It isn’t the rumbling of the trucks that seizes Manfred Bernardo’s attention; it is the silence that falls when their ignitions die. Big trucks often go through Midnight, slowing to stop for (or speeding up to beat) the traffic light at the intersection of the Davy highway and Witch Light Road. Since Manfred’s rented house lies on Witch Light Road, he’s grown used to the sound until it is simply background music. But the absence of that sound pierces his preoccupation. He’s on his feet and opening the front door before he’s aware of pushing back from his desk. He grabs a jacket from the rack by the door.
Glancing across the road, he sees his friend Fiji Cavanaugh come out into her front garden, which is at its bleakest in January. It’s cold today, by Texas standards, but sunny. Her cat, Mr. Snuggly, a golden tabby, is at his current favorite sunning spot, the base of the pot where Fiji plans to try a gardenia. Even Mr. Snuggly is staring west.
Manfred exchanges a nod with Fiji, who is bundled in a quilted coat. He notes that today she has inexplicably arranged her hair in two dog-ears, like a six-year-old. Then he turns his attention back to the trucks. One is an equipment truck, and it’s laden with building supplies: boards, bricks, electrician’s wire, plumbing pipes, hardware. Two battered white vans have disgorged a clown-car number of small brown men, wearing hoodies they will surely discard as the day warms. Emerging from a Lexus, clearly in charge, is a tall white woman in tan slacks and a blue silk T-shirt. She’s wearing a faux-fur vest. Her thick brown hair is gathered back into a sleek ponytail, and she wears silver earrings and a silver necklace. She also wears glasses, with big square tortoiseshell frames, and her lipstick is an aggressive red.
All these various vehicles, with their assortment of passengers, have converged around the defunct Río Roca Fría Hotel at the southwest corner of the intersection. As far as Manfred knows, it has been closed for decades. The work crews immediately start pulling the boards off the doors and windows and tossing the ancient plywood into a large skip that yet another truck has deposited on the cracked sidewalk. The workmen swarm into the dark interior of the hotel.
It reminds Manfred of a giant boot kicking a dormant anthill.
Within five minutes, Fiji has crossed the road to join him. Simultaneously, Bobo Winthrop saunters down the steps of his business and residence, Midnight Pawn, which is situated at the same intersection as the Río Roca Fría Hotel but catty-cornered to it. Manfred sees (with resignation) that Bobo is looking quietly handsome today, though he’s wearing faded jeans and an ancient T-shirt with an equally ancient flannel shirt open over it. Manfred and Fiji stand with Bobo, and as they do, Manfred sees that west of the intersection, Teacher Reed has come out of Gas N Go; it’s directly across the highway from the pawnshop on the east and the hotel on the south. His statuesque wife, Madonna, is standing on the sidewalk in front of the Home Cookin Restaurant with Grady, the baby, who’s wrapped in a blanket. She’s holding Grady with one arm, shading her eyes with the other. Across the street from Madonna, Joe Strong and Chuy Villegas have stepped out of the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon. Joe is like his name: muscular. He looks as though he may be forty. Chuy is shorter, his dark hair is thinning a bit, and his skin is the color of toast.
Even the Rev, in his rusty black suit, emerges from his white-painted chapel to cast an unreadable look at all the activity.
We’re only missing Olivia and Lemuel, Manfred thinks. Of course, Lemuel cannot come out during the day, and Olivia is gone on one of her mysterious business trips.
After a few more minutes of watching and wondering, Joe Strong takes the initiative and strolls across Witch Light Road. He threads his way through the busy men to Boss Woman, who appears to be looking over some plans on a clipboard—though Manfred is sure, reading the clues in her stance, that she is well aware of Joe’s approach.
Boss Woman turns to face Joe and extends her free hand to shake his, a professional smile pasted on her face. She is able to look Joe directly in the eyes, Manfred observes. She seems to like what she sees. The well-groomed Joe is pleasant looking and has a warm manner. His mouth moves; her mouth moves. They grin at each other without sincerity. Manfred thinks, It’s like watching a ritual. In his peripheral vision, he spies the Rev retreating into his chapel, but the rest of the Midnighters stay outside.
Bobo turns to Manfred. “Had you heard anything about this?” he asks.
“No. Believe me, I would have spread the word,” Manfred tells his landlord. “This is a big thing, right?” He is aware that he feels ridiculously excited by this development in the small town where he’s lived for less than a year. Rein it in, he advises himself. It’s not like the circus has come to town.
And yet, in a way, it’s exactly like that. Fiji’s round, pretty face reflects his curiosity. Her eyes are lit up.
“What do you think?” she says, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “They’re going to reopen the hotel, huh? How can they even get it back up to code? It’s been closed so many years. Everything will need to be ripped out and replaced. Plumbing, electricity . . . floors . . .”
Bobo nods. “I’ve been in there. Right after I moved here, Lem and I went in one night. There was a loose board at the back, and Lem pried it open. We had flashlights. He just wanted to show it to me.”
“What was it like?” Manfred asks.
“Spooky as hell. The old reception desk with all the pigeonholes for mail is still there. The light fixtures were just hanging down with all these cobwebs on ’em. Like a horror movie. High ceilings. Wallpaper coming off in shreds. Smelled like mice. We didn’t even go to the second floor. The stairs were a death trap.” He smiles. “Lem remembered it when it was open. He said it was pretty nice then.”