So there I was, in yet another motel in a small Virginia town. The skunks had assaulted at midnight, and the town, bright and snug in the darkened valley, smelled of rotten eggs.
It was a smell that became a taste. Out there alone, I did the only thing I could. I wet a rag and held it over my mouth. All night long. This filtered the air, I supposed. Then I turned on the complimentary cable TV. "Chariots of Fire" filtered my space.
Now, I wouldn't have cable in my home. A friend of mine had cable, and on a visit we spent the entire weekend with the curtains drawn, mesmerized by last year's flops. But when I'm working -- I often write stories about counties outside Northern Virginia -- I end up staying in a lot of motels. And after a day of following directions like "turn left at ol" Charlie Mason's place," on nights when all the bars close before midnight and there's no one to talk to but a book, well, cable can be a comfort. Sort of a personal immersion tank. Think not, speak not. Just watch the reruns.
They all have cable, it seems, every $30-a-night, floral-draped, outback outpost between here and the far-flung Virginia state lines. Ice! Air Conditioning! Free Tourist Information! Cable! . . . No, wait.
The U-Toll-Em Motel in Floyd County didn't have cable. I stayed there once to do a story about marijuana growers -- "what you call them thar hippie types," according to the sheriff. Well, the U-Toll-Em had a TV but no cable. An no phone. I remember about the phone because I got locked in my room and had to remove the door knob with my Swiss Army knife, but that's another story.
The motel where I weathered the skunk attack did have a phone, in addition to TV and cable. The phone was day-glow orange. Really. Matched the decor. Thankfully, I hadn't drawn one of the green rooms. I couldn't imagine what shade of green the telephone would be. All double rooms are the same, of course. Two beds, two chairs, two hangers. Orange, green or brown.
I always get a double when I travel. That way I can spread my junk on one bed and sleep on the other. One time, in Charlottesville, someone refused to give me a double room. Looked at me funny, like, "What weirdness are you up to anyway?" But that wasn't half as funny a look as the one the bellhop gave me in Richmond.
I called the bellhop because I needed some masking tape. I ordered the tape at the suggestion of the photographer -- a woman, it should be mentioned -- who had taken a sheet off the bed to use as a backdrop for some pictures. Tape was needed to attach it to a wall. The bellhop knocked and entered. A half-dozen cameras, lights, tripods, assorted cords. The bed in disarray. A man. A woman. He handed me the tape, and I tore off about six feet.
"Sure you don't need the whole thing?" he asked, backing out of the room.
Didn't even wait for a tip.
I don't always stay in motels when I work. I stayed in a tent when I covered the National Boy Scout Jamboree, which was great until the gale. Whipped outta nowhere. Tents, eggs, underwear, all airborne. One of the scouts saw a funnel cloud on the horizon. And even though I figured a scout from Manhattan, which is where my host troop was from, with a name like Zit Posniak, which is what he called himself, probably didn't know a twister from Chubby Checker, I was nonetheless three steps behind when he ducked into a spot-a-pottie. The scoutmaster banged on the door, but we wouldn't let him in.
There are no motels at all in Haymarket, where the mayor doubles as church organist; or in Rescue, where a guy named Billy Carter -- no relation to the Billy Carter -- fishes for eels; or in Sperryville, where a couple named Swindler owns a roadside gift shop. There's no motel in Stuart's Draft either, although there is a Hershey factory.
In Harrisonburg, I was told I should stay in one motel if I wanted the turkey factory workers to talk to me and another if I wanted the managers of the turkey factory workers to talk to me. I forget which was which, but I remember that they both had surf 'n" turf on the menu. That's another thing. Besides cable, there's a lot of surf 'n" turf in Virginia motel restaurants.
Once, I stayed at an inn. I was doing a story in Middleburg about a police chief named Jeep (after the disappearing dog in Popeye cartoons), and it was getting late and there were no motels around. But there was the Red Fox Inn, two centuries old, $90 a night, a blue-blood special on weekends. No cable here. There's a fireplace instead. I knew it was a lot of money, but I couldn't resist. Finally, a touch of class. I grabbed with both hands.
I ordered escargots. Wine-bathed veal. A snifter of brandy. Heated, no less. If I smoked cigars, I would have lit one. Then I retired to my room and lit the fireplace.
For a while, I reclined on the antique, four-poster bed, deep and downy with room enough for four. I read a while. I played with the fire. I walked around the room and touched the furniture. All of a sudden, I started to feel lonely.
And for just a moment, although it's hazy now and I might be mistaken, I think I wished for cable.