Saturday, 12 May 2012

Fiction Installment #21: (Part II, Ch 2, Marta) "In the Orchard"

   Marta read a brochure clipped to the shade of the room’s bedside lamp. An “Economy Family Facility,” the Star-Lite Motel evidently counted every penny: “Guest credit cards will be charged $10 per missing towel, no exceptions.” Looking around spare and clean #10—complete with a set of three water glasses covered in crinkled hygienic plastic—brought to mind untroubled lakeside and mountain slope vacations budgeted by their autocratic mother, Marta and Lester in one room with Dianne and George adjacent, two wall-sharing doors normally connecting them. It was possible that decades ago she might have politely knocked on this very door next to the bulky television, her thrifty parents requesting privacy in their room and—never the doting kind—respecting that of their children.
   Marta now checked to confirm that the lock was secure.
   She inspected the closet and bathroom and found everything in order. Finding no ashtray—times had changed—she slipped the car keys on a novelty holder shaped like a fishing lure. Though the rental coupe wasn’t strictly necessary, Marta desired the mobility. I can go out for a drive now, she thought, and enjoy a freedom unavailable in the city.
   The entire winding valley of prodigious manufactured fecundity was familiar enough, but from the patches she spotted during the steep descent from the crest there had been substantial refurbishing. The single-family orchards and modest roadside stands with arrow-shaped signs announcing “Peaches, Cukes 4 Sale,” so plentiful once, were slouching into history; magazine-ready viticulture and the affluent metropolitan tourist demographic it attracted—discerning eyes peeled for organic preserves, half ironman marathons, grape cultivar trends, and gourmet lunches on chic verandas overlooking vineyards—had become the new economic order. A rectangular plot cut from the surrounding orchard of dwarf peach trees, the Star Lite was a vestige with a passenger pigeon future. 
    The arid valley was still crisscrossed with capillary dirt roads, Marta had noticed, picturing a drive on them after hours, air rushing though open windows, dust plumes trailing.
   The other burgs between the amoebic city sprawl and the Star Lite’s roadside solitude—scrappy agricultural pockets and undernourished communities built in close range to mined hillsides abandoned and overgrown or close to exhaustion—did not appear to have been touched by the aspirant’s grab-the-future-by-the-horns outlook so pronounced on the valley’s grape vine plateaus.
   Marta felt reassured as she journeyed by the hardscrabble outposts, recognizing gas stations, restaurants, motels, and log homes—entire main streets, in fact—possessing a trapped-in-amber quality that was cousin to the revived historic gold rush settlement deeper in the province’s interior. Surviving off visitor dollars, that destination promised to bring one version of history alive by hiring hordes of students each summer and paying them to stroll the dusty streets in character, the select calico- and wool-clad population educational viewing for the whole family, G-rated of course: no rape, racism, smallpox, domestic violence, or situational homosexuality, and perhaps just one town drunk rendered as red-faced and obnoxious yet benignly comical, a pioneer Falstaff.
   Although the gradual climb from sea level contained her within one time zone, Marta had been conscious of how strange it was to barrel so easily beyond the embrace of routine. Passing from drenched dense forests of hemlock, salmonberry bush, and clinging boreal mists to arid, needle-strewn stands of skinny pine, she noticed roadside great mullein (“desert tapers,” her mother’s fanciful coinage, sprang to mind first), and, at last, caught sight of the gateway marker, a loaf-form mountain, camel and puckered by dark undulating furrows. Marta’s shoulders began to relax despite the tension caused by traffic: nearby was the landscape of childhood vacations.
   The silence from the production office about tomorrow’s schedule was gnawing at Marta’s nerves. To her chagrin, the immediate future was not a mapped road but an opaque wall, and that made her peevish; the lack of a specific plan was proving irksome. Marta’s core punctuality—6 o’clock does not mean 6:10—routinely stood at odds with a world of delayed services and detained, inexact people. There’s nothing to do now except wait and wonder, she thought. Of course.
   At the motel’s front desk office, Mrs. Simms, the Star Lite’s affable and confiding owner/operator, had endeared herself to Marta with a sisterly offer of counsel—“You got any questions, Marta, anything at all”—she had said with a sly conspiratorial tone, as though Marta might be seeking a back-alley abortion, or moonshine in a dry county—“you come right to me. My family’s been operating this place for two generations, so believe you me, I’ve heard ’em all.” Cross-legged on a stool, Mrs. Simms hadn’t mentioned any calls. Fretful, Marta wondered if she’d missed an important email—one might have been sent after she left home. 
   The red light on the room’s telephone wasn’t flashing; she lifted the receiver to check for a dial tone.
   To her knowledge no one—and by now she’d learned the office’s unwavering chain of command: Jakob the apex, Lora next, and one of the pawn-like PAs at the base—had sent information about a “session” or “pow wow” (Jakob’s and Lora’s preferred terms for meeting, respectively) following check-in, so Marta guessed she was at liberty to plan out the evening.
   Standing by for an hour, she decided, was prudent. Perhaps a call to explain next day’s schedule was near the head of Lora’s list. Marta needed to sort out the per diem, too, excited by the novel concept of daily cash allotments handed out in discreet white envelopes, she imagined, like bribes in movies. She thought of dropping by and checking with Mrs. Simms one last time, just in case. Advice about nearby restaurants seemed a reasonable pretext.
   In the meantime, she’d try to relax inside the cinder block cube, vintage print spun nylon curtains drawn for solitude. The room was warm and smelled of the staleness of age as well as of lingering bathroom chemicals. She’d prop open the door after sunset.
   Marta slid off the canvas sneakers. Unpacking luggage could wait, ditto the drive and the inaugural wander along Main Street to investigate three blocks of retail offerings. Poised on the edge of the bed—covered with a slithery quilted polyester satin quilt that made her squeamish and would be soon be folded away in the closet along with the untenable poly-cotton sheets—Marta grabbed the remote and found the channel guide.
   She clicked on a station that specialized in drive-in classics and arrived in the midst of a favourite moment. Tracking the prostitute-fixated serial killer with the light of righteousness to guide them, Angel and Mae were skirting around the murky alleys of Sunset Boulevard during a breezy California night that nevertheless caused no movement in the stiff curls of Mae’s voluminous wig and Angel’s tightly permed hair. 
   The improbable scene—the 15-year old Angel/whore character being played as innocent by a 24-year old performer in thick layers of purportedly age-defying makeup that rendered her hardened and mannequin-like rather than sweetly, dewily adolescent—always prompted Marta to recall a sibilant-heavy review, one that for a time she’d delighted in quoting to fellow graduate students who had no empathy for her fascination with déclassé subject matter. The writer called the B-movie a “screwy, sickening, and semi-satisfying stew of shtick, sleazeball, and sentimentality.”
   Sleazy or not, Angel was also a fortunate—and heartily satisfying too, Marta would argue—discovery that became the subject of her first conference paper, an analysis of notions of prostitution and feminine duplicity that compared the wily centuries-old archetype Moll Flanders to a contemporary descendent, the soon-to-be avenging Angel. Some things never change, the essay had implied with resignation.

[This chapter comes in five segments. This is 1 of 5.]

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