This story was inspired by boredom on long road trips. My husband and I started making a game out of finding exit signs that could be first and last names, for example, Luckey Haskins, an exit sign on I-75 heading toward Toledo. Then we came up with possible characteristics for someone with that name. I started making a list and building character descriptions and figuring out how they might interact with one another. The result was “The Last Night at the Exit Inn.” I hope you enjoy reading it and perhaps trying out the road game yourself.
Last Night at the Exit Inn
Sherwood Paulding was a seeker of freedom who had been stalled out for a while, but that was going to change tonight, the beginning of the new millennium, January 1, 2000. The Exit Inn and Flower and the handful of patrons he had catered to over the years would become memories. Once again it would be just Woody, his guitar, and the road.
The road. That’s where it all started almost a lifetime ago. It was 1969 and twenty-year-old Sherwood Paulding was adamant that he was not going to be a soldier and go to Vietnam. He had been the pride of his parents, bearing the surnames of both his mother’s and father’s Old South families, an only son and star linebacker who had gone bad. It was that year spent away at Ole Miss. His father regretted not keeping his son closer to the influences of his rural Mississippi home where patriotism was sacred and pacifists were sinful cowards. He recalled his father’s final words to him, “May you rot in hell for your perfidy, you weak bastard. You’re no son of mine.”
Thank almighty God his father didn’t know the half of it. He didn’t know that Joanna Whitmire was carrying his grandchild, and he didn’t know that Woody had stolen money out of the St. George Drug Store cash bag. The worst was he had shot Santee St. George with Santee’s own protection gun when the old miser had caught him stealing. St. George deserved to be robbed; he never gave Woody a raise even once. He would still be alive, too, if he had minded his own business instead of coming in to the store to check on Woody as though Woody hadn’t closed up a million times.
The baby business was at least half Joanna’s fault. She was always flaunting that body of hers in tight sweaters or halter-tops. What was red-blooded guy supposed to do? And he had worked hard pushing sodas and cleaning up for old man St. George. He hadn’t stolen so much as simply took what he had rightfully coming to him. He didn’t mean to shoot the old coot.
Woody, shook off his father’s curse, made plans to abandon the evil empire of Nixon, and began thinking of himself as Woody, just free Woody.
The idea for what he thought of as his pilgrimage to Canada began in May right after he found out he had flunked out of school and Canada obligingly announced it would accept immigrants without questioning status. His idea became a quest after he received his draft notice and Joanna slobbered all over him, telling him about her unfortunate pregnancy. Just before Christmas, he hit St. George’s cash register and had the final run in with his father. So far the cops seemed to think St. George had been taken out by some civil rights types whom he had denied service to just the week before. It was time to light out before the cops investigated further.
He started thumbing it, sticking to back roads until he was out of the region. He did pretty well with his guitar bag slung over his shoulder. Drivers seemed to think musicians were interesting companions on the road. The problem was money. He discovered that it didn’t last long when it came to feeding the young, hefty adult male, especially in freezing temperatures. That’s how he found himself taking a detour off the shoulders of Interstate 75 and heading into a dive called the Exit Inn.
The oxymoronic name appealed to Woody. The ramshackle exterior held very little promise except a roof. There was a hint of former grandeur about the architecture, but the current condition of the structure was shoddy at best.
Then, there she was, Florence Burlington, although Woody wouldn’t know her given name for a few more months. Florence sat shivering on the stoop of the Exit Inn. She was pretty in a confused sort of way. She wore a peasant skirt and a plastic daisy in her hair as though she were trying to conjure up some summer. An apron fell askew toward her side. She eyed Woody’s guitar.
“Acoustic,” she noted.
Woody hoped he detected a note of approval in her observation.
“Acoustic makes for more authentic music. The electrical stuff—I don’t know. I suppose it has its place. I’m Woody.”
She nodded in a solemn way. “Flower.”
Woody paused. Flower and Woody, two idyllic names speaking of grace and nature. He was sure there was meaning in it if he just thought about it long enough. Flower was smoking a joint. Woody hoped she might offer to share, but she didn’t.
“The Exit Inn, groovy name, huh?” Woody hoped to get some conversation going.
Flower replied with a quizzical look. “Well, it is an inn off an exit.”
Apparently Flower was a devotee of the obvious.
Woody sighed. Maybe it was just wry wit. Maybe it really was a place one could go in, but never really exit. Surely there could be a song.
She reached out for his guitar case. It was a simple nonverbal request, made as though she expected no other response but that he would take out the guitar and play even in freezing temperatures. He sat down next to her and strummed a few chords to tune the strings. His fingers hurt in the cold. Flower just stared with vacant eyes that Woody still saw as being deep pools of aqua wisdom.
Then she placed the joint on the step next to her and started to sing. It was “White Rabbit,” a haunting version performed on a cold winter stoop by a surreal voice. At first Woody tried accompany her, but then just let himself become lost in the sheer purity of her voice.
Woody’s reverie was broken by a harsh voice. “Flor, Flower, where the hell are you? God, girl, you need a leash, you surely do.” The voice’s body soon erupted out of the inn. It belonged to a grizzled old man who looked more frustrated than angry. He grabbed Flower’s joint and took a few drags himself before tossing it and then smashing it into the ground with the heel of his boot.
“Jesus, girl, it’s New Year’s Eve. There’s a chance we might actually get some customers tonight. Get in there and start spiffin’ up the tables. I mixed up some black-eyed peas and herring for bar food.”
The old man’s grizzled appearance gave Woody some pause. He found himself stepping back a bit from the gnarly creature who had come on the scene.
Woody’s sudden movement captured the old gnome’s attention and his voice rambled off, “You never know who might be looking for tradition on a night like this.” He turned to give Woody a good looking over. Woody shivered as a certain gleam in the man’s eye seemingly penetrated his soul.
“A musician, huh?”
Woody just nodded as the old man let out with low guttural chuckle. “You’re on your way to Canada, aren’t you?”
Woody didn’t know how to respond, so he just stayed mute.
“Oh, don’t worry about me turning you in. I don’t have any particular love for the feds. The law comes up with the damndest ideas—war, taxes, prohibition. No, son, I say thumb your nose at the law at every opportunity.”
Woody relaxed a little given the old codger’s take on authority.
“The name’s Rankin. Fithian Rankin. Most folks just call me Fith.”
“Well, Fith, I wonder if I might be able to trade some music and maybe some hard work for a few night’s rest and some food.”
The wrinkled man’s eyes appraised Woody’s height and width. “I tell you what, young fellow. You look like a man of more than one talent. You stay with me over the winter and help fix this place up and keep an eye on my niece Flor, ahh, Flower here and I’ll see to it that you get deservedly rewarded. You don’t want to get to frozen Canada in the middle of winter without a nest egg to see you into spring.”
While Fithian Rankin himself sent shivers through Woody, keeping an eye on Florence had definite appeal. A little money couldn’t hurt either. Besides he was weary of the road and Canada was close enough that he could bolt there if things just didn’t turn out. Fithian held out a cold, clammy hand and after a pause, Woody shook it. He felt a chill but decided it was simply the cold north’s way of telling him to take shelter.
By mid-January, Woody came to realize that Flower’s mysterious emptiness, was more emptiness than mystery. She had taken to following him around wherever he went in the inn. She would cower behind Woody whenever Old Fith raised his voice at her, which was often. It rankled Fith that his no-good sister had up and died of liver disease and saddled him with her brat, a pretty much worthless brat who it appeared was never going to be able to leave the nest.
Flower went from being an object of desire, one Woody sampled from time to time, to being more of an obligation. She reminded Woody of a pound animal, one that sensed it was unwanted. She existed on the white powder Woody soon came to appreciate as well.
There were moments though when she would sing. Sometimes Woody could coax her to sing with him for the few folks who frequented the Exit Inn, a sorry clientele though they were. After only a few months, their duets dwindled away as Florence withdrew more and more into that hole hinted at by her eyes.
Then Woody played alone once a week on Saturday nights. The rest of the week, he tended bar for the regulars and the occasional wayfarer who wandered in off the highway and was too tired to look beyond the inn.
One learned a good deal tending bar. For example, he learned that Fith got his start as a rumrunner during prohibition. That little tidbit came from Franklin Muncie. Frank was a clerk at the local hardware store down the road. He was a fountain of male gossip. He practically yanked Woody over the bar one night to whisper Rankin’s story to him.
Woody heard Frank’s murmured tale trying to keep his feet on the floor while Frank grabbed him around the neck to get Woody’s ear close by.
Frank practically panted as he began his story. “You should know about the guy you’re working for, young fellow. Fith Rankin was nuthin’ as a kid. Then he got connected with Capone’s guys in Toledo. He started running booze in from Canada. He made a small fortune before the feds caught on to him. They came after him all right, but Fith.”
Here Frank stopped and looked furtively around him before starting again, “They say Fith popped off a couple of them, if you know what I mean. He’d probably still be in the pen today if that Capone lawyer, Odgen Royal, hadn’t pulled some swift work and got him off.
“This place was something when the Capone guys set Fith up in it some thirty years ago—a real nice hotel. Fith had plans. Then Prohibition ended. Funding sort of dried up and this old bar is what’s left.”
With that Frank, let Woody loose and nodded his head as though he had just related something Biblical. Woody found himself wanting to whisper Amen.
Then it happened. The year was up. Woody made plans to hit Canada for the new year, but Fith had other ideas.
“Well, boy, you think you’re off to Canada. What if I told you if you go, I’ll have to let some certain officials know there’s a draft dodger heading for Canada? Or maybe there’s a county in Mississippi that would love to see a certain young drifter in court or a couple of daddies with some ideas about honor. What would you say then?”
Apparently Fith had been busy over the past twelve months or maybe just clairvoyant. “Boy, I think you’re doing just fine here at the Exit Inn. I think you should stick around for a while. The old inn isn’t much, but at least there aren’t any judges or electric chairs.”
Woody gave in. There was always enough booze and pot that found its way into the Exit Inn to take the edge off. Woody just smoked and sipped his way into acceptance.
One year turned into five. Then Fith played the ultimate card in his hand. He died taking the garbage across the road one late night when he was hit by a police cruiser on a high-speed chase. The force of the hit threw Fith’s body right back onto the doorstep of the inn.
Fith’s will left the inn to Florence Burlington, his beloved niece, with the stipulation that it would be sold from under her if Woody did not stay and manage the place. The lawyer also took Woody aside to mention that Fith had also left another document that was to be handed over to the police in the event Woody decided to leave. The old devil had managed to trap Woody even from the grave.
Now it was 1999, twenty-five years later. It had taken Woody a quarter century, but he had saved enough money to put Florence into a group home. She had pretty much abandoned him and life. She hadn’t registered anything for nearly twenty years. Once in awhile she would sing “White Rabbit,” but that was as close to lucidity as she ever came.
Frank Muncie’s ramblings had led Woody to a young hoodlum named Luckey Haskins. According to Frank, Luckey supposedly ran a lucrative meth business out on the farm he had inherited from his grandfather.
It turned out Luckey had the sort of connections one needed to get a new identity and obtain and destroy incriminating documents. Young Haskins was going to take over the inn as payment for his “paperwork.” It would officially become his upon Florence’s death.
So it was New Year’s Eve again. Woody would finally make it to Canada to greet the new century. He was only fifty; some good years still lay ahead.
A cold breeze shot in as Luckey blew in to the inn. Woody saw him shiver even after securing the door.
“Hey, man, I’m here to get the keys. Tomorrow this place starts to rock.”
Woody smiled as he handed the keys over.
“Stop looking at me like that. Your eyes are evil, old man.” With that Luckey swaggered to the door and then turned to take a sweeping look at what the inn would become for him.”
“Don’t worry, Haskins. At midnight, I’m out of here.”
Luckey slammed the door behind him. The whole place seemed to reverberate; Woody didn’t even notice the pain creeping up his left arm as the lights of inn dimmed for him.