"Harold would have known what to do," Aggie said to Ugly. She tossed the unopened envelope into the junk drawer on top of the batteries and rubber bands, old keys and more unopened envelopes.
"Let's go sit and ponder," Aggie said.
She scooped up the little black cat and shuffled across the dirty orange carpet. Years ago, the carpet had been thick and fluffy, but now it was thin and flat, with a path worn from the bed to the bathroom.
From the bathroom to the kitchenette.
From the kitchenette to the door.
Aggie pushed the screen door open and sat in the aluminumlawn chair outside Room 5. The cat looked up at her with his one eye, twitched his torn ear, and purred.
"That is one ugly cat," Harold had said the day Ugly had strolled out of the woods and sat outside their door, meowing and carrying on something awful.
Aggie had never cared much for cats, but there was something about this one that was different. So she had fed him tuna fish and he had been there ever since.
"Okay, Ugly," Aggie said. "What should we ponder today?"
But Ugly just closed his eye and went to sleep, leaving Aggie to ponder alone.
She looked out at the road. Waves of heat floated up off the steamy asphalt. The air was thick and still. Every now and then a car whizzed by, making the Queen Anne's lace along the roadside bob and sway.
Aggie took a deep breath and let out a sigh that made Ugly stir a little on her lap. She could feel the empty lawn chair next to her, like something big and heavy and dark, pulling at her. And even though she didn't want to, she looked at it.
Harold's empty chair.
And then Aggie started to ponder how in the world Harold could be gone. One minute he had been here withher at the Sleepy Time Motel. And then the next minute ...
He was gone.
Just like that.
Keeled right over in the tomato garden without so much as a goodbye.
Then Aggie began to ponder what in the world she was going to do about all that mail in the junk drawer. Mail from the phone company and the electric company and the tax office.
Then she moved on to pondering how she was going to fix that clogged drain in Room 4 or what she was going to do about the wasp nest up under the eaves outside the office door.
And before long, Aggie felt so weighed down with sadness and worry that she couldn't stand to ponder another thing.
She picked up Ugly and went back inside.
She opened the blinds so her begonias could enjoy the noonday sun. Then she pushed aside the curtain that hung over the doorway between her room and the motel office.
"Maybe I should tidy up in there in case someone comes today and wants a room," she said to Ugly.
Aggie spent the whole afternoon tidying up the little office. She dusted the countertop. She straightened up the postcards on the rack by the door. She polished the little silverbell that guests rang to let her know they were there. She checked to make sure the room keys were in the right order on the cup hooks on the wall. Then she checked to see if the YES, WE'RE OPEN sign was still in the window.
She washed the coffee mugs she used for the free coffee. (That had been Harold's idea.) Then she straightened the stack of complimentary maps of the Great Smoky Mountains. (That had been her idea.)
"There," she said to Ugly. "Now we'll be ready if somebody comes."
But nobody came. Nobody had come for a long, long time. Nobody had come since ... when? Aggie wondered. She flipped open the motel guest book and looked at the last entry. Nearly three months ago. Mr. and Mrs. R. J. Perry from Ocala, Florida. They had gotten lost on their way to Lake Junaluska and had been so tired they couldn't drive another mile.
Aggie had put them in the nicest room. Number 10. The corner room with three windows. Outside the door was a rocking chair that Harold's brother Frank had made out of tree branches.
The next morning, Aggie had given the Perrys free coffee and a complimentary map, and then they had left, and nobody had stayed at the motel since.
Aggie looked around the little office.
"There," she said again. "All tidy."
Aggie was surprised to notice it was already getting dark outside. She shivered as a cool mountain breeze drifted through the open windows. She took Harold's old brown sweater off the hook behind the door and slipped it on.
Then she used a red marker to put a big X through May 22 on the wall calendar.
She had made it through another day.
Before she left the office, she flipped the switch that turned on the spotlight that lit up the Sleepy Time Motel sign.
The spotlight flickered once, twice, three times.
Then it went out.
Aggie shook her head. Harold would have fixed that old spotlight. He would have opened up his rusty toolbox and found just the right tool and gone straight out there and fixed it. Then the sign would have been all lit up for passersby to see.
SLEEPY TIME MOTEL FREE COFFEE COMPLIMENTARY MAP VACANCY
But now the sign was dark.
And now Aggie knew what she had to do. She took a piece of paper out of the drawer.
For Sale, she wrote, and felt a jab in her heart.
Sleepy Time Motel. Shawnee Gap, North Carolina.
Ten lovely rooms with mountain view. Swimming pool. Tomato garden.
For sale by owners, Harold and Agnes Duncan.
Then she felt a jab that nearly knocked her over. Her hand trembled so much she could hardly keep the pen on the paper as she scratched out Harold's name.
She folded the paper, turned out the lamp, and pushed aside the curtain over the doorway.
"Come on, Ugly," she said.
She shuffled along the orange carpet pathway to the kitchenette to make some toast and warm milk.
Ugly blinked up at her.
She put the toast on the chipped plate that she and Harold had gotten as a wedding present all those years ago. She poured the milk into the china cup that had belonged to Harold's mother.
Then she sat at the little table by the window, listening to the ticking of the kitchen clock, the low hum of cars zooming up the interstate behind the motel, the croak of a bullfrog out in the woods somewhere.
She stared down at the dry toast. Every now and then she took a sip of the warm milk.
Finally, she got up and dumped the toast into Ugly's bowl. The bowl that had Kitty written on the side in red. The bowl that Harold had bought at a yard sale.
She poured the milk over the toast.
Ugly made little slurpy noises as he lapped up the mushy milk toast.
Then Aggie followed the orange carpet path over to the bed and lay down on top of the flowered bedspread, pulling Harold's old brown sweater snugly around her like a blanket.
Ugly sauntered over, licking his lips, and curled up on the pillow next to her.
Aggie watched the sun sinking lower and lower behind the mountains until the sky was totally dark. Then she closed her eyes and waited for another day.