by Robert Boswell

Claude returns from the coffee house to find his suitcase splayed across the motel bed and the manager’s wife picking through his shirts and underwear.

“Is this a scam?” He sets the cup of bitter coffee on the television. “Your husband sends me across the street while you rip me off?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing that fancy.” Crossing her arms, she grips her shoulders: white blouse, frayed jeans, bare feet. A decade younger than her husband and as thin as a prayer. “Wondered what I could tell about you from your things.” Her tongue lingers in the dark aperture between the rows of teeth. The face she shows him is narrow, pale, lovely. “Don’t tell Teddy. He has a temper.” Not long ago she shaved her head, the down a filter through which she must be seen. “I haven’t taken anything.” She extends her arms, standing cruciform. “Search me.”

“Not necessary,” Claude says.

“Frisk me.”

“Forget it.”

“You’ll feel better if you’re certain.” Then she adds, “Close the door first.”

“I don’t need to search you.” He closes the door.

“I’ll shut my eyes.”

Her clothing is tight, her bones the bones of a bird. She couldn’t hide a matchbook. Claude runs his hands along her ribs and down her thighs. She remains in the windmill position. He pats against her back and buttocks. He presses against her small breasts. Finally he pushes her arms down, which causes her eyes to open, as if she were a mechanical doll.

“Satisfied?” she asks.

“What does my bag tell you about me?”

“You dress well. And you don’t know yourself.”

“I forgot to check here.” He slips a finger inside the waist of her jeans, the gap between the denim and her pale skin. He paces a circle around her, rimming her pants with his finger. When he stands in front of her again, he lifts her shirt: small breasts, nipples upturned, fruit plucked prematurely from the vine.

“I guess you’re clean,” he says.

“Certain?”

He unbuttons her jeans, tugs them down. Her panties slide along her thighs, slanting and rippled like a flag. Her pubis is shaved to a narrow strip. His hand slides between her legs.

“You don’t appear to be hiding anything.”

She grips his hand and begins rocking her pelvis. “I can come like this.” A drop of sweat forms beneath her fine hair, the scalp turning pink.

After, she says, “Watch me walk.” She shuffles with her pants down to the bathroom. “You have to do yourself,” she calls. “I’m a married woman.” Her laughter’s round, complicated, lovely to hear. She reappears, buttoning the jeans. “We have rules about what I should and shouldn’t do.”

“You should gain some weight,” Claude says.

A veil descends. “I like myself this way.” She slams the door twice before the latch clicks.

Claude slides the chain into its slot. He takes the paper cup from the television, the coffee still warm, still bitter and burnt, but easier to swallow.

Robert published five novels with Knopf and two story collections. His stories have appeared in Esquire, the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O.Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize, and elsewhere.