Telling Time at the Tick Tock
by Leigh Kirkland
Marlene was right, of course. When I asked Mrs. Kemp, she shook her head and said, "I tell you, I don't know what's happening in this country. I don't know what's going to happen to young people like you." Like she hadn't decided on her own to sell that motel and move to Savannah, knowing damn well what was going to happen to me.
I walked out of the office and sat on the sidewalk near the ice machine. There was a moth with its wings spread on the wall warming itself under the lights. The top wings were gray-brown like your common moth, but the bottom wings had spots on them like animal's eyes. It was raining hard and trucks were going by fast with their radios loud. All I could do was smell that cold tarry smell of the rain bouncing off the wet asphalt. The windows were down on my Trans Am, which I hadn't finished paying for. Water was probably pooling up in the vinyl bucket seats, but I couldn't make myself walk back into the rain to roll up the windows.
I could have told Mrs. Kemp what's going to happen to people like me. The same thing that always happens to people like me. Nothing. Nothing. All we can do it sit here and wait.
There isn't much of any kind of a job around here for anybody anymore. When I was in high school there looked like there might be by now. It was like somebody was holding up thousands of strands and loops of jewels that sparked the sun gold and green and black and red and silver. All we had to do was ask and we could have anything we wanted. The trailer plant opened up and brought in steady jobs and the textile plant was doing good. Nobody around Samaritan County believed in unions; everyone was used to depending on whatever cut-glass the Janeses and the Talmans and the Presterfields handed out like they was diamonds. As much as everybody said they resented that, none of us had reason to expect more than that same treatment from the plant owners. We expected that what the plants would give them that worked there was what they deserved. None of us had reason to expect more. But the problem with somebody's giving you something you want real bad, you've got to wait until they're ready to turn their grubby hands loose of it, or you've got to figure out what it is they want you to do, and do it like they want. Either they got the jewels, or they got you.
About the same time a bunch of stores got built out on the highway, and the restaurant-lounge across from the Tick Tock where people who spent all day riveting double-wides and operating dye-presses could spend their money in some nice place. The new places were designed so modern. Like California (not that anybody from here ever went to California and came back), yellow fieldstone on the front and flat redwood sides. We thought they were something. Some historical group fixed up the stores around the courthouse square so nice, I believed all of it might sprout turrets and turn into a beautiful painted palace.
None of it came to nothing. Nobody but trash hung around the last two places that opened up across the road, raising hell up and down 319. The sign out front now says The Continental, but I bet you a six-pack the fool who shot it up with a .22 thought the place was named for a car. It didn't take long for that new paint to peel off and leave us in worse shape than when we started. Because we'd seen all that other.
Anyway that was how things were when I started cleaning rooms at the Tick Tock. The money was better than some jobs that sounded nicer, like selling sweaters and scarf pins at Sammy's and Antoinette's (although Sammy did offer me a job, believe it or not) or Payne's Red and White or the Piggly Wiggly. We sort of thought even 24-hour grocery stores could happen in Squiresboro. Now Piggly Wiggly is open 24 hours, but nobody can figure out why. Unless it's that nobody has to be at work any particular time, they might as well buy dried beans at four o'clock in the morning.
I don't mean you to think being a maid at the Tick Tock was that great a job, even here, but I was needing to work for more than pocket change. My brother gave me the Trans Am—new—when I turned sixteen, and said he'd make the payments on it. Then he got caught by lightning in a metal bass boat and everything in my life got tore all to flinders.
Mr. Janes down at the bank called me in about a week after the funeral to discuss my situation. Burr hadn't bought credit insurance on my car loan, and he'd put the car in my name, thinking to build me a credit rating for the future. If I didn't make the monthly payments, the bank would be forced to repossess the car and I would have a bad credit report trailing me forever.
It would look especially bad, Mr. Janes said, since the loan was on a hot car. That's what he called it, a hot car. To tell you the truth, he made it sound like everyone I met would think I was a tramp for owning a Trans Am, and worse for getting it repossessed.
The more he talked, the more it started feeling like his son had told him stories about me, which wouldn't surprise me. All I could think about was my brother holding out that big bass, blood smeared on his hands from taking the hook out of the fish's lip and blue light crackling all around his body. His fishing buddies told me about it so it's clear in my own mind's eye. While Mr. Janes told me Mrs. Kemp was looking for somebody to clean rooms over at the Tick Tock, I was remembering the red-and-black plaid shirt my brother wore fishing, and his white baseball cap with an embroidered picture of a hooked fish on the front. His hair stuck out behind his ears. He had pretty hair when he didn't wear a hat. His fishing jeans worn so smooth, his legs looked like they were carved out of stone.
It never was like I had high-flown plans for my future. I never believed I was going to college, even though around that time the guidance counselors at the school had every dirt farmer's kid, every line worker's kid convinced they could go to college on athletic scholarship or credit union loans, and get a good job in an office in Augusta or Valdosta after that.
I never thought that. I wasn't about to go off looking for more people to treat me like the kids did who didn't work, or didn't have to, who were sure to go to Georgia Southern, or Valdosta State, or even to leave wiregrass country for the University of Georgia, treated me now. But I did feel like something was going to happen. My future stopped looking like walls rising straight up on all sides, with a turn up ahead that from where I stood looked like a dead-end.
For a while I believed that around that dead-end was a curve where the walls would slope down into a shore line where I could climb out of the river and sit under green trees.
I'd wipe the ice bucket on the vanity by the sink and never look in the motel mirror, because I didn't want to know what I looked like in that place. For a while those walls were beautiful, protection, not prison. Even though by this morning, that curve in the road looked a long way off, I went room to room with my loop of numbered keys, scrubbing toilets, cleaning ashtrays and vacuuming under beds, changing sheets, and wrapping plastic cups in the sanitized bags Mrs. Kemp ordered from the hotel-motel supply.
The last thing I did in 119 (you got to have you a routine in this kind of work, or you find yourself standing in the middle of a room not knowing what you've done) was set out the wrapped soap. Those bars are too small for anybody staying more than one night. The soap scraps never go away; the milky shell of soap melts off and leaves a pink core like translucent plastic. I drop the ovals melting in the sink into a plastic bag for Mrs. Kemp to use to wash dishes in the restaurant. There's not a woman in Squiresboro cheaper than that one, even if she does tool around in that mint-green Lincoln.
The couple who'd been staying in 120 had trashed the room with beer cans and the Sunday Atlanta paper. I moved through it like a jeep through the river shallows. I could almost see the water spluming up on either side of me when I cut through the room, hefting empties into the trash barrel on the cart behind me and heaving half-drunk ones into the sink to empty without hardly slowing down. There's something about a motel room that makes a newspaper open up section by section and spread itself across the room.
The salesmen who come through regular bring real bars of soap, which looks too big and clumsy to hold in your hand after you've gotten used to Camay. They don't bring real towels, though; they'd mildew before they'd dry in the trunk of a car. Some of them use the sheets from the spare bed to dry off on. At first I thought there was some wild partying at the Tick Tock from all the stripped-off sheets I found. The ones who work in their rooms at night, bring their own bulbs to use while they're here. There's only two lamps in the rooms with about 15-watt bulbs in them, so what light they do put out hardly penetrates the cheap shades. I don't think there's two lamps that match in the whole motel. You'd have thought they'd have bought them all the same time, but Mrs. Kemp told me that when she took over running this place after her husband died, she had some idea about all the rooms being individual, like a country inn. Like somebody that had to stay in a motel in Squiresboro was going to notice. She's just too cheap to buy anything but end-lots.
When her husband, Ted Kemp, died in that plane crash, now that was something. Everybody knew he was basically sorry, but he had that little Cessna that he used to dust crops now and again to justify keeping it, or so everybody said. Anyway, the story that went around was that he and his buddies were drinking around the liquor store out by Grinning's Pond when Ted and one other of them got a mind to drive to Baxley. The other two said they were too drunk to drive, which wouldn't have been unusual. So Ted said, "Let's go get the plane," and the two of them went off.
Before long, the plane came just over the tops of the trees, heading for the store like Ted was going to buzz his friends; those boys haven't ever had to do anything but keep themselves entertained. But this time, being drunk and all, Ted come in too low and the plane crashed wing-deep through the steep roof of the store, which used to be a gas station before the county voted in package sales, and stuck there burning.
A whole bunch of different stories went around. One, that Ted and his friend died instantly. Another one, that when the rescuers got to them, they were trying to get out of the cockpit, but the roof rafters kept the doors from opening, so they burned to death before they could get them out. Stories grow up like weeds around any kind of unusual death.
Ted Kemp's plane stuck in the liquor store roof for four days, until after the funerals, waiting for the investigator to come up from Savannah. I'd pick up Burr at the trailer plant, and the traffic would be backed up and down that road until they finally came with a crane to pull it out and haul it away on a flatbed truck.
When Burr died, it got around that the lightning had singled him out, which I guess in a way it had, since he was the only one in the bass boat to die. But you'd be surprised at the people who got it in their minds that the lightning bolt was flung down by God Himself to punish Burr for Lisa Jane Nardy. It was the same with Ted Kemp. People who called themselves decent acted like they knew all along that both of them would come to no good end. I guess it makes people think nothing like that could happen to them, like death was a judgment from God.
When I went on break a little while ago, Marlene at the Dairy Queen told me Mrs. Kemp had sold the motel to some Indians, a whole tribe of them from India, who were going to live in one of the rooms and run the motel themselves. I didn't believe her. Who would? Then it was like somebody flipped me upside down the way I'd been flipping mattresses. Just then, while everything was upside down, I remembered what Burr used to tell me when he first got home from the Air Force to go to work at the trailer plant.
He said if you're going to stay in Squiresboro, you can't let what happens to you on the street, your "outer life," he called it, determine the quality of your life. You have to keep your head down inside yourself like you're snorkeling through clear water, and you have to keep your face in the water, because nothing that happens to you out of the water is going to be anything but bad if you stay. He told me one time that if I didn't keep my face in the water, which was how he referred to that "inner life," I'd be walking along thinking everything was under control, and look down and see something had crawled out and was showing on the outside, like a big orange crab hanging onto the laces of my tennis shoe. He said I had to keep watching those fish swim by, watching the coral reefs form.
I was never sure what he meant while he was alive, but he never talked about the trailer plant, or how good he was doing there; I heard that from his friends. All Burr talked about was the woods around the Ohoopee River, and the dark water of Grinning's and Talman's Lake, and fishing and deer hunting.
When Marlene told me about the Indians, all of a sudden I thought about driving the Trans Am real fast, with the fields of soybeans blurring past me, the purple swatches of wild verbena along the shoulder of the road. About going over a hill. About seeing a yellow road machine stopped dead in the middle of the road.
I kept trying to believe that if it was true, Mrs. Kemp thought more of me than to let me hear it in the Dairy Queen. But if I believed that, why did I change my usual order for a diet ice tea to a large chocolate-dipped cone? What reason had she ever given me to believe she'd think of me at all? And what could I have done if she'd told me? I sat in the booth with my feet up and sucked all the ice cream out of the chocolate shell shaped like the soft-serve ice cream. When the shell was empty, I shoved the whole thing in my mouth and felt the sweetness collapse and melt, sticking to the roof of my mouth back where I couldn't reach it with my tongue.
Copyright©2003 Leigh Kirkland