F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer

Part One
by Jess Gulbranson

el lost his only property in a poker game.

After having bet his last fiver, then his record collection, Mel resorted to offering his cousin Frieda's favors. They were declined and Mel eventually had to ante up his motel: Mel's Motor Gotel. The last hand of that night's five-card-draw came to a close, aces and deuces wild. Mel was dealt a full house, king high, queen low. This is it, he thought. The cash and the motel -- back in one foul swoop. Triumphantly, Mel called; his opponent showed five tens. Mel went out of the club that night with the shirt on his back and no Motor Gotel.

He wanted to stop by the office of the Gotel and pick up his papers, but when three unmarked police cars lurked in front, Mel decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He walked all night.

In the morning, after papers had been signed and keys handed over, Mel was sipping OJ out of a brown paper bag in the alleyway next to the Motor Gotel, watching the world pass by and trying to extort a little bit of cash out of the Gotel's few gullible repeat customers. It was called the Motor Gotel because people tended to motor on in, stay about an hour, then "Go" before anyone saw with whom they arrived. It was a pretty good arrangement for people who knew how to be relatively discreet. But Mel had kept his ears open over the years, and had heard enough whispered indiscretions between the bumping and the moaning to keep him well supplied in the blackmail racket for years. Unfortunately, even Mel lacked the finesse to get payoffs from anyone by standing in the alley with a bottle, his breath showing as the first flakes of snow spat down from the gray sky.

Mel had to go to the Mission. It was horrible. Some old geezer, half his face clean-shaven and half sprouting a long beard, asked him if he was into sex. "No," Mel said. "Are you into a good ol' American boot in your ass?" The old man wandered off mumbling, and Mel got a bowl of vegetable soup from a churchy lady with pursed lips, her gray hair done up in a white paper cap.

Mel's pockets held all that he owned in the world: a Swiss Army Knife with everything but the corkscrew gummed shut, a pawn ticket for his watch and a little black book which was actually dark blue. After his scanty inventory, Mel left the mission and went on with the business of finding a place to crash. He knew the porch of the Gotel was no good, because someone would find him and a hole in the awning would let in the snow, which was falling heavily -- small flakes that would continue for a while. Crossing his arms and hugging himself into his bright red sweatshirt, Mel headed in the general direction of downtown. He turned a corner where a bunch of punks were huddling against the courthouse wall, taking turns dry-humping a statue of John Quincy Adams. A couple of them, under a foot of spiky hair, sneered at him. Mel sneered back and they looked away. That's right, Mel thought.

Pounding the pavement just was not worth it, Mel decided after about an hour of searching. His friend Richard wouldn't answer the intercom to his apartment at first. Then Richard's elderly mother came on and wouldn't acknowledge him even though Mel had met the old bat more times than he cared to remember. Down the block was a girl he'd shacked up with a long time ago. He didn't have much luck there either, because the girl, Jackie, still seemed pissed about something Mel didn't even remember. He left her place feeling pretty bad, and came back to the courthouse square with no place else to go. The punks were gone, back to their mansion or something. Mel hunkered down in front of the coffee shop there, waiting for a second wind and thanking God that at least he wasn't an old fuckin' pervert with half a beard.

The wind blew pretty hard, and Mel wished he could spare-change the price of a cup of coffee like those punk kids. Young people were just better panhandlers.

Mel felt a tap on his shoulder, and a ray of light broke through the clouds of his shitty day. It was a real cute girl with a green apron and a cup of joe. She was smiling, of all things, and Mel grinned and took the coffee. She had clean, shiny red hair, and a button nose. "Thanks," Mel said.

"No problem," she replied, and went back into the coffee shop. Mel sipped the hot coffee and stamped his feet. He knew he wasn't handsome -- though he'd never admit it. But his face was just too harsh and scarred, his hair a color of bright yellow that was too ridiculous to call blond. Somehow he knew that the coffee the sweet girl had given him wasn't just cold-weather charity. Things were picking up.

Mel jumped onto a downtown trolley and rode as far as he could without paying, which was just far enough that he didn't have to hump more than a mile to the trainyard. His sweatshirt was just too damn red to conceal him anywhere, so Mel figured he'd crash somewhere conspicuous. He made a circuit of the trainyard and station a couple of times before realizing that there was a space big enough for a man inside the heating system that overhung the station's front façade.

After watching and waiting, holding a ticket envelope that he had found in the garbage, Mel got his chance. He dropped all appearance of being a train passenger when he began climbing the wall of the station. The brick façade was built like it had been designed by Laurel and fucking Hardy construction. There were bricks that had been mortared so that they stuck a rough edge out, like handholds for burglars. He was up to the heating system in no time, and as he was now faced with it, he saw that the space was actually only big enough for a twelve-year-old.

No problem, Mel thought. He grunted and groaned as he tried to fit his legs in first and failed. Then he tried headfirst, but no dice. Mel gave it one last shot and somehow ended up in the fetal position, dragging himself into the sheltered space with his fingers. The metal was hot, but not too hot because of the wind and snow, and Mel allowed himself a smile as he decided that things were working out after all. He closed his eyes and fell asleep in no time.

Had anyone actually been looking for him, they would have seen Mel right away. His red sweatshirt and bright yellow hair were amazingly bright against the gray galvanized heating unit. Anyone actually looking up at all would probably have noticed him. Luckily, no one did. Mel was able to get a good night's sleep. It would be eight-and-a-half hours before he'd wake up, another hour before he got breakfast, and another hour before Mel would meet Dimpe.

Find out more about Mel in our archives.

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