The Crater Motel still advertises hot and cold running water— and steam in every room. You can, at the Crater Motel, obtain a room for one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. A bed, and little else, is included. There are no televisions in the rooms, but rather, a small lobby in which the inhabitants gather to watch a small black and white set with a coat hanger acting as an antennae and bemoan the state of the world.
Gerald Stover’s stay at the Crater Motel was paid for with a wad of dirty bills that the manager assumed he had amassed by cashing in cans and bottles. Not being able to use his government-issued American Express Card was as difficult for Gerald as having to deliberately put dirt under his fingernails. He’d grown accustomed to regular manicures during the four years that he’s been with the agency, although if anyone had inquired about his employment, his superiors would have denied his existence. The place suits his purpose for many reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to the probation office and the courthouse. The new courthouse was built after the earthquake. In contrast to the motel, it’s stylishly modern, all glass and chrome. Were it to be bombed, the shattering glass would rival any Sylvester Stallone movie for spectacular effect.
At one time, Klamath Falls was a summer haven for those who rode the rails. Since tighter security measures on the railroads and the downtown beautification project, (which consists mostly of trees, large terra cotta flower pots, and attractive iron lampposts on Main Street), the number of drifters has fallen dramatically. Many of them are no longer drifting, but have been firmly anchored by medication and installed in cheap apartments, where they receive their monthly SSI checks. Those seen on the streets longer than a week or two are advised by the local police to either get an address or keep on drifting right on out of town. For many who’d stayed, this hotel had been their first address.
. Although he is usually more than vigilant in his duties, on this assignment Gerald has been cheating. The thing he hates most about this assignment is that he can’t wear his dentures on duty. Dentures were the first thing he’d bought for himself with the windfall from his first assignment. Five thousand dollars. That was more than he’d ever been able to save in a year working any of the minimum wage jobs he’d had, much less been paid at one time. His mother’s fondness for Kahlua and milk during the formative years of his teeth and bones had resulted in the loss of his teeth, one by agonizing one, beginning in his teens. Gerald still resents this almost as much as not knowing who his father is. His mother had refused to talk about it, saying it brought back bad memories. Gerald suspected that it brought back no memories at all, that she had been drunker than usual that month and had slept with too many men to remember them all. But not being able to wear his dentures isn’t the only thing he hates about it.
Duty, when he isn’t listening in at the console in his room, consists of tromping up and down Main St. with a filthy orange rucksack, which people assume contains all of his worldly belongings. Actually, it contains state of the art audio and video recording equipment. He had learned the advantages of near-invisibility during his relatively short stint in prison, but this sort of near-invisibility was of another kind entirely. The more aggressive men glare at him with open contempt, while the mild-mannered are furtive, eyeing him with pity when they make eye contact at all. This near-invisibility is exactly the effect that his matted hair, his weathered, dirt-caked face, and toothless gums are intended to have. He has found that if he adds a bit of mumbling, people carry on conversations of the most personal nature with him standing only a foot away, ignoring him completely. It doesn’t matter to them what he hears—he has no-one to tell, no-one that matters. They assume he has no-one at all.
On his daily forays down Main St., he’s noticed that a lot of people here comfort themselves with giant pickup trucks. The farmers went to seed when the government cut off the water and they lost their land. They had to get office jobs. Some of them now sell giant pickup trucks as well as driving them, steering with their big depressed bellies, their dogs riding in the back without helmets.
Even more than not wearing his dentures, Gerald hates putting up with ivy-league jerks assigned to come and collect his tapes once a week. While he is holed up in the Crater Hotel, listening to heavily Bryl-creamed alcoholics try to discuss politics while holding off the DT’s with forty-ouncers, they are being accomodated at the Running Y Ranch and Golf Resort about ten miles out of town. They come in fresh from their tanning sessions and massages, bleached teeth gleaming, bragging about their golf games. The last time around, they’d had plenty to say about Gerald’s own appearance.
“Jerry, I’ve got to say, that look is really you, don’t you think so, Rick?”
“ Yeah, I guess it just takes a little time to find a style that expresses one’s essence so perfectly.”
“Right you are. Not only does it express his essence, but it also bespeaks his ultimate purpose in life.”
“Gee, Jer, I bet it’s just like coming home for you, isn’t it?”
“Now, Rick, you know how sensitive Jerry can be about his past. Didn’t you learn anything during that sensitivity training? You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You know Jerry here is an upwardly mobile individual. Why, he’s well on his way to earning a mobile home all his very own.”
Gerald has done much to “improve himself” during his time with the agency. The bookshelves in his cheap apartment on the outskirts of Sacramento are lined with titles such as “Increase Your Word Power”, and “The Idiot’s Guide to Small Business”. But even his usually meticulous appearance has done little to earn him the respect of the real agents. Although he sometimes ached to deploy some of his new vocabulary words, like “profligate” and “miscreant”, he’d gritted his gums and remained silent. Eventually, they’d get bored by his lack of response, hand him an envelope containing his pay for the month, take the tapes, and leave.
To them, he would always be a petty criminal informer who’d gotten his foot in the door by allowing himself to be used in any way the bosses saw fit to avoid doing time. They had little respect for anyone who would risk jail time to protect a whore, and even less for someone who couldn’t recognize a whore when he saw one. Even so, he had managed to earn the grudging respect and a certain amount of trust from a few of the higher-ups. This respect, this trust, is, Gerald believes, the reason they have given him this assignment. In reality, it was given to him because nobody else wanted it.
Gerald comforts himself with daydreams of “La Cancion del Corazon”, which was the name he’d chosen for the boat on which he planned to give tourists romantic tours of the Mexican coast during the day, coming home at night to the modest, but stationary, home he had already purchased in the charming little town of La Penita. .
Klamath Falls has no four-star hotels, no theater to speak of, besides the multi-plex, where the screens have grown smaller and more numerous over the years in the name of quantity. There isn’t even an upscale escort service. The closest thing to live adult entertainment for out-of-towners is a seedy little club called Rodeo Girls, where semi-toothless but fashionably thin amphetamine addicts take it all off and wiggle it to the most requested song in Klamath Falls clubs for the past two decades, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”. Of course, for more wholesome fun, there is always karaoke at the new bowling alley. While it is true that the area boasts good hunting and fishing, this isn’t hunting season..
None of this matters to Gerald. He has no desire to go to strip clubs, play golf, or anything else the guys in the agency call “action”. For him, trying to pick up a stripper would be like trying to seduce his own mother. Just the thought of it makes him feel queasy. The guys at the agency would do more than snicker if they knew the truth—Gerald is, in fact, a virgin. While his dental condition has resulted in fewer opportunities for him, as has his time in prison, a few women have still given him the right signals. He’s even been propositioned outright on more than one occasion. As if in compensation for his teeth, his skin is perfect, both in complexion and hue. This had been the contribution of his father, whose last name, unbeknownst to him, had been Ramirez.
He had not been interested in any of these women, whom he suspected wanted little more than his paycheck or the use of his body, whether for sex, protection, or moving heavy furniture. No, Gerald had learned his lesson. Now he was saving himself for the right kind of woman, an educated, sensitive and refined woman, as unlike his mother as possible. Lacking evidence thus far, Gerald isn’t a hundred percent certain that she exists, but he is certain that if she does, he won’t find her in a strip club.
Gerald first saw her near the end of the second day of the second week. He’d been walking towards the Shell station where teen-aged skateboarders liked to hang out because of its proximity to Veteran’s Park, where they practiced their awesome moves and tried to get laid. He wanted to end his day there because he’d found that the teenagers, with their peirced noses and blue hair, were the only ones to whom he was not invisible. The previous day, one of them had asked him, as though he were a real person “What’s crackin’, dude?” Although he hadn’t responded, he’d been deeply moved somehow. He’d already discovered the hunger for human contact.
She’d come out of the Shell station with a cup of coffee and begun walking towards him. He steeled himself for her downcast eyes, but she’d turned them, bright blue and gleaming, straight into his soulful brown ones, locked them there, and smiled as if she were happy to see him. He was momentarily dazzled, and before he could stop himself, he flashed her a wide toothless grin as they passed one another.
The woman, Irene, sat down on a bench in front of the Chinese restaurant, pulled out a walkman and a notebook, in which she promptly began jotting down her impressions of him. He was the most interesting person she’d seen all day. She wrote:
“A homeless man just smiled at me, and although he had no teeth, it was a beautiful smile, maybe because of his eyes, which were clear and wild somehow, not bloodshot, the way one would suppose. Or maybe it was because it was free– no ass-kissing, no obligation, no bridge to mutually beneficial social ties. What does he carry in that back-pack. A Swiss army knife? An extra change of clothes? A picture of his mother? Or things whose meaning no-one else would understand, serving as talismans of protection against disappearing altogether? What would I carry? Sentiment or survival? Maybe I would be forced to project all my sentiment onto a single object representing everything I loved. Does he have such an object? If I were braver, I would ask him. But how, without reducing him to an object of idle curiosity? What would be the point of knowing? Maybe what I really want to know is how he decided, not what’s in there. I’m going to try and find out.”.
That written, she got up and began walking towards the cemetery, unaware that she was being followed.
Gerald is supposed to be monitoring the wiretaps of more than a dozen farmers whose water has been cut off and who have access to a lot of fertilizer, as well as having well-stocked and polished gun cabinets. Further, on his daily jaunts down Main Street, he is supposed to be listening for and recording any subversive conversations that might take place in front of the new courthouse or the probation department. This is because some of the farmers have filed suit against the government for shutting off their water, and their cases are not going well. The bosses are anxious to know what the farmers’ response to the verdict will be. And indeed, Gerald has already gotten an earful concerning “those rotten sonsabitches” and “goddam lyin’ thieves”. But so far, he hasn’t heard any outright calls for the formation of any local militia-type organization.
At first, Gerald thought the woman must be going to pay her respects to a deceased love one, but she seemed to be copying words from headstones chosen at random. From his position behind the caretaker’s shed, he zoomed in on some of the headstones with his lens, and when he played the video back later that night in his room, this was confirmed. None of the headstones she’d paused at had any last names in common—some of them weren’t even from the same century. And she hadn’t shown any particular emotion in front of any of them. She’d just looked back and forth from the stones to her notebook with a look of concentration on her face as she wrote. He liked the way the breeze tossed and fluttered her hair, the sun glinting on the silver strands at her temples. As to what would cause a woman to want to copy inscriptions from headstones in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, he had no idea, but he decided to find out.
Irene had already purchased a plot and a stone. She needed only an epitaph and the final date, which she would never know, unless she decided to choose one herself. During her “shopping spree”, however, she had discovered that epitaphs were the rare exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of headstones contained only the names of the deceased and their dates of birth and death, usually only in years, and not months or days. She jotted down the few that she found in her journal.
Ella Lowne 1839-1913
I have fought a good fight
I have finished my course
I have kept the faith
Martha Worden 4-22-1847 to 4-13-1926
Thy life was truth and love
Miles F. Parker 1856-1930
To know him was to love him
Irene could relate to none of these. Further, she seriously doubted that anyone could reach the age of 79 without lying or hating. Even Jesus hadn’t been tested past age 33. She’d have been more apt to believe it if had had been engraved on the young boy’s headstone, the one who had been only nine when he died, provided, of course, that he had been an only child. Irene believes that sibling rivalry, not the love of money, is the root of all evil. It was sibling rivalry that resulted in people using bombs to back their claims that God loved them best and promised them the most. Money was just some kind of evidence of their God’s favor. This belief serves as a small consolation to her for the fact that she has never had children, and now, never will. After several rows of nothing but empty dates on the stones, she paused, wondering briefly whether if she had known Miles F. Parker she would have loved him, or whether his case had been overstated.
Suddenly tired, she turned towards the street that would lead her back to the studio apartment she had rented when she got to town. She had chosen it primarily for the view, which was spectacular. The building was atop a hill from which she could see Lake Ewuana and the surrounding mountains, which gave her a feeling of being nestled somehow. At night, the lights of the city twinkled in the distance like stars home for the holidays. The previous evening, she’d been enraptured by the sight of a V-formation of ducks silhouetted by a cashmere moon winging their way across the night sky. The apartment was also only two blocks from Main Street, which she found charming, as did the steadily increasing number of tourists, and made it handy for shopping and walking. It was five blocks from the Crater Motel.
The following day, Gerald listened in on this conversation:
Unknown Female Caller: Irene?
Irene: Hi, Paula. Didn’t you promise you wouldn’t call for a week?
Paula: Yeah, well, keeping the promise not to give anybody your number up there has been shitty enough, so don’t push it. When I got home from work yesterday, there were twenty-seven messages on my machine—all demanding to know your whereabouts. Well, some of them were pleading.
“That doesn’t surprise me. Now you know why I left.”
“ Well, if this keeps up much longer, I’m going to have to leave myself.”
“ Just tell them that you got a letter saying I’d moved again, and that the phone number has been disconnected.”
“So, have you changed your mind? Are you coming back?”
“Eventually, but just to say good-bye when the time comes. Right now, I need to do something different. I miss you, though.”
“Different like what? You could do different things here.”
“Yeah, right—anything I didn’t want to be analyzed or advised about I’d have to keep secret anyway. I figure if they can’t see it, they can’t say anything about it—I’ve already heard everything everybody has to say about everything.”
“What about your students? They need you here. “
“They? Who’s they? When school starts again next month, there’ll be a whole new crop of eighth-graders who haven’t even met me. They’ll never know the difference if there’s somebody else at my desk.”
“ So what kind of different things are you doing up there? “
“ Well, today I shopped for an epitaph. Don’t ask. And tomorrow night I have a date with a guy I met in a chat room on the internet. “
“A date? Since when do you go on dates with strangers? Wait, let me rephrase that. Since when do you go on dates? This guy could be some weirdo stalker or something”.
“If I’m lucky. It’s not like I’m looking for someone to build a future with, right?. And what a relief, since all the decent ones are already taken anyway. I’ll be happy if he just says something I haven’t heard before. And anyway, it’s not a date date, I marked the “just friends” box. But, hey, I can even pick up hitchhikers now if I want to—what are they gonna do, kill me?
Paula: You’re sick, you know that?
Irene: More than before? I’ll send you a detailed description of the evening. Happy?”
“Remember– they can’t eat you. You can run faster than them.”
“ (laughing) Yeah, okay. Talk to you soon. Bye.”
After listening to this conversation, Gerald, who had successfully avoided any kind of female trouble for the past four years, felt his old protective instincts being resurrected. Once unearthed, they dusted themselves off and presented themselves to him with a list of demands.
Irene believed, despite what official statistics might say, that the number one leading cause of death was boredom. Directly or indirectly, it was boredom. For the past few years, life had been like a permanent case of déjà vu. She’d stopped watching television shows when she’d realized that she knew what all the characters would say before they said it. Shortly thereafter, this had grown to include conversations with friends and acquaintances, whose answer to every question she posed for possible conversation was a quoted scripture, either from the bible, a twelve-step program, a self-help guru, or a political organization, depending upon which script they were currently following. Nobody said anything that surprised her anymore, or even mildly interested her, most of the time.
While Irene is fed up with scriptures, she does sometimes wonder whether she is committing the sin of suicide by refusing treatment. It’s true that when considering the lingering alternatives, she’s had thoughts, and role models to emulate were everywhere these days. Most of them weren’t even counted as suicides—drug overdoses, car accidents, leaps and plunges (called “falls”) from cliffs, bridges and rooftops. Irene considered these leaps of faith—faith that the next life, or even no life at all, just had to be better than this one—sadly beautiful, like birds with broken wings still struggling to take flight, to be birds, unable to be anything else. With hearts full of kryptonite, others stepped in front of speeding cars, bullets, and locomotives. The obvious cases usually involved leaving notes describing last straws. And now, there were suicide bombers, trying to spin their last straws into red gold to buy justice for their survivors.
Irene wondered how long the pain lasted during a suicide bombing—as limbs and internal organs became individual parts of the landscape. She guessed that it couldn’t be more than a second or two at most. Did suicide bombers use anatomy manuals, placing the bombs in strategic locations on their bodies to insure instantaneous death? She imagined the greater horror of being an unsuccessful suicide bomber—with only enough body parts remaining to insure a long and painful life of being tortured for information.
She was wondering whether it wasn’t better to die for something than to simply die when the phone rang.
Gerald heard the following conversation:
Unidentified male caller: “Hi. It’s Dan. Are you busy?
“No, just sitting here thinking.”
“Tell me, what would you be willing to die for?”
“Uuuuummm, can I give it some thought, and tell you tomorrow evening?”
“Oh, right, tomorrow evening. About that. Listen, dinner at eight is so, I don’t know, predictable. The whole point is that we’re both trying to get out of our ruts, right? How about we make it at midnight instead. You don’t have to get up early Sunday, do you?”
“No, but the place I had in mind closes well before midnight. I only know of one place that isn’t fast food open that late, and that’s a truck stop called Mollie’s.”
“Sounds enchanting. How about I meet you there?”
(pause) I don’t know. I already made reservations.”
“Meet you at midnight at Mollie’s—kinda sounds like the title of a country and western song, doesn’t it? You made reservations? What happened to “seeking spontaneity”?
“Okay, you got me on that one, but I did my best to plan a really nice evening.”
“Nice, huh? I don’t know, I’m trying not to plan things these days, and “nice”isn’t exactly what……
“Well, if total unpredictability is what you’re after, how about this? Maybe I’ll show up at Mollie’s tomorrow night, and maybe I won’t. Is that spontaneous enough for you?”.
(pause) “Yeah, actually, that sounds fine. So maybe I’ll see you then. How will I know you, since neither of us is so shallow as to download photos?”
“If I’m there, I’ll be wearing a red silk shirt and black slacks.
“So, maybe I’ll see you then.
Dan did not own a red silk shirt. He didn’t own a silk shirt of any color.
The next afternoon, Irene was walking to the Shell station for a cup of coffee, when she saw Gerald coming down the street toward her, walking so fast that he looked about ready to break into a run. She thought it strange, since he didn’t look like a man with much of a schedule. Mentally, she began rehearsing the best way to ask him the question without being rude. She was determined to ask, if he slowed down enough, that is.
Gerald, for his part, was torn. He wanted to say something that would surprise her and make her laugh, but he also wanted to disappear into a sidewalk crack so she wouldn’t see him in this condition. Rehearsing both, he finally decided upon maintaining the speedwalk until he was well past her as a course of action, though he hoped she would smile at him again. As he got nearer, he could see that she was already smiling, but before he could enjoy it as he sped by her, she stepped in front of him, saying “Excuse me. I hope you’ll forgive me if I am being rude, but could I ask you a personal question?”
Gerald was half afraid that she would ask him how he had arrived at his present circumstances, forcing him to concoct some hard luck story on the spot, one that would probably make her cry, which was the last thing he wanted. So he said “Personal? You mean like, what brand of deodorant would I choose in a blind sniff test?”
Her eyes got wide and her mouth fell open before she threw her head back and laughed out loud. Gerald was still enjoying his success in eliciting this happy sound when she regained control of her diaphragm and said “No, nothing like that. I just wanted to know which item in your backpack is the most important to you, and why.”
Questions didn’t get any more personal than that, he thought.
“I can’t tell you that”, he said, “it’s a secret.” And then, suddenly reckless, he added “But I can tell you that people who arrange midnight meetings are destined for happiness, and the only cure for death is love.” And with that, he sprinted up the street, ducking into an alley, where he hid behind a dumpster for twenty minutes just to be on the safe side. During that twenty minutes, he made a decision which, based on all the evidence in his life thus far, he was almost sure he would regret. When he was fairly sure that she hadn’t followed him, he made a beeline for the motel.
Irene wouldn’t have been able to follow him if she’d wanted to. The best she could do was make her way to the bench and sit down, her mind reeling with possible explanations for his words. The first that came to mind was that he was psychic, one of those sensitive souls with “the gift”, which must be what prevented him from having a normal life. The second was that he was one of those disturbed people with a Christ complex, constantly spouting enigmatic, prophetic-sounding phrases that were sometimes coincidentally accurate. The third was that this man somehow knew Dan, who had told him about her proposed midnight meeting. They all seemed highly unlikely. Finally, she considered that this man may have been stalking her, lurking about outside her apartment, listening to her phone conversations.
The possibilities ricocheted around her brain like a pinball, all of them unsettling in various degrees. Then she remembered what she’d said to Paula about stalkers and picking up hitchhikers and began laughing again. She sat there for a half hour longer, hoping that Gerald would re-appear, so that she could question him about his sources. When he didn’t, she walked back to her apartment, where she occupied herself by describing everything that had just happened in her journal until it was almost time to go to Mollie’s. Irene doubted, judging from the sarcasm in his tone, that Dan, if that was even his real name, would show up. But she had neglected to eat dinner, so she decided to go anyway.
After showering, she chose a simple button-down shirt and jeans. She at first decided against wearing her usual make-up, without which, people had often asked, even before the cancer “Are you feeling all right?”, because of her pale complexion. It was possible that Dan might construe her wearing make-up to mean that she was trying to attract him into a one-night-stand. Finally, she decided to wear just enough to avoid any tiresome questions concerning her health.
As she pulled into Mollie’s huge gravel driveway, she noticed that her palms were sweating. She told herself, out loud, “Come on, don’t chicken out now, just when it might actually get interesting. Besides, you promised to describe the evening to Paula, remember?” Feeling calmer, she went inside, her eyes scanning the row of men sitting at the counter, in search of a red silk shirt and black slacks. All she saw was a lot of T-shirts, plaid flannel, and blue jeans. She had just slipped into an empty booth near the rear exit in order to watch the front door when she saw an attractive, olive-complected man in a red shirt and black slacks emerge from the hallway leading to the restrooms and begin walking in her direction. Snatching up a menu, she covered her face and pretended to read as he continued walking in her direction, letting out a slow breath of relief when he passed her and took a seat at the counter. This man did not match the description Dan had given of his appearance, which he had said was “ordinary”.
Glad that he had not stopped to inquire whether her name was Irene, she began to actually read the menu, and decided on an omelet, with pancakes on the side. After giving her order to Rachel, a statuesque waitress wearing heavy eye liner, she began mentally berating herself for her cowardice. “Oooh, you’re soooo brave, Irene. You can take permanent vacations all by yourself. You can even invite a total stranger to a midnight meeting to prove how whimsical you can be now that you have nothing to lose. Yeah, baby, you’re living life in the fast lane now, you’re just plain reckless, hiding behind this menu.” Meanwhile, with another part of her brain, she heard the man order top sirloin.
Mostly just to shut herself up, she got up, walked over to him and said “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but your name wouldn’t happen to be Dan, would it?” He turned slowly and looked at her.
“No, but if you’re looking for a blind date, I’ll volunteer, even though we’ve seen each other already. Or would that be cheating?”
Suddenly relieved, Irene laughed before saying “ Well, I suppose this could have been more embarrassing. Thanks for the humor—I needed it.”
“You can thank me by letting me join you. I’m really not in the mood to eat alone tonight, especially with such a charming alternative in sight.”
Irene shrugged and said “Sure, why not. I could use some company myself, but be forewarned. I’m driving straight to the police station from here, just in case you’re a lunatic and try to follow me home.”
When they were seated facing one another, he said “Why don’t we just run away together”. Irene laughed at the sheer predictability of a man in a truck stop joking about running away together.
“I can’t run away with anyone”.
“Because I’ve already run away!”
“But running away by yourself isn’t the same as running away with someone”, he said, smiling.
Rolling her eyes at his obtuse perseverance, she said, “Give me one good reason why I should run away with you.”
He reached across the table, gently laid his hand over her own, and looked directly into her eyes. Before she could act on the instinct to draw her hand back, he said “Because I can heal you with love, and someday, years from now, write you a beautiful epitaph”. Her eyes, locked with his, grew wide, and suddenly, she knew where she had seen them before.
“Where would you like to go?”, he asked?
Without blinking, she said “Surprise me”.