There was no paper anywhere. In each airport I checked as many touristy magazine shops and sparsely stocked bodegas as I could manage within my flight schedule. Whenever I asked if they had a notepad, notebooks, journals, anything, the answer was immediate and definitive—no. An answer given so quick and sure I knew I wasn’t the first person to ask. I wondered how many artists and scribblers had forgotten to bring paper, yearned to write, and scampered through conveyor laden halls, past crowds of people, from store to shop, with hopeful eyes only to be denied.
On the planes, I thought about writing on the barf bags, but didn’t for fear of looking like a n’er-do-well degenerate. It was bad enough how people wanted to join the fabled mile-high club by having truncated sex in the tiny, porta potty-esque bathrooms, or how terrorists would use any opening in security to seize control of the planes and fly them into buildings; I couldn’t bring myself to add to the general malaise by being the schmuck who improperly used barf bags to record and organize thoughts. Besides all that, what kind of poetry would be the end result of barf bags? What wretched stories of drug-addled bar fights could grace elongated paper bags made for puke? It also wasn’t a sustainable solution. If everyone did it, people would be forced to either ralph in their laps or projectile vomit on their fellow passengers.
Flying existed in misery. I had to take off my boots to get through security, and that was just a stone’s throw away from being forced to squat and cough. No liquids past 100 milliliters, no sharp objects of any kind, no lithium batteries, and no dignity. I spent my last flight ruminating on how baby boomers were the last generation to enjoy air travel, how with their reverse Midas touch they destroyed everything on the way out.
“Fucking goddamn losers,” I muttered as I de-boarded the plane. “Destroying America.”
“Have a nice day,” a flight attendant said, giving me a concerned look as I shuffled by.
“You too,” I said with an insincere smile.
A calm, trained voice welcomed me to Asheville Regional Airport, metering the comings and goings of various flights as I left the boarding and disembarking area. It wasn’t until I crossed the security checkpoint’s threshold that I breathed a sigh of relief.
By the time I finished fishing overpriced candy out of the vending machine in the lobby, my taxi had arrived.
“Hey, how you doin’?” The driver, a man who appeared to be in his late forties, glanced at my reflection in his rearview. “Where are you in Asheville from?”
“Scranton, Pennsylvania,” I answered. “Came to pick up my Jeep at the dealership.”
“All the way down here?” he asked, merging onto the interstate.
“Yeah, it was being repaired. About six weeks ago I’d just finished touring Smoky Mountain National Park and was on my way back up North when the rear differential exploded.”
“Even worse, it screwed up the whole backend. It needed new rotors, brakes, rear differential case and everything inside of it. Not to mention a new transmission pan to replace the old one that rusted out, and a couple of things I’m forgetting.”
“Wow,” the man said. “Lousy luck.”
My luck, I thought, the weird sort of luck that was financing this trip. Earlier in the year I was moving from Denver to Scranton to be with my girlfriend, who had recently graduated from her master’s program for petroleum engineering and moved out of state for work. Towing a U-Haul full of my stuff, I had just crossed the border into Nebraska when the front right trailer tire popped. An axle fire started, and as I tried putting it out with a small extinguisher, the shredded tire surrounding the axle burst back into flames. I threw dirt on the blaze until the fire department arrived; if they hadn’t, everything would have gone up in smoke.
The state patrolman who responded to the 911 call was a fellow former Marine—we bonded over losing the wars overseas, how our buddies died for nothing and no reason—who didn’t think it odd that what I’d chosen to salvage was a duffle bag filled with my knife collection. Five grand from the insurance policy I’d sprung for on the U-Haul rental then was funding this repair now.
“There you are!” The head of the Jeep dealership service department said as if he’d been expecting me. “I’m so sorry for how long it took.”
“It’s no problem at all,” I replied.
“Each time we got close to finishing, something else came up,” he said. “But you’re all squared away now. We rebuilt the rear differential with new parts, replacing everything damaged or unserviceable.”
As he pulled my Jeep into the service bay, another service worker took me to the customer service department.
“They don’t let me handle any money,” he said. “And I don’t blame them!” He gave a slip of paper to one of the two women manning the customer service desk. She eyeballed me fast.
“That’ll be $7,400,” she said.
I handed her my card and tried not to look nervous as she ran it. I was good for the money, but if the card didn’t go through for some reason, things were going to get interesting.
“OK,” she said. “You’re all set.”
“He looked nervous,” I heard one woman whisper to the other as the door to the customer service department shut behind me.
I was finally reunited with my faithful steed.
I’d only been on the road about forty-five minutes when the tire pressure sensor came on, alerting me that one or more of my tires was losing pressure.
“God fucking dammit,” I said, pulling onto an off ramp to a small town just off the interstate. I had to find a place with an air pump. I didn’t know how fast I was losing pressure, but did know that driving on a flat would ruin the rim, and then I’d be right back up shit creek without a paddle.
Almost immediately, I found a little place that had it all: air pump with a pressure gauge, gas, and various tobacco products for sale inside, some just for tobacco use but others obviously for weed. love’s travel stops, read the gas station’s eccentric name.
Pulling in, I’d noticed a red SUV at the side of the lot. I didn’t think anything of it as I parked by the air pump and hooked up each tire to its gage in turn to see where the leak was coming from. It was my front left tire losing air. It had all but dropped to half pressure and I had no idea why.
“Hey, buddy,” a voice said from behind me. “Can I borrow your phone?”
I stood and turned to find an unkempt man in a badly tattered shirt, wearing a variety of necklaces and sporting nails painted black. He looked like he’d seen much better days.
“I have a flat tire,” the man continued. “And I was supposed to be picking up a friend to go to a funeral. He lives right down the road.”
To my eye the man in no way appeared to be ready for a funeral, not even at a pet cemetery. And to my mind, it seemed like if his friend was really just down the road he could walk there. But as I looked past the man I saw one of his tires was completely flat. That, combined with his wearing black fingernail polish in the South, made me pull my phone out of my pocket.
“Don’t run,” I said as I handed it over. “I know I’m wearing boots, but I’m pretty fast.”
“I can’t run,” the man said. “I have a flat tire.”
I chuckled at this, even though the man wasn’t trying to be funny.
“True enough,” I said.
My tire was reinflated in a few minutes, just about the same time the man finished with my phone and handed it back.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The outside of Love’s Travel Stops looked like a bodega crossed with a tobacco outlet crossed with a head shop. The inside didn’t disappoint. There was a decent selection of food, enough to satisfy even the most voracious munchies: chips, all kinds of candy, beef jerky, pies, pretzels—if the shelf life was long and the caloric value high, it had a home on Love’s Travel Stops’ shelves. Beyond the shelves there were all types of sodas stacked up in refrigerator units, energy drinks, sports drinks, water, and all sorts of other inventory. The only thing missing was beer and any alcoholic beverages, but this could be attributed to the shop staying true to its smoked-out roots.
On the other side of the shop, various forms of glassware and paraphernalia lined the walls—from chillums to bongs to whatever a stoner could desire. There were also glass counters full of wraps for blunts and joints. What really took me by surprise was stacked against the wall in plastic tubs, the kind commonly seen in health stores filled with protein or creatine or whatever other building blocks of muscle are being pushed.
“That is an impressive amount of Kratom you have,” I said.
The young man behind the counter looked barely out of high school. His skin tone was deep mahogany, and his coarse black hair was shaved to the skin on the sides of his head and sticking up from the crown. He wore a red band shirt with the crew neck and sleeves cut off. It somehow made total sense he would be the teller.
“If you buy two I can give you half-off a third for the bigger tub, and buy-one-get-one-free for the smaller.”
“That’s all right, man,” I said. “I’ll stick to buying it off the internet.”
“All right,” the young man said with a shrug.
I looked around the shop to see if there was anything else I wanted and my eyes came to rest on the wall of cigarettes directly behind the spiky haired clerk.
“I haven’t bought a pack of cigarettes in years,” I said, my eyes narrowing.
“Really?” he asked.
“Yeah, really. I’m going to start smoking again, right now,” I replied.
The young man stepped aside so I had an unobstructed view.
“These aren’t stale, are they?” I asked. “You sell a decent amount of smoke out of this shop?”
“They aren’t stale.”
“What should I get?” I asked. “I used to smoke Camels, back in the day.”
“These are the normal version,” he said as he pointed to the Camel Lights I used to be addicted to.
Truthfully, I was still kicking around the idea of buying a pack; I hadn’t really decided yet. It had been a stressful past few months, starting with the move, then the fire on the way, my former landlords playing strange games, and my Jeep breaking down, but I didn’t think smoking again was going to fix any of that. I’d been thinking about smoking on and off for a few months at that point, not just the physical act itself but how it looked cool, how it made me feel more relaxed, like I had a better grip on the world and what was happening around me in it, the small breaks away from people smoking entailed, and also the social aspect of smoking. Addiction has many facets, and I was too busy aggrandizing all the positives to think about the negatives. That, and I didn’t have any plans to smoke long-term. As long as that didn’t happen, what was the harm?
There was always the possibility I would end up picking up the habit again and regretting it as my health declined and spending money dwindled. I’d kicked the habit a couple of times in years past and it was always awful. I’d started smoking before the military, but it wasn’t until I joined the Marines I started using tobacco products in earnest. Once I was hooked, it seemed like there was no going back. I could smoke a pack of cigarettes in an hour or chew a can of dip in a day no problem. Whether or not I used smokeless tobacco or the combustible kind depended on the situation, but I came to love chewing tobacco just as much as I loved to smoke. They were both like little vacations on a tropical island in a chemical sea that made me feel at home, no matter what adventure I was on or how hard a time I was going through.
“All right,” I said. “Give me one of those.”
The clerk rang them up, and offered me several options for payment.
“Google Pay, please,” I said. “It makes me feel like a Jedi.”
Activating Google Pay on my phone, I held it up to the digital register and the payment tone chimed. The clerk looked at me and smiled, finding my Star Wars reference amusing.
“I appreciate you,” I said. “Have a good rest of your day.”
“Same to you,” the clerk replied.
By the time I walked back to my Jeep, I’d already started packing my cigarettes. Taking the pack and slapping the end against my palm, I compacted the tobacco in the cigarettes to ensure a better, smoother smoking experience. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I looked around for a lighter. Realizing I didn’t have one, I checked my rearview for the man who had borrowed my phone. He was sitting in his vehicle, still waiting for his friend to arrive and whisk him away to attend a funeral. I quickly made my way back into Love’s, but there was no one to be found. The sound of a television blared from the back.
“Hello!?” I shouted. “Hey! I need something!”
After a minute slowly ticked by, the clerk came back out.
“I don’t have a lighter,” I said. “Do you have any matches? Can I get those for free?”
The clerk paused a moment, then stopped behind a glass counter. His eyes searched the merchandise, guiding his hand to something red. He stood with it clasped in his hand.
“On the house.” He reached toward me and put it in my hand.
I was taken aback for a moment. Even though it was a cheap lighter—small, flimsy, and without much lighter fluid—I was struck by the generosity. I’d expected to be told to buy a lighter or hit the road.
“Wow, thank you,” I said. “This is very kind of you.”
The clerk nodded and turned away from me, starting his trek back to the television set he’d been watching when I walked in.
Smoking again gave me something to do while I drove, albeit a very abbreviated, if appreciated, activity. It snowed and sleeted as I continued my trek north. The drive was brutal. I pounded energy drinks, ate candy, and smoked, eyes peeled wide. I had to watch out for other drivers while keeping my vehicle on the road, maneuvering through traffic while traversing the slick, slush covered pavement. But it wasn’t anything new to me. Ever since Iraq, I’d had an aversion to flying, which made me very inclined to make long marathon drives across the United States.
Forty-five minutes after refilling my leaking tire, the low-pressure sensor lit back up. Cursing, I pulled off the interstate to look for a more lasting solution than just filling the tire back up with air. Luckily, I was able to find a locally run garage that got me back on the road for just $15. Easing back onto the interstate, I discovered a pack of Marlboros the mechanic accidentally left behind.
Sometimes, life isn’t so bad, I thought as I lit up one of the Marlboros.
There was a fly in the ointment, though. Smoking wasn’t like I remembered. In memory, the experience was robust and fulfilling, but in reality I was finding it stunted compared to expectation. I could smoke three-fourths a cig in just a couple of minutes and it didn’t do much for me. Eventually, smoking would sap my energy, making me lethargic. I tried not to think about it.
The weather kept getting worse and worse, and I smoked to cope. The more I smoked, the more I wanted Taco Bell, a cheap fast food joint that aped food from south of the United States border with Mexico. Taco Bell’s Number 6 had two amazing chalupas, and I couldn’t get them out of my mind—I needed them in my mouth. After the tire was repaired, I made a stop at a Taco Bell and started to check online maps for other Taco Bells on my route home. The weather continued to worsen as darkness fell. Drivers were on edge. I had an exchange of angry-faced shouts and erect middle fingers with a gentleman driving a minivan, and realized I hadn’t seen the pavement in some time. Slush covered the road in a slick sheet with a headlight sheen, making it hard to focus my vision. Fatigue was setting in fast; my arms and back ached in protest of constant tension and stress. Usually I would drive nonstop through the night, but weather forecasts showed that inclement weather in Pennsylvania would make the roads impassable in the night’s pitch.
I made another pit stop, at a small West Virginia town just off the interstate. As I munched on Taco Bell, I looked online at local chain hotels. There was only one nearby, and after tax it would be around $150—too much. I considered sleeping in my Jeep. But the snow swirling outside in the cold dissuaded me from trying to tough it out for the night in my vehicle. I started looking for mom-and-pop motels in the area and found one fifteen minutes away charging $60. Setting out for this low-rent destination, I was intrigued by what I might find.
The short ride over didn’t reveal much by way of lay of the land; darkness cloaked its features. What I could see displayed white people living in poverty, but not the kind you see in decrepit trailer parks. More the sort masked by work and dignity. Having grown up in rural Iowa, I didn’t find the socioeconomic conditions particularly eye opening. I found the motel by a bowling alley with a quirky sign and became hopeful about the motel’s amenities and decor. The bowling alley was named Pikeside Bowl: Fun World; the motel was named Pikeside Motel. It seemed possible the businesses were related.
I pulled into the motel’s parking lot. Everything seemed unexceptional. A few cars were parked along the side of the building, and one right in front of a door with a sign reading office. When I entered, it was empty. The space reminded me of the small rooms in towing lots where people pay to have their vehicles released. There wasn’t any art on the walls, only a few of the business’s policies taped on the ballistic glass where the clerk was supposed to be.
“Hello?” I said, then raising my voice. “Is anyone here?”
A short Indian man in his fifties appeared.
“Can I help you?” the man said without smiling.
“I’m looking for a room for the night,” I said. “Are there any available?”
“It’s sixty dollars for the night,” the man said. “There is a twenty-dollar cash deposit for smoking. You give me twenty dollars cash and I’ll give it back tomorrow after I check the room.”
“Um, OK,” I said.
It seemed odd to have cash exchange hands instead of him just charging my credit card if I violated the no-smoking policy. Not to mention the elderly Indian man was literally half my size. How was he going to keep my money from me if I wanted it back?
“The sixty-dollar rate is only for one occupant,” he said as he took my ID and credit card. “If there is anyone else with you, your card will be charged. We have cameras on the outside of the building, so we will know!”
“It’s just me, myself, and I.”
“Do you have any pets with you?” the man asked. “If there are, it’s a fifty-dollar cleaning fee.”
“Nope. No pets. Just me.”
“OK, sir. Here is your key. Please pull your vehicle around and park in front of your room.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning to get my twenty dollars back,” I said.
I pulled my Jeep around to my room for the night, its door on the side of the building. As I parked I couldn’t help but notice an attractive woman with brown hair and red lipstick standing in an open door next to mine, smoking. From past jobs as a bouncer in seedy bars, I was familiar with prostitutes and couldn’t help but notice how this woman was giving off hooker vibes. As I sat in my Jeep and smoked, she and I locked eyes for a moment before our eyes darted to the pavement.
“Great,” I said to no one.
My room shocked me. There was no overhead lighting, but instead just a couple of dim lamps on the wall by the bed. The carpet had a large white stain in the middle of the room, visible even in the poor lighting. Pulling a flashlight out of my bag, I shined it around. There was a smattering of sperm stains and a sprinkling of dark droplets that looked a lot like blood to me, but there was no way to be sure. Pushing the bodily fluid stains aside in my mind, I opened the drawers of the dresser opposite the bed, searching for a notebook.
I was still paperless and wanted to get some writing done. I could, of course, try to write poetry on my phone, but something about the cold light and lack of textile feedback sucked the blood out of my prose. And there was just no way a piece of any length was possible when I tried to create it with my two thumbs and a tiny keyboard. Pen and paper lent themselves to the creation of a longer piece of writing.
There was no paper: no notebooks, no pads of paper, no Bible I could scribble in the margins of, no nothing. Not even the Gideons came to this godforsaken place to leave their Bibles in its dressers and nightstands. I went back to the office and rapped on the glass with my knuckles until the clerk appeared.
“I’m looking for some paper. Do you have a notepad or something I could use?”
“There is no paper, sir,” the man said, deadpan.
“You don’t have any paper back there?” I asked, my eyes searching behind him but finding nothing.
“I do not have any paper,” he said.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “Are you sure there is no paper?”
“Sir, I work here. There is no paper.”
I left the office and went back to my room. The walls were so thin I could hear what the woman next door was watching on television. I made a mental note to take any calls on my phone outside and hoped she didn’t have noisy sex. For a moment, I reflected on how my current situation was a sad sort of commentary on the modern world: a former Marine Corps Machine Gunner in a roach motel next to a woman selling her body for sex, with nothing to do but watch television because there wasn’t a single shred of paper to write on or anything to read.
“I need a drink,” I announced. “And I need some paper.”
I remembered seeing a Dollar General up the road a few miles. I figured I could pick up a notebook there, then grab beer from a gas station. The Dollar General ended up being unlike any I’d been to before. Not only did it have notebooks, it also had a decent selection of beer at super low prices. I ended up with a twelve pack of Miller High Life and a six pack of Hams for under $14.
Back at my room, I started downing beers like cold water on a sweltering day. After four or five, I stepped outside to smoke and caught a glimpse of my neighbor climbing into the car of a man who didn’t appear too happy about the motel’s security cameras. After casting furtive glances at the office, the man sped away with my neighbor in his passenger seat. As I stood smoking, wondering how close an eye the clerk kept on the goings-on at his motel, I realized the adjacent property was a school with a giant Pikeside school sign on the lawn.
“What a weird place,” I muttered as I sat back down to continue drinking.
As I tried to write, I couldn’t help but look around the chair to see what was on the carpet. Gauging from the numerous blood spatters, either someone accidentally cut themselves while sitting at the table or something bad had happened. I began to wonder how safe I was. I hadn’t thought to bring my pistol with me because I didn’t have the correct carrier to check it as a bag. I’d thought the large pocketknife I’d left in my Jeep would suffice in warding off any danger that could arise. For the first time in a long time, I longed for the security of my absent pistol.
Downing beer after beer, I remembered a poet I’d known before he committed suicide in a hotel in Kansas. I’d known him while I’d lived in Denver, and he’d told me he liked to get out of town and go to far-off, small hotels to get away from it all. I was starting to wonder if he wasn’t murdered, and if it was suicide, was there some sort of white trash Shining-esque phenomena going on, where writers worn down by life were driven to self-annihilation by forces converging on them as they stayed in dive motels.
After drinking all the beer and smoking a few more cigarettes, it was time for bed. I tried not to think about how dirty the sheets had to be or if the place had bedbugs or anything regarding cleanliness. I drifted off to sleep and embraced the nothingness that flushed out my dreams whenever I got drunk before bed, glad to be away from the nightmares that haunted my sober sleep. In the morning, after the clerk checked out the room, I got my $20 back.
“Just so you know,” I said. “The sheets have cigarette burns.”
“Some people, they smoke in bed,” the man said, pantomiming the activity for me.
“Right. Well, just so you know.”
After a breakfast of Taco Bell, I was back on the road and headed north. The day was bright and new. Each puff of my smokes held the promise of a buzz. The slush on the pavement had mostly melted and drivers were in much better spirits. I couldn’t help but feel like I had the Overlook Hotel from The Shining in my rearview, and by some stroke of luck, I was headed home to my desk and my books and my pistol and my love.