Star-Lite Siesta by Bobby Minelli
“SOME PEOPLE, and I am one of them, hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. ” – Vladimir Nabokov
My mother kept a journal, and she used to say that writing it all down was a mild form of rebellion. For most of my life, I never really knew what she meant by that, but I know now.
When I think of my Mom, I think of her crunching potato chips, the cool snap from a can of Coke being opened, sitting poolside with her, about to have lunch, wrapped in the rough comfort of a beach towel. She watched All My Children every afternoon, and held no grand ambitions beyond having children, keeping them safe, and being able to take them to Florida every once in awhile. She danced while she vacuumed, didn’t care for ethnic food, and liked to sing. She was maybe the most American person I ever knew, from an age before the middle-class chasm became so large it was assumed that folks on the poorer side of it were all uneducated hillbillies with no taste. Part of a dying breed, the best kind of American, she could do everything one might now be inclined to associate with poor America, and do it with all the charm and class of someone who knew and appreciated her own worth by the very fact that she was American. She thought what made the country best was that you didn’t have to be rich to be worth something. So, every year, to celebrate, we went on vacation.
I haven’t looked at her face since I was thirteen years old. Haven’t felt her long red nails scratch my back. Haven’t been humbled by her sense. It never occurred to my Mother to second-guess the dignity of watching a soap opera, because what kind of fool second-guesses life’s simple pleasures or small blessings. She loved the pool, loved the sun, and loved to swim. She was at her happiest when eating potato chips and making turkey sandwiches, telling us to get out and dry off soon, because lunch would be ready in five. She’d watch us ignore her, and let us settle for eating wet when the time came. I loved her and she is gone, and so I guess I’ve always felt compelled to rebel, even if mildly…
When I walked up to the Star-Lite, the white sand swirled on the black asphalt in the exact same way it had when I’d crossed the street as a kid. I remembered that it would be at its most unbearably hot, the asphalt, around one in the afternoon. There were bright violet flowers everywhere. I never knew their name, but many years had passed since I had been there, and they too looked just the same, especially gorgeous, scattered and delicate when the concrete crumbled and gave way to the white sand of the beach. It was always very nice at night, the whole place, breeze off the gulf and all that. The palm trees stood vigil above the sun faded pink rooftop and cast cool, unconcerned, moonlight shadows, just witnesses. I had left my car in the Aloha Kai parking lot and walked. A woman walking alone at night wasn’t anything to shake a sandal at in a beach town; evening walks were a hobby for many. Like I said, it’s very nice at night. When I was thirteen, two days before I lost my Mom, I had taken a long walk on that very beach with Scotty. His dad, Ben, ran the Star-Lite Siesta and Scotty was a dream- tan and tee-shirted and seventeen.
I stood out front of the crumbling motel, beneath the pink neon of the giant old Star-Lite sign and tried to calm myself. I’ve always felt guilty that my memory of my last day with her isn’t razor-sharp, but trauma being what it is, the chaos that follows is often more memorable than anything that preceded it. Before it became the worst day of your life, it was just any other goddamn day. The last thing I remember was her singing to me, singing my name and scratching my back as I fell asleep on the couch of our rented suite. They must have put me to bed. Everyone else had gone to bed- my two older brothers, my younger brother and little sister. Dad had gone to bed too. When he woke up she was gone. Then it was chaos.
Standing there, staring at the place, I could see the darkened window of the suite that had been ours, I remembered the balcony I knew to be set on its beach-facing wall, where we would read at night, nothing but white sand and black ocean beyond. I had tried to prepare, to warn myself that I might be overwhelmed by being back in the town. To be clear, I had been living on my savings for two years, trying to find my mother’s killer, combing through cloudy pieces of aging information, worrying the few friends I had to death, and worrying my family even worse. My father had stopped asking whether I would try to get another job after the first year following my dismissal from The Atlantic. He couldn’t afford therapy for any of us when we lost my Mom, and after that, it seemed too late, but I knew he felt guilty. No one knew I was there, at the site of our family getaways. No one even knew I was in Florida. I could only imagine the conversations they must have regularly had about me, but I knew they loved me still, and I loved them… That’s why I was there, after all. I’m not crazy, and that night I was the sanest person I knew. Even still, seeing the Star-Lite in all its rhapsodic beach-side romance, I remembered more than I had expected, and a brutal wave of oceanic ecstasy hit me, soaking and indiscriminate. My knees felt weak and my skin glowed pink.
My father, a serious man, prone to delightful and often wildly unexpected fits of silliness, had insisted that he get to name his first girl, and when my mother conceded, he had named me Corrina, after his favorite song. My mother could really sing, and she would sing that song, her voice soft and deep, whenever I was upset as a child. I’ve been trying to find it, in my mind, off and on for most of my life, her voice singing that song. As I stood there in front of the Star-Lite and quivered, she sang it again, only in a whisper…
“Corrina, Corrina, where you been so long…”
My parents sang in church, and they were very good, but when Mom was gone, Dad never realized that all we could hear were her missing harmonies. He just kept on singing, but every missing note was salt in the wound. Even so, we couldn’t ask him to stop… that would have just been cruel. I guess we thought he needed it, the music. After it happened, he never listened to or even mentioned Corrina Corrina again. I saw him think about it once or twice, but then he’d stop, and pretend he hadn’t thought about it at all.
We had a small ceremony for her, but that wasn’t the real tribute. Our remembrance was when we went home and played her records. My Dad, bone-weary with grief, swinging my younger sister Kitty, and she belly-laughed, and he sang along with the Beach Boys “Don’t Worry Baby” and Whitney’s “How Will I Know” and dozens more, each at our urgent suggestion. I’m sure that if she had been there, she’d have been dancing, and that’s all we were really going for. When we were nearly too exhausted to stand, we exploded into Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” her absolute favorite song of all time. Her husband and five kids, just dancing, because, that’s what she would have wanted. All six of us could really dance… it was a sight.
If I wanted to indulge in morbid fascination, I could go on about the beach, and the days after, and the logistical nightmare, visible even to a child, of losing a loved one while on vacation. How do you ask to go to the pool when your Mom is missing, even if all you want to do is get out of the way?
I breathed deep the ocean air. I wanted to draw on her, to have her be the strength I was missing, as I had done throughout my search. But I didn’t want to go into the old building, and I felt weak. I didn’t have much of a plan. Even though the Internet had made writing bullshit, my time spent with The Atlantic resulted in my investigative journalism skill being a fairly substantive force; I knew every goddamn thing there was to know about that motel. For one, it wasn’t a motel anymore, hadn’t been in seven years. It was privately owned, abnormal for your average abandoned American beachside motel, purchased seven years earlier. Around that time, while I was doing research for a series of articles about retaliatory violence committed by domestic abuse victims, an assignment that had turned the lights on inside of me, a woman I interviewed had told me, “When you kill someone there are no other camera angles, just yours, bloody and flailing, like a dying bird.” She said it soft and almost to herself, as if watching something far away. I’ve always remembered that.
My affair with neon stretches as far back as I can recall. It was part of the reason I loved the Star-Lite so much, even as a very small child. Romance. Neon is a nest where melancholy roosts, which is why it works so well in bars. And Jesus, that neon Star-Lite Siesta sign, it was the most beautiful thing I knew, the buzz was like a drug, it meant more to me than Christ on the cross. It meant we were there, forty days and forty nights through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, my Dad at the wheel of our van with spotty A.C., delivering us from Ohio. When I saw that blessed sign, it meant vacation. My Dad would joke- not New York where you had to compete with everyone, not California where you had to be pretty, Florida, where you could relax and be your unimpressive self.
I was first at peace with my insignificance standing by the sign in the hot sun, holding a book and floating back and forth between the story in my hand and the story I was living. Both mattered so much and so little at the same time, like the wind. I could see the whole world in that moment, like watching a wave break and understanding the whole sea. The flowers, the sign, the book, the sand, the sea… Scotty, vacuuming the pool, like some luxurious lower middle-class Nirvana.
I saw my first penis in Florida; a European neighbor left his blinds open, and when he saw me seeing him, he didn’t seem all that embarrassed, just flummoxed and annoyed. He was handsome, the penis not so much- all grumpy and natural, like a reptile hiding between two rocks. But later, when I considered it, and thought maybe, in some bizarro dimension, it did interest me, the thought occurred by the light of the neon. And later still, in Ohio, on a park bench after the Fourth of July fireworks, when the clumsy apologetic spasm of teenage desire intruded, I thought of that neon sign. I guess I thought of it often.
From the start, the Sarasota P.D. knew that if my mother had been murdered, they were never going to find her killer. I knew she didn’t commit suicide, because I knew my mom. When I looked back later as a reporter, the entire situation was one gigantic cock-up. Even still, how insidious it had been to insinuate suicide. There was no body, and for the wildly inexperienced police force, she was almost transparently an inconvenience.
My Mom was pretty, very pretty. When she shows up in my dreams, she is handsome and eternal, no makeup or anything, like a puma is pretty, that’s how my Mom was pretty. That made it a popular news story for a small town, “Family woman commits suicide by walking into the sea, never to return.” But even as a thirteen-year-old, it occurred to me quite organically that walking into the sea was a tough way to commit suicide. Just walking into the ocean, no, that’s not easy. It’s been a very long time, and I fret over fading memory, but I know my mother and of all the things she wouldn’t do, walking to her death is about the first. Which meant she was killed.
I had to go in. I moved toward the Star-Lite’s front entrance, checking my body mentally,. I wore an oversized Hawaiian shirt underneath my jean jacket, and faded blue jean shorts. I felt limber and capable; I had some puma in me too. It was what I was most comfortable in, the faded denim jean jacket was my mom’s- my prized possession. There was a small abandoned lobby area. I remembered wondering why “continental” was attached to “breakfast” and I looked to my left at a cigarette machine, a stoic rusted time traveler. Past the lobby was the soft ocean blue of the quiet hallway leading to the pool. That’s when I heard the song.
The music ambled toward me from the center of the Star-Lite, the heart of the little place, the pool. It had been ten days since I’d landed in Florida, over two years since I’d lost my job, and thirteen years and a single day, since I had lost her. I stood still just at the mouth of that blue hallway. It was an old record, scratchy in spots but the voice rose, louder and clearer, like someone was cranking the volume.
“Oh little darling, where you been so long…”
Ray Peterson’s sad warble filled the whole motel.
“Corrina Corrina, Corrina Corrina, Corrina Corrina,”
My legs became reluctant beasts of labor and I had to force them to move. I drew the small pistol from my right pocket and stepped out into soft moonlight bathing the pool area. The song was a swaying thunder.
“I love you so.”
He sat facing the water in a straight-backed pink plastic pool chair, a cigarette burned in his left hand, and next to him was a small table with a pile of records leaning against it. The record player sat atop the seafoam table and the whole set up, perched above a jumble of extension cords, had a functional but precarious look. His shoulders were muscular and athletic, just like I remembered. He was rough and smooth all at once, in the way of beach people. His body was relaxed beneath the faded tourist tee.
“Hello Scotty,” I said. It was all I could think to say, my mind freezing over with fear.
He waited until the song finished. It was a short song, but even after it ended, the echo of my name lingered ghostlike in the empty courtyard and he did not face me or rise. Horror.
Even thirteen years ago when it came to things like pool clean-up or lawn detail, Scotty was a creature of routine and, over the ten days leading up to this meeting, I had received every indication that he had not changed. It was 11:15 at night, so Scotty should have been out for his evening beach stroll, half a mile up and half a mile back, he was usually gone for roughly thirty minutes. He had set out for that walk every night I had been in Florida. I knew because I had been surveying him from the Aloha Kai Motel three lots down. Each night, Scotty went for the same walk he had taken me on, the night before my Mom disappeared. I planned on entering while he was away. I had brought a .22 caliber pistol and pepper spray. I was going to surprise him and get the answers to the questions that had defined my young life. I needed the answers to those questions.
The thought that he had known I was watching was a horror. The song playing meant he was real, and if he was real, then he knew I was coming. And if he knew I was coming, I probably wasn’t going to leave the Star-Lite alive. Real horror.
I wanted to scream, to flee, but instead, I thought of the women I had interviewed for the domestic violence piece, maintaining character in the face of probable death. It was one of the things I admired most about them, such strength. I decided not to give him weakness. I was sure my Mother hadn’t.
As a little girl, I had known Scotty for ten days each summer, from the time I was three until I was thirteen. I watched him play with his boogie board, develop into a basketball wiz, and labor for his Dad after he became too old to cut the stiff Florida grass in the heat. He was my crush, my love, my saltwater Apollo. He had a broad sure smile and a firm, playful touch. If the Sun decided to wink at you and suggest you were pretty, that was how it felt when talking to Scotty. I didn’t really know him at all, of course, I was a little girl who only said hi, but he was a dream. Little girls have them.
“Hi Corrina,” he said, “where you been so long?” He was fiddling with the record player.
I said nothing.
“You got real pretty by the way, knew you would.” He stood up and turned to face me, drawing from his cigarette. His eyes were charming, but mad in a way that made their charm repugnant, I saw he also had a gun. “We still friends little one?”
He wanted to play games. “You don’t know me,” I said.
He gestured to a chair identical to his, but across the small pool, maybe eight feet away. “Come sit, and put the gun down, wouldja? We’re still friends.”
The distance appealed to me and, keeping a wide berth, while also reminding myself of small weight of the pepper spray in my pocket, I walked over and sat. He sat back down facing me.
“Go on,” he said and I placed my gun on the concrete next to me. He sat his next to the record player on the table. It’s hard to explain why we did that… why I didn’t just shoot him in the back when I first saw him sitting there, but the guns seemed incidental and inconsequential- even his. I guess we both had things we wanted to say, so that ruled out any immediate violence. He dropped the needle on the record player and there was an anticipatory hiss, then breezy guitar music and he looked to the sky, closed his eyes, and smelled the ocean air. His head snapped back down to consider me and, in the soft blue light that reached up from beneath the water, I looked at him right back.
He seemed so much the same, but there were differences, twitches that seemed like something trying to escape. He shimmied for a moment with excitement. “This is so dramatic.” I was silent, the danger and the foolishness of everything I’d done hung upon me like chains, but I also could feel the inertia of the moment. “And,” he gestured toward me, his tanned muscles rippling with confidence, “you’ve become such… a woman.” I held his gaze for another moment, took in both his rough attractive features and the shadow beneath them that did not want to be seen. “You have all the woman parts,” he said, openly staring. “Well, you’re just very pretty, really a real woman, little one.” He took another drag. He looked delighted.
With huge difficulty, I spoke, “I know it must frighten you, my being here.”
“Corrina,” he feigned a wound, “I’m delighted you’re here. I had almost begun to think your sweet Mom never existed, and now here comes her little girl, you are… um, um…” He waved his cigarette hand and looked up in the air, searching, “You… are joyful affirmation.”
I was silent for a moment and then the words rose in me calm and furious. “You know why I’m here.”
He left for a moment, “She was my first.”
“What did you do to her?”
“It was supposed to be you… you know that, right?”
Somewhere, I did.
He stood, slow and deliberate. I stood clumsily scraping my pink chair back across the concrete. He slowly stepped to his left, toward me, and I moved to the right, away from him. We matched each other’s speed. “I must be so important to you right? And here I am. It’s me, little one. Do you dream about me?”
I did. He was a nightmare.
He smiled and when he did, his teeth seemed longer and maybe chipped and broken and jagged, where they had once been white. It occurred to me that a person may very well lose their mind when confronted with their own end.
“I found you,” I said. I had his interest, and he started to react but I cut him off. I needed to sustain his attention. “I know about the others. I know you’re proud of yourself, thinking that you had gone unnoticed, I know what you are Scotty.”
The shadow rose in his face, “If you knew what I am, Little One, you would have never, ever come here.”
In that moment, I believed him.
My mother liked to journal. She wrote often, mostly just random moments and observations, but she wrote more on vacation. It seemed to soothe her and there were few other occasions when she had the time. There was no motive for anyone to take my Mom away, and as such, there was nowhere for the investigation to start. Everything I looked at when I started reeked of the deadest of dead ends. Then I read her journal while working on my piece about retaliatory violence, and I saw something that felt familiar.
Looking at Scotty, I quoted her journals directly, I knew large chunks of them by heart. It was a very long time ago, but I imagined he probably seen her, writing by the pool. “Ben’s boy, looked at Corrina for a long time today. It was odd, he looks at me too when I’m sunning. He’s a teenage boy, but the looks are long, and they feel different. Not sure whether or not I should say something to Ben about it. If I see him looking at Corrina again, I think I will.”
He kept smiling, frozen. “Such a worrier, your Mom.”
The pepper spray in my pocket seemed so far away, none of this had gone the way I had planned. “I read those three sentences over and over, but they never meant anything to me, until I knew you, Scotty.”
“You don’t know me, you little bitch.”
“Yes I do.” I felt a glimmer of hope. ”She embarrassed you, and that was all it took.”
He was appalled but rapt, almost orgiastic. “I wasn’t embarrassed.”
I did not smile; I did not flinch or flutter. I looked at him again, and under the blue light, I said, “Yes you were Scotty. She scolded you and you hated it. And all those women you’ve hurt, they shamed you too.” He had gotten closer than I intended to let him. I knew he was strong and if he got ahold of me, we wouldn’t fight for long. “That’s why I’m here, Scotty. To shame you.”
I broke him. He leapt. I wasn’t fast enough, but as the beast grabbed the denim of my Mom’s jacket, a miracle happened.
“JITTERBUG!” the sound was gargantuan and we both reeled.
“JITTERBUG!” For the first time, he looked at me with horror. It wasn’t a horror like mine, it was inhuman.
George Michael’s voice came from the poolside speakers like the flaming voice of Yahweh.
“You put the boom boom into my heart-”
“You send my soul sky high when your lovin’ starts-”
I managed to get my pepper spray out and unloaded it from less than an inch away. His shriek was awful and metallic. He raised his hand to shield himself and stumbled backwards. I could see I had demolished his left eye and filled his right with the poison. While he was screaming, I pushed him into the pool. He went in flailing. The music thundered.
He seemed to gather himself underwater and deftly back stroked to the shallow end. He rose slowly, eyes burning and blind, laughing. He spat water out and began to speak…
“She’s not dead you know… She’s just sleeping, Little One!” He screamed in a sweet high pitch over the music. “I had to offer her to him! To the,” his voice changed and became bestial and it looked like his jaw was unhinging, “SHA BENEATH THE SEA, TO THE DETRITUS.” I was still circling the pool, and he was clearly blind, but he seemed to look right at me. It hadn’t occurred to me in years, that my mother wasn’t dead. Years. “Hey Corrina, when I get ahold of you, before I give you to him, I’m gonna rape your pretty little ass.” He smiled wide. “You’ll see that there are other worlds than these and I’m the best your gonna get. I’m the best of what’s waiting for you, you little BITCH!”
To my crazed eye, his teeth seemed like they were elongating and I was sure his face was changing shape…
It wasn’t until, he heard the scrape of the table legs on the concrete, that he knew what was coming…
“Wake me up, before you go go, don’t leave me hangin round like a yo-yo!” It was so loud, there was no record on, no reason for the speakers to be wailing, and yet they wailed.
He began reaching wildly for the sides of the pool, but he hadn’t bothered to leave the center. When I pushed the table in, I knew there was a chance that it all would have come unplugged and not finished its grim task, but it all went in, the extension cords, the surge protectors, all of it.
He sizzled like meat on a grill.
I watched his body float for maybe a minute, maybe a half hour, cords like dead snakes all around him. Records filled the pool, the captured joy of pop stars, memorializing my monster.
When Beach Patrol found me that morning, I was asleep in the sand. I don’t remember it very well. The Sarasota P.D. laughed at my confession and said there was no body floating in any motel pool. They confirmed I had been alone at the Aloha Kai for weeks and they suggested I get help, while at the same time, being as thoroughly unhelpful as they had been thirteen years prior. Finally they said, the Star-Lite Siesta had been an empty, abandoned, relic for years. I knew that wasn’t true.
My family was contacted, and due to their concerns, I had to come up here and “relax” for a while. I was okay with that, they let me wear my Mom’s jacket, and I had answers I needed to reflect upon. I had a pretty good idea why Scotty was praying on the vacationers and why the Star-Lite was the perfect feeding ground for his Detritus Sha. I felt clear for the first time in years. I felt like the sanest person I knew.
Going on vacation is the best goddamn thing Americans do. To this day, I smile when I smell coconut sun tan lotion or fried seafood. Vacationers trust strangers, they celebrate and share themselves, they listen to music and tell stories… they have turkey sandwiches by the pool. I can see now, they are the sweetest dish for the cowards who dine on loss.
When we used to leave our driveway, headed to Florida, we’d all pray the “Our Father” together, and once that was done, my dad would say “Okay, let’s rock n roll.” Inevitably we’d fight and fuss, dole out anger and mercy like any long trip requires, but what really held us together was my Mom’s cassette tapes. When the mood began to sour, she would say, “Okay, what are we going to listen to?” We’d be transformed, rapt, renewed. There is magic in this world, it bleeds out into the ordinary in our story and song. I remember a moment, rolling out of Georgia into Florida, when we were close to full on meltdown. My Mom popped in a tape. We started quiet, listening, and one by one, we each began to sing. By the final chorus the car was pop music choir chamber, all our voices together, banishing frustration and pain and sorrow. Afterward she looked back and said, “See, we made it this far and we’re still a family, we can make it a little but further!”
If she’s out there, if she’s just sleeping, I want her to know that I went to the Star-Lite, I started to make it right. I want her to know that we made it further, much further… and we’re still a family. Someday soon, I may leave this all behind, I have other questions that need answering. After all, there are more worlds than this…
But before I go, if you’re out there… Please wake up.
Read more spooky madness in SN7: Women’s Day – available on Amazon!