Motel Life, Lower Reaches
By Charles Portis
WHEN YOU ARE IN THE KNOW, SHARP DISTINCTIONS CAN BE MADE.
Back when Roger Miller was King of the Road, in the 1960s, he sang of rooms to let (“no phone, no pool, no pets”) for four bits, or fifty cents. I can’t beat that price, but I did once in those days come across a cabin that went for three dollars. It was in the long, slender highway town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
That cute and unwieldy name, by the way, was taken in 1950 from the name of a quiz/comedy radio show, and has stuck, against long odds. The show was okay, as I recall, a cut or two above the general run of broadcast ephemera, with some funny 1949 moments. But why re-name your town for it? And by now, a half-century later, you would think the townsfolk must surely have repented their whim and gone back to the old name, solid and descriptive, of Hot Springs. But no, and worse, the current New Mexico highway maps no longer offer both names, with the old one in parentheses, as an option, for the comfort of those travelers who wince and hesitate over saying, “Truth or Consequences.” Everyone must now say the whole awkward business.
I was driving across the state at the time, very fast. There were signs along the approaches to town advertising cheaper and cheaper motel rooms. The tone was shrill, desperate, that of an off-season price war. It was a buyer’s market. I began to note the rates and the little extras I could expect for my money. Always in a hurry then, once committed to a road, I stopped only for fuel, snake exhibits, and automobile museums, but I had to pause here, track down the cheapest of these cheap motels, and see it. I would confront the owner and call his bluff.
There were boasts of being AIR COOLED (not quite the same as being air-conditioned) and of PHONE IN EVERY ROOM, KITCHENETTES, LOW WEEKLY RATES, CHILDREN FREE, PETS OK, VIBRO BEDS, PLENTY OF HOT WATER, MINIATURE GOLF, KIDDIE POOL, FREE COFFEE, FREE TV, FREE SOUVNIERS. (Along Arkansas roads there are five or six ways of spelling souvenirs, and every single one of them is wrong. The sign painters in New Mexico do a little better with that tricky word, but not much better.) The signs said SALESMEN WELCOME and SNOWBIRDS WELCOME and TRUCKS WELCOME/BOBTAILS ONLY—meaning just the tractors themselves; their long semi-trailers would not be welcome. And there were the usual claims, often exaggerated, of having CLEAN ROOMS or NEW ROOMS or CLEAN NEW ROOMS or ALL NEW CLEAN MODERN ROOMS.
I decided not to consider the frills. How could you reckon in cash the delight value of a miniature golf course with its little plaster windmills, tiny waterfalls, and bearded elves perched impudently on plaster toadstools? I would go for price alone, the very lowest advertised price, which turned out to be three dollars. It was a come-on, I knew, a low-ball offer. Sorry, I would be told, but the last of those special rooms had just been taken; the only ones left would be the much nicer $6.50 suites. I would let the owner know what I thought of his sharp practice, but not really expecting him to writhe in shame.
The three-dollar place was an old “tourist court,” a horseshoe arrangement of ramshackle cabins, all joined together by narrow carports. The ports were designed to harbor, snugly, small Ford sedans of 1930s Clyde Barrow vintage, each one with a canvas water bag (“SATURATE BEFORE USING”) hanging from the front bumper, for the crossing of the Great American Desert.
But there were no cars here at all, and no one in the office. I gave the desk bell my customary one ding, not a loutish three or four. An old lady, clearly the owner, perhaps a widow, came up through parted curtains from her cluttered female nest in the rear. She was happy to see me. l asked about a three-dollar room, for one person, one night. She said yes, certainly, all her cabins went for three dollars, and there were vacancies. This, without bothering to crane her neck about and peer over my shoulder, by way of giving my car out there the once-over. Desk clerks do that when I ask for a single, to see if I am trying to conceal a family. These clerks are trained in their motel academies to watch for furtive movement in the back seats of cars, for the hairy domes of human heads, those of wives, tykes, and grannies left crouching low in idling Plymouths.
This old lady had come up in a gentler school. She was honest and her signs were honest and her lodgers were presumed to be more or less honest. She had caught me up short and rattled me. Who was bluffing now? I couldn’t just leave, nor, worse, give her three dollars and then leave, compounding the insult to her and her yellowish cabins. I paid up and stayed the night, her only guest.
My cabin had a swamp cooler, an evaporative cooling machine that is usually quite effective in that arid country. A true air conditioner (brutal compressor) uses much more electricity than a swamp cooler (small water pump, small fan). But then the cooler does consume water, and the economy of nature is such—no free lunch—that the thing works well only in a region where the humidity is low—under forty per cent, say. Where water is scarce, that is, and thus expensive.
It was dry enough here, but my cooler was defective and did nothing more than stir the hot air a bit.
I looked the room over for redeeming touches. It wasn’t so bad, beaten down with use and everything gone brown with age, but honorably so, not disgusting, shabby but clean, a dry decay.
The bedding may have been original stock. That central crater in the mattress hadn’t been wallowed out overnight, but rather by a long series of jumbo salesmen, snorting and thrashing about in troubled sleep. A feeble guest would have trouble getting out of the mattress. He would cry out, feebly, for a helping hand, and nobody in earshot. The small lamp on the bedside table was good, much better for reading than the lighting systems in expensive motels, with their diffused gloom. Motel decorators, who obviously don’t read in bed, are all too fond of giant lampshades, a prevailing murk, and lamp switches that are hard to find and reach. The bath towels were clean but threadbare, and much too short to use as wraparound sarongs while shaving. The few visible insects were dead or torpid. There were no bathroom accretions of soft green or black matter. The lavatory mirror was freckled and had taken on a soft sepia tint. Mineral deposits clogged the shower head, making for a lopsided spraying pattern, but the H and C knobs had not been playfully reversed, nor did they turn the wrong way. There were sash windows you could actually raise, after giving them a few sharp blows with the heels of your hands, to break loose the ancient paint. Here again the feeble guest, seeking a breath of air, would struggle and whimper.
I had paid more and seen worse—murkier and more oppressive rooms, certainly, with that dense black motel murk hanging about in all the corners, impossible to dispel and conducive to so many suicides along our highways, I had seen worse rooms, if not thinner and shorter towels. There was plenty of hot water. I had the privacy of a cabin, and indeed not a single neighbor. What I had was a cottage, and a steal at three dollars.
Early the next morning the lady came tapping at my door. She had a pot of coffee for me on a tray with some buttered toast and a little china jug of honey. It was that unprecedented gesture, I think, and the grace note of the honey—no sealed packet of “Mixed Fruit” generic jelly—that made the place stick in my head so, and not the price at all. I like to think the old cabins lasted out the good old lady’s widowhood. It must have been a close-run finish. And it comes to me now, late, a faint voice, saying the price was really two dollars.
A few years later. This one was in the Texas border town of Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, in Mexico. You expect it to be the other way around, with the older, primary Laredo on the Mexico side, and so it was in origin (1755) when the north bank of the river was Mexico—or, actually, New Spain then. You might also expect the Rio Grande here to be a mighty stream, so far down on its 1,900-mile run to the Gulf, but it's more like a weed-strangled municipal drainage ditch than a Great River.
I was driving up out of deeper Mexico. On the U.S. side of the bridge I was greeted, if that's the word, by a suspicious INS agent in a glass sentry booth. He asked me a few questions and directed me at once to the customs inspection shed. No doubt I made a good fit for one of his Detain profiles. Lone white dishevelled Arkansas male in four-wheel-drive pickup with winch. Subject admits to extensive travel in rural interior of Mexico. Tells lame story re purpose of trip.
The big shed was open along the sides but still very hot. I had to unload all my baggage from the truck, everything moveable, and spread it out on an extended table. A customs agent went first to the opened suitcase, so inviting, the bared intimacy of it. He made a long business of inspecting my paltry wardrobe, lifting articles of clothing one by one with the deliberation of a shopper. Then he moved leisurely along to the loose gear—fuel cans, water jugs, cans of oil, cans of quack chemical engine remedies, tools, books. These things, too, he picked up one by one, and as he turned them over in his hands he appeared to be muttering words of inventory, thus—lantern, bottle jack, scissors jack, some sort of dried gourd here.... He lifted the books and read the titles to catch their heft and flavor, but made no critical comment.
Another agent was going over the truck itself with a flashlight, a small hammer, and a dental inspection mirror, with the little angled head. He rolled himself underneath, belly up, on a mechanic's creeper, and peered into crevices and felt about in them. He made delicate, cache-detecting taps on body panels with the toy hammer. The searches are necessary, granted. I knew I had no contraband but the agents didn't know. Still, the innocent—blameless in this matter, at least—grow impatient. At last, after a whispered conference, the two men gave up and said I could go. I had looked so promising, then let them down. Not that I was cleared, exactly, just sullenly dismissed for lack of evidence, and left to load everything up again.
I drove into Laredo for a bit and stopped at what, in my road stupor, I took to be a chain motel in the middling price range. I was wrong. The national chain had depreciated this one out and dumped it on the local market. An older couple I will call Mom and Dad had picked it up.
In the office lobby there were two women seated at a low table, drinking iced tea and having a chat. One was Mom. I asked about a room. The women looked me over. I was a mess, dead on my feet. For a night and the best part of a day I had been driving hard, without sleeping, bathing, or shaving. My khakis, heavy with sweat, were clinging to my flesh here and there.
Mom said, "We don't take no show people here."
The other woman explained the situation. "It's a carnival come to town down there. We were just now talking about it." So, this was just more of the Welcome Home party. First the fun in the customs shed and now I was accused of being in show business. I told Mom that I was no such romantic figure as a carnival worker, but only a road-weary traveler. Did she have a room or not?
She relented, though still perhaps suspecting me of running a Ferris wheel or a rat stall. This being the one where you put your money down, gaping rube that you are, and watch a white rat race about on an enclosed table top. The rat eventually darts into one of several numbered holes, but not your numbered hole. Or maybe she really didn't care and was only showing off a little before her friend, who could now spread the word about Mom's high social standards as an innkeeper.
She had given way pretty fast. It might well be that Mom enjoyed nothing more in life than filling her rooms with jolly roustabouts ("My boys") and the more tattoos the better.
The room was okay, which is to say it was pretty far along on the way down but not yet squalid, just acceptable. A sharp distinction for those of us in the know. We can tell at a glance, from the doorway. The swimming pool was nearby, too. Just the thing in this heat. I took a shower and put on some trunks.
It was a big pool from a more expansive motel era, with a deep end that was deep, but with a derelict look overall. No one was about. The chain-link fencing sagged, and there were rips and gashes in the wire. The non-sparkling water was of a cloudy green hue and perfectly still. Floating leaves and styrofoam cups bobbed not at all. A Sargasso calm. Perhaps the pump was broken. No diving board, of course, the diving board lawyers having seen to that, even then. Only the stanchions remained, the chrome-steel pipes rooted in concrete.
I made a ground-level entry dive and swam one lap. The water had a prickly, tingling feel. It stung my eyes. The pool chemicals gone bad, I thought.
Now here came Dad at a limping trot, shouting at me, "Hey, get out of there! Can't you read?" I was already climbing out when he started this, and he was still telling me to get out of the pool when I was standing there safe ashore, upright and dripping, before his eyes. Once a tape got rolling in Dad's head, it wasn't going to be cut short by any external event.
He looked around, baffled, then saw that his DANGER/KEEP OUT/NO SWIMMING sign had fallen from the wire fence. He picked it up and showed it to me. Electricity, it seems, was leaking into the pool water from corroded wires and terminals near the underwater lamps. I asked Dad why he didn't drain the dangerous electrified pool. Because, he said, it was only the great lateral pressure of all that water that kept the thing from collapsing in on itself, and he didn't want to lose his pool. He pointed out cracks and bulges in the retaining walls.
I said I had suspected toxic chemicals and wouldn't have thought of electricity coursing through a swimming pool. As for that, Dad said, his chemicals had gone sour, too, under the beating sun, and what with the stagnation...but they didn't account for the prickle, only for the sting and the unnatural greenness and the sharp metallic taste of the water.
Wasn't there a lawsuit here? I could hire one of the diving-board lawyers, preferably one in cowboy boots. Into the mixed bag of damages we could throw the pain I had suffered from Mom's suggestion, before a witness, that I was in show business. We would pick Mom and Dad clean, seize everything, and kick them out of the motel, destitute, into the streets of Laredo. Then it occurred to me that Mom's lawyer might have some boots of his own, made of animal skins even more exotic, costly, and menacing than those sported by my man. What if he put me in a line-up parade before the jury, full face and profile views, with some carnival guys trucked in from the midway? How would I fare? I saw, too, that on the witness stand, under oath, I would have to admit that I had actually felt better, perked up a little, after my dip in Dad's electro-chemical vat. Best maybe just to let this slide.
That evening after a nap, I tried to make a long-distance call from my room. I was expecting a check in the mail. Like a carnival guy, I had no fixed abode then (had Mom sensed this?) and was using the home of my father and mother in Little Rock as a mail drop. The bedside telephone had the full array of buttons. Some, however, were dummies. Pressing 8, the long-distance one, got me nowhere. I couldn't even get the desk.
I walked up to the office, where Mom informed me with relish that she and Dad were no longer set up for long-distance service. It was nothing but trouble. People were always using it. Local calls only. But couldn't I make the call here, now, on that office phone, under her gaze and supervision? A brief one? My credit-card billing for the room was still open, and she could add to it whatever she liked in the way of fees, for the call and her inconvenience. I wouldn't be calling Shanghai, only Little Rock.
"We're not set up for that. There's a pay phone out there." I had no American money in my pockets. Mom, living here in a border town where the banks readily exchanged pesos and dollars, didn't see how she could possibly give me a handful of quarters and dimes for my Mexican currency. She shrank from handling the alien notes. The republic of Mexico was a half-hour stroll from here and for Mom it was terra incognita and would on principle remain so.
Back to my room where I rooted about in luggage and found a few coins, enough to spring open a circuit at the pay phone and gain the ear of an operator. She dialed the number in Little Rock. Home is the place where, when you have to call it collect, they have to accept the charges. My mother answered. The operator told her that this was a collect call from her first-born son Charles, in Laredo, Texas. Would she accept the charges? My mother, not always attentive, said, "I'm sorry, he's not here, he's down in Mexico somewhere," and hung up, before I could gather my wits and shout to her.
The close of a long day. I meant to ask Dad about the curious slashes in his pool fence. Berserk vandals with chain saws? Environmental zealots with axes? In Laredo? But I kept forgetting, and at dawn, still ignorant on that point, and not much worse for the wear, I was off and away again in my white Chevrolet truck. And I saw on further reflection that Mom had been right to place me in a pariah caste. It was just one she didn't know about, that of the untouchable wretches called freelance writers.
Now to the more recent past and a place in southern New Mexico, bright land of bargain motels and fair dealing, where I was doing some research on Pancho Villa's 1916 raid across the border. My room was in a motel I will call the Ominato Inn, not quite a dump, with a weekly rate of $130 flat, no surcharges. The price quoted was what you paid, with no tourist penalties, bed taxes, bathroom duties, or other shakedown fees piled on, such as to make a joke of the nominal price. There should have been a pair of signs out front, flashing back and forth:
NOT QUITE A DUMP AT DUMP PRICES
Or no, they weren't needed. By late afternoon, almost every day, the parking lot was filled with a motley fleet of cars, vans, trucks, and motorcycles, giving the appearance of a police impound yard. Far too many of these vehicles had weak batteries.
It was in the Ominato that I came to know celebrity, two onerous weeks of it, as "that guy in number twelve with the great jumper cables." The first to seek my help was an old man I will call Mr. Sherman Lee Purifoy. He was a retired policeman, a widower, from southern lllinois, of that region near the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Year after year he came here to stay the winter months, in the Ominato, and in the same, much-prized room, number three, the only one with a kitchenette. The Purifoy Room, but without a plaque.
I had just checked in when he accosted me in the sandy courtyard, which was the desert floor itself, unpaved. His battery was dead. Could I give him a jump? His car looked like other cars, but it was one I had never heard of, a Mercury Topaz. When I mentioned this, intending no slight, that the Topaz was a new one on me, he took offense. He took me to be suggesting that he was the kind of man who would drive a freakish, not to say ludicrous car. As though I had accused him, say, of wearing sandals. The Topaz happened to be a very good ottamobile, he said, and for my information there were plenty of Topazes out there on the highways, giving good service every day. And any car at all could have a bad battery.
Except mine. With my hot battery and my two-gauge, all-copper cables I soon had his Topaz humming away again. Santiago—let us call him that—had come by to watch. He was the assistant motel manager, electrician, and handyman. He admired the heaviness of my cables, their professional girth. And those fierce, spring-loaded clamps! Such teeth! People who needed cables usually didn't have them, he said, or they had the cheap, skinny kind that couldn't carry enough amps to do the job. Mine were the best he had ever seen, and he had seen a few. Already I was basking.
From there the word went around, down the road, even, into a motor home park, to which I felt no ties of loyalty. I was on call night and day with my cables. I feared the knock on the door. I found myself lingering, to the point of loitering, in places away from the Ominato and the room I had paid for. Celebrity turned out to be disappointing, but it was hard to say no when you had been given the power to raise the dead.
And Mr. Purifoy was okay, if a little too much underfoot, a great accoster, and something of a tar baby, with time on his hands. He caught me going out and coming in, and, on occasion, he would catch me in an ambush at some unlikely place miles away—once, in the lobby of a county courthouse.
One afternoon he stopped me cold in my tracks and said, "Just look around. Half the people in this motel are criminals."
"That's a lot of criminals, Mr. Purifoy."
"At least half. I'm not even counting some of the dopers in that."
I looked around. Mr. Purifoy, I thought, must have lumped in with his bad boys, willy-nilly, all the scruffier transients who stopped here, and so had arrived at his high estimate of the criminal density. Drifters as such were guilty, of drifting. My guess was that on a given night at the Ominato no more than ten per cent of the lodgers were genuine felons on the lam, some with their molls. Of the rest, only about two per cent would be British journalists named Clive, Colin, or Fiona, scribbling notes and getting things wrong for their journey books about the real America, that old and elusive theme.
Another time he asked me what my business was here in New Mexico. Against my better judgement I told him. He didn't think much of the Pancho Villa project, taking it to be one of glamorizing a thug and serial rapist. He said I could expect no help from him in working this thing up, whatever it was, nor, when it was done, would there be any use asking him to look it over, as he had better things to do.
Another time he told me that he never bothered to turn off his television at night, his sleep being fitful. He would doze for an hour or so, wake, and watch "the TV" for an hour or so. It didn't matter what—golf highlights of 1971, the giant termite mounds on the African veld. There was no roaming about through the channels. But what a lot of people didn't know was this: You can do other things while watching the TV. Little mindless chores. Sometimes he polished his shoes. And so he drowsed and woke through the long night, drifting in and out of alternating dreams.
Then daybreak at last, always a joy, when he could pop out of his box and go into the world again. A third hallucination, perhaps, though with its sunny radiance much brighter than the others. Better still, in this one was a blue Mercury Topaz.
He rose early and drove to a McDonald's restaurant for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, many free refills of coffee, and for a long visit with his retirement cronies. It was a gathering place. Some weeks back he had taken the trouble to write down a good recipe for "thickening gravy"—milk gravy. He gave it to one of the girls at McDonald's but suspected that she and her bosses had never even so much as tried it. They were still dishing out the same old stuff.
There were other cronies who preferred Wendy's restaurant, but Mr. Purifoy said he wouldn't be going back to that place any time soon. Some woman was always there in the mornings, reading things out loud from a newspaper to her husband, who was neither blind nor illiterate. Humorous snippets mostly, but longer pieces, too. How could you think straight or talk to your friends with this woman droning on like that? Well, you couldn't, and she never let up. She kept finding nuggets, as she thought, here and there in the low-grade ore of the newspapers.
As a gentleman, in his way, Mr. Purifoy could hardly scold the woman herself, directly, but neither was he one to shirk a clear social duty. He said he took the husband aside and spoke firmly to him about this nuisance. With no effect. The poor man was henpecked, his spirit broken years ago. He had shamefully admitted he could do nothing to stop his wife from reading things out loud to him, in private or public. Mr. Purifoy said one day that quiet bird would club her to death. One AP snippet too many.
The least of our criminals was probably Lash LaRue. With his black boots, jeans, shirt, and hat, he reminded me of the old black-clad movie cowboy of that name, who popped revolvers out of the hands of saloon louts with his bullwhip. But this younger Lash had no whip, and the sinister outfit was only a costume.
Santiago brought him to my door one morning. Lash said he had left the headlights of his truck burning all night, and his "battery"—singular—was down. It was a big Ford pickup a year or two old, with a diesel V-8 engine and a Louisiana license plate. Lash spoke of it as "my truck," and he did possess the truck but I don't believe he owned the truck. First, he couldn't find the hood-latch release, then he had trouble working it. With the hood up at last, he was struck dumb by what must have been his first sight of the monster engine. He was a calf looking at a new gate. I, too, was impressed. It was a beautifully organized work of industrial art, filling and overflowing the engine bay. His plump young female companion (Brandi? Autumn?) lurked and pouted in the doorway of their room. They were running away to California, that must be it. They had stolen her Daddy's newish truck, his treasure, and left him back in Opelousas, to putt around in Lash's little Dodge Omni.
I pointed out the two big batteries up front, wired in series, one on either side of the radiator. More amazement from Lash. "Two batteries!" Diesels with their high compression are by nature hard to crank, thus the booster. I wanted to walk away. These peculiar engines make me uneasy. Hard to start when cold, and then, once going, they sound like machines trying to rip themselves apart in a furious suicidal clatter. So much for my ignorance. They manage to clatter away like that for years on end.
No matter, I still don't like them, and already I had lost face with Mr. Purifoy in failing to jump-start a diesel motor home owned by one of his cronies, in the nearby park. My excuse, plausible enough, was that the man's battery cells were so absolutely stone dead as to be no longer conductive.
I told Lash it wasn't going to work, that I couldn't pump enough amps through all the batteries and circuitry to turn over that diesel crankshaft. He said maybe then we could push-start the truck, and he must have known better, the transmission was automatic. But he was going into a panic. Brandi said maybe we could tie a rope from my bumper to theirs and pull-start the truck. She had not moved from the shadowy doorway. Preserving her lily pallor? Those white cheeks would pink up pretty fast in the desert sun.
Lash ignored her and was now begging. Please, couldn't we at least try a jump-start? With those deluxe cables he had heard so much about?
A shrewd appeal to my pride. Well, why not humor him? It wouldn't take long to go through the motions. I broke out the cables yet again and hooked them up. I started my engine, leaving it to run for a bit and do some charging. Then I climbed up into the truck cab and turned the starter key one notch over to light the glow-plug. This is a little Zoroastrian fire prayer ritual, which must be observed. After what I judged to be the proper interval, I turned the key all the way over to engage the starter motor, expecting to hear nothing, or at most a click. But the starter did spin, and then we had compression-ignition. The infernal oil-burning machine had come alive and was clanging away on its own.
Lash was so crazed with relief that he offered to pay me. He and Brandi lost no time in fleeing the Ominato. She waved bye-bye from the cab and told me not to worry, that they would take care to park the truck on the slope tonight when they stopped. She still thought you could roll-start the thing. I noticed some stencilled words in white on the tailgate: LICENSED AND BONDED. Licensed as what? Who would license Lash and what body of underwriters would stand good for his handiwork? California can always use one more Lash and one more Brandi, and I wished the young lovebirds well, but no, that big fine work truck didn't belong to Lash LaRue. My Saturday afternoon loitering place was a small bar in a small American Legion post. It was like some forgotten outpost where the soldiers had grown old waiting for the relief column. Here I drank and brooded with others of this lost platoon, who had their own reasons for not going home. There was a pool table, always in use, and a juke box, not much played, though it had a good repertoire of older stuff. No din, that was what we wanted, but now and then out of the blue we would hear "You Win Again" from Hank Williams, Fats Domino singing,
When you said
Ain't that a shame
One Saturday Mr. Purifoy appeared there, to my surprise. He was AA, or as he liked to call it, ND. The letters stood for Nameless Drunks, his jocular cacophemism for Alcoholics Anonymous. Saying the words always made him laugh.
He said he had seen my car out front and just thought he would drop in for a minute. He had some news. But I wasn't to hear it until he had gone through a long and disruptive business of settling in. It took him some little time to get seated properly, then clear away his bar space and give his order: "JUST A GLASS OF ICE TEA FOR ME, PLEASE." A general rebuke but no one was put to shame or flight. He went on to tell the bartender, who hadn't asked, that his health, on the whole, overall, for his age, was pretty good, "except for all these blood sores on my arms." They weren't as bad as their name. He pushed back his sleeves to show us some subcutaneous splotches, like red bruises.
The news was that he had bought a new battery—but we could look at it later. He could show me the expensive new 72-month battery later, in the Topaz. Then, by way of throwing out a conversational tidbit for the bar at large, he said that over in neighboring Arizona there happened to be certain chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous which allowed you to drink two cans of beer every day. What they called a maintenance dose.
Our fellow Legionnaires scoffed. Baloney, they said, and worse, but wanting to hear a little more. I was sitting between Mr. Purifoy and a hard, sun-dried little man called Vic, a pygmy sea lawyer, bald, yet still with scarcely any forehead at all. Possibly an old brig rat. Vic, like so many others, had come to the desert to make a clean end to his life, to shrink further here and indeed to waste away by degrees from evaporation until he vanished. He said he was from Montana—we were all carpetbaggers—but he told anecdotes in the dramatic New York City manner. With the injured tone, that is, and exuberant gestures and that fast delivery in the historic present tense ("So then this creep, can you believe it, he turns around and says to me .... ").
Vic wondered if it might not be possible under the Arizona indulgence to count malt liquor, a stronger brew, as a kind of beer. And if the ration were stated simply as "two cans of beer," not further qualified, then why couldn't you just buy the bigger cans, huge ones, even, which would require the use of both hands to lift from the bar?
He and some others challenged Mr. Purifoy and pressed him hard to give the precise locations of the renegade AA groups. Mr. Purifoy couldn't remember offhand. Globe, maybe, was one of the places. You can't remember everything. Some fellow from Arizona was telling him about this, and he would know, wouldn't he? The man was from Arizona and an honorable lodge brother in good standing who drove a good car and made a pretty good living as a professional square-dance caller and who stood to gain nothing at all by telling a gratuitous lie about the two cans of beer. Could any one here dispute that? No? Then maybe some people should just shut up for a change and then maybe talk about something they did know something about for a change. How would that do? He finished his tea and left.
Later, there was a commotion, a diversion, at the pool table. One of the players fell unconscious to the floor—of a diabetic fit, it was said. He was a fairly young man, the very last one of our crew you would expect to keel over. Someone called for an ambulance. Everyone, Vic included, jumped up to offer help, with an alacrity that wouldn't be seen in a public bar. But how to help, exactly? Some said it was the head that must be elevated in these cases, and others the feet. The feet, I thought, but wasn't sure. The poor fellow was tilted first one way and then the other.
He soon came around, despite our efforts, and was shooting pool again when the ambulance arrived, flashing, shrieking, and setting all the neighborhood dogs barking. A welcome diversion for them, too. But the young man refused to be examined or wired up to any diagnostic machine or hauled away to a hospital—and he certainly wasn't going to sign his name to no paper on no clipboard. Forget it, he said, a false alarm.
There were angry words with the two paramedics. The senior one, the driver, was a heavy and hairy young man (Bull?) with nothing much of the nurse about him. He looked like the senior bouncer in a very big highway honky tonk, the bouncer of last resort. He dug in. Someone here, he said, and make no mistake, was going to sign this trip log and take responsibility for this deadhead run. It was a hard job he had, one demanding a healing touch of sorts and the driving skill of a stock-car racer, along with the brass and belligerence of a debt collector. The row was still going on when I left for the day, with the yard dogs still raving and foaming. I don't know how it came out, but I would have bet on the big medicobouncer.
I left the Ominato for good the next morning, rising earlier than Mr. Purifoy himself, our early bird. The Topaz was in place. No one at all was stirring. Criminals become criminals so they can sleep late. All their cars here would be a least a quart low on oil. I virtuously checked mine, then slammed the hood down with no consideration for their rest. And in motel life at the low end, you don't bother to say goodbye. It isn't done, you must keep a certain churlish distance, unless you're young and still human like Brandi and haven't yet learned the ropes. One day you just steal away and your disappearance is little noted if at all.
I drove up to Truth or Consequences on a whim, going out of my way, for a look around. I could find no trace of the old yellow cabins, nor even locate the site. Things disappear, too, utterly. The hot springs downtown were still flowing hot, or warm. The name of the place still grated, but less so now, burnished as it was a little by time and the friction of use. Some of the locals had taken to calling it "T or C." No improvement there, the cute made cuter.
That evening I stopped at a small motel called the Desert View—the real name this time. My room was a bit small but clean, new, modern, all those things, with a gleaming white bathroom. The bed was flat and firm. Over the headboard there were two good reading lamps mounted on pivots. I had air conditioning, cable television, a refrigerator, and a microwave oven. It was a quiet place with few guests, none of sly or ratlike appearance. I could park directly in front of my door. The nightly rate was twenty-five dollars flat, no surcharges. Allowing for inflation, this was little more than I had paid for the old cabin.
The Desert View was, in short, something pretty close to that ideal in my head of the cheap and shipshape roadside dormitory, what I kept looking for all those years. Now, after finding it, I was confused. This place was too good to be true. I sat on the firm edge of the firm bed, very still, wary, taking stock. Something felt wrong. Everything, more or less, but something bizarre in particular that I couldn't put my finger on. Then it came to me—the very carpet was clean. Motel carpet! What was going on here? I didn't get it. Who were these Desert View people? Where was the catch? I cleared out of there at dawn and still don't know.