Leaving Las Cruces, I was feeling low and sad after having said goodbyes to two wonderful grandkids. I was heading north into the darkness and stopped for gas at a town called Hatch, just a few miles west of a place called Nut... Undoubtedly both of these strange city names were conceived exactly there, in a Nuthatch.
My destination? Truth or Consequences. I am not making this up. There really is a town in New Mexico so named though I noticed one highway sign shortened it to "T or C" probably to save space for the two other strangely named cities that precede it, Derry and Arrey. Say those two real fast and it sounds like the French word for buttocks.
Before long another sign informed me the next four exits would send me to various aspects of T or C, the first of which was the Truth or Consequences Historic Hot Springs Area of town. Now I had heard of this, motels and B&B's offering not only rooms but access to the city's acclaimed mineral springs. My aching back and heart yearned for pampering.
Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I had told my grandsons some white lie to explain why I was leaving that day. It felt like my heart was being torn out when they asked their father why I couldn't stay longer. And when their father/my son heard that I planned to stay the night in a town called Truth or Consequences, he told me a story about its weird movie theatre where old classics were shown as if they were first run movies.
Apparently there was but one “movie house” and a single old man who sold you your ticket, took it from you, and later sold you your drinks and popcorn. Before he started the projector, however, the same elderly gentleman climbed a small stage in front of a small movie screen and spoke to the few people in the audience, just as in the “olden” days of cinema.
"Well, folks we've got a great movie tonight, lots of excitement and thrills, starring an up-and-coming young feller named Steve McQueen in "Bullet"!
I slowed my car to crawl, wondering if the theatre was still in business. A throw back to mid 20th century America, this little berg had small cafes, dress shops and shoe stores that, get this, actually offered to do repairs. The occasional shit-kicker bars all seemed closed and not a single drunk staggered down the car-less streets. Very dark and creepy.
I drove on, rolling down the windows to stare at the silent storefronts, listening for any hint of human habitation. Tiring of the sound of my own treads, I turned down a side street and glimpsed a neon sign above a group of dimly lit shacks. I had arrived at the famous hot springs. Could I enjoy the waters from within my room, I wondered, or would I have to share with other denizens of those shacks? There was no brightly lit lobby, no flashing sign of vacancy, only an “open” sign. Open for what, I wondered?
Darker and creepier still.
Some part of my mind warned me that this was a place where the inhabitants ate tourists and happily threw their bones to backyard trolls. I locked car doors, sped around two corners, and eased myself back onto the silent main street. A hot shower appealed to me, but not the idea of being scalded in mineral springs as food for the local zombies.
But I wasn't too concerned. An Internet search that afternoon assured me that there was a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town (or was it a triple six?).
Before long, there it was in all its tacky but assuringly franchised glory. I was ready to stop for the night.
A weathered septuagenarian met me at the desk—the wife of the town projectionist? Cutting right to the chase, she informed me that there was but one room available this evening, second floor, and I would have to access it from the back staircase.
Whatever. I forced a smile and told her that it sounded wonderful. After the usual motel dance of ID, license number and signature, she pulled out a metal key attached to a plastic tab. I reached for it but she pulled it back. I looked at her and waited. Eventually her wrinkled face formed the sly hint of a smile.
"You have a nice night," she said, finally handing me the key.
Something wasn’t quite right here. There was a mismatch between the words which wished me a good night’s repose and the tone of her voice--as if she was really telling me to "Go to Hell." But I didn't care. All I could think of was some hot food and an even hotter shower. I pulled my luggage out of the car and headed to the mandatory back entrance. I was about to take my first step up the dingy staircase when my leg froze mid-stride. Was that a huge log of human feces straddled across the third step? Again the overly tired part of my mind said "Whatever."
I dodged the obstacle and trudged up the stairs. Once again, I am NOT making this up!
What kind of person, I wondered, would do a filthy thing like that and why? Fifty more yards might have gotten this bowel-plagued guest to the marginal comfort of a motel toilette... Or was it malice, some intentionally shocking behavior designed to disgust and dismay the finder?
I opened the door to room 217 and threw my luggage into its interior. Darker and creepier still. The only light emanated from partially opened drapes, a view of a Micky D’s across the street, perhaps the room’s one redeeming quality. Even generic fast food appealed to me at the time, and I slammed the door and headed down the stairs surprised to find them now fecally free. I was about to round the corner and exit the building when I nearly ran into the strange desk lady.
“Somebody rang me up about a turtle on the back steps.”
I politely suggested that “turd” might actually have been what the caller had reported. Then I noticed she was holding a white plastic bag, small enough for me to make out the shape of something inside. Gradually, her face formed itself into that same sneaky smile.
“Oh, that. I’ve got it right here. But I don’t think it’s real. It feels kind of rubbery.”
As she lifted the bag in my direction, I automatically started to reach for it until hit by a horrific realization. Seriously, she wanted me to examine it—and for what? Texture, consistency, and latent warmth? Ugh.
Then I remembered that I was in a town deliberately named after a popular game show of the 60’s and furiously tried to remember the rules of play. I realized I didn’t really want to know the truth about the contents of that bag and resigned myself to accepting the consequences.
I lowered my arm.
“Yeah, probably just a prank,” I shrugged and continued quickly out the door.
Crossing the street to fast-food heaven, I was pleased--but not too surprised--to find the place devoid of customers. Yes! No waiting and, man, was I hungry! Behind the counter stood another elderly woman. She looked a lot like the proprietor of the motel but, hey, everyone in these small towns is related, right? Anyway, she quietly took my order, my money, and then disappeared into the kitchen. I saw no co-workers, heard no cheery but mindless chatter from teenage drones.
Before long, the elderly counter clone reappeared, bagged my order, and slid it across stainless steel into my eager hands. I thanked her sincerely. After a beat of odd silence, I turned and walked toward the door. Just as I was about to press the bar, I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“You have a nice night!”
Recrossing the street without even bothering to check for nonexistent traffic, I took the stairs three at a time. Not even giant elephant turds would have slowed me down. Once inside my room, I locked the door and closed the drapes. I fumbled around in the darkness eventually discovering that only one light fixture worked, the one beside the bed. So Tom Bourdette's "We'll leave a light on for you" was the literal truth. Seriously, just one? Shit.
I considered calling the front desk, ask someone to come up and replace the light bulbs. But when the knock came on my door, who would be behind it? Would I encounter the weird front desk lady or her twin sister in a McDonald’s uniform? Would it be the town projectionist, a dead ringer male triplet of the other two? Maybe it would be something else, a thing all together different from anything I could imagine, easily capable of sending my already racing heart into a dead heat?
The bag of fast food sitting on the desk no longer appealed to me. Neither did the idea of a showering in the dark. I could hear the projectionist’s voice:
“Folks, tonight's movie will knock you dead! Two up and coming kids, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, star in a family film about a mother and son trying to make a killing in the motel business."
The room's one working lamp drew me to bed. I began plunking away on my iPad, thinking that I could calm down by recording the events of this strange night. And it worked for a while. At some point, I became aware of a scratching noise outside my second story window. I ignored it and typed some more, getting everything down up to this moment.
And the scratching continues, probably just a tree limb brushing against the glass. But there are few trees to be found in this part of New Mexico, and from my experience tonight, fewer living things outside that window.
Sure, all I have to do is get out of bed, throw open the drapes, and face whatever it is that's out there.
But I can’t, I just can’t.
Maybe I’ll just turn away from the window, pull up the covers.
And wait for the consequences.
T or C, New Mexico