By Way of Stomptown
By Alejandro Zepeda
“Not all those who wander are not lost"
I never met Beth. I saw her walk out of a bathroom she had finished cleaning. She was young, but her face looked tired and used up. Her hair was auburn and short, tied back, firmly secured by a head bandanna. The lack of motivation was visible on her face.
I was questioning the attendant about a bathroom. It would cost more, but I was willing to pay. Considering the hotel’s low quality and occupants who stayed there, I thought it wise not to share facilities.
Paper scattered on the attendant’s desk, lacking any organization. He was a heavyset person in his late 50s, confident with the way the business operated, giving the impression that he owned the place. I explained I had made a reservation and was expecting a bathroom. He gave me a look, his eyes telling me, why would anyone make a reservation in this dump?
“Did you?” He grabbed a handful of papers and started sorting through them. "What’s your name?” I told him. "It isn’t written anywhere.” He looked up at me, “But, like I said, all those rooms are occupied at least a few more days.”
I gave in, losing the negotiation. I wanted to rest. The straps on my backpack were beginning to take their toll on my shoulders.
“Beth,” he called out, “Is 24 ready?"
She looked back, walking away, not concerning herself too much with the question. "I just finished it.”
“The bathroom and shower are next to your room.” He handed me the key to number 24. I had to settle for Beth’s lack of motivation.
Joplin, Missouri (pre-tornado devastation), Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles, and other Midwestern towns between-- fragments, stories he told of his life as an aspiring musician. Two albums released-- homemade at best-- under an indie record label, with enough pictures of him blaring at a microphone to show the havoc and intensity that was his sound.
Those were his memories, not mine. I remember him in a dive bar in West El Paso. Copious amounts of alcohol, followed by comical or embarrassing moments at all-night restaurants as we deciphered menus in our inebriated state.
Alcohol energized him. People found this appealing. They created an environment around him that enabled his impulsive behavior. It drained him emotionally. Our time at the bar started taking on darker tones. He would dig deeper into his psyche-- Depakote, suicide, overdoses, the euphoric façade would fade as he stared into his mug of beer. It was complete absorption into his memory-- unspoken, but still tangible. The trancelike state would be broken with a slight smile, putting the moment behind him. I would reassure him he was a better person for it.
“People like us live tragic lives, and it always ends tragically,” he told me one of those nights. It was a type of transition into the next topic, but the simplicity in the delivery did not have the intended effect, at least, not from my perspective. I questioned the similarity he saw in me. It stayed with me. I realized I was part of the environment. The binge-drinking nights were becoming an issue. I began to distance myself. Those nights ended. A year later, he was dead. The environment that aided in his demise now celebrated the way he lived, ignorant of their role. I knew the part I had played and how it could end-- a car wreck, a drunken stumble down a flight of stairs, an accidental overdose, or self-inflicted. I did nothing to stop it.
It took me two years to inquire into the details of his death. Two years of not wanting to confirm what I already knew. The news came in an Italian restaurant, from a former girlfriend of his. She had cheated on him and he had not taken it well, giving us a reason for another night of drinking.
She sat with casual grace across from me, enjoying her dinner, reminiscing, both of us aware of what she had done. I tired of the semantics and asked.
"I'm sorry, I thought you knew," she said, surprised. She delivered the information with ease and confidence, nothing short of delightful.
Thumbs under straps, with enough pressure to counter the weight and fatigue on my shoulders, the cool feel of a light sweat moisturized t-shirt in a breeze-- details that become familiar after hauling around the same backpack from bus terminals, train stations, and airports. The same routine each time: get a boarding pass, put backpack on scale (hope it is still less than 70 pounds), board method of travel, and from the window watch the manhandled bag loaded onto the under compartment. The bag becomes everything and nothing, a constant burden and comfort, the last familiar left.
At odds with the visceral nature, you keep moving, forget the past, do not dwell on the moment, and leave the memories behind you. Focus on the sidewalk, the same sidewalk found in most cities, with old gum turned dark from constant pedestrian traffic, cigarette butts with or without lipstick stains, and pigeons pecking the remnants of a mobile meal. This reestablishes your bearings and tames the sensation of unfamiliarity.
Is this what he meant by tragic?
I stood looking at a five-story building, unsure of the location. Large porn shop windows displaying S&M costumes dominated the entrance. The hotel was there, but I had to find a different way in.
I asked a homeless man sitting on the curb if it was the right place. He pointed to the side of the building, "In there. You have to ring the bell there." A piece of cardboard with an arrow directed me to press a button. I thanked him.
"I've got oxycodone," he said. "You can have it cheap.” I declined, but he continued, “Wanna buy a flower? It'll add color up there.” I gave him a dollar for a small yellow flower. I had seen these growing from weeds, but I did not mention this to him. His effort at commerce was acceptable. I felt what I gave him would suffice the persistence to supplement himself with whatever I had.
I rang the bell. The door opened and I went up old creaking, worn-out, water stained blue-carpeted stairs.
I got a cheap forty-dollar room without a bathroom.
It started with an early morning dry heave, a flush of the toilet, and followed by the shower water running. I had been there just short of two weeks and had become accustomed to the noises coming from the bathroom. The occupants staying on the floor had been quiet, keeping to themselves. Most were single older men, permanent residents, forgotten by relatives or acquaintances. This new activity was out of place. The person in there was livelier, younger in movement than other tenants who labored with the endeavor.
I didn’t make much of it. Some unfortunate must have contracted the plague from the roach infestation. It was too early to be awake, too early to care. I would not have my breakfast until noon, so business in there was their concern.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door. “Are you okay?” asked a male voice, young and concerned, and then a female answered him as she opened the door.
An hour later, it happened again: dry heave, toilet, and shower. I pictured them running water over there head to soothe the discomfort from the fever that beleaguered them. It all played out again twenty minutes later. It was distracting, no reason to sleep.
I had my usual breakfast at a gentlemen’s club down the street. The place has the distinct pleasure of calling itself the first all nude club on the West Coast. Small, humble, intimate, the walls adorned with the same murals from its inception, depicting large cargo ships on the Willamette River. Slot machines line the walls, adding to the vice.
The girls working the shift were talented, beautiful, keen observers of the human condition. They could read you within a second of interaction. One held a degree in anthropology and the other an Ivy League graduate, published author, musician, actress in Gus Van Sant films, and a breast cancer survivor. They held an admirable strength and confidence, a welcoming presence, and completely out of my league.
The bar was next to the stage. I sat by the entrance, a section reserved for those who just came in for a drink. Angela was bartending. Her nurturing attitude towards her regulars was a comfort. She placed a pint of IPA in front of me, the same beer she always served me. “Do you want something to eat?” She was reaching for a menu when I told her I would have a chicken quesadilla, no onions.
The food came from a Mexican restaurant next door. Both businesses shared a bathroom, located inside the club. Nude women dancing on stage always surprised unsuspecting restaurant customers as they entered. This was the charm of the place, of the city, until the novelty wears out. Then you notice the dark decaying corners, the rampant homeless population, exploitation, and drug addiction. Blunt reality in the land of the unfortunate souls, living on the fringes of sanity, a Sisyphean struggle on the streets.
The city would have been ideal for him. If I had asked him to join me, he would not have hesitated. It might have been different.
"What time does your flight leave?” said Angela, replacing my pint with a new beer, “Tomorrow morning, right?"
I wasn’t leaving by plane. I would catch an early bus to Anacortes, then a ferry to the San Juan Islands, where I would meet a girl at Friday Harbor. She called herself the Cincinnati Kid, but hated Ohio and never wanted to go back. She had been a traveler, gone to Europe and lived in Spain for a while. Her main goal was to live off the grid, believing in corrupt organizations trying to influence our mind and body. I found it difficult to accept most of what she said, but she was fascinating and was adamant her life story, if written, would make a grand blockbuster. She assumed living that much excitement was pointless if no one knew it happen. That was where she believed I fit into the equation, to help her get it out into the world.
There were also ulterior motives for having me there. The island had become lonely for her. Her intentions were clear, asking me to accept the situation. The men there bored her and she wanted something new. Yes, I felt used, but some of her far-fetched stories were interesting enough for a closer inquiry. She also had the added benefit of knowing people who would help me join the merchant mariners. It was her idea. She had worked out our future. We would work on a freightliner for a couple of years, travel Asia, save money to buy property in Brazil, and live the Swiss Family Robinson lifestyle. It was a modern-day Shanghai, but I brushed that aside for images of Shelley, Byron, and all those overhyped adventurers who set out to sea.
“And you're going, knowing all of this?” said Angela, when I explained the situation to her. “These kids are always on the street, shacked up in warehouses, drugged up, and begging for money. Some aren't right in the head."
I understood what she meant, but I wanted to go, to learn what leads them to deprecate a lifestyle they think is inadequate, replacing it with a vague concept of what they want. They get caught up in a glorified concept of a past counterculture, ushered in by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the debauchery left behind by the Merry Pranksters, whose later members might have tried to gang rape the Cincinnati kid.
This was one of her more engaging stories, captivating, yet concerning, considering the historical value of the group. Sure, the Merry Pranksters were part of a love and peace movement, a psychedelic experience intended to broaden the mental horizon of the individual. However, the unspoken consequences were the victims, the youth, influenced by the seductive revolution. There were countless crimes and rapes of minors, who were at times oriented into drug addiction.
So do I believe a bunch of old men-- still clinging to their title of pride, trying to relive the youthful vigor of their past, considering the decadence that became their norm-- can engage in the rape of a younger woman? I don’t know, but history makes a convincing case to question their character.
This story began with an open discussion of her sexual prowess. She did all the talking, claiming to give off great energy as a lover, believing in an actual discharge of energy, which healed and revitalized the individual participating with her. Apparently, she felt the flow of energy in a person and could sense their intentions.
"It's helped me before,” she said. “The Merry Pranksters almost raped me in Hawaii, but I felt negative energy coming from them and I got out before anything happen." Then as quick as she shared this information, she moved on to something else without missing a beat. She had my attention. I asked her to tell me more about that story.
"We were all in the living room and I sensed what they wanted. They kept looking at each other. One of them kept asking, 'now?’ and he’d look back at me, eager to do something. So I told them I was going to the bathroom and climbed out the window."
She was reliable with all matters involving herself, so it was easy to keep her talking.
"I had never met them before,” she said, when I asked how well she knew them. “A friend of mine invited me to the party, but he disappeared. I was pissed at him the next day for leaving me there."
She had limited knowledge of their history. She knew about Kesey, and that he lived in Oregon, but never mentioned any of his books. It is possible she learned about him from the group as they continued to boast on about their past, trying to impress her. How many times had it got them laid? I am sure they have milked the subject for all it is worth.
Angela smiled at me with disapproval. "Do you want another?” I considered it, but decided it was time to start packing. She picked up my empty glass and with sincerity, said, “Be careful up there, she sounds like quite the character.”
The laundry room was on the third floor. It was small, with two washers and a dryer. My clothes needed a few minutes to dry. I waited, noticing the white paint chipping away on the walls. Several books lined a counter, with a crude sign indicating, “Complementary guest books,” written in green marker, followed by, “Don’t try to sell them, we already tried, and they wouldn’t buy them.” This was an obvious tweaker deterrent, whose resourcefulness is limitless.
The books were beyond abuse, with torn and discolored covers, stained, ripped, or altogether missing pages. I skimmed through the titles-- self-help books and Harlequin novels. It was a sad collection in desperate need of character. I had a paperback copy of Robinson Crusoe in my back pocket. I decided to add it to their collection, giving a bit of dignity to their reading material. I placed it between A Well-balanced Life: the Gluten-free Diet and In the Arms of the Milkman. Daniel Defoe would have approved.
A window was open for the heat and humidity. Sitting on the frame, I looked down on the street. The city’s nightlife was beginning. Food cart smells filled the air. I heard a bucket player at a distance keeping a steady beat, the traffic lights, cheerful conversations, and jukebox music from a local bar.
The dryer buzzed. I took my clothes out and placed it on the counter. Folding warm laundry has always been therapeutic. I can get a bit obsessive-compulsive with the details. Although this time, it would all just wrinkle in the backpack, so I did a quick job of it and walked out.
In my room, I threw the clothes on the bed and reached for the empty bag. A soft crunching noise came from under my foot. It was the small yellow flower. I had dropped it, just out of sight, forgotten. The dying process had begun two weeks prior, and now it was a memory of some homeless man, plucking it from its mother plant to make a buck. I picked it up and ceremoniously flicked it into the trash.
The dry heaves continued late into the night, increasing in urgency as she ran for the bathroom, aggressively stomping with every step in a full on sprint. She was in pain and suffering, desperation in her cry. Her companion escorted her back each time. His efforts to calm her down irritated her. She began to scream, throwing and thrashing stuff, until it escalated and she could not control herself, running out of the room.
“Beth,” he screamed, chasing her. He struggled with her, trying to calm the hysteria. She pleaded with him to let her go, losing control, losing reason to a habit that now infected her thoughts. He was gentle with her, concerned for her well-being. She noticed this between cries, in glimpses of clarity, understanding her actions, feeling ashamed.
It was the same Beth from my arrival. I now understood the look of fatigue. She was struggling, knowing it would reach this point, a climax that would put her strength into question. She had handled herself in a cavalier manner, but now there was uncertainty, a debilitating fear.
Her companion, in his attempt to contain her fluctuating emotions, was ill-equipped to handle the situation. His good intentions became a weakness. It was necessary to conduct these circumstances with a firm approach. He chose to reason with her, using dialogue that might have worked if she were in another state of mind. There was no talking his way out of this. He was not strong enough for her, mentally or physically, and she escaped his gallant effort.
She ran out of the building before he had a chance to react. He went after her, but she was no longer there. He went to the laundry room, to the open window, and screamed out to her in a futile attempt. Her name reverberated throughout the building.
"I'm calling the cops," yelled the night attendant.
He went back to the room, defeated, with a gloom to his step, and started picking up the mess.
The cops arrived and knocked on his door. He was nervous as he spoke to them, explaining what had happened. They asked if there was anything in the room. In a panic, his loyalty for her slipped, “No, but I don’t know what’s in her purse.” He would blame her if they found anything. She made the scene and now she was not there to answer for herself.
There was nothing incriminating. They found her driver’s license, took her information and left. They had other priorities. This was just another disturbance at a rundown hotel over a feening addict.
It was over for the night. There was silence in the hall and tranquility returned.
We all fall under a basic equation, the cost-benefit ratio. People consider us acceptable if the advantage of associating with us outweighs the cost. However, the opposite applies when the cost is greater than the benefit, then we become undesirable. Cost and benefit can be anything, from financial or social status, attractiveness, or any trait that creates a relationship with an individual. We are nonentities, only lists of possibilities or disappointments conducted by others to determine our value as a person. As heartless as it sounds, we all used this method to judge people, even if we are not aware of doing so. That is the best part of being human, the ability to deny whatever we find inconvenient.
Therefore, it’s safe to assume Beth’s value plummeted in the eyes of her companion. It was apparent the situation was greater than he could handle. However, in the morning, he was there for her, helping her shower, washing away the night. Why did he? What benefit would he receive from staying with her? I wondered to what extent these questions crossed his mind. But there he was, helping her with the kindness he had shown earlier.
She spoke, suppressing a cry. The edge gone, now she sounded like a confused child. "They held me for three hours. Why did they do that?” Her voice shot right through me, the innocence to it was heartbreaking. The primal urge to protect her took over. This was what kept him there, her voice, her frailty.
The police had picked her up that night. "Why did they do that?” She kept asking him, and he would reply with a pathetic, "I know. I know.” He had no answer for her. How long would it take her to realize his strength was not enough? The cost of his weakness would outweigh any benefit of staying with him. Except at that moment, he was all she had, and that was better than being alone.
Experience becomes self-referential, self-aggrandizement, and the cycle continues. He believed we lived a tragic life, and the tragedy became his pride, consuming him. If he saw such tendencies in me, then I have to accept that, but I do not have to follow his path. His death became my clarity, a revelation that made me see the follies unfolding before me. I thank him for that, but still need to prove him wrong.
I need to keep moving.
I placed the key on the attendant's desk. The smell of an overcooked biscuit sandwich persisted in the air. He stuffed what remained into his mouth and rubbed his hands, crumbs falling on the mess of paper on his desk. He grabbed the key and looked at it, chewing his food. "All right, 24,” he said, keeping the conversation to a minimum, trying to get me out before I mentioned what happen. He handed me my ten-dollar deposit with a greasy biscuit fingerprint on the bottom right corner.
I looked back, wanting to see her. But I never met Beth.