Amy Parker: Feeding the Gods of Vacation Karma (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Alrighty, then. Native North Carolinian, former bartender / caterer / chef, middle child of a small-town veterinarian and a home economist extraordinaire. Know the heady joy of running behind the mosquito-spray truck on a sticky summer night, and that there are some mosquitoes that could down shots of DDT like Sex on the Beach and fly away. Know that Gaffney, SC has the Big Peach, and Marietta, GA has the Big Chicken, and have driven past both more times than you can shake a stick at. Also, the French Broad River runs north, and only in tributaries of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers will you find the hellbender in North Carolina.

Feeding the Gods of Vacation Karma

There is a delightful purgatory in travelling with your children, even when they’re technically not children anymore. In looking back over various vacations I’ve taken with my sons, it seems that attitude is key. And letting go of predetermined expectations. I wasn’t sure about a cruise, or the day in Nassau, not really my style, but Kyle was jacked. I was looking forward to our day in Charleston beforehand, strolling through the old graveyards and gardens, and the scheduled day of snorkeling at Half Moon Cay. And real seafood. Ahh, Hyman’s! Poogan’s! The promised Bahamian conch salad at the scheduled “Authentic Island BBQ” on our first island stop. I vowed to eat seafood every chance I got. Besides, anything was better than spending an eternity in standstill traffic both ways on I-95, which would have been our fate had we followed through with original plans to visit Florida. When we discovered that our scheduled vacation coincided with Daytona Speed Week, I suggested we rethink so we wouldn’t have to get anywhere near the Sunshine State. Kyle jumped at the chance, said he’d always wanted to go on a cruise. So there I was, crossing the fingers of one hand while clicking “Book Now” with the other.

Two weeks later, the drive down was blue skies and sun, seventy-five degrees in mid-February, with the forecast for the islands in the mid-eighties. We rolled the windows down around Harleyville to make sure we caught that first scent of pluff mud, indisputable sign that the beach was close. Bring it on!

GPS took us right to the motel, just off a main drag of shopping, restaurants, and other clean-looking, slightly nicer “Inn and Suites” places. The Red Roof was cheap and close – those were our main criteria for that one night. Had a Waffle House right across the street, too – jackpot! I pulled up to the closest end of the putty-colored stucco buildings, almost missing the “Main Office” sign nestled in an oyster-shell bed of stubby palmettos and wax myrtle. The smell of stale coffee and never-fully-dry carpet hit when we walked in, blinking double-time to focus in the muzzy light, but did we care? Nope, we were by god officially on vacation.  

Two clerks behind the chest-high counter smiled, irrespective of being swaddled in the most unbecoming uniforms imaginable, stiff burgundy and cream fabric of some unnatural origin, ill-fitting on young women that looked and moved like athletes. One was checking out an elderly woman, evidently hard of hearing, as the clerk kept repeating information with infinite good humor. The other clerk’s perfect snowy teeth beaconed us through the coffee-sogged gloom.

“Welcome to Red Roof Inn, I’m Taneesha,” she said. “How may I assist you?”

She pulled up our reservation on her computer, slid my credit card through the machine and a registration form across the counter.

“Just fill this out, please, and I’ll get your keys.”

The other guest had finally completed whatever maneuvers were required to be set free, and huffed out the door in a whirl of pleated paisley polyester. The clerk was unruffled by the display, and smiled at the old woman’s stiff back, shaking her head just a bit. Like you would with crazy Aunt Tillie at a family reunion.

“Do you know a good, local seafood place near here?” I asked, “I mean, that serves fresh local seafood?” Mental fingers crossed for a suggestion other than Red Lobster.

Taneesha said she did – The Noisy Oyster, it was called, and the other clerk, Cha’relle, agreed it was the best in the immediate vicinity.

“Let me draw you a map, it can be a little hard to find,” Cha’relle said, moving into an alcove behind the counter, where she began digging through files and boxes for a piece of paper.

Taneesha had entered all our information into her computer, tapping keys with unfocused precision, and handed me two key cards.

“Room 307, first floor, around on the back of that building,” she told us, pointing a long, glittery-purple nail toward the sliver of eponymous roof, barely visible through the narrow transom set high in the wall above the scorched coffee pot and rack of brochures promoting ghost walks and carriage rides.

Cha’relle emerged from the alcove, slapped a blank sheet of paper down on the counter, and began explaining the route as she drew. That was when I noticed movement at the edge of my vision, outside the glass entry door to my left. Several men in body armor and dark uniforms, carrying tactical rifles, moved stealthily to an apparently predetermined vantage point at the front corner of the building. They kept coming, looked like a dozen or more, blocking the door, and maybe, I realized uneasily, our only escape route. Kyle had figured out something was up, his round eyes, all pupil, ping-ponged between me and the ATF agents ( that’s what they were, we could see, from letters sewn onto their uniforms’ short sleeves and stenciled across the back of the bulky vests ). Taneesha and Cha’relle appeared nonplussed, and Cha’relle shrugged and went back to drawing when I started a similar eye-darting: clerks, agents, clerks.

As my glance landed again on the tight huddle outside the entry, one of the agents saw me and beckoned. I must have made a “no way!” face, he kind of chuckled and motioned again. I eased the door open a crack, ducking my head ( like that would do any good! ), and asked, “is it safe?”

“Sure, we’re not moving on anything right now,” he said, “come on out.”

“Kyle, listen, we’re getting out of here,” I said, turning to my son. My voice sounded both too soft to hear, and so clear that any nearby criminals would certainly be forewarned. “Get to the car quick as you can. We’ll just go eat, all this should be over by the time we get back.”

Cha’relle held out the map she’d drawn, which I accepted with a whispered “thanks” and stuffed in my purse along with the key cards. The ATF guys squeezed together, opening up a narrow path, and we managed to make it to the car and out onto the street in less than thirty seconds. The stoplight caught us at the next intersection, and we looked at each other, incredulous, before totally cracking up.

“Okay,” I said, when I could talk again, “we are not telling your dad about this until after we get home!”

Cha’relle’s map was accurate, confirmed by GPS. The Noisy Oyster was only a mile and a half from the motel. It was the typical beach town seafood joint centered around a bar, a knock-off Margaritaville, a bit down at the heel in broad daylight, and not crowded – it was late for lunch, too early for dinner or the bar crowd. The waitress was good, food was too, not great, but good. Perhaps not local but it was seafood and, hey, we were on vacation, right?

By the time we returned from lunch and a quick stop at Wal-Mart for last-minute supplies, almost two hours had passed. All clear, no ATF lurking when we surveilled from the Waffle House parking lot and deemed it a go. I drove around behind the building to locate our room, thinking that the developers must have been tightwads, didn’t even bother with stucco where it couldn’t be seen from the road. Around back the building was just painted block.

The next thing I noticed was a sketchy-looking dude, hung onto the driver’s window of a white cargo van like a carhop’s tray. Probably mid-twenties, six foot, lanky, covered in tattoos and wearing a wife-beater. There were two guys inside the van, and it was obvious a deal was being made. Sketch was a loudmouth, probably drunk if the empties around his feet were any indication. I eased past, and backed into the closest spot to room 307, letting the car idle. I was more keenly aware than usual that backing in afforded a quick getaway if needed. We were three spaces down from the van, right in front of a covered breezeway that swallowed all the sunshine from the bright parking lot about five feet in.

“Just sit tight, Kyle. But hey, look at me, don’t look at them.”

He wanted to, sputtered a few times in protest, but with a little persuasion kept his composure. We feigned conversation so I could keep an eye on them. There was more posturing from Sketch, a couple of sideways looks our way from the van’s occupants. I don’t scare easy, but shit, I didn’t want any trouble either. I had a Clark Griswold moment right about then, determined that nothing would interfere with our hard-earned vacation, come hell or high water. Or drug deals.

Just then a door opened, two down from Room 307, the other way from the van. I adjusted the sideview mirror to get a better look. A fat young woman with greasy, rooty-blonde hair, sausaged into stretch leggings and a bandeau top, emerged, cigarette wagging between her lips as she talked loudly over her shoulder to the open door. She was tethered by a short rope to a three-legged, bi-colored pit bull. Its missing leg, front right, didn’t appear to slow it down much, especially for a squat bully dog. It mazurka’ed 1-2-3, 1-2-3 right out to the eight-inch strip of lawn between the walkway and the parking lot and did its business, bigtime.

I saw the other pit bull then, in the rearview, dragging a laconic whip of teenage girl with shielded, squinting eyes toward us in the breezeway. Tripod had finished and was doing an impressive hind-scratch when Pit Bull Two lunged into the sun. Both dogs reared like Bighorn sheep, and in a split second, apocalyptic snarling blasted from the canine cyclone, amplified off the hard block walls. Ms. Sausage’s cig flew from her lips, Miss Laconic was waking up to a nightmare, and Sketch’s vocal chords and godless vocabulary were pushed to their limits. It appeared Ms. Sausage and Tripod were his, but evidently he felt it best to supervise from his station at the van’s window rather than dive into the fray himself. I gathered their transaction was not quite complete, and whatever his other shortcomings, Sketch seemed a diligent businessman.

Ms. Sausage and Miss Laconic managed to disentangle their “pets”, yanking respective rope and choke-chain until the dogs’ throttled croaks were all but silenced, and their front paws, or paw in Tripod’s case, hovered stiffly several inches off the ground. The ladies then bid each other a hearty eff-you in parting. Sketch turned his attention back to negotiations. I put the car in drive, and looking over at Kyle, saw his mouth hanging open.

“When you talk to your dad tonight, leave this out too, okay?”

We pulled back around to the office and walked in. Taneesha and Cha’relle had already left for the day; I imagined them victoriously shucking out of their uniforms as soon as they’d punched the clock. The night clerk, with a night clerk’s bored unhelpful face, her burgundy and cream perfectly congruous, peered at us silently. I explained about the earlier raid, the recent back-lot dog fight and illicit commerce, and named my demands – a room right at the front, adjacent to the office or security guard’s station  ( a folding chair in the breezeway outside the vending machine room – I’d seen the guard there earlier, reading the paper ). The night clerk, increasingly aghast and apologetic, complied. I compared her horrified reaction to Taneesha and Cha’relle’s earlier nonchalance, thinking perhaps the solitary night shift clerk realized she didn’t have much in the way of backup. I’d bet Taneesha and Cha’relle could kick ass if needed. The night clerk, not so much.

That night, I didn’t sleep too well. The construction workers in the rooms above us drank beer on the balcony, laughing and playing a Tejano radio station until well past midnight. The next morning, as we were carrying our bags to the car, they were gathering in the parking lot to head out to their job site. Kyle offered one of them his extra bacon and toast from our breakfast at Waffle House. The man smiled and nodded, accepting the to-go box with one broad, thick-fingered hand. He raised the other, imprinted with the permanent ink of manual labor, in silent benediction, then disappeared behind a panel van topped with extension ladders.

The rest of our vacation? Phenomenal.