STANDOFF AT THE COUNTRY PRIDE MOTEL, STARRING BILLY FITZ
by P. J. Gannon
A few hours after spiking some Afghan smack in Room 5 of the Country Pride Motel, Billy considered introducing a girl into the movie that he was pretending to film. Such a plot development would depart from the original one-man-against-the-world storyline, but he felt that, all things considered, a little female companionship was in order. “Lights, camera, action,” he said to himself, as he scooped up his phone off the motel’s scuffed nightstand. Better to get a girl now before his wireless provider shut him down next week. He scrolled through a bunch of local Backpage ads—the pickings were slim in his area—and settled on a woman by the name of Dandelion. Full-service and party-friendly. A photo depicted her curvy, bikini-clad body from the neck down (pale as crack, sweet as brandy).
He rang her up and a half hour later she was at Room 5’s door, gripping the handlebars of a vintage 1950s Huffy Eldorado bicycle. “Mind if I bring my ride inside?” she asked in a haggard voice. “It might get stolen out here.”
He stepped outside and looked around the parking lot to see if anyone was watching. There was no one. “Not a problem.”
She rolled in the bike. Her body, compared to the one in the photo, was as flat as plywood, but he didn’t care. He stepped back inside and closed the door behind them. Near the bathroom, she lowered the bike’s kickstand, while he undid his belt. “I’ll need the paperwork first,” she said.
He pulled a money clip from his pocket and counted out four twenties and waved them in the air. She grabbed them as though she feared he might change his mind now that he knew what she really looked like. She counted the bills and, satisfied, opened the lid to a wicker basket that was hanging from her bike’s handlebars. She dropped the money inside and pulled out a condom.
“How long you’ve been shooting up?” she asked Billy. They were sitting on the bug-infested queen-sized bed. He still had his pants around his ankles from the blowjob and was wrapping a tourniquet around her skinny tattooed arm.
“Too depressing to think about,” he said.
She picked up the syringe off the bed and aimed it at the wall like a dart. “I’ll stab myself. I worked at a farm. With all the training I got, I had no problem going from lines to needles.”
“You know how many fuckin’ animals I helped the veterinarian put down?”
He grabbed the syringe from her. “Let me do it.”
“Oh, you get off on that, don’t you, motherfucker?”
“Stick it to me, baby,” she said in jest, spreading her dress-hidden legs.
“Hold still,” he ordered, and he tied the tourniquet. Then they heard a gunshot.
“What the fuck was that?” she asked.
Another gunshot. “My ringtone, dummy.”
She punched his shoulder. “What kind of sick fuck are you? You scared the shit out of me.” The gunshots finally stopped, and she pointed to a blue line near the crease of her arm. “Right there, Billy.”
Billy imagined a cameraman zooming in for a close up of the syringe. He guided the needle toward her vein and eased the point into her arm. A few seconds passed—her expression turned from dumb to dumbstruck—and with outstretched arms she fell back on the bed. “Wait for me, Dandelion,” he said, undoing the tourniquet. “I’m right behind you.”
Before she came knocking on his door, he’d seen her around town a few times. Always alone. Blond stringy hair, a dimpled smile, long stem-like legs that went on forever. One morning, when he was climbing into his F-150 to go to his former nine-to-five gig at the cement plant, he spotted her in front of his neighbor’s house, digging through a trash can for five-cent bottle and can deposits, a wobbly shopping cart of recyclables standing beside her. Another time, shortly after losing his driver’s license due to another DUI, he was hoofing it home from the Appalachian convenience store, a twelve pack of Rolling Rock in his arms, when she came whipping by like a bullet on her vintage bike. Their paths crossed again one morning. He was taking the bus to another mandatory meeting with his probation officer. She got on at the corner of Chestnut and Lake and sat a few rows in front of him. She was on her phone for the entire ride, talking loudly (the person on the other end must have been hard of hearing). Riders were giving her dirty looks and shouting for her to pipe down. She ignored them.
Months later he was at Oakwood Farm, filling an order for a hundred cinderblocks to be used in the construction of a new hog house. She was at the edge of the cornfield, on her knees, bottle-feeding a drove of sheep. She was wearing an orange dress that when she straightened herself made him think: carrot stick. Her legs were sprouting out of a pair of distressed-leather cowboy boots. She looked no more than 35 years old but like a person whose days were numbered.
Not a word was ever spoken between them until she knocked on Room 5’s door, shortly after Billy had checked himself into the Country Pride Motel, his fed-up roommate having finally kicked him out of their two-bedroom apartment for good due to months of unpaid rent.
Hours after shooting up, Billy and Dandelion were lying in bed, passing a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth, when he said, “I want to be an actor.” The words tumbled out like a confession.
“You’re handsome enough,” she said.
He turned to look at her. Her face, up close, looked surprisingly innocent. “You think?”
“Fuck yeah.” She took a swig of the Jack. “You have the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen. You got a nice smile too.” She grabbed his shoulder and squeezed hard. “Your muscles are big!”
“I starred in my high school play,” he said proudly.
“You graduate from Mittermann?”
“We called it Shittermann.” She cackled like a B-movie villain. “Graduated ‘03.”
“Small world. 2012.”
“You’re a baby.”
“Honestly, I thought we were about the same age.”
“A fuckin’ bullshitter too.” She elbowed him and he smiled.
“You’re hogging the bottle,” he said. She took another swig, and he ripped it from her hands. “I was planning on going to Hollywood after graduation. Try my hand at a few auditions. I was saving the money.” He shrugged and took a drink. “I could still do it, I suppose.”
“Let me see you act.”
“Do something for me. Something from the play.”
“Not sure I can.”
“Oh, I bet you can.”
He paused to remember. He then handed her back the bottle and climbed out of bed. She sat up and fixed her drowsy eyes on him. He rolled his shoulders to loosen up and then his face grew rigid as though his life depended on what he was about to do. “If I profane with my unworthiest hand,” he said in a loud authoritarian voice, “this holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready to stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” He stopped and shrugged. “Well, there you go,” he said meekly. “That was just a sample.”
“That was really good.”
“Romeo and Juliet.”
“I knew that.”
She was bullshitting about knowing the play but he didn’t care. “The English teacher shortened the play,” he said. “Turned it into a one-act thing. The action took place in a modern-day high school like one of the movie versions released a few years ago. Same premise though.”
A cymbal crashed and Billy heard Lil Wayne’s voice. “Is that your phone?” he asked.
“If I don’t quiet it now, it’ll be ringing nonstop.” She picked it up off the nightstand and turned it off.
“You’re in great demand, huh?” he said, rolling back into bed. He put his lips near her ear, which was studded with many piercings, and whispered, “I can see why.”
“I thought about being a veterinarian for a while.” She hung her head like a schoolgirl who’d just been scolded.
“That’s why you worked at that farm?”
“I guess.” She took a swig of Jack and fell back on the bed.
“Why you don’t work there no more?”
“They caught me shooting up in the barn.”
“You can still be a veterinarian.”
“I can’t fuckin’ deal with no school.”
She rolled onto her side, showing him her back. She had a tattoo of a King Cobra running up her spine, the snake’s forked tongue licking her neck. She rested the bottle on the worn commercial carpet. She then hiked up her ragged dress and pulled down her torn underwear, her smell reminiscent of the stench from Billy’s childhood fishbowl. But that didn’t stop him from crawling on top of her. They heard another gunshot. “Who the fuck keeps calling?” she asked.
The next morning, they were all out of smack. “You gonna get some more?” she asked him.
Billy staggered out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his lean waist. “If I do, you’ll need to give me back my money.”
She climbed out of bed, stumbled over to her bike, and pulled the money out of the basket. He got dressed and dialed Room 8. A short while later, a glassy-eyed fiend with frosted hair swaggered into the room. His name was Crow, and he was dangling four $20 Ziploc bags before their hungry eyes. Dandelion paid Crow and, the following afternoon, when she and Billy had finished the smack and were lying in bed, completely spent, and immersed in the sickening silence of the room, she said to him, “My mother died when I was at Mittermann.”
“Yeah. Breast cancer.”
“Well, that sucks.”
She was staring at the water-stained ceiling. “Worst thing that ever happened to me.” She went to take a swig of Jack but the bottle was empty.
“I’m sorry, Dandelion.” He reached for her pointed chin and stroked it with his fingertips.
“She was only 39.”
“You were close?”
“Like BFFs. We’d wear each other’s clothes. Talk about our problems.” She turned to him. “Why? You close with your moms? That why she keep calling?”
“I think she wants to be close.”
“I’d braid my mother’s hair. We’d shop for bathing suits together.”
“What’s your real name? You mind me asking?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“My mother named me after her cousin who got run over by a tractor before I was born.” Charlene picked up the syringe and held it like a pen. “What do you want to do now?”
“I feel like screaming,” he said.
“Your real name Billy?”
“Sure is.” He grabbed the syringe from her hand. “I hate this.”
A cymbal crashed and Lil Wayne’s voice let loose. Charlene grabbed her phone from the nightstand and looked at the number. “Maybe I should go back to work.”
“No, I don’t want that.” The phone went quiet.
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
This was the point in Billy’s imaginary movie where, if he hadn’t introduced Charlene into the film, he’d be returning his mother’s phone calls and begging her to send him back to detox. “I’ve broken my mom’s heart too many times, Charlene. She’s been crying for years over me and I guess she has every right to. She raised me all by herself.”
“Worked her ass off every day cleaning office buildings so that she could buy me things: video games, Kobe shoes.”
“Oh, a lot of them.”
“The one at the Triangle Plaza?”
“I think. Probably.”
“My moms worked there.”
Billy cocked his head. “You shitting me?”
“She managed the office for a bunch of ungrateful doctors.”
“Sometimes I’m glad she’s dead though. Not to see me.”
Billy’s stomach churned and he dragged himself out of bed. “I could go to the liquor store,” he said.
She held up the empty bottle. “We’re all out of Jack.”
“I’m not talking about that.” His knapsack was in the corner of the room and he walked over to it and pulled out a pistol: a pearl-handled classic six gun.
“You like guns, huh?”
“When you’ve been ripped off enough times, you need a friend.”
“I’ve been ripped off enough times and I don’t need no friend. Don’t tell me you’re thinking of . . . ?”
“The old guy practically sleeps behind the register.”
“I know. I go there from time to time.”
“I’ve been considering it for a while.” A cymbal crashed and Lil Wayne’s voice let loose again. “Turn that thing off, will you?” he said.
On the way to Carney’s Wine and Spirits, Billy stopped in a small novelty shop called Felix’s Assorted Tricks. They sold wigs, posters, magic tricks, sex toys, and other curiosities. The longhaired man behind the counter was busy ringing up a customer so Billy ducked down and turned into an aisle. Halloween had just passed so there were masks hanging on the wall. The prices had been slashed significantly. Not that that would have made any difference, since having spent all his money Billy had no intention of paying for anything. His eyes settled on the Joker mask. The Dark Knight was still one of his favorite movies. He glanced at the counter. The longhaired man was gone, probably in the stockroom shelving a shipment of bongs. Billy grabbed the mask and hauled-ass out of the store.
He got to Carney’s and looked around the parking lot. He didn’t see anyone so he put on the mask and pulled out his pistol. (Another reason he’d decided to rob Carney’s—besides the old sleepy cashier—was that he thought it’d be the perfect location for a stickup scene.) He took a deep breath, opened the door, and burst inside. “Everybody to the floor!” he hollered, his pistol pointed at the ceiling. At first, the old sleepy cashier didn’t comply. He just groaned as though a fire drill he wanted no part of was about to commence. The two other people in the store—a hipster couple who were in town to hike the scenic mountains—however, immediately dropped to the floor behind a display of Baileys Irish Cream.
Billy lowered his pistol and sauntered over to the register. “I know you have a gun in that draw,” he said to the old sleepy cashier. “Don’t be a Goddamn fool.”
Ole sleepy met his gaze as if to say, Never considered being no fool. Not for one second. He pushed a button or two and the register draw slid open. He stepped aside, as if to say, Help yourself. See if I care.
Billy peered down at the carefully arranged buffet of U.S. currency: some Jacksons but mostly Hamiltons and Lincolns. A few hundred bucks, he surmised, and he leaned over the counter and helped himself to the cash, stuffing the kangaroo pockets of his hoodie.
When he’d cleaned out the register, he turned to the hipsters who were sobbing and yelling: “Please don’t kill us! We’re engaged! We just found out we’re pregnant!” Their blabbering sounded like heavy-metal harmony.
Then ole sleepy, who was still on his feet and calmly paging through an issue of Sports Illustrated, without looking up, said, in a tone that should have been reserved for paying customers, “All set now, sir?”
“I think so,” Billy said, his face behind the mask wet with perspiration. Billy decided then that it would be the perfect time in his movie to kill everyone in the store. Doing his best Matt Damon, he earnestly pointed the gun at sleepy. Ole sleepy looked up slowly from an article he had started reading—a story on the untimely death of the Miami Marlins pitching-ace Jose Fernandez—as though the loss of his life was something that he could just shrug off. Billy had never seen such an apathetic look and it made him realize right then and there that he could never kill anyone; he’d just never allowed the kind of sprawling evil needed to lay people to waste to take root in him. “I may let you live,” Billy said, lowering the gun, “if you do me a favor.”
The hipsters shouted: “Anything! Anything!”
Billy strode over to a shelf of booze and grabbed a liter of Jack Daniels. “Wait a half hour before calling the police.”
“We don’t have a problem with that!” the female hipster yelled. “We’re sure you have valid reasons for doing what you’re doing.”
“If I hear any kind of siren while I’m making my getaway,” Billy continued, “you’re all finished. I have a way of finding people. I’ll hunt you down. I’ll kill you all.”
It was a deal the hipsters couldn’t refuse, and they seemed honorable enough to abide by it. “Maybe you should get some help,” they said. “Did you lose your job or something?” Ole sleepy? No way. He’d call the police as soon as he finished reading the Jose Fernandez story. Not a second later. Either way, Billy didn’t give a shit. He stepped out of Carney’s and into a crisp cool breeze. His offer was as hollow as his mask and simply a way of saving face for not having the necessary sprawling evil to lay them all to waste.
When he got back to the Country Pride—it was only a few blocks away, still another reason he decided to rob Carney’s—the Joker mask in the bottom of a dumpster behind a Gulf station, the liter of Jack already a quarter finished, Charlene was lumbering out of Room 5’s bathroom, hunched over like she had a pair of balls that’d been kicked. She saw the Jack and straightened herself. “Don’t fuckin’ drink it all!” He unscrewed the cap and took another swig, figuring that the way she drank it might be his last. He offered her the bottle. She yanked it out of his hand and eased its neck between her purplish lips.
Billy threw the rest of the cash from the register on the bed ($343) and pulled off his hoodie. “Don’t forget. Forty-five dollars of that goes for the room,” he said.
She nodded and put the bottle down on the carpet and went to the phone and dialed Room 8. “We got the money now, Crow. Hurry over.”
In no time, Crow was haunting their doorway. Billy gave him stink-eye. “I thought you’d be happy to see me,” Crow said. Billy didn’t respond. Crow stepped into the room and gently closed the door behind him. He pulled ten $20 Ziploc bags from his thrift-shop raincoat and dangled them in the air like a dog trainer promising biscuits to pups. Charlene, who was sitting on the bed, counted out the cash and forked it over.
The next morning, a siren awoke Billy and Charlene. Charlene sat up in bed. “What the fuck’s going on, Billy?” Outside, they heard tires skidding. Billy, whose eyes were half open, knew exactly what was going on. He pulled his pistol from underneath his pillow, leapt out of bed, stepped into his jeans, and stomped toward the window. With his finger and thumb, he parted the blinds and peered out the tiny opening like Blackbeard on the lookout for rivals on the high seas.
Outside, in the parking lot, a patrol car was idling. On the road abutting the motel raced another patrol car. It turned sharply into the parking lot and screeched to a halt.
“I wore a mask,” he said to Charlene.
“We should have left right away, Billy.”
“They can’t be coming for me. Maybe they’re coming for Crow.”
Two police officers jumped out of each car. Then the four of them huddled in the middle of the parking lot like a touch-football team. A minute or so later, they broke huddle and one of the cops—a goateed man whose relaxed gait made Billy think that he was in charge—disappeared inside the motel lobby. He was in there a long time, no doubt chewing on the ear of the front-desk clerk, while the three other cops just waited outside, talking among themselves, toeing the crumbling pavement.
In the meantime, Billy tried reassuring Charlene that the police weren’t there for him. “But you don’t know that, Billy,” she said. “I need to leave. I gotta go.”
The goateed cop finally stepped back outside wearing a cocky smile. He strutted across the parking lot as though he were a regular Sherlock Holmes who had just connected the dots. He called another huddle and, a little while later, he and another cop—a man who looked more priest than police—headed for Room 5.
“Shit. They’re coming,” Billy said, stepping away from the window.
“I told you so,” Charlene said, and she picked up the tainted Ziploc bags and ran into the bathroom.
There was a knock on the door. “Police.”
Billy heard the toilet flush. He turned toward the door. “Yeah, what do you want?” he asked, putting his finger on the trigger of his gun.
“Is this Heath?” one of the two officers on the other side of the door asked. The officer’s voice was sturdy and professional. It probably belonged to the goateed cop.
“No one here by that name,” Billy said, inching toward the door.
“Heath Ledger,” the other officer said, his voice as thin as a child’s.
Billy froze. Fuck. Now why did he have to go and use that name when checking in?
“We’d like to talk.”
Charlene tiptoed out of the bathroom, rolled into bed, and hid underneath the covers.
“I told you,” Billy said, looking through the door’s peephole. (The officers had their guns out.) “No one here by that name.”
“There was an incident at the liquor store yesterday, Billy Fitz,” the goateed cop said.
Shit. They knew who he was. “I wasn’t there. Wasn’t me.”
“Wasn’t you what?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Someone saw you headed that way.”
“Who said that?”
“You’ll find out at your trial, Billy,” the thin-voiced cop said.
“No Billy here.”
“If you don’t let us in, we got the keycard.”
“Won’t do you no good. I got the chain lock on.”
“Then we’ll break down the door,” the goateed cop said.
There was no way Billy was going back to the county jail.
Charlene popped up from behind the covers. “Billy, just fuckin’ let them in!” she hollered.
“You have someone in there with you?”
“I’ll tell them you were here with me, Billy,” Charlene said in a low voice. “We never left this room. We were together the whole time.”
“I’m sure a legal aid attorney can arrange a fair sentencing,” the thin-voiced cop said.
Billy pointed his pistol at Charlene.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she yelled.
“Get over here,” he said.
She jumped out of bed and threw on her dress. Then she ran to her bike and climbed on it. “Out my way, Billy,” she said, walking with the bike between her legs to the door, her hands gripping the handlebars. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
When she got near the door, Billy, cringing, put the gun to her head. He hated playing the role of the bad guy, but, again, what choice did he have? Charlene made like a statue. “Do as you’re told,” he said to her. “Understand?” She looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t.
With his free hand, he undid the chain lock. Then he turned the doorknob and slowly opened the door.
The officers outside looked as though they’d been checkmated. “Now take it easy,” the goateed officer said, his wide eyes assessing the situation. “Put the gun down, Billy.”
Though Billy would die before he’d hurt Charlene, he said, “If you arrest me, she gets a bullet in the head.”
Charlene started crying.
“Billy Fitz . . . Billy,” the thin-voiced officer said, shaking his head. “You’re a drug addict not a criminal. She tell you to up your game?”
“I didn’t tell him shit!” Charlene screamed.
“Are you gonna let us walk out of here?” Billy asked them.
“Charlene, what in God’s name are you doing with this loser?” said one of the other two officers. He had a smirk on his face and looked as though he’d grown tired of handcuffing kids for graffiti and was actually enjoying the standoff.
“You all trying to get me killed!” she yelled at the officers.
Then the goateed cop said, “One part Dandelion, the other part Billy Fitz, add a dash of junk, and you got yourself a Molotov cocktail.”
The fourth officer, who was standing a good twenty feet behind the other officers, had a Band Aid across his nose. He said, “Charlene, I don’t know how many times I warned you about turning tricks.”
“I know, I know,” she cried, hiding her face in her hands.
“Where’s your truck, Billy?” the goateed officer asked.
“I ain’t got no truck.”
“He ain’t got no car!” Charlene screamed, tears streaming down her face.
“Now just leave us alone,” Billy said, escorting Charlene—her bike still between her legs—out of the room, his eyes on the auto-body shop next door and then back on the four officers. “Stand back,” he said.
Charlene, who was now sobbing, lowered her bony ass onto the bicycle seat, and Billy guided her out onto the parking lot like a parent teaching a child how to keep balance without training wheels, his only thought: get as far away from the officers as possible.
He and Charlene got halfway across the lot—he could see a scared and astonished Crow watching them from Room 8’s window—when he said to her, “You’re doing just fine, Charlene. Don’t you worry. I won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t feel fuckin’ fine, Billy,” she said, her voice trembling.
Then he heard a cymbal crash and Lil’s Wayne’s voice. Billy remembered his own phone. Shit. He reached inside his pocket to turn it off but heard a gunshot. Charlene screamed, and Billy turned to the officers. The one who seemed to be enjoying the standoff—the one with the smirk on his face—raised his weapon and aimed it at Billy.
Billy heard another gunshot and Charlene screamed again. The smirking officer then fired two shots: one hit Billy square in the shoulder, the other flew by his head.
Charlene hit the pavement. Billy, whose shoulder was burning, dropped the gun, stumbled, and fell too. A few seconds later—their phones having finally shut up—they were surrounded by the officers who were looking down at them as if they were two half gallons of spilt milk.
Billy, whose head was resting on the front wheel of Charlene’s Eldorado, craned his neck. Charlene was pinned beneath her bike, her arms outstretched. Her eyes were open, and her head gushing like a cracked pipeline.
“You fuckin’ killed her!” the goateed officer yelled at the smirking one, who was smirking no more.
“He took a shot at me! He fired his weapon!”
Good God! Billy thought. What’d he done? He should have let her go!
The goateed cop crouched beside Billy, his face on fire. “Look what you did, Billy! You Goddamn son of a bitch!” He punched Billy in the face again and again and then rolled him onto his side and into a rivulet of Charlene’s blood. He handcuffed him.
Wishing for another ending to his movie, Billy started crying. All along, he’d envisioned it as a redemption story—he should have called his mother and gone back into detox—not this, but from the time he’d met Charlene the plot had started turning in weird ways.
The officer with the Band Aid on his nose ran back to the motel. A short while later, he returned gripping a white bed sheet, like a matador a cloth. He draped it over Charlene’s body.
She wasn’t going to be waking up anytime soon, Billy thought, not like the girl who’d played opposite him in the high school play. God, he wanted to kill himself. But how could he here? “Wait for me,” he said to Charlene’s covered body. He was right behind her, and for all he knew death would be the ultimate high. There would be no bottles to pass or needles to prick their skin with. No ugly hollow masks or phony names to hide behind. He’d do his best Romeo, and she’d watch mesmerized and, when he was done and not quite sure of his performance, she’d clap and say, “That was fuckin’ good, Billy.”
About the Author:
P. J. Gannon’s work has appeared in The Alembic, Slow Trains, 2 Bridges Review, Agave Magazine, Gadfly Online, The Talon Magazine, Amarillo Bay Literary Journal, The Blotter Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic Journal, Across the Margin, Down in the Dirt Magazine, and other journals. He lives in New York City with his wife and is a Columbia University graduate who likes to travel and hike.