1941. Crockett County, Texas.
The neon Bella Vista Motel sign had no competition from the moon the night Madge arrived. It blinked and twinkled in the dark night sky, like the only pretty girl at a party.
Just moments before Madge walked cautiously within view of the motel, the "No" in the No Vacancy sign in the window sizzled and fritzed out. "Vacancy" glowed brighter, pulsing with energy.
Madge knew the Bella Vista wasn’t an ordinary motel. The absence of speculation and gossip among the folks in town about what might go on out there, proved that something above average probably went on out there. People didn’t talk about the gangster motel outside of town with about the same intensity that they didn’t talk about the Klan meetings at the courthouse inside of town. Everybody just knew what they knew.
What Madge thought she knew about it, was that it was often vacant for months at a time, according to the caretaker. At least that’s what he'd complained about endlessly when he used to come in for breakfast at the Good Pie. Madge hadn’t liked Mack. But after giving him the cold shoulder for the first few months, she'd allowed grudging but polite conversation; then a kind of sympathetic, but wary friendliness. The guy was just such a sad sack, so painfully lonely, it seemed almost charitable to give in to small talk when she refilled his coffee cup.
She grew to think of him as harmless enough, just not well brought up or very bright. He held his knife and fork in his fists like a baby, and he never took his hat off when he came inside. Between his strange New York accent and the way he mumbled sideways into his shoulder while glancing around erratically, she could barely understand what he said half the time. He'd made it clear that he was interested in more than small talk, however, but she'd made it clear that she’d have none of it.
She felt confident that she could hold him off if he let her stay at the motel for a day or so while the bruises on her face healed up. Not looking her best might be to her advantage in the short term, and she was prepared to act pretty tough, like Barbara Stanwyck, if she had a need to.
The biggest gamble with going all the way out there was whether Mack was still in charge of the place or not. She hadn’t seen him for at least six months. He'd been coming to breakfast pretty regular, maybe two, three times a week. They’d come in to open the diner and Mack would be parked out front, sleeping in his car like some kind of nut. He told her he suffered from insomnia. He said it like it was a horrible condition he could only find relief from in one of the Good Pie’s parking spaces. He also told her he wasn't supposed to go to town and definitely shouldn’t have been talking to her.
Maybe he got caught and was staying away to keep from getting in more trouble, she reasoned. Anyway, she wasn’t rich on options. She'd set out thinking she'd hitch a ride, but not a single car had come by. It was either try to get a room and hide out, or steal a car and start driving. She didn’t really know how to drive that well and she was too damn tired and hurt to try. Where the hell would she even steal a car from, anyway? The only other option was to walk all the way to San Angelo. She decided to take her chances with the motel.
By the time she made it out there, she was feeling pretty bad again. The suitcase pulled on her arms like it was full of concrete. Despite her flat sensible heels, her feet were aching all the way up to her knees. Her head was pounding.
Through the lobby window, she could see a black-haired man standing behind the front desk, talking on the phone. It was definitely not Mack. Her will flagged. She tipped her face up and took a few deep breaths to try and head off the tears before they could start rolling out.
And there was the pretty neon sign. It made her think of Hollywood somehow, and how long she'd worked and saved to get started on her adventure. California, warm and sunny, but green and close to water. Hollywood was right next to the ocean, all the stars had beach houses. And big beautiful spanish mansions with those red-tiled roofs. The tears retreated.
“You’ve just got to toughen up,” she said in the quiet, private voice she used when she was talking to herself. “You can get there if you use your head, but you can’t cry every time things get hard. What do you think it’s going to be like when you get to Hollywood? You think think they're gonna say, 'Why, hello Miss Carter, thank you so much for coming, please accept a seat right here in the lap of luxury.'”
Her gaze fell on the vacancy sign in the window and then back to the man behind the desk. He'd been leaning on the counter with his head down when she first walked up, but now he stood up straight and was pacing back and forth as he spoke on the phone. She could see that he was much younger than Mack had been. And pretty damn good-looking, too. The motel didn’t look that bad, in fact, it looked just fine.
She made up her mind. Pulling her hat down just right and forcing her posture back up she challenged herself fiercely, “You want to be an actress? Well damn it, go act like a lady who expects to rent a room from that guy. And to hell with Barbara Stanwyck, you act like Madge Carter.”