Motel Treasure Hunts

Western North Dakota—It happens often enough. A guest disappears for a day or two before stumbling, all weak and disheveled, back to his room to discover his key no longer works. Perhaps a stranger, hearing someone attempting to enter, answers the door.

There’s someone in my room, complained one construction worker who’d gone missing for a day.

We rented the room when you stopped paying for it. 

It’s an oddly satisfying chain of events, from the moment I instruct the housekeepers to pack it up to when the confused former guest forks over the ransom on his belongings. I’m not sure if it’s legal or not, hijacking property like this, but the motel’s policy is clear: no pay no stay. If a guest isn’t around but his stuff is, the stuff gets bagged and becomes ours if unclaimed after five days.

Most times there is nothing worth taking, since those living on the margins tend to have little to begin with. But more than the acquisition of useful stuff, it’s the curious thrill of rummaging for such goods—the sifting through a suitcase, the cracking of the safe, the spill of a backpack’s contents onto the bed—that excites. An empty room is just a room, but one with property is a mini-narrative, a brief on lives paused in the immediate present.  

Few property seizures yield anything worthwhile, but every so often good fortune smiles. Three weeks ago we scored a nearly full bottle of Don Julio in an otherwise empty room. The sheets on both beds were blood stained, as was a piece of wood.  At $60 a liter, that bottle of tequila cost as much as the room the guest couldn’t afford. We set the booze aside for a special occasion, cleaned the room and rented it anew.

When the previous occupant returned, a large Band-Aid over his eye, he complained the card-key no longer worked. He didn’t ask about the tequila, which surprised me since booze is what I’d want after being put out by the cheapest motel in town.  

Last week, the felon in Room 140 went ghost. Because he had paid on time throughout his four-week stay, we let him slide the first night he didn’t settle. The next morning I entered the room. Clothes were scattered on the floor. Several bottles of cologne, all different brands, were atop the bathroom counter. The set of golf clubs in the corner were nice and shiny, as if they’d never been swung. I rummaged through the caddy bag, unzipping pocket after pocket of golf balls.

A side pocket had more weight to it than the others. Reaching in I felt the nose of what was a fully loaded .22-caliber revolver, a little five-shot short nose that doesn’t carry much wallop. Sitting in a chair, I spun the cylinder and fired imaginary rounds into imaginary punk-ass sons of bitches.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

As the bodies dropped around me, my gangland fantasy faded into the fact I was sitting in the room of a man on parole following an eight-year bid for smashing a cop’s face with a beer bottle, his loaded gun in my hand. I returned the firearm to the caddy bag and left. The housecleaners began packing the felon’s room within the hour, tossing what wouldn’t fit in a suitcase into garbage bags. As I went for the gun, I heard a hammer being cocked.

Put up your hands, muddafucka!

I turned to face the barrel, no more than six inches from my face. Safety evidently was no more a priority than cleaning for Housekeeper-D., who I hoped had noticed the five live rounds ready to bang! inside the cylinder.

As I waited for D. to lower the gun, I noticed that the felon’s unopened bag of chewy Jolly Ranchers was missing. Although I suspected he would return for his weapon and golf clubs, the motel’s storage-of-edibles-prohibited policy meant the candy was ours for the taking. I might have gotten to them first, but someone else made the move.

Where’d the Jolly Ranchers go? I asked.

Both cleaners shrugged.

On the bright side, I had a bottle of Don Julio waiting to be drunk. After disinfecting the bottle’s mouth, we tossed back a shot of what turned out not to be tequila, but rather what I still hope was old, stale tap water.

That doesn’t taste like Tequila, I groused.

No, she replied, it really doesn’t

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