A writer in search of an answer.
Archie Grimley is the type of guy you pass on any street, and never notice. Life had passed Archie and left him down at heel. He had one thing in his favor, he had a knack for a good story, and this kept him working. His stories never made headlines, but readers liked his offbeat and often controversial style.
The problem Archie had about writing is he could never let a story die. Many people had told Archie to let sleeping dogs lie. Archie had a bad habit; he loved to kick the nest; to see what came out. If he got stung, as long as he got his story, that's all that mattered.
Years ago, he had a family. In those days he was a man with respect in the town; now he was nothing but a joke. Life kept kicking Archie, but he kept fighting the odds and living for the next story. He pushed himself beyond the limits; trying to keep the dream of a Pulitzer Prize alive. Nobody had the heart to tell him unless you lived in the city, you had no chance of winning the prize. The papers didn't go out to "the sticks" looking for a reporter with a knack for stories. The papers only saw what was on their doorstep, and Archie wasn't in the front line.
Archie had taken more beatdowns than anyone should take; a man with nothing to lose will go beyond the limit. He was such a man; he had no life outside the paper, and the next story to chase. The tough exterior he showed hid the pain of loss. The scars of many fights had ravaged his face. Some days he couldn't look in the mirror. Archie had never been handsome, but he had an earthy charm the ladies once liked. Now, Archie looked like what he was, a punch-drunk hack writer for a two-bit magazine, looking for a story which would get him a bed, and a bottle.
Luck passed Archie many times, but he didn't care. He was stuck in a rut and had lost the will to climb out. He believed in his ability at times. When the drink and the courage were flowing, Archie had the spirit which got him his job. It was hard for Archie to recall those days after so many nights on the bottle. The days were getting fewer and further apart, for a man who knew he was running out of luck.
He'd fought men more significant than himself, but the things he could never beat were his demons. Archie's family died in a fire, on a day when he was out chasing a story. Everyone told him it wasn't his fault, but he never forgave himself for not being there to try to save his wife and children. There was a story going around that the fire was arson; a warning to Archie. The one thing they forgot to tell the people who set the fire. If you take away what he lives for, a man becomes a wild animal with only revenge fuelling his body.
The thing which bugged him the most was he'd been at the paper for years, and never caught a real break for a story. On that day, he was the only one in the office, and he got called to an out of town job. On his return, he saw the fire and knew something dirty was going on. The only trouble was, he made a point of chasing stories others let drop. In the process, he made some powerful enemies.
A man who had been a loving husband, and father, in one night, became a relentless hunter. Archie may have lacked the qualifications of the better-known writers, but he had the imagination they lacked. Archie's relentless drive made him a fearless reporter who got the truth, even if the story never got published. If this meant heads had to be busted, Archie was the man to do it. Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread became his motto, and Archie went above and beyond his call of duty every day.
He was relentless, never taking a vacation, always chasing the next story. Archie thought if he missed a story, he would lose his chance to get the prize – or so he told himself in the beginning – now, he didn't believe the story either. Archie knew in his soul, the only reason he kept going was that the longer he went on, the less he thought of that night. In the weeks after the fire, Archie searched for the reason.
Was he the reason? Had he crossed somebody? He spent weeks trying to find a reason or the people who set the fire. Each night, he slept in his beat-up car, waking with a sore back, and a dry throat. Each day, he promised himself he would find those responsible for his pain; and make them suffer. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and he was no closer. One day he was sat in the shade of an old tree, drinking the last of his beer, when the truth hit him like a hammer. He was to blame, and finding out who, or why, wouldn't bring the family back. The only thing he could do was to keep his mind active; if he did that, he might blur the images of the horrors. The truth was he'd upset too many people to try to find who had torched his home. He realized nobody would help him, the people he went after had so many connections they could cover their tracks; before he got close enough to get a hint of the truth.
Archie decided to chase any story which looked intriguing to him. He got up from his seat and walked to the remains of the garage. Inside was his old beaten up car, and a suitcase. He was never a man who had a lot of clothes, so packing up his belongings didn't take long. He took a last look at the old place. Then he walked to the car, opened the door and threw his case in the boot of his old car. Without a look back, he drove out of town and headed into the desert. Where he was going; he didn't know, or care. All he wanted was to hit the road and start over.
Days and nights passed on the road, as the miles mounted up. Archie lost track of time. All he could think about was the road, and how dry his mouth was becoming. The day had been too long, and the way too hard. The dust clung to the air like a blanket of bees to a honeycomb. His eyes burned with the salt from his sweat. Like a mirage. The inn appeared suddenly in front of Archie, out of the sandstorm. "Hell, I didn't know that was here," he muttered as he pulled in.
He pulled over, and let the engine idle; he sat quietly considering his options. Archie looked up the road; all he saw was distant dust trails and miles of empty sands. He took a look at the oil gauge and said, "Well, I guess that settles it. I'm gonna have to get some gas and a meal here. I can't go on, and I'm dry as a bone."
He bent over, and picking his old leather hat off the back seat he went over to the door of the tavern. He paused to feel the coolness of the air inside before he went in. The bar was dark and cool, and his eyes took time adjusting after the blinding light of the desert.
Archie glanced around the bar, his time alone made him watch for possible threats, but the folk looked friendly here. He walked to the bar, leaning on the rail he enquired, "Can I have a beer, please?" as the barmaid approached him.
She winked at him, his matted beard showed he'd been on the road a long time; "What's your poison, friend?" she asked.
He smiled, and replied, "Long, and cold, anything goes. I've been on the road too long to care.
The dark-haired barmaid smiled and swayed her way along the bar, as she did she took a second glance at Archie and licked her lips. Her mind was racing at the possibilities which could lay ahead for romance. It wasn't long before she returned with a cold drink; as he dug his hand in his pocket to find the change, she said, "Ain't no need for that, this is on the house. I don't see many new faces, and none as handsome as you."
Archie smiled and replied, "Thank you, kindly miss. The road is a harsh mistress, and the desert can drive a man crazy. I almost missed your establishment."
He sat at the bar, the sweat running down his dust-coated face. He took the time to try and figure out who the patrons of the bar were, but nobody stood out, "I guess they got the same raw deal I did and left everything behind," he thought, as he looked at the sad, worn out faces looking back at him. "One for the road!" he said, as he raised the glass to his mouth, and took a large mouthful of the refreshing beer.
Behind him Archie heard someone speak, as he turned, the barmaid said, "What's your name, stranger?"
He took a big swallow, and replied, "Archie Grimley. I can't say where I came from, I've been on the road so long my mind is foggy. Years ago, people said I was respected, and now I'm on the run."
The barmaid replied, "My name is Carol; I run this establishment. Most of the folk here left everything or had it taken from them. What are you running from, Archie?"
This question was a question he had not been able to answer during his time on the road. "I can't say for sure, Carol. The closest I can get to an answer is myself."
A friendly looking man rose from a table in the far corner and came to the bar. "Hi, Fred Doyle is my name. You sure have a problem, man. I can't say I know a man who can outrun himself. It's a mighty hard thing when you're running; especially when you can't find any place to escape to."
Archie rubbed the sweat from his brow with a dirty rag, and replied, "You're right about that, Fred. I've been running so long, and hard, I forgot why I started. The only thing I remember is seeing the engines outside of my home, and crying as they carried my family out; what happened between then and now, I can't say."
Carol replied from behind the bar, "it's probably for the best, Archie. There are times when our mind blanks out the bad things so that we can move on."
A middle-aged man enquired from the darkened corner of the room, "Why do you think you're running from yourself, and not the past, Archie?"
The crowd turned to face the corner, as he replied, "I've been chasing the stories so long, I forgot I had a family; I think in the end, one of my stories got too close to the truth and somebody put the heat on, to scare me, but it went too far, and I lost everything.
Carol poured herself a small beer and came out from behind the counter, her dress swishing in the slight breeze. In the bar there were few tables and fewer patrons; most of the crowd knew each other. Outside all you could see was mile after mile of empty desert. She sat at the table next to Archie and enquired, "What are you chasing this time?"
He turned slightly to see her for the first time, and answered with a sigh, "I don't know, Carol. I've been driving so long I don't know where I'm heading," Archie paused to look out of the grimy window, with a nod, he continued, "other than out there."
The man in the corner enquired, "If you don't know what you're after, how will you know if you find it?"
Archie smiled and said, "I guess I won't until the story has the right feel to me. That's the problem being a reporter. You have to keep going where the story takes you; even if it isn't where you intended to go."
Carol moved slightly, her fingers touching Archie's dirt covered fingers; he turned to look her way, and she smiled back. Her dark hair matched the color of her tanned skin beautifully. "You look tired Archie, when did you last sleep?"
He paused to think, then answered, "I can't recall the last time I slept in a bed, Carol. Most nights I nap in the car when I get too tired to drive, or my eyes get too salty to see." Archie gulped his beer, and enquired, "If you don't mind me asking, what's your story, Carol?"
She winked at him and replied, "There's no problem; everybody knows me. I had a messy relationship and came out here to escape a clingy man. He never gave me space, in the end, it got too much for me, and I walked out on him. I took my car and drove until I had to stop. When I parked up for the night, it was pitch dark, and I never saw this place. I woke the next morning and decided this was where I would stay. In the beginning, it was hard. Nobody came for weeks. But gradually people drifted in, and the rest is history as they say."
Archie looked at the people sitting at the bar, and at the tables, and said, "You've made a lot of friends by the look of it, Carol. I'm pleased to see the place is thriving, after what you have been through, you deserve some success."
Carol saw the glint of hidden romance emerging in Archies' smile as she replied, "Thanks, but you should stick around for the busy times. In the next few weeks, this place will become so well-known among the bikers I won't be able to manage on my own, I wondered if you'd be willing to stay for a while to help me? They're always willing to lend a hand for a meal, or a drink of beer; what I need is a man around the joint on a more permanent basis," she looked at Archie and gave a wicked grin.
He had not come here with any intention, but Archie got the idea he might fit in with this group of people. "I'm at a loose end, and I will take you up on your kind offer," he said, tipping the brow of his hat Carol's way.
She flashed her winning smile and replied, "I'll drink to that."
Oddballs like Archie find it hard to get accepted in society, he was never afraid to speak his mind, and this had brought him more trouble than he needed. But, if people didn't want the truth, why ask the question? Archie glanced at the patrons and wondered if any had ideas of moving on, for now, he was happier than he'd been for a long time. He didn't have the urge to keep moving anymore. Could this little motel be the place he was trying to find?
Archie wiped his brow with his scarf and looked out into the desert, "Don't you get lonely out here?" he said to the room, "there isn't anything but sand and dust as far as the eye can see."
Fred laughed and then replied, "Nope, no sir, we don't get lonely. We have each other, and we get on fine. We've got our reasons for being here, if you wish to talk about them that's good, if not, we won't bother you. We value our privacy and independent, Archie."
Archie winked at Carol, and said with a grin, "I think this is the place I'm looking for, Carol. I need my space, and I have found it here."
Carol smiled back, and running her fingers through her hair as she shook her head, she commented, "I'm glad to hear that, Archie. I think you'd fit in well with my crowd here. We're all a little off-key."
Archie picked his beer off the counter, and nodding he went out into the desert heat, "well, Archie, it looks like you might have found somewhere to hole up. At least for the time being, these folk are happy to let you be, and that's something you haven't known since you can recall," he muttered.
Behind him, a voice said, "Now if you did that in public, they'd lock you up for talking to yourself, but here, we don't take much to normal life. If you want to talk out loud, that's fine by us."
A little taken aback, Archie turned to see Jack smiling at him. "I keep running, Jack, but you can only run for so long before even that becomes too hard and you need to rest."
Jack Coles smiled back at Archie, and then replied, "I used to be a miner. One of the best I was told. Then one day there was a cave-in, and I got trapped in the mine for days, I lived on the mosses and filthy water, after that I started to see the ghosts of those who died in the cave in, and I decided they were telling me to get out, or I'd die like them. At the end of that shift, I quit the mines and swore never to go underground again. I spent years running from those ghosts. In the end, I concluded that I'd have to find a way to live with the memories of my dead friends, or go mad; that's why I came here to Carol's."
Archie patted Jack on the shoulder and said, "I won't say I know how you feel as I can't imagine being trapped and wondering if you'd see another day. But, I will say I have my demons, not only from crossing the wrong people but from the damage some of my articles have done. I knew people would be hurt but the truth needed to come out to save the many at the cost of the few who I did hurt. Lots of people think I go looking for trouble; the truth is that if I wasn't so dedicated to my work and people got hurt because I turned a blind eye; I couldn't live with the consequences of my inaction."
Jack winced at the pain in his shoulder, then commented, "You are a dying breed, man, not many reporters care about the truth so long as they get a paycheck these days. The world needs more like you, people who won't sway from the truth at any cost. I'm sorry your drive cost the lives of your family; that has to be a bitter pill to live with."
"Thanks, Jack, the worst pain is knowing that those responsible will never be brought to justice as they are too powerful. If I'd stayed where I was, I was heading into serious trouble with nobody having my back as my boss at the paper turned his back on me. In the end, I packed some CD's of gospel music and hit the road hoping I'd find some peace of mind out here with no worries other than my next meal and somewhere to get a rest."
Carol wiped a tear from her face as she came to the table, then she commented, "While you're here nobody will make you do anything you don't want to, and you can come and go as you please. I hope you can find some peace out here at the back end of nowhere, Archie."
The dry air was musty with the smells of the canteen, but nobody moved as Archie told his story. Carol was the first to move, when she said, "Anyone for a meal, it isn't much, only beans and grits as I haven't been able to get out this week. She paused, then laughed and said, "I'll need to get out soon as the bikers will be here next week, and we know they can eat a horse at each meal. Tell me, Jack, do you think you'll find the story you're chasing? The one to get the break you are looking for."
Archie paused to think, then said, "To be truthful, Carol, I think I gave up that idea as soon as I hit the road; now I am writing what I want to write with no thought of a prize at the end. When I was in contact with other writers, we discussed the subject of prizes, and we agreed that unless it's a big prize, it makes no difference to your work."
Fred swiveled in his seat and asked, "If you are not chasing a prize what is it you are after these days?"
Archie said with a smile, "These days, my goal is to get my work read; I spent so long chasing the rainbows that the chase spoiled the joy of writing for me, Fred." Archie glanced in Carol's direction and asked, "How do you get your fuel, I didn't see a town nearby?"
Carol replied, "We have an arrangement with a gas station in the city, we give the drivers a meal and a drink after their long drive, and we can get some fuel for our bikes and a little for the canteen. In the winter, not many people come this way, and that suits us. The closest town is about a three-hour ride away across the desert." Carol swallowed her last mouthful of the cool beer, then called to the canteen, "How long before we can eat, Mark?"
A man's voice replied from the canteen, "About another ten minutes, Carol, I found some old pork pieces to add to the pot; mind I've no idea how old they are as I haven't ordered pork for ages?"
Jack laughed and said, "Tenderize, my arse, you ain't had tried a stew until you've had one of Mike's, Archie. I don't know if it is true, there's a rumor the bikers use his meat for tires and the stew itself for fuel. I've never known anybody as adept at ruining a meal as he is."
Archie wiped the sweat from his brow and replied, "It looks like you can do with a cook here, Carol."
Carol commented from behind the bar, "I won't disagree with that statement, Archie; a change would be welcome, are you offering your services?"
"I do need to pay for my board and lodging, and I am a mean cook, not Cordon Bleu but I can fill your belly better than any chef could."
Carol winked and replied, "First of all, you do not need to pay for your bed, you are my guest." Carol paused to see the look on the faces of her clients.
Nobody said a word, but Jack winked back at her and nodded in Archie's direction, then he said, "That's fighting talk, Archie, those bikers are tough customers to please."
"Jack, they are like us, they'd rather have something filling than a fancy looking meal that leaves you wanting a meal. I never had any training, but over the years, I learned what fills a belly with the least ingredients and also pleases the taste buds. Cooking like that comes from living life as a freelance writer who needs to go out at a moment's notice." Archie paused, then asked Carol a question, "Carol, you're a ravishing beauty, have any of the bikers made a pass at you?"
There was a silent pause; then the canteen burst into a roar of laughter.
Archie asked, "What's the joke?"
Jack glanced in Carol's direction wondering if she'd tell the story, or if she would wait for one of the men to tell her story. After a short while, he saw her wink at him and give the nod, so he said begun to say to the story. "The joke is not do any make a pass at our Carol, but we always wait for the one who pushes his luck too much, and how hard Carol brings him down to Earth in front of his mates, do you remember the one called Hank from about five years ago, Carol?"
Carol paused, the laughed, recall him, I still laugh even after all these years at his pranks. "He thought the fact I gave him a free beer meant he could grope me when he wished, Archie, so we lead him on, and like a fish, to a lure, he came. I invited him into the kitchen; he didn't notice I was backing him into the freezer corner until it was too late; half an hour later he emerged shaking and embarrassed."
Archie laughed, and replied, "I didn't doubt Carol could look after herself; if you add in a wicked sense of humor you have an adorable mix."
Carol blushed a little and said with a wicked glance in his direction, "Oh my, Archie, are you making a pass at me?"
The room burst into laughter as he replied, "You can cut the innocent act, Carol, we know you get turned on by this game of teasing."
Carol looked around the round the room, then turning back to Archie, she commented, "Who said I was teasing you?"
"When did you decide I was worthy of your affections?"
"About five minutes after you came through the doors, most guys are not as polite as you, and I found that aspect of you so enticing and exciting."
"What about the others here, surely they have good points, why don't entice you?"
"When the men came, each man formed his code of behavior, and none have made any pass at me. We value the friendships we formed over the years, above the sexual tensions that were here in the beginning."