I stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel. It is a deserted island, the asphalt cracked and broken, looking toward the flat Texas landscape, as thin as the sky above. The landscape is so level that I can see the curvature of the earth. It's a vaguely discernible line. It tapers into the horizon: lost.
There are bruised buildings, all rotted teeth, and rusted out cars surrounding the motel, upended Volkswagens splashed with rainbows of dark primary colors: purple, orange and red pushed into the ground, nose first, at sixty-degree angles. I have come here to write. I'm worn out and tired. I'm searching for the first sentence to a perfect love story, that moment when two people know, and they swell inside with a mutual recognition.
My mind swirls, caught in the crisp winter air. Love stories should be told in the heat, in the dripping passion of a tropical moment. My nose is cold. My mind searches for the nub of a thought, the glint of a speck that will carry my prose to a place of meaning and purpose. What I mean is: what better place to write than this forsaken spot where the mind breathes and wanders.
When I arrive I am met by the proprietor's handyman. He lives at the motel, the room closest to the office, and it's his job to put Band-Aids on the crippled building before it loses its relevance and to keep an eye on the front door of the office when Shanaya, the proprietor, isn't around.
"Do you want something?" he growls suspiciously. He wipes his hands on a rag and throws it on the seat of his 1940 Indian Chief motorcycle. The sun glimmers off the gas tank. A mescaline glint catches my eyes. I flinch. The scent of rubbing wax floats to where I stand. It burns the inside of my nose. He has a gray pony tail and deep lines in his cheeks and harsh peppered whiskers surround the bottom of his face.
"I'm here to see the owner," I say.
"She's busy. Do you need to check in?"
"We have a special arrangement," I say. The handyman coughs out a snicker.
"Yeah, well, mister, we all have special arrangements. Let me get you a key."
He's wearing a black T-shirt with a skull on the front. His jeans hang on his waist. He's missing his butt. I don't know how his pants stay up, but he wobbles over to the lobby with a hesitant confidence. His belly is the size of the gas tank on his bike and hangs over the front of his pants. A cigarette dangles out of his mouth like a toothpick.
Moments pass in his absence; I look up at the telephone wires crisscrossing and dripping over the motel property like poor stitches. They barely keep the skin of the day together. I can't believe they are being used. It's an intrusion that makes no sense. There is no one to communicate with. I play with words, searching for the right voice, the right sentence, the right understanding. The handyman is back and he hands me a key.
"Room 110—it's along that west row away from everyone," he says. He points to the sky with his crooked hand like he is waving off flies. I look around at the vacant parking lot. Everyone? There is an abandoned white car, alone, parked in front of one of the rooms. "She had your name on it—I mean the key. I guess this is you. She won't be back until later today."
"I'm a writer," I offer. I feel like I need to present my credentials. I didn't want him to mistake me for someone else.
"I guess that explains everything."
I stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel, and like the people who live here; this is a vulnerable place, a million miles away from the Love truck stop across the highway. The cinderblock walls are yellowed and they have turquoise doors and paint-brushed red soffits. The door jambs are wrinkled with age. A rusted chain-link fence surrounds what used to be a playground, the old frame of a swing set bends, genuflecting in the middle of a circle of dirt and brown-yellowed sprouts of brome.
A desolate heart, open, wind-blown over an open plain, tumbling, tumbling, finding its place, alone, in the comfort, in the dryness of the land.
A desolate heart? No.
Shanaya, the proprietor, finally arrives, and she is walking toward me. She is Devi, the Hindu goddess; she is crimson and gold, set in her stance, strong and certain. She is wearing tight blue jeans and a nylon sweater and ear muffs. A smile cracks her face.
"You made it!" She is excited.
"I wasn't sure I would. There was a blizzard going out of Albuquerque."
"Oh my, do you have your key?"
"Yes, your handyman gave it to me."
"Don't trust him," she whispers. She grabs my arm, her face somber, and puts her hand up to her mouth, then moves into my chest. "He is running from the law, I know. His motorbike is stolen. And I think he killed someone. He stays one step ahead of the corpse."
I stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel. There is a restaurant in the center of the property, it has no name, just—RESTAURANT. There are crystals in the air, and chaotic gusts blow into my face, white dust from the top of the roof swirl in circles. The windows are big and lime crusted. It is rented from Shanaya to an obscure middle-aged couple. It is simple and vacant. I have decided to eat breakfast at this place this morning.
"They haven't paid one cent of rent," Shanaya told me the first day we met. It was before I rented the room, when I passed through months before. I met them briefly. They walked into the lobby while we were talking; they were gaunt, and vacant when they left. "It's been four months. No money. Four months!"
"Why don't you kick them out?"
She softened. She regretted sharing this information with me. We watched the couple shuffle their way back to the restaurant through the window.
"I'm trying to be helpful. I know they have a tough life."
Shanaya slammed the cash register drawer. There was a harsh ring.
"It's tough all over," she continued. She let out a sigh. "We have each other. It is all we have. God be with us."
She kissed her fingers and touched the air above her head.
I spy the handyman covering his motorcycle. He ties it down with bungee cords until the only thing you can see is the bottom of the tires. He sees Shanaya and I talking in the parking lot He quickly sneaks up on us, not wanting to miss a moment, curious and clumsy and awkward, quixotic in his attempts to fit in. His voice is a ramble of thoughts. He tells me there are rattlesnakes, behind the motel, in the stacks of rotted lumber.
"In the winter?" I ask.
"Well, grab it by the tail, man, before it gets away! Swing it!" He has a stuttered laugh. He just spits it out—things like that—things that make no sense.
In the silences, between doubt and regret, she kisses the stars, and they vanish.
Doubt and regret? No.
I walk into the empty restaurant. They are a quiet and myopic couple. The man's wife looks like a woman who has settled into her fate years ago, snapping up the only man left in these middle years. She's no catch herself. She looks disappointed and slain, and she's reserved as a lazy fish. I ask for a menu and sit at one of the many empty tables.
"What's good here?"
She is quiet, impatient, almost disturbed that I am here. She wipes her right hand against her apron, distracted, and pulls out a pen.
Her husband spies on us from inside the kitchen. He tries not to be noticed. I can see his half-suspicious face. He's waiting for me to steal her away.
They are American gothic, plain-faced, stern and secretive. They have traded their pitch fork in for a spatula. They are as dull as their surroundings: veneer-topped tables peeled at the side, a black-smudged floor and split vinyl chairs. Behind the counter, it is empty, void of any food, only the burnt smell of old coffee. Their food is hidden, on the other side of a metal door, in what promises to be a heap of old galvanized tables, streaked with failure, crud-filled corners and the smell of rot. Have they been inspected? I doubt it. And the food—lots of gravy over meat. I imagine a cauldron of goo in the kitchen.
I pretend that I am eating, consuming my meal. Her husband shows her a letter they had just got in the mail. She rolls her eyes and stuffs the letter into her apron. I believe they are on the run, escaping Child Support Services, month by month, late night flights from small towns to smaller towns, false names and cash only jobs, thrift shop clothes and worn shoes. She looks like a woman cheated out of her future. His face is the face of guilt: bewilderment, things in his life disappearing so quickly. He depends on her to salvage what is left of his life. At the end of the night they disappear into their motel room.
I stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel. It has now been days and I have only written sample sentences, nothing that seems to work. There is a thin film of unblemished snow on the ground, everything that once looked decayed now looks rich in the sparkle of white. It cleanses the soul—a born again landscape with fresh walls and windows. I notice the cleaning lady pushing her laundry dolly across the walkway between each room, leaving twin tracks. She disappears into the paint on the cinderblock, an apparition and a mystery. I think she cleans the same rooms daily. There are no customers. I've watched her do this for days. I stop her as she passes my room.
"Excuse me, do you have towels?"
She grabs a stack of three clean towels and holds them out to me. She is virginal, pale, her hair scattered over grape-green eyes. There are needle marks on her arms. She is slit open like a confused fawn. Her attention is dulled and weak. Her thoughts have been raped long ago. She has a slight shake in her body that she steadies by holding her forearms.
She is dirt born, olive, a confident flower, her breath like the musk of the land, hot and engulfing, open game.
Hot and engulfing? No.
"Are you okay?"
She is shy and moves her head in circles.
"Is that a yes?"
"Hmm, hmm," She quickly shakes her head. She watches the skin of snow below her feet melt. "Soap and shampoo?"
"No, I'm fine." I say.
She scoots slowly to the next room. Her feet look bound, one careful step at a time so she doesn't fall over.
She makes the rooms acceptable. Her towels are white, tattered, sometimes stained, with the fresh smell of spring.
She can barely pull the blankets to the top of the bed, Shanaya told me the night before. She is gentle in her description of the cleaning lady. It's her white car abandoned in the parking lot. I have looked through the windows of this car, daily, when I pass it, one of the first things I noticed when I pulled into the Starlite Motel. It's missing a quarter panel and part of the front bumper. The upholstery is worn, ripped with holes. The tires are chaffed and barely float the vehicle. I suspect that it doesn't run.
I have seen Shanaya embracing the cleaning lady each morning, a slight choke and whimper in the air.
"Shh. Shh. It's okay."
I stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel. The sun is burnt amber, squeezed between the yellow landscape and the deep blue. It's a cold orange. The sky is wrenching the juices from the day; it feels like everything will freeze. The ice is a veneer. The wreckage around me starts to brown, its lines a chaotic basket of serrated knives. Silhouettes. The lights above each door on the motel are a faint eyebrow, a wink of life. You can hear the violent copulation in the wind as it bangs against the doors of each room, an unwanted intrusion, the weakening of the will. But, there's no ache of love behind these walls. Sex is practiced only to take one to a faster sleep. There's no dalliance at the Starlite Motel, only the hope of easy flight. The sheets have been leached out long ago. There's only rest.
I see Shanaya walk across the parking lot to the restaurant: she embraces the night. She wears the stars like a coat.
He sees her as a dark silhouette in a fallen sun, creating her own light. Her brown skin shivers.
Why do men like women with brown skin? And how do you describe the skin of women? Whatever happened to the creamy-skinned angel, whose touch was like the finger of god: ecstasy? It was the fable of old movies—Gone With the Wind or A Street Car Named Desire—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Since then, there has been an invasion of steam and sensuality.
She smells of jasmine and myrrh. She is the baubled savior of her world.
No! No! No!
She is a flame of hope to those who work for her. She salvages the broken from the asphalt river above them, those who have run out of road, money and promise. She offers a flawed salvation that is eagerly embraced. Some stay for days, maybe weeks, and then they move on. She offers a free bed, money enough to buy food and gas. She has more rooms occupied by employees on any given night than customers who leak into the parking lot as the sun sets over the curved horizon. She is innocent of the tragedies that stumble into her life on a nightly basis.
Shanaya is dark, brown, the soil of the earth. She has the traditional red dot in the middle of her forehead—bindi. It is the point of creation in its unmanifested state. It fits. She gives birth daily to a ray of hope, and she imparts this hope to the broken lives that happen into her world.
Fast-forward years later and I, again, stand in the parking lot of the Starlite Motel, but this time it is different. It's a full moon, and I can hear the earth breathe. I have become a part of the fabric, one of the ancients, in the times of chrome and polish, the singe of gas lights in the night sky. It is separated from the life on the interstate, taken aside, folded away for a better time, hoping one day it will all come back.
This life was already couched to disappear, long ago, an austere motel once a brilliant neon oasis. A place, such as this was the heart of the night, a blaze in the eye of the weary traveler. And though the bathrooms were small, the beds springy, and the walls cold on a winter night, it was always the dream of wanton lust that filled each room with promise and hope, a gnosis of carnal intent: the perfect disappearance. Hearts stirred when the glint of its light came through the car window on a moonless night. Oh, so tempting to stop.
Now, they're all gone, this menagerie of ghosts: the motel and the restaurant, the bug ranch, Shanaya and the nervous handyman, the stiff couple at the restaurant and the frail cleaning lady, they have all been swept away by the storm of progress. They have been crucified: their skeletons left as dusty tombstones, blown into the tumbleweeds which rolled quickly into the barbed-wire fences, forgotten. At least Jesus had an audience.
They have become silt in the plains, replaced by a sanitary lodging somewhere else that reached up into the stars above; bigger lights, bold. These new lodgings were sterile, untouched by the flawed world they served, rooms tucked away in solitary corners, and they gave sanctuary to truck stops where drunken travelers could buy multi-colored shot glasses and key chains, jet-propelled lighters and bags of chips of all kinds, cookies and protein bars, or hot dogs and Polish sausages off the infinite circle of a buttered grill. These travelers will never know that at one time there were whiffs of humanity beneath their feet.
I have been left with the keys and the phone to the Starlite Motel. They lay on the shelf near my desk. In my head, I have been there for months. I am the only one on this neon planet as the skiff of semitrucks pass on the interstate, east and west, like gray restless wraiths. They are a reminder of something worth missing.
The rooms of the past are unadorned, dimly lit with leaky faucets, bathrooms too small to maneuver. The lobby smells of cats and threadbare furniture. There is dust, lots of it. It is a cluster of plastic flowers and cheap paintings, pencils and pens stuffed in cups, papers and files that have lain in this office for decades and decades, and cheap weak toys. The only life left in this motel, the windows all smashed, is a plastic mechanical bird. It flaps its wings endlessly. It hangs from a nylon string, attached to the ceiling above. The bird is silent and desperate. It struggles to fly through broken glass embedded in the window frame. It has been there for years.
I think of Shanaya, her energy and her endurance. She is the savory wine that lingers, oak scented, when everything around her is collapsing. She is redemption in the vanishing landscape, belief in the midst of a consuming despair. I can still taste her scent. Where most people see sunsets, she sees the dawn, a prism: the burst of a spectrum of color that cloaks the landscapes she occupies. She fills the air with psalms. She carries in her womb the birth of a better past. She is the perfect first sentence to my love story: She glistens.
Title image "Vacancy No More" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.