The Burning Hallway

ONE. The Burning Hallway

Norman, Oklahoma 1961


Sarah stands at the window in room 109 of the El Nora Motel, peering through the blinds at the bright lights coming from a few doors down, spreading shadows across the cars that fill the parking lot. They’re shooting a movie. All these men in glasses, sweat on their sleek heads, and a woman she recognizes from TV. It’s a bad dream. She wants quiet, an empty lot, nothing going on in this place that’s nothing to her. A random motel. She’s been here for two days, trying to figure out her next move, and now this intrusion on her silence.

The trip down from Chicago hadn’t properly been a trip because a trip implies purpose. She drove a car she stole from her father until the tires, balder than she might’ve guessed, blew here in Oklahoma and she abandoned the vehicle on the side of the road and walked to this dump.

Sarah leaves the window and goes to the bed, where she finds her cigarettes. She lights one. She’s left her two-year-old daughter, Naomi, with her friend Mora, who promised to raise her as her own and never mention Sarah and the mess she got herself into. Sarah doesn’t want that to hang around Naomi’s neck her whole life, the fact that her mother stole from Milo Pascarelli and that she killed two men and one woman in Milo’s bar. Mora understands the trouble that Sarah’s in, that running is the only option for survival. Sarah wants her daughter to have a chance, to grow up normal, and she knows Mora can give that to her. Milo doesn’t know about Naomi, thank God.

Oklahoma is hot, and there are waves in the air that seem to rise from the blacktop. Sarah watches it in the parking lot during the day, some kind of shivering reverberation. But now it’s dark and there are all these lights, so many goddamn people.

She’s got her mother’s rosary beads and tarot cards, neither of which she knows how to use. She brought them along for luck, seeing them as some sort of key to surviving. She has, more than once, spread the tarot cards out on the bed and studied them, trying to make sense of the pictures and what they could mean. Her mother taught her nothing before she killed herself in a state of spiritual despair.

And, of course, there’s the money that she got from Milo’s safe, tucked away at the back of the closet for now. It had all gone wrong. Her plan had been to take a few grand and split with Naomi. She wanted out of Chicago, and she had a distant cousin in New York they could go live with. She figured Milo wouldn’t miss a few grand. But it turned out to be a collection day, so there was over fifty grand in the safe and she took it all, every last bill, stuffed it in her bowling bag. She’d borrowed a gun from Light Haired Vicki just in case, and she had to use it once Grecco and Sam figured things out. She caught them off guard. Ellie, she didn’t have to kill, but she did anyway, thinking it was necessary in the moment, that without her as a witness, Milo wouldn’t know anything. But Milo figured it out quickly. After all, who else could it be? She’d gone missing, and she wasn’t dead. That’s when she went into panic mode and dumped Naomi with Mora, who watched her eighty percent of the time anyway.

To calm down, to straighten her mind, Sarah has discovered that if she closes her eyes and just breaths a certain way, she can enter a trance. Her mother used to meditate or do something that must have been close to meditation, but this was yet another thing she never taught Sarah. Instead, this was Sarah’s self-taught approximation of achieving a peaceful state. The trance involves feeling like still water, with feeling like she is water. What she sees in her mind during the trance looks like outer space.

She puts out her cigarette and goes to that place now. The downside is it never lasts long. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, if she’s lucky. She’d be happy to stay like this. She doesn’t even need the money here.

A knocking explodes in her ears. It stops her from feeling like water, pulling her totally from the experience. She opens her eyes. It’s the door. Someone is knocking at the door.

She remains quiet, not sure who it could be. The manager? The housekeeper? The movie people? Milo?

“Hi in there,” a woman calls out from behind the door. “I’m . . . Bev. I’m working on this movie. I just had a quick favor to ask.”

Sarah goes to the door and opens it. The woman she recognizes from TV is standing there. “How can I help you?” Sarah asks.

“I saw you earlier, smoking. I just . . . I needed a few minutes of privacy. To use a restroom that’s not the restroom where everybody goes. I need a break from all these men, to tell you the truth.”

Sarah moves aside and invites her in, thinking it’d be nice to have a little company. She just can’t believe her company is a star. What’s that program she’s on called? “I’ve seen you on TV,” Sarah says.

Decoy is the show I’m on.”

“That’s right. I couldn’t remember the name. Go ahead and use the restroom.”

“Thanks so much.” Bev disappears into the back, closing the door gently and yet dramatically like the actress that she is.

Sarah picks up the room a bit, straightening the bedspread, closing the closet, putting the tarot deck and rosary beads on the nightstand.

When Bev comes out, she looks refreshed, as if she’s splashed cold water on her face. She lets out a long breath. “They don’t need me for a half hour at least,” she says. “A little break finally. I figured, where am I going to go?”

“Must be fun shooting a movie,” Sarah says.

“Not really this one. I thought it would be different. I don’t know why I agreed. Who says yes to Oklahoma?”

“Do you want a cigarette?”

“Oh, please.”

Sarah gives Bev a cigarette and takes one for herself, lighting them with a book of matches she grabbed in the lobby the day before. Bev sits on the bed. Sarah stands across from her, leaning against the dresser.

“So, what’s your story?” Bev asks. “You don’t seem like you’re from around here.”

“I’m not.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m Sarah.”

“Thanks for the cigarette, Sarah. Where are you from? Where are you headed?”

Sarah doesn’t say anything.

“Are you in trouble?”

“I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

Bev won’t let it go. “What happened? I can see in your face that something happened.”

“Are all movie stars this nosy?”

“Sure.” Bev smiles. She reaches over and thumbs the edge of the deck of tarot cards and then fingers the rosary beads. “What’s the story here? Seems contradictory.”

“Is it? I don’t know. They both were my mother’s.”

“She’d go to church and pray the rosary and then come home and read tarot?”

“My mother longed to understand things.”

“Don’t we all,” Bev says, pulling back from the nightstand, stretching, smoke from the cigarette tangling in the air around her. “I should go. They’ll be wondering where I am.”

Sarah brings her an ashtray and watches as Bev pushes the cigarette down amidst the heap of butts.

“Thanks for the smoke,” Bev says.

“Good luck with the movie,” Sarah says.

“There’s no luck involved. It’s just work. I don’t want to be there, and I’m not there in my head. You know where I am? You know where the place is that I go when I don’t want to be where I am?”


“A desert island. I’m the only one there. The water’s blue. It never rains. I swim and eat coconuts.”

“I have a place like that I go to.”

“Yeah? Is it somewhere specific?”

“It’s nowhere, just kind of like floating in outer space. I feel calm.”

Bev nods. “Okay, Sarah. I hope you keep out of trouble down here on earth.”

And, just like that, Bev is gone, closing the door behind her, back into the parking lot, back into the lights, quickly surrounded by sweaty men who are talking feverishly to her. Sarah watches out the window until she can’t see Bev anymore, swallowed up as she is.

Sarah finishes her own cigarette and stares at the wall. The trance state is lost to her. Instead, she writes a note to Naomi in her head: I love you. I do. I’m sorry I had to leave. I’m sorry for everything I cost us. I hope this doesn’t ruin your life. Mora will be good to you. I trust Mora. I wish I could say all the things I need to say. I wish I could teach you something about living. I don’t know much about living. Maybe when I get where I’m going and things settle down, I’ll be able to write you for real. Maybe I’ll be in Mexico. Maybe, one day, Mora will bring you to me, and we’ll meet on a beach.

She gets to thinking about Naomi’s future. She’s so little she probably won’t even have memories of Sarah. That’s heartbreaking. She pictures her at school, drinking a milkshake at a pharmacy, walking the streets in a wool skirt and bobby socks and a little cardigan with the sleeves pulled over her hands, going to church and lighting candles, listening to the voices in the world over and around her. Any way she cuts it, Sarah’s a ghost in Naomi’s future.

Soon after, the movie people outside start making sounds of closing down for the night. It’s a relief. When the last of them leaves, silence visits the room again. Sarah swears she can hear the carpet touching the wall, the dust settling on the dresser, the bedspread sighing. She makes sure the door to the room is locked and then heads into the bathroom to shower.

Bed is also a relief. She’s wearing a large white undershirt that was once Grecco’s. It’s strange to sleep in the shirt of a man she had to kill. She had no choice. Anyhow, Grecco was a lousy man with lousy breath and big, dumb hands and the month they’d dated before Milo started being interested was mostly bad, but this shirt is comfortable.

Her sleep is only really half-sleep. She seems to be aware in the darkness of the room, in the darkness of her closed eyes. It’s nothing like a trance. It’s more like lying at the bottom of an empty pool and staring up at the black sky. She’s unsettled. She can’t get to her good place. She’s dreaming, but it seems very real. She’s dreaming of the movie lady. Bev. Bev is holding her hand. Bev is kissing her neck. Bev is brushing her hair. Bev is half-angel, half-devil. Bev is in a nightgown. Bev is opening her front door, and it no longer opens onto the parking lot – instead, it opens on a long white hallway engulfed in flames.

What’s the significance of a burning hallway? If she knew how to use the tarot cards, maybe she could ask them.

The dreams of Bev keep coming. She’s lingering in the corner of the room. She’s searching for the moon. Soon enough, this dream Bev transforms into Milo.

In the early morning, light starts to seep into the room. What slightly resembled sleep wasn’t really sleep at all. Sarah feels worn out, as if she’s been dragged to hell and back.

A knock on the door shouldn’t surprise her, but it does. A gentle knock, no less. It’s not the movie lady again. It can’t be. Maybe it’s the manager. Maybe it’s someone knocking on the wrong door.

When she opens up, dressed only in Grecco’s shirt, her hair a mess, she loses her breath at the sight of Milo. She’s almost never seen him standing alone like this, his goon squad nowhere to be found. She’s certainly never seen him framed by a mostly vacant motel parking lot, the sun coming up in the distance, heavenly morning light seeming to explode around him like a painting. He’s chewing a toothpick. His car is parked over by the main office.

Sarah steps back, forgetting even to slam the door. She lands on her bottom, her fingers scratching deep into the carpet. For a second, she’s assured herself that she is still dreaming. Milo will turn back into the movie lady, or the burning hallway will reappear behind him – something, anything, to indicate that this isn’t reality.

“How goes it, sister?” Milo says.

“How’d you find me?” Sarah says, and it’s her voice, her true voice, something she doesn’t hear in dreams.

“Something brought me here, you know how it goes,” Milo says, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. “Your scent. I’m like a wild dog. I put my nose to the blacktop.” That maddening grin she’s become so accustomed to.

“You’re alone?”

He stands over her. “Alone as it gets. This is between you and me.”

She can see the gun in his waistband. She figures he’ll just shoot her and search the room until he finds the dough. “What now?” she asks.

Milo sits on the bed. He takes the gun out of his waistband and holds it in his lap. “‘What now?’ she says. You with the sense of humor. I’d tell the guys, ‘She’s funny.’ They’d say, ‘Her? She’s not funny.’ But you are funny, aren’t you, Sarah? You’re about the funniest broad I ever met.”

Sarah rotates toward him and scooches back against the wall. She sometimes does this thing where she can flex a muscle in her ears and it sounds like a passing rumble of thunder. She does it now. She wants to see light, an explosion of wild lights, and she wants to pass into a place where everything’s Technicolor. St. Peter’s got makeup on and a bright white robe. He’s handsome as hell. He’s tasked with checking her in, saying something like, “Bad break, kid. Well, welcome to the resort. You’ll have some kicks here.”

“If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” Milo asks.

“What?” she says. She’s thinking about the peace of heaven, and he asks her some question kids get asked in grade school when teachers run out of things to do.

“I’m a panther all the way,” he says. “In my heart anyway. Sleek, graceful, astute. I always liked that word. Astute. I know on the exterior I’m not panther-like, but I wish I was. Looking at myself in the mirror I guess I’d say I physically resemble a bum dog on his last legs, the kind you find picking for scraps in the church dumpster. You know that dog Father Freddie feeds? What’s that dog called? Cap? I’m like Cap. Rundown but anxious to succeed. What about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? How about you just tell me just for a goof?”

“A bird.”

“That’s not very specific. An eagle? A pigeon? A tufted titmouse?”

“A dove.”

“Well, that’s something, huh? You a dove, symbolizing peace, and me with my piece.” He smiles, shows her the gun again.

She’s seen it before, this particular one, his favorite. “Just get it over with,” Sarah says. “The money’s in the closet.”

“First, can I tell you this dream I had?”

“You’re gonna talk me to death?”

“I might. Anyhow, you were choking me until my face went blue. You slammed my head against the wall and opened this gash right here,” – tapping the muzzle of the gun against his forehead – “and I was the bleedingest sonofabitch you’ve ever seen. I had a radio, I don’t know why, and I called for a helicopter like I was in some crazy picture. They didn’t come. I left the room we were in – it was this one – and went back out the front door, just bleeding everywhere, but when I opened the door, it didn’t go outside.”

“Where’d it go?” Sarah says.

“This hallway that was on fire. Flames just licking up the walls. I walked and walked, bleeding, thinking this hallway had to end, but it never did.”

Sarah knows this means something but she’s not sure what. More than being spooked by the fact that Milo’s nightmare resembles hers, she’s hung up on an image of Naomi, the way she left her with Mora. She knows what’s coming now. She knows the burning hallway is real. She’ll close her eyes at the sound of Milo’s gun going off and then she’ll stand and walk to the door and open it on a deep tunnel of flames.

The Coughing Detective

TWO. The Coughing Detective



Markson was hired by the woman’s biological daughter. She’s in her thirties now, the daughter. The mother, if she’s alive, is in her sixties. This recent information has led him to Oklahoma. Before that, nothing had pointed to anything. But this came straight from an ex-associate of Milo Pascarelli, Long Lead Eddie Stamczynski, who swore up and down that the last call he’d ever received from Milo was from a motel parking lot in Norman. Then – much to the chagrin of many in Chicago – Milo disappeared for good, and so did the broad he was after, Sarah, the one who’d robbed him blind, this Naomi’s mother. It was assumed Milo and Sarah had run off together into the sunset. So, what’s Markson think he’s going to find? The two of them still living at this dive motel in Norman? Anyhow, Naomi’s paying him, and it’s the first real lead he’s had.

Markson is driving his rundown Cadillac Eldorado. He feels sick, as he does most days. He’s sucking on cough drops to battle this hacking cough he’s developed over the last couple of months. His lungs often feel like they’re filled with steam. His teeth hurt. His jaw throbs. Half his life is him chasing ghosts. He’s sick of it. He feels like a ghost himself.

All he knows is Milo Pascarelli called from the El Nora Motel in Norman. That was dope straight from Long Lead Eddie. When Markson gets there – and he’s close – he figures it’ll be as easy as looking the joint up and poking his nose around. Maybe he’ll go to the library, too, and turn up an article about a Chicago mobster killing a lady on the run back in ’61 or a Chicago mobster knocking off a bank and hightailing it out of town. It’d be nice to have news to give to Naomi. But, he holds, the chances he turns up anything of use are slim-to-none. Stuff like this, thirty years is a crazy long time. Unless a big showdown occurred, it’s likely locals will just look at him like he’s a dipshit trying to sell them wind-up pocket snatches.

The first stop he makes as he enters the city limits is a payphone at an Exxon station. A phonebook is chained to the slim counter under the phone. He looks up the El Nora Motel and draws a goose egg. Could be gone to the sands of time like things get gone. Crumbled. Burned down. Abandoned. Razed. Condos where there used to be a dive motel. Or a hospital. Or a little ranch house where a lawyer husband and his lawyer wife live with their yappy dog and snot-nosed kids. Or a trailer bursting at the seams with Okie trash, high on drugs and television and sugar.

Inside the gas station, buying a Three Musketeers bar, he asks the clerk if he’s ever heard of the El Nora.

The clerk shakes his head and mumbles no.

But an old guy sitting by the beer fridge – Markson hadn’t even noticed him upon entering – perks up. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and workpants and a ball cap that advertises a memorial run for veterans. He’s munching on a soft pretzel, no standard Oklahoma fare. “I remember the place,” he says.

“You don’t say?” Markson says.

“Sure. It was over on Highway 77. Long gone. A café’s there now. Rae’s.”

Markson takes out his little pad and jots down this information. “You ever hear the name Milo Pascarelli?” he asks.

The old guy chews on the name, taps his temple with his thumb. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“How about Sarah Vitanza?” But, of course, she would’ve been signing the motel register with a phony name, even if it wasn’t already an ungodly longshot that the old man would know her.

More temple tapping. Another no.

“Well, thanks for the help,” Markson says.

“You a detective?”

“Private, yeah.” Markson coughs into his fist. “Hired by Sarah’s family to track her down.”

“How long we talking?”

“Thirty years.”

The old guy whistles, astounded. “Good luck, pal.”

“I’ll sure need it.”

Markson goes out to the phone booth, looks up Rae’s and scribbles down the address. Back in his car, he crunches on another a cough drop. The motel’s gone. A café has replaced it. What’s that mean? Nothing. Not much means anything, as per the standard. It’s all just a dead end. And here he is in fucking Oklahoma. The Sooner State. Fuck’s a Sooner anyway? Sooner rather than later? That’s what that means? That’s a big nope, boss. Later it is. Now he’s thinking about that Merle Haggard song, “Okie from Muskogee.” He’s rolling the word Okie around between coughs. You live in Oklahoma thirty years, you’re an Okie. He wonders if that’s the case with Sarah. She could live in any one of the houses he’s passed. Or she could be in Blue Fuck Falls, Oregon or Panda Puss, Tennessee. Or dead, of course. Buried in some roadside plot long ago, thrown in a lake, burned in a fire.

He starts the car and drives to Rae’s. It’s not far. He parks around back, next to a dumpster. It’s a squat brick building with frosted windows and a blinking neon sign. A few trucks are in the lot. Markson can smell coffee. He’s not even sure what time it is.

He circles back to the front and opens the main door, a bell dinging as he crosses the threshold. The place smells like pancake syrup. The waitress, in a powder blue dress, hair piled on her head, wears an eyepatch. He’s never seen a waitress with an eyepatch. First time for everything.

One guy, a trucker in a dirty jacket, is at the counter, his ass half-hanging out while he scarfs down waffles. A few other guys are at a booth near the kitchen, old fellas, maybe late sixties or so, just sitting there in their big dumb caps that advertise warships.

“Sit anywhere you want.” This from the waitress. Her nametag says CYNTHIA. She’s about twenty-five, probably wasn’t even alive when Sarah passed through.

“Thank you kindly,” Markson says, settling at the counter as far away from the trucker as possible.

The waitress comes back with a menu. “You know what you want, or you need a sec?”

Markson starts into a coughing fit. She waits it out. Kind of her. He scans the menu quickly. “I’ll just have a coffee and a BLT. That sound good?”

“Sounds good to me.” She writes his ticket and heads back to the kitchen.

Markson wonders if there is a Rae anymore, or if she’s dead. Maybe there never was a Rae. Maybe Rae was a man. His daughter Lisa would say, “Why are you assuming, Dad, that Rae is a woman?” He doesn’t talk to Lisa much these days. Or, more accurately, Lisa doesn’t talk to him. She’s twenty-two. No, twenty-three. Lives with some guy who plays in a rock band. The Cum Jugglers, that’s the name of the band. Who the fuck comes up with that? How does someone juggle come? This guy – Lisa’s boyfriend, whatever-the-fuck-his-name-is – that’s the kind of shit he thinks about. Markson, he doesn’t even like to think about the word cum with a u like that. Give him regular old c-o-m-e, even if it’s jism that’s being discussed, though it’d be preferable if jism was rarely, if ever, discussed. That’s the Catholic in him. Can’t shake that.

More coughing. The old fellas gaze at him like he’s hauling around tuberculosis. They’re one good cough away from the grave. “It’s not contagious,” he says out loud, though he’s not really sure it’s not. Could be. Could be anything. Could be death grinding away at him from inside.

Cynthia brings back his coffee. “Your sandwich will be right up,” she says.

He smiles. “Can I ask you something?”

“Oh boy.”

“Why oh boy?”

“You’re either gonna ask about the eyepatch, or you’re gonna ask if I’m single. Those are the only two kinds of guys.”

“Which one you think I am?”

She studies him closely. “You’re gonna ask about the eyepatch.”

He sips some coffee, coughs at the heat a little. “I’m not. You got me wrong.”

“So, you wanna know if I’m single?”

“Nope, there’s a third kind of guy. One out for answers.”

“You’re selling something? You’re a Bible-thumper?”

“Nope again. I’m interested in this spot. Where this diner was used to be a motel, right?”

“The El Nora,” Cynthia says.

“You knew it?” Markson asks.

“A little. Just from passing it before they tore it down and this place opened.”

“I’m looking for someone who was last heard from at the El Nora.”

“How long ago we talking?”

“Thirty years.”

Cynthia laughs. “You must be kidding me. You got a time machine?”

“Now that you mention it, that’d be awfully nice. You got a line on one?”

“About all I got a line on is your sandwich.” Cynthia disappears into the kitchen and comes back out almost immediately with his plate, setting it in front of him tenderly.

It’s a sad little sandwich, the bacon wimpy, the bread soggy-looking, the lettuce wilted. It’s surrounded by half-crumbled chips. He sips his coffee and digs in.

“Thirty years ago, huh?” Cynthia says. “That’s about when they filmed that movie at the El Nora.”

“What movie?” Markson asks.

“I don’t remember the name. I remember Mama Irene telling me about it. Two professors from the university, they made a movie with the lady that hotel in Los Angeles is named for. Beverly Garland. I don’t even know her from anything, but I always remember the way Mama Irene said her name. She loved pictures, Mama Irene did. Said if she ever went out to Hollywood for a visit, she was gonna stay at the Beverly Garland.”

“The woman I’m looking for, her name was Sarah Vitanza,” Markson says. He reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket for the wallet picture of Sarah that Naomi had given him. It was a picture Naomi had treasured since she found out about Sarah, hoping her real mother would come back for her. He shows it to Cynthia now. “Best guess is she stole dough from a big time hood she worked for and was maybe seeing on and off, ran away from Chicago without her daughter, hoping to keep the kid safe, and somehow wound up at the lovely El Nora. The gangster who was on her heels, the one she knocked off, his name was Milo Pascarelli.”

“That’s some story,” Cynthia says.

One of the old fellas from the back booth chimes in, apparently eavesdropping the whole time, speaking slowly: “Got my hearing aid turned to max volume. Did you say Milo Pascarelli?”

Markson puts down the sandwich, stifles a cough, and turns to the man who’s talking. “I did,” he says. “You happen to know anything about what became of him, or of this woman he was after, Sarah Vitanza? The trail runs here and then runs cold.” Markson brings Sarah’s picture over to the booth full of old men and hands it to the one who spoke.

He is nearly indistinguishable from the other men at the table. He has on a big blue cap that says USS Valiance, hair pouring out of his ears, wears a flannel shirt with the top button done. The skin on his face gives the impression of melting off. He studies the picture of Sarah, holding it close to his eyes. “Don’t know her,” he says.

“What about Milo?”

“I know that name. I remember reading about his exploits in Chicago. They used to call him Little Capone in the papers.”

“You ever see him around here?”

“Can’t say I did.”

The other men at the table start talking about mobsters they heard of and then they start talking about the Chicago Cubs.

Markson drifts back to his seat at the counter. He picks at his sandwich, while Cynthia snatches Sarah’s picture from him and looks at it some more. “Real pretty,” she says. “Real, real pretty. Like an ad.”

Markson’s only response is a rambunctious sputter of coughs.

“You dying or something?” Cynthia says.

“Don’t think so,” Markson says. “Just can’t shake this, whatever it is.”

“Now I can say I met a coughing detective on the hunt for a woman from thirty years ago.” Cynthia passes the picture back to him. “Never know what a day will bring.”

Markson pushes his plate away, having barely touched his food, and drops a twenty on the counter. “Thanks for your help,” he says to Cynthia.

He goes back to his car and launches into his most dramatic coughing fit yet. He sucks hard on a couple of cough drops, trying to get it settled down. He just sits there in the lot, windows open, car not running, watching the road, looking at the back of Rae’s, the forlorn rear door, the empty cartons of fryer oil piled on the ground nearby. He wonders if Cynthia will come out and smoke a cigarette. An Oklahoma waitress with an eyepatch, smoking a cigarette behind her diner – he’d like to see that.

A payphone is affixed to the side of the building. He’s struck by a thought. He should call Lisa. He should quit being ashamed and just call her. He gets out and goes to the phone. He dials Lisa’s number from memory. He wanted to name her Linda. It was his ex-wife, Ruth, who preferred Lisa. He always believed she only liked Lisa because it was close enough to Linda to remind him every time he said it that he didn’t have the power to name her. He and Ruth got divorced when Lisa was four. Ruth started in with a cop – “a real detective,” she said – named Mulvaney and she died of a brain aneurysm when Lisa was fifteen. Lisa lived with him for two months but then she went back to live with Mulvaney and he died when she was seventeen and she ran away to California. It took some doing, but Markson tracked her down in Humboldt County working on a pot farm. She was down in the dumps, high all the time, trying to live like a hippie though her heart wasn’t in it. He brought her back to Chicago and set her up in an apartment not far from him and got her a job tending bar. They were close for a few years, until she met this Cum Jugglers guy. If Markson had a band, he would’ve named it something classic like The Starlighters. Name like that’s probably taken a dozen times over, plus he doesn’t play anything. Stupidfuck. The phone just rings and rings and rings. He hangs up and gets his quarter back.

Next he tries Naomi. He gets her machine and leaves an update. He’s standing in the spot where her mother was last seen. This Naomi, he’s not totally sure of her story, but she’s well-off. Did she marry into it? Or did she inherit dough from her adopted mother? Either way, she’s got that voice, the voice that wealthy women have or develop. But she’s nice enough. He hopes he has something else to tell her when all is said and done.

It’s getting to be dusk, the sky purpling over the roof of Rae’s. He goes back to his Caddy and just sits there, coughing. He thinks about Lisa and Naomi and Sarah and Cynthia the waitress. He feels about as lonely as he’s ever felt, surrounded by these women, or these ideas of women, but having no real connection to them. He wishes he was in a musical. He used to love going to the theater to watch those. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, anything like that. He sees himself doing a routine all over the lot, dancing between trucks, hopping up onto the dumpster, grabbing Cynthia when she comes out to smoke and leading her in grand looping spirals over the blacktop and through the weeds in the Oklahoma haze. He’d throw off his ratty old blazer and shed his cough. He’d be beautiful for once. But here he is, a washed up bastard with a cough sitting in his rundown car.

He puts his seat back and closes his eyes. He’s more tired than he realized, and his eyes have that heavy sandiness. He fades out and wakes up in a dream. More dancing in the lot. Except Rae’s is gone and the El Nora Motel is back. It’s a different time. Markson’s little and limber like Astaire. He is Astaire. A woman who must be Sarah is his partner. They’re skipping over cars, trailed by a goon in a pinstripe suit – that’s Milo. The music is intense and then there is no music.

A knock on the window wakes him up. It’s dark out. The waitress with the eyepatch, Cynthia, is behind the glass, smoking a long, thin cigarette. Markson rolls down his window.

“You’re still here?” Cynthia says.

“Needed a breather,” he says.

“Any luck with that time machine?”

“In my dreams.”

“Want some company?”

“Sure. I can give you a ride somewhere, if you need one.”

Cynthia walks around the front of the car and gets in on the passenger side. “Let’s just sit for a sec, if that’s okay,” she says, pushing aside some newspapers, settling into the seat, and then pulling the door closed. “It’s nice to talk to someone who’s not the same people I talk to every day. I’m sick of these old bastards with their hons and their darlings.” She pauses. “You still haven’t asked me about my eyepatch.”

“And I won’t. Despite my occupation, I mostly don’t pry around where I shouldn’t. Way I figure it is, folks want to tell you something, they’ll tell you.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I will pry in one regard. You got a husband or something? I don’t want to get shot by some jealous type, sitting here with you.”

“I had a husband. He died in a wreck.”

“You know, I was just thinking, this might be the loneliest spot I’ve ever been to. And I’m the loneliest man – and you, well maybe you’re the loneliest woman. Here we are, a couple of lonely bastards.” Markson’s body thunders with coughs, his hands gripping the steering wheel.

They talk for an hour. Rae’s closes down. A man in white – Lorenzo the cook, Cynthia says – comes out and throws a knotted bag of garbage in the dumpster. He notices them sitting there and shakes his head. Cynthia tells Markson that Lorenzo beats his wife. She tells him that one time she watched Lorenzo steal from the register. He did eleven years in jail for armed robbery too. Markson bets that Lorenzo thinks he’s there for him.

Lorenzo locks the back door and disappears around the building, no sign of a car or anything. Cynthia explains that he lives close by in a little shotgun shack. His wife watches television all day.

Markson’s not sure what will happen next. Will Cynthia try to kiss him? If she does, can he kiss through all his coughing? Instead of unbuttoning her blouse, should he take off her eyepatch and see what’s there? A dead eye? An empty socket? A patch of bare, smooth skin?

When light begins to erupt around the edges of Rae’s, it’s as if they’re both expecting it somehow. Chains of shadows spread across the car. Rae’s looks different now, less like a diner and more like a piece of a motel. Markson looks at Cynthia, her hand over her mouth, frozen. She says something but he can’t hear it. A sound accompanies the light. Something like a train but even louder.

In the middle of the light, there’s a door to a room marked 109. It opens, and a woman who must be Sarah Vitanza is standing there, framed by more light. Markson knows her from her picture. She hasn’t aged. She’s as she was in 1961, exactly.

Markson looks at Cynthia. “Are you seeing this?” he asks through the noise.

She nods.

Markson gets out of the car, and Cynthia follows, scooching out the driver’s side and holding onto his arm. “Who is that woman?” Cynthia asks.

“It’s Sarah,” he says. “The woman I’m looking for.”

They walk into the light, toward the open door, toward Sarah. As they get closer, Sarah retreats into the room. Cynthia asks what’s going on and Markson says something he’s said a million times but he’s never meant it quite as much as he means it now: “I don’t know.”

Entering the room feels like walking through a vibration. Sarah is sitting on the bed, clutching rosary beads. Watching her is like watching a movie projected onto a cloud of mist. Her movements are deliberate; she moves as if controlled by strings. The room around her is out of time. The sound around them hushes. Cynthia reaches out to touch the wallpaper, to see if it’s real. She seems surprised by what she feels.

“Sarah?” Markson says to the woman on the bed. “Is that you? Your daughter Naomi hired me.”

Sarah looks at him. “Milo is hiding,” she says in a syrupy voice.

“What happened to you? Where are we?”

“They’re filming a movie a few rooms down. I met the actress.”

Markson notices that the light in the room changes color. He turns. Out the door, there’s no sign of the lot or his car or even of the place and time they left to enter into this whatever-it-is, this sliver of the past, this memory, this haunted scene. What’s replaced it is a hallway full of flames.

“Milo likes the fire,” Sarah says.

“You stay here with her,” Markson says to Cynthia, nodding toward Sarah.

Cynthia protests but Markson walks toward the burning hallway. It’s quiet there, full of a brightness he’s never known. The smell isn’t so much of burning as it is the inside of electricity. He doesn’t feel heat blooming at him, no sweat on his brow. The hallway is long. The fire goes on forever. He thinks of the simplest explanation – it’s hell, he’s seeing hell. But it’s not that. He knows it instinctively. And it’s not merely a portal into the past. He’s entered something else. A cut has been made in time and he’s entered a place that is between wherever here is and wherever there is.

He walks further into the glow.

Ahead of him, a form takes shape. Or he dreams it into existence. He knows it’s Milo Pascarelli. “Where are we?” Markson asks through a cough.

Slowly, very slowly, Milo raises a finger to his lips and shushes Markson. “I’m hiding,” he says in a voice that’s more gravel than sand.

Markson looks around, exploring the folds of fire, searching for the room behind him, for Cynthia and Sarah, and he knows this is a place he can’t leave.

Motel at the End of the World

THREE. Motel at the End of the World



“Are we empty or are we full?” Nicole says into her digital recorder. She’s not sure exactly what she means by it. She doesn’t have the best equipment but part of her process for making her podcast, I Want to Be Haunted, is this stream-of-consciousness blend of spiritual questioning and rudimentary philosophical thought. What is anything? Where even are we, and why?

Nicole knows one thing, for sure. She’s on her way from Raleigh, North Carolina to Norman, Oklahoma to visit a woman named Cynthia McBride and to spend a night in a haunted motel called the El Nora.

Cynthia has had a blog for something like fifteen years, obsessing over a paranormal experience she had at El Nora in 1991. Her claim is that the motel actually existed at one point but that it was torn down in the 1970s and replaced by a diner where she worked as a waitress for over a decade. One night, a private detective came to town hunting for a woman from Chicago who had been lost in the world for thirty years, chased off into the darkness by a gangster she’d wronged, and the El Nora was their last known location. Here’s where it got even crazier: Cynthia’s story goes that the diner disappeared that night and was replaced by the El Nora as it was in 1961, that she and the detective entered the room of this missing woman, Sarah Vitanza, and encountered her. Nicole’s not clear on whether Cynthia thought she saw a ghost or whether she believed she had travelled back in time somehow. Either way, she came out on the other end of the encounter changed. And, according to her, the world was changed too. When Cynthia left that room, Rae’s was gone and she’d never worked there. The El Nora was back and had never been torn down. The detective, Markson, had never even come to Norman, as far as she could tell, and didn’t even seem to exist. Cynthia has dedicated her life to figuring out what happened.

And now Nicole has gotten obsessed with Cynthia. She’d been doing the podcast for a little over a year and was constantly on the hunt for stories. She’d read ghost guides, weird self-published books about hauntings, anything and everything she could find. As soon as she came across it, she could tell that Cynthia’s blog was different. It was alive and electric. Confusing, yes. But authentic-feeling with no signs of true blue horseshit. The podcast is a solo undertaking, and it’s a lot of work. She does everything, including editing, which is a monumental pain in the ass. Nicole’s a freelance writer with no insurance and a memoir about her relationship with her estranged stuntman father that no one will publish. She’s been in Raleigh for about six years, but she’s originally from Greensboro. Her grandmother and mother both died of cancer in 2013. Except for a few friends she’s made via the coffee shop where she hangs out, Holy Grounds, she’s alone, and the podcast has given her something to focus on intensely.

She’s close to Norman now, the GPS indicating that she should be arriving at Cynthia’s house in forty-two minutes. She’ll talk to her there first and then they’ll go to the El Nora. Cynthia has arranged for her to stay in room 109, the site of her experience. Strangely enough, the owners of the motel – Max and Margaret Rydell – have no problem with Cynthia. They might think she’s crazy, but they’re happy for the business she brings them. In fact, Nicole talked to them on the phone the previous week (both at the same time, that strange thing that some old people love to do), and they said they probably wouldn’t have much business at all if not for Cynthia’s website.

Nicole’s especially excited about this case not only because of the uniqueness of Cynthia’s story but because she loves old motels, whether they’re haunted or not. She has an album of her pictures of rundown or forgotten motels, with their busted neon signs and peeling paint and boxy televisions and sad cars parked outside doors with missing numbers, taken mostly while she’s on the road. One of her favorites is a place called the Candlelighter somewhere in Florida. Weeds everywhere, broken windows, a beautiful neon sign full of color and blown-out dreams. Her biggest inspiration is a Mexican photographer named Remedios Abascal who travels around the U.S. taking pictures of roadside motels. Nicole follows her on Instagram and has both of her books; what she’s doing with her own photos – taken solely on her iPhone with no filters applied – is just ripping off Abascal’s incredible work. But the podcast isn’t ripping off anything. Through it, she’s found a natural voice, and it feels like the most original thing she’s ever done. Even the memoir, ultimately, had felt like a pale imitation of a pale imitation. The podcast has an audience, to boot. She gets reviews and questions and messages of gratitude and even leads.

When she arrives at Cynthia McBride’s house, she’s surprised that it’s not a ramshackle little joint with a sinking roof and an overgrown garden. She was expecting to arrive at the panicked settlement of a madwoman, which is typically how these things play out. But Cynthia’s house is a suburban split-level in a cul-de-sac with a big plastic mailbox and a manicured front lawn and a well-tended rosebush. The windows are clean and clear. The glass on the front door is free of smudges.

Nicole gets out of the car with her equipment and heads for the front door.

Cynthia is standing behind the glass when she gets there. She’s in her mid-fifties, wearing jeans and black boots and a bowling shirt with her name over the pocket. She’s also got an eyepatch on. Nicole’s never met anyone who wears an eyepatch.

Cynthia opens the door and they say each other’s names and then shake hands. Cynthia waves Nicole in.

Neat is the main word that comes to mind when Nicole takes a seat on the plastic-covered sofa in what Cynthia calls her sitting room. The shag rug is pristine. The walls look like they’ve just been painted. The glass coffee table is uncluttered; Nicole’s own coffee table is full of books, magazines, bills, and any visible sliver of glass is covered in hazy rings from coffee mugs.

Cynthia stands nearby. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asks.

“Maybe just a water,” Nicole says.

Cynthia disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a highball glass full of ice and water. She hands it to Nicole and sits on a folding chair across from her, scooched close to the edge. “There are other places like this,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of work. I’m not sure how much of my blog you’ve read. There are places in Hudson, New York and Quincy, Florida and Anacortes, Washington.”

“You’re okay with me recording, right?” Nicole says, putting down her water and getting her microphone out. She sets it close to Cynthia.

“Yes, that’s fine,” Cynthia says.

Nicole begins recording. “Places like what exactly?” she says.

“Places where the burning hallway has appeared.”

“Right. You’ve written at length about this ‘burning hallway.’”

“It’s the key to everything. It’s the passage or portal or whatever.”

“So, you don’t actually believe the El Nora is haunted? You believe this burning hallway is a portal to another dimension or to a parallel universe?”

“I think it can be both of those things.”

“You do think it’s haunted?”

“By a pattern, at least.”

“What does that mean?”

“I haven’t figured that part out. A curse of some kind maybe? Something triggered it in 1961 and again in 1991.”

“Those are the only recorded instances?”

“I know what I saw and experienced. No one else has ever seen anything. No one remembers Rae’s. No one remembers Markson, the detective. I’ve got big hopes for now. That’s why I told you to come. It’s been thirty years to the day.”

“Really? Incredible. What about Sarah’s daughter? Naomi was her name, right?”

Cynthia nods. “It took me a while, but I finally tracked her down. She said her mother was a woman named Mora. She never knew a Markson.”


“As far as I can tell, he was erased just like the diner.”

“But people truly believe room 109 is haunted. A legend has grown up around it, right? They think it’s haunted by the woman who was killed there in 1961.”

“Sarah Vitanza. Yes, that’s true. People see what they want. Furniture moving, windows opening, curtains fluttering, a reflection in the mirror. I wrote about the rosary beads I saw her holding. They bring rosary beads. But no one’s really seen her, the way I did. No one’s opened the door to a burning hallway.”

“You didn’t ever enter the hallway?”

“Only Markson did.”

“What’s your hope? Did you love Markson? Do you want to find him? Do you want to help Sarah find peace?”

“I didn’t know Markson. Not really. I want to know that he existed, that Rae’s existed. I want to know I’m not crazy. And I want people to know there’s a secret world out there, or secret worlds. I can’t help Sarah.”

“The other places you mentioned – Hudson, Quincy, and Anacortes – you have people talking about seeing this burning hallway?”

Another nod from Cynthia. “And places disappearing or changing. But no people being erased, no other Marksons that I can find.”

“Well, that’s super-interesting,” Nicole says, immediately regretting her choice of words. She hates herself when she says super-anything. She finally takes a drink of water, the side of her glass dotted with condensation.

Cynthia hauls out a photo album. Pictures of the El Nora throughout the decades. Cut from local newspapers and magazines. An article from 2004 about the film that was shot there in 1961. Stark Fear, it was called. Nicole watched it on YouTube. It was a strange movie, made by strange men. They had an anniversary screening in honor of the director. The actress came from L.A. She was an actress a hotel had been named for in Hollywood. Nicole didn’t know her name. Cynthia had pieced together that the night Sarah Vitanza had disappeared was the night they’d been shooting a scene at the motel. She’d even managed to talk to the actress while she was back in town for the screening, but she had no luck with her memory. The actress had some vague sense that she’d been in Oklahoma for a short stretch, reminisced about the director and writer and the bizarre nature of the film, but that was it.

There are more books. Now Cynthia’s madness is revealing itself in the house. She opens the doors of a china closet and it’s overflowing with files and newspapers and photos and these spiral notebooks full of jottings. Cynthia quickly runs through it all with Nicole. She talks about Lorenzo, who was the cook at Rae’s. He didn’t remember the place ever existing. He didn’t remember seeing her talk to Markson in his car that night in 1991 when things changed.

Nicole checks the recorder to make sure it’s still running while Cynthia’s talking. Many of her nightmares are about having a conversation like this, believing that the recorder is working, and then realizing it isn’t. That’s her version of falling off a cliff. She wakes up in a cold sweat, her heart thumping. She’s only lost one conversation, with a self-proclaimed witch in Florida. She sank into a month-long depression after that and had to scrap the witch’s episode since she couldn’t afford to go back to Florida.

After another fifteen minutes, Cynthia decides that it’s time they should go to the El Nora. It’s a short drive. They take Nicole’s car. Cynthia’s is in the shop. Cynthia talks the whole way, and Nicole is recording her. She’s thinking about how damn difficult editing this into something coherent will be. Maybe she should do it in two or three parts. Maybe it will all come together when they get to the motel. She needs to trust in her process. Shit usually starts making sense at some point. Usually.

When they arrive, the motel is painted by beams of sunlight streaming down from a pocket in the clouds above. Nicole’s totally lost track of time.

They just stay in the car in the lot for a few minutes, as Cynthia describes what Rae’s looked like and how she sat out there with the coughing detective until the diner disappeared and the old El Nora took its place. What she’s saying is far from the wildest thing Nicole’s ever heard, but Cynthia’s selling it better than most people sell their stories. She’s genuinely baffled by what might or might not have happened. Nicole’s not sure if she actually believes her. That’s not important. She’s not sure what she believes anymore, in general. She’s not even really sure what belief is, or how anyone can be certain about anything. Some of what she’s heard is fiction. Some seems like fact. Most exists in a blurry place between the two.

After Cynthia finishes filling Nicole in on Rae’s, she reaches over and squeezes her knee and says it’s time to go in. Nicole keeps the recorder going. In the main office, Cynthia introduces her to Max and Margaret, who are husband and wife but look alike with their short white hair, matching University of Oklahoma sweatshirts, and matching shoes. They’re even the same height, and they smile in a way that unnerves Nicole.

“Maybe you’ll meet old Sarah,” Max says, filled with some glee.

“Did you own the motel in 1961?” Nicole asks.

“Oh, no! I was a wee one then. It was owned by a different family. I don’t remember the name. Margaret, do you remember the name?”

“I don’t,” Margaret says.

Their dialogue is so robotic that Nicole feels further shaken up. It’s as if they’re clones of real humans, missing some essential element. They give her a key to room 109 and flash those sinister smiles again.

Outside, walking to the room, Nicole asks Cynthia if Max and Margaret were around before the motel reappeared. She’s surprised that it wasn’t ground Cynthia had yet covered.

Cynthia pauses, itches at the edge of her eyepatch. “That’s a good question,” she says. “I don’t remember. I have memories of them around town, but they don’t feel real.”

“Would they have been implanted somehow?” Nicole asks.

“I just don’t know.”

They get to the room and stand outside the door. The numbers have been removed, so there’s only a labelscar indicating what room it is. Nicole uses the key – an actual key, not a card – and turns the knob, pushing the door in.

The room is out of time. Rosary beads hang on the mirror and the lamp. The wallpaper is peeling. The duvet cover looks a hundred years old. Nicole can smell the dust.

“Here we are,” Cynthia says.

Nicole goes in and looks around, talking into her recorder as she describes the aesthetic of the room, or the lack of aesthetic. She’s been in enough places like this to know that there’s definitely a feeling in the air, whether or not that feeling is invented or imagined or – her new favorite word, apparently – implanted. She takes a burst of pictures with her phone.

“Have you spent much time in this room over the last thirty years?” Nicole asks Cynthia.

“In the beginning, I was here a lot. I’ve slowed down since then. I kept waiting for something but nothing happened.”

“But you expect something to happen tonight? You think there are windows into the burning hallway here every thirty years?”


“And things could be changed when we leave this room?”

“Maybe. If we leave this room.”

Nicole thinks that’s kind of a cheesy thing to say, but she also knows it’ll play well on the podcast. It’s the perfect thing to lead into an ad break. She hates doing the ads – for home security, for meals delivered to your door, for a service that prints photos on glass – but it’s the only way she makes a living off this venture. She shakes her head. Thinking about ads at a time like this.

Cynthia sits on the bed and kicks off her boots. Nicole pauses her recorder and goes out to the car – parked over by the main office still – to get the rest of her stuff. Max and Margaret are in the front window, waving at her like they’re on a float in a parade. So strange.

She has some bottled water in the trunk. She remembers that and grabs a few bottles even though they’re warm. She doesn’t want to drink from the taps. She has to remember to take her meds.

The sky over the motel has gone pink. It’s peppered with starlings. A murmuration. She just learned that word from a birder friend.

Nicole knows not to expect too much. Nights like this – and she’s had a handful – typically end with lots of circuitous conversation, yawning, long stretches of silence, a dawn where nothing has changed or even happened. She has to deal with that on the podcast too, make it interesting, make it tense, make it like anything could’ve happened.

Back in the room, Cynthia has nodded off. Nicole crashes on the bed beside her. She realizes how tired she is. It was a long drive. She hit some bad weather in Tennessee and Arkansas. Bad weather feels more prominent than ever. These big storms that kick up out of nowhere. She had to pull over in Bucksnort, Tennessee for tornado sirens and try to find some kind of shelter. She wound up ducking into the lobby of another shabby old motel called the Rode Star Inn.

Lying in bed next to Cynthia, she feels calm. She has the thought that she’d like to hold Cynthia, or to be held, just for the comfort, because it’s been forever since she threw her arm over someone in bed or had an arm thrown over her. She can’t believe herself. She should’ve sat on the chair in the corner. She resists the urge to grab hold of Cynthia, imagining a scenario where Cynthia wakes up with a stranger’s arm on her and freaks the fuck out. Who knows what that would look like? A woman already so cracked and broken. Nicole stares at the ceiling.

She drifts off too but doesn’t dream. She’s aware she’s sleeping. All she sees is an unfolded world of blackness. She hears Cynthia’s breathing.

When Nicole wakes up, she’s not sure how much time has passed. Cynthia is gone, and things have started to collapse somehow. The ceiling looks digital, pixelated, and pieces are missing, as if they’ve been removed. She hears a beeping. She looks for her recorder but can’t locate it. Black vines are crawling down the walls like thick shadows.

She sits up. A woman is standing by the door, holding rosary beads in her hands, and Nicole knows it’s Sarah Vitanza. This is something. She’s never experienced this before, whatever it is.

“Sarah?” Nicole says, her eyes traveling from the woman to the floor. Where’d her recorder go?

“Milo and the detective are hiding,” Sarah says.

Nicole stands and moves toward Sarah and touches her arm, not sure what to expect. It’s the feel of real flesh. “Where?” Nicole says.

Sarah points to the door.

Without hesitation, Nicole opens it. The burning hallway that Cynthia described is there, stretching on endlessly, full of flames so bright they look like machinery. Nicole has the thought that she’s seeing the inside of the earth. She’ll never know for sure. She might even cease to be after this.

In the flames there are shapes. Nicole looks back at Sarah and then moves into the hallway, searching for meaning. She recognizes one of the shapes as Cynthia, who is standing next to a coughing man. Markson. They’re holding hands. Cynthia kisses him. She’s been waiting for this sad kiss in the burning hallway for thirty years. He exists. They are in this place, whatever this place is. Now Nicole is too.

Another shape. This one is not readily apparent as a man or woman. It merely remains a shape. But it has a voice. “We’re hiding,” it says.

Nicole looks back as the door closes. Only fire now. Only fire.

William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken,The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His books have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, the New Blood Dagger in the UK, and the Hammett Prize in the U.S. He is from Brooklyn, New York and currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

Tyler Keith is a musician, filmmaker, and photographer. He was born and raised in the Panhandle of Florida and moved to Mississippi at eighteen. His bands include the Neckbones, Tyler Keith and the Preacher’s Kids, and Teardrop City. In 2013, he wrote and performed in a biker musical called The Outlaw Biker. He’s got a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and has made several documentary films. His new record, The Last Drag, is out on Black and Wyatt Records from Memphis.