Saturday, July 23, 2005

Devil's Oasis

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The Oasis Motel, somewhere near Yorktown, Texas

We were in one of those motel rooms you see from the highway, and the sign says, “Ask About Our Weekly Rates.” Inside of one of the rooms, the atmosphere was close, claustrophobic. There was aluminum foil over the windows, except for one or two strips, which let in light, immediately diffused by the thick, semi-sheer curtains.

A thin man wearing a faded, but neatly pressed shirt and slim, dark slacks turned and looked at me. “I’m God’s hostage,” he said. This was the father of the man I couldn’t stop loving. It was tearing me up inside, but I wasn’t about to let it show.

“Huh, yeah, and who isn’t?” I responded.

He didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a joke to him. But there was something like a giant existential joke going on – if not a joke, at least some game was going, and I was caught on the periphery, without any knowledge of the inner workings of whatever great minds were devising the mental trap for this thin, slightly stooped over former pilot who had flown apparently a few too missions into Laos a few too many years ago; at least during years when it mattered, when the man I had had the misfortune to fall in love with was in his tender formative years.

During those strange, dark years of sorties no one could ever admit ever occurred, and surreal nights on a boat somewhere on the Mekong River, the mother left.

“She sent money, or she said she would,” the son explained. He was 14 at the time. At least that’s how I remember the story. It had been years since Vietnam, and yet it might as well be occurring today. The encounter with his father -- the small, polite retired Air Force Colonel who served in Vietnam continued to haunt me for months after it happened.

Stanton was not physically present in the room, but I could sense his disapproval. He would be horrified if he knew I had sought out his father. I needed to find him. I knew it signified some kind of twisted Rosetta stone that could be used to decode the inexplicable things that were happening.

“I was told to come to this hotel and I have not been allowed to leave. I will be told when it’s time.” He was serious. I stared at the floor while trying to process the information.

It was a hot day in August and I made the drive from Dallas to Yorktown, Texas in less than three hours. Mapquest said it should take me at least five. I was not even sure how I found it in the first place. Perhaps it was divine guidance. Perhaps it was the devil himself, or spirits determined that justice be served.

Stanton had mentioned a place called the Shangri-La motel, but how I divined that the real location was the Oasis was beyond anything I could rationally understand.

My original intent was to simply go to the Dallas Geological Society library to look up well logs and well information for Dad. He was convinced he had found a new Smackover field which would be step-out from the super-giant East Texas Field, with fresh production (albeit with high sulphur content). If his theory was right, it was something that could get us out of our slump, and get us past our string of bad luck. We needed a big discovery to compensate for the expensive dry holes we had just drilled. Dad liked the rank wildcats. I didn’t. There was not much I could do, though. I was still financially dependent upon Dad and Dad’s largesse. All the more reason to hope for a deep gas discovery in east Texas.

Missing a turn, I found myself on a highway that ended up being blessing in disguise. It was a shortcut to Yorktown, southeast of Dallas, toward Waco, made famous by David Koresh’s “Ranch Apocalype.”

My great-grandmother had lived due east of Temple, and south east of Waco, just a few miles from what became “Ranch Apocalypse.”

A few hours later, I was in Yorktown. I made a turn, and saw a two-story run-down motel, the kind with faded pastel panels and neon flamingos in the sign. The Oasis Motel. Suddenly, I knew it was the Shangri-La Stanton had mentioned.

My back was sticky with sweat and the air conditioning in the Honda I had bought new about five years before still worked quite well. I needed to get the windows tinted, though. I felt vaguely dizzy. I got out of the car and went to the office. An Indian or Pakistani walked quietly across the scuffed linoleum. There were bars on the windows.

“Do you have a long-term guest?” The man paused. Cooking smells wafted in from a back room. “Colonel Harville?”

“I’m his daughter-in-law.” My voice was a bit shaky. It wasn’t precisely true, but it would do. He looked at me strangely.

“His son is worried about him.” That was not true. It wasn’t true at all. His son was still caught up in useless rage and anger. When I asked him about his dad, I just got something so venomous I didn’t know how to respond.

You fall hardest in love with the guy who abuses you most.

Outside, a horn honked. The sound of an ambulance faded out of earshot. The man pressed his lips together and looked at me closely.

“If you are a member of his family, I will call him,” he said, rather stiffly. His wife came close to him. He looked rather protective, either of her husband or of their guest. For some reason, it touched me and I thought how special it was to have a relationship of long-term mutual trust and intimacy.

He made the phone call, place the phone quietly in the receiver. He looked down and said, rather sadly, I thought, a few quiet words. “He will see you, Miss. He is in room 216. It is upstairs.”

My knees trembled as I walked up the concrete steps outside the 1960s-vintage motel, and I gripped the metal banister with its thick, turquoise paint peeling off, and rust patches showing underneath.

“So Stanton got married. You’re his wife,” said Col. Harville.

“How long has it been?” I asked. “I mean, that you’ve lived here.”

“Eight years,” he said.

“Thank you for meeting me. I have wanted to talk to you for a long time.” I was astonished that Colonel Harville would even talk to me. When the relationship with Stanton went south, I would ask questions, but get no answers. No answers except cryptic references to his father.

Stanton had been in the Gulf War as an intelligence officer. Now he was back from the Gulf War, but time refused to heal his spiritual wounds. At one point, he had taken to drinking during the day and sleeping on a friend’s couch in somewhere near Fort Sill Army Base. When I met him, he was living in an old double-wide in a trailer park next to an enormous landfill where seagulls circled. Immense trash mountains of disposable diapers and Wal-Mart plastic bags glistened in the sun. In other countries, the trash mountains would be crawling with young people pilfering through, oblivious to the stench. The trash mountain was strangely beautiful, but I never could explain why.

When I met Stanton, he was developing his business as a commodities broker, and avoiding the calls from the military who wanted him back. He was a brilliant linguist, and one of the few who spoke Turkish, German, and Arabic.

“I prefer my view of Trash Mountain,” he said. He was referring to the landfill.

Most people found him somewhat less than charming. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

I was in the middle of preparing for the final stage of my general exams. I had broken my arm after deciding to see how high I could jump while rollerblading. I wasn’t wearing wrist guards, and when I came down on my arm – just how you’re not supposed to do it, I sensed I had broken it – instead of feeling extreme pain, I felt nausea. Denial was my first response. So, there I was in a pink cast covering my forearm, immobilizing my right hand. I secretly enjoyed the twinges of pain, thinking of “limit experiences,” seeking to understand the nature of the inner pain I, too, felt.

“Hey, do you ever feel an anxiety so intense that you look at your arms and wonder what it would be like to pull out the veins, or tendons—just to assuage that terrible fear that seeks to drag you down?” I asked him. I was studying for general exams, so perhaps this wasn’t an altogether abnormal mindset.

I knew what mine was about, but I wasn’t about to admit it to myself. My own dad lurked in the back of my head – my fragile mother lying in bed suffering migraines. My soft-spoken father who liked to ponder the hidden, unstated motives of people, was successful, kind-hearted, and yet he seemed very remote to me.

Col. Harville’s voice brought me back to reality.

“God’s Hostage,” he said. “That is what has kept me here for eight years.”

“You’re God’s hostage?” I asked.

He looked down, then into my face.

“I flew where no one says there were ever American missions. They call Laos the Land of One Million Elephants. Did you know that? The stupas are spectacular. Have you seen a Buddhist temple in the light of a full moon – a Laotian full moon? The humidity and the heat make the air unstable, and the moon seems to ripple like light reflected on water. Looking into the sky on a moonlit night is like looking into the surface of a dark, light-tinged lake.”

“You see your own soul disappear,” he continued. “It sinks like carved jade into the depths, without even the barest splash.”

“What happens after that?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.

“You will do anything you can to fill the void in your heart, your belly, your piece of mind. You think you’re hungry, but you soon find it is infinitely worse than that. You find out. Yes, you find out.”

Col. Harville paused. A look of raw fear transformed his face into wax and beadlets of sweat.

“Did they send you here? Did THEY?” he asked. His voice was hoarse as though he were tired of doing battle with God in a seedy motel in Yorktown.

“No,” I said.

But Col. Harville was not listening. I knew I should leave, even though my questions were not answered. Or, perhaps they were. I would have to think about it. I would have time. The drive back was long, and I was in no mood to rest.