By Anthony Neil Smith
Too tired to keep driving. Too dark to see anything but headlights spiking our eyes like fuck. My wife had driven most of the way from Minnesota to Colorado. I can’t drive so far anymore, lulled to sleep like a baby. That left Priceline duty to me. Small print on my phone, shitty reception. But hey, it was a VIP deal. Those never steered us wrong, did they?
Once part of a popular brand, a tarp covered the original sign, with its new name sloppily painted across – Day’s Rest or Sleepy Inn or Blurry Blur, my poor eyes. It once had a hacienda theme.
The girl who checked me in looked at least eighteen but small enough to wear a kid’s t-shirt, Rainbow Brite-y or anime. Faded and ripped in a couple of spots. Grime under her nails. Short and dirty blonde. Friendly, even flirty, as my wife waited in the car.
At the tail-end of Covid restrictions, there was still a plastic divider between us, but she easily bypassed on the left hand side, dealing with me directly, maskless, no hand sanitizer in sight. She handed me key cards with wifi info, local food delivery options – all two of them, one a Domino’s – and at the bottom: Hot Breakfast, 6:30am to 10:00 am.
I love hotel breakfasts, and I’d had a two-year pandemic drought. Even little boxes of Froot Loops and unlimited coffee, I’m happy. Better was muffins, cinnamon rolls, fresh(ish) orange juice. Best of all was hot scrambled eggs, hot sausages or bacon, hot biscuits. Hash browns or American fries, either was great. Colorado seemed a hash browns sort of state. I was very much looking forward to the next morning.
I’m no hotel snob. I’m no stranger to Super 8 or Meh 6. I’ve picked out some real winners on kitsch value alone. I know well the odor of citrusy-sick disinfectants hiding smoke in non-smoking rooms. I’ve held many remotes with the batteries duct-taped into the back.
And still, this place.
We parked in the creepily empty lot.
I whispered about the girl to my wife.
“Has to be meth.”
“Tell me later.”
“But look at her when we pass by.”
But the girl wasn’t at the front desk this time.
On the way to the elevator we passed the breakfast room. The lights were off and there was a rope across the entrance, a sandwich board sign attached. It had a drawing of a fried egg on it, and a piece of paper with Hot breakfast! written in bold black Sharpie, so I didn’t bother to read the rest.
The elevator was miles from the desk. Our room was on the second floor, but the elevator was the only way up. The tile in the hallway grew wetter the closer we got to the elevator because it was so near the indoor pool. You know the way a hotel pool smells when chlorine reacts to all the piss, spit, snot, and sweat in it?
On the second floor, we followed the signs and walked more miles from the elevator to our room, on a mezzanine overlooking the lobby. The same lobby we’d started this trek from ten minutes ago.
Scared the shit out of us. A shout like that, no warning. No follow up. Some man on our floor shouting “Fuck!” as we walked by.
My wife turned to me, wide-eyed.
Here was our room.
The door was already open.
Imagine, right? As soon as you discover the door to your hotel room is already open, you cycle through fear, then anger, then self-righteous anger, then maybe more fear thinking someone’s installed hidden cameras in the bathroom.
I found the switch. Inside, even though the air smelled like betrayal – or, really, smoke trapped in twenty-year old carpet – nothing was out of place. Nothing to indicate this was anything more than a mistake. Housekeeping didn’t close the door all the way.
What do you do?
I shrugged. “It’s prepaid.”
And we were exhausted.
And hot breakfast!
For our first post-Covid vacation, my wife really wanted to visit Mesa Verde in Colorado, where ancient indigenous tribes carved entire cities into cliff sides, then abandoned them, mysteriously, left for modern people to rediscover later and turn into a National Park. It fascinated her, because before meeting me, she’d been an archaeologist, traveling the Midwest digging up arrow points and other Native American relics before big bad developers built malls or wind turbines or another Casey’s gas station – the Starbucks of the prairie.
In a few days, we would arrive, only to be told we should’ve gotten a reservation way ahead of time.
The rest of the evening was dull. Loud kids ran up and down the hallway. I watched one of the alphabet shows on CBS (FBI, NCIS, CSI). My wife fell asleep reading her Kindle. My CPAP mask drove me nuts. The hotel pillows sucked.
Didn’t matter. I had a hot breakfast waiting for me.
I’m a creature of habit. At home, I wake and head downstairs, feed the pets, and immediately start the coffee. Pop Tarts in the toaster oven, or a cup of dry kid’s cereal – Honey Smacks, Corn Pops, Count Fuckin’ Chocula – for breakfast.
Me. A nearly fifty year-old man.
I want the fastest possible tasty thing taking no effort on my part.
At a hotel, I get up, put on yesterday’s clothes, and race to the breakfast room before those loud kids and their comatose parents wreck the joint. Same in Colorado, too. Woke, stretched, blew gunk out of my nose. I jiggled my wife’s foot on my way to the bathroom.
“Get up. Hot breakfast!”
I wet my hair down because my CPAP mask gives me an effortless Johnny Rotten every day. I stepped out of the bathroom to find my wife still in bed, cocooning in the comforter.
“Hot breakfast,” I said.
“I bet there’s not. Because of Covid.”
“But they said, remember? They said hot breakfast.”
“I’m just saying.”
I sat on the edge of the bed, hands hanging off my knees.
She said, “Why don’t you check it out? If there’s hot breakfast, text me. If not, come back to bed.”
Back down the hallway, bracing myself for another “Fuck!”
None this time.
Down the elevator, the pool’s morning chlorine dump burning my nose. Almost slipped in wet patches.
I rounded the corner to the breakfast r –
It was dark.
The rope still in place.
No eggs or sausages. No kids or sleepy parents. No TV blaring Fox News. No one hogging the waffle irons.
Instead, there was a card table with a tray half-filled with hardboiled eggs in plastic Ziplocs. A woman in men’s jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, her hair a mullet, sat in metal chair. She took an egg from a stack of crates up to her waist, dropped it into a bag, zipped it, and placed it next to the others.
She looked up. “Yeah?”
I glanced at the sandwich board I’d passed over the night before.
Hot breakfast! Until further notice, our breakfast buffet is closed due to Covid-19. We offer you a complimentary breakfast bag and a hardboiled egg.
The woman waited, egg bag in midair.
“Can I have…a breakfast bag and some, um, light roast?”
“Coffee. Plain coffee.”
She got my coffee first. The cup was half the size of my usual first mug every day. “Sugar? Milk?”
Another trip for sugar packets and little milk cups. I didn’t ask for Splenda and half-and-half because I’d interrupted this woman’s day enough already.
She walked behind the buffet divider and pulled out a paper bag, scotch-taped closed, and passed it over.
“You want the egg?”
I don’t like hardboiled eggs. My wife doesn’t like hardboiled eggs. No one really likes hardboiled eggs.
She sat back down, picked up an egg, and dropped it into a bag.
On the way up to the room, I peeked in the bag.
A tiny blueberry muffin, plastic-wrapped.
A small tub of strawberry yogurt.
The elevator opened to my floor. I dumped the bag in the nearest garbage can, then poured the coffee on top.
In the room, I climbed back into bed. Slid in behind my wife, spooned up close and wrapped my arm around her.
Later we went to Sonic.
I can’t find the receipt for that hotel, or its name, or the name of the town it was in. I don’t remember passing it on our way home a week later. If I really put some effort into retracing our steps, I’d still never find it again, like the island in LOST.
Our next hotel outside of Mesa Verde promised hot breakfast, too. All you had to do was microwave one of their frozen breakfast burritos.
About the Author: Anthony Neil Smith is the author of numerous crime novels including Yellow Medicine, All the Young Warriors, Slow Bear, and The Butcher’s Prayer. His short fiction has appeared in Cowboy Jamboree Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Bellevue Literary Review, HAD. Juked, and many others. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. He likes Mexican food, British beer, and Italian crime flicks from the 70s.