Will Schwartz has published fiction in Ninth Letter and Newtown Literary, and he won the 2017 Briarcliff Review contest for fiction. He is currently finishing his MFA at the University of Illinois, where he teaches writing.
They drive Subarus with bumper stickers on the back window announcing their children’s achievements, their honor rolls, their little league teams, their elementary, middle and high schools, their colleges. Or they drive mid-class American sport cars that make up in speed and affordability what they lack in quality or design. They go out in the evening and return to their rooms early the same night, usually before 10, usually with beer. They wear Brooks Brothers and J Crew but they never match, plaid over stripes, dress shoes with white socks, sweater vests that bulge around the buttons. They have sad faces, like those of adolescent boys in the throes of merciless pubescence. They only need one keycard, never more, and never a replacement. They require an unfathomable amount of toilet paper. They never miss their continental breakfasts, taken in a small nondescript room attached to the lobby. Even when they are scheduled for parental visitation they bring their kids to the lobby for bananas and English muffins and cereal in tiny boxes. Occasionally, a family will occupy one of the rooms while their house is being renovated or in between a move, and the men will ignore them, avoiding them in the breakfast room. They eschew personal guests, they rarely socialize with each other, but they like to talk to Claire. A few of them smoke pot in the parking lot outside the rear keycard entrance. They stay for weeks, sometimes months. Never more than a year. They try to understand their divorces, and eventually they stop trying. They move on. They give up. Whatever. By then, they’re gone.
Mr. Karpach, however, has the unusual fate of dying after several months of residence in his queen-bed city-view room.
The men mill in the lobby, drinking free coffee from the machine, breaking the self-imposed silence of the Residence Inn: “Karpach? Don’t think I knew him.” “Big guy?” “Was he bald?” “What was it that got him?” and most frequently, “How old was he?” “Old guy?” “He was old, right?”
He was the best of us, Claire wants them to say, or, his like we’ll never know again, or goodnight sweet prince, or even he’ll be missed, but the men just try to figure out who he was and if he was older than they are and then how much time they have left, according to his age. They drink their coffee and eventually go back to their rooms or outside, scattering like dead leaves among the Chilis and the Applebee’s and the TGI Fridays that dot the many connected parking lots outside the hotel.
The EMS brings Karpach’s familiar Springer Spaniel and a shopping bag filled with cans of food and bags of kibble over to Claire. The dog is brown and stocky and his eyes are obscured by a flopping pompadour of hair that extends from his brow.
“This is Richard, according to his tags,” the paramedic says.
Claire goes to scratch the dog behind the ears. He turns his head away from her. She thinks of Fozzy, her childhood Wheaton Terrier, a casualty of her own parents’ divorce. Her father gave him away before leaving home and disappearing into the background of Claire’s life. Fozzy only liked her and her mother. He avoided her father and didn’t approach men in general.
“Maybe he doesn’t like women or something?” Claire asks.
The EMS worker puts a hand forward for Richard, who licks it and bends his head into her palm for an ear scratch. “He likes me just fine.” She leans on Claire’s desk. “Man, you should have seen it up there. Massive coronary and the guy still had a chicken wing in his mouth when he died. Boxes of pizza and wings everywhere. It was like going to an OD scene and finding the needles. Cause of death: pizza overdose,” she says in an official tone, and laughs.
Claire doesn’t laugh. Karpach, like most of the men in the hotel, remind Claire of her own father, now riding out what look to be the final years of his retirement in his split-level house in New Rochelle, New York. Karpach arrived a few months back, right at the time Claire started working there. He was the saddest faced of all the men, a mopey bear in a cardigan, coming home nightly with a plastic tray from the supermarket salad bar, noshing and dining aimlessly through the wilderness of divorce with no friend or enemy, his appetite his only company.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. Gallows humor. Comes with the job.” The EMS leaves.
Then it is just Claire and Richard in the hotel lobby. The hum from the soda machine harmonizes with the sound of the dog licking himself. CNN plays on mute above the fake fireplace with the decorative electric log, which is cold and glowing. Richard goes over to his bed by the leg of Claire’s desk, circles a few times, smacks his lips and burrows into a ball for a delicious nap. She pets the dog, and he grumbles, stands up, and walks to the far side of his bed, just out of her reach.
She calls her dad, hoping to hear his voice. She is about to tell him about Karpach and the pizza overdose and the men in the lobby, but once he picks up, she finds herself lying; telling him that a resident is in the hospital, and that she has his dog.
“He doesn’t like me,” she says.
“The guy or the dog?” he says.
“How do you mean it doesn’t like you?”
“He won’t talk to me.”
“He probably misses his owner.”
Her father sounds distracted. She wonders if he’s flipping through the paper, or watching his program. She can see his eyes, glassy and withdrawn, lost in his soft features, focusing on something else in the room; on nothing in particular.
“Look, the owner is dead, he’s not in the hospital.”
“If he’s dead why didn’t you say he was dead?”
Because he reminds me of you. All the guests do. She doesn’t know what this means, so she doesn’t say it.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you ever think of Fozzy?” she says.
He is quiet for a moment. “Sure.”
She wonders if he’s thinking of the same image she recalls, of Fozzy at an ASPCA shelter a few towns away, lest one of the Shapiros’ family-friends should see the dog while shopping for their own pet. Fozzy, in a crate, surrounded by strange dogs, wondering where his family was.
“He was a good boy,” he says.
She is certain that her father had an independent train of thought.
“You know you never even bothered to tell me he went to a farm or to go live with a widow upstate. You just told me which shelter you took him to.”
“Is that what I did with Fozzy? I’m sure he found a good home.” He breaks into a slight boyish whine. “Are you mad at me, Claire? You sound mad.”
In the silence she hears his television on in the background, and imagines him pancaked on his recliner, his aged, stranger’s skin partially illuminated by the glow of the People’s Court from his flat screen. Whenever she speaks to him, she thinks she can feel both of them struggling to reach some higher plane of communication and falling short, resorting to useless old patterns.
“No,” she says. “It’s been a hard day.”
He tries to get her to commit to lunch plans, and she evades, making a vague promise that she would be available the following week.
You don’t think about your parents’ divorce, not when you’re married with a kid of your own. Not as anything but an abstraction. “Your grandma and grandpa don’t live together,” she told Brian when he was four. “They used to be married, but now they’re divorced.” They never had to speak of it again, as if the past is a known quantity, a solved equation of which you have to accept the sum, like it or not.
But then Claire gets a job like this and she is shockingly wrong. The past is marching by every day. It breathes. It is many-faced. It ripples with need and unhappiness. It winks at her. She is often eleven again, watching her father become someone she didn’t recognize, someone with an amorphous character and unstable emotional pallet, who was given to flights of anger and who wept in the living room. She is sometimes thirteen, making a rare trip to his apartment in a dirty walk up in the Bronx, where he has been sentenced to dwell on the periphery of Claire’s life. Tonight, though, she is twelve, wondering if her dog is thinking of her, if he is scared in his crate in some anonymous shelter. She rests a foot on Richard to scratch his neck. He grunts and rolls out of reach.
That night, Brian showers Richard in hugs and kisses, who responds in turn with kisses and a generous wiggling of his butt.
“You got me a dog!” he says, punching his fist in the air.
“He’s not your dog, he belonged to a guest and now he belongs to the guest’s family. When I can call them.”
Greg bends down to scratch Richard, who offers his belly to him, and gives Claire a wide-eyed look, nearly identical to Brian’s.
“A dog is an emotional time bomb,” she says, without thinking. She wonders if it’s something her father said to her once. It sounds like it would be.
“It’s not our dog,” she corrects herself.
Brian goes off to throw a tennis ball for Richard in the backyard, and Claire goes to the kitchen sink to watch the two of them chase each other as the sun sets and dusk spills out like liquid, illuminating the grey roofs of the Yonkers low-rises sprawling out toward the Bronx. He looks happy with the dog, who bounds back and forth in the yard, his ears flying in the wind as he runs.
That night, Claire lays awake next to Greg, who is sleeping. She feels his presence firmly, he is strong and simple, he breathes evenly. She admires his muscular arm draped over the comforter, she folds her body around his, and envelopes him, and he feels sure and solid.
A dog is just an emotional time bomb. Was she warning Brian against something? Someone? Herself? Her split-level home is stolid and modern and secure. But she can feel unfriendly Richard, a soft patch of decay on the kitchen floor, and he is penetrating the very foundation of the home, a dead man’s ghost. Some scrap of memory that is past its expiration date.
She will call Mrs. Karpach tomorrow, she will bring the dog to her, and then it will be over.
But Mrs. Karpach, who insists on being called Ms. Kellerman, isn’t receptive to the suggestion.
“I’m preparing a funeral for a husband that wasn’t even my husband anymore. It’s crazy over here.”
“Is there a relative that might take the dog?” Claire asks.
“Not more than a handful. I’ll ask around. I’m not exactly friends with them.”
Claire imagines this lonesome funeral, thrown by a bitter ex, scattered with distant relatives, all eating free food and chatting while Karpach is lowered to rest unobserved and unmourned. She provides her information, sensing that perhaps Ms. Kellerman isn’t writing it down.
“Try the North Shore Animal League,” she suggests to Claire. “They’re no-kill and they do good work.”
The hotel returns to normal after a few days. The guests have their continental breakfasts, they ask for to-go boxes and hoard yogurts to bring to their room. They leave at dusk and come back before ten. They smoke their pot by the exit. They don’t mention Karpach, even when they bend down to pet his dog, who Claire brings to work instead of hiring a walker.
He was one of you, she wants to say, but knows it’s not true. There is no you. Their fraternity is hidden, primordial, interior. They don’t identify with one another, let alone him.
They begin to bother her. “You’re not looking too good, Claire,” some of them offer, happily. Where she once looked forward to chatting with them to break up the monotony of her shift, she now feels on-edge and irritated when she senses them hovering near her desk, rolling back-and-forth on their heels as they wait for Claire to look up so they can ask their questions. “Can you have them send the maid up, my room is a mess,” or “Can you call an electrician? My vanity mirror lights won’t turn on,” or “Can I see the delivery menus, Claire,” or worst of all “How’s life, Claire?” Their voices gnaw at her ears, they ring in her head after they leave, and through her shift, while the dog glares at her judgmentally from underfoot. She finds herself snapping at the guests and later at Greg when she comes home from work.
And she sees Brian get closer to Richard than he was the day before. While she cooks dinner, she can feel them in the next room, cuddling and watching TV. She watches them frolic in the yard and feels a sense of impending dread. Greg senses Claire’s stress and irritation around the dog and after a few days of teasing, realizes this anxiety is beyond his understanding, and takes to consoling her. But one evening she overhears him talking sweet nonsense to the dog, and occasionally catches the spaniel staring adoringly at him from their bedroom door, where Richard never dares enter.
So after a few days, Claire informs Greg that she was forced to the night shift, although she had asked for the change. This way, by taking the dog with her to work in the evening, she minimizes the time that the dog spends with Brian and Greg. She tells herself, that this will be best for now. It will make her calmer and make her a better mother and wife. Being at the hotel at night brings her some kind of peace. She even finds that she can mostly ignore Richard, as if he were a painless cyst.
By two in the morning, all the men are asleep. The lobby creaks with silence, and she imagines she can feel the distant drone of snores vibrating the floorboards. Rain beats on the pavement outside, but she cannot hear it, she can only see it bouncing off the circular driveway in front of the entrance. Richard sighs luxuriously. The building even smells like sleep, she thinks. Sleep surrounds the uncomfortable, immaculate furniture in the lobby, it makes the painted-wood sideboards a shade darker, gives the TV’s glow a kind of hypnotic allure. Then she imagines Karpach’s room, awake and alive, in the center of the hive, filled with his life’s possessions, all the tools one needs for physical survival and emotional nourishment. A Pharaoh’s tomb, the totems of identity on display, emptied of its principal resident.
The lobby has been silent for an hour. It’s past three in the morning when she leaves her post to go to his room, dragging Richard on his leash, and the chimes of the elevator ring through the hotel like cacophony. The hallway has argyle carpeting, stretched out like dress socks over a calf, and even smells like detergent and feet. The click of Karpach’s door echoes down the long hallway, and Claire strains her ears to pick up a TV or a phone call, but all she hears is the hum of the air conditioning.
The lights are on in his room, and Claire is shocked to find that it is barren, sterile, that in less than a week without his presence it has returned to a state of perfect biological stasis, eradicating all signs of life within. As is standard at the residence inn, the room has a desk with hotel stationary on it, and an easy chair and ottoman with a horrid floral print. Above the headboard of the bed there is a painting of Florence, of a lively café unable to contain the quantity of its customers, their conversation no doubt pouring into the street. Claire ponders the painting, and runs a hand over the desk, opening drawers, looking for some evidence that Karpach had lived, or died, here. She flips through a fresh stationary book, checking the first few pages for imprints, finding nothing. She opens a mini-fridge that is empty and without stain. After a brief hunt, she finds there aren’t even coins under the sofa seat cushion. In the bathroom she finds newly wrapped soaps and shampoos.
But the medicine cabinet reveals a half-empty bottle of Clubman Aftershave. She opens it and smells the contents. Richard wiggles his butt, and she sees his eyes for the first time, big and bewildered, from under his pompadour. He even rubs against Claire’s legs like a cat begging for a scratch. He is made alive by this memory, a memory that is beautiful and will live and die in the cerebral cortex of a Springer Spaniel. For the first time, Claire feels close to the animal, and wants to preserve the memory for him. She leans down to pet him, and he acquiesces.
They make their way to the window, where she sees the Galleria mall, looming over White Plains like a Soviet apartment complex. It sleeps, preparing for a day of happy shoppers, looking for clothing, or electronics, or free samples of Bourbon chicken on toothpicks. Across the way, she sees the Hamilton Mall, a nearly defunct shopping facility, low to the ground and gray. A proud banner over the entrance reads “sewing machine repair here.” Inside, she knows there’s a freakish menagerie of unsightly or obsolete emporia—a DMV, a grandfather clock store, a hobby shop, a nurse’s supply shop, and a small, noisome grocery store, where Karpach and some of the other men got their dinner from the steam table.
Yet in the front of the desolate mall is a beacon of life and fecundity. A sperm bank—the White Plains Fertility Clinic and Cryo Center has a big banner, a neon marquee. A poster on the window reads, “College Graduates, young professionals, make up to $1,000!”
She lies on the bed, climbs under the sheet and listens to the rain outside. She feels the bed slope to the middle, where recently divorced men have been sleeping, mostly alone, for years. A car drives by outside, she hears it treading against the wet concrete. Then its headlights illuminate the inside of the room in a momentary eclipse. Claire thinks of an examining room, or a morgue, and of Karpach’s body. It goes dim again and the dog is snoring and the room is sanitized.
She thinks of the sperm bank. Sometimes on her breaks she watches the entrance to see the men who walk out. Usually young, with well-fed faces and glasses and well-groomed facial hair, wearing decent blazers, perhaps the younger model of the men who stay in the hotel.
Behind the clinic’s walls, they ask the receptionist polite questions and fill out forms. Will I get a check? Do you do direct deposit? Is the room very private? Will my sample definitely be used? And then, when they are alone, they make life. Briefly, as quick and quiet as a whisper. Masturbation as a gesture in passing, a manual flourish to a joke, resulting in a small gasp of sperm. This frivolous refuse seems to Claire like such an unlikely ingredient in the formation of human life. The egg is a logical ingredient. It’s a proto-womb, round like the earth, nurturing and patient. It is carried within, like a thought. But unknowing sperm, writhing mechanically on the bottom of Dixie cup, or inside a woman, or in a Kleenex, or on the tile-floor of a shower, has no holy dimensions.
Perhaps this seed one day could grow into a man, with long legs, closely cropped beard, a tidy gut hanging over a pair of Levi’s. But that this empty gesticulation could make woman, this seemed the strangest aberration of all, a shocking mutation in the course of nature. The men who walked by her desk wore bizarre, ill-conceived outfits, had eyes that looked lost and adrift, and harbored unnamable desires in their hearts. They were strangers to her, to one another, to their children. Their skin would be like rubber to touch, she thinks.
She drifts off to sleep and thinks of Brian, coming into this world attached to her by a feeding tube. He turned around and she was his mother, as much as he was himself. But what did he make of the unattached? Did he wonder if the doctor was his father, or the technician, or the nurse, or the man by the bedside, or perhaps one of the faces in the waiting room? Does Greg have a question mark over his head, even still? To Claire, the men in the hotel do, as does her own father.
She wakes up a few hours later, the bed awash in sunlight, the sounds of construction workers shouting below. She returns to her desk, and there is no sign that anyone noticed her absence, or that anything went wrong. It is dawn. The men trickle out one by one for breakfast.
She misses her father and has missed him since she was a child. And she misses him most when she is with him, when the memory of what he was like when she was a girl clashes with the painful, stilted, present. Each time she sees him she leaves with a desire to restart their meeting. To begin lunch again, ask the right questions, this time get to the answer of some eternal question, an answer that lies just out of reach. Even now, as she waits for him to arrive at the Starbucks patio, she finds herself already regretting their meeting, wishing to get more out of it; out of him. Richard’s leash is looped around a foot of her chair, and he looks anxiously at the passing customers.
“So this is the famous dog, huh?” Her father leans over to give the dog a polite scratch.
He gives Claire a wet kiss on the cheek, she feels his stubble against her skin. He sits across from her and smiles a polite, fake grin. A performance. His eyes look tired, they peek out from under the shadow of his baseball cap. His skin looks alien in the sunlight. Out in the light and breeze of a May afternoon, he has the resigned air of a caged bird.
“His name is Richard.”
“And you’re stuck with him?”
“Yeah, for now. I’m still looking for a relation I could pawn him off on.”
They talk for a few minutes about Brian, his performance in pre-k, and how Greg is doing at work. Eventually their conversation dies down and they look at the dog, asleep under his pompadour.
“Just take him to the shelter. He’s not your problem.”
Claire fixes her eyes on her father. She protectively pulls Richard closer.
“That wouldn’t be a decent thing to do.” she says.
He lets out a sound between a chuckle and a grunt. She can feel both of them losing the words they want to say, those words dying before they can escape their lips, falling back inside, left to decay and infect.
Suddenly, the hidden purpose of their meeting becomes clear to her. She feels herself approaching the fundamental truths that lay buried under the placid surface of their relationship.
“Hey dad, why don’t you take the dog? You’re all alone down in that house and he could be good company.”
“No thanks, not for me,” he shoots back.
Claire feels wounded. His face is immovable, unhelpful.
“It would help me if you did,” she says.
“I’m not a dog guy. I would be a bad owner.” he argues, as if he already has the list mentally prepared. “I wouldn’t walk him enough, I wouldn’t care. Besides, I don’t see why this dog is your problem.”
“I know your opinion.”
They bicker for a few minutes, mostly repeating the same points. Her father leans back in his chair and drums his fingers on the lid of his coffee. Claire listens to his fingers, to the rustling sound of her leg bouncing up and down nervously, to their staccato inhalations, to the whistle in his nose, and this symphony of anxiety seems to communicate more than their words.
“Is this about Fozzy?” he asks.
Claire has found the real thing she wants to say: “It’s about you.”
And then, for a moment, she sees the father she knew when she was a child. His eyes are firm and intelligent, there is no softness to him. He knows himself. He looks at the dog, and at Claire. But his face goes soft again, doughy, his eyes glassine and withdrawn.
He has found the real thing he wants to say: “Claire, can’t you accept me for who I am?”
On the drive home, Claire feels like she wants to do lunch over again, to find the right things to say. Her father’s words stay with her as she takes the long way, weaving through downtown White Plains, like she’s making a quick escape. Richard sits in the passenger seat, with his paws on the dashboard, looking determinedly through the windshield. Claire’s arm is out the window, and she wiggles her fingers against the pressure of the wind. Woman and dog take in the cool air, they let the spicy smell of exhaust hit their nostrils. With each mile she puts on her car, she feels more relief.
Claire tries to imagine what Richard is thinking, and wonders if he’s thinking about her, about the lonesome, nocturnal life they’ve fallen into together, like an emotionally-distant married couple aging into their private eccentricities.
But that life now seems far away, as Claire drives past work, and Richard takes in the pedestrian and automotive hustle around the car. The hotel’s windows glitter in the daylight, mirroring the shimmering facades of nearby towers and edifices, and it’s almost unrecognizable to her. She parks across the street and calls her manager and requests to switch back to day shifts.
“This will be better for us, Richard,” Claire says. She scratches Richard behind the ears, which he accepts without excitement.
Claire and Richard stay parked across from the hotel, and watch the guests trickle in and out. The men all walk the same way: they glance over their shoulders furtively, they look at their feet when they walk; all of this clean, bright daylight seems to expose them in some way. But they are inscrutable to Claire and Richard. Claire scans their faces and sees her father. Richard watches them too and sees Karpach in all of them.
And they each think to themselves: He’s not there.
Richard lays his face on Claire’s lap and lets out a whine, begging for a scratch.
“ I started this story wanting to capture that lonely feeling that's particular to a roadside inn or residence hotel at night—a building packed with people, but all you can hear is the hum of air conditioning; all you can smell is cleaning solution. Everything else kind of fell into place once I had that right—the divorced men, the sad dog, the estranged father, the defunct White Plains shopping mall—each component of the story had the same emotional pitch, everything came together to express that pit-of-your-stomach loneliness I wanted to reflect. ”