What’s a road trip without at least a little bit of seedy peril, eh? Unfortunately, that’s a question that would be presented (but fortunately not entirely answered) on one of my many cross-country jaunts. This one having incidentally kicked off in the hill country outback of South Texas – made infamous as the setting of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic of grindhouse horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a little movie that didn’t do too bad for itself, having subsequently checked into a room at the Museum of Modern Art. Who said horror wasn’t high-brow? And speaking of art, the only art we’d have found in downtown Birmingham on that breezy October night would’ve been stashed in a trunk somewhere on a shadowy side street and purchased don’t-ask-don’t-tell-style along with any dubious bagged substances of our choosing. Now you may be asking yourselves: this is your idea of fun? Well no, not exactly. But after a year in the sweltering Lone Star state, the plan was for my then-fiancee and I to bid those good ol’ boys & girls adieu and embark on a road trip north to Poe-rific Richmond Virginia, because well, it sounded like fun. Once our wheels hit the highway, we winged it and went where the wind took us. So we roamed the great American highway, eventually seeing the lights of Birmingham rise out of the murky southern darkness under a cloud-covered moon. We’d been driving since morning and were ready to find a hot shower, a soft bed, and call it a day, so ‘The Magic City’ got the draw. And magic it was, as in one hell of a sleight of hand.
We waited until we were in the business district before veering off the nearest exit and making our way through downtown after hours. Now, as you urban readers are well aware, most major metropolitan areas are only really traversed after dark for three reasons: 1) you’re lost and/or stranded, 2) you’re down & out and/or homeless, 3) a monkey’s on your back, and you’re buying or selling. Or there’s a badass underground club – OK, four reasons. Knowing myself, I probably let a little air out of our romantic bubble by suggesting we score some dope and a hooker, giving Jenn the cue to shoot me one of her disapproving sidelong glances, but a) she loves me and is tough to faze, and b) we didn’t have the bread for that kinda fun anyway. Fuel was pricey in the fall of ’10 and every cent was being fed to the gas tank, a la that hungry plant, Audrey, in Little Shop of Horrors – another genre classic that nonetheless deserves to be nowhere near the Museum of Modern Art, Nicholson or not. Anyway, we’d only swooped into town to find a relatively affordable motel, check-in quick and curl-up for a while. Little did we know what the city had in store. Before continuing, I’ll say this: from what I could see of that particular area, I hated Birmingham. It was one of the ugliest hellholes I’d ever seen. As closely as I can approximate, it felt like we’d dropped into Escape From New York and were taking Broadway to beat The Duke’s 7th Avenue route. If you know the film, you know that’s bad times. It was sketchy as hell around there, but what did it matter? When Jenn and I set our minds to something, we follow it through. So, even though common sense – including the little devil who lives on my shoulder – screamed at us to find the nearest on-ramp and haul ass outta there, we stubbornly stuck to the plan and combed downtown Birmingham for a Motel 6. It’s a far cry from the Marriott, but familiar to anyone who’s ever hit the road on a whim with some cash and a full tank of gas.
Lookouts and bruised girls
As we rolled down the thoroughfare, following our iPhone directions to the motel, things felt amiss. I soon realised that what appeared to be an empty boulevard of office buildings and warehouses was anything but. Bushes rustled, streetlights caught glints, shadows oozed from doorways. A whole underbelly of street life was taking shape around us. We’d set off the motion detectors and the dregs were emerging for their piece of the nightly action…or their nightly feeding. We eyed each other. Did you see that? With our destination just a couple of blocks away, I put the pedal to the metal and got us there before we saw any heads on spikes. The motel was big, a mega Motel 6 if you will, a triple-decker building in the heart of downtown, with long outside balconies dotted with doors, unsecured and accessible 24/7 to anyone who could climb a set of stairs. ‘And you didn’t keep driving?’ you ask. Nah. A clerk was on duty, the doors locked, and we’d both seen sketchier dives. What’s the worst that could happen at fuckin’ Motel 6? Well, I’ll tell you. We circled around back, parking in the lower lot. Looking up at the two balconies that loomed above us, I had a distinctly sinking feeling. Lookouts stood in the open, lingering near the stairwells that accessed the floors, burly guys with jailhouse tats, wife beaters & bandanas. “Do we really want to stop here?” I asked. “May as well, I’m tired,” Jenn shrugged. I saw a skinny girl emerge from a room, make eye contact with the nearby thug, then wobble on shaky legs to another room a few doors down. Maybe we’re both gluttons for the underworld, or fearless, or stupid, or all of the above, but no sooner did I question the validity of our choice than we were locking the car and making for the front desk to check-in. Did I mention we had two terriers along for the ride? Our boys, Toby & George (contrary to belief, not named after horror directors), were in the backseat, no doubt wondering what the hell we were thinking.
The office was bright, dirty white walls with fist-sized holes & sneaker marks, bad plastic plants, the stench of nicotine and ammonia. Dozens of extended stay, pizza take-out, and cheap legal services pamphlets littered every available surface. We stepped to the two-inch-thick bulletproof glass that encased the front desk and nodded to a sleepy-eyed black chick who was obviously thrilled to be working the overnight shift. “Room for two, single bed.” I slapped down a card, wondering about the dogs and luggage outside. The idea that we looked like a couple of suburbanite marks just for showing up crossed my mind, but again I didn’t heed the instinct to reassess. Let’s just get a room key, take the dogs up and crash, go find a nice breakfast and laugh about it in the morning. The woman ran my card and slid the key over, revealing a hand covered with India-inked numbers & dots. We thanked her and split, leaving her scowling at her press-on nails. Room 212, second floor. We grabbed our bags and beasts from the car, only too aware of the eyes that followed our every move from the upper tiers. It felt like the first day at state prison and I didn’t like it. Not that I know what that feels like. I’m projecting here. A huge, nuclear fallout-resistant cockroach lumbered between my feet and disappeared under a rust bucket truck. Looking back now, we must’ve been really tired to go ahead with it. We headed upstairs. At the top, Lookout #1 blocked our path. The guy was straight out of Grand Theft Auto, and probably guilty of the same and worse. “Whatchoo need?” he asked. Toby and George eyed him suspiciously. They’re excellent judges of character and were both on alert. “We just need to find our room,” Jenn interjected, knowing my penchant for escalating situations and wisely curtailing my reply. Thanks, babe.
As we walked the balcony to 212, I could hear the skinny girl from earlier howling some strange caterwaul, along with a peculiar thudding sound that I imagined to be her head bouncing off the wall or something. Not wanting to hear too much, we kept moving and finally reached our room. I looked back before entering and saw Lookout #1 watching closely, cell phone to his ear. Not good. We locked and chained the door, breathing a sigh of relief before collectively almost collapsing from heat stroke. The room was boiling hot. I studied the thermostat, sweat bubbling under my collar. 92 degrees. I tried to adjust it and the whole box fell right off the wall, hitting the carpet in pieces. That wouldn’t work. ‘So you came to your senses and drove away, right?’ you ask. Nah. I sagely told Jenn to lock the door behind me while I went back downstairs and got us a new room. On the way, I heard the skinny girl wailing from somewhere – in pleasure or pain, it wasn’t clear – and drew the silent stink-eye from Lookout #1. I walked into the office in time to catch the tail end of the clerk’s cell phone conversation. “Oh, he come down here an’ try that shit, he gonna get what them last motherfuckers got! He gonna be in three different trunks, bitch! Hold on. Can I help you?” I smiled, explained the heat issue, slid the key under the glass and got a new one. Easy. Room 313, third floor. Walking back up, the lookout kept his back turned, watching the lot below. I noted his peripheral stare as I passed behind him, on my way to collect my troupe. We were getting off that hellish second floor anyway, so that was a plus. Right? As I walked, a door opened and I came face-to-face with the skinny girl. Streaked mascara on empty eyes, skin a sickly tint of grey/green, dubious black & blue marks up and down her bare arms, legs, neck. The kind of bruises you only get if someone grips you too hard or kicks your ass. Her mouth curled into a smile as she held eye contact, but her stare was wishing me a slow death. Hell, the night was young, maybe she’d get her wish. I kept walking. What were we doing here again?
On the third floor, we were met by Lookout #2, who bore a striking resemblance to #1, both physically and in his stoic simmering psychopathy. No words were exchanged. We hauled our circus to room 313, found the temperature pleasant and the place in order. Might have a winner, we thought, as we got our things situated. And then…a knock at the door. The dogs exploded in a panic and Jenn hustled them to the bathroom as I looked out the peephole. Some scraggly bastard in his 50s who looked like he needed a shower, a meal, and a drink or seven. In that order. Who was he? What the hell did he want? “What?” I called, not particularly friendly, and watched as he flinched at the sound of my voice and got all herky-jerky in his movements. The jackass was flying high on something I wanted no part of. “Errr, she in there?” he rasped. She? “Who?” I answered. “Open the door, I don’t want nothin!” he hissed, rocking so unsteadily on the balls of his feet, I thought he was trying to head-butt the door. Maybe he was. “Beat it, asshole, or we’ll call the cops,” I said. Hearing the exchange, Jenn picked up the phone and dialed the front desk. The guy must’ve heard, because he promptly turned and shuffled away without another word, but started banging again a few doors down. A minute later, we heard the front desk girl’s voice bellowing. “Get the fuck outta here! What’d I tell you?! Get the fuck goin’!” Soon, all fell quiet and the dogs calmed down. I looked outside and saw the coast clear, no lookouts either. A couple had even pulled into the lot in a Saab, obviously on a trip themselves. Maybe the joint would stay calm enough for us to get some sleep after all, I thought, turning down the bed sheets. Then I saw the deal-breaker. Gangbangers, vagabonds, hookers, cockroaches, all apparently acceptable company – besides they were all outside – but hair on the sheets was where I drew the line. I like to keep things clean and nothing’s worse than hair, particularly when preparing to sleep on presumably crisp, clean bedding. And particularly when it’s not yours. Uh-uh, we’re outta here.
To emphasise my point, I threw the blanket aside and pulled the sheet up from the foot of the bed, inadvertently yanking off the fitted sheet and exposing the mattress. That’s when we saw it. Jenn’s face changed from disgust to horror and I followed her gaze down. The bottom third of the bed was stained deep brown, and it spread all the way through the mattress and box springs, dyeing the metal bed frame and the carpet beneath that. It was unmistakably aged, dried blood. A lot of it. Even if you’d never seen it before – and I’d seen more than my share over the years – you’d know it by instinct alone. We could even make out the shape of a person’s head & shoulders in its contours. The way it looked, someone had sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, their head tipped back on the mattress as they bled out. Whether the damage was done by a bullet or a blade, we wouldn’t know, but one thing was certain: some poor sonofabitch had bled to death in that room and the sorry pricks who ran the place weren’t even bothered to clean up, much less replace anything. And at last…exit stage left. We collected our things, leashed the dogs, and hit the stairs. I stormed in to give that desk clerk her damn key and a piece of my mind, but the office was conspicuously empty. Maybe she was in the bathroom. Maybe she was dead. Keep the refund, we’re outta here. I tossed the key under the glass and turned to leave when nine loud shots rang out from what sounded like right above us. Without hesitating, we bolted for the car and floored it out of there, finding the highway to the distant soundtrack of police sirens. No longer tired, we drove another hour or so, finally stopping in Riverside. We checked into a nice-looking motel with tree-lined grounds, a swimming pool, and nothing around us but endless inky black southern sky. Trundling up to our second floor room, we hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign and crashed for the night. There was no lookout stationed at the top of the stairs.
In the morning, Jenn woke before me. It was a sunny day and she went out on the balcony to have a look around. “BC, come here!” she called, rousting me from my absent-minded flipping through bad cable channels. I stumbled outside to join her and saw what we’d missed during our middle-of-the-night check-in. We were sitting right on a huge beautiful river, its crystal blue water sparkling in the sunshine. The night was so dark when we arrived, you couldn’t even see that it was there. I threw some clothes on and took the dogs out through the pool area, down a lush grassy slope to the bank of the Coosa. My right-hand man, George, particularly loved it and almost dove in a few times. He’s always been a bit of a nature-boy. We sat looking at the water, took some pictures, soaked in the rays, and finally started thinking about that breakfast where we’d laugh about our night in the Birmingham flop-house motel. As we collected our things and made for the car, I wondered about that missing night clerk, the bruised girl, the leering lookouts, the addled vagabond pounding on doors, the river-of-blood reminder of some poor sap’s wasted life, and of course, the flurry of gunshots that probably claimed another, if not more. Yeah, Birmingham Alabama, you keep it real alright. I’m good for a while. You take care of yourself, y’hear?
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