The odometer blinks 1221 miles as I turn off the engine. Four a.m. in Fort Collins is far behind us and Arlington is a long way away. We just needed a bed. The Red Roof Inn. Nowhere, Ohio. We had mapped it and booked in advance. As we pull up, we discover the the pictures are kinder than reality. Two other cars, seemingly long-forgotten, but maybe not, await us in the otherwise abandoned parking lot. The cars, and maybe the motel, are attended by two possibly middle-aged men smoking something, each straddle-sitting on a broken cement divider. As is our custom, my wife and I decide who will and should go to the counter to check in. A number of factors go into this calculus. Is it dark? Can the person who stays in the car see the interaction at the desk clearly enough to intervene or call the police if necessary? Should we leave the car unattended and just go together? Is it a man or a woman at the desk? Are there other humans nearby? What can we decide we know about the motives of these other humans?
The parking spots are close to the building. The desk, such as it is, is in clear sight of our car, so I volunteer to do the checking in. I had made the reservation, too so there's that. As I approach what appears to be the door to the lobby-ish area, I notice that it's locked and has a shredded sticker that's trying to direct me to another door. One of the stooped, smoking car attendants, gets up and points in a friendly way to the correct door. “Checkin’ in?” I nod and follow him through another damaged door just a few feet away, but still somewhat within view of the car.
A few seconds later he reappears behind a shabby, scratched plexiglass window and asks for the name on my reservation, finally making eye contact. “This person has kind eyes,” I think to myself. I feel my road weary cells relax a moment at this.
Seconds later, I notice that the image on the left chest of his t-shirt is a pair of automatic rifles, crossed like an X. I do a double-take and look back to this kind-eyed man with the short shaven head and scraggly blonde beard. “Huh,” I think. That’s…interesting.
Riding the wave of kind eyes, trying to override my response to the rifles, I allow an odd hopeful feeling of connection to well up inside me, tired as I am, and I almost say to this weary guy who likely hates working the 11-11 shift at The Red Roof Inn as much as I dislike staying there, “Maybe this is strange to say, but it’s true. You have very kind eyes.” Something inside me hijacks the wave. Shuts it down. “He’ll think you’re trying too hard. He knows you’re afraid of him. He wants you to be. Don’t give him that.”
I feel a pinch in my heart, a little pilot light poofs out.
He types in my information. We have a brief moment as we both wait for the computer. “Technology’s great when it works, eh?” Benign laughs. Throats clear. Fingers tap.
As he turns to get the printout off the computer behind him I see the image of a demon?...a skeleton?...a monster? holding a rifle like the one on the front of his shirt, only much bigger. All around it says, “God gave his archangels weapons because even the almighty knew you don’t fight evil with tolerance and understanding.”
Kind eyes. Kind eyes. Kind eyes. Remember the technology joke we shared? We’re both just people who wish we were somewhere else. It’s late.
In the 47 seconds that remain of our interaction he mutters something about pets and the ice machine and what to do when the green light flashes on the door. I nod absently. He’s friendly. Helpful.
Still, I wonder. What does this person consider evil? Has he considered this question enough that, in another setting, we could talk deeply about what it is, what it isn’t, if it’s even a thing or how you know when you're in its presence? Does he have a gun behind the counter? A gun like the ones on his shirt? Or maybe a smaller one on his body somewhere? Are his eyes really kind or am I just a bad judge of eyes? Who wears a shirt like that to work? I guess The Red Roof Inn probably doesn’t care what you wear as long as you show up.
I grab the key card envelope and turn back to the car.
We pull down the curb a few feet, even though our room is just two doors down. We decide, without talking about it, that it’s best to park right in front of our room. Obviously, we can’t figure out how to drive the car and us and everything we love into the room and lock it tightly behind us, so this will have to do. The room is clean-enough as we inhale the scent of cologne and bleach and something vaguely medicinal.
I can't resist pulling out my phone to look up “Warrior XII,” the words written in red on the sleeve of kind eyes’ t-shirt. I want to know more. I want to understand. There’s a whole website of shirts, hats, stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing images of automatic weapons, skeletal, ghoulish faces that I have gathered are intended to be archangels proudly displaying all manner of intolerant slogans normalizing violence and hate of…things. All things. No specific things. Amorphous, subjective, unquestionably ubiquitous evil.
The toothbrush vibrates inside my mouth and I look at myself in the mirror. I say a silent prayer of thanks that this was not the day I chose to wear my, “I’m not gay. I’m SUPER GAY.” t-shirt. Would that land me solidly in the evil category? Would I be shot while I lay in my bed at this dingy motel in the middle of America where this guy’s fingerprints are probably already all over my room and wouldn’t be considered evidence? Would he stand over my lifeless body, smoking gun in hand, and grumble, “Now you’re dead. Super dead.” Would a person really just shoot me because I’m gay? Of course they would, but would this person, the one with the kind eyes? And what about my straight-acting wife? What would he do to her?
I blink hard. Fail to put it out of my mind.
We explore our tiny room and discover that not only are we two doors down from registration and the kind eyed warrior against evil, we are also probably two of maybe four total guests at this place, we’re in a ground floor room with a door to the outside and it turns out there’s another door to the outside on the other side of our room. Our room is a shotgun shack. Seriously.
We are beyond spent. My wife, who has done the last leg of driving, is sound asleep next to me as I lay there, wondering if I will wake up in time to do anything to protect us if the guy with the kind eyes decides to shoot into our room or break in and do far worse. After a few hours, my eyes finally betray me. I surrender to the exhaustion. Even so, I don’t rest. I awake, 5 hours later, more exhausted than the night before, still wondering.
What makes a person want to pronounce to the world that they would rather shoot you than understand you? Is that really what is true behind those kind eyes? Does this guy have a dog? Is she chained up in his yard, scared of the distant thunder or is she asleep on his bed waiting for him to come home and go to the pond and play fetch? And still this question: What does he consider evil? Ladyboys with short hair? The Taliban? To Kill a Mockingbird? Does he actually own a weapon like the ones he was advertising on his shirt? Was it just one of many shirts that his older brother handed down to him and he just needed a shirt that night when he ran out the door to work at 11pm after a too-long nap following day classes at the community college?
We pack out quickly and quietly. Without looking back, we pull away and resume our drive across the remainder of a nation of t-shirts and slow computers. And evil?