The Off-Ramp Motel as a 3-Page Suicide Note
By David Dalton

From the underbelly of Los Angeles, I head onto 405 North and am immediately on some terrifying high-speed treadmill. Six lanes in each direction—cars, panel trucks and semis roar along at 85 miles an hour. A relentless pack of the lost, trapped in Satan’s mill. The dreadful predestination of a Calvinist highway. All doomed, hopeless souls, driving towards an exit that recedes indefinitely.

It’s three in the morning. After seven and a half hours of getting on and off planes and an hour of driving hell-for-leather on satanic freeways, exhaustion and disorientation have set in. Continuing north on 101, the freeway is level with the upper stories of the buildings alongside it, so that they seem to be leaping up like figures of the damned in a medieval depiction of Hell, desperately thrusting up their hopeful neon signs and then sinking back into the boiling oil.

A futuristic Via Appia, along which grotesque and fantastic funerary monuments will someday be set up. Pacific-rim microchip barons will erect tombs for themselves along this Via Dolorosa, gaudy dreamlike mausoleums in the shape of Akitas, sewing machines, TV sets, cereal boxes, Toyota Camrys, and action figures. In a sepulcher lit by an eternal flame, two-headed snakes predict the coming of the Anti-Christ.

How did I come to this? Let’s see. The last thing I remember was LAX, 2 a.m. The baggage claim. On the monitor, an infomercial for Thermotronex, a thermal imaging device that can detect when blood flow around the eyes starts to heat up—a natural fear reflex in animals preceding flight. In the interest of national security, they are to be installed at all airport boarding gates to detect potential terrorists. The ad claims 83% accuracy. Knowing me, I’d be among the doomed 17% pulled out of the line for interrogations, strip searches, and endless bureaucratic humiliations.

"I can explain officer. I suffer from chronic internal dread. I have here a letter from my local ontologist." I am poor, as the old French saying goes, but my terror is rich.

Budget Car Rental, 2:30 a.m. "What route you planning to take?" the guy behind the desk wants to know. "Oh, I figure I’ll take the Pacific Coast Highway north, pull over somewhere between Redondo Beach and Santa Monica and run in the ocean, read a couple of choruses from Mexico City Blues on the beach, drive to Malibu and head inland," I say omitting the running-in-the-ocean and Kerouac parts. Even with this stuff edited out, the guy looks at me doubtfully. "Let me make it simple for you: 405 North to 101 North. Stay on 101 to Westlake Village. And pick up a cup of coffee at the first gas station you come to."

Ventu Parkway Blvd, reads the sign. Yes, that has a nasty Orwellian ring to it. I’ll take this exit. Ventu—short for Ventura? Freeway Esperanto, or perhaps they just couldn’t fit the whole word on the sign. Say, where did everybody go? No sign of life. No houses, schools, malls, multiplexes. Just Fortune 500 companies humming in the night. Low-lying haut-cement buildings that manufacture, extrude, process god-knows-what. I recognize the oxymoronic topography of your average, upscale industrial park. What else did I think such a place would be? The modified brutalist architecture, the prototype a cheery, efficient update on the Führer’s bunker. Hulks so leaden with amortized glumness, they have sunk low into the ground. Lenin’s tomb as virus via mock International Modernism. At night especially sinister. Organ-harvesting conglomerates out of Coma. Some creeping ivy-like waxy form of vegetation spreading over the embankments. In front of the pitiless bunker-like structures, flood-lit signs with the company name—Chronoflex, Vinyltech, Polytron—spelled out in Helvetica, Swiss fascismo typefaces—institutional aesthetic of airports and hospitals: "THIS way, idiot!" And always the priapic hedge.

Why am I always on assignment in these godforsaken places? Dear God, a writer should be in his garret scribbling strange thoughts—isn’t that why I became one? To stay home. Not out here on the unholy road, hunting for double-A batteries in gas stations in the middle of the night.

I must sleep. Otherwise I’m going to just stumble out of the car and fall out on one of these industrial lawns, waking up under the hypnotic hissing of the sprinkler. Ah, my first sighting of the Terminal Motel. There it is—behind a row of cloned poplars, and almost indistinguishable from the other industrial buildings. As I drive into the parking lot, the building seems to tense up—like a shifty cell-block guard I’ve surprised smoking on duty. Rows of identical windows stare back at me with an affectless gaze.

There’s no lobby. Of course not. Only an inch-thick bullet-proof plastic window with a slot through which you shove your money and credit card—like a liquor store on the Bowery. The thick plastic window already fractured by some raging crack-addicted monster from the Id. For a hot-bed type joint, they sure want a lot of information. Name of business? Home phone? Person visiting in the area? Make, year of car? License plate number? Got triple A? Interminable questions, requests for documents to be submitted. One of Herr Klamm’s establishments, no doubt. Tired of the Count’s insolence, the poor pay, the company of serving wenches—he emigrated. Moved to Thousand Oaks and opened a string of motels with visions of catering to commercial travelers—flatware samples in Samsonite luggage, their steamaway irons and polyester shirts. More often now, it was impious nights of lust, money, and dirty deals. Hustlers, hookers, rave deejays, OxyContin pushers, escort-service johns, and the lost.

The motel built on the Albanian model—cinderblocks, stucco—by contractors who had never heard of Albania. But there’s always the Albanian matrix, the Hotel Carlos where apparatchik whores arrive in leatherette and Joy, smoke Cuban cigars and have cousins in Buffalo.

When the guy at the desk asks "smoking or non smoking" I didn’t think he meant the room itself smoked. Maybe the room was lying to the guy at the desk. If it had indeed given up its 4-pack-a-day habit, it was very recently.

The room is edgy, on guard, as if braced for some coming insult to itself. The industrial strength carpeting is of a density and fiber calculated to defy any sort of abuse thrown at it—cigarettes, gum, tar, dog shit. Perhaps as a pre-emptive strike, it’s color and compacted weave mimic the filth it will be subjected to.

The furniture: standard dentist-office modern. Blonde wood, brown nubby fabric. A desk in the same nondescript style. As if insisting on its anonymity. There’s going to be no small talk here. Don’t try and get personal, bud. Just put the money on the dresser; this is a one night stand.

I turn on the TV and click through the channels. The phone rings. They’ve killed the story. Jesus! Why should I care? I should be glad, actually. I didn’t want the stupid assignment in the first place, but now that it’s been cancelled, the room is—how to describe it?—gloating.

Curtains, carpet, bedspread. Everything is either manic holding-tank yellow or thorazine brown. The bedspread resembles a freshly-dug grave mound, an Addams Family bouquet of dead flowers. The coverlet is suffering from bi-polar syndrome, now clearly in its depressive mode—the primary colors have run away in panic leaving only the drab, dowdy burnt umbers and raw siennas.

Bathroom. Brown alluvial tiles on the floor. The tiles on the bathroom wall are cream colored with rough brown oatmeal-textured surface. Oh, no. I begin seeing little troll faces in these tiles, needle-point eyes, alarmed O-shaped mouths screaming—Devonian demons trapped in the clay, sealed there for millions of years. The shower head, a long thin dinosaur snout bursting through the wall, an eyeless, rapacious chrome predator.

"My Homunculus" by Coco Pekelis

I’m wondering if the patterns of the tiles possibly be Mayan calendrical signs predicting rain, sacrifice, volcanoes, UFOs, bird-headed snakes—when out of the side of my eye I catch sight of the homunculus of myself. He is also taking a bath and is pale as Lazarus in an early Netherlandish altarpiece, reflected in the chrome to resemble myself in the afterlife. One’s self as might be seen in a painting by Lucian Freud—worn out, the flesh as metaphor. Vaguely distressed, bewildered, a bit pathetic, unearthly. Ready for the embalmer. My look that of the stunned gaze of early Christian portraits. Weary of life, bewildered from the contemplation of eternity. In contrast, Roman portrait busts show stoic, no-nonsense characters, bottom-line guys—the governor of Bythinia indistinguishable from the CEO of a gasket company. Christianity brought Holy Doubt. Angels of uncertainty and pause. Asking, asking…. What is this beginning? Who is this creature? Stupefaction at the parousia, the presence of the divine that stops clocks, stuns the mind, and opens the gospel of circular time.

A diminutive self-portrait in a convex chrome appliance. Hidden behind a silvery screen of false silver—the indifference of chrome. As substance, we are poles apart from wood or stone, but we can identify with their rough, organic planes. We can imagine being wood. But chrome—we will never be chrome.

My secret sharer, his skin’s surface as yellow as a leaf. He navigates my face in search of answers. He examines me with a calm, resigned look, like a 2nd century funerary portrait from Fayum, Egypt. Wooden encaustic images of the dead placed on the faces of mummies, painted with beeswax, eggs, and linseed oil. Time has rubbed away all but the eyes from some, the painters having reserved the darkest black for the pupils. Only a glazed look remains—thinking about afterlife will do that to you. Hollows wherein darkness accumulates and gives the mind a well into which to cast itself if it wishes to gaze on the face of eternity.

Second century mummy portrait from Fayum, Egypt

My doppelganger is a creature of great melancholy and forbearance, miming my every action. Was he the one that ran the show, my engineer? My ka, as the ancient Egyptians would say, operator of my soul. Caught by surprise in a metal mirror. The desperate nature of the room, its brazen hideousness had startled him into existence. Aroused such pity and sadness in him he’d awoken with fright in his chamber in the hippocampus. The room itself had winkled him out.

Infernal room, indicator, oscillator of mood, has my state of mind manifested this place? The breviary of Bishop Berkeley mentions only repetition, loss, neglect—the cosmos does not exist to give you signs, says the soothsayer, but, at the rosy apocalypse, whom will you believe?

The kind of place an embezzler goes to hang himself. On the nightstand the .45 and the Gideon bible. Wife’s body in the trunk. Vodka, sleeping pills. A chiseler on the run from the mob. A singer-songwriter who, digging too deeply in the rubble of the soul, has found only petty meanness and degradation where once he glimpsed a fiery boot and milk-white sirens on the moon.

My name is....
You have no name
No name?
What is your name? You have forgotten your name.
My name is....
Never mind. We have to move on.

In the morning I decide to check out—if they’ll let me. Behind the plastic window the night clerk is asleep. I slide my keys through the slot and creep away. To restore my sanity I repeat the words of a Bounty commercial as I head out to the highway,

does jobs you didn’t know a paper towel could do,
does jobs you didn’t know a paper towel could do,
does paper jobs you didn’t know a towel or two ago,
paper towers undo the jobs that words construe….