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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 171-180

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Better Homes and Gardens

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The boy decided he was in a time warp. No computers, no AC, no FM radio, no security cameras. High tech for the motel was the neon sign outside blinking VACANCY, and the last guest had signed the motel clerk's ledger two weeks ago.

The clerk's name was Ramirez, and the boy could swear he saw a fine blanket of cobwebs tying him to his chair. As Ramirez copied the information from the boy's driver's license into his ledger, he made no secret of the fact that he found the boy and the girl interesting.

Avoiding the clerk's glances, the boy studied the walls of the office, which looked like they had been painted with a toothbrush. The most remarkable thing about the walls were the black-and-white pictures hanging on them. Even though he was squinting, the boy couldn't make out the details of the pictures.

"What are those of? The moon?"

"Looks like it, don't it?" Ramirez smiled eagerly. "That's my hobby. I like finding places that look like they don't belong here. On Earth, I mean. That's a dry lake bed; those are sand dunes; that's a piece of petrified wood, up close."


"Yeah, I'm a photographer." From under the counter, the clerk pulled out a battle-scarred 35 mm Leica."My next series is people. The people who pass through this motel."

"That can't be a lot of people." The girl was leaning against the counter next to the boy, hiding behind her sunglasses.With her eyes hidden, the girl was not just pretty but beautiful, in an affordable way.

"But that's what makes it interesting." Ramirez pounded on the counter with his fist."Who the hell stops here?That's what I want to know."

"Makes two of us." The girl wandered to the window, her jackboots clicking on the tile floor. The sun was setting. Sunset, the boy thought, must be nature's way of having mercy on the landscape. It was an ashen, exhausted place, useful only for testing nuclear bombs and burying murder victims.

"A lot of them look like they don't belong nowhere." Ramirez's voice [End Page 171] trailed off. He and the boy contemplated each other in silence, and the boy wondered how he would look mounted on the clerk's wall. It might be fun to be the first person in the photographer's series. Fun but not smart.

"Maybe another time."The boy picked up the room key.

Ramirez flashed his eager smile again. "I'm still here if you change your mind," he called out as they left, but the only answer to his invitation was the tiny bell that rung at the pair's exit.

Their room, the boy decided, was strictly Third World. Rag-thin towels, originally white but now the shade of a light suntan. Styrofoam cups but no coffee maker and no tea, just fresh tap water. A thirteen-inch television, color but no cable. The wire antenna picked up static and news anchors who looked like beet farmers. A comforter of vertigo-inducing plaid invited guests to pass out on the double-sized bed.

"He's creepy." Lighting a cigarette, the girl flopped on the bed, not bothering to pull down her leather skirt when it hiked up her thighs. "When's Number One supposed to get here? I'm bored stupid already."

"He's probably lost." The boy sat down on the bed next to her and put his hand on her warm thigh. They had known each other for exactly two days and two hours since he had picked her up in Seattle as part of his cargo, due for delivery to Los Angeles. In his world and hers, two days was a very long time, and neither gave very much thought to what happened next. The girl had a reputation among the johns for being something special, and he found out why. She was...


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pp. 171-180
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