Chapter 12

“Stray from a chosen path
at your peril, lest unforeseen
influences take hold.”

Back then, Sydney directed me along neon arrows to the largest and lowest number on Lovelock’s motel row: a screaming nine-dollar overnight with space heater and optional soft-core porn.  I kept the squareback revving while she negotiated for what purported to be the Rodeo Arms Motor Lodge’s last available unit, a week-long cattle auction now hitting town.  Second to the end on Rodeo’s eastern wing, 6B melded that bovine essence with ethyl fumes from the Two Stiffs Selling Gas station next door.  A damp-seamed tank of furnace oil blocked most reflective fallout from the $9 sign, and everything else about 6B but the door.

          “There you go, now which room’s mine?”  I dragged her valise and heaviest suitcase into the coldly single room.

          “Which one’s yours,” she chuckled, as she hustled the storm and windowless wood doors closed behind me.  “This is it, flash.  You think I’m wasting my hard-earned gas money on two dumpy rooms?  Really, the way this trip’s been going, we’ll probably need a transmission overhaul by Sacramento.”

          “Huh?!  Nooo way…” I gazed around the oversize closet as soon as she hit a wild palomino lamp on the night stand: Plenty of vinyl and plastic phlox, a closed-circuit Motorola suspended from the ceiling—19-inch provocateur to the junior double bed jammed against the back walls, just below a framed parchment of the Rodeo’s house commandments. “I’ll be out sleeping in the car.”

          “Brrr, get your tush back in here, will you please,” she said, through the twang of ripped screening as I bolted out the doors.  “My Chanel has got to be better than seeping fuel oil.”

          “Look, nothing personal,” I shouted, over the gear wail of a downshifting Bekins mover, watching her fussily open and re-zip her down jacket.  “I’d just feel more comfortable…”

          “Oh, grow up,” she squeezed halfway into the bathroom, as if maneuvering into tumble-dried panty hose, combing out her tangled blond hair—long and flossy tresses compared to Melissa’s luxuriant brunette jungle.  “We’ve already spent the night together in the car, haven’t we?  Did anything uncomfortable happen in the car?!”

          “Well, no…but,” I shut the door back behind me and spotted a house phone beside the bed.  “I’d best call Moon.”

          “Wonderful, Festus the manager will be thrilled to hear we’re riding double in here.”

          “You don’t understand,” I stammered.  “Under the circumstances, I just think it…apropos.”

          “Apropos,” she scowled, means testing the bed with her tight, steel-belted radial behind.  “Well, I think it’s an insult—to Moon and me.  We’re family, get it?  Family!  Anyway, I thought you just talked to her in Willup.”

          “Uh, not exactly,” I said, shoulder blades flat against the door.  “In fact, all I got was a message that wasn’t even for me, but a kind of…neighbor who’s gravitated around of late— something about a party.  I’ll be damned if I know what…”

          “Can’t imagine…maybe it was a work thing.  Or maybe dear Melissa’s dabbling in local lore.”

          “Huh?!  How can you say a thing like that…”

          No telling what the Rodeo’s premium suites had to offer, but 6B gave me recall, wall to wall.  The same grainy plaster, a far-too-familiar corner heater lobbing lukewarm sprinkles against an arctic sea: All Lovelock lacked were the dirty yellow chest-high drifts.  I never anticipated that that long, sickening New Year’s haul some years before would ever repeat on me.  Yet here it was, anchovies one morning after the fact—stale, awful Cheetos and beef stew by the can in that grim New Jersey Turnpike motel.  Crash-landed in Pennsauken, suckling up to Roberta’s rolling waistlines, hurling Dinty Moore’s entrails across the bed sheets with a noggin full of snow-blunted dismay.  My head hadn’t felt this icy hot and helium light since that warped east coast drive-a-thon earlier on.  And I surely had no more stomach for it now.

          “Juust kidding, yeesh…” Sydney pulled back the discolored bedding, then took the pillows to task. “Well, TV anyone?”

          “C’mon, dammit!  Family or no family, this isn’t what my relationship is all about.”

          “Oh, don’t flatter yourself…” She peeled down to a blue sleeveless body sock, then line bored under the covers.  “The sooner we turn in, the sooner you get me back to California.”

          An overstocked cattle truck stampeded up Business 80, steers moaning in a crush of ribs and hooves, the Rodeo Arms trembling down to its box springs until a gasoline tanker counter-rumbled along.  On the other hand, it could have been my chilblains and high-beam glaucoma, or the increased fluttering in my lower alimentary canal.  I peered evasively about this walk-in cooler; however much it smacked of Jersey, she was clearly no Roberta.  I hedged and sighed and stroked a two-day growth, feeling raw and torn as my undershirts, refracting her curious glare.  Damn, if she didn’t know all too well I couldn’t doze upright another night.  Even more galling was that what I saw as some monumental fidelity test, she could so easily dismiss as simple rest.

          “Good god, either I’m totally repulsive…or Moon has you whipped something fierce.”

          “Hey, come on, it’s not like you’re repulsive or…”

          “Oh, that’s a relief,” she rolled over toward a framed rotogravure of Lovelock’s nightlife in a flap of Hereford brown covers and horsefeather pillows. “Well, stay in your clunker, sleep in the bathtub, for all I care.  I’m just trying to help things along.”

          “Je-sus…”  I locked the doors behind me, then cleaved into the bathroom to dispense with some sugar and caffeine.  There really was nothing to this; don’t flatter yourself, just like she said.  I could hear her humming under the scraping of the bathroom ceiling fan, which unleashed a barrage of suddenly cherished imagery in the varicose mirror.  Melissa baking banana bread, Melissa by the fire sipping Celestial tea, Moon over mountain views of July Fourth fireworks up and down the Front Range:  Where the hell was she?  What fucking party?!  A flush of the toilet, and the images swirled coriolically away.  I punched at two corroded rubber machines, then killed the light, comforted by the realization that there was nothing Sydney could possibly see in the stubbled face I’d just left in the half-cracked mirror.

          “O the Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone…”

          “Aww, don’t be singing that,” I edged into a room dimmed to the pink glow of a water-stained lampshade.  “Why must you be…”

          “I don’t know, just thought it apropos…”

          “The hell…” I deployed night vision as best I could to flesh out her blanketed form: an old army trick—backstabbing, home-wrecking army—duty rostering, field stripping my marriage away.  Curious how Sydney and Melissa shaped up so differently, though more or less the same size.  Moon was soft and renaissance rounded, that rose petal skin, all that succorous cushioning in a shapely compact form.  Covers aside, Sydney was firm and toned like Celeste Wylie, like a designer label marathon trainer.  With Moon’s face and a little more Faith, she might have been under contract to Paramount Studios.

          “So tell me about Leonard Cohen,” she tracked my approach by the linoleum-dulled clunk of petrified boots. “Soon as you get out of those revolting clothes.”

          “Right,” I sighed, peeling down reluctantly from jeans and chamois shirt to a pitted CU gym top and worn-through Looms.  “After you tell me about that Utah tantrum over your sunglasses.”

          “Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone.  They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on…” She burrowed singing face-first toward the wall as I tumbled in, mattress caving like an aqueduct, pushing us together, center spread.  “You first…”

          “Enough, for Christsake!”  I turned away from her as though we had been carrying on like this for years.  “No big thing, OK?  It just dredges up Fayetteville, North Carolina.  I was a married draftee.  Cassie and I lived off post with two cars, yet—our place sort of became Fort Bragg’s artsy anti-war central.  Maybe it was the conflicting pressures, Maybe it was the bad pay, bad formations—but mainly my bad haircuts.  So the holidays came, and we decided to split.  We made the surprise announcement at our New Year’s Eve bash.  She fled at midnight with this Cat Stevens-kinda gypsy to St. Augustine, Florida—went a little crazy like that sometimes… think it had to do with her being adopted”

          “Hmm, fuzzy parentage?  Say no more…”

          “That and the fact that she finally got around to telling me she had had an abortion when she was a freshman in high school.  Anyway, a bunch of us headed up to New York.  Roberta played an old ‘Suzanne’ tape all the way through Virginia.  Every time ‘Sisters of Mercy’ or ‘So Long, Marianne’ came on, I cried my eyes out.  The plan was non-stop driving shifts, but we got so wasted, we had to lay over in Jersey—a hole sort of like…this.  Then a black guy, Cornelius, got everybody wrecked, and things were all over the map, sexwise.”

          “Really…”

          “Hey, not me—I just sat there, bawlin’ and passing out.  When we finally got to Darrell’s writer friend Wilson Trescott’s loft, we all got gun-mugged by teenage junkies on his second floor landing… midmorning, 12th Street and Avenue B.  I never want to go through anything like that again—worst night of my life.  But why am I telling you this,” I flopped back over, drilling an optical hole through 6B’s plaster-cracked ceiling.  “Moon doesn’t even know.”

          “But what about your marriage?  Two people can’t end things just like that…”

          “We did.”  I sensed uneasiness, as if the room seemed somehow cheaper than it already was.  “I shipped out to Europe, did the divorce papers long distance. She had some hotshot feminist lawyer, pro bono…but I didn’t want anything from her, anyway.  Only began hearing from her again when the gypsy ran off.  That’s when she finally admitted she knew I’d never meant to lay a hand on her.”

          “Well, no kids, no harm, I guess…”

          “Not that I’ve even known of…”

          “My, how romantic…so much for the holy vows of matrimony.”

          Tremors from 5B portended a late-night caucus of the shorthorn and bullwhip delegation, regrouping to bid up some numbers.  What sounded to be a small posse of ranchers busted through  its door with cases of clinking long necks, bouncing off walls like penned brahmas, cranking up the country and piped-in TV.

          “Sooo, what about Utah,” I asked nervously, over the crumbling of drywall and wailing of Willie and the boys.

          “Say again,” she shifted, as if searching her memory bank for men she’d ever known actually bald-face crying.  Closest she seemed to get was Martin Kavalla, or Lester when he was all of eight years old.

          “Your shades, remember?”  I felt exposed, like tainted shellfish.  “C’mon, we had a deal going here!  You’ve been digging everything out of me, and giving nothing in return…”

          “Alright, already…here’s the…deal.  It wasn’t so much the sunglasses,” she said sleepily, oblivious to the shattering of beer bottles and coughing rodeo hoots next door.  “Besides, I got his Super Bowl buckle, stuffed it in my purse while he was busy fiddling with his mirrors.  It’s what the creep did when he pulled ahead of your car that really burned me.  The pig bastard ran his grubby hand right down my pants.”

          “He what?!”  Figured as much, the sleazeball seemed the type.  I was unsure whether to feign territorial outrage in such unfamiliar territory, or plain and simple indignation.  “Well, he didn’t exactly force you to ride with him, you know…I mean, if you’re talking personal responsibility and all that.”

          “Oh, so you’re saying it was my fault.  He had a real heater, which is more than your junker does…”

          “Yeah, and lucky for you he didn’t use it.”

          “OK, flash,” she rolled back over quicker than a keno ball out the tumbler, plunging her small, steely hand through an ample tear in my shorts.  “Tell me whose fault this is…”

          I felt her frostbitten fingers grab directly for my scrotum with all the tactical authority of an occupying force.  She squeezed tightly, almost triumphantly, ripping my underwear to the seams, a sudden burning testicular ache compelling me to grunt for terms.  Turf seized, she slid her glaze-nailed fingertips along my coarsening scrotal sack, smooth as a spatula, then rode the blood rush up my throbbing penal artery.  Strumming her fingers, cupping her palm, Sydney tickled and teased the full length of my lightening response.

          I otherwise stiffened in flat-out adrenal shock, numb to rumbling cattle trucks, squeaking bedsprings, the vibrato-framed rotogravure.  Blinded by blinking gas signs and lip red neon arrows, I drowned in the sum fragrance of Chanel No.5 and leaking fuel oil, caught here in the throes of downtown Lovelock, rather as embarrassed as aroused.

          I soon surrendered dog-tired to 5B’s roughshod Merle Haggard and crashing throwaway Buds, Syd quickening her power stroke, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ humming right along.  Nodding, fading—call Moon, stall Moon—breach of promise, if not grave alienation of affection: The only thing between me and a painfully welcome night’s rest was the meaning of all this ‘flash’ crap.

          Quite predictably, the answer came to me…just like that.

Care for more?

Chapter 13. Buckling up does not
necessarily make for a safer journey.
Instead, it augurs a tawdry face-off
in gaudy surroundings…