It wasn’t the kind of place where Monty used to stay when he was Salesman of the Year four years straight and at the awards dinners sat at the big table with the senior VPs and their glittering wives who all laughed at his jokes and wondered out loud how he had so far escaped the snares of some pretty young thing. In those days when he was on the road he stayed where he liked, ate what he liked, rented whatever car he liked and no one ever questioned his expense account. But that was a long time ago, before times changed without Monte noticing; before he reported to a senior VP of sales named Beth; before his accounts found cheaper ways to buy the paper goods on which Monty had built his life; and before Beth told him one frosty January morning that based on his numbers and a certain outmoded manner he displayed with accounts and colleagues, he was being invited to seek out new opportunities. It took Monty a few minutes to realize he’d been fired.
After a few stints in new firms selling new products he neither liked nor understood, he settled into the unsettled life of an independent sales rep selling office copiers and printers to small businesses. He worked on commission and paid his own expenses. So now he stayed in the budget motel chains which offered free WIFI and complimentary help-yourself breakfasts: a yellow brick of scrambled eggs, gummy strips of bacon, homely home fries, stale white bread you could toast if you were willing to stand on the toaster line forever. The coffee was good but he couldn’t drink too much of it, as it led to too many pit stops on the road. Though he could still hold his liquor, he could not hold his coffee. When he had the appetite, he’d help himself to quite a bit of complimentary breakfast in an attempt to avoid a lunch he’d have to pay for later.
And so it was that Monty found himself standing in the breakfast room of the Red Roadster Motel in Lakeland, New Jersey, a town with neither lakes nor small businesses, but close to a bigger town that had both. What it did have was a cheaper motel. Monte stood with his overloaded tray looking for a place to perch and feed. There was only one empty chair and it was at a small table occupied by a big man and a single cup of coffee. The man was chewing on the eraser of a pencil and staring down at a yellow legal pad. For Christ’s sake, thought Monty, take a whole table for one cup of coffee why don’t you. But he took a deep breath, plastered his salesman’s smile on his face, turned on the light in his eyes, something he always imagined himself doing when approaching an account or a stranger, sauntered over to the table and said, “Good morning, sir. Mind if I take a seat?”
The big man looked up at him and Monty recognized the red shadow of a hangover dull his droopy eyes. His hair was dirty blond and bushy and his face creased, as if he had slept on it. He looked around at the other tables and seemed surprised that he was not alone. He turned the yellow pad face down on the table. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry?” said Monty. “No need to be sorry, my friend. Better to be safe. Better safe than sorry, right?” He put his tray on the table and sat down. “I’m Monty,” he said and extended a glad hand.
The big man left his hands on the table. “Okay,” he said.
Monty retrieved his hand and busied it removing his multiple plates from the tray and arranging them on the table. He was a little embarrassed to see just how many plates he had. On one he had three pieces of toast and placed it between himself and the big man. “Feel free to help yourself. I mean a little toast with your coffee. I kind of took enough to share. You never know, right?”
“You never know what?” The big man seemed half-asleep. Maybe more than half, thought Monty.
“You never know what you never know,” said Monty. “Like, why did the chicken cross the road?”
“To get to the other side.”
“You’d think so, right? But nope.” Monty leaned forward and dropped his voice to a confidential whisper. “Because a hot little chick egged him on.”
The big man coughed. Monty hoped it was partially a laugh. “You look like a Tom,” said Monty.
“I’ve got an eye for names.” Monty tore open the plastic packet of ketchup and bled it on the eggs.
“I am Tom,” said the big man. For a moment he seemed impressed. But just for a moment.
“Eight out of ten times I can look at someone and know their name. And once I know a name, I never forget. I remember the name of just about everyone I ever met. And faces. I never forget a face.” But Tom did not seem to be listening. “You a writer?”
“You were writing. On the pad, right? Someone—a girl named Julie who I dated a long time ago, just once, but I remember her name, like I said I never forget—told me that Hemingway used to write in cafes. In Paris. I read something by Hemingway. The story about the old man and the big fish. But I don’t remember it. Names I remember, books I don’t. That’s why I don’t read much. What’s the point, right?”
“What’s the point?” said Tom. “You’re right. What’s the fucking point?”
A red-haired woman with three children sitting at the table next to Monty’s looked at Tom and made a face. A little girl sitting with her looked at Monty and smiled, then stuck out her tongue.
“Easy, big guy,” said Monty. “The walls have little ears.”
Tom side-glanced at the woman and children.
“Sorry,” said Tom. “I’m just fucked up.”
Monty winced. “You know what my Mom used to say?”
“How would I know that?”
“She told me when you feel like using the F word, say fudge. Said it feels the same way in the mouth and taste a lot sweeter.”
“Fudge,” said Tom and paused. “It doesn’t feel the same way. It feels fucking stupid.”
The red-haired woman hurriedly gathered her children and herded them out of the breakfast room, leaving the debris of their breakfasts on the table. Monty watched her go. “Well, she’s a dish, I say that for her. A MILF, like the kids say these days. I didn’t know what that was until a kid—well, not a kid, but a young person, a millennial or whatever they call them, you know, like twenties, told me what a MILF was. A mom I’d like to—fudge.” Monty mixed his home fries into his eggs, a trick he used to eat faster so he could hit the road. “I bet there’s a story with that MILF and her kids, you know, like a romance or a mystery or a thriller, like she’s not a mother at all but a KGB agent or something, like on TV. You write that kind of thing?”
“I’m not a writer,” said Tom.
“I thought you said you were a writer.”
“No, you said I was a writer.”
“Sorry,” said Monty. “I guess it’s because you were writing. On the pad. I just assumed.”
Tom turned the legal pad over. “You want to know what I’m writing?” His question sounded like a dare.
“Well, Tom, no offense. It’s none of my business. I’m just curious, that’s all. I’m a curious guy.”
“A suicide note.”
Monty smiled. “Oh, come on, Tom. The coffee’s not that bad.”
Tom held Monty in a red-eyed stare.
“Don’t kid me. I’m a kidder and you can’t kid a kidder.” Monty hoped for a grin, however slight, to appear on Tom’s face. None did.
“But I can’t do it,” said Tom.
“Kill yourself?” whispered Monty.
“No. I can kill myself easy. I can’t write the note.” Tom sighed. “I’m not a writer.”
Monty looked around the breakfast room. People left, people came in. Tables became vacant, tables filled up again. The old ebb and flow, thought Monty. He thought of getting up, excusing himself, and hitting the road. That’s where I belong, thought Monty, on the road. He looked at Tom. Not sitting here with some nut.
Tom leaned forward and said, “Are you a writer?”
“Oh, no. I mean, I can write, but I’m not a writer. I’m an account executive.”
“A salesman. Well, a salesperson they want you to say now. A saleshuman, I guess. Maybe that’s the new way to say it.”
“Did you go to college?”
“I did,” said Monty. “Majored in geography. But there weren’t too many jobs for geographers. Imagine that.”
“But you went to college, so you can write a note, can’t you?” A glint of hope appeared in Tom’s eyes.
Monty lowered his voice to a whisper. “Look, however bad things are, they can always be worse.”
Tom stared at him blankly.
“What I mean is, things are never as bad as they seem. They’re usually better. Even if they suck.”
“Your wife ever leave you?” asked Tom.
“No. Never had the chance. I never married.”
“You ever have a kid who died?”
“Never had a kid dead or alive.”
“You ever have cancer of the testicles?”
Now it was Monty who stared. “Jesus, Tom. I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“None of that ever happened to me either,” said Tom. “But I feel like it did. I feel like that all the time.”
Monty gulped his coffee like it was something stronger and wished it was. “Well, maybe you’re depressed.”
“I’m not fucking depressed,” Tom said, too loud.
“Okay, okay. Take it easy, Tom. Let’s just say you’re not walking on the sunny side of the street. You know, the glass half full kind of thing.”
“You know the Armenians?” asked Tom.
“They killed two million Armenians. The fucking Turks.”
“Are you Armenian?” asked Monty
“No, my family was German. They killed six million Jews. Everyone knows that. We’re used to it by now. No big deal anymore.”
“Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Wasn’t that a book? Or a movie?”
“A million Tutsi were hacked to death in Africa. That was just twenty years ago. I saw the documentary on TV. These other fucking Africans chopped them up with machetes.”
“You hear about the flesh-eating bacteria? You can get it from a cut. A little cut. Like a paper cut, for Christ’s sake. I saw pictures of it on YouTube. They eat your flesh. You want to see them? Just look on your phone.”
Tom put down his forkful of eggs.
“That’s the fucking world we live in,” said Tom.
A tall African American man in a red jacket came over to the table. “How are you gentlemen this fine morning? Is everything satisfactory? Can I help you in any way?”
Monty had chatted with the man the previous night. He was the manager. “We’re fine, thanks.”
“Do you know the fucking Tutsi?” Tom asked him.
The manager leaned toward him and whispered, “Sir, this is a family breakfast room. There are children here.”
“Sorry,” said Monty quickly. “We’re on our way out. Thanks so much. Great motel. I’m going to recommend it to all my friends. And clients.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the manager, and backed away. “And let me know if I can expedite anything for you or your friend as you check out.”
Monty waited for the manager to retreat. “You know what my Mom used to say?” Monte put up a hand. “Yeah, I know you don’t. She used to say every day is a new opportunity to make things better. I took that to heart. It made me a star, Tom. Salesman of the Year four years straight. Back in the day.”
“So you feel like a star?” asked Tom.
Monty paused. He looked down at the fat congealing on his bacon. “Yes. Yes, I do. I am a star.”
Tom paused. He looked down at the yellow pad. “I feel like a divorced guy with a dead kid and cancer in my balls. Like a Jew. Like a Tutsi.”
Monty almost laughed, but swallowed it. “None of that happened to you. Right? Isn’t that what you said?”
“They put me on pills. Big ones I could hardly swallow. They made me feel worse. They made me itch. I was itching like fucking crazy.” He stood up. People at other tables looked at him.
Christ, he’s a giant, thought Monty. “Relax, Tom. Come on. I’ll help you with your note. Okay?”
Tom looked around at the people who were looking at him. His face darkened.
“Here’s what we’ll do. There’re a couple of benches out back. Right behind the motel. It’s a beautiful day. We’ll go out, sit on a bench, get some air, and I’ll help you write your note. How’s that?”
Tom sat down slowly. “Outside?”
“Yeah. You go out there,” said Monty. “I’ve got to hit the head. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“You’ll help me write the note?”
“You bet. It’ll be great. Then you can do what you got to do. Okay?”
Tom ran his hand through his bushy hair.
“Go ahead. I’ll be out in five. I just have to use the facilities. What goes in, must come out, right Tom?”
“Here, help me with the tray.”
Monty heaped the half-full plates on the tray. Tom picked it up and looked around, then placed it back on the table.
“Good job. Now you go on. On the bench. It’s in the back. Not the front. Save me a place.”
Tom took his pad and pencil and slowly made his way out, glancing over his shoulder at Monty. Monty smiled and waved and headed for the men’s room. He waited two minutes then went to the front desk and returned his room key card.
“How was your stay?” asked the dark cheery woman at the front desk. She had an accent.
“Great,” whispered Monty.
“Do you have a minute for our survey?”
“Sorry. No can do, senorita.”
“I am Pakistani.”
“Great country. You have a great day. And keep smiling.”
Monty put on his sunglasses, ducked out of the motel and glanced around. No sign of Big Foot, he thought. He hurried across the parking lot to his subcompact economy rental, popped open the trunk, and checked to make sure he had his bags and sales kits. He got in and turned on the ignition. The steering wheel, which had been baking in the morning sun, was too hot to handle. Monty opened the windows. He checked his cell phone for calls and messages. There were no calls and one text. The text cancelled his morning appointment. “Fudge,” said Monty. Fuck, he thought. “Fucking fudge.” He sighed.
Each sales trip he made seemed worse than the last. He made fewer sales and the sales he made were smaller. His commissions barely covered his living expenses. Fortunately he lived in the house his mother left him when she died, so he had no rent to pay. But he didn’t like the house. It was old and musty, an old woman’s house. His mother had died in it, alone. The neighbors had found her. Now he lived there, alone, and Monty didn’t know his neightbors. Monty thought about his mother and his eyes filled with tears, but the tears were not for her. He felt a chill pass through him, despite the heat of the car. He shivered. It was something he often felt in the night and he’d get up and turn on the TV with the sound off and think about how great things used to be and how they were now. Then he’d have a drink. A nightcap. He’d drink nightcaps till morning.
The asphalt parking lot shimmered in the heat. That nut must be getting roasted, he thought. Not my problem. I’ve got things to do. And he felt the chill again. “Fuck.” Monty closed the windows, clicked the car locked, and headed across the parking lot, around the far end of the motel. Three benches sat in front of the motel’s brick back wall. They were evenly spaced, as if lined up for a firing squad. The benches looked out over the vacant parking lot to a hurricane fence and over the fence, just 50 yards away, was Route 3 in a haze of pollution, choked with morning traffic, car tailing car, all the way up to the vanishing horizon.
“Sorry, Tom,” said Monty and sat down beside him. “Had a little more to do than I thought. You hear about the constipated accountant?”
Tom stared ahead and clutched his pencil and pad.
“He worked it out with a pencil.”
“I figured you took off,” said Tom.
“Come on, Tom. Would I do that?”
“People think I’m crazy.”
Monty loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar. “Why? Because you think life sucks? Well, friend, I don’t think you’re crazy. Life does suck. Even if you’re doing great, sitting on the top of the world, year after year. Even when you’re a star. Life sucks even then, just not for you yet. You don’t know it sucks until it knocks on your door in the middle of the night. But you, you knew it all along, didn’t you?” Monty took a deep breath and could taste the carbon monoxide carried on the hot breeze from the highway. “You didn’t need anything to happen to you. You knew it in here.” Monty tapped his chest. “And there’s no pill for that, is there?”
Tom looked at Monty. “That’s fucking right.”
“Alrighty then. Let’s write that note. What do you have so far?”
Tom looked down at the pad. “To Whom It May Concern.”
Monty waited. Tom said nothing. “That’s it?” asked Monty.
“So what do you want to say?” asked Monty.
Monty took off his sunglasses and closed his eyes against the glare of the sun. “Write that down.”
Tom waited. He clutched his pencil.
“That’s it, Tom,” Monty said. “Great job. We’re finished.”
Monty and Tom sat still and neither said anything. The sun beat down on them. “I better hit the road,” said Monty. He didn’t move.