Ultraglis

A Novel

Chapter 4: First Floyd

One week later » Tuesday, August 25, 1987 » five in the morning » Bureau Junction » a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific freight train arrives, scheduled to collect a shipment of coal. The train slows to a stop. A bedraggled and draggled 17 year-old, Floyd Hotchkiss, opens the door of the empty boxcar he had been riding since Davenport.

[See Document Insert 4-001.]

Floyd and a guy named Joe traveled the country tramping freight trains, like the hobos they met along the way. Floyd and Joe passed as hobos, but they were hobos with almost unlimited access to cash. By looks-alone, however, they were just two vagrants, noticed only as a nuisance, if noticed at all: noticed as ones to be avoided.

And under this cover, Floyd and Joe could more easily complete the assignments they were given, assignments given by a man Floyd had never met, a man Floyd knew only by the name "Delaney". Joe claimed he didn't know any other name either, but Joe knew a lot more than he let on. For instance: a telephone number where this man Delaney could be reached. Yeah, Joe knew more than he claimed to know. Floyd figured out that much early on. Floyd started watching Joe a lot more closely from that point on.

Delaney sent them all over the country, to deliver information; to collect information; to disseminate misinformation; to churn and ramp stock markets; to launder money; to cause problems; or to eliminate problems, whether those problems be people or property. Hell, the people were property, or did overpaid ass-kissing stamp-lickers think they earned such high salaries for their talents? That would be a good joke. They were, all of them, handsomely paid for one quality and one alone: their simple disposability. And when they needed disposing of, well that was one of Floyd's jobs too. He didn't make the trash, but he got rid of it.

A week ago, after Delaney had given Joe their next assignment, Joe began acting all hinky: evasive, friendly-then-dickish, sneaky, distrustful.

Floyd noticed. Floyd watched. Floyd listened.

When Joe talked to Delaney on the telephone, Floyd heard Joe using expressions he had never heard before: "farm bureau", "extension", "land trusts", "grain elevator", "county assessor", "board of supervisors". . .

Joe was agitated. Joe was arrogant. Joe was focused: he spent a lot of time thinking. Not like Joe. There wasn't usually much for Joe to think about. Delaney did the thinking, gave the orders. Joe and Floyd only had to do what Delaney commanded. But now here was Joe: thinking, stressing, not drinking, not smoking, not joking. Not old joking-around-fun Joe, but serious and flustered Joe.

Even Floyd could tell that something was up. Something big. But Joe wouldn't spill. Floyd in turn became irritable himself: he wanted in. If this was the main chance, he wanted in and he wanted out: he wanted out what he could get, and he had a feeling in his gut that he could get a lot out.

Joe had been becoming a problem. Floyd was good at dealing with problems—Joe himself had taught him how. All the different ways how.

Joe had become a problem. Floyd dealt with it.

Gazing out of his boxcar, studying the landscape, Floyd saw nothing that he recognized. A giant coal silo towered above him, about twenty train cars away. Joe had said to watch for the cement coal silo with a smiling squirrel painted on the side, and sure enough, there was the giant smiling squirrel on the cement silo, with the words "Fulls Coal Company" arching above it.

Floyd grabbed his backpack, and jumped out of the boxcar. Floyd hid in the weeds and shrubbery beside the track bed. Floyd watched with satisfaction as beautiful, glistening cataracts of coal poured from the loadout shoots into each successive gondola car. Beautiful to see, but terrible to hear, like hellish factory floors, like the deafening roar of machinery working at maximum capacity. Floyd closed his eyes, and imagined what it would feel like to be buried alive in all that coal.

The coal loader finished disgorging its freight, and the ensuing stillness made Floyd feel at peace, made him forget his anger. Birds chirping, a quiet breeze in the trees, and, not far behind him, water falling into a canal lock. Like balm on the open wound that was his mind.

But then the train began to move again, slowly at first, and the scraping of its gears against rusty gears ended his moment of peace. Looking down the tracks to the east, he saw a graded crossing, and he walked towards the road.

As the final train car passed him, Floyd felt as though a theater curtain were being drawn aside to reveal the stage on which the next act of his life would be performed. He shinnied up the track bed and saw a motel, which heralded itself in large, unlit, neon letters: "The Ranch House * Finest Food, Cocktails, Lodge" on a giant arrow ↘ that pierced the ground at the edge of the parking lot, beside the road. He saw a statue of a white horse near the motel entrance.

He crossed the railroad tracks, and slid down the ballast into a weed-filled ditch. Burr weed stuck to his clothing and cut up his ankles. Climbing out of the ditch, he walked to the edge of the motel parking lot. On his right was a broad, green river valley; on his left was a parade of tree-covered, ravine-dissected bluffs. He heard gunshot and the echo of gunshot, but could not tell the direction from which it came, or whether it was near or far.

Stepping onto the parking lot, he had the strange feeling of walking under a proscenium arch, onto a stage, or right into a movie screen. The motel resembled a frontier cattle ranch, in a western, the last thing standing after a gunfight massacre between cowboys and Indians. He imagined Mary and Laura Ingalls abducted by Indians, who would then repeatedly rape the girls from behind while forcing them to watch their parents burning to death on a stake in the center of a bonfire; and then, pan to the reverse: Mr. and Mrs. Ingalls tied to a stake and burning to death while watching lean, muscular Indians with huge dicks raping their daughters. Floyd wondered how many rapes the parents would actually be able to witness before either dying or passing out from the pain of their own roasting flesh. His mind then zoomed back, right back out of the screen and into reality.

He entered the motel lobby, and a leather strap of sleigh bells jangled as the door opened and then closed. The lobby was filled with cheap, Made-in-China souvenirs from, according to a sign, "The Old Northwest, America's Original Wild West": postcards; beaded bracelets; braided leather belts; silver-and-turquoise medallions; dyed-feather roach clips; tooled-leather wallets; Indian dream catchers; collectible Zippo lighters; rubber coin purses; silver belt buckles; wooden train whistles; calumet pipes; t-shirts air-brushed with wolves and buffalo and Indians mystically floating in aurora borealises; red wampum; white wampum; turquoise wampum. . .

Through the lobby he could see the darkened cocktail lounge and, further back, a brightly sunlit dining room, obviously closed. He turned his attention to the reception desk and rang the desk bell—apparently the sleigh bells had failed to summon the desk staff, probably some hungover dude with a beer belly. Often a motel clerk would throw him out, sometimes on first sight: "Get lost; we got vagrancy laws here." Floyd no longer took such attacks personally, or even very seriously: the vagrancy laws seemed to have been written by people who didn't understand what a hungry person was capable of doing to survive.

He laughed at himself for that last thought, an example of the sanctimonious attitude he had acquired while working the past two years with Joe. Or maybe, passing as a hobo for two years, he had come to believe that, like other hobos, his actions really were driven by the need to survive. In truth, he could blame very little of what he had done on the need to survive.

In any case, he was here, Bureau Junction Illinois, the "Original Wild West", wherever that might be—by the smiling squirrel—and he had a new job to do. The job was not the job he was expected to do. The job he had to do could be done from just about anywhere, but Bureau Junction is where he was expected to be, and he had learned from Joe that you could work more effectively by doing exactly what people expected. You wielded far more power from within than from without, and you only remained within so long as you did what was expected. Joe had often said, "You can spot a mad dog from three or four blocks away. If you want to bite someone, act like a friendly dog's supposed to act and people'll walk right up to you, invite you to feed out of their hand, and then it's a whole lot easier to bite that hand right off."

Right now, however, what Floyd needed most was food. So, in calm uncertainty, he waited to learn what kind of welcome he would receive. Less than a minute after ringing the desk bell, an ugly, elderly woman, with dyed blonde hair and a thickly made-up face, emerged from the back office. She looked tired, but not sleepy, and Floyd was surprised to realize there was a difference. She said, with little sincerity, "Sorry about the wait. How can I help you?"

"I want something to eat, but looks like your restaurant's closed."

"Closed 'til lunch." She stared at him, with skepticism, but not hostility, apparently taking his measure, which he himself already knew: dirty blue-jeans, dirty t-shirt, dirty face, unkempt hair, and navy blue back-pack. "Don't take offense, but you don't look like you could afford the prices here, and we don't even have what you'd call an exclusive clientele."

"I knew I couldn't afford your prices before I even walked through that door there, since I don't have any money whatsoever. But sometimes people let me work for a meal."

"What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know, dish-washing, cleaning rooms, odd jobs."

"Well, we don't really do that here, and I don't think the boss would like it if he found out." But she seemed to pity him, "You do look half starved though. Come with me to the kitchen and I'll see what I can find."

He followed her through the darkened cocktail lounge and into the kitchen. A light switch by the door illuminated the room with bluish, fluorescent light, the kind of light that brings out the worst in everything.

The woman said, while gathering the ingredients for what was to be his meal, "My name's Blondie. What's yours?"

"Floyd."

"That your real name?"

"Actually, yes."

She cooked him a breakfast, and then smoked a cigarette, sitting in silence on a stool while he ate. He saw her staring off into nothingness, and wondered what thoughts so captivated her.

The silence made him uncomfortable, so he said, "I thought I heard gunshots outside."

She replied, uninterestedly, "Probably did. There's a fish and wildlife preserve around Lake Rawson, just the other side of the motel here."

"Duck hunters?"

"Too early for that."

"Deer?"

"That too. Probably just squirrels and groundhogs."

He said, between mouthfuls of food, "Guess you don't got a lot of guests here; parking lot looks empty."

She turned her head in the direction of the parking lot, as though she could see it through the walls. "Off and on. Hunters, when real hunting season arrives. And then there's been a team of archaeologists. They're working over to Tiskilwa, for almost a year now. There's no lodging in Tiskilwa, so it's here or Elmville; there's nothing any closer." Obviously bored by the subject, she returned her attention to the nothingness, the blue, smokey nothingness.

She asked, without looking at him, "And what brings you to Bureau?"

"Nothing."

"Well you'll find plenty of it here." Then, after a pause, but still without looking at him, she continued, "It's too bad, really: a good looking kid like you, in search of nothing. I hope you realize, it's all over before you know it. You can spend a lifetime doing somebody else's dirty work, and then you wake up one day and find out it's too late."

"Too late for what?"

"For anything that matters to you. Nothing, I guess."

Defensively, he said, "What makes you think I'm doing somebody else's dirty work?"

"Same thing that makes me think there's anything that matters to you. Nothing at all. I guess I was talking about myself, really. But now you mention it, I have to say that not many people end up in Bureau Junction for no reason. Not even hobos or runaways. There are much better places to stop not at all far from here, whether you're traveling by highway, river, or railroad."

Floyd wanted to reveal that he was not just another deadbeat hobo, or a juvenile runaway either. Although he knew secrecy to be the first rule of his trade, he was still too immature to resist the vice of pride. His head was filled, almost-to-intoxication, with pride over what he considered to be his fascinating life of crime. He had been able to share that pride with Joe, but now Joe was dead, he found himself alone: to the rest of the world he was nothing but a juvenile vagrant, a runaway likely rebelling against his parents over some trifling grievance. He wanted this old bitch to know he was something more.

Joe would have said that these feelings were evidence of Floyd's immaturity: "Never let loneliness and vanity bring you even close to confiding in a stranger. It's just about the commonest mistake made by kids like you."

But with Joe dead less than two days, Floyd had already begun to crave the reinforcement and praise that Joe lavished upon him. Less than two days, and Floyd found himself half-starved for attention. Joe often warned him to be on guard against his immaturity: "Floyd, you're the best at what you do—never seen anyone better—but your immaturity is gonna be the end of us one of these days." These reproofs only infuriated Floyd, provoking him to act-out recklessly in defiance of Joe's authority. But he would never acknowledge the truth in Joe's admonitions, and did not now recognize it, even as he wavered between keeping his silence and confiding in Blondie.

What danger could she, this ugly, old crone—used up old bag—possibly pose? She showed little curiosity about him, seemed scarcely interested in him at all as she sat there smoking her cigarette, waiting for him to finish eating. What interest she had shown had been almost maternal. She was about the least dangerous person he had met in his two years of wandering. Furthermore, he felt a certain sympathy with her: not pity, but a vague alignment of their destinies. Her advice seemed almost uncannily prescient. Sharing just a little with her would give him some much needed human contact.

He said, "Well I feel like I've already spent a lifetime doing somebody else's dirty work, and I don't intend to spend a second one."

"It's harder to avoid than you think. Life goes by fast, and then one day you find you was practically owned the whole time by another person. You want to get out, but you can't. You're inside and you want outside. You can see it, but you can't get there. That's what I found anyway: you made some bad deals when you were younger, and now you're owned. Not you, I mean, but, well, me I guess."

"Well, I've got plans for the bastard that thinks he owns me. It's him who's gonna find out just how fast life goes by."

"You mean your father?"

Petulantly, Floyd slammed down his silverware, "No I do not mean my father. Or my mother or my brother, my aunt or my uncle or anyone else like that."

Unfazed by his outburst, she said, "I assumed you had run away from home. To rebel against your parents. Guess I was wrong." But she didn't sound as though she thought she was wrong at all. She checked her wristwatch, which Floyd interpreted as a sign that she had become bored and impatient.

Wanting to show her that he wasn't a nobody, that she was the nobody, holed up here in the middle of nowhere, he said, "I work for this guy. He has a lot of names. He sends me and my partner around the country on jobs. He could go to jail a real long time if the police knew what he hired us to do, what kind of things. The general and the specifics. And I'm still only a minor. He's gonna pay me a lot of money to keep my mouth shut, and then I plan to get on with my life. Like I said, I've got plans for the bastard that's been using me."

"And where's your partner?"

Floyd hesitated a moment, because he did not realize he had even mentioned Joe. Inventing a story, he said, "Oh him, he skipped. He wanted out too, but didn't want to antagonize this dangerous son-of-a-bitch. I promised to leave him out of it, but I'm not afraid of the bastard."

"Better leave me out too. Sorry if I angered you. But say, I've watched a lot of these talk shows, where they take somebody, and make them over. Sally Jessy Raphael had one on just last week. It's like magic, what they can do. I think I could do the same for you. Wash you up, give you a hair cut. It would really improve your chances."

"Chances for what?"

"For whatever you want, I guess." She sounded indifferent, and yet Floyd had the impression that she did have some specific purpose, some angle, though what it might be he couldn't imagine.

He considered her offer, considered why he was there, the work he had to do: if he planned to remain in the area, his present appearance might make him too conspicuous, especially if, as the woman claimed, not many hobos stopped there, and Delaney would soon be searching for him, for somebody who looked the way he looked now. "That sounds like a good idea. Thanks."

They went back to the lobby, where she took a key from one of the pigeon holes behind the reception desk. She set a "Back in 5 Minutes" sign on the front desk, and said, "Whoever invented the back-in-five-minutes sign was a genius, because no matter how long you're gone, you always got another five minutes to be away."

Her statements began to reveal a person who suspected others of working angles, which meant that either she herself worked one, or else she had been worked over too often and too roughly to believe any longer that people could be actuated by anything other than secret, selfish motives. He started to question whether he should have confided so much in her after all.

They walked together down the wooden-plank sidewalk, beneath a roof supported by brown-stained Y-beams; he saw a Y-beam between every door, outside every room window, in front of every parking space. He imagined waking up in one of these motel rooms, looking out the window. The windows on this wing of the motel all faced east. He'd see a Y-beam and his car and the morning sun. Except that he didn't have a car, so he'd see a Y-beam and an empty parking space and the sun. The sun would make that parking space seem so empty, and the dirt parking lot so hot. He noticed a rabbit sitting in the parking lot, moving its head slowly left and right. The rabbit seemed so gentle, it made Floyd sad. He remembered a time when he and Joe stole two shotguns from some campers: with the shotguns and a liter of whiskey, they spent most of the night getting drunk and firing at anything that moved, mostly rabbits. He wished he hadn't killed those rabbits; they seemed so innocent to him now. And he wished he hadn't killed Joe. Joe had been alright; Floyd felt sorry about Joe, but it was too late to care, and he had his own job to do now.

Blondie and Floyd reached the end of the motel's long wing, and turned left along its short wing. Floyd joked, "Taking me to the very end, huh?"

"Not quite all the way; only as far as our least requested room."

When she unlocked and opened the door, his first impression was of an electric-aqua-evergreen shag carpeting, a color he had never before seen, or even imagined: half natural, half unnatural, it defied some law of visual order he hadn't even realized existed. But the confounding colors did somehow mix into one color. He did not like this carpeting, but looking up, he saw the monochrome, cream colored walls. The ordinariness of the cream colored walls subdued and domesticated the electric-aqua-evergreen shag carpet.

Two copper lamps with burgundy, whip-stitched fiberglass shades sat on walnut nightstands flanking a double bed, which was covered with a white-and-yellow chenille bedspread. A walnut desk looked lonesome in the corner. The room's closed-up, sealed-and-stifled smell confirmed Blondie's assertion that it was the motel's least requested, although the idea that any room in this motel would be more requested than another, or that any room would be specially requested at all, surprised Floyd. This one, however, undoubtedly smelled like a room long-untouched and unvisited: a stale, musty-but-clean smell.

Blondie said, "Shower's back there," pointing towards a short hallway, on one side of which were smoked-mirrored sliding track closet doors; on the other side, presumably, the bathroom. "There's a tiny soap and shampoo, and a towel and wash cloth. Do you need anything else?"

He glanced at his backpack, and mentally inventoried its contents: "Anything you got, actually."

She left the room, and he entered the bathroom. After locking the bathroom door, he set his backpack on the floor, undressed, and stepped into the shower. About five minutes later, he heard knocking on the bathroom door, to which he responded, "Yes?"

Blondie called through the door, "I brought you some toothpaste and other things. A toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving foam, razor, and deodorant. The motel sells them in sample sizes, for travelers who forget. A bathrobe too."

He jumped out of the shower and unabashedly opened the bathroom door, standing before her completely naked, covered by nothing but the soaking, soapy wetness that dripped from his body and the clouds of hot steam that filled the room. Two years riding the trains had cured him of any shyness about his body, and besides he knew he looked good—it gave him a little thrill to witness her surprise. He took the toiletries she proffered, and thanked her.

She then said "I'll wash your clothes if you want." Then, after a pause, restated the offer, "I could wash your clothes."

He thanked her again and emptied the pockets of his blue jeans before handing her the small pile of clothing.

She left again and he again locked the bathroom door.

When he finished showering, he shaved and brushed his teeth, and then, after putting on the bathrobe, returned to the main room, where Blondie was sitting on the bed, watching the television. She jumped a little when he said "Thanks again."

She turned and said, "Oh, you're welcome. Are you ready for your haircut?"