Story in Progress
This is a story I’ve been working on for years. I’ve told bits and pieces of it in various forms, and for a long time had the story end with the Wild Bill encounter. It never landed with audiences because there was this ominous feeling that I didn’t want there. I reworked this version for a Moth slam. I went way over time trying to squeeze this into five minutes, but the process helped me think more about the crux of the story. What is it even about? Maybe I’m getting close to answering that question or at least examining it in a more interesting way. I’d love to know what you think – whether you want to know more about this time, these characters, and what makes and doesn’t make sense to you. It’s a slice of something larger and a way for me to figure out how to tell this as a longer story.
I got a shot of inspiration from Mary Karr’s incredible book, The Art of Memoir. It’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read and one that speaks to me more sharply than anything I’ve learned, heard, seen, or read elsewhere.
It’s the summer before middle school and my cousin Tonya and I are having a sleepover at Motel 6. Her mom got a job as the manager and so they moved in. My aunt has a very hands off approach to parenting so she got us our own room and take out pizza.
You might be thinking: wow, Motel 6 is a terrible place for two pre-teen girls. And you’d be right. But to us, it is paradise.
Tonya’s sprawled on one of the twin beds with an open pizza box on her chest. She’s flipping channels with one hand and cradling a slice of pizza with the other. She lands on HBO, which is playing a show called Real Sex Live. In this episode, a stout bald man in his 40s is hopping along the beach completely naked, playing the saxophone. Watching him in frightened awe, I notice that he’s not only comfortable but almost giddy in his nakedness, as if romping around nude with a saxophone on a beach is what he was born to do. This is in stark contrast to my own feelings about nakedness because it’s the summer I started sprouting pubes. I promised myself I’d pluck each one as it came in so puberty wouldn’t get me.
I get up to go to the bathroom and Tonya follows me inside. It’s kind of our thing, a sort of tradition. We just can’t be apart, that’s how deep our friendship goes. I sit on the toilet, she leans against the sink, and we try to come up with a great prank phone call idea. Tonya decides we should call the mechanic across the street. We have the number memorized from seeing the sign every time we swim in the motel pool. I tell her to pretend to be his mistress, tell him she’ll leave him if he doesn’t choose her. I lifted this all from an episode of Jerry Springer and have no idea what I’m saying. We leave the bathroom and Tonya sits on the bed and picks up the phone from the nightstand. She dials the number with a neutral face, getting into the zone. When the voicemail clicks on, she transforms into a sexy southern vixen. In her fake southern drawl, she gives him an ultimatum: her or me.
Behind Tonya, through the open windows, I can see Doc’s, the strip club, across the parking lot. Its neon sign is glowing red like the hot coals of hell. Tonya told me that naked ladies dance on the roofs of cars come closing time.
She finishes her call by adding a phrase we’d heard around the motel, “and no more BJs unless you choose me,” and slams down the phone. We burst out laughing, rolling on our twin beds, before collapsing into sleep.
The next day, we wake up late to full sun in our eyes. Out the window, Doc’s sign is turned off. We missed the naked ladies. The parking lot is empty except for a shopping cart. I wonder if it’s Wild Bill’s. He’s the homeless guy who hangs around the neighborhood. I saw him once riding a shopping cart like a scooter. To me it seems he lives out a Huck Finn fantasy, never brushing his teeth and always sleeping under the stars. It’s like the best of childhood and adulthood all in one.
It’s already hot so we change straight into our swimsuits, grab our towels, and head for the pool. But there’s a sign on the gate that says “CLOSED” and Pat’s standing there. She’s the motel employee who always smells like baloney because that’s all she eats.
“There’s a tampon in the pool,” she tells us. “I have to fish it out and probably drain the water. No swimming today.”
We start to turn back when Pat says, “oh, and you better make yourself scarce today. Your mom’s looking for you about some prank call.”
The spit evaporates from my mouth. I feel sick. It’s that horrible, itchy feeling you get when you know you’re about to get busted. We go back to our room and gather as much change as we can so we can drown our sorrows in a frosty from Wendy’s.
We sit in the back. There’re only three other people there. My frosty tastes watery, the chocolate chalky in my mouth. Me and Tonya don’t speak. Then the bell above the door sets off a sharp ding. A man shuffles inside with long matted hair covering half his face. It’s Wild Bill.
He goes straight to the pick up side of the counter and holds up his wrist. He tells the teen employee that he just got out of the hospital. He says he doesn’t have any money and hasn’t eaten in a long time. I can see the white plastic bracelet lit up in the florescent light. He asks for a bowl of chili. The teen ladles some brown goop into a styrofoam bowl and pushes it across the counter. As we watch him, it feels like the only sound in the restaurant is his weak slurping.
I feel a build-up in my throat of a rolling, unstoppable thing and before I can raise my cupped hand to my mouth, I’m laughing. Tonya looks at me with her eyes wide like a cornered animal and she laughs too, a pinched, squealing laugh full of tension.
Wild Bill looks up from his chili, pieces of bean sticking to his stubble. He puts his spoon down and stands up. He’s walking towards us in slow motion. All the air leaves my lungs and chokes off my laughter. He reaches our table and leans down.
“You girls think you know,” he says in a wet voice. “But just you wait. You don’t know a thing.”
He goes back to his chili and me and Tonya walk out the door, leaving our half-melted frosties behind. When we get back to our room, I go straight to the bathroom. I don’t wait for Tonya, I just close the door and sit on the toilet seat. I run the events of the last two days, of the entire summer, through my head with the rewind button on. How far back do I have to go to be the kid I was before? I have the feeling that I’ve lost something I can never get back. I hear Tonya’s voice coming through the keyhole but I’m not listening.