Matthews looked like a ship captain, a man of responsibility and swagger that pushed 100,000 tons over the ocean. He wasn’t though. More huckster than hero, Matthews plied the lumber yards of the Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula selling parts for machinery. He didn’t see the mountains anymore, only the asphalt ribbon that took him between customers. For the last couple of hours, Matthews spun yarns at a tavern across the highway. When the audience moved on, he watched the motel’s red amber red sign blink and explained to the bartender just how crooked divorce judges were. He was bored and just a little drunk when he made his way across Highway 101. It began when he leaned a hand on the dresser mirror to hit the TV’s on button.
He blinked, straightened and steadied himself. Gone was the bulky television. Two handsome crystal lamps marked the corners of a large and expensive chest of drawers with jewelry boxes, tie clips, and lose money. Deliriums were always a fear but he hadn’t had that much to drink tonight. Not like sometimes.
A groan behind him sent chill bumps up the short hairs of his neck. He glanced in the mirror and saw a wide rumpled bed with two sleeping strangers.
“Sweet Jesus,” he whispered.
A man in his middle years, balding and bloated snored on his back. An equally heavy woman, with disheveled bottle dyed, blonde hair buried her head deeper into the pillow. Matthews surveyed his situation trying to find the advantage. He was a self-taught salesman that survived by rarely missing an edge if he could find one.
He crept to the bed. The woman conveniently rolled his way. Once a looker, now gone to seed, she was unable or unwilling to battle time. Sheer material swelled under the pressure of large breasts. He thought to caress a nipple but stopped unwilling at the moment to test the mercy of the gods.
A rim of light surrounded the bathroom door. Matthews peeked in. “What the hell?” he muttered. This wasn’t the first time he’d stayed at the Super 8 and he’d never been offered a room with a Jacuzzi and exercise bike. Marble and mirrors were everywhere. He stared into his own haggard face over the pink sink. Too many boilermakers, he thought slipping back into the bedroom
Electronic gadgetry and a large, thin screen were on one wall. A half dozen chrome and plastic components were stacked on shelves that Matthews didn’t recognize. Each device glowed with tiny numbers of pastel blue or green. Soft music played from somewhere in the room. He touched an arrow and the volume increased. He moved his finger the other way and the room fell silent. One of the sleeping strangers moaned but did not wake.
A clank and rap stilled Matthews’ thoughts. Both sleepers stirred. The rapping, slow at first became rhythmic. He breathed in relief. The thermostat was calling for heat, that was all. The furnace answered and metal ducting expanded. During the winter season in the Pacific Northwest, the sound of a house heating and cooling was as common as waves on a Florida beach.
Matthews lifted the man’s wallet off the bureau when he first smelled the smoke. The glowing dials and meters went blank at the same time the light from the bathroom died. The noise from the ducting grew louder and something crashed downstairs. He dropped the wallet and went to the hallway door. The knob was warm to his touch as he pulled.
“Oh shit,” he said at the sight of the downstairs living room roaring in flames. The ceiling was on fire and drapes burned. Black smoke curled and danced up the staircase. He slammed the door shut. This is all a dream?
The temperature in the master bedroom was increasing by the second. Sweat broke through his hairline and ran into the gritty collar of his shirt. This doesn’t’ feel like a dream.
The moment before he touched his fingers to the mirror, he thought of the sleeping figures behind him. He did not want to hear the voice inside his head. Both were deep in their slumber.
How are they going to get out? If I wake them, this guy might go crazy and try to stop me. Then we all die.
He took a breath and yelled, “Hey! Wake up!” No one moved. “Wake up, god damn it! The house is on fire.” What’s the matter with these two?
Matthews grabbed a covered foot and shook it hard. “Wake up, damn it all to hell!” He glanced at the smoke that wound into the room feeling the panic growing.
The man sat up. “Huh? What?”
Matthews stepped back and stammered. “Look, you don’t know me…”
“You see, I was standing in my motel room…”
“What’sa matter, Pumpkin?” mumbled the woman deep inside her pillow.
“I don’t know. I thought you were trying to wake me.”
Matthews was impatient and scared. “Look, you two. I’m sorry about being here.”
“It’s funny,” said the man. “But I swear, you were trying to wake me up.”
“Sleep,” mumbled the woman.
“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed, lying his head back down on his pillow. “Sorry. Damn it’s hot in here.” He kicked the coverlet away. The man settled and rolled on his side. “Hmm,” he said lifting up on an elbow. “Honey? Did you turn out the bathroom light?”
The woman didn’t answer. Matthews did. “Good Christ!” he yelled. “Look around, you god damn idiot! The electricity is out. Your phone is probably dead. Your god damn house is on fire. You-are-going-to-die!”
“Huh?” said his wife.
“The bathroom light. Did you turn it off after we went to bed?”
“No. I got to get some sleep, Orin. Please.”
“Sure, sure.” The man rolled over but spied his wall of electronics. “The power is off,” he said. The battery fire alarms finally went off with a screaming bleat.
“Holy Jesus!” Smoke poured from under the hall door. “Margo, wake up!” His brain put it all together. “The house is on fire!”
The woman rose with a scream, while the man ran to the door. He reached for the doorknob and Matthews slapped it away.
“No!” the salesman screamed. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You open that and we all die!” To allow the oxygen hungry fire access to the room meant an explosive back draft that would kill them all.
Confused, the man tried again. Once more, Matthews slapped away his hand. “No!” he yelled.
“Orin!” screamed the woman, clutching satin sheets to her breasts. “We gotta get outta here!”
“I know, I know! The door. I can’t.” He looked at the handle. “It’s too hot.”
“Right, Bozo,” Matthews said. “How about the window?”
“The window,” yelled the man. “Come on!”
Unseen and unappreciated, Matthews touched the wall mirror. Dread and terror shook the foundations of his soul. Nothing happened. He looked around readying himself for the window and escape. The two confused rich people were no longer in the room and he was on the cheap motel bed, dressed and wearing the same rumpled white shirt.
“Holy shit,” Matthews said, wiping sweat from his stubble face. “What a dream.” The glow of red amber red from the motel sign reflected in the early morning mist. He would stick to beer tonight. Whiskey made bad dreams.
The parts salesman rose, showered and rotated rumpled clothes out of a suitcase. His appointment was at seven, a lousy time. Owners were busy with kick starting their operations. Log truck drivers arrived demanding lot workers get to them right away. Huge log tractors and skidder loaders belched diesel smoke and paid little attention to anything smaller than them. Confusion reigned in all early morning sawmill yards but owner Marx Swenson was a friend of twenty years. At other locations, this wasn’t the best time to have salesmen call. Owners could not be blamed for dismissing bothersome distractions. Not Marx, though. He and Matthews went way back.
The dash clock said 6:45 when he pulled the Buick into the gravel lot. A diesel monster with a load of logs rumbled nearby. Matthews didn’t even notice. His mind was on the meeting and he needed to be sharp. He heard rumors that the owner’s kid would soon take over. Marx had a little heart attack a month ago and may soon quit the business. Matthews made a mental note to ask after the kid. Survival in the wood chipper trade meant never missing a trick.
“Good morning. I’m Marx’s seven o’clock,” said Matthews. He noticed that the young receptionist could certainly fill a sweater.
“Have a seat, please,” she said. Mathews followed her lavender fingernail to vinyl chair.
“Sure, sure,” he said. “Where’s Patricia? She have the day off?”
“Mr. Swenson is on the phone. You’ll have to wait.” She pecked two more keys and looked up at the screen.
“No problem,” he laughed and grabbed up a magazine. This was a first and he’d be sure and let Marx know. He clenched his teeth. The front office staff should know how to tell the difference between a piker and just any old salesman.
Mathews burned through three cigarettes flipping and re-flipping the pages of the same Field and Stream. When a pudgy, young man stepped out, he ground out the fourth and stood. This was Marx’s kid, he thought. Same yard high forehead. Same ‘holier than thou attitude.’
“Come on in,” the young man said with a glance at the smoking ashtray. “You ought to quit. My Dad smoked and it didn’t do him much good.”
“Bad habit,” Matthews replied. “Absolutely good advice.”
“I’m Orin Swenson. You’re from Precision Cast Chipper, correct?”
Mathews nodded about to hand over a business card.
The other man shook his head and dropped into his chair. “No thanks. We’re buying from Garrett, now.”
Mathews took the facing chair and sat. “But you’ve always been our customer. I don’t understand.”
“That was before, Matthews,” Swenson said. “That was when my Dad ran the outfit. I’m in charge now and things are going to be different. No more good old boys. Best price means best value. Friendships come later. That’s how business rolls these days. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, of course. By the way, how is your…”
“Doing fine,” Swenson said with a wave of his hand. “He’s at home. I hope you haven’t wasted your time. It’s been only a couple of days since I decided to make the switch. No time to let you know.”
“Garrett is a good company, of course. But I think you’ll see that our prices are only slightly higher while the quality, especially in chipper bits, is much, much better. In the long run, the best value….”
“I’m not going to argue with you.”
“No, no,” Matthews said. The situation roiled away. “I’m not arguing, really. I’d love to do a side by side comparison for you. In this way, you can make an informed business decision.” He misread Swenson’s hesitation as consideration and bent down to draw out a brochure from his briefcase. “It should be pointed out when annual down time is considered, Garrett blades take nearly twice the hours to replace when compared with Precision’s. Ours last longer and frankly, time is money.”
“Jesus! You salesman. My mind’s made up.” Swenson crossed arms over his middle and eyed Matthews. “I’ve placed the order with Garrett. Maybe in a year, I’ll run the numbers. I may entertain some suggestions from you then. Not now.” Again Matthews offered his card, but Swenson waved it away. “You get back in contact with my secretary. She’ll let you know.”
“By the way, where is Patricia?”
“Margret is my receptionist.” The younger man stood and offered his hand. Matthews matched his movement. Swenson sat down with a single, perfunctory pump.
In the small waiting room, Matthews dropped his card on the receptionist’s desk. “Mr. Swenson would like me to call on him in a couple of weeks. Would you keep this on file for me?”
“That’s not the way I heard it,” the young woman said. “But I’ll keep it to make you happy. You call me and I’ll let you know when.”
Matthews clenched his teeth. “Sure. Wonderful! Thank you, Margret.”
Her lavender fingernails dropped the card into the top drawer of the desk.
Matthews called on another customer and then checked back into the Super 8. Just a few cars were in the parking lot, so he asked for his old room. A drizzle was falling and tendrils of fog swirled behind fast moving cars. In this corner of the Olympic Peninsula, rain in all its many forms was commonplace. His anger over the morning never quite passed. He barely managed not to piss off the next call on his list. That meet was just a pump and squeeze but it still didn’t go well. They talked about a yard in Port Angeles up the coast that was having a problem with its Garrett blades. Matthews decided to delay and make a cold call in the morning. Timber was a small world and word got around. If he could snag this other customer away from Garrett blades, Swenson might decide he’d screwed up and give him a call.
The restaurant wasn’t quite serving dinner yet so he ordered eggs and bacon with a half dozen slices of rye toast. He ate and for the next six hours consumed beers in a far corner of the old tavern. He watched other patrons come and go, and only moved when he used the bathroom. He grew angrier as he become drunker.
At about ten o’clock, he rose, paid for his last beer, and left. The cold Pacific Northwest mist was a steady downpour now. He turned the collar up on his jacket, waited for an interval in traffic to run across the highway. The room was chilly and damp so he flicked the thermostat to high and left the lights off. The red amber red of the motel’s cheap neon sign reflected into the room.
Matthews did not doubt for a moment that he was justified. His fury was full and ugly as he touched the mirror. Hackles stood on end. There before him slept older versions of the young owner and his secretary. Matthews peered at a plaque hung on the wall.
“Screw you,” he breathed, in a low voice. “I don’t understand all this, but you fuckin’ deserve it.”
The furnace was clanging. Smoke puffed under the door. Matthews stood at the wall watching as the two slept. The bathroom light flicked out as the Christmas array of dials and lights died. The reflection of orange flames danced against the windowpane. The sound of hissing was all around him as fire consumed and demanded more air. When smoke finally curled down from the ceiling, escape was impossible. Even as the heat grew, the couple remained asleep.
Matthews wavered for a moment. He contemplated his role as a traveler, an observer, maybe a murderer, but no longer a participant in fate. He touched the mirror and rolled over in his warm motel room. “Oh God, that was so real,” he said aloud in the dark watching the red orange red neon reflection in the mirror. “So real.” He called the front desk informing them that he would be staying through the week, then turned over and fell asleep.
“This can’t be happening.”
“Shut up,” he whispered. “You’ll wake him.”
“He’s been drinking,” she said. “Smell that. Yuk!”
“Be quiet. Don’t you recognize him?”
She shook her head.
“That’s that old fart that got canned from Precision. I tossed him out a couple of times. He was slipping Dad money under the table from marked up chipper parts when I took over.”
“Could be, but I don’t know,” said the young woman.
“Jeez, Margo, you’re hot.” The young Swenson licked his lips. “I want to give it to you right here and now.”
She giggled. “How did we get here, Baby? That was really some trip!”
“Keep your voice down,” said Swenson laughing. He fondled a breast as Margo moaned and rubbed next to him.
“Oh, that feels good.”
He turned his attention to the whiskered old man. “That bastard didn’t age very well, did he?”
“Honey?” said Margo pushing away his hand. “I smell smoke.”
He looked at her large breasts. “I don’t smell anything. Come on, let’s do it.”
She pointed at the wall. “Look. There!” An aging wall heater’s electric lines smoldered against the paneling. “It’s burning.”
“Oh, shit,” said Swenson rubbing his hands together and taking a step toward the unit.
“No!” commanded Margo. “Don’t go near it. It might explode or something.”
“This is not good,” said Swenson.
The blonde bounced on her toes. “Come on, Honey.” She urged. “We got to get out of here. Please.”
“We need to wake him,” he said.
“Oh, sure,” she answered. “And then, we just tell him how we got here? For Christ’s sake, look at us.” As she uttered the question that neither could answer, the wall erupted in rocketing flames.
“Sweet Jesus!” said Swenson jumping back.
“Please,” Margo said grabbing his arm.
“We can’t just leave him.”
Swenson allowed Margo to drag him toward the mirror.
The dry timbers caught and spread in seconds. The dilapidated structure was engulfed and soon consumed, ending a community eyesore and taking just one life. Dead was the ranting old pensioner whose sole worth was boring tavern patrons with wild stories of time travel. The converted senior home was to be torn down in the spring when the city fathers received urban renewal funding. Most secretly felt the life of the old man was worth the trade in exchange for a rejuvenated downtown.
The next morning’s lead story was not about the retirement home, however. A business owner and community leader along with his wife of twenty years died in a freak house fire in affluent Abita Hills. Its seems the town’s fire trucks were committed to the burning retirement center and could not respond.
The incidents were of course, unrelated.