Place: (plās); n
- an area, position, or portion of space that somebody or something can be in
- a particular geographical locality such as a town, country, or region
- the position or location where somebody or something belongs
Place. Repeat the word until it saturates your mouth and becomes foreign, a word you don’t remember, a word you’ve neither heard nor spoken. Place. Say it again. Your lips pop, the tip of your tongue curls up to meet the back of your top teeth, your jaw drops (aye) and comes back together (ess).
Place. Every place is one of beauty, sometimes so striking that it reaches into your chest and crushes your heart the moment you see it. Breathtaking, like the pale blue Rockies from the Utah side. Looking across the salt flats and up the jagged hills, I feel very small, and want nothing more than to be pressed up against that rock, snow falling all around me, breathing in and out thin white puffs, alone, alive, simultaneously insignificant and all-important, supremely important, the most important thing in this universe of a billion different lives. California, too; ocean so blue-green and mesmerizing you’ll fall in love and drown yourself just to be closer. Hypnotic. Intense. Severe.
Other times, in other places, beauty is understated.
60 miles north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the outskirts of Sheboygan, there are but three establishments on a lonely bend of Interstate 43: Sleep Motel (with heated pool for registered guests [$10 charge for guests of registered guests] and continental breakfast), Judi’s Kitchen, and a gas station. If you’ve exited here, you’re looking for a hot meal, a tank of gas, or a night’s sleep—or you’re lost.
The Sleep Motel clerk is a middle-aged blond, short hair, glasses, so nondescript that I can’t describe her features even as I’m studying them, a worn Danielle Steele paperback held open—paused briefly mid-page as we check in—against her black company-issue cardigan. She recites the pool and breakfast rules and passes me a room key. In the aerial photograph on the wall behind the desk, I see a lake on across the highway, evidenced now by the crystalline wind that bit my exposed skin on the journey from parking lot to lobby.
It’s so cold that as we drive the block from the motel to the diner the car’s digital external thermometer drops from 10 to 4 to 0 before giving up and flashing ICE-ICE-ICE instead.
Judi’s is the real deal. Judi cooks the food and serves it, hovers low until she’s confirmed all is satisfactory. Black and white photos of her 5 children adorn the walls and counter near the cash register, should we need inspiration beyond her friendly, understated service when calculating the tip. The food is hot, fresh, and home-cooked, and wherever you sit is the non-smoking section… until someone next to you lights up. It’s the kind of place where you can order breakfast all night long and coffee just as old, but coffee that’s hot and smells just like it oughta, served in a heavy brown diner mug you can wrap your hands around. When it’s ICE-ICE-ICE outside, that’s all I need.
When I order my breakfast-dinner, Judi asks how I like my eggs, and I’m stymied. The ones with the yolks on top, I think, but take my chances with “sunny side up” so as not to sound disrespectful in America’s Dairyland. My companion and I order two kinds of toast—whole wheat and rye—and as Judi sets two plates on our table, she announces, “Whole wheat here, right? And you had the rye. There we go.”
Both the rye and the whole wheat are actually just white toast grilled to various shades of darkness, and the coffee is weak and burnt. But it’s ten below ICE-ICE-ICE, and we leave Judi more tip than bill, those black and white portraits working their magic, that coffee still warm in my stomach.
Back at the hotel, my room looks out over the gas station. I stare at it, wanting it to be more romantic and lonely—a place I’d end up on a random cross-country trip just to sit outside and watch—a local place named Hal’s perhaps, with the neon red apostrophe and S blinking and buzzing. Hal should be there in his worn overalls and baseball hat with a funny saying about fishing, but he isn’t. It’s not Hal’s. It’s CITGO, with a missing C, and the boy who works there is Chinese, no more than eighteen, who laughed earlier when we paid for water with a credit card. ITGO is harsh and fluorescent and has but one more customer, a young couple in a silver Honda Civic, passing through on their way to Chicago, maybe. He has to pay for the gas inside, and picks up some Pringles and Diet Cokes for the road. When he returns to the car, his companion smiles and reaches out for the sodas across the driver’s seat with her pink-mittened hands.
I look to the left, imagining a windmill or a broken barn with a rusted rooster weathervane, creaking and blowing, turning and dying. A windmill, I think, would make this story complete. But there’s no windmill. No Hal. No wild untamed dog nosing through the trash for scraps.
Downstairs, the clerk turns another page of her novel, rocking gently as the clock ticks beside her. She’ll call me in three hours, five a.m., good morning. All of this will be faraway and fuzzy like a fading dream, me and my novel-reading motel clerk, and I’ll be sleepwalking, coffeeless, dazed and hyper-aware.
But right now, we’re awake, and it’s beautiful, ten below zero, ITGO Camel cigarettes 3.25 a pack. In the dark above the station, the moon is high and neon white, not quite full, not yellow-orange, not low or pregnant or mysterious. It’s the same moon I see at home, in all my homes, on all the highways I’ve driven. It lights up the barren fields beyond Sleep Motel and ITGO, open and dead and primed for UFO sightings, and I wonder whether anyone has ever set foot or eyes upon this site before tonight.
In my room, the curtain is pulled aside to let little glowing moon-bits fall soft through the glass. My heart and belly are full, and for this place, there is nothing left to do but write.