James Claypool never did get an answer to his questions about Phoenix.
His funeral services were held at the Desert Memorial Chapel. I went to see him off out of an odd sense of loyalty, I suppose. I mean, I stood right there when he croaked. Maybe I felt I owed it to the old guy. But, more importantly my curiosity was piqued. This strange little town, the City of Claypool was apparently named after its founder, Miron Claypool and had remained under the grip of his offspring through the hundred or so years since its founding. James Claypool was one of the those children of the great patriarch. This was important.
The city was small, population 3500. With births offset by deaths, newcomers balanced out by the dying, its numbers stayed steady.
Black asphalt boulevards, neatly painted with yellow and white traffic markings and dotted double lines were a quaint touch. Garish on a hot summer afternoon when the heat waves made them seem to bend like confetti, on a normal day they could be considered decorative. The town managed to keep a 1950s pastel stucco motif. Buildings painted pink and green, or made of light brick, with tinted glass storefronts were straight out of the Kodachrome era.
At the funeral, his nephew the local Sheriff, gave the eulogy. Bill Richardson’s memorial speech for old Claypool was eloquent.
“…honest and always ready with a kind word. Those who knew him well…” he narrowed his gaze in my direction, “ought to know what his dying wish might be, had he the chance to utter it.” Every eye in the small chapel turned to me.
Don’t look at me, I glared back. It somehow seemed to make sense to everyone that I was responsible for the stroke that killed him. I was just a spectator after the fact. I countered their glares with my own dull look of innocent amusement.
After the service I stepped out on a sunny winter’s day. The cotton ball clouds remained suspended in the afternoon sky, helping me shake the eerie drama played out in that stuffy parlor. I strolled up D Street to Second, where I had rented a room. The trains wouldn’t be running for a while, so I’d decided to stay at the Hotel. No name, just “Hotel”.
It wasn’t too bad as far as small town hospitality goes. But it needed sprucing. The cactus palms arranged in the entrance were dry. The floor was dusty, tracked by the prints of countless loners and transients running from their pasts. Ripples ran in waves across the carpet, setting a path to the staircase, like the wake of a lonely ship at sea. The walls were smoke-stained. The ghosts of long dead cigars wafted from every crevice.
I got my key from the clerk. I’d learned her name was Mei Lia. She’d landed in the City of Claypool when her parents bought the place with money her father saved from his Merchant Marine days. Behind the hotel desk, Mei Lia was a flower growing among weeds in a garden of desolation. I smiled at her as she handed me the key, a young woman who seemed as out-of-place in this Twilight Zone set as I felt.
“Nice day outside,” I said, hoping to bring some cheer to her gloomy surroundings.
“Ten yiu,” she said in broken English. Even though I’d spoken to her many times in my week in town, I still felt she wasn’t quite understanding everything I said to her. But, she had that smile, childlike and innocent, but as voluptuous as a movie star from an exotic island you only imagine in a dream. Without a word, she could light my day,
From the Fujian Province in China, her family migrated to America by way of the Philippines. They settled in a village in Northern Luzon Island, where she grew up knowing nothing but wild tropical beaches and palm groves all her life. That is, until Claypool City.
I could easily get to like this kid, I sighed to myself as I walked past the front desk.
“Later,” I waved, the key in my hand.
“He he. Yie.” She nodded, lowering her gaze, smiling, as if trying to comprehend every nuance of this strange new land and its people.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s just as strange to me.” I consoled her, knowing how difficult it was having to learn ‘America’ the hard way—in a small town like Claypool where no one spoke your language.
I walked up two flights of stairs to my room. The hallway sported an avocado green floor covering. Or, was it mold? I never slowed my pace to check. Carpet, I assured myself.
Inside, the room looked worse. Yellowed sheets on the bed and worn hardwood flooring, a single light bulb overhead, add the peeling plaster on the walls, the only thing missing were lights flashing outside through the window. I checked. Nope, no broken neon signs.
But wait a minute!