Stark Raving Mad
Desperation, paranoia, motel noir
Words and Photos by Gabino Iglesias
Reading time 23 Minutes
Room 211 – 1:06 p.m.
“I have my eye on you. Don’t steal my towels.”
The first time I came to Oklahoma the asshole at the front counter of the Sooner Legends Inn told me that. I was a grad student at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I was in town for a conference at the University of Oklahoma, which is less than three miles down the road. I took his words and wrote an essay about discrimination and pushing through it. It got picked up by the New York Times. That was the start of my writing career. I guess I should thank the prejudiced asshole, but I don’t care about him enough to track him down. Now I’m back in Oklahoma because I need to write. I need to reconnect with the gritty life of that starving grad student who had to steal toilet paper from the university to survive. Don’t get me wrong, the fire in my belly is still there, but the rest of my body, including my brain, is wrapped in a strange, numbing sense of wellbeing that comes from having enough money in the bank to sleep at night. I still check my account every time I go to the grocery because poverty gives you a strange type of PTSD that never leaves you, but now I do so knowing there will be enough dough in there to buy whatever I want. It’s hard to write hard-hitting, gritty-as-fuck noir when you’re comfortable. Now I’m in a shitty motel room near Oklahoma City called The Country Inn. Room 206. The shower curtain has mold on it. The toilet seat shifts sideways when you sit on it. The carpet has two different colors because it’s two different carpets. The door won’t close unless you slam it. The AC blows lukewarm air that smells like cigarette smoke, body odor, and desperation. This place is perfect. I’m going to stay in this shithole until the words start flowing. I’m going to stay here until the hunger comes back.
Room 209 – 2:17 p.m.
Gabriel understands there are no fresh ideas out there. His latest idea isn’t fresh, and he’s okay with that because despite not being fresh, it’s dark enough to pass for unique. A thing is new to those who don’t know about it even if you’re stealing it from someone else. Gabriel feels stealing is at the core of all art. If you can inject your personal touch and make it somewhat different, whatever you create belongs entirely to you. That’s why he’s sitting on a bed in a shitty motel room about to click play on a movie on his old laptop while he writes in his new one.
He read a book once written by an author who locked himself in a room and watched E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten on a loop for three days without sleeping. He started writing when his sanity started to crack. Gabriel’s plan is mostly the same, except he’s going to watch Stark Fear. He can’t remember the name of the author or the title of the book, but he remembers Begotten and Brian Salzberg, Donna Dempsey, and Stephen Charles Barry. He also remembers Skip Homeier and Beverly Garland in Stark Fear although he can’t remember anyone else. And he remembers Rebeca most of all. They were together the first time he saw Stark Fear. The movie was a blur inside a shadow when it came to its importance in the world of film. He thought it was decent for the times but also forgettable. Rebeca thought differently. For her, the psychology of the movie made it memorable. She was obsessed with abusive behavior. It was part of her dissertation, but also something that lived inside her and had dark ties to a past she refused to talk about. She was damaged and covered it all up with knowledge, but Gabriel could see through all of it.
The only funny thing about Rebeca’s obsession with abusive relationships and their psychology was that she was abusive. She enjoyed belittling and emasculating him at every opportunity. And he took it. She was too beautiful, too soft, too amazing to do anything but accept her flaws. Then she walked away. Some guy in one of her film classes had a “better discourse” to offer. He was also a successful experimental writer. Gabriel had no idea what that meant and, after spending a night on Google looking for the guy, he came up empty-handed. Well, he was going to write an experimental book that would get her attention. Then he was going to ignore her. Everyone talks about violence being a plate best served cold, but almost no one talks about its sweet, intoxicating taste.
Room 207 – 2:49 p.m.
Tomas walks. His eyes stay on the cracked sidewalk in front of him. There’s a half-formed thought in his head about how the sidewalk resembles his life. The words dirty, cracked, and messy come to mind, but he can’t put them together in any order or add connective tissue between them to make a coherent thought. That’s the way his brain operates when he’s stressed, and he’s stressed the fuck out.
Tomas married Taylor to move and stay in the country only six months ago. She was chubby, had a temper, and drank until she couldn’t leave the sofa every night, but she was willing. His friend Fernando hooked it up. It was cheaper than a coyote and less dangerous. Now, after six months that felt like six years, he still has no job, no money, and no friends. What he has is a problem. A big one. Taylor threatened him with a divorce if he didn’t go along with her cousin’s hairbrained idea to make bank. The guy wanted to bust into a fentanyl deal between some Mexicans and a few locals, put holes in everyone, and walk away with the money and the drugs. He said no. She said it’s over. He said fuck you. She threw a bottle at him, grunted her way out of the sofa, and came at him. His right fist flew out like a scared bird. Her lower jaw shifted under the impact. Her head twisted. She dropped. Her temple caught the corner of the cheap coffee table. It gave her a deep, wet kiss. Blood began to spread across the floor like a growing menace. He ran.
Tomas knows he must disappear. The country’s gone to hell and nothing is as he expected. He’s sure the American Dream is still alive, but it seems to be walking with a limp and hiding in some alley somewhere. It’s definitely nowhere near fucking Oklahoma. A friend once told him Oklahoma produces nothing but football players, country singers, and serial killers, and he’s starting to see where that dumb joke came from. Staying around would be a mistake. Spilled blood screams until someone comes to check it out. He knows they will start looking for him as soon as they find Taylor. Or as soon as she wakes up. God, he hopes she wakes up. She’ll crave an aspirin burrito, but that’s better than death. In any case, his only option is returning to Mexico. His cousin can make it happen, but before he can come to pick him up, Tomas has to hide. He has to stay away. That’s the only option. Up ahead, Tomas sees a cheap motel. He knows they will take cash and ask no questions. It’s the kind of place where workers stay all the time. Men in stained jeans and concrete-splattered boots who drop in and vanish the next day. He walks in and asks if they have a room for the night in his broken English. The words taste bitter, the vowels refusing to bend the way they do in Taylor’s mouth. The white man behind the counter looks at him with the interest most people show when reading the nutritional facts on bottled water. He mumbles something about an ID and sixty dollars. Then he coughs like he’s dying from emphysema and reminds Tomas smoking is prohibited in his room as he slides a card across the counter and says, “Room 207. Second floor, turn left, right past the ice machine.” Tomas nods. He knows moving quickly and silently will make him invisible, or at least forgettable. He wishes he was a ghost.
Room 211 – 7:26 p.m.
There aren’t enough conversations about authenticity in noir, and now I understand why. It’s tough. You can have it and lose it. I guess you can also not have it and then gain it through a series of unfortunate events. Whatever. The point is I’m sitting here and I’m reading and rereading the words that made me get in my car and drive all the way here:
“You need always to be under pressure, like a layer of sedimentary rock or a steel girder holding up a skyscraper. From the pressure, from the pain of the contradictions you carry and embody, from the wrenching of the oppositions that tear you, comes the energy that bursts into words, comes the flood, comes the pouring. You must always be not quite where you want to be, and you must never quite know where you want to be, and nothing must ever be enough to bring you contentment. Contentment is your deadliest foe. The fruit must always be just out of reach, and the world you walk through must always be a shade greyer than the one you can make yourself from what lives hidden in your heart.”
The words aren’t mine. No great words are mine anymore. They belong to Paul Kingsnorth. They fucked me up. There is something magical about the feeling you have when everything you do can be the difference between eating and not eating. There is a strange beauty in feeling great about scraping enough money together to hold off eviction for the second time. I had those things. I was a hustler. I lived a live of poverty and petty crime. It made me a decent author. It made me an author people wanted to read. It made me authentic. I was the street brought to the page. I was the poetry of anger and the promise of blood in a dark alley in any damn city in this country. Now all that is gone. I have a good house. I sleep with the AC on and have a car instead of riding the bus. My checks come in regularly from the MFA where I teach, my royalties are always decent, and I have health insurance. People fly me places and pay for my stay at nice hotels and take me out to fancy restaurants. I no longer deliver shady packages for cash. The man I used to be is no more, and that means the writer I was is dead.
Yeah, the man I was is dead. I buried him on my way here, somewhere out there on I-35. I’m a new man now. I started taking photos of gritty places on my way here. Later tonight I will hang around the worst, dirtiest, most dangerous places I can find in this town. I will keep the feelings and images of those places with me. I will reconnect with the streets. I will look back at these words and recognize them as a moment of change, a rebirth.
Room 209 – 9:01 p.m.
“You want your husband back? You really want him back?”
Kenneth Tobey spits those questions out through the lips of Cliff Kane and they stir something in Gabriel’s chest. Eternal return. A vicious cycle of pain. The inability to break away because routine is the most powerful glue in the world. That’s what all relationships are. Sadly, that truth can’t ever be seen from the inside. Like most other truths in life, it is only revealed when you’re outside of it. Gabriel leaves the movie playing and walks over to his bag to get a snack.
The sound is terrible. He’s watching the film on YouTube. The dialogue is barely audible over the hiss of time. He remembers being a kid and thinking old movies were shot before color was invented. He returns to the bed with a mouthful of protein bar and stares at the movie. Some of the imagery is incredibly dark. Ellen running into the darkness. Machinery moving violently. High shots of an alley where darkness pools in various places. He thinks of Begottenagain. There is a tie between these two movies, but he’s not smart enough to figure it out. It probably has something to do with haunting imagery. Or with the visual representation of what most people think stress looks like. Or fear. He doesn’t know. Rebeca’s new man surely knows.
Room 207 – 9:47 p.m.
Tomas is on the phone with his cousin Antonio. He’s in Austin on a job. He wants Tomas to sit tight until tomorrow morning. He will come get him then. Antonio hangs up before Tomas can tell him whatever he was going to say next.
Tyler’s face haunts Tomas. Her eyes rolled to white, her temple a dark hole pouring blood onto the floor. He wonders if he ever felt anything for her. Things never really started working out. Now he knows things that start bad tend to end worse, and Taylor was the kind of woman to revel in awfulness. He wasn’t to blame. She attacked him first. She loves screaming. She loves drama. She tortures him mentally. He moved her thinking a better future was a sure thing. He made the mistake of telling her. She laughed at him and said “You dumb beaner, the American dream is a mangy dog limping in a grocery store’s parking lot.”
Now all Tomas can think of is hearing her say her mobster daddy hates any man who gets close to her. They don’t talk much, so Tomas never met him, but something in the way she talked about him makes him think of an evil man with an itchy trigger finger, especially when looking at a brown man.
Tomas looks down at the floor. He has a backpack with most of his clothes in it and the gun his cousin got him the day he helped him cross the border the first time. He wishes for home. He wants a good meal and to sleep in his old bed.
There’s someone next door watching a movie with the volume on really loud. He can’t make out the words but he knows it’s an old movie because of the strident music. Tomas looks at the phone nestled in his hands. Morning seems a week away. The drama in the movie next door is loud and full of emotion, like a mirror of his own in a language that will never be his.
Room 211 – 11:02 p.m.
I wrote a few words. I don’t know if they’re any good. I ate a chicken sandwich I bought on my way in and listened to some William Basinski to get in a messed up mood. Then I looked around and wrote. Motels are great places to write. They all have the smell of rotten humanity right under the stench of the disinfectant. They all have strange stains on the floor and scratches on every surface that hold quiet stories. It always reminds me of Tom Waits’s “9th and Hennepin”: “And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here . . .”
The words will wait. I’m craving a cigarette. The parking lot is almost full. The lights I can see from my window look yellowish and sick. I’m going to smoke out there so I can soak up the atmosphere. Then I’ll come back to the words, to whatever this silly journal is.
Room 209 – 11:21 p.m.
The world of Stark Fear is gone. Black and white noir aesthetic is a thing of the past, just like Rebeca. Gabriel hasn’t written a single word. He took a shower and ate another protein bar. Then he pulled out his cell phone to check Twitter, Facebook, and his email. Then he played mahjong for a while. He starts thinking that everything changes. The bar where he took Rebeca on their second date is no longer there. The motel he stayed at on the first night she kicked him out is now closed. Even the Oklahoma of oil rigs shown in the opening of Stark Fear is now a ghost weeping in the shadows of a large city pumped full of neon and tall buildings.
Everything ends. That’s life. What will writing a book mean for the inevitability of all ends? Nothing. Entropy is stronger than words. Maybe he could close the movie and watch porn for a while before sleeping.
He stands up and pulls the curtain to the side. A man is walking around the parking lot. He puts a cigarette in his mouth and sucks. The orange tip brightens momentarily and then dims a bit. The man spits a thick column of smoke into the air and keeps walking. Gabriel wonders why turning off the movie and going to sleep feels like losing.
Room 207 – 11:34 p.m.
The cell phone’s ring wakes Tomas up from a sleep he didn’t see coming. He feels disoriented as he puts the thing to his ear. It’s his cousin. No pickup tomorrow. Something came up. Get down to Dallas and he has a friend who can pick him up and drive him to Austin. Or, if he can get a car, get all the way to Austin and he will take care of everything.
The click ending the call is as surprising as the words that preceded it. Tomas looks around. He has to get out. Too many hours have passed. They are surely looking for him by now. Staying put is not an option. Something tightens in his chest. Fear grips his neck. No money. No friends. No car. He now knows what desperation feels like. He doesn’t like it. He walks to the door, swings it open, and sticks his head out looking for fresh air. Next door, the damn movie is still playing, the music still a screechy memory of a different world.
The hallway looks like something pulled from a horror movie. The elevator dings and Tomas jumps back. He closes his door, runs to his backpack, and grabs the gun his cousin gave him. It’s a snubnose with a hint of rust near the barrel. It’s so small it feels more like the idea of a gun than an actual weapon.
Tomas hangs out at the door, his right eye pressed to the peephole. He waits a few seconds. The man who walks by isn’t there for him. He doesn’t look like he’s looking for anyone. And his clothes are too nice, his face too clean. He looks like the money he needs. Tomas opens the door and steps out. The man doesn’t stop walking or look behind him. He’s wearing a nice watch and nice shoes. Tomas knows there’s a nice car outside that belongs to this man. He stops being a man and becomes his ticket out of Oklahoma City.
Room 209 – 11: 49 p.m.
Stark Fear keeps playing loudly. Gabriel wonders why no one has complained. Midnight is right around the corner.
There’s an argument in the hallway. Two men. They’re right outside his door. A body thumps against his door. Gabriel stands up and moves toward the door. He wants to know what’s happening.
“Money! Give me money! Car – llaves! Las llaves del auto, pinche güero!”
The screaming man has a thick accent. The man being yelled at is trying to calm him down. Gabriel understands immediately. The man with the accent is trying to rob the other man. Gabriel wants to help and also to run away. Then he hears the movie again. He’s here trying to work on a project because he’s heartbroken. He’s angry. He opens the door.
There’s a brown man holding a small black gun and a white man dressed like he just left his office. They are standing in front of each other about a foot from his door. They both look at him. The white man looks away almost immediately and jumps on the man holding the gun. The thing goes off. The white man drops. The brown man looks down, his eyes bulging out. He jumps over the white man and sprints to the end of the hall.
Gabriel steps out and kneels next to the man. He’s holding his stomach, grunting like a wrestler fighting a headlock. Gabriel digs into his pocket for his phone. It’s not there. He stands and runs into the room. He grabs the phone off the bed and dials 911 as he walks back to the wounded man. The operator takes the information and says to keep pressure on the wound. Gabriel hangs up and enters the room again to grab some towels. When he returns outside, the man is laughing between grunts. “This is fucking noir,” he says. Gabriel doesn’t understand. He wants them to take the man away so he can go home. He wants out. He knows the grunting man wants out as well. He knows everyone wants out of something.
The door is open. The movie is still playing. Beverly Garland’s voice comes to him over the man’s grunts and occasional laughter.
“How much is a one-way ticket to El Paso?”
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He's the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.