Grippo: Blackout on the Open Road …by Paul Vlachos

What do you do when reality is too much to handle?

Geddes woke up in a strange room. It was clearly a motel room. There were two beds, a TV, a bathroom done up in tile and fixtures from the early 1950s, pink and chrome, that he could see through a sad little plaster arch if he turned his head to the right. He thought about all the terrible and meaningless moments that pink tile must have witnessed over the past fifty years. He was in a motel room. That much he knew.

Turning his head to the left was a problem. It felt as though his neck were stuck, his head nailed to the flat pillow. It took him a long time and he had to grab his head with both hands like a coconut and slowly move it to the left. That’s where he could see the front door and a large window onto the parking spot. The curtain was open and the overhead light was on. He realized that anybody walking by the previous night would have seen him on the bed. At least they would not have seen his face. Still, it was careless. “That’s how you get killed,” he thought.

None of this was a shock, but it was disturbing. There had been times when he had to figure out where he was waking up, but he was usually not so exposed and vulnerable. His head was starting to pound and, with every moment of consciousness, it hurt more. His temples throbbed with each heartbeat. He knew the drill and thought to himself, “My name is Frank Geddes, it’s 2001, and George Bush is president.” That exercise was a relief.

The next question was what he had done last night. Actually, the next big question was “where am I?” He felt for his car keys and they were in his front trouser pocket. That was another bit of good news. And he was still clothed. How bad could it have been? He probably had needed to stop, gotten a room for the night, and then passed out as soon as he got inside. This was all reasonable.

He liked to drink, but not to excess. There must have been some reason for this episode. If he could remember what he had done, he could then dismiss the whole event. He roused himself out of bed and went to the bathroom, where he threw some water on his face. He found the room key, checked for any personal items of his, and walked out, leaving the key visible on the small table in the window.

His car was right outside, parked almost between the lines, and it had no new dents in it. So far, so good. He checked to make sure everything was safe in the trunk and then walked around to the driver side. He wanted to get out of there quickly. He heard some guy far away, saying “Mister Grippo, Mister Grippo,” but he didn’t look up, not until the third time, when he realized the guy was yelling out for him. Rather than say that he was not Grippo, he looked over his shoulder in the direction of the voice.

At the door to the motel office, a small guy with a bald streak four inches wide, from the front of his head to the back, was walking towards him. He was wearing the kind of black, bulky shoes that mailmen wear. In fact, he looked like he had delivered mail on the same desperate suburban route for thirty years and was just waiting to retire. Or maybe he looked like he had worked the desk of this motel for 30 years and had never left town.  What town was this, anyway?

Sunset Motel. Photo by Paul Vlachos

The clerk came up to him and stopped as Geddes turned around and they faced each other.

“Mr. Grippo, your friends told me to give you this.” and he handed him an envelope. “They said you were sick and needed to spend the night, and not to bother you.” Geddes took the envelope and said nothing. He then remembered that he had to say something, so he said “Thanks.” The clerk coughed. Was he expecting something?

The little guy said, “Are you okay?” Geddes did not smile, but he said “Sure. Am I okay on the bill?” The clerk said, “Yes sir.” and continued to stand there. Geddes put the envelope in the pocket of his windbreaker and said, “Take it easy.” The clerk took a step backwards. Geddes got in the car and backed out of the spot. That’s when he knew he had not parked his car last night. He always backed in.

He pulled out of the parking lot and noted the sign, the “Sunset Motel.” As he drove down the main drag, he realized he was in Lovelock, Nevada. This was a bigger puzzle to assemble than he had thought. “Okay, breathe slowly, in and out,” he thought to himself. Where did he wake up yesterday?

He checked his gas gauge and saw he did not have to spend one more moment in Lovelock, so he slowly drove out towards the west side of town and Interstate 80. He picked up speed and checked his side mirror on the merge. No traffic on the interstate at this moment. Why “Grippo?” Was this some big joke?

Dixie Palm Motel. Photo by Paul Vlachos

He knew that he had woken up the day before in Saint George, Utah, at the old motel with the big neon sign. He always stayed there when he made a business call. He had gotten a late start from his home base, in Vegas. After he dropped off the equipment with the customer, he decided to stay in town and get some sleep. He was planning to take the long way home the next day, loop up to Tonopah, visit an old girlfriend, clear out his head in the high desert, then take US 95 back down to Vegas. That stretch of highway never failed to straighten out his thinking and he had been thinking way too much for the past few weeks.

Vegas had been feeling claustrophobic for months and maybe he needed to park himself in Santa Monica for a while, blend in with everybody else, eat too much, get fat, lay low. Then again, business was still good in his region. Maybe he should stay? A good ride through the Great Basin might help him figure it out. He could change clothes in Vegas, get some cash, then head to Needles, where he had to meet with some officials from a California state municipal union.

He had woken up in Saint George, then made good time to Tonopah. That’s where things got fuzzy. Did he see his ex-girlfriend there? How could a whole day disappear in his head?  He was heading towards the cutoff to US 95 and decided he would stop at a payphone in Fallon to give her a call. It must have rained before the sun came up. He could smell the sage in the air. On the left was an old truck stop. It had been abandoned for a long time. In fact, the last time he remembered going there for service was in the early 1970s, when this was still US 40, before it got bundled into Interstate 80.

Gas. Photo by Paul Vlachos

The gas storage tanks looked intact, but the truck repair shed was getting worn. He wondered what kind of animals might hunker down in there when it rained. He wondered what kind of people might hunker down in there. It was a good place to hide in plain sight and not the kind of place you would want to visit for long.

Gas station. Photo by Paul Vlachos

He felt himself quiver as he remembered a dream from last night, his lost night in Lovelock. He had come across aliens from another solar system. They looked just like anybody else, any human, but they were aliens. He knew it instinctively in the dream. They were driving a truck, a big black semi, and they told him they were checking the Lincoln Highway from coast to coast for a lost member of their tribe. That was the only thing he remembered from his dream, the only thing he remembered from the time he had pulled into the Shell station at the east end of Tonopah.

Oh man, had he hooked up with his girlfriend and gotten high? Was it something he had eaten? He never remembered his dreams. He popped a Johnny Cash cassette into the deck and settled in. Fallon was a good hour away. He could never find good coffee in Fallon, but he decided to get two cups of whatever he found. There was very little traffic and he settled into his seat. He was driving a 1998 Crown-Vic that had been a police model. It was in a fender bender and he got it cheap, with low miles.

He finally pulled into Fallon. It was 11 a.m. and it was starting to get hot outside, even for May. He stopped at the no-name filling station, the one near the Chinese restaurant, and pulled out his calling card. At the payphone, he lit a cigarette, then dialed the long string of numbers on the card. At the prompt, he dialed in his ex-girlfriend’s number and waited. It rang and rang. Nobody picked it up.

Maybe she had gone to work at the old hotel. He decided to call his number in Vegas and check the answering machine. Two messages – one from the dry cleaner, asking him to please pick up his laundry. The other one was from late last night and it was the voice of his ex. He knew that instantly. He also knew that she was not herself. All she said was “Frank, don’t go home,” at which point the call cut off. His first thought was to get in the car and head to Tonopah, but he realized that there was nothing he could accomplish there.

Actually, he thought, the best thing would be to head directly home and make sure everything was okay. His third thought was this: she was a smart woman, streetwise, and had gone out of her way to leave that message. Maybe he ought to take her warning. Nobody knew about his business in Needles and, besides, he needed the money, so he decided to stick with the original plan and head straight to Needles. He had friends there, friends who could help him.

He mapped things out in his head. Needles was 500 miles away, but the days were long at this time of year. He thought about bypassing Vegas, but decided that there were enough ways to get through town without being noticed. He could haul ass south and get to Needles with some daylight left. He gassed up and bought a sandwich and some coffee at the mini mart, then headed for 95 South. He figured he would gas up again in Beatty. He had a buddy there, just in case he needed help, but he didn’t think he would need help at that point. Still, it was good to know he had a place to park if he needed to linger.

The road took over. The more he kept trying to remember what had happened the night before, the more his head hurt. He pulled some Excedrin out of the glove compartment and took four of them. He ate half a package of fruit-flavored Tums. The miles rolled by and he remembered nothing, but he also didn’t care as much about it.

The phone message was upsetting, but there was nothing he could do about it by thinking, so he added up numbers and played word games in his head. At some point, the games got tired and he remembered to pop that cassette back into the tape player. “Ring of Fire” ended and the next song was about to begin but, instead of the next song, his girlfriend’s voice came over the speakers, saying “Frank, don’t go home.”

He started to tremble. He kept driving, but he pushed the “Eject” button and popped the tape out. He looked at both sides of the old cassette, then stuck it back into the slot, hit the “Rewind” button for a few blurry audio seconds, then listened while “’Ring of Fire” ended again, Johnny’s voice fading out. There was a two second pause, then “Big River” began. He stared straight ahead and kept driving. He had sometimes wondered what he would do when he could no longer trust his own mind. Had that time come? He thought about rewinding the tape again, but it didn’t matter. What could he trust at this point? His ears might lie to his brain or his brain might lie to him.

He had been degrading physically for a while, but he was no worse than others his age. And he was in better shape than some of his friends. His knees were shot, he was on those heart meds and he had to stop and catch his breath if he went up the stairs too quickly. Still, his eyes were good, he could hold a handgun without his hand shaking and he could still hold his own while arm-wrestling at the bar.

He usually did not forget things, though.  And he could always hold his liquor. There was just no way that would change overnight. Or could it? Self-doubt is the worst. Was he suddenly just done? He decided to not worry about it until he had had a few good nights of sleep in his own bed. His own bed. He could not go home for the moment, so even that would have to wait.

He rolled past the army town of Hawthorne – one huge ammunition depot in the desert – then took the bypass past Boundary Peak to avoid Tonopah. This was not the time to go through Tonopah. Anybody looking out their window in that town knew everything that was happening. He went past the lithium mine at Silver Peak and rolled on dirt for a while until he came out at Goldfield, then he kept going. In Beatty, he gassed up, as planned, and then he detoured through Pahrump and around Vegas. He headed for Boulder City but, before he got there, he turned south on 95. The Mojave Desert always made him happy in a quiet way. He felt at home here.

There was a lot of traffic on this part of US 95 and he got caught up in a short wait at the town of Searchlight, then hauled all the way down to I-40, formerly US Route 66 at this point. He came into the west side of Needles after a short hop on the interstate. Needles was an important railroad town and still had an impressive depot. It felt like there was no wrong or right side of the railroad tracks here.

Needles always seemed less depressed than Blythe, where outcasts would come in from their desert homesteads every week to shop. Needles was more happening. Still, he could never live there. He needed to get lost in a big city. He drove by the Mobil station and pulled in to gas up again. He liked to always have a full tank and, the way things had been going, that was more imperative than ever.

Dairy Queen Parking. Photo by Paul Vlachos

He got his gas, then decided to get a cone at the Dairy Queen. “Screw it,” he thought, and popped one of his heart pills, assuming he had missed the dose last night. He pulled into a parking spot and went to fish some change out of his center console. It was empty. The usual tangle of crap – lighters, air gauge, gas card, gloves, flashlight, insurance card and registration, a roll of nickels – it was all gone. Good God. It was clearly not a friend who had parked his car last night and took him into the motel room. He remembered the letter he had stuffed into his pocket. How could he have forgotten it?

“Shit,” he mumbled “I’m messed up.” He pulled it out and opened it. Inside were three items – a key he had never seen before, a photo of his front door in Vegas from inside his apartment, and a phone number with an 801 area-code. That was Utah. He knew the number had nothing to do with his trip to Saint George and he was tempted to go to the payphone in the gas station and call it, but he told himself to wait. This was no time to make a rash decision. He went and got his ice cream, a small vanilla cone with a brown bonnet, then he came back to the car and sat there while the sun continued to pound from the western sky, even at 7:45 pm.

It was pretty quiet in that parking spot, despite all the action from the cars and the tourists and road trippers all around him. The whole population of that parking lot cycled every 15 minutes. He needed help figuring things out and he knew exactly where to go.

His friend, Brownie, ran a motel in Needles less than five minutes away. Brownie was always at home, behind the curtain of beads at the end of the reception desk. Brownie could help him make sense of all this. He turned the key, pulled out of the parking spot, and headed slowly for the LeBrun motel and his one trustworthy friend in the town of Needles.

Le Brun Motel. Photo by Paul Vlachos
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Copyright © Paul Vlachos 2020

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1 comment for “Grippo: Blackout on the Open Road …by Paul Vlachos

  1. rosco betunada
    January 11, 2021 at 7:14 pm

    well, the character was sometimes on, mostly off “the lonely-est” highway in America. and the one time i drove thru’ Needles i was somewhat sure i saw Whoopi Goldberg just standin’ on the edge of the road towards the edge of town.

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