The closet smelled musty. All motel closets smelled the same no matter what was in them, even if it was a pile of freshly laundered clothes, an old suitcase, and a young girl named Lotty.
Lotty made herself comfortable in one corner, creating a nest out of the clothes. The ratty old bedspread from the motel bed made a makeshift tent that absorbed the brightness of her flashlight. Lotty had her plush turtle toy and her books for company, and she could be very still for a very long time. Like a turtle.
Lotty first saw turtles a few years ago when they stayed in a motel by the water. She could no longer recall the name of the motel or the town or the river, but she never forgot the turtles. The way they perched on a fallen tree branch, a family of them, all three different sizes, so perfectly still and content, sunning themselves. The way the water around them rippled ever so gently and caught the sunlight, shining and sparkling like tiny mirrors.
The river water around them was dirty with mud from a recent storm and man-made debris, but the turtle family was on their own private island amid all of it, perfectly ensconced in their own world, impervious to ugliness and danger.
Lotty thought that’s what it must feel like to have a real family. All she had was Momma who had never made her feel that way.
She remembered telling Momma about the turtles that evening and Momma scoffing at her whimsy through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “I’m like them turtles of yours, you know.”
Lotty couldn’t possibly see how that could be true, but later, when once she learned her letters and read book after book about turtles, she found out that they had negligible senescence. It sounded magical, she had to look up both words. Turned out it was just a fancy phrase for not aging. Turtles didn’t get old and decrepit and die. Unless someone did something to them, they stayed the same.
Momma always looked the same and Lotty got older every year.
“You got your daddy in ya,” Momma said. “You ain’t like me. Don’t know how that worked out. Now go buy me mah smokes, sunshine girl.”
Sunshine girl ought to sound nice coming off someone; lips, but her momma made it sound mean. Sun burned Momma’s skin. During the day, Momma stayed in and slept and smoked and watched her soaps, while Lotty did errands and whatever else she wanted and thought she could get away with. At night, well…that was a different story altogether.
Lotty was supposed to wear earplugs while in the closet, but they never cut out the sound entirely. Sometimes, she’d lick her fingers and stick them in her ears instead and that worked better though it made her arms tired.
And sometimes, the noise got through no matter what and, against her better judgment, she’d tilt the wooden slats of the door – all motel rooms seemed to have those – with her fingers and look out.
Early on, Lotty learned that people came in certain types. There were the night motel clerks, forever tired and pale; the diner waitresses fake smiling through cheap makeup and smelling of smoke and fries, the bookstore people, always thin and serious with their glasses and cardigans.
Places changed – Lotty and her momma were always on the go – but faces remained. There was a certain kind of comfort in that.
The men Momma brought home were all of a certain type too: middle-aged, saggy, with a wet hungry glint in their eyes. By the time Momma was done with them, they were nothing but a bag of bones. Bones encased in bloodless meatless sacks of skin.
Lotty had seen what Momma did to make them that way but didn’t have the words to describe it. She had only ever seen animals feed like that on TV, a mindless voracious all-devouring appetite that had to be sated no matter what.
Afterwards, Momma was always at her nicest, most peaceful. Her dark eyes hooded and her smile all lazy and her expression distant and floaty. She’d buy Lotty pizza, and they’d watch late-night movies together.
The rest of the time, Momma was edgy and quick to anger. Especially, when no men came for a while. Her slaps felt like fire and ice on Lotty’s cheeks.
They were always moving. Town to town. Motel to motel. Once they had a car, but that was a long time ago. Momma said once Lotty learned to drive, they’d get another.
Only once did they stay in one place for a while. Lotty remembered Nevada fondly. Miss Rita, the daughter of the motel owner, a schoolteacher by day, took a liking to Lotty, taught her to read, even took her to school with her some days.
Miss Rita didn’t fit into any of Lotty’s types – she was as wide as she was tall, with deeply tanned skin, kind eyes, and a quick easy smile. She knew their acquaintance wasn’t meant to last and made Lotty promise to find a way back to her, should anything ever happen to Momma.
Lotty missed Miss Rita every day. Dreamed about what her life would’ve been like had she stayed. Dreamed of school and friends and no more closet time.
The bodies, once Momma was done with them, went into industrial-strength trash bags and then into dumpsters. Lately, Momma had Lotty dispose of them. The bags weren’t heavy, just sloshy and disgusting.
Lotty got rid of Momma’s latest that night and headed back in, comforted by knowing it was the last time.
The man was a fat one. Momma always fell asleep after she overate. Lotty tore the sheet into strips and tied her to the bedposts. Then she opened the curtains so that the morning sun would stream directly onto the bed.
It would be enough, she thought. She hoped.
Lotty rummaged around until she found Momma’s money. Not a lot, but it would have to do. She straightened out a crumpled-up five-dollar bill to leave for the room cleaner as an apology for a strange pile of ashes she’d find there come check-out time. The rest she pocketed.
Her backpack was prepacked – the sum of her worldly possessions meager enough not to weigh her down. Just some clothes, her turtle toy, a few books.
She sat beside Momma for a while, listening to her snore, saying goodbye. Momma didn’t stir.
Quietly Lotty left, heading over to the truck stop near the motel. Stopped by the gas station for some snacks. The clerk there was the type she recognized, greasy skin, greasy hair, and a greasy smile that lingered too long. The man surreptitiously put away his magazine when she approached the counter to get her snacks rung up.
The calendar behind the man had women in bathing suits posing on a motorcycle. He saw her look.
“Mother’s Day today, lil’ darling. Ya wanna get your ma a card or som’thin’?”
Lotty shook her head, grabbed her purchases and her change, and left.
The years of observing Momma have taught her the art of picking a ride. It was in their faces, in their eyes, a certain kindness, you just had to find it. Lotty would look until she did. It was going to be a long way back to Nevada, but she’d make it. The new day was dawning, and the Sunshine Girl smiled brightly into the rising sun.