“And you are?” I asked, extending my hand.
He looked first at my hand and then at me. He obviously didn’t want to reveal his identity but couldn’t think how to get out of it.
“Nick Horvath.” He shook my hand as if he were afraid I was carrying monkey pox.
“Thank you again, Mr. Greene,” Pen said.
“Jake,” she repeated.
“Perhaps you’ll allow me to interview you later—for the article.”
“I’d be happy to.”
“And you,” I told Ruth.
“You ain’t trying to make us look bad,” she said.
“No, I promise I’m not.”
“Well, then, you come by anytime. I’m always here.”
A moment later, Pen and Horvath entered Pen’s trailer. In another moment, Ruth disappeared into her own mobile home. I bent slightly, picked up Pen’s grocery bag by the handles, and carried it to the Neon.
The Starlite Motel had a wonderfully tacky sign out front—red and bright with neon, topped by a huge star. It reminded me of a marquee for a drive-in movie theater. I nearly stayed there just for the sign. But a half dozen people were loitering in the parking lot, and I didn’t want to be noticed by any of them. Instead, I drove another five hundred feet to a second motel, the Hi—top Motel—the two L’s in its neon sign were burned out. I checked in using Jacob Greene’s American Express card. The manager, an elderly gentleman working past his retirement age, seemed happy to have my business and didn’t mind that I was vague about my checkout date.
“Let me know each morning if you want me to hold the room,” he said.
I told him I would.
“My name’s Victor. If you need anything, and I mean anything”—I swear he winked at me—“just call the desk. I’ll be here.”
I told him I found that comforting.
The Hilltop Motel was smaller and not nearly as boisterous as the Starlite. It had sixteen units arranged in two cell blocks of eight units each, the cell blocks set at a forty-five-degree angle from each other, the parking lot between them. There were four units on the ground floor and four on top in each block. My cell block was facing busy Central Avenue. The mobile homes of Hilltop were behind it, just beyond a Cyclone fence. I could see a small patch of trailer park from the second-floor landing outside unit 8A, but it didn’t amount to much.
It took about two minutes to unpack my suitcase. I set the grocery bag on a small desk fronting the room’s single window near the door—there were no back windows. There was a lamp on the desk, and I tried to move it to give myself room to work, only it was bolted down. Everything was bolted down—the lamp to the desk, the desk to the floor, the landscapes to the wall, the TV to the credenza, a small refrigerator to the floor, the radio to the shelf next to the bed. Only the TV remote was portable, that and the worn white towels in the tiny bathroom.
I set the grocery bag on the floor next to the bed and began removing its contents one item at a time and arranging them into separate piles. The biggest pile consisted of cast-off Tribunes and a few back issues of Down Beat magazine. Next came carefully collapsed boxes of food items—pasta shells, pizza rolls, a jambalaya mix, and cherry Popsicles, plus a box that used to contain wind chimes. I ignored both piles. It was the discarded mail that interested me. A third had been addressed to Penelope Glass, a third to Resident, and a third to Steve Sykora, the husband, I presumed. It isn’t unusual for women to keep their maiden names after marriage—about 20 percent do. But usually there’s a reason for it. I wondered what Penelope’s was.