Short Story Saturday: The Grey Bar Hotel

For the next few Saturdays, we’ll be posting some tales by local writer, Charles Wilson. He takes a nugget of local color and adds some imagination (maybe a lot of imagination–you be the judge.) We haven’t posted fiction for a long time (since the well-received SoHumBorn stories–go here to check them out.) Let us know what you think about adding a touch of invention to the world of fact.

PrisonHey there sucker, welcome to the grey bar hotel. I’m Bill Johnston and I guess we’re going to be roomies for a while. You get the top bunk since you’re the newcomer.

You’re here because you were accused of robbing a bank? Convicted too I guess or we wouldn’t be rooming together. Bank robbery’s a thankless anyway task isn’t it? Those bastards rob their customers on a daily basis but for some reason they get offended when someone does it to them. Doesn’t seem fair.

Me? I got here for robbing an old hippie. But the robbery went bad, very bad!

See, I was hitching North on 101 outa Laytonville when this grey-haired old fart picked me up. He was driving an old beater of a pickup truck, older than me it looked like, but hitchhikers can’t be choosers. I tossed my pack on top of the leaves and crap in the bed of the truck and climbed on into the cab. The old man had a joint in his mouth that looked like a cigar and when he got his rig back on the road he handed it to me. And I tell you that was some good shit the old geezer was smoking!

After half an hour or so the old guy slowed the truck to a stop. A dirt road intersected the highway and he said ‘here’s where I get off.’ It looked to me like the edge of fucking nowhere!

I said hey do you have any work you need done? I’m broke, strong, and willing to bust ass. Begging for spare change sucks and I need to earn a little cash. The old bastard looked me up and down, at least as well as he could while I sat in his truck, said sure he could hire me for a few hours.

That dirt road was lousy and it must have been almost 10 miles before he turned off it onto what looked like 2 wheel tracks going back into the woods. A few minutes later he stopped the truck in front of this little shack on the edge of a meadow. A half dozen chickens were scratching around in the dust when we drove up and an old grey-muzzled hound greeted us. It bayed and yodeled till the old man got out, bent over and affectionately rubbed the beast on its chest and ears.

Then he walked around the shack and over to a pile of firewood that looked as big as his truck, bigger in fact, then pointed to a small outbuilding nearby.

“All this wood has to be stacked in there, I’ll get you the wheelbarrow but first, when was the last time you ate?”

It had been several hours and breakfast had been a stale donut and cup of weak coffee. I was pretty damned hungry when he had picked me up. Time and and his joint had made it worse. I let him know the state of my stomach and he said “Really? Then it sounds like some lunch is in order, a man can’t work well on an empty stomach. Come in the cabin and I’ll make us some chow.”

The old man pulled part of a ham out of a refrigerator that looked as old as he was and started carving pieces off it, next he cut slices off a loaf of dark brown bread and assembled a couple big sandwiches. He handed me one and dug into the other himself. Mine was great, the ham was rich, salty, and the first real protein I had eaten in a couple days. The rye bread was homemade and so was the mustard which was both sweet and pungent. It was the best damned sandwich I have ever eaten I swear!

When I had eaten and washed it down with some cold water, we went back outside and he opened the doors to the shed. I could see some firewood stacked against the far wall.

“So that’s the way I want the wood stacked.” he said. “Stack it to the roof and then start the next layer, the shed should hold most all of that pile.” He pointed and continued; “anything that doesn’t fit inside stack along this South wall.” He walked to a fenced-in garden and removed a rusty wheelbarrow from within the confines of the fence and pushed it over to the woodpile. “Have at it lad, I’ll be in the cabin if you need me.”

It took me most of the afternoon to get the wood put away and I was beat when I was done. There is a limit on how many times any man can bend over and pick stuff up before his body starts to complain. Mine was bitching up a storm by the time I was done with the job.

Finally I walked over to the cabin and in the open door. The old guy had fallen asleep in a chair with a book in his lap, his hound seemed to be asleep beside it. The dog opened one eye and growled softly as I came in, the guy snapped awake, blinked a couple times then looked at me and asked “Done already?”

Already he says! He’s been snoozing in his chair and I’ve been busting my ass out in the fall sunshine. I got pissed off which was stupid.

He rose, walked to the door with his dog and looked. He saw the pile of wood was gone and flashed me grateful smile. “Thanks pal, that would have taken me a few days working at it a little bit at a time. I don’t work as fast as I used to ya know” and he laughed. The dog lifted its nose, sniffed the air a moment then continued on outside. The old guy pulled the door closed.

He walked over to his bed and pulled a big trash bag from under it, reached inside and removed an untrimmed pot bud the size of a 16 oz can of beer. Biggest damn bud I ever saw! He got a couple bottles of ale from his fridge then sat down at his table, indicated I sit down as well. He opened the beers, handed me one. Next he pulled all the leaves off the bud, broke off a piece then twisted up another of his marijuana cigars. He lit up and we passed that thing back and forth till it was mostly gone and so was I. Between the pot and the beer I was bombed!

He got up, removed a small wooden box from a drawer by his refrigerator and returned to the table. He opened the box, removed five $20 bills from the stacks inside and handed them to me. “Thanks again pal, like I said you saved me a lot of back pain and you can use the bucks so here you are.”

My head was spinning from his reefer when I took the money. A hundred bucks was the most cash I had held at once in months. I was rich-at least for a guy on the road living rough. But I could be richer, there on the table sat that little box of money, probably thousands of bucks by the look of the stacks of bills inside. I guess I went nuts!

I grabbed his box and said I’ll take this”. He said “like hell you will” and we stood up together. I gave him a hard shove and as he lurched backwards he stumbled over his chair, fell, and hit the base of his head on the corner of his woodstove with a sickening thud. He landed on the floor, twitched a little then lay like a corpse but he was still breathing raggedly.

I panicked then! I grabbed the box and figured I would grab his bag of pot while I was at it. Then I was getting the hell out of there before he woke up. If he was going to… I dropped the box into the bag on top of a bunch of aromatic, unclipped buds, twisted the top shut and tied it. I steeled myself and opened the door. The hound raced in while I ran out. I slammed the door behind me and ran for the pickup. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I knew I wasn’t going to hang around till the old guy came back to life and offered me a ride. I tossed the bag behind the cab where it blended with all the crap already there. Then I scooped up several more handfuls of dry leaves and dumped them on top to disguise the bag a little, jumped in the old rig and drove out of there.

It seemed like it took forever to finally get back to pavement. Once on 101 I turned north and drove carefully at just below the speed limit. I wanted to get as far as possible from the old guy as I could, hopefully make Garberville where I could ditch his truck and disappear into the hills. I was cruising along when I decided I needed a smoke to settle my nerves. Not willing to risk stopping by the road to roll up some of the old man’s excellent pot I took a cigarette from the pack in my shirt pocket and lit up. When it was 2/3 gone I rolled down the window and let the wind whip the smoldering butt from my fingers and away. Or so I thought…

It was about 5 minutes later when a car came up behind me and started honking its horn continuously. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw smoke, then some flames. HOLY SHIT! THE TRUCKS ON FIRE! The slipstream had whipped the butt right behind the cab where it landed on top of the dry leaves I used to camo the bag and set them alight. The leaves in turn had started the rest of the crap burning- including the bag itself with the weed and money in it. I pulled the truck to the side of the road, jumped out and tried to save the bag but it was too late. The smell of burning pot already mingled with the scent of burning plastic as I watched helplessly.

Then a car pulled up and a man quickly jumped out with a fire extinguisher. He ran to the truck and using it he put out the flames, stirred the smoldering cash then gave it another shot..

Unfortunately he was a cop!



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