About five years ago I was staying at this bad hotel on the edge of Denver. It was a cheap hotel so I should have expected it to be bad. Like my father says, “You always get what you pay for” which is true except, when it comes to hotels, I think the benchmark should be different. All hotels should be good and after that, if you pay more, it should just get better. But this was a bad hotel. I booked a smoking room and they gave me a non-smoking room. “Nothing else available,” they said. “Just smoke in there, man. And leave the window open.” So I did and I got cold and kept waiting for the smoke alarm to go off or someone to come in and bust me.
There was one good thing though; you could see the Rockies from my window. I rang home all the way to Australia and I told my wife and kids that I can see the Rockies from my window but the kids were too young to get it and my wife sounded like she wasn’t really that interested. Like she did about everything these days. I wished I hadn’t wasted that picture of the Rockies on her; it spoiled it somehow.
Anyway, soon after that I went to the bar in the hotel. I ordered a Millers Draught because it was American beer and I was having my first night in America. There was one other guy at the bar and no one else even in the lounge seats. After a couple of Millers I felt like talking to him. I had an American beer and I wanted to talk to an American. But I couldn’t think of anything to say and he didn’t even look my way like he was not interested in knowing who I was or what I was doing there.
Then I heard this laughing and talking and when I looked to the foyer I could see a group of Indians in full traditional dress walking out of the hotel. “Shit,” I thought, “I really am in America.” One of the Indians wore a full feather headdress so I figured he was the chief. Then I remembered seeing a poster about a Pow Wow going on in town. I wanted to know what that was all about.
I turned to the silent man at the bar. “Do you know what that’s all about?” I asked. He didn’t even look at the foyer or me. “Just some Indian shit,” he said. It wasn’t much of a start but it got the ball rolling. Soon we were talking pretty easily. When he found I was from Australia, he said with some animation, “Did you know that Australia has more marsupials than any other country on Earth?” The fact seemed to cheer him up for some reason. “We’ve only got one,” he laughs. “A fucking possum!”
He is 48 years old; he’s been a railway inspector for a quarter of a century. “It’s all I know, Man,” he tells me. Lost the sight in one eye in ’84 and had to give up painting. The inspector’s son was the best pitcher in Trenton, Nebraska, won a scholarship to Dodge City, Kansas but gave it up for love and came home to his dad while his girlfriend studied to be a mortician. And his daughter, who was Miss Hometown Queen, got in a car crash that left her with scars and a bad neck. Now she works as a dental assistant. “I didn’t know Australia fought in Vietnam,” he says later.
There was television on the wall and the news was on. It showed a bomb blast somewhere and there were bodies strewn over this road near a market. The American said to me, “What do you look at when you see a dead body on TV or in the newspaper or somewhere?” I really tried to think about that but I was getting drunk and I told him I didn’t know where I looked. “You gotta look somewhere,” he said and I said I guessed so but somehow I couldn’t remember where I looked, at the blood, I suppose. “I always look at their socks,” he said.
He went silent for a while. Then he looked at me over his beer and he laughed a bit. “Now why the fuck would I look at their socks?” He seemed genuinely interested in this. I went to say something but he interrupted and said, “You know, it just seems such a dumb thing to do on the day you’re gonna die. Put on your socks. Why the fuck would you even care!”
“They don’t know they are going to die,” I offered. He looked at me with a faint air of contempt. “I fuckin’ know that,” he said. “But we’re are all fuckin’ dying. It’s the socks I don’t get. It’s all the fuckin’ little things like socks.” Later he said he had to make a phone call. I waited for about half an hour but he didn’t come back so I went up to my room.
I was drunk and hungry now but I was tired too; the flight was catching up on me. I threw my clothes on the floor and climbed into bed in my underpants. The sheets were cool. There was a fight going on in the car park and I thought how wonderful it was that beyond my curtain lay the snow-capped Rockies and the great big country of America. Then I missed my family and wished my wife would cheer up a bit. I wondered why she was always sad lately and I felt this little knot of fear in my stomach. Then I realised I still had my socks on; I took them off and soon I was asleep.