I always choose hotels located near somewhere I can get a drink. Preferably a sit-down kind of place, where I can maybe pick up a chick, or at least catch a ballgame. I never wear my ring when I travel. There are practical reasons—you spend so many hours a day clutching a steering wheel, that little band of metal begins to chaff—but I’d be lying if I said that’s all of it. Can’t tell Ginger, ‘cause she would flip, but then she rarely asks about my work.
The Home Away Inn in East St. Louis was across a dimly lit street from The Rusty Nail. I didn’t think I’d have much luck finding a girl there, at least not one I wanted to share a bed with, but I was tired and didn’t feel like looking any further. Got a room, right off the lot where I could park my car in front of the door. I like hotels built like strip malls; you can’t really get lost in them.
I put my suitcase in the room, then locked the door and headed across the street. No traffic, but the bar’s parking lot had a couple cars. Through the front windows, which ran the length of the building, I could see maybe five people, staff included, and pool tables that’d seen better years. I glanced at my watch as I opened the door. Eight o’clock on a Thursday night.
The bar was opposite the door, so I walked over and sat down. Bartender came up, asked me what I wanted. I took a draft. He poured it and didn’t ask if I wanted to start a tab. Bars near hotels rarely do. Nor did he ask me where I was from. I’d yet to meet a bartender who was genuinely interested in anything a traveling man had to offer other than his money.
I turned a circle on my stool, surveying the bar. Three guys sat in a booth. They looked over at me, then dismissed me. A waitress sat at a table, fingers tapping at her smartphone, occasionally glancing up to see if the guys needed anything. I wasn’t even sure she’d registered my presence.
A Cardinals game was on the television, so I watched it. They were down by four in the eighth, but I’ve always been a Braves fan, so I just watched. The bartender did too, in that dumbstruck silence fans save for when they know their team has dug the hole too deep. A wild pitch, and the bartender cursed and turned away.
I’d been there maybe an hour, and about four beers, when I noticed the flashing police lights over my shoulder. There were seven of us in The Rusty Nail at that point, a middle-aged couple having wandered across the street to join the mute festivities. The woman went over to the jukebox and put on the Stones, drowning out the game, which by that point was in extra innings, the Redbirds having tied it up. My awe at the grand slam was almost dwarfed by my respect for the bartender’s reaction; he’d almost dropped the beer he was pouring at the time, and had cursed so loudly, you’d think the game had been lost.
The lights took us all by surprise, and all seven heads perked up and looked out the window. Two police cars pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, lights swirling but no sirens. Four officers got out. One of them carried a shotgun.
“Christ,” the bartender said. His voice was barely audible above the jukebox. The Clash, now.
The clerk from the front office came out. Older Asian man, maybe late fifties. He gestured at the police, rattling his arms as though trying to escape from some invisible prison cell. The cops ignored him. One reached out and casually pushed the old man aside. The clerk didn’t fight back.
Something about the way the cops had parked their cars sparked a cold feeling in my gut. I took a deep swig of beer to try and drown it out, but I could tell before they’d really gotten close that they were heading for my room. They were so focused on that one door, and the car parked in front of it.
I thought about standing up, running over there. I actually thought about it. Then I pictured myself in handcuffs, stuffed into the back of a cruiser, hauled downtown and having to explain to both the police and Ginger what the hell I’d hoped to accomplish going across the street to a seedy little bar. Caution quickly took hold, and a little hitch in my shoulders was my only reaction.
One of the cops knocked on the door. I couldn’t hear them from across the street, but the other residents could, because doors opened and heads peaked out. Darted quickly back inside, too. Curious, but not foolish.
The first cop stepped back, motioned to the one with the shotgun. The second cop stepped forward and kicked out, boot battering the door. The old hotel clerk started forward again, hands raised, but thought better of interfering further. Took three kicks to bust the door open. The cop with the shotgun went inside first.
They spent less than two minutes in there. Then they filtered back out, looking dejected. The old clerk said something to one of them. I couldn’t tell if the cop responded, but his shoulders shrugged. Well, we messed that one up, the shrug said. The cops got back into their cruisers and sat there, probably radioing back some excuse. They kept the lights going while they did this. Then, after three or four minutes, the lights went off and the cars pulled out.
The clerk peaked into my room. A couple other people did as well, but no one went inside. Perhaps out of politeness; perhaps out of fear. I waited until everyone found something more interesting to occupy their attention. Even ordered another beer, though it tasted flat and warm right out of the tap.
When I finally crossed the street, I went to the front office instead of the room. The old man glanced up. He didn’t remember me; he saw hundreds of guys like me every month.
“That was my room,” I told him.
The clerk put down the magazine he was reading and looked at me, eyes scrunched. I could tell he honestly had no idea what I was talking about. I wondered where he was from. Vietnam, maybe? I wondered what kind of things you had to go through in your life to make something like what had just happened seem so forgettable.
“Room 17,” I said. “The cops.”
“Oh.” He picked up the magazine again. “That nothing.”
I opened my mouth for a retort but couldn’t think of anything. I turned and headed for the door.
“Nobody go in,” the man said after me. “I make sure.”
No you didn’t, I thought, and let the door close behind me as I stepped outside.
I went back to my room. Nothing was touched. Some dirt on the carpet, that was it. And for whatever reason, the cops had left the exhaust fan in the bathroom running.
The lock on the door was busted, so I slept with the lights on. Took me three hours to get to sleep, and when I did, I dreamed of Ginger lecturing me on how I should find a job back home and not travel so much. Funny thing: she’s never said a word like that to me in real life. That’s another reason I never wear my ring. I have plenty of them.