There wasn’t a year went by when I was reminded of a saying that a childhood friend, Jack Mulligan, had one told me, when one door closes another one opens.
I forget why he said that, but I suspect it had something to do with a chip on my shoulder over not being the same as other children in the street.
We were definitely not equal with them, and it had shown. And school could be hell when kids see prey and attack mercilessly.
When I left the school, and the family moved away from Odyssey Falls, I never saw Jack again, though I followed his progress, as well as several others, for a few years, up until I read about a car accident, and not only his death, but that of my first love, Cecilia Zampa.
After that, I forgot about Odyssey Falls, and a life that had not been particularly good.
It took another friend, one I’d made during a stint in the National Guard, to bring back a single memory, and one thing led to another as it inevitably does, until I found myself waking up in the Sad Sack Motel on the city limits of Odyssey Falls, one very cold, snowy morning.
It would not have happened if it had not been snowing so hard, and the road that passed through the city had not been covered in snow.
Not that I knew, the moment I woke up, that I was in Odyssey Falls, we had not passed the sign telling all that they were about to enter the most scenic city in the state, and it could have been anywhere.
“What the hell happened to us?” The croaky voice that was the result of 40 cigarettes a day, sounded startled, and belonged to my travelling companion, Melissa, last name not sure.
“We hit a bank of snow, and the cops said to hole up in the motel until the road was cleared, hopefully this morning sometime.”
“Is there a reason we’re in this bed together?
A good question. Until two days ago I’d never met Melissa before, she had been seeking a lift when I’d stopped at a gas station to fill up, and it beat making the drive by myself.
“Your idea. I said I’d sleep on the floor.”
“No. I started on the floor and you took pity on me.”
I saw her glance under the blanket, just to make sure, but she still had most of her clothes on. She rolled over. “What time is it?”
“Still dark. A few hours before it gets light. I’m going out to get some coffee, you want any?”
“God, no. Maybe later.”
I thought I’d got out of the bed without waking her, but obviously the opposite was the case. It had been a strange night, and she had talked in her sleep, and it didn’t take much to realise she had not been treated well by the men in her life. I didn’t sleep much, too many bad dreams myself, and I was heading to the truck stop a few hundred yards up the road.
“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said just before opening the door. There was no reply, so I guess she had gone back to sleep.
It was dark and cold, the hour or two before the sun made an appearance. In that dark, it was quiet, the traffic on the road stopped waiting for the snow ploughs to clear the way.
The truck stop stood out like a beacon in the night, like a light drawing an insect towards it on a hot summers night. A find memory popped into my head and was gone again by the time I reached the door.
It was bright inside, and busy, a lot of stalled drivers taking the forced down time to get breakfast. I wandered up to the counter and sat on one of the well-worn stools.
Back in my day, this place was all,shiny and new, and the place to go and meet up with others before getting into mischief. The city had been in its heyday then, when it was a stopover for those going east to west or vice versa, and there were a dozen cafes and even more motels.
This appeared to be the last, showing its age, and perhaps if the snow had not cut the road, would be empty. When the new turnpike had been built, 20 miles south, the effect on the city had been catastrophic, even more than when the timber mill closed after all the trees had been cut down.
The two events had reduced the population from a peak of 200,000, down to the 8,109 today, turning it into a veritable ghost town. Its halcyon days adorned the walls in photographs, now faded and wrinkled.
As soon as I sat down, one of the two women behind the counter noticed and came over, a half full pit if percolated coffee in one hand and a cup on a saucer in the other.
She looked tired, not in the way that indicated the last hour of a 12-hour shift, but tired of life.
She put the cup in front of me, and said, “coffee?”
I nodded, and she poured.
It was then I noticed the signature white tuft of hair that all the Zampa women had. This one had to be Cecilia’s younger sister, Marilyn.
I saw her giving me the once over, as if I had one of those familiar faces.
“Martin?” If she was Marilyn, she would have to recognise me, even though I was older and half the weight. She knew of my unrequited love for her sister and had, like many others, derided me for it
“Ain’t seen you in a lifetime.”
“A mistake I assure you. Wasn’t expecting a prom queen to be a waitress in a dump like this.”
“OK, so I deserved that. I was a different person back then and believe me God has been punishing me ever since. The burgers are quite good here, believe it or not.”
“You’d be surprised.”
I probably would, so I ordered it on her recommendation, and she went off to the kitchen. I was expecting her to yell it out across the room, but she didn’t.
Whilst mulling over the coffee, I tried assembling the history we shared, but it was only bits and pieces. The best I could remember was her sister being sympathetic towards me, but Marilyn, being the one who hung out with the football team, and the quarterback prom king, had made my life miserable.
She was far more beautiful than her sister but had that mean streak that every girl who knew she would be the most desired girl in school had towards people like me.
Fated too to marry the quarterback who had been drafted into a team that was a steppingstone towards fame and fortune, she had foolishly allowed herself to get pregnant, and then dumped when the lad left town. From what I remembered reading afterwards, it was the only child she had, and had never married since.
The quarterback, he wrecked his knee and tumbled out of favour and the big time, only to return to town and end up working in his father’s factory, at a sight less that he would have got in the big league.
She came back and dumped the burger in front of me and refilled the coffee cup. It was black and very strong, and I could feel it waking me up, and to an extent sober me up. I was lucky the cops had not realised I’d been drinking, and that was the cause of the accident, and equally lucky that no one else had been involved.
It was the sum of my life, going on benders and losing whole weeks at a time. It might have been the catalyst for finding myself back in the one place I said I’d never return. But the mind does play tricks, and it had decided the only place I was going to find salvation was this place.
And if that was the case, I don’t think I was going to find salvation.
When daylight broke and turned the darkness into a sea of whiteness, I’d finished. She’d been right, the hamburgers were good.
I paid the check and climbed back into my anorak. It had started snowing again, and it would be cold. Then, outside the door, it took a moment to remember which way the motel was.
Behind me I heard the swish of the automatic doors open and close, then Marilyn, “where are you staying?”
“Briefly at the Sad Sack, until the road clears.”
“There’s nothing to see or stay for. My parents live in Florida, my brother and sister somewhere in Europe and Asia respectively. There’s nothing here.”
“In a once thriving city, you’re not right, once everything closed down, and the new turnpike opened, people started drifting away, and now the only people we see are those that have lost their way. As for our generation, everyone has gone, except those who have nowhere to go.”
“I thought you had that dream of going to Hollywood.”
If I remembered correctly, she had been the star of several stage productions, and was quite good. Everyone had been impressed with her singing and dancing, and the drama teacher
was going to talk to a friend in the business.
“Me and a thousand others. Being good in a backwater doesn’t guarantee you anything but heartache, and disappointment. Then my mother got cancer and I had to come back to look after her, and work in the motel. I had my chance, and it didn’t work out.”
“For what it’s worth, everything I tried turned to crap. From what I’ve read, all of us had the same bad luck. You still own the motel?”
“My mother died, then dad, which was no surprise. Now my brother runs it, let’s me stay there, and the mean bastard makes me pay rent. You should come visit before you leave. Unless you’re married or something.”
“Once, but she found someone else, more successful. But my heart wasn’t in it, there was no one after Cecilia.”
“She liked you, you know, but she had aspirations that were never realistic.”
“What about you?”
“That’s a story that requires copious quantities of alcohol to relate. And time. If you change your mind, come and see me, it’d be nice to see a familiar face.”
“Walk you home?” It seemed almost a novel idea.
When I got back to the room, it looked like a bomb had gone off in it.
Melissa was not in the room, and when I checked she was not in the bathroom either, that was a bigger mess. She had used all the towels and left them lying in a sopping heap in the corner. The sink had strands of black hair.
I came back out of the bathroom and was hit by the heady aroma of perfume. Had she spilled it on the floor, there was a stain beside the bed. On the bedside table was a scribbled note.
‘A salesman staying next door said he was leaving, and I hitched a ride with him. Thanks for the ride and room.’
Although I’d not expected any recompense, leaving a few dollars might have been an acceptable gesture, but she had not. I shrugged. I was considering leaving myself right after having a shower, but there didn’t seem to be the same desire to leave in a hurry.
Perhaps seeing Marylin and being reminded of Cecelia might have done that.
I took a last look at the room from the doorway, then pulled the door shut. At the very least I needed new towels.
Three doors up I ran into Marylin now changed into a cleaner’s uniform, and dragging a large cleaning car with, yes, new towels.
“No rest for the wicked then?”
“The cleaning lady rostered on today didn’t turn up for work. I don’t blame her. Sleep will have to wait. You are leaving now?”
“No. My travelling companion of a few days has up and left after using all the towels.”
She pulled two off the top of the pile and handed them to me. “Does this mean you’re staying?”
“For a day or two maybe. I have to go and see the old house where we lived, and you did intimate you had a story to tell, and I’m a sucker for stories.”
“Then when I get off shift I’ll call you. Every cloud eh?”
I had no idea what that meant, nor cared. For the moment I had something else to care about, other than the fact I was dying. My mind went briefly back to the doctor’s surgery a week before. The doctor delivered the news deadpan, and I took it in numbly. It had only hit home that morning just before I’d got out of bed.
The reason for coming home, the only home I’d ever known. Maybe now I could come to terms with it. Marylin smiled at me when I looked back, just before I went into the room. Perhaps that was another reason my subconscious had brought me here, to see Cecilia’s sister, to be reminded of what I’d once felt. Perhaps I’d felt that for her sister too.
Only time would tell, and although I had little of it left, it was time to take a few chances. Then I realised what she had said, that ‘every cloud had a silver lining’.
I looked up, just as the snow started again. I think I finally realised what fate was telling me, and for the first time since being told the bad news, I didn’t feel angry or sad, that everything would be the way it was meant to be.
© Charles Heath 2021