All the Colours of Death
I am in pain.
All the time.
All the time, I am in pain.
Somehow saying it under my breath under my duvet under my ceiling stars brought me relief. Somehow, admitting it felt like a comfort.
I saw a late night commercial once where an old man with long hair and a badly-fitting sweater looked straight into the camera and talked about ‘the power of the mantra’. It caught my attention the first time it came on because of how slowly he was talking compared to everything else on TV. His room was lit by warm orange spotlights that made lines in smoke, and a yellow phone number flashed up at the bottom of the screen. The man explained that by repeating certain lines over and over again we could find relief from anxiety. A twenty-first century pandemic, he asserted in his deep, Texan accent.
“Now’s about time for you to start your journey to inner peace,” he said. “Turns out I’ve done the hard work for you. Say the words, make your surroundings a little simpler. All you have to do is repeat after me, and then just maybe you’ll dial the number and join me on a little year-long adventure.”
I’d seen the advert so many times I knew every beat. He’d shuffle to the centre of the screen, close his eyes and then I’d repeat the mantra along with him from under my cosy sheets.
“Life is made from many colours,
But see - only green in the trees.
Get a whole year of mantras straight to your door,
For only ten easy payments of $8.99 a month plus shipping fees.”
I even knew the number by heart. That old, mantra-selling Texan was the only reason I left the shopping channel on all night, on that old TV that I found behind the post office the week after I moved in. It flickered and buzzed and had a broken yellow tint that matched the stars on the ceiling.
Back then I’d sit, hidden and exhausted in the yellow-edged darkness after a day stripping mattresses at the Trucker’s Motel, a tired old bundle of walls on Route 80 between Lexington and Elm Creek. It was like a beacon of safety, that bright buzzing screen. Eight hours of ricocheting elastic cornered bedsheets, flicking up skin flakes and rubbing against wet spots. Eight hours of avoiding leering guests with X-ray eyes and a thirty minute break in the office listening to Dina Morello complain about the noise from the vending machine, complain about the smell of the radiators, complain about the sticky telephone buttons, complain about the cold.
But when I got home and locked the door, behind the glow of that broken yellow TV screen, I could try and breathe a little easier. I could make my world simpler like the old man said. I saw those late night commercials like the flickering lights I’ve seen in big corporate kitchens, the ones that attract flies and then burn them up. I imagined anything nasty in the world becoming attracted to that screen and not getting any closer.
Yellow for stars, yellow for comfort. Yellow for vaporising the day in a raging furnace.
I’d whisper it aloud to help me make sense of the world. I figured I could start with the colours and everything else would fall into place.
The power of the mantra.
I remember those nights so clearly now, through the haze. I remember thinking a breadknife would be the right way to do it. I remember the thoughts inside my mind like a bee sting I couldn’t comfort. I remember it all now. I remember that man standing in reception. I remember when the mantras failed. I remember when the yellow light didn’t work its magic anymore.
The carpets in the Trucker’s motel were dark red. At least, at the edges. The middle section all the way from the front door to the vending machine to the lift to the staircase up the stairs to the bedrooms was threadbare and grey like scar tissue over an old wound.
Red for warmth, red for class. Red for easy to clean after a violent crime.
I’d describe the rooms, but first I need to tell you a bit more about Dina Morello. Dina was the owner of the Interstate Motel on I-20, 80km from Dallas. On Mondays through Thursdays she wore war-torn jeans and t-shirts with large slogans like ‘can’t a bitch catch a break’ and ‘bad-assitude’. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, she switched to formal mode, power-dressing in black suits with open collars. She also wore heavy eyeliner, district red lipstick and switched to a British accent. Dina Morello hired me on a Tuesday afternoon, so I had plenty of time to get used to her regular steakhouse attitude before the cultural whiplash of her weekend persona hit me like a London bus.
Dina never left reception. That was her driving seat and she had everything she needed. Room keys, security monitors, a telephone, and an ashtray so compacted with a quarter century’s worth of sediment layers that you could spend weeks with a rock hammer and fossil brush making all kinds of discoveries. But of all the objects scattered around her desk, there was one she barely put down. The Motel intercom.
She was a brash, humourless old motor with a 24/7 coughing-up-lung-tissue-rattle, but I loved Dina Morello from the moment I met her. The one part of her character that never changed from jeans to trousers, Van Halen t-shirts to padded shoulders, was her unrelenting lack of bullshit.
I still remember walking into the reception that day. She was standing behind her chair with her intercom in hand. She took one look at my summer dress and sandals and had me all figured out. She barked into the microphone:
“Crystal, Crystal my darling. Leave the first floor for this new girl who just walked in. Let Jesse know you will be there after all.”
She tossed the joystick-shaped microphone and speaker onto the desk and took a long drag of her cigarette. She needn’t have aimed her pursed lips; just being in the smoke-filled room was enough to start a lifelong habit. A grateful noise mumbled through the intercom and then Dina gave me her full attention.
“Start at 7, leave at 7, three bucks an hour and free coffee from the machine but only on your break ok hun.”
And since that was the most successful job interview I’d ever had, that was how I ended up cleaning rooms at the Interstate Motel in the summer of ’96.
Red for lipstick, red for busses. Red spilled on the carpet under the yellow light of my old TV.
Despite Dina’s odd little efforts to make it classy, the Trucker’s Motel was exactly how you’d imagine. Nobody’s paying premium rates for a mattress as thin as the Bible in the drawer. Those long-haul drivers expected nothing more than a hassle free arrangement - a hot shower, eggs and coffee in the morning. The rooms were decorated to match the price. Bed, bedside table, trash can, single plug socket. There was also a framed picture of a different US president in each room. Every room, except room 39 which had Robin Williams dressed as Mork with a big smile on his face. When I asked Dina about this, she said, “It’s for the Canadians.”
Anyway, the rooms were so sparse that it was always immediately obvious when a guest left something behind. Usually a razor, or a dirty pair of socks kicked under the bed. Once there was a little hand-drawn map of Disneyland on the back of a pile of signed divorce papers. Someone had scribbled and scratched it in navy ink using one of the plastic biros from reception. I probably should have let someone know but like most other things I found, I took it home.
The one day that sticks in my mind, and became a turning point for everything that happened afterwards, was the day someone left behind a little A5 booklet. Right there by the door. A dog-eared instruction manual on sky blue paper with the title Prosthetics And You: You’re Still In One Piece.
It was 6:45 on a Friday and the last room before I was done for the night. Dina had been quiet on the intercom so was probably busy elsewhere, so I sat on the newly made bed and flicked the thin pages, a little out of curiosity, mostly to waste time.
It was full of first-hand stories from people who had, for a while, struggled with a life-changing event, but who were now apparently getting on just fine. The next few pages were step-by-step fitting and removal instructions, and then some FAQ’s on the last page. The thing that always stayed with me, from those few minutes of quiet, was a story about phantom limb syndrome. It explained how patients who had experienced an amputation might still feel the presence of what was taken for years afterwards. In really bad cases it said, it could be horribly painful. The idea that you have an itch you can’t scratch seemed unbearable enough, but to be in agony in a place that doesn’t even exist - that hit me, and it caught me off guard. I sat on the bed looking at the words in that thin blue booklet, and I started to cry.
I think the reason that story hit me so powerfully was because it just struck me as hopeless and lonely. Nobody can see it, some people won’t even believe it in the same way they don’t believe in ghosts, and you can’t take a pain killer for a torture that’s hanging in thin air.
Blue for biro scratched maps, blue for cheap paper. Blue for depression and blue for my tired, end of the day tears.
I am in pain,
All the time.
All the time, I am in pain.
I don’t know much about the mind. I was hardly a girl with a bright future - cleaning motel rooms for a living and stealing lost property - so it wasn’t likely I’d know anything at all about the human body. But I’ve always wondered what’s happening when you have a pain in your thoughts. Just like those stories from the blue manual, suffering somewhere you can’t hold, somewhere you can’t bandage, somewhere you can’t cool with ice or heat with water.
It seems so far away, somehow so unreachable.
At least that was the pain I felt when six months after becoming good friends with Dina Morello I walked into the reception to see her standing on the wrong side of the desk. She was standing in front of a tall man in a black t-shirt, blocking him from walking towards the rooms.
“This ain’t about you,” he said. Or something like it. And then he shouted Crystal’s name over and over again and stamped his feet and punched the desk.
I remember Dina’s face, in fact I remember her whole body. She was in her weekend black suit with smart shoes and her eyes were wide as a wheel. She managed half a sentence.
“Jesse, listen she isn’t—“
And then there was an awful sound as he hit her.
I made a horrified noise and the man, Jesse, he turned around to look at me. He had a small pocket knife in his hand and his black t-shirt was shiny with grease.
I’ll never know how Dina stood up, but she did. As he turned back around and walked towards the stairs, she grabbed his arm and yelled for him to stop, but he was much bigger than her and he barged her up against the wall. In the same movement, he hit her again and again, and I realised, that was the hand that was holding the knife. He wasn’t hitting her. I was watching my friend being murdered.
Two minutes, it can’t have been more. He had panicked, and he had gone. Two minutes and the only sound was a ringing telephone and the hum of traffic from the road.
I don’t remember calling anybody, I don’t remember acting at all. From that moment, I felt like there was a black rotten patch in my mind that could never be cured. It was swollen and bruised and pressed against every other thought at every minute of the day.
And this would be selfish. Talking about my pain. Talking about how much I was hurt by seeing Dina’s death. Talking about how I was never the same again. But this isn’t the story about how Dina Morello died, this is my story. This is the story of death, this is the story of mine.
Black for a dirty t-shirt, black for Saturday’s formal dress. Black for my irreparable damage and black for my broken heart.
Phantom pain. Agony you can’t comfort. Pain in a place that doesn’t exist. I can’t help thinking that’s the whole problem with that idea - it does exist - it exists in your head, right? Grief, shock and memory. From that day on, my body was surrounded in new limbs. A new set of aching arms above my head waving from the middle of a raging ocean. Exhausted legs, ghosts alongside my own. Frantic like trying to run in a dream. Two more hands trying to hide my face from a crowd while my own hung limp at my side. And a memory of my friend branded into the top right space in my mind. I knew it was there. Just a thought, just a moment in time, but that’s where it was. I could put my hand on it and press down and the memory moved.
I could almost feel it with my fingers. But I could never shift it. It just went deeper.
I stood, staring at my tired, tear-stained face in the mirror. Home in the darkness. Home in my yellow light. I wanted to focus on my face. I wanted to bring myself home, but my eyes kept drifting up. Up and right. To the unresolved pain. To the part of my mind that tortured me and intruded on my every thought.
One night I cut my hair to see it.
I took a fistful of my curls right above the thought and cut as close to my skin as I could manage. I put my fingers against the spiky square inch and felt closer to the pain. At the top. To the right. Like it was right under my fingertips. Dina. The reception. The ringing phone.
I took the scissors in my hand and pressed them into my skin until something was released. A line of blood and a small part of the memory, into thin air.
The man. The sound as he hit her.
Wherever. It could go anywhere.
Just out of me.
I burst into tears. Out of shock, maybe. Or because I was back in the motel. It was like I could see it more clearly than ever.
The knife in his hand. Yellow handle, small chipped blade. Keyring and keys rattling on the end.
His dirty black t-shirt with the outline of a red muscle car on the front.
His shoes. Blue trainers with black laces.
In the same way that I could feel the top of the memory in my mind, I could also feel where it ended. It was the size of a tennis ball, just under my skin. If I could get it out. All of it, then it would all be over. Feeling like this. It would be over.
I wiped the lines of blood from my eyes and stumbled to the kitchen. I was certain.
I couldn’t stab around and make a mess. It had to be quick.
I picked up an old breadknife from the kitchen counter and walked back to the mirror. I swung it at my sticky blood matted hair and chopped it away from my eyes. I held it in a closed and confident fist and tore it across the top of my head in a single swipe.
My eyes rattled like wheels on a cattle grid. I could see my reflection but it was like the mirror was smashed into pieces. I had six wide eyes, half a blood covered nose and three splintered mouths, showing teeth and determination. I felt pain, I remember feeling pain, but it was nothing compared to what was underneath.
I couldn’t hesitate. If I was too slow I’d lose my nerve, and I knew I could pass out. So I held the long jagged edge up against the hairless patch again and this time, I didn’t stop.
I kept a rhythm. Sawing up, catching on bone.
Sawing down. Taking a layer of curly hair.
Sawing up. Sawing. Sawing. Cutting. Tearing. Knees buckling. Balanced against the sink. Arms exhausted. Call on the ghosts to take over. Apparition, stop waving for help and hold the knife for me. Legs, stop trying to run and keep me here until this is done. Eyes keep seeing. Mouth keep breathing. Eyes keep seeing. Heart keep pumping.
The paramedics would tell you I got an inch deep before I collapsed.
They would tell you I held the knife so tightly that my nails pierced into my palm.
And they would tell you that I was dead long before they found me.
What they won’t tell you is that it worked. The girl they carried out of that tiny apartment in the middle of the night, she was free from grief, free from memories, free from pain. They don’t know that her mind reached out for comfort in the final moments and heard the voice of a late night Texan telling her to speak out the mantras. This girl, she started with the colours and built her world from there, this girl had one more. One that formed in the torn apart jumble of wires in her mind.
Colours of death, colours of me, colours in carpets and late night TV. Now I can’t breathe,
Now I can’t breathe, finally, I think I can breathe.