From time to time, as a mental exercise or as a torch to ignite the bonfires of creativity, I sit down with a pen and notebook, let my mind go blank and just write. No plan, merely open the flood gates and let the stream of consciousness flow wherever it will, write down whatever comes to mind. I use pen and notebook because I could never type fast enough to keep up with my brain in overdrive.
Maybe John Lennon had the right idea, as he so often did.
From Tomorrow Never Knows: ‘Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream…’
And from Across The Universe: ‘Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box. They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe…’
With most people those ‘tumbling thoughts’ can quickly crash into a wall and expire. The stream of consciousness might dry up faster than the L.A. River in an August drought. But with a novelist used to turning out manuscripts that can run to more than 100,000 words, a daydream believer blessed with a vivid imagination and a passion for language, that stream of consciousness can easily turn into a swelling tsunami. The dam bursts, the doors of perception fly open and the page is suddenly filled with words. Sometimes the exercise doesn’t amount to much more than cute and clever wordplay or unusable gibberish.
At other times, however, the meandering thoughts coalesce into something else altogether and entire small worlds are created in the process. These three unconventional short stories—“At The Scorpion Motel”, “Sunset & Alvarado” and “Down By The River On Sunday Night”—grew out of that process: just write and see where the journey takes you. Go free form and full improv, like Coltrane, Mingus or Jaco. Occasionally it leads to pretty strange places; places like the Scorpion Motel in the Mojave Desert, the seedy Hotel Deveroux in Los Angeles or the Paradyce Club down by the river.
I’ve been asked: where do the places and people in these stories come from? How do you conjure them up? Who knows? Creativity is a mysterious and magical process, probably influenced subconsciously by everything from life experience, memory and cultural iconography to TV, music and literature and in my case by a long-held fascination with photography and cinematography. I visualize these places and characters in my mind and subsequently they appear on the page, like film negatives developed in a darkroom, scenes gradually coming into clear focus. Writing fiction of any kind is akin to a factory operation: raw materials come in from all over, are processed and synthesized, and finished product is created and exported. The pay isn’t very good but you can’t beat the benefits.
So dive into the stream, and try to keep your head above water…
I stumbled over your bare feet in the room at the Scorpion Motel,
there on the outskirts of the desert metropolis known as Indian Wells,
on the sad road to Indio, Mecca and Bombay Beach.
A little serving of paradise with a side order of hell.
In town: tennis whites, lush golf courses–18-hole, PGA-approved–and fountains that sun-sparkle and tickle the sky. Out here the basketball courts are netless and dark but the 24-hour Putt Putt is like a star gone supernova, attracting moths to flame or at least crystal meth devotees, the train-wrecked passengers on the Night Train and the many lovers of Wild Irish Rose.
There, in the resorts over yonder: actresses, heiresses and men with sockless loafers. Men that sly eye the bonanza of bare tanned flesh poolside from behind designer sunglasses, all the while savoring the puff-cloud from a Cohiba Esplendido. The champagne flows like the falls of Niagara and jacketed barkeeps chock full of witty banter pour from the top shelf, creating libations that delight the palate and liberate the mind. See the polo ponies, the sleek greyhounds on long leashes and a tame ocelot with a diamond-studded collar.
Now head south past the melted Dairy Queen, the El Minino go-go bar and a roadside stand where a fat man in a straw hat sells organic medjool dates. Here: trailer park princesses and truckstop queens, saltier than Borax and sweeter than the fat man’s dates. Meet a beer-drinking mutt named Myrna and a cat with a prosthetic paw that sings of lost love in the shadow of a dumpster every Friday night.
Buy a six-pack of Pacifico and directions to a wind farm where a hundred tiny green lights topping the turbines twinkle like fireflies in the desert night from the motel owner’s halter-topped daughter. She calls herself Jailbait Jackie even though she’s twenty-nine. Her mother plays the piano in an evening gown at dusk, father a geologist with a spyglass, a pickax and a fascination with rust.
The temperature flirts with triple digits, and I flirt with you. We are the king and queen of the Inland Empire, the wheezing air conditioner our unfunny court jester. So bounce on the balls of your feet and join the ranks of the needlessly discreet, among the fossilized remains of the Coachella Valley.
The clerk promised dry heat but humidity comes on with twilight. Toddlers play in the dirt, coyotes cry crocodile tears and a Black man in a white suit plays slide guitar with a Carta Blanca bottle beneath a horizon knife-slashed with purple, pink and a fevered scarlet.
The fireworks are scheduled for midnight, the motel an oasis of sorts, with a cocktail lounge attached. The bartender is Amber and so is the beer, a potent cerveza from points to the south.
The old miner, Finney, says, “Follow the Mother Road, ‘ol 66, and pray to our father in heaven that your road don’t dead end in Needles, Barstow or Victorville. Trona, Baker, Ridgecrest, Twentynine Palms; maybe when you seen one desert burg you seen ‘em all. Salton City the exception that proves the rule. Take 111 to 86 south, ever south, into the land that time forgot, a land bypassed by the Interstate highways of modern civilization, off the grid into the Third World and beyond, into another dimension entirely, into the twilight zone. A place where dreams went to die and world’s end arrived early. Some call it purgatory, the outer perimeter of Hades. Others call it ‘home’. So pedal to the floor, friends. Roll down the windows and hold your breath. Agricultural runoff and the rotting bones of a thousand dead fish offer a Halloween treat for the senses, not to be missed.”
Hands on hips, cutoff denim shorts tighter than a miser’s grasp and as faded as the old miner’s youth and buttoned just below the pierced navel, you flash that smile twinned by avidity and caprice and say: “What about clean girls with dirty feet?”
The old man smiles and sighs, has the moisture eyes. “You’ve nicked a vein, miss, a mother lode of purest gold. It shimmers in the noonday sun, inducing a desert delirium, providing a man with riches untold his soul to be sold not for profit but for purpose. Every man a philosopher, every man an island in a panned out stream.”
Unnamed birds take wing, heading toward Joshua Tree. The old man undeterred, rheumy eyes staring at a reality beyond the horizon: “I saw Owens Lake reduced to a puddle by greed and need. I’ve seen what was at the end of Zzyzx Road before the government took it over. Watched the Salton Sea die a slow death, like a starlet once beautiful and full of hope and promise. But the desert is eternal, and never what it seems. Starlets come and go, an endless parade. And there are no scorpions at the Scorpion Motel, if you get my drift. Only venomous humans with grasping pincers, people that have been stung and left numb by the experience.”
At Max N’ Millie’s Café we dine on saltines, Coca-Cola, chicken ‘tinders’ and canned tomato soup served in cracked bowls bearing the logo of a long-gone yacht club, another casualty of the literal rise and fall of the Salton Sea. The chicken is freshly slaughtered, drawn and quartered and mesquite-grilled in a fire pit tended by an ex-con named Cole and his common law Doe-Rene.
The throb of a bass drifts from a tavern called Choo-Choo’s, sixteen motorcycles parked outside, guarded by a sleeping giant in a leather vest, a shotgun across his knees.
The old German woman, Frau Kessler, takes us aside. “Some men are obsessed with the dissection of rust. Others slake their thirst and capitulate to lust. Words to live by, as good as any and better than some. Now go in sin and vigor, children, and live for today. For such is nature’s way; as lively and gay as the Weimar Republic of my fondly recalled youth.”
You fire up the Zippo but the flame refuses to die; chalk it up to magic or the capricious wink of a ghostly eye. The light that won’t go out shines in your eyes; blue, bluer even than the wildflowers that blanket the hillsides of Anza-Borrego in a spring superbloom.
You’re naturally dizzy and I’ve become unbalanced. Our little portable sound system issues a Weather Report, Stormy Weather, and bright moonlight spills onto a Persian rug made in a factory in Columbus, Ohio. In our birthday suits, wearing funny hats, we have noisemakers, party favors and a cake topped with candles that melt faster than our inhibitions, two overheated kids alone together, small and vulnerable in the vastness of the Mojave. In starlight and shadow we fall into one another’s arms for lack of a better landing spot. Call it temporary insanity, call it shelter from the storm, call it lost and found, call it what you will. Tumbleweeds and a drunken AWOL airman stumble across the parking lot below, chased by a hot and gusty wind. The Santa Ana’s sweeping down from the mountain ranges powerful enough to rattle soda cans inside the Coke machine that was new when JFK waved to the crowds on a sunny fall afternoon in Dallas.
There in the wild wild west we while away the hours till dawn, beneficiaries of a bonhomie beyond belief, fulfilling both promise and promises made long ago. We collapse in gratitude as the sun rises above the desert floor, where jackrabbits dance on the dew point and bees and hummingbirds converge on the crimson blossoms of the ocotillo. The rising sun carrying with it the anticipation of more to come.
A radio jingle tells us that better days are on the way, on another day in a heaven of prickly pear, sweat and dust.