The Texas/Illinois Motel

by David W. Landrum

Sossity Chandler came down to the lobby of her hotel and ran into Davis Clark. He smiled at her, as he always did, and waved, noticing she had on a coat.

“Going out?”

She saw a groupie girl hanging on his arm—she could have not have been more than nineteen. Two more stood behind him, flanking his lead guitarist.

“I’m taking a sentimental journey,” she answered. “I played this town years ago, and I’m going to drive by some of the places I remember from back then.”

“Where?”

“Castle’s Grill. And the Texas/Illinois Motel. I was here for a week and did the bars and play at the county fair. I roomed at the Texas/Illinois because it was cheap.”

“I’ve been there.”

“You stayed there?”

“No.” He looked over at his catch for the night. “Met a girl there once.” The girl with him giggled. “We played here four years ago,” he went on. “I think the Texas/Illinois is closed now.”

“I want to drive by it anyway.”

“We’re having a party in my suite,” he said. “You’re invited, as always.” He, his guitarist, and the young girls they had picked up, headed upstairs. Sossity buttoned her coat, pulled on her gloves and a knit hat and went out to the parking garage. She got in her car and drove through the snowy streets decorated for Christmas, lights and ornaments hanging from the poles, store windows lit with merchandise, crowds of shoppers clogging the sidewalks.

Four concerts after the one tomorrow, she thought, and she could go home.

She pulled into a restaurant called Castle’s Grill. She had eaten here—every meal every day—for the week she was in the town back in her hard-bitten, struggling time, before success as a singer had finally come to her. She ordered what she ordered back then, a hamburger, fries and root beer, and remembered. When she paid (the food was still gloriously inexpensive) she asked the cashier about the Texas/Illinois Motel.

“That place closed three years ago. Still there, though it’s abandoned. Why?”

“Just wondered. I stayed there once.”

“Place is haunted,” he said. “Someone died in one of the rooms about four years ago. Nobody wanted to stay in it after that happened.”

“And the person who died there haunts it?”

“That’s what I hear.”

Sossity got in the rental car she and Tonya, her manager, were using for the tour. A light snow fell. She turned on the wipers.

The snow fell thicker as she approached the site she remembered. The marquee was so rusted she could hardly see the outlines of Texas and Illinois (the motel was supposedly located equidistant between the two states) or the lettering beneath. Snow covered the parking lot. Weeds, dead with the cold but still bristling, and even a couple of good-sized shrubs, had pushed through the broken asphalt. The windows, dark, many of them broken, reflected her headlights as she drove on to the rutted tarmac.

“Too bad,” she said aloud. She put the car in park, though she did not turn off the engine.

Memories of the week at the motel so many years ago flooded her mind. It had been tough. She barely had any money. She and Digory Marks had split up and she was lonely. Her cousin Jannie, to whom she was close, had died of cancer a few weeks earlier. The empty shells of rooms, the crumbling concrete and peeling paint began to cover with snow. Time to go, she thought, but when she twisted to check the traffic, she saw someone standing a few feet away from where she had parked.

She gasped, startled, then recovered from her fright. A foot or two from her car was a young woman who looked no more than eighteen or nineteen. She was barefoot, wearing only a white cotton nightgown.
Sossity stared back at the girl’s large eyes. Snow had settled on her hair and shoulders. Sossity got out of the car.

“Are you okay?”

The woman answered in a clear voice.

“I’m okay, yes.”

Sossity came around the side of the car.

“Okay? You’re barefoot. You don’t have on a coat. Are you stoned?”

“I’m not stoned. Not now.”

A sharp gust of wind struck Sossity. She shivered.

“You live here, right? You’re homeless.”

“Yes.”

“You’re going to freeze. Get in my car. I’ll take you to a shelter or get you a room. I can’t leave you here.”

“Are you sure you want me in your car?”

“You’re not going to rob me, are you?”

“No. But haven’t you heard this place is haunted?”

A wave of fear passed over her.

“I’ve been told that. So what?”

“What if I’m the ghost?”

“If you’re a ghost, you don’t need my help.”

“I do need your help, Sossity Chandler. I hoped you would come here. I know you believe in ghosts. I know you’ve seen us before.”

She felt cold now—as cold as the wild swirling around both of them.

“What is it you want?”

“I need your help.”

“You told me that.”

“I’ve made myself substantial. I am starting to feel the cold. Will you let me in your car?”

“Tell me how you need my help.”

“It’s a long story. And I’d like to drive around the city. I can’t leave here on my own, but if someone takes me away from the place, I can go. Will me you take me for a drive?”

The girl had a mild southern accent. Her lips looked blue. Sossity fancied she had started to shiver.

“I’m not sure I believe you’re a ghost, but get in the car. I can’t let you stand out here in the cold with nothing on but a nightgown.”

The girl opened the door and climbed in. Sossity pulled out of the parking lot.

“Sure has changed, hasn’t it?” the girl commented as they swung by the motel.

“What’s your name?”

“Joetta Holland.”

“How do you know me?”

“I listen to the radio. There’s an old one in my room that still works, and that room still has electricity somehow. Years ago you stayed here and left memories all over the place. I go into your room and into the hall and listen to your memories.”

“What memories?”

“The ones you left from when you stayed here. You thought a lot about your family. You were worried about your friend, Cheryl Carter, and you grieved over your cousin, Jannie.”

Sossity did not reply. Joetta went on.

“Before Jannie died she told you that when she got to heaven she would ask Jesus to get you a recording contract. She was groggy, fading away, and in a lot of pain even with all the medication they’d put her on. Both of you laughed at her joke. She died fifteen minutes later.”

Sossity had told this to no one.

“How can you see memories?”

“They’re made of life, and life’s energy, so they have life. I can see them. I can tell you another one I’ve seen in your room. You sang ‘Patterns’ by Simon an Garfunkle for your boyfriend Digory Marks just before you two had the fight that split you up. You thought you were unfair to him. You cried about that every night you stayed there.”

“I get the point.”

They drove on in silence.

“You’re touring with Davis Clark, aren’t you?” the girl asked after a while.

“I am.”

“He murdered me.”

Joetta’s words startled Sossity so much she jerked and the car skidded, though she managed to straighten up and not hit another vehicle or go off the road. For the first time, the girl smiled.

“Careful. You won’t be able to help me if you’re dead too.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Downtown. I always liked the Christmas lights. This year we’re going to have a white Christmas for the first time since I died. They’ll look even prettier.”

Sossity drove to the downtown area and circled the city square. Joetta’s eyes filled with wonder at the lights and shiny tinsel snowmen and reindeer. Big red, green, and blue ornaments hung from lampposts. The store windows blazed with goods and with Santa and nativity scenes. Sossity glanced at Joetta’s arms and noticed needle tracks.

They circled the courthouse and drove along the decorated streets of the business district. After a while they came out of the ornamented area of town.

“Beautiful,” Joetta said. “Thanks for taking me.”

“I’m glad you could see it,” Sossity said, licking her lips. “So Davis murdered you?”

“He did.”

“I want you to tell me about it, but I want to be able to listen. I can’t listen to you and drive in the snow. Can people see you?”

“I’m pretty substantial because I want to be visible to you—and because it’s night. People will be able to see me, yes.”

“Then I think I’d better get you some clothes.”

“That might be a good idea,” she agreed.

Sossity stopped at a WalMart. She got Joetta’s sizes and went in, returning with a sweatshirt, underwear, a denim skirt, tights, and shoes. She dressed in the car. The snow came down harder.

“You look nice,” Sossity commented as Joetta folded up her nightgown. She had blue eyes, light brown hair, a round face with a small nose and full lips. Her body looked strong and trim.

“It feels good to put on new clothes. If you’re a ghost, you wear whatever it was you had on when you died. I was in my nightgown.”

A thought suddenly came to Sossity.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“I haven’t been embodied like this since I died. As a matter of fact, I am hungry.”

“Maybe we can go to Castle’s. I just ate there, but I could get coffee and you could get food and we could talk. It’s quiet.”

“That will be good. None of my friends ate there because they thought it wasn’t a cool place, so chances are I won’t be recognized.”

They drove to Castles. Snow fell straight down in huge flakes as they crossed the parking lot to the brightly lit diner. Most of the tables were taken. The cashier recognized Sossity.

“Back so soon?”

“Your food was so good I had to bring a friend.”

They found a booth. Sossity ordered coffee, Joetta a hamburger and a bowl of chili.

“Okay,” Sossity when Joetta had taken the edge off her hunger. “Tell me about Davis. How did you know him?”

“He came here on tour. I sat in the audience, yelled, screamed, pulled up my shirt, and he sent one of his roadies to bring me backstage. We went up to his hotel room. He liked me and took me along with him to a couple more gigs. He was doing dope then and so was I. I got my supplier to get him stuff while he was touring here in Arkansas. I knew he was keeping me because I could get him dope, but I didn’t care. I was your typical groupie. I just wanted to say I’d been laid by a famous rock star.”

“And then?”

“I went with him for four concerts then he brought me back here. We got a room at the Texas/Illinois. He did it there.”

“Killed you? How?”

“The guy I bought dope from gave us really shitty stuff. He cut it with powdered milk and God know what else. Davis got hold of some pure stuff and slipped it into one of the bags of stuff my dealer had sold me. He left in the morning. About noon I cooked some up and did it. Dosing myself with what he’d slipped in my bag was like taking four times as much heroin as I usually took. I died with the needle in my arm.”

Sossity listened to the other diners talking, the glasses and plates clinking. The warm coffee cup in her hands felt comforting.

“And you think he murdered you? Are you sure, Joetta? Maybe he didn’t mean to—maybe he didn’t know giving you that grade of stuff would kill you.”

“He knew all about dope and knew exactly what he was doing. His memories are in the room where I died and I can see them, just like I can see the ones you left in your room.”

“What do you want me to do? Do you want me to accuse Davis? Go to the police?”

“I want you to bring him to the motel. I haunt the motel. I want to haunt his music.”

“Haunt his music?”

“Music has life. It comes out of life, and as a spirit can live in it, just like I live in the shell of the Texas/Illinois. Music exists like a palace with rooms or a country with mountains, plains, coastlines—all sort of variety and beauty.”

“Why do you want to haunt his music? Why don’t you just enter some music you love and live there?”

“I can’t rest until justice is done.”

“Will justice be done when you haunt him?”

“Eventually it will. I can see those dark, ugly thoughts of his right now, just as if I were in that room we shared. He always wanted to take someone’s life, and then I came along—a broken, passive, vulnerable girl. He was a predator who saw an easy victim. If his ego is deflated, he can’t be a rock star. I’ll destroy his ability to sing and destroy his ego—and he won’t last long when that happens.”

Sossity took a sip of her coffee.

“I doubt if I can get him to come to the motel. Does he have to be there?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t see him going anywhere hear it.”

“Can you take me to your hotel room?”

“I guess I could. Why?”

“I have an idea,” Joetta answered.

#

Sossity knocked on the door to Davis’ suite. She could hear music blaring from inside and hear laughter. The peephole illuminated for a moment and the door opened. Davis’ lead guitar player led her into the main room of the suite where the party was in full swing.

Grinning widely, Davis approached her. He held a drink glass in his hand. She smelled marijuana smoke.

“Sossity! You made it!” He gave her a wet, sloppy kiss.

“I like to party as much as anyone,” she answered.

“I wouldn’t think that, as much as you’ve turned down my invitations this tour. What can I get you to drink?”

“Whisky, no ice.”

He whistled to one of his bands members, who took instructions and brought her a glass of what tasted like Speyside. She noticed one of the groupie girls had taken off her blouse and bra and sat on a sofa, topless, smoking. Davis invited Sossity to share a love seat with him.

“So how’s everything?”

“Nice. I like to go back to the old places I played at and stayed in the years I was paying my dues.”

“’Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues,’” he sang drunkenly.

“You were right. The Texas/Illinois is shut down.”

“Pretty sleazy place.”

“Who was the girl you met there?”

She thought he would flinch, but he puffed his cigarette and made a sweeping gesture.

“Joetta Holland. She travelled with us for a while. I heard she overdosed.”

“They claim she haunts the place.”

“She probably does. I wouldn’t go near there, that’s for sure.”

“You believe in ghosts?”

“Who knows what’s out there? I think half the horror films we see could come true—even The Giant Leeches.”

“God, I hope not.”

Sossity looked around the room. She turned her attention back to Davis.

“I like that lead you play on ‘Ginger-Bell,’” she said. “You’ll have to teach it to me sometime.”

“Deal, if you’ll show me the guitar part to ‘Breathe Together.’”

“You’ll have to learn to fingerpick if you want to do that one. Can’t flatpick it.”

As she spoke, Joetta appeared, ghostlike, transparent, pale, a few feet away from where they sat.

Davis’ eyes grew round. His mouth fell open as his body stiffened. Joetta appeared only a few seconds, and then faded. Davis continued to stare.

Finally, he turned to Sossity, his face pale with fear.

“Jesus, Davis. What the hell is wrong?”

He vomited and collapsed. The other people in the room looked on in stunned silence and then rushed to him as fell into a paroxysm of horror.

Sossity helped them carry him to his bed. He was incoherent with fear. His band members called a doctor. Sossity returned to her hotel suite.
She closed the door/ Joetta sat on the edge of the bed, head in her hands. She looked up when Sossity came in. Sossity sat down next to her. She took her hand. It was cold.

“It was hard to see him,” Joetta finally said. “Hard because I really did love him. I know he never loved me, but I loved him. Even though it was an illusion, I still felt it. I still feel it, I guess.”

Sossity decided it would be better not to answer.

“I thought I’d be all gleeful and drip with sweet revenge. Now I’m only sad I threw my life away like I did.”

“Do you want to stay here tonight?”

“I don’t belong here. I need to go back.”

“Don’t you get lonely there?”

“Yes. Extremely. But you go where you belong, and I belong in the motel. Maybe it’s the place for me to be forever. It reflects what my life was like when I was alive—kind of how some people say hell is. Maybe I’m in hell. Maybe I’ll never get out of that shabby, cold, lonely place. Maybe I don’t deserve to.”

“Nobody deserves to be murdered. God gave you a life and someone took it from you. Whatever you did that was wrong and misguided, Davis was the one who killed you. You don’t know how your life might have turned out. He took away all the possibilities. That’s the true nature of his crime.”

“You’d better take me back. It will be morning soon, and it hurts me to be out in the sun.”

“I’ll have Davis there tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure I want to go through with this,” Joetta said.

“You do. You owe it to yourself.”

Joetta nodded. They went outside to the car. It had stopped snowing.

#

Sossity did not get a chance to talk to Davis all the next day. She called but his staff told her he was resting and did not want to be disturbed. She practiced then went with Tonya, her manager, to play for the children at a local hospital. They had dinner and drove to the venue in plenty of time for the concert.

On stage, she did her hits and pop standards. She had produced three number-one singles and two best-selling albums. Her thirty-minute segment of pop songs with unplugged acoustic sounds—love songs, ballads, and folkie cuts—went over well in the packed house. She took her bows and left the stage. Davis’ band came on to wild acclaim. He began his part of the concert.

Sossity sipped a glass of wine and listened from backstage. Davis seemed to have recovered from the shock of seeing Joetta. He sang with spirit, moved confidently across the stage, and ripped out intricate, blistering leads on his guitar.

Sossity admired him as a musician. Yet her encounter with Joetta made her sensitive to the undertone of violence she now detected in his songs. She heard one of his big hits, jand listening closely to the lyrics for the first time, she was appalled. Other songs he sang rang with violence and contempt for women.

She knew Joetta would hear these songs on the abandoned radio she said she listened to in the motel. Sossity thought of the desolate, cold, bleak motel and felt compassion for Joetta and rage at Davis Clark. She determined to do her utmost to see that her spectral friend found justice.

She came back on stage to perform a couple of duets with Davis and one number with him and his full band. They got a standing ovation and did two encores. After the concert ended, she got a moment alone with him.

He was chipper for having put on a good show. She looked quickly about to make sure no one was near and said, “You saw Joetta last night.”

Her statement stunned him. The wine glass he held shook in his hand.

“She came to me when I went by the Texas/Illinois. She told me how you killed her by giving her some pure heroin.”

He could only stare, his mouth open.

“She wants to see you. She wants you to come to her.”

“What if I won’t?” he managed to say, his voice a faint croak.

“I’m not sure. But I wouldn’t risk going against her. After we rest up from the show, come to my room. Alone.”

She walked off, leaving him there, gaping.

#

He came to her suite at midnight. She let him in and told him to be
quiet. Tonya was asleep in her bedroom.

“Did you see her last night?” he asked.

“I saw her. She had on a Razorbacks sweatshirt and a denim skirt.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“She latched on to me when I went to the Texas/Illinos. I’d already seen her and talked to her.”

“I thought it was a hallucination.”

“I can understand that. She knows you murdered her. She knows how you switched the dope from the cut-down stuff she got from her dealer to the pure stuff so she would overdose. She wants you to come to the motel.”

“For what?”

“She wants you to sing for her—her favorite song, ‘Love’s Sweetheart.’”

“You couldn’t have known that unless she told you.”

“She told me.”

“The Texas/Illinois—that place creeps me out.”

“I can see why.”

He licked his lips. “Is this a set-up?”

“It might be. I’m only telling you what she wants.”

“What’s in for you?”

“Nothing in particular. I feel sorry for her.”

He looked weary and sleepy.

“She went with us to Memphis and Little Rock—and Nashville and Atlanta.”

“Why did you do what you did?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to go to the cops?”

“That would make me look real good. ‘Pop singer claims she talked to ghost.’ Then accusing you of murder based on what I claim a ghost told me. People would write me off as a basket case.”

“When does she say we need to go there?”

“She didn’t say. We can go right now.”

“This is not a set up? She’s not going to tear me to pieces or suck my blood?”

“Like one of the Giant Leeches? I doubt it. She’s a goddamned ghost, Davis. She can’t do anything but haunt you as far as I know—though I’m not an expert on things like that.”

“Where did you see her?”

“She was standing in the parking lot. I thought she was a homeless woman and offered to take her to a shelter. We drove around town and she told me what happened.” She hesitated, then added, “She wanted to see the Christmas lights.”

“She liked pretty things,” Davis said. “I remember that about her.”

“Do you want to go?”

“What do you think will happen if I don’t?”

“I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to find out.”

He thought a long moment, fear running like a riptide beneath the calm surface of his face.

“This is not a trick?”

“It may well be a trick. I don’t know. It’s about you and her, not about me. I’m just the messenger.”

Davis Clark sat silent. Perhaps two minutes passed. He seemed to be remembering. Sossity waited. Finally he looked up.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

“You’ll need your guitar.”

He went to his room and got an acoustic. They exited by the rear door. The snow had stopped falling. The sky had cleared and the moon shone. They drove in silence, Davis cradling his guitar case. As they came near the motel, he spoke.

“Did she say anything about us?”

Sossity approached the abandoned motel, braking slowly so she would not skid.

“She said she really loved you.”

They parked by a row of spruce trees where the snow was not as deep. The derelict motel, dark and quiet, looked darker and sadder with the moonlit snow brightening the landscape around it. They climbed out and skirted the lot until they came to Room #5. The door had fallen off or had been stolen.

“This is the room I stayed in,” Sossity said.

“We ought to go to the room she and I were in,” Davis answered.
They tried get in Room #8 but it had a door they could not get open. They went back to #5. The interior smelled musty—not even the sharp cold air could cleanse the moldy scent. Snow had filtered through the open door. The bare walls, stained with lichen and covered with graffiti, reflected the moonlight.

“What now?” Davis asked. “Should I call her?”

“I’d say start playing.”

He got his guitar out of the case, strummed it, and began to sing.
Sossity listened. Davis’ breath, outlined by frost, extended from his mouth as he did the song. She waited, wondering if Joetta would appear. Had she changed her mind and decided not to haunt her killer’s music? Perhaps, Sossity thought, she did not need to appear—though somehow she thought it had to be.

Sure enough, halfway through the song, Joetta materialized in a corner of the room. Though, Sossity would later reflect, materialize was not exactly right. In the car, in her hotel room, even when she visualized for Davis, she had looked solid. Now she stood, in her nightgown, barefoot, transparent, flickering like a video image that cannot resolve.
Davis stopped.

“Keep playing,” Sossity told him.

He continued, strumming harder, singing more loudly, his voice going high-pitched and uneven. Joetta’ form resolved fully, though she remained transparent. Sossity could see the graffiti-covered wall behind her. She began to glow, her brightness lighting the crumbling room. Davis looked terrified but continued to sing.

Then Joetta faded. Sossity noticed she neither faded bit by bit, nor disappeared in a flash. She seemed to break apart, to fragment into the empty space between her and Davis, and then disappear. Sossity knew the space between these two was not empty. Something inhabited it. Music. Davis’ music. She had gone into it. She had entered the habitable place where she intended to dwell.

He finished the song. Even in the cold, he sweated.

“Better put your guitar away,” Sossity said after they had stood a few minutes in the freezing cold. “It will get a crack in it from the frost if you leave it out.”

He secured the instrument in its case and then looked up at her, his eyes fearful but hopeful he had seen the situation through to the end.

“Is that it?”

She shrugged. “I guess so. Let’s go. I don’t see any reason to stick around.”

They got back in the rental car. Sossity carefully backed out of the lot and pulled on to the street.

Halfway through the drive he told her to stop.

“I’m sick,” he said.

At that time of night there was no traffic. She stopped in the middle of the road. He opened the door and vomited copiously. When he was finished, he closed the door, leaned back on the seat, and nodded. She drove on.

“Jesus,” he said. “She was wearing that nightgown the last time I saw her.”

She drove into the city with its dazzling Christmas lights and ornaments. Sossity wondered what their next concert would sound like.  She still did not know what it would mean for someone’s music to be “haunted,” but she suspected every time Davis performed, recorded, practiced, or even picked up his guitar Joetta would be there—maybe visible, maybe a hovering spirit he could not see—but he would feel her presence. He would know she was near. It would be the end of him.

She planned to watch him closely the next few shows they did to see if she could detect changes evident of Joetta’s haunting.

Then she remembered the locations of the four concerts they had left to play: Memphis and Little Rock—and Nashville and Atlanta.