The Solar Motel
A retired Emil looks forward to leisurely days spent reading and lounging. But then he becomes acquainted with his neighbour Rob, who fixes old cars in the morning and spins a stationary bike in a sunseeker at night. Then Emil hears that Rob is in a terrible accident while out riding a bike. But Emil knows Rob’s little secret. Rob is too afraid to take a bike on the road. So how did he get into an accident? Then he finds that his bike in the garage is damaged. What is happening? What forces are at work? Ilene Dube spins an intriguing tale.
Emil had been retired for eight days. His wife was eager to get him out of the house. She said his life would be richer if he found meaningful ways to engage himself.
When he first announced his target date, she said he should come up with a master plan “so you don’t become retiring in your retirement.” But he’d spent his life creating master plans. Now he just wanted to let it flow without a flow chart. See what would happen. His plan would evolve.
“Your life will slip away if you don’t have a plan.” She was e-mailing him links to woodworking workshops on the other coast; volunteer opportunities in the inner city; the house was where she worked. He pointed out that his final career, teaching high school science—after an earlier retirement heading a solar power company—was the most meaningful of his life; he didn’t need to top it.
She e-mailed him an article about how people who stopped working in retirement were more likely to suffer depression, and that staying active as a volunteer was vital for well-being; and, she added, they needed to spend time apart if this was going to work.
This going to work? What was this? Their relationship? Hadn’t it been working for 40 years? Sure, there’d been kerfuffles, but hadn’t she been the one to say, “It’s overcoming the hurdles that builds a solid relationship”?
Or if “this” was his retirement, wasn’t it up to him to make it work? She frequently meddled in his affairs, telling him that what he did affected her life as well. OK, he had sat around the first seven days, not doing much. But there were unbelievable tennis matches on TV. And what about all those great books he’d wanted to read all these years? And the fine whiskey he’d received in honor of his retirement? The boxes of chocolates.
“You need to get off your butt,” she said, citing the research on how sitting is the new smoking.
And so today was the day he would get off his butt.
His wife ran every morning, and then worked out at the gym in the evenings. He had let his gym membership lapse, but he’d start by going for a walk in the morning. When he went downstairs, he could tell she was already out because her flip-flops were by the back door. He saw she’d already started the coffee, so he poured himself a cup for the caffeine boost he’d need for a walk—although not too much, he reminded himself, so he wouldn’t need to pee. He settled into his comfy chair and looked out the window—their yard was well maintained, thanks to his wife. She did a lot of the planting and the weeding, and then contracted with the service who came to do the mowing and the mulch. In 40 years of marriage, she’d been the one to contract with the electrician, the plumber, the repairmen. Now that he was home, he’d help with that—and negotiate lower prices.
She was a medical writer. “I’ll never retire,” she was fond of saying. “I’ve worked all my life to get these clients. I’m on a trajectory.”
He knew a big fight would ensue if he brought up that even with his pension, he still made more than she.
“And even if I could retire, I would never be ‘retiring,’” she added.
Still, their yard did look nice, and he often complimented her on it. She’d point out that all the work she did didn’t matter, it was the mowing and the spring-blooming azaleas that had the most spectacular impact—the azaleas that had come with the house, she reminded him; she had nothing to do with their splendour.
As he gazed across his yard and into the yard across the street—also beautifully landscaped—he noticed the driveway filled with vehicles: RVs, pickup trucks and 1970s sportscars. Had they always been there? He’d have to ask his wife.
“I guess Alzheimer’s comes with retirement.”
“Must you be so caustic?”
“Don’t you remember? You’re always complaining how the Hortons are turning our neighbourhood into white trash.”
“Oh, I guess I have,” he said, remembering his former self. “Well, they are bringing down the neighbourhood. Why do they need all those RVs? Did they suddenly come into money?”
Irene Horton’s parents had died a year ago, his wife pointed out. They had probably spent her inheritance. “Not that they don’t have money of their own. I’m sure Irene does well as a dentist.”
When Emil finally did get out for his walk—after reading the two morning papers, having a second cup of coffee, and starting the new science fiction book he’d borrowed from the library—it was already pretty hot outside. Ambling down his driveway, he noticed Rob Horton bringing out his trash.
“A bit on the steamy side.” Emil paused. “Are those RVs air conditioned?”
Rob Horton laughed. “One of them could be. The other predates air conditioning—when people took road trips in search of cooler air.”
Emil learned that Rob had found the two fix-it-uppers on eBay. Rob, who drifted from job to job in the pharmaceutical industry, was a tinkerer. “He’s like a mechanical savant,” Emil told his wife.
“Unusual to see you out at this time,” said Rob.
“Oh, I’m retired now—you’ll be seeing lots more of me.”
“I thought you were already retired.”
That night, over dinner, Emil again aired his dismay at having to see a fleet of RVs and pickup trucks when he looked out the window. Wasn’t there a zoning law that prohibited turning your suburban backyard into a fix-it shop?
Emil’s wife had cooked one of her shiitake chard frittatas, which meant he couldn’t eat eggs for breakfast for the next few days. Everything she cooked was so healthy, except it did annoy him that she cooked eggs for dinner. He was subtly hinting that, now that he was retired, he wanted to take over the cooking. But his wife was like a Nazi in the kitchen, organizing the pantry her way, demanding the dishes be cleaned to an unreasonable standard before being put back into the cupboards. She complained that when he cooked, it was more work for her to clean up—dirty cabinet doors from his greasy hands, a massive number of pots employed. She complained that he’d use a dish rag and then 'schmatah' the dirty rag on the counter.
Couldn’t she express gratitude that he’d at least used the rag to clean the counter? Other husbands were far worse, he assured her.
“The Hortons have always been good neighbours,” she said. “They take in our mail and our garbage cans, and their kids used to water our plants when we were away. They’d do anything for us—how can you complain about their RVs?”
“Admit it, you don’t like RVs either.”
“I wouldn’t want to travel in one. But how can I begrudge a good neighbour from pursuing a hobby on his own property?”
“Because he’s trashing the neighbourhood, because he’s single-handedly reducing the value of our property. And what about all those sportscars and the pickup trucks?”
“The Hortons’ kids drive them.”
Emil tried to help himself to another piece of the frittata, but his wife pointed out that if he stopped now, they’d still have half left for tomorrow night’s dinner. He didn’t like those frittatas—he’d rather be eating his eggs for breakfast.
The next morning, he got started on his walk a bit earlier. He didn’t see Rob, but walked past one of the RVs, checking it out. Its rear end was jacked up. It was pretty old and looked like it needed a lot of work. Emil heard a sudden noise. It was Rob, coming out of the RV. “Would you like to see the inside?” he asked Emil.
Rob was about half a generation younger than Emil; his three kids were all in college. Emil wondered how Rob and Irene kept up with the tuition when Rob was between jobs.
“Were they abandoned?” Emil asked.
“This one’s a 1969 Shasta Stratoflyte eighteen-footer, excluding the tongue,” Rob responded in a language that was foreign to Emil. “It weighs 3,000 pounds. It was really a dump when I got it.”
Emil looked around. It still looked like a dump.
“The plumbing and wiring have all been replaced, and I just finished the cabinets and countertop.” The wood looked overly varnished to Emil, sticky.
Rob opened a door to a tiny closet. “I redid the shower, toilet and sink.” He opened a cabinet to show a storage place. Emil tried not to inhale, imagining the smell of disinfectant, or worse.
“The wraparound dinette converts to a sleeper, as does the couch”, Rob pointed out, and Emil found himself sinking into the sofa, as if to test it—retiring, he could almost hear his wife say it. Rob was showing off the double kitchen sink and the four-burner propane stove with oven. Emil had to admit, it was kind of cute, though he could never envision himself traveling or camping in such a thing. He picked up a magazine of retro decorating ideas for restored vintage trailers. The pictures showed campers painted pink and baby blue, or shiny silver Airstreams—not the 80s-style retirement vehicle Rob seemed to specialize in. There was an article about restoring versus renovating a camper to retain its value.
“So, when do you hit the road?” Emil asked.
Rob laughed. “We take it out for test runs, but when I get it ship-shape, we’re going to sell it.”
“And what about the other one?”
“The Sunseeker? I’m not even going to take you in there, it’s a total mess. I actually got that one first but this one was easier to bring up to speed.”
“And what about all the sportscars and pickup?”
“Those are my kids.”
Later that night, when Emil looked out his window, he saw lights on in the Sunseeker. He pictured Rob tinkering. Emil had trouble sleeping—his wife complained it was the naps he took during the day—but the lights from the Sunseeker were keeping him awake. Emil had his own projects to tinker with. Now that he was spending so much time at home, he would need better lighting at his desk. He was changing the wall and window configuration to let in more natural light. His wife rolled her eyes when he described the project, reminding him not to bring sawdust into the house. She also asked him not to slam the door every time he went in and out of the garage, it rattled her office nearby. Both of them had taken over the rooms vacated long ago by the children to convert to home offices.
Backing out of his driveway for another trip to Lowe’s for unanticipated supplies, Emil noticed more auto mechanic debris out by the Hortons’ trash. He really should get a dumpster for all that crap, Emil thought to himself, but he didn’t want to be staring at a dumpster in the Hortons’ yard either.
That night, the lights were still on in the Sunseeker. And Emil was still having trouble sleeping. He decided to go for a walk. It was 3 a.m. and he pulled on the clothes he’d worn while working on his construction project. In the distance, Emil heard the steady beat of music. No wonder he couldn’t sleep. The driveways were aligned so that when you walked down Emil’s and crossed the street, you’d walk right up into Rob’s driveway. The Sunseeker appeared to be vibrating, like it was alive. Was Rob running its engine? In fact, the music was coming from the Sunseeker. He crossed the street and continued the straight line down into the Hortons’ driveway. The Sunseeker was rocking and rolling. Emil poked his head into the lit doorway and got blasted by what later he could only describe as some kind of force field. He fell back into the shrubs as Rob, frantically peddling a stationary bike, screamed and threw a wrench, barely missing Emil’s forehead. Rob was screaming and Emil was screaming and the two neighbours, for one brief moment, wanted to kill each other.
Then, seeing it was Emil, Rob got off the bike and knelt down over him in the bushes. “Buddy, are you OK?”
Emil felt his head to see if there was blood—all he knew was that something went flying by, he wasn’t sure if it hit him. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“Holy shit, I’ll call 911.”
“Just don’t practice CPR on me. I think I’m OK, but my heart is beating like crazy from the thing you threw at me, and from all that screaming.”
“Dude, I am so sorry. Are you sure your heart’s OK?”
Emil put a hand to his heart. “I never had a heart attack, so I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like. But the pounding seems to be subsiding.” He rubbed his head where the wrench just missed it. “What was that about?”
“I totally didn’t expect to see you in the middle of the night,” said Rob. “You scared the living daylights out of me.”
“And you scared the shit out of me,” said Emil, not sure if he could stand up.
“Let me help you,” Rob said, as Emil made his way to his feet.
“It’s a good thing you were a bad shot with the wrench.”
“Oh my god, I am so sorry man.” He was hugging Emil, almost whimpering. “Are you OK?”
Emil wished his neighbour would get his sweaty body off of his. He felt scratched by the bushes, and his heart was beating the way his wife would like to have it beating from the cardio exercises he didn’t do.
“Who’d you think I was, the bogeyman?”
“I didn’t know what the heck was happening. I was in the zone.”
“So that thing is your spinning studio?”
Rob laughed sheepishly. “Sort of. I guess you could call it my mid-life crisis after the kids moved out. When I can’t sleep, I come out here.”
What did he do, hook the bike up to virtual reality goggles so that while spinning he could pretend, he was in the Tour de France? Emil wondered.
“Hey, let me get a rag and clean you up, buddy.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Emil, envisioning Rob whipping out an oil-soaked rag. “I’m OK. I’ll let you go back to your spinning.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Couldn’t sleep either. Going for a walk.”
“Hey, why don’t we go for a ride in the pickup. The fresh air will do us both some good.”
Brushing himself off, Emil got up and followed his neighbour to the red Dodge Ram. It didn’t look like it needed too much work. Emil learned it belonged to Rob’s daughter, who was a junior studying mechanical engineering. “I told her I’d buy her a car if she got one that I could use as well,” he said. “This one’s from 2011 so it was in mint condition. I think I use it more than she does.”
They climbed in, and Rob started the engine, but it stalled; cursing, Rob started it again and rolled down the windows. Soon they were cruising around their neighbourhood with the breeze bringing in welcome air. Emil forgot how good air blowing in a window could feel—why did they invent air conditioning? Especially on a night like this. His heartbeat was finally returning to normal. He didn’t really have much to say. For some reason, the music Rob had been listening to while spinning in his Sunseeker was playing in Emil’s head, even though he’d never heard it before and hardly had much time to absorb it:
“Wild hunger, wild hunger/ Rise up with a crash/ Wild hunger.”
He looked to see if the radio was on. It wasn’t, but at that moment, as if reading his mind, Rob turned it on. The same tune was playing.
“So, are you in training for a marathon or something?” Emil asked.
Rob laughed. “No. I don’t ride a bike on the road.”
Rob shook his head. “I’m a closet spinner, although I guess now, I’m outed.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“When I was a kid, I had a really bad accident while I was riding my bike downhill. I lost control and hit a tree. Next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital bed and getting presents from my parents who looked like they’d never expected to see me live.”
“Wow. So, you never got on a bike again?”
Rob shook his head. “It was the look on my parents’ faces, the fear of ever seeing that again—on my wife or my kids—that was scarier than the concussion or the potential for memory loss.”
It sounded disingenuous to Emil. “But your kids all ride bikes.”
“My wife taught them.” After a pause he added, “When I stopped riding my bike, I started fixing bikes. And that led to fixing cars and trucks.”
Rob drove through the park—Emil didn’t think you could do such a thing, since there were signs about the park closing at dusk and all traffickers being prohibited—but there were no police to stop them. Then he pulled into the parking lot at the all-night diner adjacent to the Solar Motel.
It was 3:45, and the bright lights of the diner made Emil realize how not ready to be awake he was. The place was humming with early birds, or late nighters, or people who didn’t know which end of the day it was. They sat in a booth, and as Emil saw the pictures of omelettes with bacon and the meat his wife never prepared, the wild hunger lyrics began playing again in his head. He so regretted his wife’s persistence in cooking eggs for dinner. He ordered two over easy with Canadian bacon and home fries.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” said Rob, and then Emil suddenly remembered that he didn’t have his wallet on him—he’d only been headed out for a walk in the middle of the night. He’d let Rob know when the bill came, and get a loan—or maybe Rob would pick up the tab.
A man at one of the counter stools spun around and looked at them. The man was halfway between Rob’s age and Emil’s. Emil felt like he was staring into his soul and turned away, wondering if the man was a bit off. Oddly, the man bore an uncanny resemblance to Emil’s father. Emil’s father hadn’t lived to see his own retirement. In his sleep-deprived state, Emil imagined that the man was his father’s ghost, coming to see what retirement might look like—and at this hour, with this companion, Emil wasn’t painting a pretty picture. Sorry, Dad.
The waitress came with their plates. Rob asked for ketchup for his home fries.
“You read my mind,” the waitress said. “I was just going to bring it.”
“Do you usually come here in the middle of the night,” asked Emil.
“Nah,” said Rob. “Not usually… sometimes.”
“How do you get by with no sleep?”
“I sleep in the interstices.”
Emil was surprised that Rob knew a word like interstices—maybe it was used in his pharmaceutical work. He saw that the man at the counter stool was still staring. “Does spinning make it harder or easier to find the interstices?”
Rob rubbed his hands over his eyes. There was now ketchup on his cheek. Emil decided not to say anything. “Irene is always telling me I’d sleep better if I did the spinning during the day.”
“Yeah, my wife has a lot of good advice too.”
Now the man from the counter stood up and walked over to their table. He was looking straight at Emil. “Don’t I know you?”
Emil took a sip of his coffee, and then blinked. It was the night watchman from his old company. Emil would pass him at the end of the day, when he was locking up his office and the night watchman was just arriving. Emil hadn’t before noticed the man’s resemblance to his father.
The night watchman looked at Rob. “You have ketchup on your face.”
When the night watchman went back to his place at the counter, Emil wondered if the night watchman lived at the Solar Motel.
The waitress brought the check, and Emil told Rob he didn’t have his wallet.
“Oh, dude,” said Rob. “I don’t have mine either! I left it in the Sunseeker. Neither of us was thinking straight.”
“It’s on me,” the night watchman called from his place at the counter.
When Emil got back home, his wife was asleep. He crawled under the covers, feeling guilty about his transgression, and also because he knew what a good detective she was—she’d know exactly what had transpired and would reprimand him for it. Maybe she’d smell the bacon on his breath. When he closed his eyes, he saw the face of the night watchman and his father blending into one. He must have fallen asleep quickly, because soon she was ‘shshsh’ing his snoring. And then she was up for her run, and he slept until 10 a.m.
“That’s quite the retiring life,” she said when he came down to the kitchen. But at least she wasn’t chastising him about the wee hours’ excursion—maybe she didn’t know after all.
A week later, his wife ran into Irene Horton. “Did you know that Rob was in a terrible accident?” she said.
Emil shook his head.
“He was out riding his bicycle, apparently exceedingly sleep deprived—he stays up all night working on those RVs. Sleep deprivation impairs function as much as alcohol.” His wife had to throw in another one of her health titbits. “He must have hit a tree. A night watchman found him lying on the bike path. His bike was completely smashed. They called 911, and Irene got a call from the hospital. Rob didn’t remember anything.
“Apparently, he’d had a concussion. He also broke a shoulder and several ribs and had to have surgery. He could have died out there,” said Emil’s wife. “And he’s 12 years younger than you.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that last remark. Then she reminded him that she was still waiting for the instruction sheet—the instructions on what she was supposed to do if he became incapacitated or died, with all the passwords and where he kept his files on insurance policies and annuities. She’d been nagging about this for years. What was the rush?
Later in the day, looking out the window at the Sunseeker, Emil asked his wife if she thought it would be appropriate for him to go and visit Rob in the hospital.
“Irene said he’s supposed to come home tomorrow. You might want to call over there a day or two after he’s home.”
Emil waited three days, and then four. He kept looking out the window but didn’t see any activity on the RVs. He wondered if taking care of RVs was like tending a garden—if you go away on vacation for a week, the garden gets overrun by wild vines and tangles. Maybe he could offer to help with the upkeep on the RVs until Rob was back in the saddle.
Emil wondered if his own remark about riding a bike on the road was what triggered Rob to get out from his spinning studio. Emil learned from his wife who learned from Irene that Rob was depressed. Emil should call him. But now that he was depressed, Emil didn’t know what to say to him. They didn’t have a whole lot to talk about before. Emil was depressed just thinking about Rob, about his junkyard and his sleeplessness and his weird spinning studio in the Sunseeker. Maybe he should have called the police when Rob threw a wrench at him.
When Emil made no overtures to Rob, his wife cooked a vegetarian lasagna and brought it over. Everyone loved her lasagnas—they were filled with mushrooms and cheese and, thank goodness, no eggs. She made sure to bring it over when Irene was home but said that it was for Rob to have for lunch during the day when Irene was at work.
Emil flipped through a woodworking magazine. He was somewhat stalled out on his own construction project. His wife was over there for quite a long time. When she came back, she was shaking her head.
“Rob is not well. He thinks he had the concussion while he was on his spinning bike.”
“But I thought they found him on the bike path.”
“That’s what Irene told me. But Rob doesn’t remember anything before he woke up in the hospital. He says the last thing he remembers is spinning. Irene says he doesn’t even have a bike, that he’s been terrified of riding one since a childhood accident.”
“And he is depressed. Apparently, he has a sleep disorder as well. He’s on meds for that, but it makes him more depressed. Irene says working on those heaps of junk in the yard was his best therapy. But now he doesn’t even want to do that anymore.”
“Maybe we should buy the RV he fixed up.”
“That’s what retired people do, isn’t it? Travel around the country in an RV.”
She rolled her eyes.
Emil went out to the garage to work on his platform but felt a breeze outside and decided it would be a nice day for a bike ride. He went to get his bicycle, but discovered it was bent, as if it had been in an accident. He hadn’t ridden it in a while, but it had been in good condition. How did it get smashed?
Emil decided to go over and see Rob. He walked down his driveway and up Rob’s. The door to the Sunseeker was open, and the spinning bike was there—nothing had changed. He walked around to the back door of the house and knocked. “Come on in,” he heard Rob’s voice say. Emil pushed the door open and walked into the kitchen. “I’m over here,” said Rob.
Rob was spread out in one of those recliner chairs that was covered with a yellow towel and a faded sheet with pictures of cars and trucks that must have been one of his kids. There were boxes of tissues and dirty dishes all around him. Emil didn’t want to get too close. He didn’t want to inhale. And he really had nothing to say to Rob—why was he here?
“How’re you doin’?”
“I’m OK,” said Rob. “Well, not so OK.”
“What the hell happened to you?”
“I don’t really know, but I’m messed up.”
“So, you decided to go out for a real bike ride?”
Rob shook his head. “The last thing I remember is being on the spinning bike in the Winnebago. But they say I was found on the bike path. By that night watchman.”
Emil felt like bugs were crawling on him, and he didn’t know where to begin scratching. “Can I get you something? A beer?”
“I’m not supposed to be drinking, with all these meds I’m on. Hey, if you ever want to use my spinning studio, go for it.”
“Thanks. I was going to go for a ride today, but I found my bike all busted up.”
“Sorry, man. I can fix it for you, as soon as I’m back on my feet.”
Emil stood up. “Well, you have my number—call or text if there’s anything I can do.”
Emil walked out the back door he came in from, and past the yard with the sportscars that were now sitting in weeds. There were hummingbirds flying over one car, and butterflies over another. As he passed the RV, Emil peered inside. It smelled like the cabin his family had summered in more than 50 years ago. There was the spinning bike, jolting him back to the present tense. He went inside and sat on the bike and his legs began peddling. Soon he was spinning at a clip.
“Wild hunger, wild hunger,” he began singing, though he didn’t know any of the other words. “Rise up with a crash.” But then he drifted off into a song he knew better. “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away,” until he realized he couldn’t remember those lyrics either. He could hear his wife’s voice in his head, telling him if he’d exercise more, his memory would improve. He pedalled harder. Harder and harder.
There was a noise outside and Emil looked up. The night watchman appeared in the doorway. Around his neck was a lanyard from which hung his laminated employee identification tag, with the sun rayed logo of the Solar Motel. As he entered the RV, he said to Emil, “Won’t need this anymore,” and removed the lanyard. He looked around at some of Rob’s refurbishments. “I hear this Sunseeker is for sale.”