Thursday, June 6, 2019

Welcome To Planet Hills

     I had been driving across this staggeringly vast country for an uninterrupted length of time when suddenly, I felt I needed a break. The earthy red hue of Sedona's desert dirt still clung to my RV as I pulled off the interstate and into the truck stop of a new town a thousand miles away. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the temperature was 80 degrees and the heat clung to me as I walked the length of the parking lot to the truck stop door. There to greet me, a kindly crew of misfits. Some sitting in broke down chairs, others leaning against the white brick wall, all smoking and beating the heat beneath a two foot overhang of awning. Degenerate gargoyles, the whole lot of them, all guarding the main entrance and begging for new lives while the tired, worn out look of their current ones hung haggardly on their face. I stopped when I reached the main entrance and looked down at the door greeter. She sat in a cracked plastic chair with her right leg crossed over her left. She wore what appeared to be an old prom dress, plum colored, two sizes too small and dirty white sneakers. Her black hair was messed and greasy and her black skin glistened, but did not sweat. Her left arm tucked about her waist while her body leaned forward resting upon the propped elbow of her smoking arm. She took a drag, blew smoke and returned my gaze.

     "Afternoon, mister."

I nodded and watched as she went back to her cigarette, uninterested in me.

     "Say, mister, you couldn't spare a buck or two, could ya?" came a raspy voice to my right. I turned and explained that I could, but not at this present moment. I assured the gentleman standing with his back to the wall wearing a stained and sweat-soaked shirt that I would eventually have the amount money he so kindly needed, but it was going to take some serious financial shifting on my part and that patience would be our greatest asset. The outline of his nipples and black, curled hairs shown clearly through his wet shirt and he stunk like a garbage can on fire.

     "Hey, thanks man. It will be appreciated," was all he replied. He went back to smoking his cigarette. I gave a general nod in everyone else' direction and entered the store. I had been on the road for several days and was in desperate need for a shower and a shave and feared I likely resembled most of this motley crew.

     After my clean-up I rejoined the post apocalyptic adventure club out front and claimed an open wall space between two men. I bummed a smoke from the guy who needed two bucks and I gave him a five in return. He became quite excited about it and I implored him to not make a scene, but he was just that type, so I relocated to the opposite side of the door and asked for second smoke. The first smoke is always the "get to know you" smoke, but the second smoke, now that one is something special. A second smoke opens doorways to deeper conversation and proves to people that you are willing to stick around. Granted, I couldn't stick around too long seeing how I didn't have any cigarettes of my own, but I did stay long enough to ask about the town I now found myself in.

     "Welcome to Planet Hills," the prom date door queen answered without even looking up. Her right foot bounced around anxiously while she continued smoking and looking off in the direction of the city skyline. "Over there's where you'll find what you're looking for, fella," she pointed with her cigarette. I joined her long distant stare and quietly watched as three lanes of traffic lazily made their way into the city that lay before me. I counted a dozen skyscraper tops shimmering in the heat haze and estimated this town to be somewhere in the ballpark of half a million people. I asked if my guess was accurate.

     "Seven hunnit mil, more like it," replied the statue to my left.

I whistled and bent over to snuff out my smoke.

     "Say, mister, can you lend me a dollar?" asked the statue to my right.

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     I decided to leave my RV parked where it was and walk into the city. No sense in wasting gas trying to locate a new spot and then having to pay for it, so I shoved my heat beater into the front windshield, set my fake surveillance cameras on the driver and passenger seats pointing outward, cracked a few windows and locked her up. I waved at my new friends still loitering beneath the truck stop awning and gave a a very white thumbs up as I began my walk across the mile long bridge that would guide me in. It was now rush hour and the traffic was unruly and loud. Hundreds of vehicles of all shapes, colors and sizes all piled up in lines and creeping forward at my walking pace. It was difficult to ignore their presence and their sense of urgency to clear this bridge and get to where they were going clearly matched my own, except I had no horn to prove it. To my right and looking down flowed a great river. It's murky brown current looked swift and strong as it splashed against and flowed around the concrete uprights of the train bridge next door. Directly below me, where the last of the land met water, was a tanker truck refueling station. I continued walking and watched as a trucker approached the electronic gate. He set his air brakes, jumped out of his rig and punched in the key code to which I clearly saw was 8297. To my surprise the entire gate lifted up and swung high overhead instead of sliding open horizontally, which I thought was comically ostentatious.

     The driver pulled forward to the refill tanks and began his walk around duties. I yelled down and asked him if he liked his job and if it was good pay. I yelled again, this time waving, when I saw him searching for the origin of the voice. He finally looked up.

     "It's okay... it's good pay!" he screamed while cupping his hands over his mouth. "They make me work weekends though and I don't like that!"

     I yelled down and asked him if he ever thought about giving it all up and moving to the Philipines.

     "Can't... got family here!" he replied and went on with his good paying chores.

     I continued my long walk and pondered what it would take to move an entire family to another country. Probably a lot. He was right in in feeling stuck. We are born into a certain madness to which only a few escape. As we grow older life grows more tentacles, and it's not until we decide to be free that we finally feel the inescapable squeeze. And that squeeze can last a lifetime.

     I reached the end of the bridge and stood for moment to stare at the belly of the beast. Buildings and busy streets and bustling sidewalks sprawled before me in every direction. I decided to follow the smell of food and the sound of music to my left and in doing so, I crossed over several major arteries and eventually landed on a sidewalk that lead straight downtown and was instantly transported into another world. The commercialized outer shell of the city quickly gave way to a frenetic, party-themed core and I found myself being swept along by a current of inebriation. Anyone with less exploratory credentials than myself could easily mistake this place for Mardis Gras or the Vegas Strip. Boat-shaped bicycle bars peddled by, one after another, each blasting dance music and supporting teams of drunk party-goers waving their arms happily above their heads and gyrating to the hip-hop beat. Pedestrians walking too closely would have the unfortunate experience of being doused by spilled beer, but awarded by a front row view of the free skin show created by all the booty shorts and side boob mini-tops.

     Dazzling horse and carriages fully aglow with colorful neon lights slowly clambered along amidst the busy traffic, carrying drunk lovers too new to know any better. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles, convertible city tour buses, all helped fill in the rest of what constituted as late night downtown traffic. Along both stretches of city sidewalk were dozens of open-air bars displaying live bands perched where the store front window would usually be. It was a choose your own adventure of music, alcohol and people and around every corner was a story waiting to be told. I walked past street corner performance artists who banged plastic drums for money, played harmonica and guitar, or rode a unicycle in circles while playing accordion and singing. Everyone who lived here had their purpose and those who didn't, were simply here for the fun. And my goodness was this town fun.

     I decided to enter my first bar of the evening and what lured me in was two-fold. The bouncer at the door sat atop a bar stool with his beefy arms crossed over a barreled chest and a romantic smile mistakenly placed on his hard-featured face. Attached to him via leash and collar was a scantily dressed female of a tiny size. She wore a plaid kilt of sorts with neon colored see through knee high socks and her top was nothing more than a decorative ribbon tied loosely about her breasts. She hopped cutely about the sidewalk touching people and blowing kisses as they passed by, encouraging everyone to enter the Dueling Dick's piano bar. In the wall-less bar front opening sat a baby grand piano positioned parallel with the sidewalk. The pianist resembled a character straight from a Victorian/Steampunk graphic novel and the intensity at which he played reminded me of Vietnam heavy machine gunner hopped up on jungle drugs and a mission to kill. I paid the ten dollar cover and the muscle-bound romantic rose from his stool, unhooked the red velvet rope from the stainless steel post and ushered me in. The grinder monkey girl bounced happily next to me, showering me with kisses and smacking my ass as I made my way into the bar.

     The inside of the Dueling Dick's piano bar was exactly as expected. An eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures adorned every wall, nook and cranny and the tables and chairs for the patrons were art in and of themselves. The whole place was drenched in a layer of artistic fat that if held to a fire would sizzle and pop a million Mona Lisa's all across the barroom floor. The second dueling pianist was situated directly across the room and was equally impressive as the first. The two Dicks were mad genius' and their style of piano ranged from calm and intoxicating to frenetic and other worldly. I found an empty chair at the far end of the bar and settled in. I ordered a local lager and a gin & tonic and before my first round was even downed, she showed up.

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     "Hi," she said as she sat down at the bar stool to my right. I leaned over and returned a hello and mentioned that I was just getting started by nodding at my two drinks. She ordered something I never heard of before and smiled at me in a way that accented the pianos playing behind us. A melodic loop of sorts, both intimate and intimidating, my heart/brain connection felt as though it were clinking in rhythmic beat with the ice cubes in my drink. I scooted my chair closer to her.
     "These guys are phenomenal,"  she remarked and pivoted her chair towards the pianos. I agreed and pivoted too. We watched and listened to the dueling genius' play several songs while we pounded beers and mixed drinks and shots as though tomorrow was nothing more than a distant 'I don't give a fuck'. The night continued and I found myself being drawn into her. Our chairs became united and our legs and knees began to touch and our free hands explored the space beneath see level. I studied her features in between drinks. I laughed at her stories and marveled at her captivating eyes and could feel myself being drawn into her. I fell in love without realizing what red hair love could mean. I memorized her shoulders in the dress she wore. I imagined her neck and breasts clinging to me like water puppies. I felt myself being whisked away to another place and the laughter shared between bar stories was an adhesive I had never felt before. I think I was falling in love to an empirical beat.
     "Don't fall in love, okay" she blurted and grabbed a handful of my crotch. I jumped with surprise and lied that I wouldn't. "Just let this head do all the thinking and let this head," she said while poking my forehead, "take a vacation. I have to use the ladies room, watch my purse for me please?"

I watched her purse for what felt like an eternity. Several humans tried occupying her seat while she was absent, but I shoed them away like coons on a porch. Eventully she reappeared beside me carrying a brand new look on her face. I knew the look well and acknowledged, to which she smiled and nodded back towards the bathroom. She leaned in close as I stood and whispered into my ear, "light up the night, cutie" and slid a small something into my pocket.