There is a deep blue neon sign that hovers above the desert somewhere north of Interstate 8. It’s the type of blue that you feel before you see; a vague unrest in the corner of your eye that seems to vanish with focus. You can feel a presence out in the night sky, lurking just in front of your windshield and closing in slowly. You tell yourself it’s fatigue, and yet your right foot pushes down marginally harder on the yielding pedal. You tell yourself it’s a hallucination. That anyone driving these dark, lonely miles would be prone to a bout or two of waking dreaming, but as the unseen stalker begins to resolve itself into an amorphous cerulean stain, hairs begin to stand up on your arms and your grip reflexively tightens on the steering wheel. The memory of the too-perfect face you gazed down on at the funeral emerges from beneath the strata of alcohol and shallow sex you piled atop it. Or perhaps you’ve fallen under to join it. . .that’s how your stomach feels as the blue light grows, still devoid of form. Then, as the speedometer needles around ninety, the light takes on a rectangular shape. Slowly, a few capital letters emerge. An unmarked, overgrown turn-off blows past you, and you can see the faint outline of a structure below the sign. A gas station maybe, or a fast food stop.
That’s how I ended up at the Silver Palms Motel. My panic at seeing the blue light had already partially convinced me to turn around and check in for the night. I slowed my speed as I considered the option. I wanted desperately to reach the coast, but I was still on the Arizona side of the expansive sandy wasteland between populated centers. That meant I had three or more hours to go, not to mention the slower commute through residential streets once I got to San Diego. I should stop. But was there another motel up the road? By now I’d already passed the blue light, though it still hung visibly in my rear view mirror like a stoic Cheshire cat. At that precise moment, I smelled the foreboding odor of hot metal, plastic, and fluid. A glance at my dashboard corroborated the smell: my engine temperature was into the danger zone and climbing. I pulled over and quickly opened the hood, burning my hands on the metal clasp. I expected steam to hiss out at me, but the car wasn’t hot enough and the summer night was too warm. I looked back at the neon sign, burning in its ethereal, subdued brightness.
The walk to the motel didn’t seem to take long, and a cool breeze on my face both calmed my nerves and woke my mind. In the moonless gloom, the desert was nothing more than a dark, velvety void; an area of night sky that had been cleared of stars. With nothing else to look at, I stared at the piercing blue neon sign. The letters spelling out Silver Palms were the first to become clear, written in the italicized cursive font that had been all the rage in Las Vegas five decades previously. I hadn’t been at all hungry in the car, but now out in the open, my neglected stomach made itself known. In fact, it seemed I had pushed more than one inconvenient biological urge aside on the road. . .the restroom at the motel was also going to be a welcome sight. I could make out the hard edges of buildings in the reflection from the neon sign and quickened my pace, glancing up one last time to observe a hand-painted picture in the middle of the sign between Silver and Palms. I squinted to resolve an image of a camel drinking from a small well surrounded by some sort of gray trees. At this sight, the memory of the corpse in my head twitched nervously.
I reached the parking lot in what felt like no time, the sandy road cushioned my steps like gel insoles; the refreshing breeze still played around my hair and brow like a flirtatious new lover’s caress. Two molded aluminum chairs painted a bright candy apple red color sat together to the left of the door of the Silver Palms’ main reception area. The door itself was thick, lightly varnished hardwood with an art deco window cutout. Inside, the early Cold War feel did not falter; two sea foam green velvet fabric on dark oak frame chairs were arranged around a black and white television console that was playing a muffled Civil Defense notice. Pan Am and TWA posters advertised flights to distant cities in muted colors and angular text; amber liquid in a crystal decanter sat ringed by six squat lowball glasses on a wet bar just to the side of the reception desk. Even more amazing than the attention to detail was the flawless condition of the vintage goods. It was almost as though each piece had been pulled directly out of 1953. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked to the desk and rang the bell for service.
“On my way,” a low, rich voice shouted from an open doorway behind the desk. “Just watching the game. You been following baseball this season?”
I began to answer just as the manager—who looked like a bizarre cross between Barney Fife and Buddy Holly with bluish-gray eyes—came into view, but he continued without a pause, “I have a feeling the Brooklyn Dodgers might win it this year. The pennant, at least.”
I laughed. Again, the care for authenticity amazed me; the Brooklyn Dodgers hadn’t been a team since 1957. I winked at the manager, “They might even win the series, if they’re careful.”
“Here’s hopin’,” Barney Holly returned my smile and mimed a toast in the air. “What can I do you for?”
“My car started to overheat on the highway and I’ve been fighting sleep since Maricopa. Do you have a room I can rent until I get my car looked at?”
The manager’s warm smile melted away as he checked the availability and his posture stiffened like a man who had just moved the wrong way and ground bone on nerve. He rolled his eyes to look at me, face still turned toward the motel logbook, before he straightened.
“Yep. Just one,” he clipped, voice devoid of any hint of joviality and replaced with something darkly hollow, almost like an echo.
“I’ll take it,” I said, sliding my Visa across the emerald desk blotter, my own grin growing wider in an effort to reignite his.
“No, no,” Barney Holly waved my card away with an old, leathery hand. “Your car’s on the fritz and you’ll probably need money for gas and repairs. And neither of those are cheap around here.”
He slid a key attached to a red plastic diamond that had been embossed with the number 108 across the desk. “Just take the key. No charge.”
My words faltered as I tried to thank him. The hollowness of his voice seemed to have expanded; the air escaping from his throat sounded like a harsh wind cutting across a frozen desert. The effect was so disturbing that I let my words hang unfinished between us. After putting my card away, I looked up from my wallet to his face. Logically I knew that his eyes had not changed, and yet I could see a bleak, gray moonscape stretching out infinitely behind his pupils. “See” isn’t exactly the right word. . .it was more like sensing something beyond mere perception. Something aimlessly lonely. The absolute embodiment of desperation. I snatched the room key off of the desk and all but ran out the door.
Outside, the cool breeze had dissipated and hot desert air pressed against me from all sides like an invisible coffin. I no longer needed a restroom. Every biological urge that coaxed me here—tiredness, hunger, thirst—had all evaporated with the breeze. I considered leaving the key on the welcome mat in front of the reception room door and walking back to my car; it had probably cooled down by now.
I took a step into the parking lot, about to retrace my steps, and knew with complete certainty that I couldn’t leave. Intuitively, I felt the distance I had to walk had grown. If I walked away from here, I would never find the desert highway, my car, or my way back to this godforsaken motel. A gust in the distance kicked up a cloud of dirt and though it was lit only by blue glow from the sign, I could tell it was not the reddish tan it should have been. The dust was the same unnatural, lunar gray I had imagined back at the reception desk. Fear trickled down my vertebrae like chilled spinal fluid . With one hand, the corpse in my brain grabbed my lungs, causing me to struggle to breathe; the other hand was thrust into my heart, making it beat ferociously.
I made my way into the hallway that offered access to all the rooms, gasping and trudging slowly through the quicksand of fear. I found my room and threw open the door. The stale-smelling air inside was thick with humidity, which brought about immediate sweating and thoroughly soaked my shirt. As strange as it sounds, the solitary room, aged cigarette smoke scent, and oppressive wet heat actually comforted me. The furnishings were as period accurate and immaculate as those in the main lobby. They could have been props in a Hollywood movie. I joked with myself that I must be in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and surprised myself by actually chuckling. The chuckle morphed into legitimate laughter as I thought about how the night manager must have taken my earlier exit. I slumped into a well-padded leather armchair and reflected on the almost psychotic delusions I had been having this night. I needed to rest.
A loud crash startled me, my eyes shooting open like pistons, and I realized I had fallen asleep in the softly enveloping chair. I looked around blearily, wondering if I had dreamed the sound until I heard loud, muffled voices coming from one of the adjacent rooms. I imagined it was an argument between spouses about travel plans or, the most exciting, a pimp shaking down a john who had refused to pay the agreed upon rate.
I closed my eyes and shifted into a more comfortable position, but something in the intonation and timing of the louder voice wouldn’t let me drift off; there was a familiarity I couldn’t ignore. The voice sounded three staccato bursts followed by a long, growling tirade. I knew that speech pattern; more, I knew that speech pattern only in the context of shouting. But where? I tried to wake myself to full alertness by standing up. My shirt clung uncomfortably to my back and neck, drenched from the sweltering room. I shambled across the soft, citrine carpet to the bathroom and filled a glass tumbler with tap water. I thumbed through my memory for the link between the yelling in the next room and the quick, bright flash of recognition. The water was as hot as the room and tasted strongly of minerals and plastic. I choked it down regardless, an attempt to balance out the moisture I had lost from profuse sweating. On my way back to the armchair, I cupped a hand around my ear and leaned gently against the plaster wall. From the other side, my father’s slurred baritone shouted a soliloquy I knew by heart even though I’d heard it only once—when I listened through the living room wall the night he left.
I stepped away from the wall, stunned. What the hell was going on? I could hear, muffled though it was, the sound of my mother and brother’s soft weeping drifting through the cracks. Glass and plaster exploded sharply, just like that night thirty years ago when my dad broke every dish, shattered every window, and ripped off every cupboard door in his berserker rage.
I ran out of my room and to the door of the next, twisting the doorknob only to find it locked. Violence poured out from behind it, almost palpable. A shrill cry escaped from the door, subverting rational thought and forcing my shoulder into the particleboard. The brittle jamb disintegrated. Splinters of sixty-year-old wood sprayed into the room followed by the badly damaged door and my off-balance body. The door broke more easily than I had expected and I was unable to regain my balance. I looked up from the floor, expecting to see a room not unlike my own. There were no similarities. I was met, instead, with an exact replica of my childhood kitchen. My father was bending over a small person, wielding a whiskey bottle in mid-swing, and looking upward at where I had entered in surprise. He straightened up and staggered in my direction, pointing the bottle at me like a knife. The small person on the floor got up and looked at me with wild, animal eyes. Frightened eyes, sure that this beating would be their last. Blue eyes. My eyes.
I scrambled to my feet, slipping on debris, and ran out of the room, my father’s voice rumbling behind me. Fleeing barefoot from a drunken rage gave me a feeling of déjà vu. I hurried to the safety of my room and closed the door, staring out the peephole to see if anyone had followed me. There was no way that had been my father and a six-year-old version of myself, though I vividly remembered being bludgeoned by the same bottle of Cutty Sark several times. I told myself to get a grip and turned around, seeing my room unchanged. Was I going insane? I paced in the cramped quarters, chronicling my numerous breaks from reality in the last few hours before deciding to sit back down in the chair and try to force myself to sleep. I would wake up tomorrow morning, laugh this nightmare off, and drive to San Diego. Eventually, the shouting from next door subsided and my eyes started to burn with extreme fatigue. I welcomed the feeling and closed my eyes to relieve it, settling semi-comfortably into the too-warm leather chair.
I heard a damp scratch behind me, like rubber-soled shoes scraping across a sidewalk after a downpour. I tried to ignore it, telling myself it was just the dream trying to intrude again. Another scratch, this one fully wet sounding, followed by a trickle and a low cry. I held out until the third scratch before I turned. Behind me, the tiny motel bathroom—with fixtures installed while Dwight Eisenhower was president—had grown threefold and housed the overstuffed medicine cabinet and clawfoot bathtub I had grown up with. My brother was hunched over the toilet wearing his white Ninja Turtles t-shirt; the last shirt he ever wore. Another wet scratch as he vomited blood into the toilet. Pink froth ran down his chin and he sobbed. He turned and looked at me, pleading, just as he had done twenty-five years before, after two of the neighbor kids beat him up on the street coming home from the school bus. They had been taunting him about not having a dad and he tried to stand up for himself. We didn’t want to get in trouble for fighting or ripping our clothes, so we snuck into the house and avoided our mother. It wasn’t until he passed out during a more violent bout of vomiting that I ran to her room. The doctors at the hospital could have dealt with the internal bleeding if we had taken my brother in sooner, but it had gotten out of hand. In the waiting room, my mother had told me that if my brother died, I would be a murderer at thirteen. In my motel room, my brother held my gaze, still sobbing, gripping the toilet seat with white knuckles, blood dripping from his lips with increasing speed.
I ran out of the room, away from my dying little brother, away from the room next door that housed my drunken father. I turned down the hallway , looking for the door that lead to the parking lot. It was gone. In its place was a bare, eggshell white wall. How could it just be gone? Where could I go? I kicked in the door on the room closest to where the exit should have been, the ancient jamb again offering no resistance. This time I stepped into the bedroom from my high school years. My lava lamp cast strange, turbulent shadows on both the wall and the Ferrari posters hung with such abundance and precision that they could have been wallpaper. My mother walked in and stared down at the bed where—now realizing what I was about to see—I knew I slept. She pulled my father’s pistol from the pocket of her baby blue bathrobe. I turned away from the threshold before the shot, eyes shut tight, but the scent of gunpowder and burnt flesh still made its way to my nostrils. I could hear movement in the room, then whimpering. My teenage self started to scream.
Looking back in, I saw the same dark, sticky mess on the wall that still haunted me in dreams. It had landed on one of the few framed pictures that adorned my walls; a drawing of a place I liked to pretend I could visit that I had made in junior high just after my brother died. It was a place far away from my life, far away from the lush growth of southwestern California, far away from the late twentieth century in both directions. An expansive desert that joined both past and future; a historical to-be. It was a place where biological and mechanical beings had no definitive separation. In the picture, a camel drank from an oasis surrounded by electronic trees. The name of the picture came rushing back from a dark, buried place: Landscape of Camel at Silver Palms. The dead hand around my heart tightened its grip, the serene death mask in my memory belying the malice that lurked behind.
I had to find a way to get out of this motel, but every window, like the exit door, had vanished. I found a vacuum cleaner, retro space age like I had come to expect from this place, with a sturdy cord. My brother was still bawling in the bathroom as I walked back into the room I had rented. The shouting from the room my father was in grew louder. The sickening smell from the room my mother was in grew stronger. My desire to end this nightmare became overwhelming. I stood on the armchair and secured the vacuum cord around the overhead light fixture. It felt like the corpse in my head was smiling now; my father finally pleased with his family, pleased that I would be joining the rest of them. I closed my eyes and thought of my futuristic Sahara from the past; I was heading a camel caravan towards the morning sun and unknown adventures. I pushed the chair away hard with my right foot and instantly sagged. For a moment I was afraid my feet might touch the floor—that I would be pulled back into the bleak reality of life. Then I didn’t care anymore.