Monday, 6:35 PM Mendota, Illinois
The worst thing about the United States is choice, and the responsibility of choosing. Hannah had looked at the computer display, with those lovable heads talking at her. She had even responded to them. But when the two scoundrels, the young fellows who had been her work companions ten years back, started telling her what to do, she made the choice to do what she wanted.
She left. Got up from the seat, turned back to the aisle, walked from the coach and exited the train when it stopped at a station a few minutes later. She hadn’t said a word to Young Cleo and had no regrets about that. She also hadn’t answered the plea from the scoundrels, but those two stayed on her mind.
Mendota, Illinois. She hated giving up one of her stops for this place but knew it couldn’t have been avoided. She’d have to confirm a new ticket for tomorrow and find a hotel room. Hannah stepped into the train station, where a sign greeted her stating that Mendota was ‘The Best Little City in the USA’. She rubbed her neck right behind her left ear, trying to ease the pain.
“Is there a hotel close by?” Hannah asked to the back of a woman sorting papers along the counter opposite the ticket booth. The woman turned around, adjusted her vision downward, then stepped to the booth, resting her arms on its top and smiling wide. She accepted Hannah’s Amtrak voucher as she spoke, stamped a portion and passed it back.
“Welcome to Mendota. How are you this evening?”
“Well,” said Hannah. “Is there a hotel close by?”
“Why, sure. We have a Comfort Inn and the Super 8 just down the street. And, of course, we have the very best little Bed and Breakfast just up town. Everyone loves the place.”
The woman at the counter sang her words, letting the vowels swell and the consonants blend. Hannah noticed the urgent superficial happiness of the voice that hid a deep well of pain. Why did she have to know that about a woman she would likely never again see?
“Thank you,” Hannah said.
She picked up the voucher, then turned to the door, hurrying the sundown and the hunger. The ticket, she could figure out later.
“You’re very welcome,” said the woman, “hope you enjoy your stay.”
Hannah heard the last words in tandem with the click of the heavy wooden door. The hotel signs were lighting up as she reached the street, and Hannah began the short walk. A mini-mart pulled her attention. Hannah decided to go inside to purchase an extra pack of handy-wipes. Or two.
At the hotel and well into the second pack of wipes, Hannah continued her housekeeping by sponging down the bottom of her travel bag and placing it on top of the now-clean luggage bench in Room 136 of the Comfort Inn. She brought out her dinner and spread it onto the towel she had placed over the other half of the bench. She pulled the chair over to her meal, placed a hand towel on the seat, inverted each disposable glove off her fingers, dropped them into the waste basket, and fidgeted up onto the seat in front of her food. She pulled her thermos from the side pocket and unscrewed the top, extracted a tea packet from the dinner bag, broke it open and let the tea steep.
Hannah heard a bump in the corridor, and the door of the next room open and close. Someone laughed and another giggled, an interior door banged shut, and she heard water from the tap. A voice spoke. Tight consonants, long on vowels sounds, the voice might have been male or female and the words were not discernible. Hannah listened carefully, enjoying the challenge.
Where had she heard those sounds? The lilt at the end of the sentence, the ever-present question. A young voice, she decided. Nearly teen aged male, like her students, but more polite.
From the bathroom, the water ceased and a woman’s voice made a request. The voices wap-wapped back and forth while Hannah let the sounds grow fuzzy. A rap against the neighbors’ door drew several voices at once, the third voice an adult male. The door opened and shut, then Hannah heard paper bags crackle and cans pop open.
She looked back to her tea with a start, grabbing at it, slipping the bag to the top and squeezing the excess, dropping it into the trash container. She tasted. Bitter. It had steeped too long.
She began her dinner, accompanied by sounds next door. There were the rounded sounds of words being said during a meal, with gulps and smacks that littered the speaking. Hannah heard the inflection of confident English, the casual use of television language, the contraction of words and the interruption of one voice by another. The messy, messy language of family.
Finished with her meal, Hannah folded and stored her dinner bag and took her unfinished tea and the dinner containers to the bathroom along with the toiletries from her bag. She washed the utensils, then showered and dressed for bed. She arranged the clean containers to dry atop a bathroom hand towel, brushed her teeth, washed and rinsed her white shirt and underwear and set them out to dry.
Hannah took the dry face cloth from the bathroom and with it guarding her fingers, carefully folded the bedspread back. She took a folded twin bed sheet from her pack, placed it over the hotel’s bed sheet and pillow, shook off her slippers, peeled back the top layer and lay down, covering herself with her clean sheet before pulling the hotel bedding back on. She folded the cloth and put it on the bedside stand, then turned off the light. Her fingers went to the spot behind her left ear. The sound from the neighbors had been soothed by a television on their opposing wall, and Hannah closed her eyes for sleep.
Monday, 8:20 PM Mendota, Illinois
This was a bed-and-breakfast inn? Cleo had felt a bit of self-congratulating relief when Hannah had walked to the Comfort Inn, leaving Cleo the area’s only ‘B&B’ for her night’s rest.
Now, settling into her room, ‘Anabelle’s Blue Heaven’ she wished for the drab, steady, predictable scene of an American budget motel.
This room had competing air freshener scents coming off the light blue flowered pillow shams, the dark blue flowered bed spread, the cornflower blue canopy, the turquoise flowered curtain and the multi-hued carpet. Carpet? Cleo had never given a thought to paisley in a hotel room carpet and wondered how many stains it hid.
She raised her eyes to study the one window’s curtain. Plural, she decided: curtains. There was a ruffled outer sash and a ruffled inner sash. There was a chintz panel and a sheer panel and behind all that, Cleo found a blue patterned shade, pulled down.
So many layers to keep all those germs inside the room. Cleo looked unhappily at her insufficient overnight bag and wondered where was the nearest Nuxe toiletries store. Probably Chicago. Maybe not even there.