Fiddling Like Nero

The crash shift a wall, knocking the door from one of its hinges.

Southwestern, North Dakota—It was a cold gray, quiet, day—until a woman crashed a car into Room 135.

It happened around 3:30 p.m., when a thunderous bang! tugged me from the ether. It sounded as if someone had punched the backdoor, or the door in the office, so all what-the-heck-like, I tottered to see who or what was to blame, but wind-strewn litter was all I saw. No sooner had I returned to bed, where I was happy, when my girl dashes in exclaiming the lady from Room 162 had driven into Building No. 1.

Begrudgingly, I slipped into my shoes, shades and skullcap, grabbed my keys and phone, then ventured out. The natural light singed my eyes. Several guests gathered in the courtyard, visibly stunned by what they’d seen. A woman, they said, had driven across the courtyard from the parking lot, doing donuts, until the building brought her to an undramatic halt.

There went my day of not getting out of bed, of peace and quiet, of no disasters.

The wall after the carpenter sledgehammered it back in place.

The motel consists of two free-standing buildings and a third L-shaped structure. Together they form a horseshoe around an expansive grassy courtyard, where children play among the dog shit, cigarette butts, and bottle caps. Aside from my apartment one door over, Room 135 is the inner-most room from the parking lot, meaning the driver had at least 600 feet to avoid a collision. It’s a two-story building, after all. You can’t miss it.

Fortunately she wasn’t moving too fast.

Those who saw the crash weren’t sure whether the woman was actively driving or inattentively rolling in neutral, in which case the question is: why didn’t she hit the brakes? If she was driving while aware, then what the hell was her deal?

The woman’s husband, also in his early 40s, sprinted after her as she coasted toward the building. When he caught up to it, he pushed her into the passenger’s seat and took the wheel. Throwing the car in reverse, he peeled away from the wall before a growing number of spectators, braking in the parking lot. The collision shifted an entire wall, but did little damage to the vehicle.

It’s unclear how his wife regained control of the car, but she wasted no time speeding off once she did. He later said she had been on her way to visit her kids.

I moseyed up to Room 162, where she had stayed the previous three nights. I could hear someone shuffling around inside, but no one answered when I knocked. I swiped my master key, but it didn’t beep. We turned to the hard key—an actual old-fashioned metal key—but the deadbolt wasn’t working, either. At last, a scruffy guy with a loud combative voice opened the door. We told him he needed to leave the property.

Why? he asked, indignantly. So you can steal my friend’s stuff? I don’t think so. 

A spoon with residue sat near the sink, next to some small dirty cotton balls.

I spit the spiel about how he’s not a registered guest, that check-out time had passed without the room being paid for, yada yada yada. The scruffy guy flat out refused to leave, then became enraged when I told him I’ll just have cops remove him.

Don’t threaten me with calling the police! he yelled.

I didn’t have to call them. Four officers had followed the husband to Room 162, where he explained he was fresh out of jail and his wife, a small, pleasant woman, was less than a week out of rehab. He denied knowing anything about the paraphernalia, as did the scruffy guy. While the officers searched the room for drugs, the husband gave a nebulous statement about the circumstances around the crash, seeming more concerned about his keys than his wife.

He apologized to me, promised to pack her things and to pay for the room once an anticipated money order arrived in the mail.

Back at Room 135, the bossman arrived, cell phone glued to his ear. He told whomever he was speaking with to hold on, gave the damage a passing glance, returned to his conversation and left.

Call the carpenter, he said over his shoulder, walking away.

While the witnesses rehashed events for those just arriving, the scruffy combative guy—a transient day laborer according to the cops—came to scope the damage.

I’ll fix it if you have to call a carpenter, he offered. I’ve worked with wood before. 

The crowd of curiosity-seekers eventually swelled too large for me. Not in the mood for listening, I fled back to my cavernous abode. Walking through the crowd I noticed the disabled vet from Room 153 standing with her dog near one of the breezeways, a smug look on her face.

In her 50s, she is a nervous and fearful woman who treats me like a live-in assistant. Some days she’ll call the office what seems like a hundred times to ask questions, make special requests, and pass along gossip. Her husband’s employer doesn’t allow wives to live at the man camp (or so he says) so he dumped her here while he works all week in the oil patch.

Three weeks ago she called to tell me she had disposed of a dirty rig she found in the grass behind her building.

I didn’t know that stuff goes on here, she said, genuinely shocked.

As I passed her by from a distance, she nodded proudly, chin up, as if the crash were the inevitable outcome of all she has observed since arriving.

I told you there is some funny stuff going on here, she half-shouted, puffing the cigarette tucked between shivering fingers. Believe me now?

I kept walking. Nothing was going to shake me from my day of indifference. For all I knew, Lady Rehab and her hubby stayed another night in Room 162, slamming away their problems just upstairs from the needy vet, but faraway across the courtyard from where I returned to my bed, fiddling like Nero, unbothered by the burning buildings, the crashing cars, or other disasters.


  1. Damnm this is an intense story!! Fun reading it :) 

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