Read the introduction by guest editor Kathryn Davis.
In Motel Rooms
There were hidden microphones in all the motel rooms where my husband stayed, not just at Harbourview. Bugs, they called them, transmitters attached to a bed frame or light fixture or some other place we'd never find. I'd start to converse about some personal matter and Martin would say, Baby, wouldn't it be nice to have a record player in here, and I'd know to change the subject, we were being recorded. Most times I didn't go with him. I was at the reading in South Carolina because it was his birthday and the children were with my brother, Obie, in Tuscaloosa. The motel room was full of people, friends who'd come to hear Martin read. He'd had his second book published. Albert and I got Martin a cake at the last minute. Clara came in with all the candles lit, smiling awfully sly at Martin while she sang Happy Birthday. I loved singing with them. They all sounded so good. Martin had gotten his hair cut and was wearing a sharp blue suit. I was sad the children couldn't be there. It was strange that with them I felt suffocated, but when I was away I just ached, I thought about their screaming and running and soft faces. The weather was unusually warm, the middle of winter and nearly seventy degrees. Martin laughed a lot and I stood to the side, near an open window with the curtains blowing against my legs.
Even after everyone left, the room still felt full, with all the windows up and the sounds of the harbor coming in. The rooms were usually clean but I'd tidy them anyway, wipe down the furniture and sink and tub. I would put all the clothes in the drawers, even for a night. A motel is not like any house, Lord knows. I wondered if the squeaking of the wet rag on the porcelain sink was picked up by the microphones. I thought back to all the things that happened in the room that day, the singing and the preaching and the sound of me unpacking and of me talking to myself just before I started cleaning. All of it was recorded.
This was around the same time my hands had started to ache from what was arthritis, though I didn't know it yet. They started hurting that night while I put on my lipstick. This is strange, but if I sat on them they would feel better and the energy there would stop. I sat on my hands in the motel room in South Carolina before I put on my earrings. Martin was going to read from his book, and I'd brought a copy with me, a fine hardback edition. The paper had a rich smell. I liked to hold it, run my fingers over the pages. In the conference room of the Harbourview Inn, I sat beside Martin while he read at a podium. The room was warm and we were all perspiring, but the tables were set very nicely with carnation centerpieces, the cheapest of flowers, but still. Even though I'd heard and read the chapter a dozen times I smiled and felt charged up by it. Everyone was shouting and clapping and making him wait a minute for them to settle down. The chairs had been neatly arranged around the tables at first, but people began to stand up and move away from their seats like something had come over them. It was always like that, not like he was giving a speech or reading from a book but like it was Sunday worship. He gave different versions of the same speech many times but it was always like a brand new thing that had just come to him, like a singer gives birth to a song no matter how many times it's been sung. I sensed that people never before thought the things Martin was saying. They'd been waiting their whole lives for my husband and didn't even realize it. The place was on fire. My own heart, I should say, was also lit by the cause.
That night in our room, after the hand shaking and questions, I wrapped my head in a scarf and lay down. Martin went into the bathroom to pray. He closed the door and asked God to please deliver us and show him how to suck the venom. I'll put my mouth over their wounds, he said, draw out the venom and spit it into the everlasting waters. The radiator buzzed beneath the window but I could make out nearly every word. Take me there, show me how, he said. A knock came from the bathroom door, and I said, Yes, Martin? But he didn't answer. I opened my mouth to speak again but another voice came from inside the bathroom. Come in, Martin said. I could not move. The other voice echoed, as if spoken from the far end of a tunnel. I could feel it in my spine. The room lit up with the headlights of a car going down the little road beside the motel and the second voice filled the bathroom like a long hum with another, deeper sound inside it. I knew, somehow, that it was God.
For so long it was only in motel rooms with my husband that I could have dreams and remember them. They were always the same. Martin would pray and I would close my eyes and listen and begin to think of myself as a strip of unexposed film inside a movie camera. In the bed with my eyes closed I was plastic and dark, held securely by the spools, waiting to begin my revolutions before the lens of the camera.
I could count the days in a year Martin stayed in our house. I remained in Montgomery while he traveled the country. He'd made public his thoughts about the war and bought a new record player for our living room, partly as a gift, but also to say our house was infested too. We had several Mahalia Jackson albums. In the afternoons, with the children off at school, I would put on one of the records and sing the harmony. My sister called to say she saw my husband on the television. Who would have thought, she said, it would be our very own family in the center of all this? I said we had to make sacrifices, but didn't it feel good, sister? Didn't it make her feel alive? She said yes but it was also terrifying. Once she called and said she had a rash and I felt embarrassed. Not because it mattered about the rash, but because there was someone listening. I said, Edythe, mind what you say and then she got uncomfortable and hung up the phone.
In a briefcase under our bed, inside a copy of Nobody Knows My Name, there was a color photograph of a naked woman. Martin wouldn't have meant for me to see it. You could look at our room with its antique bed and never know that underneath was a photo of naked white woman posing on an ugly yellow sofa. I had hundreds of envelopes to sort through. The phone rang all the time. One afternoon Dexter picked up the downstairs line before I got to it and the operator said, Please get your child off the phone, the President of the United States is calling. I'd wake up before the sun and prepare the children's breakfast and hope every day that no one threw a bottle of gasoline across the front porch.
Montgomery to Memphis is three hundred miles in less than forty minutes. The airport there was surrounded by trees. I stepped out of the airplane and felt as if I'd arrived from the future. One minute I was in Montgomery, gathering things up around the house, saying goodbye to the children and Edythe and the next I was in Memphis. I'd decided to attend a Baptist convention. Martin worried about my coming with him. He said, Coretta, baby, people see the two of us together and they wonder who's home with the children. I was sure they did not. There was always something to be done. Our room had three telephones, all of them connected, Martin said, to The Federal Bureau of Investigation. I sat alone at the little table and chair set by the window and pictured wires strung up in the walls, miles of them like veins fed into a distant room where someone else sat, listening every minute for a clue. Ralph, Billy, Al, even Samuel showed up to help, bringing letters and newspapers and food. A boy in Yazoo City was found sealed up in a barrel of oil, drowned to death inside. I knew Martin would always be gone. I had to cover my face with my scarf. I stared out the window to keep the men from seeing. They went to dinner with some clergy from the Memphis Baptist Church and I stayed behind, eventually laying down on the bedspread even though the sun was still up. I rested alone in the dusky room until I had an awful dream where I had to drink glasses of crude oil. The sludge dripped down my chin and wrists and between my fingers. It stained my dress, which was pale green. In the dream I loved the dress. Several white women were there. They were saying, No, Mrs. Scott, that's not the right way to drink it, don't swallow, inhale, breathe it in. They held the glass and tried to show me how to suck the oil into my lungs. I knew why they were saying my maiden name. It was hard to make myself breathe in the oil. It didn't make sense why I couldn't do it. The white women were very good at it.
Martin came back alone and brought me a plate of some good dumplings with corn on the cob. It was nice, just sitting there with him. In the neighboring room someone turned on Elvis Presley and I sang along while Martin and I played gin rummy on the bed. Martin laughed at my knowing all the words but I won the hand. I could smell the cigarette smoke of whoever had occupied the room before us. Martin fell asleep with his clothes on, not even going into the bathroom first to pray. After a while I could hear the voice calling but Martin just slept. There was a ticking sound, something spinning, like an old electric fan. Martin turned on his side and held the pillow against his chest. I stared at his mouth. His features looked fresh, like a child's. The ticking went on until a hum, like wind over a bottle, grew so loud I had to sit up and turn on the lamp. I waited for it to stop. It went on for a long time but finally I was in the twilight of sleep where again I could imagine myself as a strip of film, and I was thankful for that. I saw Martin's figure beside me, the dresser and nightstand, the suits on their hangers like men lined up against the wall. Over by the door there was a woman standing, watching. There was a sudden, unsettling stillness, as if she'd interrupted something. In my mind I could hardly make out Martin's face in the dark, but the woman's white skin stood out in the room like a clouded-over moon.
At home I slept and felt empty. Early in the morning I would hear things outside and think a crowd was gathering, but it was just the garbage truck or some child riding a bicycle with a tin can wedged between the wheel and fender. Sometimes Dexter and Bernice would hold hands all day if I let them. If Dexter fell asleep in his own bed at night he would reach out for his sister. The two eldest and the two youngest paired together for everything: Boy, girl. Boy, girl.
In July the mailman brought a package. I was excited because it was heavy, and important-looking. I took it into the office and cut it open. Inside was another box, and a note that read: You know what to do. I went around looking out the windows and locking the doors. I went back into the office and locked that door too. Inside the second box were cassettes and a little black player. I knocked over my water glass trying to get it out of the box. The water ran off the desk and onto the floor but I just left it there and sat on my hands for a minute. On the tape was Martin's voice and the voice of a woman. I could tell she was white by the way she talked. There was an envelope with a typed transcript.
Ice in a glass?
Martin: You say you think she'll be fired now?
Female: (Laughing) I'm sure of it. Don't you think so?
Martin: Uh huh.
Female: She was out of line and so was he.
Martin: Are you done yet?
Female: Almost. Goodness. (Unclear) I just feel better now that he knows I wasn't lying.
Martin: I understand. You shouldn't be working there.
Female: You're telling me. (Water running?) How do you always get me so calm?
Martin: I'm happy to. Lord, you look good right now.
Female: (Laughing) Do I?
Martin. Mmm hmm. (Unclear)
Martin: Do you want to be (Unclear)?
After several minutes the woman on the tape started moaning. Martin said, Such a sweet thing, such a lovely thing, I'm happy you showed. There was heavy breathing. The bed made noises and the two said other things. More moaning. The children knocked at the door. What are you doing in there? Yoki said. Open the door, mother, we're all trying to do the same thing and only two can play and Bernice is cheating. Okay, I told them, I'll be out, but instead I just sat there thinking that somewhere the FBI was listening to me right then. The children yelled again. Who's in there? they said. I was playing this tape of Martin and the woman, and the FBI was recording me as I listened. I imagined someday listening to that tape too, like holding a mirror up to another mirror. Martin asking, Are you done yet? Woman laughing. Woman moaning. Martin saying, I'm happy to. Unidentifiable sounds. Children talking. Children yelling. Someone knocking on the door saying, Mother, come out. Woman saying, You always get me so calm. Other woman saying, Okay, I'll be there in a minute, please stop.
It wasn't just that we were apart all the time. Of course he made me feel loved. In our bed he would put his hand behind my head and look me in the eyes. There is something to be said about being looked directly in the eyes. Something would go off in me, like a pistol report. There is desire in commitment. Over all the years I was rising and falling. It was just like that. I don't know how else to say it. Many men who said they were friends of our family were certainly only friends to the cause. They would stand outside of the motel rooms while my husband laid his hands on these women, his fingers in their smooth, pale hair. My husband's eyes were always wet. It was just the way he looked. People always thought he was about to cry, though he wasn't.
In late March I flew to Chicago for the weekend. Martin was waiting for me at the gate. He held me and I pressed my face into his jacket. He smelled like musk and starch. Some of the people in the airport turned to stare, while others just walked right past.
There's always a threat, Al said to everyone at dinner that night. We were at the home of Ralph and Wanda Jackson and the talk of the evening was how there were those of secret intelligence and those in the government. I had a hard time knowing the difference. I said to everyone, it is as if the FBI wants to study us, like we're animals and they're trying to learn something by subjecting us to constant surveillance. Coretta, Ralph said, in many ways you are wiser than all of us. Martin patted my leg. Either way, Martin said, they mean to keep a close watch or, God save us, eradicate people entirely, but those things have to be done outside of the law. Some of the men in government, they honored my husband. Others did not. While I was coming back from the restroom, Wanda stopped me in the hallway and put her arms around me. She held me for a long time. I did not know her as well as some of the other wives, and the light was out, making it hard to see, but I knew she was crying, so I hugged her back. She said, Coretta, I wish you'd think to call me sometime, you know us ladies have two sets of troubles, our own and everyone else's. After a while I told Martin I was tired and wanted to go. We rode back to the motel without saying much.
In the motel room in Chicago, Martin hung his suit and washed his hands at the sink while I put on my nightgown. He closed the bathroom door and asked that he might be allowed to go up to the mountain. He asked the Lord to please show him. I lay down in the bed and switched out the lamp. He said, I know you know about the threats and either allow them to stop or else make me unafraid. The vent kicked on and I heard a door open. There was the creaking of a hinge, but with words buried beneath it, like someone talking in a small, crackling voice. Someone was whispering from inside the bathroom, not Martin, but a double voice. I wanted to call out, but instead I kept my eyes shut. Martin said, I am hungry, and so are they. What do we do, what do we say to the God of History? I waited for a long time but the sound of the opening doors went on and on until Martin said, Can I see the Promised Land?
When he came out and lay down beside me, he kissed me on the shoulder. I did not open my eyes to look at him. I lay there and thought, You are just a man, Martin, beside me on a bed. You're safe and tired, and what is fear, but another, abnormal gift from The Lord Jesus Christ? I thought of the white women waiting on either side of us like security guards and how it felt to be in a room with my husband and know we were being recorded even as we drifted to sleep. I wanted all of the tapes the FBI had made, so I could put them together in order and hear what went on in the rooms when I wasn't there and so Martin could hear what went on in our house. He and I could listen to the whole thing together. I thought of the sounds, and the strange films I imagined in the twilights of sleep. I wondered why I was so inclined to combine the two, and why I also wished to look back years later and know that in most ways our efforts had matched, that they lined up, like two mirrors facing each other in a very long, but narrow room.
Chris Dennis grew up in southern Illinois. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared in Granta, Super Arrow, and is forthcoming in New Stories from the Midwest 2012.