Day 30. MO/IA: mattress talk, Doc Marten’s, wankers, underpants

by Kevin May

Breakfast was not until eight and I didn’t share Dick’s inclination for a sunrise stroll, preferring instead a dip in the cowboy bathtub. A talk show was on the radio where the current crisis was being discussed. It sounded like a serious program until one caller asserted that bin Laden suffered from a medical condition that meant his penis was deformed. I mean, please.

Downstairs, Dick and his wife were reading the papers. He confirmed that he’d been for his walk, but it was unclear whether his wife had accompanied him. It was also unclear what her name was, as it sounded like he just introduced her to me as “my wife”. I assumed she must have had a name of her own, but didn’t want to ask in case it was some tribal Welsh one and I had just misunderstood.

The other couple who were staying came downstairs and introduced themselves heartily to me as The Bowlings. All this formality didn’t make for easy conversation over breakfast, where again we discussed the recent events on the east coast.

I had to be on my toes as my natural inclination is to make reference to what other people have said and it can be tricky when three of the four in your company you only know as Bowling Man, Bowling Woman and Wife of Dick.

The hotelier Mike had been chatty at breakfast time, going into tremendous detail about the new mattresses that he’d bought last year for every room in the hotel.

He gave an elaborate explanation of the pitfalls of sourcing and transporting mattresses, and the life expectancy of each based on how many nights a year the average room was let, and the commercial benefit of having a good reputation for mattresses: “I always say that when you stay some place there are only two things that touch you, the mattress and the food.”

In my previous career, I had sat in meetings for multi-million pound advertising campaigns where clients had given out less information about their business than I learned about the Southern Hotel that morning. When I went to pay, he said that he’d prefer for me not to use American Express, and then went on to explain the minutiae of his arrangements with each of the major credit card companies. His beef with Amex was that he felt that they had reneged on a deal so he’d told them to take a hike.

Ste Genevieve was the furthest east that I had been since Kosciusko MS, and it was strange to be heading west once more. Well, north-west. This was the point where I began a loop back on myself and started to pay the price for covering the states consecutively without re-entering any.

On the way out of St Louis, I found myself behind an SUV with “Happy 100th birthday, Walt Disney” emulsion-painted in orange and white letters on the back. It was just a little too neat to be vandalism. The bloke must have done it to his vehicle himself.

Although I had time on my hands today, I soon used much of my leeway up on another fruitless diversion. I wasted an hour motoring west across the state to Wright City in search of the Elvis is Alive Museum. It was closed for the day for redecoration. Declining the invitation to come back the next day, I reconciled myself to being unable to judge at first hand the “incontrovertible DNA evidence” that the body buried at Graceland didn’t belong to the King.

Approaching Clarksville the traffic drew strangely to a halt. As I neared the front of the queue, I could see that there were people at the junction stopping all the cars. They were holding buckets and money was being thrown in. When it came to my turn, I threw a couple of bucks in and was given a bow made out of red, white and blue string with a pin attached. The man with the bucket spoke quietly but firmly: “Please make sure you wear it sir”. They were collecting money for the families of the NYPD and FDNY killed in the World Trade Centre.

Hannibal, hometown of Samuel Clemens, proved to be much less touristy than I had anticipated. The only clues were the Mark Twain Museum and the Mark Twain Mississippi steamship, but otherwise it seemed like a perfectly normal town.

A distant school memory told me that young Sam had chosen his pen name because there was a call that went “By the mark twain”, which was some reference to the waterline. I was pleased to see that the Mark Twain ship sat at mark two in the river.

I’d telephoned ahead and booked a room in Iowa, and felt sure that I’d made the right choice when I pulled over the bridge into Keosauqua and saw the Hotel Manning. This was a big hotel and it looked like a proper town.

Closer inspection showed the main structure of the building to be wooden, and not in a particularly good state of repair. The paint was peeling and some parts looked rotten. It was a struggle creaking the door open. It no longer fitted the hole that it filled very well.

Inside it felt like my grandmother’s home. The furniture and fittings were from the 19th Century and there was a musty smell. It was quiet, apart from the echoing tick-tock from the clock. I rang the bell on the desk and a guy looked round the door from a room at the back. He was sat down and didn’t move his chair beyond the swivel needed to see out front.

It turned out that he was the owner, and a very friendly fellow to boot. His name was Ron. He remembered me as the English guy who had called earlier, and wanted to know about London.

He was about to get married and the honeymoon was to be in Nairobi but they were flying via London and stopping off for four days. The hotel was just off Park Lane. He was grateful to learn about the Heathrow Express (they’d been thinking of taking a cab) and I recommended a few places to eat and drink.

He called his wife-to-be, Mel, out from another corner of the hotel because he knew that she had shopping in mind. It transpired that she had orders from friends and family for 30 pairs of Doctor Marten’s. They cost $130 a pair in the States, but she’d heard they were much cheaper in England.

I explained where she needed to go in Covent Garden and how to get there. She wanted to know whether the shop would arrange for them to be shipped back to Iowa. I told her that she could ask.

I still hadn’t checked in when we got on to the subject of places to eat and drink in Keosauqua, and I was pleased to hear that there were three bars and a couple of restaurants. They suggested that I stick to either the Town & Country or Tillie’s, but steer clear of the Vet’s Club if I wanted to avoid fights.

They said that they could only recommend one restaurant and that had to be the one that was run by the bride-to-be’s mother. All would be quiet this evening until about 9.30, because there was a game of football at the local high school and that the whole town would be going to watch it.

The Town & Country was pretty rough and unwelcoming. I ordered a beer and sat there awkwardly, very conscious that all eyes were on me the stranger. People were playing pool for money, and it soon became apparent that I didn’t belong there so I left after one.

I decided to eat before trying the other place. I was now happy to take the advice and avoid the Vet’s Club altogether. If they thought it was rough, then that was good enough for me.

I was met at the restaurant by one of the most enthusiastic waiters that I have ever come across. He was probably in his late twenties, but he looked as if he were eighteen or nineteen. He definitely still lived with his mum and suffixed every sentence with “sir”.

He was terribly eager to explain the menu to me, terribly eager to fetch me a drink, terribly eager that I help myself to the salad bar and terribly eager to find out whether I was enjoying my meal and, if so, why wasn’t I smiling sir. It was like something out of Happy Days on acid.

He wanted to know where I came from and greeted the news that it was London with disproportionate excitement. His agitation went off the top of the scale when he heard that I was travelling around the states and was trying to write a story about it. That was precisely what he dreamed of doing, but not in America.

When I asked him where he wanted to travel to, he answered “The World”. His head was up to about fifty nods a second. He asked if I would mind swapping e-mail addresses and I think that he might have ejaculated when I said that I’d be happy to. He bustled off to the kitchen in a frenzy to clean himself up.

When he came back, he was nervously fingering a yellow scrap of paper on which he had scrawled his e-mail address under the title “Eric Rysdam. Inventor, book writer, author wannabe.”

By a possibly unrelated mental process, the thought dawned on me that I had not yet heard anyone use the term “wanker” in the thirty days that I had been on the road. Perhaps it had not yet made it into the American vernacular.

I thought of asking Eric if he knew what the word meant but decided against it on the off-chance that he was familiar with the term and took offense.

Tillie’s, the other “safe” bar that I had not yet visited, was just as intimidating. Unfortunately there was a seat at the bar that I felt obliged to occupy. It meant sitting in between a buxom cowgirl who was entertaining one end of the bar with her banter, and an awesome looking guy who looked like he pulled trees up with his bare hands for a living. I only lasted one drink there too.

It was still early but I had the impression that the continuation of my good health depended upon my not seeking any conversations in either of the bars that I had visited. I contemplated returning to the restaurant to see if Eric was close to knocking off yet and fancied a drink but quickly dismissed the idea as patently ridiculous.

A man wearing nothing but a pair of underpants came striding down the middle of the road. I watched as he walked purposefully off into the unlit distance. Keosauqua. Crazy name, crazy town.

Back at the hotel all was quiet. The lights had been turned off on the ground floor and nobody was around. A car drew up and out jumped a girl of about twenty, who smiled at me and then skipped inside. Five minutes later she was back out and off down the road. Across the green, about a dozen teenagers were playing with a volleyball in the forecourt of the gas station.

I wandered down to the river to sit on the bench and look at the water. Behind me, I heard a couple of the kids coming across the green gabbling excitedly. They went into the hotel, so I went to investigate.

Through the door from the porch, I could see one of them doing her hair in a mirror to the side of the reception while chatting to someone in another room. The second girl came out of the room and they both came towards me to leave the hotel. They passed by on to the green without noticing me. The room inside was the female restroom. The hotel was clearly treated by the locals as a public lavatory.

With nobody around and no lights on at all inside the hotel, it felt quite creepy when I got back to my room. The key took four goes to unlock the door but finally I got in. I went to bed with the feeling that if ever the axe-man was going to come in the night, this could be the time. I would be glad when morning arrived.

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