In the Spring of 2009, I left my family for a one day book tour in Fresno. Even though this area of California is referred to as the Golden State’s armpit, I was jubilant and stupidly giddy to go. I was slated to appear on consecutive morning talk shows — you know, fluff pieces for women wanting to hear about my dating memoir, All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates. The talk show appearance meant waking at 4am to look fresh, and crossing a darkened town with my suitcase in tow, but I did not care. I was to be free of husband and baby for 24 hours.
My plan was to arrive at the motel before 7 p.m. and luxuriate in a sumptuous bath, complete with bubbles and a book that didn’t showcase Elmo. I fantasized about this every day for probably 3 weeks. But this long-awaited castle in the sky spiraled downwards to hell. San Francisco fog issues delayed me so I arrived in Fresno at 1 a.m. I found myself outside the airport, alone, waiting for a cab in the pouring rain. An hour later I checked into a double room at Motel 6, and though I was fully exhausted, I detected a familiar, faint stench. The odious odor wasn’t the universal hotel-motel smell, but another rich aroma that was quite recognizable to the nose of a mortician.
As a card-carrying member of the death industry, sordid, death-related tales get my attention – you name it: inventive suicides, harvested tissue gone stale, bodies found in motel beds; but – I guess you can gage what was going through my mind in the moments after I closed the motel door. The familiar odor (part resembling a trash dump in the dead of summer, part the tang of a puss-filled wound) lingered in a way that made me dive onto the floor and take a peek under the bed. But cheap motel rooms don’t really have an “under the bed.” The box spring mattress is a funky false border which hides beneath a synthetic comforter.
Nonetheless that prickly-haired, all over feeling had convinced my wacky mind that, of course, a murder victim had been residing in my room for three days. Maybe my room was double occupancy for a reason.
Then I froze. The TV was on and a vignette from some crime show flashed. The plot featured a dead body stuffed under a mattress. The room’s occupant/actor complained about the smell. When the fuzz finally found the body no one initially suspected the occupant, and DNA/fingerprint evidence was irrelevant because the slayer could have been anyone renting the room. It turns out that the person who checked into the motel and actually gave their real name had gotten away with murder.
Urban legend has it that dead bodies get stashed in motel box springs more than is necessary. Most aren’t discovered until well into decomposition stages. It is only the continual complaints of stench that get checked out. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The fetid carcass then gets released.
Sooner or later a company shows up to clean the offensive space. There are companies that specialize in cleaning up after crime scenes. The little room that was supposed to serve as my brief slice of heaven would now smell like a lemon-scented version of the dead guy for the next person.
I’ve seen so many versions of this tale. We remain fascinated by the gruesome knowledge that someone may have had the unknown fate to sleep on top of rotting remains. The poor sucker stuck in the mattress to rot is merely an afterthought.
You know, some motels are quite popular and people are really dying to stay there. Let’s just hope these motels don’t get stiffed on the bill.