Grey and Green
He hated Oregon on sight. From the plane he watched a flat desert roll under him without signs of life or mercy. Then mountains. Too big to offer the friendly, rustic beauty of the Adirondacks, but without the grandeur of the ever snowbound Rockies, they seemed truculently wild and inhuman. As the plane wheeled around in its final descent above Portland (too green and undeveloped), he wondered if he had made a grave mistake.
Of course, he didn’t have much of a choice. He’d burned all his bridges but this one, a three week stint at the Liminal Language Writer’s Retreat at a resort hotel in Pacific City—wherever that was, garnered for him by a grateful former student who was up for a Golden Globe for the screenplay she’d written in his class. Guiltily, he wondered if he’d waited to tell off the department head at the Cooperton College Review until after she’d won, if she might’ve been grateful enough to get him a gig in New York. Once he’d claimed his bags he headed straight for the car rentals, where he got the cheapest compact. After staring at a map for half an hour, Tom McMurtry decided his safest bet was to follow highway thirty till he hit the ocean, and then turn south.
It was a long drive, flanked by the monstrous Columbia on the right, and the wanton wilderness with its outsized trees on the left. The grey weather lit everything with a drab, ugly light. Every so often, he flew through an unremarkable outpost characterized by extra lanes, stoplights by neglected strip malls, and fifty-year-old rotting houses. He was struck by how transient the towns felt. In the east, there were signs that civilization had beaten back the dark centuries before. Here, it felt like it would only take a few years before the forest engulfed all signs of settlement. Chaos versus order, an age old theme of literature.
He put on some Bowie and tried not to think. Amy loved Bowie. It had been his little revenge on her when she kicked him out to take all the Bowie with him. For a minute, he regretted it and started to take the cd out, but then decided that thinking about Amy and her new boyfriend Rob was better than thinking about the here and now.
So he thought about her, how she used to think he was cool, with his big apartment and how much time he had for her since he only taught creative writing at Cooperton College twice a week. He thought about how she spent so much time and money straightening the beautiful curls out of her hair, and how they’d drink red wine and gossip about the writers he met late into the night. He wondered if she’d first lost interest when he’d had to start teaching more, as the money from A Piece of Time dried up. But she left him for Rob, and he owned his own plumbing business, so it couldn’t be an aversion to work. She’d said he made reading a chore, and he wondered if he’d been more fun she might have stayed, but he suspected not. Sometimes, when he was frustrated with his boss or a review, she’d make a crack about writing a sequel, “Just do it again, just like before.” That killed him, he’d stopped talking to her about it, how he didn’t know how he wrote it, or where it came from. By the time the album finished, the coast was minutes away.
In Astoria, he let the highway lead him to the tourist area that had taken over the docks from a once-prosperous fishing industry. He checked his cell, one message from Lila Bloom, his boss for the next three weeks, and decided to ignore it. Whatever she wanted to say, she could say it when he got there.
The sun was setting, so he parked and took a meal in a red building overhanging the water that had been turned into a restaurant. The food was good, and he nursed a local beer as he watched the remains of the sunset. It was weird, seeing it over the ocean instead of land, as if he were up early watching the dawn. The sun had dropped below the clouds, and suddenly this little outpost at the edge of the world caught in amber was all too vivid. Unnerved, Tom dropped a couple twenties on the table and fled into the vespertine twilight. Vespertine, if only there was a way he could use that word in a story. Beautiful, but who talked that way anymore?
The road wound back and forth between the savage Coastal Mountains and the black, rocky beach, the towns clinging for dear life to the road in between. He slowed as the elevation rose and the hairpin turns became ever more violent, noting just before the twilight faded to black that to his right there was often little more than a low black stone wall between him and a straight drop into the churning drink.
Seaside, Cannon Beach, Nehalem, Rockaway. The names flew past him in the dark accompanied by clusters of lights and sad, low buildings; the quaintly restored areas mostly boarded up with the lack of tourists as the rains came and last of summer warmth bled away. He’d done his research: triple digit annual rainfalls. Christ.
In Tillamook, the road veered away from the ocean and continued on between wind-torn forests that loomed over the narrow road in his headlights. The road soon came alongside a river and followed it into the sleepy town Pacific City. The signs for the hotel led him through the quiet streets, over a bridge and through what looked like an endless suburb of dark vacation homes. He continued past until he entered the well lit, huge parking lot surrounding the Hotel Ahkinata. Before removing the key from the ignition, he checked the time. 9pm. He hadn’t missed the welcome cocktail hour. Hooray.
Exhausted, Tom dragged his luggage from his car into the hotel lobby, ignoring the crashing waves behind him that attested to the advertised spectacular view. He also ignored the sounds of revelry coming from the hotel bar, the Kestrel, but continued to head for the brightly lit lobby doors.
“Welcome to Hotel Ahkinata, sir,” said the older gentleman behind the desk. His pin said his name was Larry. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes. McMurtry,” Tom answered, handing him his information. He felt the beginnings of a headache coming on.
“Ah, yes. You’re here with the Liminal Language Writers’ Retreat. How wonderful,” Larry smiled at him with new interest. Tom tried to smile back. “Just a moment,” Larry said, holding up a finger, and retreated to mission-style credenza behind the desk where some folders and brochures had been neatly arranged. He gathered up the materials, and returned, handing them to Tom. “It’ll be just another minute while I get your key.”
“Thank you,” Tom said when Larry handed it to him, managing a real smile this time, already anticipating a deep, and hopefully dreamless sleep.
“Room 212,” Larry said.
Tom turned to go, but Larry called after him, “Wait, Mr. McMurtry!”
“Lila Bloom told me to let you know she’s waiting to meet over at the Kestrel.”
Tom winced, pain pounding at the back of his head, “I’m sorry. If she complains, tell her I wasn’t …”
“Oh, don’t worry, sir,” Larry said, waving and nodding sympathetically. “You go on up, but it’s a shame. You’ll have to be sure you take advantage. The Kestrel’s a fine little place, and as faculty, of course, everything you have there is covered.”
Tom paused. “Really?”
“Oh, yes.” Larry smiled. It was a genuine smile of proprietary pride, with no subservience.
“Well,” Tom said, “Maybe I’ll make it down for a short while.” He turned to go, but was caught short once again by Larry calling after him. He looked over his shoulder to see him holding a worn copy of A Piece of Time.
Larry looked a little sheepish, but held out his pen, “Would you mind, Mr. McMurtry? Please?”
Tom put on another smile, “Not at all.” He put down his bags and signed Larry’s copy of his 1995 bestseller.
The Kestrel was busy with happy people finishing their meals, their voices loud with drink and anticipation. The long bar was of dark wood that matched the ancient grain of the floors and walls. Amy would have loved this place. He thought about calling her, telling her about it, but then he’d have to explain why he was on the other side of the country, with no job to come back to.
Tom recognized Lila from her book jacket cover for Final Draft, How to Revise Your Book for Instant Publication. She had a thick silver bob and wore a grey designer suit with silver jewelry. Lila was sitting at the bar talking to a couple of people Tom assumed were attendees of the retreat. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that this was his only shot, and walked over to join them. She signaled the bartender as he approached, and the attendees, blessedly, drifted off.
“That’s right,” she smiled. “Dana Nowicki-Smith has told me a lot about you.”
“I’ll bet,” Tom said, then to the bartender, “Obans, neat.”
“She swears that without you, she’d never have finished One for the Road.”
“Oh, come on,” Tom said, feeling awkward. The bartender returned with his drink and he took a sip to cover his discomfort. It still felt a little sordid, trading on his former student’s success.
“Did you hear she’s been nominated for a Golden Globe?” Lila continued brightly.
“I did.” He took another gulp. The scotch warmed him and took the edge off his headache, but he still didn’t think he was up for schmoozing. “I’m sorry, but I’m exhausted. Is there anything important we need to talk about before I head to my room and crash?”
Lila’s face fell slightly, and Tom wondered if he’d made a mistake. “No, no. Your students have received your notes on their submissions, and you won’t have to meet with any of them until tomorrow afternoon. Maybe we can talk a little over breakfast?”
“Sounds good,” Tom said, and tried not to be too eager to finish his drink.
“I’m just so pleased we could get someone of your reputation out here for this. We are so fortunate.”
Tom put his glass on the table. “Goodnight, Lila,” he managed before beating a full retreat to his room, his bed, and the safety of unconsciousness. Fortunate indeed.
He was running on the beach, where the sand was wet and hard. The waves crashed over his feet with regularity and he could feel the sting of the salty wet up to his knees. There were dark, fat storm clouds overhead. Above the beach, a low sandstone cliff rises, covered in the graffiti of hundreds of names. In one place, someone has carved a grotesque head, mouth a gape. He stared at it as he passed. Its forehead almost touched the top of the cliff, with it’s grassy overhang. A peel of thunder ripped through the air, stopping him cold. He turned and began running back, to get to the warm shelter of the hotel before the storm broke. The landscape flashed bright with lightning, revealing the twisted manzanitas tossing violently in the wind. The thunder crashed, and he doubled his pace, raising his eyes to catch a glimpse of the hotel beyond the sandstone cliff. What the next flash of lightning revealed stopped his heart as well as his feet. He stood in the pounding surf, and the rain began to fall and he did not notice. The hotel, the crumbling parking lot dotted with lonely cars, the brewery and the road into town were all gone. There was nothing but dunes and trees and the raging ocean.
Tom tore himself out of bed and stood up gasping for breath. Outside, a light drizzle was falling, slightly obscuring the waves coming in around a massive hump of a rock a couple hundred yards out from shore in the morning twilight. He looked at the clock, trying to get his bearings, 6:43am.
He wandered closer to the window and looked at the soggy beach below. He’d never run down there, not in this miserable weather. He stumped into the bathroom to piss and shower, thinking he should mention to Larry to talk to housekeeping. There was sand all over the carpet.
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Portland Fiction Project
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