Lee P. Doptera
I have, at various times throughout my life, played the part of the fugitive. With little to no notice, I've had to make a sudden change of location with varying degrees of permanence. Never entirely planned, these trips were under-funded, and the destination was more of an eccentric and meandering curve than a straight line.
When traveling with the little left after bills from the last paycheck, the economizing absconder avoids the Holiday Inns, La Quintas, and other familiar names. She passes the Econo Lodges and Drury Inns with steering wheel-tapping impatience. She looks for the horror movie blinking “vacancy” signs and chipped and faded cowboys that tower menacingly in deserted parking lots. She becomes familiar with the places that make most travelers shudder and perform mental calculations involving gas mileage and the relative proximity of the next town. Most people would pass all of these places and lump them into the same broad category: seedy. Seedy little motels populated by drug addicts and sex workers. They are not entirely wrong; they just fail to recognize that there are many types of seeds.
The first time I came across what I like to deem the “Norman Rockwell” (that is Rockwell and not Bates), I trembled in my car for a solid hour before finally summoning the courage to walk up to the bulletproof glass and whisper that I needed a room. Peeling paint covered every square inch of the building in pastel remembrance of the garish red, white, and blue stripes it once sported. Tattered strings on black plastic sticks that were once small American flags were stuck in various crevices, sometimes decorating the large cracks that split the hallway at intervals. I don't remember the name of the first Norman, sad to say, but it was a pun. They always are; some allusion to the West; the spelling of Cozy with a “K;” an almost unintelligible jumble of words in which the final consonants are replaced with apostrophes. The Norman Rockwells are generally replete with Americana and seem to cling by their fingernails to the Fifties. They never repaint, they never update the large plastic princess phones that remain silent broken hulks in each room, and they chain the ancient boxy television sets to the rusty exposed pipe in the corner held together by millions of uneven layers of peeling paint because they know their clientele. Sometimes you'll open your door to find a large square of clean carpet and an empty chain. Some people think to bring their bolt-cutters.
My dear sweet Normans are generally managed by ancient, impossibly ancient, men who glower at the world from behind their Formica desks. They have deeply lined faces of the sort that photographers drool over because of their wealth of character. There's always a barrier of bars, plastic, or glass and the more impenetrable wall of bitterness. Managers of the Normans know that life took a wrong turn somewhere a long time ago, and they pay everyone back in full with paper-thin but somehow stiff and scratchy sheets on mattresses that roll you into the broken spring in the center no matter how many times you wake up and cling to the edge of the bowl-shaped bed. Normans are not the best places for a night’s rest, but they are wonderful for quiet pensive nights. You never see a Norman with more than a few cars in the parking lot. Nine out of ten rooms will also have an invisible cricket in them. Do not engage the cricket. You will not win.
The Normans are sad but innocent places and I will take one without hesitation. There are much darker places along the road. Take the “Other-ways,” so named because the desk-workers will never look you in the eye. They know better than to be a witness. The plastic gray camera pointed at the front desk has an obvious bundle of unattached wires dangling from it, and the dusty monitor beside it is always dark to emphasize the inability of anyone to recall anything or any person at any time. If there is a sign-in book, the list of names reads “John Smith” ad nauseam. Here you hope to hear your neighbor’s conversations because silence is just a temporary and edgy state that will be broken by something terrible. You hope for the room next to the junkies or prostitutes, because their brand of debauchery is unlikely to spill through your wall. It may not be a bad idea to sleep on the floor. Low is safer, and there is little difference in cleanliness or comfort. Personally, I find the bathtub to be safest, as long as you set your alarm to wake you up periodically so you can peak through the broken blinds to make sure they have not yet gutted your car. I have often paid as little as fifteen dollars for a night at an Other-way, but I have seldom felt it was worth the savings. You always pay up front. This is handy when the intensity of the fight in the next room prompts you to grab your bag, jump in the car, and speed away. The nights I have stayed were mostly spent trying not to think of how many bodies have been found there or exactly how much I might go for. Probably less nowadays.
Other-ways attract all kinds, but there are motels with more specific flavors. The “Bordellos” are what you would imagine. The managers of these are not sour-faced or bitter. They have sly half-smiles; the countenance of Janus; the comedy and tragedy masks united. They know the regulars and they call them “girls,” all of them. Even the toothless ones that could be anywhere between twenty and seventy giggle when the smiling manager says, “There are my girls. How are we today?” They eye me questioningly, wondering if I might be a new one or if there will be a similarly quiet and nervous man joining me later. He looks at me and thinks, “first-timer."
I never mind these roadside cat houses. There's something pure and beautiful in those who rely on the most basic physical substance of their beings to survive. Having no other tools, they become what they have to. They smile past pain and heartbreak and stare through people while they sacrifice themselves again and again. They are Prometheus. It's profoundly tragic, and I've seen more kindness in the eyes of a prostitute than I have in those of a minister. These are the women who make no assumptions about me and pass no judgment. Like mother hens, they flock around me when they see hungry eyes linger on my own down-turned face and pink-blooming cheeks. They ply away men who might otherwise stalk me on my way to my room. They constantly pretend to play the prey to these wolves, and they know the truly hunted when they see me. They are my guardian angels for as long as I need them.
At first glance, a “Den” may appear to be a Bordello from the roadside. Dens are generally populated with a fair amount of hookers, but the girls that linger here are not the same breed. Only once you've paid for your room and walked the unlit parking lot does the truth become evident. Finding your room is the first challenge but one you will want to accomplish as quickly as possible because few of the doors retain their numbers. That is the first clue. Frequenters of Dens are generally paranoid and want to make it difficult for anyone to find them. They pay for rooms but linger mostly in the archways between the buildings. All of them wear big coats regardless of the temperature, and they freeze like menacing statues with their hands in their pockets and watch you walk past until you are all the way in your room. They shake hands with strangers, both parties looking in opposite directions and playing at nonchalance. Clouds of strange burning smells snake out from doors that have been kicked in time and time again. You are unlikely to find a room with a working lock, let alone a door that will stay closed. Hope for furniture, something moderately sturdy, that you can shove against the door. There may be a small love seat covered in tiny burns or, at the very least, a chair with a broken leg that can be wedged. Hope to God you don't have a suite. You will not be lucky enough to have two pieces of serviceable furniture, but you can jam your shoe under the crack of the door in a pinch.
Finally, the "Ruins." These are places that were once high-end but that have fallen into such disrepair they should be condemned. The indoor swimming pool will be green and toxic under the five panes of glass that still remain in the skylight. The indoor swimming pool, I probably do not have to mention, is for all intents and purposes an outdoor swimming pool. Moss and vines will cover the broken remnants of tile and creep up the cracking plaster. You may still be able to see what were once Grecian columns in the corners. A hot tub will bubble quietly like a chortle in a corner, and if you stay long enough, a fish will walk out of it.
The rooms will be an echo of decadence. One strip of the faded damask wallpaper will curl from ceiling to floor to expose a wide stripe of wall. Step over it to show respect. Sconces in the hallways will sport darkened bulbs that burned out when people were still collecting tin for the war effort. Carpets will retain an impossible plushness exactly one millimeter from the wall; the rest will be worn to a shiny thinness and, regardless of its original color, will be a cigarette-ash gray. Ruins should be photographed relentlessly. Everything will seem like a metaphor, and everyone will look like a ghost. Feel free to take their pictures. None of them will turn out.
My mother cried the first time I came back with pictures and stories. I told her about opening a suite door only to discover that all the rooms were connected by similarly opened doors and the strange urge I had to run through all of them naked and yelling. I told her it looked like a trick with mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors. I told her about the hookers and their names. Sugar baby, Twinkie, Loopsie. I showed her the ashtray I swiped from one of the Normans (sorry to yet again prove your point, bitter manager) with Ronald Reagan on it. She sat down heavily and shook her head. She said she didn’t understand why I was smiling. I told her it was my temporary passage through those worlds running parallel to our own that we seldom glimpse; those small seeds that contain so much life.
Lee P. Doptera is originally from Louisiana but moved to Colorado when she heard rumors that the state contained both bears and mountains. She remains constantly on the lookout for the former while exploring the latter. Lee spends the majority of her time working, writing, studying various languages, and hiding from the world behind the covers of dusty books. "Seedy" and a number of her other works were inspired by her favorite poet, Eliot Khalil Wilson. His poems are what words hope to be when they grow up.