I was nineteen and leaving campus for the night, driving past a cow pasture that bordered a liquor store. Across the land of milk and liquor lay a shitbox van slid off the road and stuck in a ditch. It was blue with wood paneling, the kind of 1980s relic owned only by those in modern poverty. Three sets of arms waved me down. Though it was dark and snowy I could see they were attached to middle aged ladies. I pulled to the shoulder and asked if they needed my phone. They said they’d just leave the van and hey would I give them a ride to their motel. I said sure. They collected their things and piled in.
One carried a case of beer with half the cans missing, their contents presumably within my passengers. The beer holder and one other sat in my backseat, the third up front. I noticed that Upfront was attractive, if not a decade or two older than my young self. The beer lady offered me my own, proud of the fact that she’d cooled the cans by sticking them in snow. I passed on the offer but noted that all three were hammered. With this I realized their van hadn’t slid off the road but rather was crashed there. They were drunk in a ditch.
I asked for directions to their pad but first they needed to stop elsewhere. Under their command I swung into a lot strewn with car carcasses. I drove by this place all the time, a shop performing its best imitation of a junkyard in infancy. I stopped on the slab and my backseat passengers piled out. The upfront cutie stayed behind. Perhaps it was to anchor my car, to keep me from jetting away. It was cold and I kept it running. I don’t remember what we talked about but she was drunk and I was nineteen. I just knew she was cute and I wasn’t used to the attention.
When the others came back I learned they were there to score weed. They showed the cutie their bag then stashed it away. At this point in time I didn’t even drink so having pot in the car with a pile of drunk strangers was scary. Still, I was too timid to say anything, to kick them back to the ditch from which they came. We drove slowly through slush, the snow blackened from cars whose rubber legs spit dirt. The motel they were camped at was only minutes away. I pulled up to their lot-facing door, parking across two spots as I thought this was it. But they invited me in. I accepted in hopes this led somewhere. A somewhere I wouldn’t know what to do with anyway.
They lugged their case of beer, intent on turning it to an empty box. The motel was a standard shithole: flower patterned blankets; a cathode TV; hard grey carpeting; the smell of a pool even though there wasn’t one. In the motel light I got my first good look at the two that’d sat behind me. One was old, so thin and shriveled. She hovered near sixty but it seemed like life had beat her down for decades. The other was thirty or more, her skin an indicator that she’d blown a forest fire of smoke through her lungs. The upfront cutie was of similar age but a bit rounded in the face, a lot less destroyed. Her demeanor came off kinder. Maybe her era of hard living had only just begun.
They’d been living at the motel while looking for work. I’d been raised in a sober and stable home so it was jarring to see three adults in such a state of distress. Other than an alleged job search I never got a clear picture of just what they were up to. The younger two alluded to having children, none old enough to be on their own. The two mothers had come from the reservation. I learned that the old lady lived in town. She made drunken claim that she was a scientist, in fact a professor at my college. By the time she informed me of these things she was nearing incoherence.
The TV had a built-in radio and after some tuning they cranked it loud. It was after ten and I feared a neighbor would come knocking. The younger two got up to dance but I stayed seated on the bed, watching them twist over old carpet. They looked good. After some dancing Smoke Skin took her weed and rolled a joint on the flowery bedspread. Other than seeing teens do drugs in a cow trailer I’d never been so close to pot. It scared me. I felt as if the cops would be called and I’d go to jail. After the joint was rolled Smoke Skin headed to the bathroom to burn one down. When she reached the door she asked if I’d join. I was too scared to accept the offer, laughing it off and saying no thanks. She made an indication that behind the door there’d be more pleasures than pot but again I was too scared to accept. I just knew I wished these words had come from the cutie. We sat talking as the old lady lay drinking.
In time the desk clerk came by and knocked at our door. I figured it had to be the music which was still at full blare. But he’d only come to tell me to repark my car into a single spot. He was the exact image of a middle aged dude who’d be working the graveyard at a $30 motel. A little bald. A little fat. A little more awkward than a nineteen year old in a situation so out of his realm. The girls invited him in for beer and he accepted. They asked if this place was hiring maids but he didn’t seem to know. After a can or two of the cold stuff he returned to duty. Not long after the younger two started fighting with their elder. She grew angrier with each request to quiet down. As she sat on the bed she started screaming.
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do.”
“You always do this to us,” the cute lady stated.
The old lady turned to me. “Take me home. I’m going home.” It was a demand, not a request.
All three piled into my car, beers still in hand, this time with the old lady beside me. She lived in an apartment near campus, the place I’d come from at the start. They argued about things that had been fought over many times before. Once that subsided the old lady kept rambling, now to none other than herself. She grew stuck on a phrase, repeating that my college wasn’t going to call her a prairie nigger. These three were Native Americans and the college was entrenched in controversy due to its Native nickname. She repeated the prairie phrase as if it were a verbal tic, its four syllables uttered ad nauseam ’til we reached the parking lot of her apartment. She told me to keep going, to pull up on the sidewalk. I did as she said, driving down the icy walkway. It wrapped behind the building to an entrance. I drove slow.
“Keep going, keep going.”
It wouldn’t have surprised me if next she ordered to drive through the doors and into her kitchen. She left without bidding adieu. I wasn’t sure how they all knew each other nor did they explain. They said she always does shit like this, that she gets fucked up and mad. That she ruins the situation. Perhaps it was telling that they’d rather stay in a dump than with her. I asked if she was really a professor and they laughed it off saying no. They apologized for the old lady’s actions. I let the matter be.
I drove them once more to the shithole, this time in relative silence. They seemed to be sobering up, winding down from all the craziness. The whole night was less than two hours but I was happy to step away from life for that long. Within minutes we wound up at the motel once more. I double parked and kept it running. As they exited the car the cutie took my number with an insistence that she’d get at me soon. I hoped it would happen. That she’d get me alone and invite me to the bathroom. To make it happen in ways I could not. The next day I drove past the land of milk and liquor. Their van was gone. For weeks I kept my phone on night and day. I never heard from them again.