Lucille pulled into the station just in the nick of time. The hood of her Buick erupted in smoke as the scent of burnt motor oil poured over its sides and spilled onto the concrete. The car sputtered and coughed as though it had just lit up a cigarette for the first (and last) time. Then it gagged and shut down completely. Lucille got out, slammed her door shut and glared at it. She turned towards the derelict ruins.
Just another forlorn station with its no-name gas and boarded up windows, strewn with bits of siding that were once attached. No services for 40 miles. She wondered just how this place had even qualified. It seemed like an alien world, or someplace in a long-forgotten dream, filled with the lazy, hazy glow of the afternoon sun. Or maybe it was just the smoke dissipating. A mechanic sauntered over to Lucille, illuminated from behind like a religious icon. She squinted into the sun in order to watch him approach.
He was a regular grease monkey. Old oil stains canvassed his rumpled, light blue uniform with the subtle nuances of a Rothko painting. Over his right front pocket, some heavily embroidered letters spelled out the name Tom Jones in a font way too fancy for such a seemingly blue-collar kind of guy, or such a desperately needy place, for that matter.
Lucille stared at him. He was a younger man, in his early thirties, although she guessed him to be in his mid-to-late forties. He had an ancient, stale air about him, the sort that settles upon someone who’s lived his whole life in some god-forsaken backwash of a town, scraping out a meager existence in a place that may as well be dead. In fact, he was exactly the sort of person you’d expect to find in a place like this. And yet there was something unnerving about him. Perhaps it was his dark, vacant eyes. Lucille looked into those hollow eyes searching for some sense of spirit and kept coming up with nothing. No spark, no flame, no sense of higher being. She started to feel woozy, as if she were drowning, and turned back towards the Buick.
“What’s da trouble, Ma’am?” he rasped. His dry voice crackled, prematurely aged with too much whiskey and too many cigarettes.
“It’s been leaking oil,” Lucille said, “a lot. And lately it’s been overheating…”
“You gots worse problems than some leaky oil,” he drawled, giving the simmering Buick a long, cold stare. “I reckon we’re gonna have ta take ‘er apart. See what’s da trouble.”
“How long will that take?”
“A couple ‘a days. Maybe e’en three or four. She’s in a bad way.”
“But I’m on my way to Portland for a wedding,” Lucille gasped. “And where would I stay?” Lucille cringed at the thought of having to stay at the decrepit gas station with its creepy mechanic and disheveled facade.
“There’s a mo-tel, up da road a’piece. I can take you up there, if’n you want.” The mechanic gestured at a brown, rusted out old Ford pickup parked alongside the poorly maintained gas station.
“A couple of days, huh? I guess I’d better get a room, then.” Lucille sighed. “Sure, take me to the motel.” She liked the idea of staying here, in this nowhere, about as much as she relished the thought of climbing in a rusted-out old truck with the vacant-eyed mechanic, but she didn’t seem to have much choice.
Neither spoke a word as they wound up and down the once paved road. The road had fallen into a state of disrepair and was little more than chunks of pavement and gravel-filled potholes now. They circled through the small blip of a town cutting from the gas station across what must have once been a main road. The town was a dump. A couple of large brick buildings had fallen in on themselves, bricks and debris littering the broken-up sidewalk. The skeletal framework of a long burned-down structure swayed ominously in the breeze.
The motel was just another worn building on the other side of the town, attached to a small hole-in-the-wall diner out front. Paint peeled from a large wooden sign near the road that informed would-be travelers of VACANCY. The lot was empty except for an old white Cadillac. It was parked next to the office with the keys casually tossed in the driver’s seat. T-E-L flashed in pink neon above the office door. Lucille still couldn’t stop thinking about the mechanic’s eyes, like dark, hollow pools.
“I’ll call for ya once I figures out what’s wrong with da car,” the mechanic called out hoarsely. And then he turned and drove off.
“Probably just my imagination,” she whispered, avoiding his gaze. She shook it off to the breeze and hesitantly stepped inside the motel office.
The office was empty. Two worn, olive green chairs welcomed guests, but they were anything but inviting. One was littered with cigarette burns while the other harbored a foul, rotting stench and a large inexplicable rust colored stain. The veneer had begun to curl from the check-in desk, exposing the poorly maintained particleboard underneath. A sign sat at the edge of that desk, hand-written in black permanent marker: RING BELL FOR SERVICE. Lucille tapped the silvered dome and a long-silent chime sounded as if to awaken the entire town to her presence. Or what was left of it anyway.
A large, heavy-set woman, in her late forties or early fifties, emerged from a back room, leaving the door ajar. From behind that door, a television echoed some late afternoon talk show, but Lucille couldn’t make out enough of the murmur to be certain which one. The woman slowly waddled up to the front desk, her periwinkle tent of a dress gathering behind her knees, and looked at Lucile. Her skin was a waxy pallid gray, lifeless and void of color, except for her face which was coated in several layers of thick, bright makeup.
“D’ya wanna room for ta’night, honey?”
“Yeah. My car’s broken down and I needed someplace to stay the night.”
“Tom bring ya by, then? Good lad, he is. He’ll fix ‘er up, jus’ like new. How many nights ya gonna need?”
“I don’t know. Depends on how long it takes to get that car up and running. I’m going to a wedding in Portland the day after tomorrow, so hopefully…” Lucille stopped dead in her tracks. Her heart raced and sweat began to form on the palms of her hands, making them clammy. She felt her face flush.
The check-in woman had the same gaze as the mechanic, the exact same hollow, empty stare that seemed to penetrate her very soul. Lucille wanted to scream or run or do something, anything to get out of this god-forsaken place. But she just stood there, unable to move. She waved some flyaway hairs from her face with her left hand, steadying herself so not to tremble.
“Just tonight, I guess,” she whimpered, trying to sound self-assured. “I’ll play tomorrow by ear.” Lucille hoped to be long free of this creepy, backwash nothing of a town by then.
“A’right then, honey.” The check-in woman smiled wide with painted ruby lips. “Room 3, on your left.” She piled a key on the counter under her pale fat hand. Lucille grabbed it and hurried out.