Aground

1

They were down at Miami International between thunder showers at 3:40 p.m. Ingram, a big, flat-faced man with aloof gray eyes and an almost imperceptible limp, followed the other passengers out of the DC-6 into the steamy vacuum left behind by the departing squall. His leg had stiffened a little, as it always did when he had to sit still for very long, and he thrust the foot down savagely against the pull of tendons as taut as winched halyards. He checked through Immigration, and when he was cleared by Customs he waved off the porter with a curt shake of his head, carried the old suitcase out to the lower ramp, and took a taxi downtown to the La Perla, the shabby third-rate hotel he’d first checked into some fifteen days before and had used as a base of operations ever since. There was no mail for him. Well, it was too soon.

“You can have the same room, sir, if you’d like,” the clerk said.

“All right,” he replied indifferently. It commanded a view of a dank airwell, but was cheaper than the outside ones. He signed the registry card and rode the palsied elevator to the third floor. The operator, a bored worldling of nineteen, picked up the suitcase and preceded him down a corridor where flooring creaked beneath its eroded carpet.

The room was high-ceilinged and dim and passably clean, stamped with the drab monotony of all cheap hotel rooms and that air of being ready, with the same weary and impervious acquiescence, for sleep, assignation, or suicide. The bathroom with its old-fashioned tub was just to the left of the doorway. Beyond its corner the room widened to encompass a grayish and sway-backed slab of bed, a dresser marked with cigarette burns and the bleached circular stains of old highball glasses, and, at the far end, beside the window looking into the airwell, a writing desk, on top of which were the telephone, a coin-operated radio, and a small lamp with a dime-store shade. It had begun to rain again. He could see it falling into the airwell beyond the parted slats of the Venetian blind. Looks like the set for an art motion-picture, he thought; all we need is a Message and a couple of rats.

The youth deposited the suitcase on a luggage stand at the foot of the bed and switched on the air-conditioning unit installed in the lower half of the window. Ingram dropped a quarter in his hand. He let it lie there for an insulting half-second before he closed the fingers, and started to look up at Ingram with the bright insolence of the under-tipped, but collided with an imperturbable gray stare that changed his mind. “Thank you,” he said hurriedly, and went out.

Ingram ran hot water into the tub and stripped, hanging his suit in the closet with the automatic neatness of a man accustomed to policing his own loneliness. After rinsing out the drip-dry shirt, he selected a wooden hanger for it and hooked it on the curtain rod. When he got into the tub, he stretched his legs out and put his hands on the knee of the left one, forcing it down against the pull of the tendons. Sweat stood out on his face. It was better, he thought. He’d got rid of the crutches a month ago, and then the cane, just before he’d come up from San Juan. In another month the limp would be gone entirely, and there’d be nothing left but the scar tissue. After a while he climbed from the tub, blotted himself as well