2003: It wasn't the hotel-room living that got me called a pervert
IT WAS A YEAR OF HOTEL ROOMS. The Greenwell Inn, Price, Utah: Everything was light blue-green in and outside of the rooms, almost the color of the swimming pool, on a wide ex-highway boulevard through a desert town of 8,000 in Carbon County—which means coal. The (former) Narrows Motel, Glen Arbor, Mich.: five or six rooms at the waist of tepid, inland Glen Lake, where everything in all of the rooms was covered in fine soil, not dust. The Nordic Motel, Portland, Ore: an air conditioning unit fit for a morgue and no visitors or drugs signs. The Wildwood Motel, Gunnison, Colo.: The room was covered in flower prints, greenish carpeting, and framed prints of nature scenes—like what you imagine other peopleís grandmaís houses looked like.
Thatís not the chronological order of 2003, but more how itís remembered. Narratives make their own calendars. My 2003 was my most intense period of detachment and outright selfishness. It is the year that sent me, eventually, toward writing for a living.
First, it sent me to the Wildwood Motel and, of the four, it was the least accidental, the one that really counts. Writing, I think, is the most solitary thing and the most public. It operates completely in oneís head and is consumed infinitely and unknowably. I was coming off a period of time where I had difficulty thinking, or was thinking about too many things, and was having a hard time interacting with people because of it.
My last apartment, in a different small mountain town very close to New Mexico, had been shared with a fellow that looked like he rode around during the day underneath the hood of a truck—and the space itself was scuffed all over with black ash, littered with firewood scraps, and had more piles of junk than furniture. You couldnít squeeze a meaningful thought through the front door.
I had a short story gestating at that point for several months. Itís not worth getting into what itís about here—and I donít even think I have a copy of it anymore—and the story is certainly terrible, some psychosexual J.G. Ballard rip-off involving a pilot and co-pilot having cockpit sex during a plane crash. Wherever the hell it is now, itís still awful. But I loved it then.
The story wasnít the only thing I worked on, but I considered it a refrain of sorts in my daily writing. It was either a break between the other stuff or the other stuff was a break in between working on it. No matter. The point is that I was writing all of the time, and probably in an unhealthy, obsessive way. It gave me the usual rise that comes from writing, but also an excuse to be away somewhere—which, mostly, was the Wildwood.
And the Wildwood was an amazing place to be alone, just on the outside of town (pop. about 5,000), set back off a frontage road. It was empty, too. Hunters stayed there during the fall, fisherman in the summer. In the winter, it was just me: one light in the multi-building, single-story complex; one car in the snow-packed circular drive. My own furniture was abandoned in a storage unit. My few boxes of books stayed mostly in the car. It was like not living anywhere. It would have also made for an amazing set up to be an alcoholic, and it was almost like I was doing an injustice to the situation by not being whole-hog self-destructive.
That February I submitted the story to a contest put on by the local college lit journal. And I went about my business of generally not having any business, save for graduating from school and watching the parking lot turn from snow to mud. I also wrote a story about a guy who cuts his finger and watches it get infected and fall off. For fun. I donít know what happened to that story either. I didnít have a computer or a word processor, so everything started out on unruled copy paper, in chicken-scratch that, as it moved down the page, drooped more and more down on the right-hand side. The end result looked like an old, leaning barn.
The cockpit story won me $100 and was published in the journal, which was distributed around town. One runner up had something to do with vampires, and the other I canít remember. They were pretty bad but, you know, not bad enough. Small towns are hard to explain to city people; most of whom regard small towns as an Eden myth or angry right-wing cesspools with good tap water. But small towns are real, and during the spring in this particular one, a stack of the lit journal—and its story of pilots fucking as they died—was in the entryway of every business in town.
The morning after they were distributed, there was a special buzz around the college. A local student, a cowgirl type whose name I canít remember, had been rolling around Gunnison grabbing up the journals, announcing that sheíd, by God, be burning them at noon in the parking lot of Taylor Hall. I showed up there at noon, where she had a dump truck to take copies to the landfill (instead of burning, for whatever reason). There, too, were a half dozen or so red-faced kids screaming her down in the name of free speech and so forth, the people had a right to pilots fucking as they died, and so forth.
There was a big public debate at the school, of course, attended by a few hundred kids, some angry, but mostly just bemused. Some people yelled unnecessarily, an impassioned few spoke about democracy and art. No one talked about pilots fucking as they died. Not even the cowgirl-type, who was calling me a pervert and suggesting that I needed psychological help. She was after all, a psychology major.
A few weeks later, the day after graduating, I slipped out of town, driving west toward Los Angeles. My car exploded about halfway through Utah. Gas had leaked down onto the rear axle, which heated up enough after a few hundred miles to catch fire. A kind tow-truck driver brought me 50 miles through the dark scrubby hills to Price, where I was dropped off at the Greenwell Inn. Maybe youíve seen a place like Price, so out in the middle of everything itís almost like being at altitude, as if youíre going to fall in every direction at once. The Greenwell rate was good—the clerk understood my situation—so I decided to stay a while.
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