Fiction

Desert Motel

On the night desk of the Desert Motel

I spend far too much time looking up from Moby-Dick to check if the moth on the ceiling has moved.

The interruptions? Trucks, at this hour. Their headlights blaze the front windows, then turn out onto the highway to dissolve into the night.

The croaking of frogs resumes.

2am. Headlights. A car this time. It stops outside. Loud voices. A door slams. The car drives off. A woman holding a handbag on the edge of the lit puddles looks up at the “No vacancy” sign.

Always difficult to know what to do. A professional onus on waiting.

Tea and toast at 1am, then a roam in the index of Moby-Dick.

The phone rings – but as it is after midnight, it will be a wrong number or a drunk. I let it ring, then look up from Moby-Dick with the staggering thought that, next birthday, I will be 49 years old.

Last night I rang an old girlfriend in Germany. I could hardly hear her. I had to shout, “Why are you whispering?”

3am. I pop out to the forecourt. The woman with the handbag has gone, thank God. A big yogic breath and stretch. Hands on hips I gaze up at the vast night. Ancient mariners got so much more out of it.

Squilgee: a swab to wash the decks: these days used to mop up the outfield of the MCG.

Season-on-the-line. The best time for hunting whales in the Equator. Since appropriated by NRL and AFL coaches and teenage prodigies scratching for wisdom before a TV camera.

3.40am. I keep a call centre operator from India on the line for an unnecessary length of time. I am amazed. She knows nothing of a film set in India that I had seen and liked on World Movies. I put the phone down still my shaking my head and return to the index of Moby-Dick.

Simon, A Syrian monk, spent the last 37 years of his life on top of a pillar. In the Kaikōura earthquake, the land dropped, then split open. A photo was taken of a cow standing on a tiny island of land, its staring head lowered into the abyss beneath its feet. Simon the monk was a “stylite”. The cow was just a cow.

4am. I sprinkle food into the aquarium. It is a delicate job. One fish died last week, and that was unfortunate. It floated to the surface at a pathetic tilt, its disappointed mouth open. I used a coffee cup to lift it out and lay it on a table napkin borrowed from the restaurant. I had a hunt through the lost property box for a glass marble to poke through the puckered mouth of the goldfish. I knew I had seen one in there. The marble was enough to weight the dead goldfish to the floor of the tank. The other goldfish dove down to inspect it. Flashes of orange and slow gulping mouths.

They were checking out when the kid pulled on his mother’s arm and she, with an apologetic smile, asked, “Has anyone seen or handed in a marble?”

Tic-Dolly-row. A facial tic. Oh, and last month a woman asked doubtfully, “Is this the kind of hotel that will take good care of a goldfish?”

Shambles. A meat market. Who would have thought? She used to say (repeatedly), “Your room is a shambles.” She (another) used to ask, “What in God’s name is wrong with you? Your mind is a shambles.”

All along, they were talking about meat. The deportment of meat. Shambles. A word that brings us closer to our cave-dwelling ancestors living among carcasses and last night’s dinner bones.

Pirohitee. Tahitian mountain in Melville’s Omoo. I recall a steep ascent through green palms to the house of someone famous (an actor? I forget who). A vast open mirrored bathroom lit up like a stage. One upholstered theatre seat where the actor? or magnate? liked to sit and watch his young naked concubine sit bewitched by her face in the mirror.

5am. Resume work on my book of lists.

Things that are morose in the early hours

Cake shops

Glass fruit bowls

The toy shop, the stuffed toys area

Office buildings

A residential street, parked cars. A frosted moon. A woman walking home alone. A raincoat, streetlight. Fragmented. Phosphorescence etc.

A homeless man carrying a wet sleeping bag in his arms.

Isolated trees in the countryside

The multiplicity of histories

Crab / seaweed / periwinkle

Sheep / cow / grass / grub / worm / maggot.

And who will speak of the ocean at night?

Flounder / whale / flying fish / octopus / herring / plankton.

Mysteries

The lighthouse keeper peeling mandarins at midnight

The dentist on her break in the back room

Plans of billionaires to leave Earth in 2046

Not unusual upon leaving the picture theatre to see 30 or 40 dogs trotting down the main street. At that hour, the dogs’ owners, fishermen, drunk, legs splayed out across their decks. Before dawn the dogs peeling off to find their own way home.

Toilets in corporate offices at night.

The final thought of the 105-year-old as she switches off the bedside light at night.

After he proposed she asked for time to think about it; she closed the door and rang her sister in Amsterdam.

Why does a word like “opprobrium” lose all its power in the small hours?

In the photo we cannot see what the small girl peeping under the tent flap can see.

6.30am. The phone rings. This time I pick up. “Desert Sands, Herman Melville speaking.”

They don’t care. They really don’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Desert Motel".

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Lloyd Jones lives and writes in Melbourne and New Zealand. His novel The Fish will be published by Text in March 2022.