The Highway Star
I felt better after the meal, and the ride seemed easier.
Closer to my destination, I pulled out back onto the boulevard as the motels began to appear.
They lined both sides of the street, the old school type that were mostly parking lot. Two-story buildings with long walkways on the second floor and doors opening into the parking lot on the first. The traditional, American Motor Hotel.
Unfortunately, the first five had their ‘No Vacancy’ signs lit, their parking lots full up. At this time of night, they were beehives of activity. Prostitutes, Johns and junkies filed in and out of the rooms going about their business.
A female voice called out to me as I passed one on the right side.
“Hey honey, you looking for a good time?”
I stopped the bike and turned to catch the eye of one of the largest women I’d ever seen squeezed into bright pink hot pants and a tube top. Pale flesh was overflowing everywhere it could as the fabric fought a losing battle to keep everything contained. Her makeup was thick and heavy, but she had a friendly smile. She walked a little closer and I IDed her.
“Er, no thanks,” I called.
“That’s all right, Mack, you know where to find me if you need some good loving. Jaz will take good care of you, honey.”
“Don’t you listen to that hoe,” another woman called, from a bit farther back into the parking lot. She was a tall black girl, incredibly thin with long straight hair and animal print clothing. She came and stood beside Jaz.
“Quiet, Stacy. Get your skinny ass away from my customer.”
“He’s not your customer, Jaz. Look, the kid doesn’t even want to be here. You going home, honey?”
“No, just looking for a motel. I need a place to stay for the night.”
“You go two more blocks honey. These ones here are for working girls, they’re like our office. They’re pay by the hour. Go down to the Highway Star and tell Jimmy that Jaz sent you. He’ll get you a room.”
“Yeah, Jimmy’s good people,” Stacy agreed. “Why you on a a bicycle, Mack?”
“Don’t have a car, do I?”
“I hear that. Go on honey, you’re scaring off my business,” Jaz said and shooed me away.
“Thanks, Jaz,” I said, and rode off leaving the two ladies behind.
Jaz had been right, the hotels for the next few blocks were mostly full of prostitutes and their customers.
The Highway Star didn’t look that different, to be honest. A bit less busy, perhaps. It also had the No Vacancy sign lit up, but I resolved to try to talk to Jimmy anyway.
I ducked into a nearby phone booth, entered the light and emerged as Frank. I wheeled the bike the last bit of distance to the Highway Star’s office.
It was a small room divided by a scarred wooden desk. A simple sign on the wall behind the desk looked like it hadn’t changed in fifty years. The Highway Star Motel, it announced to the world in an antique font, the paint faded.
The office was quiet, and empty. Directly opposite me a closed wooden door behind the desk led further in to the building. A bell sat on the desk in front of me and after looking around for a minute and waiting impatiently, I rang it.
Nothing happened, so thirty seconds later I rang again.
After the third time, I heard a thump from the back room. The door opened and a man emerged, his long gray hair sticking up in a halo around his balding head. I’d obviously just woken him.
“What the hell do you-” he cursed, and then stopped himself as he realized I wasn’t who he had been expecting. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for a room. Are you Jimmy?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s me. You lost? Besides, the sign’s on. No vacancy.”
“Jaz told me I should say she sent me, and that you’d treat me right. Seriously, I just need a room for the night. Can you help me?”
“You look like a nice kid. I don’t know how you know Jaz, but you really don’t want to stay here. Get back in your car, err, your bicycle, and go west about three miles. You’ll start seeing some hotels that way that are cheap enough. Not as cheap as us, but cheap.”
“Yeah, I bet. I really just need a place that takes cash and doesn’t ask questions, Jimmy.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Okay, I tried. I can give you a room, I guess. I hold a few in reserve, for special clients. That will be fifty bucks for the night. Don’t smoke in the room, please.”
I nodded. “I don’t smoke,” I replied.
I handed over the fifty bucks, and he handed back a key.
“I would recommend you don’t talk to any of your neighbors. They see you walking in the light, they’re going to smell blood. Lock your door, leave in the morning and you’ll be good. You got me kid? Cops don’t come here, so if you get robbed, that’s it.”
I thought about what he said. Did the cops really not come here? Or did he just mean they took forever? The latter I could believe, but the former might be true as well. Maybe for hotels like this where everyone was walking in shadow, they just didn’t show up.
“Thanks Jimmy. I’ll be out of your hair in the morning,” I said.
He gave me a dismissive wave and turned back to the partially open door behind him. Before I’d exited the office, it was closed, and I had assumed he went back to his sleep.
I’d been given room number 26, and looking at the numbers I could see that it was going to be on the ground floor. I walked through the parking lot towards the opposite end of the motel, watching the numbers. Mine wasn’t quite right at the end of the row, but it was close.
The parking lot was full, people sitting on chairs outside their front doors, or on the hoods of cars parked in front of their rooms. They were drinking beer, smoking and occasionally even playing dice against the wall of the hotel. They would occasionally look up and look me over, and although I reflexively tried to ID them, they were all in the shadows. As I was walking in the light, I got nothing but that shadowed feeling. I felt vulnerable and exposed being on this side of it.
I was almost to my room when the first of them made a run at me.
“Hey, kid. You need something? Weed, heroin, meth, what you poison? You need it, I get for you,” the man said, getting right up next to me, uncomfortably close. He had short, greasy hair and a pointed face with yellowed teeth, many of them missing. His smell was quite impressive.
He was skinny enough that I didn’t feel like he was a threat, but for all I knew he was strapped and and/or willing to stab me if I provoked him.
I shook my head, hoping my lack of engagement would discourage him.
“Come on, you want girls? I can get you girls, the best. Models, some of them are even actresses. You can fuck this beautiful girl and then go see her on the big screen the next day. You up for that, Frank?”
I gritted my teeth as he used my name. That was one part of the mirror I found hard to adjust to. The idea that when I was in the light anyone would know my name and my job just by looking at me. I much preferred the shadow for that, at least there I could hide everything but my name.
“No, I’m good” I replied.
“He speaks! Okay, now that we’re on a speaking basis, Frank, why don’t you tell me what you do want? You’re obviously not here for the luxurious accommodation, so why are you? Slumming, huh? trying to fulfill that special taste, are you?”
I shook my head, continuing to walk toward the room which seemed to be approaching very slowly indeed.
The man, I still didn’t know his name, followed me right to my door. I couldn’t think of any way to tell him to fuck off without potentially starting a fight, so I just ignored him while he continued to spiel at me.
I inserted the key in the lock and opened the door. On the other side was what you would expect, a double bed with two night tables, a small CRT TV mounted on a dresser at the foot of the bed, and on the opposite wall, the door to a simple bathroom. Your typical motel room. I wheeled the bicycle in and parked it under the window beside the bed, ignoring the man behind me. That finally got on his nerves.
“Hey, pay attention, Frank. I’m trying to help you out here. Didn’t your mother teach you not to ignore people?”
I was now standing in my room, and Skinny Dude was right in my face, just outside. With both my hands free I now felt a little bit better.
“Didn’t anybody tell you it’s rude to not take a hint? I don’t need anything. Thank you, goodbye.”
I stepped back and closed the door in his face, flicking the deadbolt shut. On the other side of the door, he spluttered in anger, kicked the door and walked off. I sighed in relief, having avoided yet another confrontation.
I sat down on the bed, shrugging off the backpack. Even though it was mostly empty, I was really tired of wearing it. I stretched and thought wistfully about a long, hot shower to wash the day away. That was when the door rattled in its frame. Skinny Dude had returned and was pounding on it.
“Frank, come on, open up. Look, I’m sorry that we got off on the wrong foot. I can help you. You got cash, I’ve got goods and services. Trust me, I’m a good guy to know.”
I ignored him, and it only took about ten seconds of silence before he snapped. He began kicking the door, rattling the cheap wood in the frame and making a lot of noise.
“You open the fucking door right now, you little shit. Nobody ignores me, especially a little punk like you. You think you can fucking close a door in my face? I’ll show you, open the fucking door,” he screamed, every word passing through the thin wood and the wide glass window beside it. I saw his face dimly through the curtains as he leaned over to look in.
“I can see you in there, Frank! Open the fucking door,”
I felt a heavy weight settle on my shoulders once again. I stood up, drawing my pistol with my right hand and reaching for the door with my left. I couldn’t go into the shadows, even if I did have a private place to do it. Skinny Dude was exactly the sort of guy I didn’t want to know Mack was here.
I couldn’t let him think I was his victim either. If the cops truly never came here, I didn’t have to worry about what would happen next.
My left hand had closed on the deadbolt twist and I was just about to open the door when I heard Jimmy’s voice outside.
“Juice, what the hell are you doing? I told you not to hassle my guests. This is your last warning. Do this again and you are out, you get me?”
“Jimmy, it’s not like that. I’m trying to help the kid,” Juice protested.
“Like hell. Get the fuck away from that door. I see you there again, you’re done here, get me? You think any of these other hotels are going to take you in after your shit? This is your last chance, keep it together or you’re out.”
Juice mumbled something I couldn’t hear, and the noise outside stopped. Peeking out the window I saw Juice/Skinny Dude walking away.
I pulled shut the blackout shades of the big window by the door, giving myself as much privacy as I could. The dresser with the TV on it in I set in front of the door, and then leaned the bicycle against that as well. It wouldn’t keep someone determined out but would give me enough of a warning to sleep.
With the room secured I had a cold shower—no hot water—lay on the bed and was immediately asleep.