Hoover Roundup Motel, Walden, Colorado
Ninth Letter is pleased to be able to feature this collaboration between the photographer Brendan Barry and writer Jeff Parker, "Cheap Rooms. Low Rates." Barry logged 22,000 miles back and forth across the US over the past two years, photographing, among other things, empty hotel rooms, and writer Jeff Parker provided fictional texts to go with the photographs.
"The one-eyed man watched them go, and then he went through the iron shed to his shack behind.
It was dark inside. He felt his way to the mattress on the floor, and he stretched out and cried in his
bed, and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness."
--John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
I tried calling everyone. I called again and again. I left messages. I sent texts. Where are you guys? I wrote. Where the fuck is everybody? No one was there. No one was anywhere.
So I checked myself into a room, and I found a drinking establishment there with wood-panel walls.
The shift had already started, and the girls were already forgetting to give change. In front of the taps, they twisted curling irons through their hair. They adjusted their polka-dotted tops. They chugged Red Bulls.
One of them looked at me with eyes like gouges in her face. She was saying "This side of Thysyrus, our rendezvous Al-lah ta-ting."
"What?" I said.
"Do you have any interest in a menu or anything?" she said. Her head bent awkwardly. I had never seen a creature like this before. She had a vile turquoise stone hanging from a black thread around her neck. A silver ball poked through her lip. She frightened me.
"I'm fine," I said. Of course I was anything but fine.
She poured green beer into pitchers marked off like measuring cups. I was the only one alone there, and that seemed wrong. A motel like that should be full of alone people who were there for the purpose of being alone together.
I put quarters on the challenge table but the together guys before me left when they were done. I played me. I challenged myself. I beat me in a very close game.
The guys playing pool before me had left a pitcher with two cups, sixteen ounces, one pint of green beer still in it. I drank off it. It tasted like company. Right unnatural green-tinted company.
"Hey," I said to a waitress, the one with white pigtails sprouting over both ears. "When's St. Patrick's Day?"
"It was Monday," she said.
"What day's today?"
She noticed I was drinking the left-behind old green beer and not buying old green beer myself. She whispered into the ears of the other girls. I finished the left-behind old green beer.
It had been a long time since I couldn't get in touch with anybody. I wondered where they all were. I wondered how long until I'd be able to reach them again.
"How was the audition?" the terrifying one said to the blond one.
"Good," the blond one said.
"What was it for again?"
"What was it for again?"
"The lead in"--I couldn't hear this part. "It starts shooting in May." The blond waitress electrified the place, as blond waitresses will.
"Hell's Bells" played.
Some guy charged behind the bar. He hugged the waitresses. Of all the men in the world, he was their favorite.
"How was your party?" the terrifying waitress asked him.
"You should have been there 'cause I was smashed."
"Shut up," she said.
"We were finding wealthy men," the blond one shouted. "And they were buying us martinis."
"What's the cheapest beer?" I interrupted. They all looked at me.
"The green beer," the terrifying waitress said.
"What kind of beer is the green beer?"
I looked at her.
"I don't recommend it," she said.
"Okay then," I said. "Give me Cool."
She didn't want to, but she poured one for me, and I paid her, and I drank it, and I went back to my room.
Simplify your life. Thoreau told it straight up: "Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them." What more do you need than a couple hangers, a fold-up stand for your clothes, an ice pail, a blank TV--unlimited options--see what you want in there--a waste basket, a light, atmospheric controls, a lamp hanging from a chain that is woefully inadequate to hang yourself from?
When people ask me for my desert island accoutrement, my unorthodox answer is simple: If I were stranded on a desert island and I could bring only one thing, it'd be a simple motel room every time.
Once upon a time, in this place occurred, we can be certain, a few things: 1) Someone smoked. 2) Someone died. 3) Someone who shouldn't have entered through the adjoining door.
Now, what do we do with this information? Watch a little nothing on TV. Go to sleep.
A vandal has added the disturbed to my Do not disturb sign in black Sharpie if I read my marker right. This is a sentiment I can abide.
But the disturbed people of Machias, Maine, cannot abide the sentiment.
"Do not disturb the disturbed," I shout when someone knocks. "Can't you read?"
"It's the police," a female voice says. I peek through the curtain. It is a female police.
"Is there some kind of problem, officer?" I ask.
"We've had some reports about a Peeping Tom."
Her eyes sweep the room behind me.
"I am a photographer," I say.
"Can I see some of your photographs?" she asks.
I know my rights, but anything might happen in Machias, Maine. Luckily, I keep some pedestrian shots framing the good ones on the front and back end. I toggle through about five, the highway structures of Machias, Maine; a dilapidated old house; the Do not disturb the disturbed sign.
"I guess you're not a pervert or terrorist," she says. She pauses to register any slight, telling reaction.
We are all prepared for the bible in the side table. We are not prepared for the sunrise ironing board steeple. Already I am on the phone and Interwebs declaring my rebirth and calling on the Jesus-toast and refrigerator-mold saints to join me in Ukia for the sunrise ironing board steeple.
How many times, green bucket, have they puked in you?
Didn't we stay at this one before, and it was Vermont?
If you fire back through your mind all the rooms, they blur and confuse. It's like trying to fire back all the people, all the Americans, the foreigners, the brunette-headed girls, the check-in folks, the check-out, the loud neighbors, the pink-haired families at continental breakfast. You start to feel off balance thinking back to them all, because it becomes hard to distinguish. One of them said this, another said that. This one loved you, that one you loved. That one punched you in the eye, this one told you Armenian jokes. Sometimes a visual from the face--a dark blotch on a cheekbone--sticks with you.
But now take Arizona and Florida. You wouldn't mix them up by the mold or lack thereof in their worst motel rooms. You wouldn't confuse the aggressive swampiness of one versus the hot, dry frustration of the other...
Process of elimination: This is the third day here, but where is here exactly? I mean, America. That much I can say. So that is a clue, half a clue. But where in America, where it's at least seven different countries practically? You pick up what you can pick up. Check the tags on a thing, the "make" on the bottom of a lamp. China, of course. Maybe that's it. Maybe I'm in China. It's possible. But then, if I were in China the Made in China on everything would say Made in China in Chinese. I remember something about Nevada. There were Ohio and South Dakota and Montana and Oregon and that would definitely mean Nevada somewhere in there. But then I also remember Wisconsin and Arkansas and Texas at some point. I could just pick up the phone? "Good morning, madam. Where, pray tell, am I at right now?"
But that is the easy way out. Better to open the door and charge directly into the wherever it is.
Brendan Barry is a fine art landscape photographer based in the South West of England. His work is mostly concerned with the notion of the journey as he is interested in using photography as a tool for exploration. He recently completed his Masters at The University of Plymouth and currently lectures in photography at Exeter College. Over the last two years he has driven 22,000 miles back and forth across the United States photographing the road and searching for something. See more of his work at brendanbarry.co.uk.
Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the short story collection The Taste of Penny. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Delux Motel, Marshall, Minnesota