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I was going to write a series of quips and jokes about the motel I stayed at in Columbia, Missouri this past weekend for homecoming, and how much of a hilarious shit hole it was (our TV, for example, was broken both in that it was physically cracked and that the cable didn’t work). But, ultimately, I felt that if I truly wanted to capture the essence of where I stayed, I needed to describe the sort of characters I believed frequented it, based on its price, location, and above all, appearance.
It was almost midnight, and in the parking lot of the Budget Arms, leaning against an old street lamp, bathed in a glow made yellow by the lamp’s old, stained casing that long ago needed replacement but never could find its way into the Budget’s budget, Sheila took a slow drag of her Virginia Slim. She stared across the nearly empty lot. Most people who needed a room at the Budget Arms didn’t stay long enough to park overnight. Usually just long enough to meet Sheila, and pay her.
Or Trixie, or Valerie, or Tammy, or Larry. Used to be Denise too; a young, sweet, bright-eyed girl with a crooked but infectious smile. Sheila always told Denise she should leave the Budget lot while she could. Go on to the better things she was destined for. And she did, too. One day Denise got a job as the starter girl at the mud races held outside town every Friday night, waving the flag in the middle of the track to start the race.
Sheila had helped Denise get the job, in fact. A man called “Flap,” who was in charge of siphoning gas from parked cars to use for the four-wheelers at the mud track, was sucking gasoline out of a 1995 Toyota Corolla through an also stolen section of garden hose he’d cut off at a house that had inadvisably left its sprinkler out on the lawn overnight, with a switchblade he’d shoplifted from a gas station, when Sheila caught his eye.
After he had filled all his buckets up with gasoline, Flap paid Sheila about ten dollars (around seven in loose change plus the three dollars he had left on a Hardees gift card) for a quick squeezer in his truck cabin. To help relax his fit of “clenches,” as he called them. A sort of extreme anxiety attack Flap suffered in the immediate aftermath of a comedown from the inadvertent gasoline fume highs he regularly experienced while stealing gasoline for the mud races.
Sheila had been so proud of that.
Denise was dead now though. Killed on the mud track Sheila thought had set her young friend free. On her first race. Right at the end of the first lap.
Wearing the heels and a bikini that composed the entirety of her new work uniform, Denise had walked out onto the mud track to wave the start flag but thanks to a delay — two rival drivers broke into a drunken fist fight at the start line — Denise was out on the track longer than she was supposed to be. Her heels sank deep into the mud. Deeper than even she realized. Not wanting to make a fuss on her first day, though, Denise said nothing.
Eventually Denise was able to drop the flag, and the race began. It was heated right from the start. Bootheel Jenkins and Hamster, the two rival drivers who’d been fighting just before the race began — the best mud racers in mid-Missouri, in fact — were neck and neck. They slammed their four wheelers into each other looking to gain an advantage. Bootheel swiped at Hamster with his trusty racing knife, while Hamster swatted back with an antenna he’d ripped off a 1995 Toyota Corolla in the parking lot before the races began. As they rounded the final turn of the first lap, neither realized the flag girl was still there, her feet mired deep in the muddy track, unable to escape.
The two frontrunning four-wheelers approached the start line at the end of the first lap unaware Denise was still stuck there in the middle of it. Bootheel and Hamster had briefly separated from each other after Hamster attempted to blind Bootheel with some pocket sand, but now prepared to swerve into each other again, fated to collide right at the start line.
Race attendees said they saw Denise’s head fly twenty feet straight up into the air after the four-wheelers simultaneously collided with each other at the exact spot the ill-fated flag girl could not escape standing in. Her body, meanwhile, had been reduced to a soupy mess, most of which Hamster and Bootheel hastily washed off of themselves in a nearby creek before quickly leaving town for an indeterminate amount of time, as both had priors, many of which were mud race related.
Sheila was at the race that night too. She remembered it all, but preferred to dwell on Denise’s smile. She took another slow drag of her Virginia Slim and wondered, at 47 years old and waiting for a John in the parking lot of a motel that had more stabbing victims than customers last Halloween, why she was still around and Denise wasn’t. Or, for that matter, the sweet stray dog she’d adopted and named “Hope” after she found it wandering the Budget parking lot one cold night. Why did she deserve to be here, and Hope deserve to be torn to pieces and eaten by the thirteen other stray dogs that also considered the Budget parking lot their territory? Hadn’t they both been peeing on that same dumpster, after all?
Sheila concluded that not a single damn person deserved a single damn thing in this world, and that it was best not to think about it at all.
A portly man in a graphic t-shirt that portrayed a bald eagle bursting out of Colin Kaepernick’s chest like a newborn alien from the film Alien, and couldn’t possibly contain the bottom of the man’s belly, approached Sheila with a smile and a bottom lip that bulged with Skoal.
“Darlin’ you’re gon’ be payin’ me when we get done,” he said confidently.
“Mmhmm we’ll see. Come on slugger,” Sheila replied with a skeptical croak.
From his lonely, late night post at the front desk, Carl, a balding, one legged diabetic with unkempt grey hair and a mustache he’d worn since he was 22, watched Sheila take a man into room 254.
“She deserves better,” Carl thought.
He could give her better. He knew he could. Sheila, along with the rest of the girls working the lot, including Larry, had long ago offered Carl “favors” in exchange for the use of rooms and the lobby restrooms. Carl, ever the gentleman, declined their offer but granted them their requests anyway.
“We all try to make a living,” Carl told them with an empathetic smile. “Tell ya what. If I have an extra room to give ya, you can have it. Just make sure ya clean up after yourselves.”
Though he genuinely liked them all, to Carl, Sheila was special. She was smart. A realist. She complimented Carl’s unrelenting optimism nicely. And Carl respected her too. Especially the way she tried to find Denise a better life.
Poor Denise. Carl had been at that mud race to cheer her on as well. He had another cashier cover his shift that night, even though it meant his paycheck would be smaller and that he wouldn’t be able to afford his electric bill that month. He wanted to be there to support Denise in the next step of her life. But then Denise’s head exploded off her body and she died. He’d never forget the ride home that night, made all the worse by the fact that he couldn’t turn on the radio to try to take his mind off of Denise’s sudden passing, as at some point that night someone had ripped the antenna off his ‘95 Toyota Corolla.
So instead Carl cried. The whole way home. But maybe that was better, he thought. Better to cope than deny. And, of course, Carl concluded that Denise hadn’t died tragically, but merely had her rise to a better life expedited. Denise was in the best place of all now. Carl, the eternal optimist. Every setback was a blessing to Carl. Like when he was forced to walk home from work all the times he would find his Corolla in the Budget parking lot after a shift, inexplicably out of gas. To him it was more time to think. More time to appreciate his surroundings, and in a way, himself as well.
Four bullets ripped into Carl before he could ever turn to see the man who fired them.
Two rednecks kicked in the locked glass door and attempted to rob the motel while Carl faded into blackness. They were so high on PCP, though, that they didn’t realize they were snatching up a pile of green local tourist brochures instead of cash.
“I wouldn’t have died with a smile if I was him, I can tell ya that,” Detective Gary McCann remarked to another officer over Carl’s now hours old corpse.
“What a fuckin’ mess,” the other officer replied.
“Get the poor bastard outta here,” McCann said. “Jesus Christ.”
McCann walked outside and lit a cigarette. Sheila was already there waiting with a cigarette of her own. He wondered how many damn times he was going to have to come to this godforsaken motel. One night it’s twelve bikers getting stabbed in a gang fight after they mistakenly took their kids trick or treating in Iron Bear territory. Another night, a city councilman calls 911 weeping because he was robbed by the transvestite who got him unspeakably high on bath salts. The next, some sicko ODs on gasoline of all the damned things in the world, his body clenched up so tight he may as well have been frozen solid. Tonight, the Mr. Rogers of hell gets four in the back. Better to just burn this whole place down, he decided.
Sheila didn’t want to ask what happened. Best not to think about it. She watched the EMTs cart out Carl’s body and took a drag of her cigarette. She knew she owed Carl, of all people, more, but couldn’t bring herself to open up again. Another cashier arrived shortly after to take up Carl’s old post. Detective McCann told him that maybe it would best if they closed for the night. The cashier told him two guests were expected to arrive late, and that they had called ahead to make sure someone would be there to give them keys. McCann agreed to stick around for safety’s sake. Sheila was done for the night too, and decided to sit in the lobby to decompress.
A short while later, around one in the morning, a new looking silver SVU pulled up in front of the lobby. Two nicely dressed young professionals got out. They walked in and asked for their room keys. Sheila overheard the smalltalk they made with the cashier. They said they were in town for homecoming. They thanked the cashier for their keys and walked out. The door hung open long enough for Sheila to hear them change their, until then, pleasant tone.
“God what a shit hole. Can’t believe this was all we could book. I hope we don’t get murdered in this nightmare toilet,” the man said.
“You’re right Rob! We are so much better than this place!” the woman replied, laughing.
“Everyone here is a walking sphincter! Gross! Hahahahahaha FUCK YEAH WE’RE COOL!”
Sheila knew Carl wouldn’t like it, but she resolved then to murder them both. Because they deserved it..