Above it All
The vacancy sign at the Del Fond Motel was on, a reminder that not many people wanted to stay there. Locals would tell you it was a dump and even worse, “foreign owned.”
Sikander Kahloon, the owner, was born in Pakistan, but had been a US citizen for twelve years, so the Del Fond was as American owned as the nicer and more expensive Sleepy Time Motel a mile away. Out the office window Kahloon could see the neon letters of the other motel sign run together in a blurry red dot for “No” and a glowing dash for “Vacancy.” As usual there was the dot and dash, indicating they were full.
As a child Kahloon learned to be a gatekeeper on the foot-worn bridge of human need by watching his father haggle over falsa berries in the family market stall in Hyderabad. As a teenager he helped his grandfather operate a doss house in Kampala, where, to the old man’s profound horror, he married a Kakwa girl named Kya who worked there as a maid. She was giggly and playful, more like a child than a wife, and performed her cleaning duties (but not her marital ones) with the ultimate in non-dedication.
For reasons that were never clear Idi Amin’s Public Safety Unit took her away one rainy night and she was never seen again. When the dictator decided to run all the Asians out of the country, Kahloon fled to London where he worked as a clerk at a sex shop owned by an uncle, then moved to the US where he entered an arranged marriage with his next wife, Sitara, who was ten years older than him.
It was a mutually appreciated marriage of convenience. She had just obtained her American citizenship, which gave Kahloon permanent residency, and her father was relieved to find someone who would marry her in spite of her age and thinning hair. As a wedding gift he financed the purchase of the Del Fond. The business, the marriage, it all happened so fast he hardly knew how to feel about it. Sitara seemed to have her wifely role already well thought out and let him take his time getting used to her. For the first time in his life things seemed secure.
Kahloon had a deep and instinctive understanding that no matter how little money people had, or how sexually aroused they were, or how much trouble they were in, they all needed the same thing—a bed. At the Del Fond supply and demand worked its way into tenuous balance. Old-fashioned hospitality was the least of his customers’ concerns. If they came here, it was because they weren’t going to find anything cheaper.
There were no water leaks up at the Sleepy Time, however, where Larry R. Nolan ran a tight ship. After twenty years as an army cook, Nolan bought the Sleepy Time as a retirement business, supplementing his pension as Master Sergeant, E-8, better than some of his fellow cooks who couldn’t control their habits and retired as E-5 bucks.
The Sleepy Time boasted “old fashioned hospitality” and was advertised in all the tourist publications as “American Owned.” It sat on grounds that were clipped and trimmed and featured an exactly centered flagpole with a flag managed with all the protocols. The maids wore clean matching aprons every morning on their rounds. Nolan kept your signed credit card open just in case he had to impose a fine for smoking in a non-smoking room. If you snuck in a pet you could be charged a hundred dollars and be immediately evicted. He’d have the police out there immediately if he saw any suspicious activity, which happened one time when he thought there was narcotics traffic in number 37. It turned out to be someone selling illegally imported Haitian animal hide drums. Regardless, it was put to an end.
The Sleepy Time obviously took in more money, usually charged on a credit card, which was why it had never been robbed. The Del Fond gathered its meager receipts in cash from people who wanted to be anonymous and leave no trace, which was why it had been robbed twice. For that reason Kahloon’s wife refused to work the desk at night.
But his real losses came in slower, more persistent ways. Guests spilled drinks on the carpet and the bed. They cleaned their cars with the towels and washcloths, leaving them permanently stained. He had no budget to replace the TV remotes people threw against the wall if the volume control or channel selection didn’t work. Guests at the Del Fond brought in every kind of bad smell. One person scaled fish, another cleaned a carburetor, another cooked cabbage on a hot plate. What would possess someone to stuff a dirty diaper between the box spring and the mattress? You can clean something only so many times. Eventually the stains and the smells became permanent and Kahloon’s rates went lower. His hope was that someone would pass out while smoking in bed and burn the place down so he could collect the insurance, but that never happened. Instead they stole the batteries out of the smoke detectors.
Kahloon had discovered one advantage over Nolan. The Sleepy Time might get the businessmen and tourists, but the Del Fond, besides the hourly types, drew a special type of clientele. Evidence was behind the counter on the wall covered with rows of framed 8 by 10 glossy photos. Here you would find the Del-Tones, the Harmona-Cats, Ferlin Curtis, Magical Mia, the Izzy Schultz Trio (signed: “Kahloon knows how to treat you right”), Todd Oliver and Irving the Talking Dog (“to my friend Kahloon” and a sketched paw print), the Great Normando (“stupendous service”), The Fumes (“we’ll be back”), Horace Hickory and the Bluegrass Hicks, the Marsha Ludwig Band, Juanito Delgado and the Mariachi All-Stars. His latest was “Ramblin Bill,” the Christian cowboy poet and folk singer “as seen on TV.”
Many of them worked at the Oneida Casino or various surrounding roadhouses and bars. A few were school assembly speakers at the area’s twenty or so public and private schools. He didn’t realize how many working entertainers there were and how insistent they were, like himself, about keeping their costs down. At first the photos were left behind as a joke. Who would seriously praise this smelly eyesore for anything other than its dirt-cheap rates? Once he started hanging them up in frames, the Del Fond became known to more and more commercial travelers with profit margins as thin as his. As an added bonus the photos covered up water damage on the wall so he could save the expense of having to repair it. Rainwater would still find its way down behind the frames and to the floor, which was covered with rolled up towels. Now wrinkled and water stained, one of the photos showed a swashbuckling man and beautiful woman atop an aerialist’s perch.
To outsiders it may come as a surprise that aerialists are sometimes heavy drinkers. Karl Wallenda’s wife tried to keep his martini intake down to a couple or three at a time. The Hack family monitored each other’s jägermeister consumption, and the Palladinos liked their wine in the manner of most Europeans. They didn’t drink out of stress from fear of falling. Reliance on habituated mindfulness took care of that. They drank because it was a matter of doing what they pleased. Who would tell them otherwise? Weren’t they above everything? Like many of his fellow Croatians, Mirko Pindar was fond of slivovitz.
Pindar, like most “high acts,” never thought about falling from his platform any more than the usual person thinks about tumbling down a stairs. He never worked with a net because it was too much to haul around in his van. He felt, like many aerialists, that nets gave you a false sense of security and made you careless. Once, in Cuba, the Wallenda family walked a wire over the giant blades of a grinding machine. To the audience it looked gruesomely dangerous. To Wallenda it made the stunt safer, because it made concentration more total.
Pindar knew that his real safety net was a mental focus as fixed and regular as the motions of the stars. Nothing, not even slivovitz, could take that away. He was so much at ease “150 feet above the ground” (more like 50, but no one can judge height) that he had to fake a couple of near falls every performance to make it look more dangerous than it really was.
Accidents happened only to others, as in the case of his wife Mara. Born into the Pavlekovic family of Slovene aerialists, her deportment was majestic and graceful down to the smallest movement, so that seating herself at a restaurant table would draw attention for reasons no one could explain. She had never seen the inside of a classroom but had become, on no one’s encouragement, an autodidact. She followed the latest art movements in Ljubljana and tried with limited success to explain to Pindar such ideas as retrogardist aesthetics and the ephemeral triumphs of the utopian impulse.
Like most traveling European performers she could speak imperfectly in a dozen languages around stock phrases such as “price per week,” “indoors or outdoors,” “travel included,” “storm clause.” Through her shrewd manipulations they were able to work with a great deal more freedom than being permanently associated with a larger show, moving from Circus Rancalli to Cirque Élioze to Cirkus Benneweis. They worked fair tours on a Class P performing arts visa in the US, where compensation was higher and the exchange rate with European currency more favorable. A life of constant travel made social life for them impossible in the conventional sense, but it did not matter because they lived through each other. In the winter months they languished at her family’s small villa on the island of Mljet, off the Dalmatian Coast.
“In what country will we die in”? he asked her in Croatian and the answer in Slovene was, “the land of each other’s eyes.”
On a clear starlit night at an outdoor celebration in Evanston, Indiana, lightning snaked its way along the ground from a distant storm and hit their rigging. Pindar was insulated on his unicycle, but Mara, clutching metal, was struck and fell with helpless silence to the waiting ground. He declared, in the words of her grandfather Jura, who performed throughout the duration of World War II,predstava se ne smije otkazati (the show must go on), and was up on the perch the following night while Mara languished in the local mortuary.
She was buried without ceremony in an out of the way plot among graves long since gone unvisited, while Pindar was already en route to the next engagement where he made sure news of the accident got into the paper. He performed to one of the largest crowds of the season. The Pavlekovic family would not only have understood perfectly, but would have been deeply offended had he done otherwise.
Among aerialists of the European tradition, tears and grief are sublimated into the unforgiving discipline of the art, elevating each performance into a memoriam of how close the living are each night to the same fate. Pindar was now alone and closer to death than ever before. Slivovitz helped.
Like Pindar, Yolanda Palladino also worked alone and competed directly with him in an ever-shrinking market for their services. The Palladinos were well-known until the grandfather fell to his death at the Nebraska State Fair as a result of the most insidious danger of all—the assumption of knowledge. He assumed that others had properly tightenened the turnbuckles so wind would not oscillate the wire. Falling may not necessarily mean the end. You might break a few bones, get laid up a few months, but it’s possible you could live to perform again. It happened to the Hakims, the Wallendas, and others. But if you landed wrong, even at five feet, it could kill you. Yolanda’s grandfather didn’t have a chance from the height he fell and must certainly have known it those last few moments on the way down.
Without the patriarch holding things together, making the phone calls, taking care of contracts, deposits, currency exchanges and generally keeping everyone else in line, the rest of the Palladinos, barely literate and poorly educated in anything but performing, fell into chaos and insolvency. The only one with any kind of business sense was the granddaughter, Yolanda, who ended up, like Pindar, doing a solo perch act. She was tough and traveled alone, afraid of no one. Reporters asked her all the time if she ever wanted to give up the perch and raise a family. Her answer was that she never felt more self-fulfilled than when she was on the road performing, sleeping where no one in the world knew where she was. She never mentioned the handy little pistol she carried for security.
It would seem that Yolanda and Pindar could have teamed up together but neither wanted to split a paycheck. He was old enough to be her grandfather for one thing. So they fought for business and ended up despising each other. When he balanced on the perch with his unicycle, Yolanda did the same stunt. When Pindar balanced the unicycle on a soccer ball, Yolanda started doing a handstand on the handlebars of a bicycle. Each tired to top the other with a better stunt, but all it did was up the ante for risk and bring both of them closer to the face of death.
She went around at the annual International Fairs and Expos convention at the Las Vegas Hilton claiming she could do more than Pindar, and for the same money. Pindar went around saying he had more experience. The real reason she often got the job and he didn’t was because audiences preferred seeing a half-clad young woman standing on her hands with her legs spread, than a stocky, middle-aged man balancing a unicycle on top of a soccer ball.
He might have tried the handstand on the handlebars stunt years ago, when he and Mara performed from the Gulf of Riga to the Black Sea. Now he dyed his long gray hair black and starved himself to fit into a bodysuit to give the distant appearance of a rock star. Even though he performed his stunts, difficult at any age, and faked the near misses to try and shock an indifferent crowd below, the days of high status were gone.
County fairs booked him as a “free grounds attraction” with his performances often timed to coincide with the ticket lines at grandstand shows. The idea was to provide amusement while people waited in long queues to see an oldie band or a pop group. Out of boredom, teenagers would occasionally try to hit The Great Pindar at night with a laser pointer, sometimes several at once. Or, if he did a performance over the beer tent, revelers might chant “jump!” and laughingly order another round. But none of that affected the utter supremacy with which he took his final bows. He remained forever above it all.
What the audience never saw was the truly dangerous part—setting up and striking down the rigging. That’s when everything was tentative, pending securement. Pindar’s contract required two laborers to help him for an hour to assemble his perch and tighten the guy-wires. For years it wasn’t a problem. They would either be union stage hands or licensed professionals. But now, especially in America, promoters gave him teenagers, hired at the minimum wage. One time they didn’t bury a cable anchor (the so-called “dead man”) deep enough because they were too lazy to dig up a rock, so the rigging came loose while Pindar was in the sky. The same thing that got Karl Wallenda, almost got Pindar—vibration from loose support.
Unlike Wallenda (who fell to his death), Pindar caught himself just in time, but the accident tore the ligaments out of his aging shoulder like roots from dry soil. Nonetheless, each time Pindar ascended into the heights, he returned to a familiar, ancestral place. The air, for its variations of temperature and smell, particles and bugs, was the same all over the world, and like him and his forebears, borderless.
Up on his platform he was still the timeless, majestic Mirko Pindar, ascending to the dangers of the sky, afterward autographing the T-shirts of young girls (usually, but not always, disappointed to see his age up close), selling off old photos of Mara and himself, then going back to his motel alone (but not always) to relax with a liter of slivovitz.
On the same night Pindar gave Kahloon the photo of himself and Mara, one of the maids ducked into the office out of a heavy rain. She could have stepped out of a Horace Hickory bluegrass ballad with her face hardened from tough luck and raw hands with nails chewed down to nothing. Kahloon called her that night on short notice because there was unusually heavy a shack-up trade and he was having the rare fortune of being short of prepared rooms.
The maid slammed down a box of cleanser, sending up a little white puff of powder. “I’m not cleaning number 3.”
He looked over the top of his reading glasses with the precise attentions of learned man. “Why not?”
“I’m just not—yeow!”
She jumped as thunder exploded like a bomb, then quickly got back to the business at hand. “I’ve worked as a maid for fifteen years, and I never seen anything as bad as that.” In her mind, it was all Kahloon’s fault. She reflected the twisted logic she heard in local bars that it was fleabags like the Del Fond that made life hard on everyone.
“It’s not a suicide is it?” He was thinking of the incident in another room a few years before. “No? Well, all right, then, tell me what it is.”
“I’m not going to pollute my mouth with the words to say it.”
“It can’t be that different from the usual stuff. What is it this time, lot’s of blood? Someone miss the toilet? Come on, just tell me.”
“Here’s the key. There’s the room. Enjoy yourself. I quit.”
It was after the maid left that the middle-aged man with a broad face and high forehead, came into the office with rain dripping off his nose. In a thick accent he asked for the lowest commercial rate. Kahloon knew what a commercial rate was, but didn’t have one, so he gave his one price, the lowest of any motel within fifty miles of Green Bay. The man put down on the counter an 8 by 10 glossy photograph already pocked and crinkled by raindrops. It showed two people, a man and a woman, atop a high perch.
“I am Mirko Pindar, very famous.” As if to emphasize this claim, a flash of lightning momentarily dissolved the regiment of framed images in reflected light.
Neither man flinched, but stared at each other across the counter with detached assessment. Pindar took out a marker and scrawled something illegible across the sky behind the long outdated image of himself and Mara. “You give me good deal, I give you photo. For wall.” He smiled and winked to make the deal sound sweet. Kahloon looked out the window at a van loaded down with equipment and a woman in the passenger seat checking her face in the visor mirror.
“What I told you is the cheapest rate you’ll find within driving distance.”
“We might stay maybe more than one night.”
Kahloon looked at the cleanser box still on the counter, dark spots of rain dappling the powder around the shake holes. “I guess I could give you a break on room 3, but it’s not ready.”
“When will be ready?”
He thought of waking up his wife, then quickly dismissed the idea. “When I get a new maid, I guess.”
“You give me break on price and I clean room myself.”
“You’ll clean it yourself?”
“You give me sheets and towels and I do everything.”
Even though it was illegal, Kahloon gave Pindar the linens, a couple of bars of Purity Basics, the can of cleanser, and a key to number 3. Pindar slid his photo across the counter as the rain came down like that night in Kampala when they took away Kahloon’s first wife.
After he closed the office and locked the door, Kahloon glanced one last time up at the Sleepy Time and noticed the neon dash had still not turned into a dot anddash, which meant it was not full. He proudly turned on his own “No Vacancy” sign. This time he’d come out ahead of Nolan in their nightly theater of needs and wants.
He got into bed with Sitara and she moved her comforting warmth up against him. Ten minutes passed. He waited for the office bell to ring with bad news about number 3. He turned on his side, then his stomach, then on the other side and finally on his back, as if he were a sausage cooking himself evenly. A half an hour went by. Thunder, lightning, rain, but still no bell.
“So jao,” said his wife gently. “Go to sleep.”
Finally he did, but it was several hours later.
John-Ivan Palmer’s literary work has appeared in Pushcart Prizes, Exquisite Corpse, Other Voices, Book Happy, Your Flesh Quarterly, and Rain Taxi. His novel, Motels of Burning Madness was released in 2011 from The Drill Press. Palmer is a professional stage hypnotist.