The Road to Winlock by Leah Mueller

Leah MuellerPacific Northwest rain has a spiteful, insidious quality, as if it was deeply committed to causing despair for anyone who is unfortunate enough to be caught in it. I was weary from battling a torrential downpour while driving along Interstate Five in my Toyota minivan. It was an ungainly, wedge-shaped vehicle, and it already had more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. Doug and I had left Eugene around five o’clock, after our intentions for a romantic getaway had refused to pan out. We’d spent the weekend arguing and threatening to split up as soon as we reached home. Neither of us had uttered a word to each other for over an hour.

As we pulled into the northern outskirts of Portland, the art-deco neon outlines of the iconic “Waddles-Time to Eat!” sign appeared by the side of the freeway, and I smiled for the first time in hours. It was impossible for me to be depressed when I saw that sign, since it was my favorite landmark on the interstate. “We’ve never eaten at Waddles” I lamented.

Doug gaped at me with incredulity. “You hate that kind of food” he stated. “It’s all grease and shit from cans.” Doug was tall and gaunt, rarely eating more than what was necessary for survival. He leaned back in his seat, and folded his arms. “You told me so yourself” he added triumphantly.

Doug was right, as he so often was, and I fell silent, resentful that my peaceful offering had received a snarky rejection. He stared intently at the dashboard, though there was little to see through the sheets of rain. “God, where did all these cars come from?” he demanded. “It’s almost eight o’clock on a Sunday night.” It was clear that Doug believed that the cars existed to create additional misery for him. Doug’s capacity for misery was breathtakingly inclusive in its scope, swooping up everything in its path like a toxic wave. He had developed a sense of humor that was bitter and incisive, combined with formidable talents for both music and writing. These talents had never received sufficient recognition. Doug put the blame for this exactly where he felt it belonged—on everyone else.

I was closer to Doug than anyone else had ever been, since we owned a house in Tacoma, had a four year old daughter, and a joint checking account—all the trappings of marriage, yet we had simply never bothered to marry. Our lack of binding legality would make it easier to split up, if one of us ever actually got around to packing our bags and leaving the house. It was clear to me that Doug needed to do this, so I could remain in the house with our daughter, but Doug seemed oblivious to my logic. He had developed an increasingly more pronounced vodka habit, often downing tiny airline-sized bottles in the garage, a practice he didn’t realize that I knew about. He was also a heavy smoker, rolling his own cigarettes on the porch and then staring pensively at the horizon while inhaling smoke and the pulpy fumes of the nearby factories.

Doug had a coughing fit, and then subsided abruptly. An opening appeared in the traffic, and, magically, a corresponding break in the rain. As we crossed the state line into Washington, the traffic increased to near-normal speed. The van slowly picked up momentum, and Doug and I drove for an hour in relative tranquility. He stared out the passenger window at the road, while I fiddled idly with the radio, finding nothing of interest.

Suddenly, there was a loud popping noise, like the report of a shotgun, followed by a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the smell of burning rubber. The van lurched, and a flatulent noise emanated from the driver’s side. “It’s a flat tire” I said, feeling oddly calm. “I’d better pull over.”

“You can’t pull over on the interstate!” Doug screamed. He shook his head violently, as if to dispel the mere notion of a freeway stop. His thin shoulders trembled for a bit, but then he composed himself. Taking a deep breath, he pointed towards a ramp that was located about a quarter of a mile ahead of us. “There’s an exit up ahead” he said with measured calm. “See if you can make it.”

I pushed my foot gingerly into the accelerator and inched my way towards the off-ramp. The exit sign read “Winlock.” I’d passed it dozens of times over the years, without the faintest desire to discover whatever hidden splendors that Winlock had to offer. Undoubtedly, all of its residents were preparing for bed, winding down in preparation for whatever meaningful tasks awaited them in the morning. The businesses would be shuttered for the night. Still, I had no choice but to continue down the off-ramp towards the darkened outlines of the town. The van began to sputter loudly, and I pulled off the road and into the weeds on the right hand side of the stop sign. The engine immediately shut off, and there was silence, punctuated only by a fresh wave of rain that swooped down abruptly from midair and rattled against the windows.

Doug was livid and incredulous. “We’ll get towed away if we park here” he exclaimed. “Where are we going to spend the night? We can’t sleep in the van. Some drunk will probably careen into our sorry asses. It would serve us right.” I felt strangely tranquil, as if my brain had removed itself from the situation and traveled some place else, a land where vans reached their destination without incident. In the air to our left stood an ancient, illuminated sign that said “TEL.” The first two letters had obviously burned out a long time ago, leaving the latter three to convey a hopeful message to travelers seeking restful sanctuary. “Let’s walk over to that motel” I suggested. “We can put a note on the van and perhaps no one will tow it away before we return. Really, what choice do we have?”

For once, Doug offered no argument. He reached down to the floor of the van, dug around briefly, and finally produced a dirty piece of paper and a tiny, half-crushed pencil. He then scrawled a pathetic plea for clemency: “Our van has a flat tire. We are very sorry. We beg you not to tow it away. We promise to return in the morning and remove it ourselves. Thank you for your understanding.” He placed the note under one of the windshield wipers, and we wandered slowly towards the “TEL” sign. “I doubt if much awaits us in the way of accommodations” Doug said dryly as we drew closer to the motel site. “I don’t expect very much” I replied. “I have learned not to.”

It had obviously been a long time since anyone had bothered to maintain the property. The parking lot had given up the task of waiting for cars. Instead, it had chosen to devote its time to sprouting cracks and weeds, with the goal of eventually returning to nature. The adjoining motel was one of those mom-and-pop cinder block varieties that was popular during the 1950s—fifteen units, all in one row, with bite-sized windows that were covered by thick, filthy curtains. All of the doors were painted a sad, faded shade of aquamarine blue. Their surfaces were covered with scuff marks sustained after years of people kicking at them and trying to gain entry while in various stages of angry intoxication.

One of the rooms at the front end of the complex had a tiny sign in the window that read “office.” I hoped fervently that someone would be inside, waiting to receive our money and give us a key. Instead, the interior was dark and musty-looking, with a desk that appeared as though it had been abandoned mid-task, leaving the paperwork to fend for itself. A stack of papers remained on its surface, surrounded by a nest of stray pens. Tacked to the door was a sign written on yellowed notebook paper that was lightly speckled with black dots of mold: “Office closed. For rooms, please go to house trailer on the other side of the motel.”

Doug and I looked at each other for a long, awful moment, and finally realized that we had no choice but to trudge across the parking lot to the rear of the motel. After we passed the final unit, we spotted an ancient, decrepit trailer, half-buried by trees and blackberry bushes. It crouched unhappily in the underbrush like a neglected animal. I rapped uncertainly on the door. Doug huddled behind me, staring at the door as though trying to make it open through an act of telekinesis.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long. An elderly woman appeared at the threshold, fiddled briefly with the locks, and pulled the door open so slowly that I wondered whether it was in danger of separating from its hinges. She blinked several times, then pushed a clump of hair away from her eyes so she could peer at us more closely. The woman’s hair was surprisingly greasy, considering her advanced age. It looked as though she had combed it vigorously, then plastered it to one side of her face. This had the effect of causing her entire head to appear lopsided, as if someone had let the air out of one portion of it. Her skin was as pale as bleached paper, with such a pronounced pallor that it looked as though it had been years since she had been outdoors. She held her robe closed with one hand, and gestured towards us with the other.   “Can I help you?” she asked, rhetorically.

The stench of the trailer was overwhelming, containing the mingled scents of unwashed dishes, severely mildewed clothing, and stale cigarettes. I stepped backward and collided with Doug, who hopped quickly to one side. From the rear of the trailer came the sound of hacking—the low, desperate sound of a man trying to breathe with a lifetime of phlegm in his throat. The ragged coughing continued for a few seconds, reached a crescendo, and then stopped abruptly. “Our car broke down on the road” I explained. “This is a motel, right? Do you still have rooms available?”

“The motel closed almost a year ago” the woman replied. “We’re waiting for the county to tear it down. They should be here any day now.” She paused for a few seconds, then continued, “If you really need a room, I suppose I could sell you one for twenty dollars.”

The invisible man at the rear of the trailer began choking again—so insistently that he sounded as though he was drowning in bile. Eventually, he came to his own rescue by blowing his nose feverishly and loudly. His coughs became quieter and less frequent and finally subsided entirely. “Yes, we’d like a room” I said. “Do you have sheets and blankets and a key? Twenty bucks sounds reasonable.” I removed a twenty dollar bill from my wallet and pressed it into the woman’s hand. She shuffled towards a laundry hamper that had been wedged into one corner of the living room. She reached inside and extracted a small clump of bedclothes-two top sheets and a couple of pillowcases that were decorated with Disney characters. Then she reached into a cabinet and pulled out a motel key. It was the sort of key that had been popular thirty years beforehand, when cars full of families had hit the road in search of cheap motels. The plastic fob was stamped with tiny white lettering which bore the promise that, if the patron forgot to return the key, the motel owner would gladly pay for postage. “Number ten” she said briskly.

I accepted the bundle and thanked her. A fresh wave of coughing arose from the rear of the room, and I shut the door quickly. Doug and I cautiously made our way back to the motel building. Number Ten wasn’t difficult to spot, since all of the rooms were arranged in a geometrically perfect row and numbered from 1 to 16. I placed my key in the door and pushed it open. The room smelled a bit like the trailer, but the scent wasn’t gag-inducing, which I counted as a plus. In the far corner, a stained and drooping mattress rested on top of a dented metal bed frame. “This won’t be too bad” I said.

Doug stared at me as though I had completely lost my mind. “You must be kidding” he sputtered. “This place is a squalid dump. I can’t believe she wanted twenty bucks for it. How could anyone actually sleep here?”

“Well, I suppose we’ll find out” I replied equably. I climbed carefully into bed, pulled the top sheet over my fully clothed body, and reached up overhead for the light switch. It had been a long day of verbal sparring and automotive turmoil, and I had no desire for further conflict.  Doug collapsed on the bed beside me, a look of panic on his face. He trembled slightly and placed one of his hands on my shoulder. “Don’t turn the light off” he begged. “I think we ought to sleep with it on, just in case.”This wasn’t the first time I realized that Doug’s vitriol was only a flimsy cover for his deeply rooted fear of everything, but I no longer had any patience for it. I rolled over and snarled, “Why? WHY, Doug?! So when they come in here to murder us, we can see what they look like?”

My question had the desired effect of completely disarming Doug. He sagged to the mattress in defeat and shut his eyes tightly. “I guess it doesn’t matter” he whimpered. He curled up into a bony, fetal ball on one side of the bed, facing the wall. “It will be daylight in a few hours” he said, almost hopefully. “We can check to see if the van is still there.”

I stared at his huddled form. There had been a time, not long beforehand, when I would have reached over instinctively to comfort him, or would have allowed him to comfort me, but that time had passed. I had never understood what happened to such emotions, exactly how they were ground out of existence, until one day all that remained was a sort of detached contempt. I put one of my arms around Doug and hugged him slightly. He remained stiff and guarded, refusing to uncoil his body even to a familiar source of comfort. “It will be fine” I said. My voice seemed to come from the other side of the room.

The morning brought brilliant winter sunshine through the window. The light increased as we climbed out of bed, and we pulled on our jackets, feeling oddly hopeful. After tossing the key onto the bed, we opened the door and wandered outside. A couple of birds pecked at an abandoned fast food bag in the parking lot, but flew away in panic as soon as we approached.

Our vehicle was exactly where we’d left it, the scrawled note flapping slightly in the breeze. No one had taken the slightest bit of interest in the van’s plight. “Let’s just walk back into Winlock” I suggested. “There’s bound to be a mechanic in town who owns a tow truck. All he’ll have to do is change the tire.”

At the edge of town, we found an auto repair shop that was just opening for the day. The proprietor, a portly middle aged man with a crew cut, assured us that he had a tow truck that could pick up the van immediately. His young, taciturn employee hopped into the truck without speaking, motioning for us to sit beside him. We rode to the off ramp in silence, and the man hoisted the van onto a mechanized platform, finally securing it with heavy chains. He leaped back into the cab of the truck and gunned the engine, scowling in the rear view mirror as he checked for oncoming traffic. Once we returned to the parking lot, he lowered the van into the pavement and drove away quickly.

As the proprietor loosened the nuts and removed the flattened tire, he shook his head and laughed derisively. “Stupid city folks” he chuckled. “Ever hear of a spare tire?”

“Only the one around your waist” Doug said, too softly for the man to hear. Doug had many problems, but obesity certainly wasn’t one of them. I snickered quietly, and Doug leaned against a tree and lit a cigarette. He took a deep, shuddering drag, and emitted a tight cough.

Twenty minutes and a hundred dollars later, we were back on the road. The van glided smoothly along the highway with its one new tire, while the other three worked feverishly to keep pace. Doug settled into his usual niche in the passenger seat, and stared out the window at the landscape. “I wonder what was wrong with that old guy in the trailer” he mused. “It sounded as though he had emphysema or something like that.”

“I can’t imagine where they’ll go when the place is demolished” I replied. “It’s a good thing we didn’t break down a couple of days later.” Doug laughed for the first time in days. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m going to be ecstatic to be back in Tacoma” he said. An image of our shabby three bedroom house floated into my brain, and I smiled. It was clear to me that Doug and I were going to be stuck with each other for an indefinite period of time. At least we weren’t spending our days in a damp trailer in the middle of nowhere, waiting for desperate travelers to fall apart on the road. You always have to be grateful for something.

 

 

THE END

 

*Leah Mueller is a  Tacoma-based writer, whose work has appeared recently in Bop Dead City, Quail Bell, Talking Soup, The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, Dirty Chai, and two anthologies published by Writing Knights and Terminal Books.  Her chapbook “Queen of Dorksville” was published in 2012 by Crisis Chronicles Press, and  she was a winner of the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest, sponsored annually by Winning Writers, during the same year.  See her work at wackypoetlady.blogspot.com.