Marvin Cherry leaned back in his chair inside his hotel room off Jefferson Davis Highway, chewing his half-wrapped beef jerky.
Its Wednesday, his only day off for the week from his cooking job at Friendlys, where he earns $12 an hour. Gunsmoke is playing on the television.
Tomorrow at about 6 a.m., the 59-year-old will climb into a cab and pay $20 round-trip to work his eight-hour shift.
He used to have a Honda Accord, but Hurricane Matthew washed it away when he traveled to Portsmouth to attend his brothers funeral last fall. Someone then found the license plate to run through tolls, and Cherry said he received more than $1,000 in fines.
You get ahead 10 steps, you fall back 100, Cherry said.
But it isnt tomorrow yet, and Cherry still has hours before he has to think about work again. He beats the 90-degree afternoon heat by shifting his chair near the new air conditioning unit between the powder-blue curtains, and he watches the same old Western movies that his mother used to switch on after her shifts at a laundromat. Next up is Bonanza.
The AC unit is a blessing and a curse because here, at The Par 3 motel, the owners insisted on increasing the rooms weekly rent from $190 to $200 for the benefit, though other tenants at the hotel have said they are paying less even with AC. Cherry shakes his head at the situation, then extends his long legs out from the tiny hotel table chair.
From the other side of the room, Staci Austin shuffles from the bathroom in a T-shirt and shorts. She is sick, coughing and unable able to keep anything down. She climbs into bed and tucks under the sheets because she feels her fever is coming back.
Happy Birthday rainbow balloons sway over the dresser full of orange pill bottles Austin uses to treat her schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, diabetes and panic attacks. She turned 45 last week.
She said her cough has gotten worse during the four years that she and Marvin have been living at The Par 3 motel. She believes its exacerbated by the black mold under their clothes rack across from the bed and the corners of the yellow motel room walls. The carpet on the right side of the bed has dark spots with a smell Austin likens to a dirty mop.
When it rains, water runs from cracks and small holes in the walls near the bed and above their hanging clothes. Austin said the motel owner insisted there wasnt a roof leak and nailed a wooden square over a hole a plumber drilled into the wall near the bed.
Small brown footprints are scattered over the door leading into the kitchen because the previous tenant had pet squirrels, Austin said. After a rat got through a space between a back door and its frame, Austin put up plastic bags to seal the room from the outside.
The motel owners are a nice couple, Austin said, but they ignore it when something is going to cost them money.
They do good things, but they do need to fix things. Its their business, she said.
The motel owners didnt respond to multiple requests for comment.
Later, Cherry decides he will fry chicken winglets on the hot plate for dinner. His mother taught him how to cook when he was a teenager so he could be self-sufficient, he said.
When he got out of the Army after 13 years, he moved to Chesterfield County to get away from trouble in Portsmouth and started working at Friendlys. He has worked at the restaurant for 25 years, first at the Colonial Heights location as a manager until it closed down and he lost his benefits. Now, he is a cook at the Chester location.
He will fry the winglets on the hot plate later because the stove in the room has never worked.
Their next-door neighbor knocks. She lives alone in a much smaller room, and she is one of the few Austin and Cherry let into their room because of a fear of bedbugs. The owners do have an exterminator come to the hotel once a month, they said.
All three remember the smell when a leaking septic tank left a pile of sewage not far from their rooms last year. That was the only time they remember inspectors on the property. Until just a few weeks ago in that same grassy area behind the motel rooms, a pile of mattresses dotted with mold were thrown against a shed, along with some old televisions.
The neighbor checks to see if Austin needs anything, if she is feeling better, then she leaves for work.
Austin sifts through the collection of orange pill bottles on the dresser. Monthly disability payments of $784 help her pay for the medication and also for the rent and groceries. She and Cherry split everything down the middle.
She said her symptoms related to anxiety, depression, panic attacks and schizophrenia set in after she watched her biological father die in her early 30s from cancer.
I just broke, she said.
She was a daddys girl, she said. Her mother left her and her sister on a curb when she was 3. In the months that they were in the foster system, she said she saw a woman try to drown her sister in the tub. Her sister was wearing packaging for a loaf of bread as her diaper when their adoptive parents came to pick them up. Austin stayed close with her father even after being adopted, but eventually both her foster parents and her biological father died.
Thats the question that always runs through me. How come every time I love someone, they leave? she said.
She was in between homes when she met Cherry, who offered to let her sleep in his hotel room in Colonial Heights 13 years ago. The two have been together since.
Thats just in me. My mom taught me that you help anyone you can. Anything is better with a roof over your head, Cherry said.
Austin gets a text from her 16-year-old son, who lives in Alabama with his father. Her son is thinking about using about $50 for a car wash, but she encourages him to save that money for college. He is an honor-roll student, she said.
Her son has never visited her here. He owns a BMW and has nice things, she explains.
It would break my heart if my son had to use the bathroom here, she said.
A rusted monkey wrench hangs from one of the shower knobs. The cracked yellow bathroom tiles are sunken and splotchy with dark stains.
Eventually, Cherry and Austin hope to move out. They dont know exactly when that may be.
Me and Marvin dont have money for a deposit, first months rent, Austin said. It was the only place we could afford with our income.
Youve got to have $2,500 just to walk into the door, Cherry said.
So for now, this is home.
This isnt no mansion, but its home. Its our mansion. Its the best we can do, Austin said.
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