it?" Carl asked.
"The book. Can she keep it? No charge."
"Oh." Tom watched Sienna a moment. "It would . . . she doesn't . . ."
"Hey, it's okay if she just wants to look at the pictures. It's a children's book, has lots of pictures. It's okay."
Tom's stomach sank. Rare as these moments of understanding from complete strangers were, they still happened often enough that Tom believed he should know how to handle them. Should be used to them. But he never got accustomed to the unexpected urge to break down and cry. And he resented that a stranger's kindness could make him feel that way.
"She's a special girl. I don't mean any harm. I just want to share the world with her," Carl Warren said quietly. The man mercifully didn't look Tom in the eye, but kept his gaze on Sienna, who seemed enchanted with the book.
"Thank you," Tom croaked.
Excerpted from Windless Summer by Heather Sharfeddin Copyright © 2009 by Heather Sharfeddin. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.