Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas
Starlight Hotel

The public telephone in front of the Starlight Hotel rings and then rings again. Heat radiates from the hotel's asphalt parking lot, partially obscuring turquoise doors and giving the impression of a desert mirage, the hotel threatening to disappear at any moment. The telephone continues to ring as cars stream by on the boulevard, adding exhaust and noise to the dreary scene. Around the base of the pay telephone, stubborn weeds that until now have held off the oppressive heat, grow yellow and wilt under the afternoon sun. Two more rings and the telephone is silent.

A dirty blue 67 Impala swings into the hotel's driveway, crosses the parking lot and pulls into a parking space in front of the turquoise door marked with the number three. The engine turns off and the car door opens. A thin man steps from the car dressed in Levis, a white tee shirt and work boots. His uncombed brown hair is short and his graying beard has not seen a razor in a week. He opens the car's back door, reaches into the backseat and emerges with a brown paper grocery bag. Standing upright and holding the bag in one arm, he fumbles in his pants pocket, finds his room key, kicks both car doors closed, crosses to his hotel room, unlocks and opens the room door. Entering his room, he sets the groceries on an unmade bed, pulls the key from lock and closes the door on the sun-drenched day.

She hangs up the receiver on the telephone sitting on the Formica kitchen table and looks out the window at the brown grass and sagging chain link fence that outlines the boundary of her yard. A plume of dust rises down the road to the left and begins to move closer in a series of jerky stops and starts. A dog tentatively barks from beneath the front porch as the mail truck makes his way
house to house along the dusty road. Standing, she opens the screen door, walks quickly across the yard to the refuge of a spreading pepper tree and leans on the fence next to her mailbox. The dog puts his head down, content to remain in the shade and let his mistress defend the property from this daily intrusion . She is dressed for the desert heat in a short loose cotton sundress and flip-flops, with her long black hair pulled up off her neck into ponytail high on the back of her head. She watches the mail trucks approach through tired green eyes, set in a sun bronzed face just beginning to show the first trace of wrinkles.

"Good afternoon," Eileen, nothing from Martin, the mail carrier says, handing her a pile of catalogs and bills.

"No luck on the telephone either," she replies, "but I'll keep trying."

"See you tomorrow," he says shifting his jeep into gear and letting out the clutch on his way to the next mailbox a quarter mile down the desert road.

Martin steps out of his room onto the low concrete porch, sits on the top step and takes a long pull from a half-empty beer. Hanging his head, he studies the pavement between his feet and tries to recreate the reason for the anger that drove him out his back door, into the Impala, onto the highway and to the Starlight Hotel. Finishing the beer, he sets the bottle down, stands and walks to
the phone booth outside the hotel office. Digging in his pocket for change, Martin deposits the coins and dials a telephone number with a desert area code two hours to the east. The phone on the other end rings and then rings again. He turns his back to the telephone and with the receiver at his ear looks out at the endless parade of cars. Pick-up, Eileen, he says under his breath as the
answering machine clicks on. Listening for a moment to her voice, he turns and places the receiver back in its cradle. Leaving the telephone he opens the door to the office of the Starlight Hotel, forcing the desk clerk to look up from her magazine.

"Excuse, me," he says, "I'll be leaving this afternoon."

"You're paid up," she says, "just leave the key in the room."

"OK, thanks," Martin says, opening the office door to the ringing of the public phone.

With the mail in her hand, Eileen crosses the yard to the kitchen porch where she lays the pile in front of the door. Turning, she walks around the side of the house to a small garden plot of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, beans and jalapeño peppers. Reaching down she positions a hose at the top of the tomato furrow and twists the handle on the hose bib. Eileen watches as the water flows slowly down the furrow to a dam at the far end, where pools and begins to seep into the sandy soil. She begins to pull weeds as the phone rings. Looking over her shoulder, she quickly adjusts the position of the hose and than stands at the second ring. Running around the corner of the house, she scoops up the mail, throws open the door and reaches for the telephone. Putting the receiver to her ear, she hears the frustrating sound of the dial tone. Slamming down the phone, Eileen throws the mail on the table, crosses the kitchen to refrigerator, pulls a slip of paper from under a magnet, returns to the phone and sits down to dial the number on the paper.

Martin lets the office door fall close and sprints the short distance to the phone, which is now silent. Lifting the handset he hears the dial tone even before it reaches his ear. Martin stares for a moment at the sign for the Starlight Hotel that lays claim to reasonable rates, air conditioning and cable television, but does not mention in-room telephones. Crossing the parking lot, he props open the door to number three.

Eileen puts down the telephone and sits at the kitchen table, a warm afternoon breeze on her face she stares out of the open window across the yard and into the sand and brush of the desert. After a moment, she picks up the pile of mail and goes through it quickly, sorting out the catalogs and tossing the bills onto the kitchen counter. Choosing a catalog selling clothes made of Peruvian alpaca wool she absently scans through the pages, questioning why she had knowingly fueled his anger and frustration. "Call Martin," she commands throwing the Peruvian catalog into the garbage can.

Martin emerges from the hotel room with his paper grocery bag, opens the door of the Impala and puts the bag on the back seat. One more trip to the room produces a duffle that goes on the seat next to the groceries. Slamming the back door, he opens the drivers door and climbs behind the steering wheel.

Eileen checks the number on the scrap of paper, picks up her telephone and once again dials the number.

The Impala backs out of the parking spot, pulls to the exit where it stops waiting for traffic to clear. Martin looks for a moment to the east and thinks about the two hour drive through the pass, across the desert basin, down the main street of his home town and finally to the little stucco house with the garden and tomatoes just days from harvest. Turning the Impala to the west he crosses the eastbound lanes and begins to shift up through the gears as the pay phone in front of the Starlight Hotel rings and then rings again.