It’s a few nights before Halloween, between two and three a.m., what my manager calls the witching hour. A large group of guests, already drunk, left in a cab hours ago, and I speculate obsessively and uselessly over how disorderly they’ll be upon returning. The bars closed at two, so they could be back any moment. While I hope they’re sobering up in a Whataburger or nodding off in a diner’s corner booth, I won’t jinx myself with wishful thinking.
On certain slow nights, this quiet waiting does not bring calm. Eeriness pervades, and the desk clerk and I speak of a weird energy in the air we are unable to define. The free time I love so much about the job cannot be enjoyed, but must be endured. There is only waiting, uncertainty. It feels like I’m back in Little League, playing right field. Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens. I look down and notice the browning grass. I swipe away gnats, or the dawning realization that coach put me here because I’m the worst player on the team. I’m at least better than Dav –a sudden crack of the bat, and I’m scanning the skies for the potentially lip-busting object hurtling my way. This job is a lot like that. Sure, I’m not a kid any more, and I half-ass know what I’m doing, but now it’s never the same object. Maybe it’s a couple loudly fighting outside someone else’s room, or a drunken film crew celebrating a wrap, or simply a non-functioning air conditioner.
I walk the sidewalk in front of the motel, and I stand at the corner of the block, listening. Many night shift workers complain about developing supersonic hearing, a pronounced sensitivity to sounds while trying to sleep through the day. Things previously ignored or that blended with the white noise of the city’s daily routines now become unbearable. Trash trucks, a barking dog, and construction work are the bane of the daysleeper. It’s true during my job as well. Because I actively listen for any possible disturbances to guests, I have a difficult time ever turning it off. The smallest sounds – a car door, an unknown beep or creak, distant chatter – ring out so much more in a slumbering city. I err on the side of heightened sensitivity, imagining every guest to be the lightest sleeper.
The motel keys jangle in my pocket on the walk back to the housekeeping office. Industrial-size washers and dryers line one wall, extra towels and bedding on another, and cleaning supplies opposite that. Rollaways and housekeeping carts leave just enough space for me to edge in, where I sit at the desk facing the large window overlooking the back lot. I leave the door ajar so I can listen.
The a/c hums, and a standing fan oscillates on lowest setting. The floor is slanted, and all the chairs have wheels. If I don’t tuck one foot behind a wheel, I’ll slowly creep back toward the dryers. The coffee I made earlier is cold, but it gets the job done. It’s after three, and only a couple rooms still have lights shining through their blinds.
With less than two hours on my shift, I figure I can make decent progress on my library book. As soon as I open it to the bookmarked page, I hear something. I close the book and tune fully into the world around me, eyes and ears scanning for whatever’s hurtling my way.
There’s not much more horrifying than the sound – initially unknown, but soon identified by the sight of antennae bobbing above the rim – of cockroach legs struggling for traction inside my empty coffee cup.
The ghostly chitters, like soft but subcutaneous scrapes, jolt me awake, and my body courses with something much stronger than caffeine.
The cup’s destiny as projectile flung across the room is so narrowly avoided, that this dimension is surely the only one in which porcelain shards don’t litter the floor.
I pull closed the door and quickly get some distance, while a last wave of chills slithers down my shoulders. I mention it to the front desk clerk, even bringing up the time a few weeks back, when one crawled out of my bag of sour cream and onion chips. “I’d only had one, got up to answer the phone, and when I came back, there he was crawling out of the damn bag.” He insists he’s never seen a cockroach here, but suggests writing a note to the housekeepers to stop leaving the lids off their donut boxes. A fine suggestion.
It’s my first Halloween at the motel, and management’s abundant decorations pale in comparison to the horror of these creepy crawlies. I’ll take the theatrical over the palpable any night. Give me strings of orange lights and glowing spiders hanging from handrails, the handfuls of plastic black spiders tossed generously around the property, and the old netting stretched like webs over the gate to the pool. Surprise me with glittery skulls in every nook and cranny.
Prop this guy on a chair in the lobby:
Just don’t show me the head of a roach peeking through a pumpkin’s grin.
I spend the next hour reading about cockroaches.
They exhibit group-based decision-making. Headless roaches are capable of living for weeks. (the body can continue to function without its brain) Simple bodily functions continue without the brain. Even the head, antennae aflutter, thrives for hours after separation. Refrigerate it – god knows why – and it can last even longer.
I regret spending that hour reading about cockroaches.
I do, however, have something in common with them. Their scientific name derives from the Latin blatta, “an insect that shuns the light.” We are contemporaries, nocturnal rivals.
I walk it off, and try to clear my head. A cab slows down in front of the motel, stops, but no one exits. I wait. It’s probably the drunks from earlier, so incapacitated they’re having difficulty settling the fare. Finally, the back door inches open.
Their arms and legs struggle for traction escaping the cab, heads lolling around their shoulders and ghastly chatter spilling out of them. Even without brains, their bodies function long enough to hear my spiel. They crawl back in relative peace to their room, and I wait out the rest of the night.
An hour later I’m in bed, shunning the light and thinking of Halloween drunks, skeletons, witches and werewolves – anything but those bobbing antennae so near to my lips.