My father was a collector of sorts. Not the kind of man that collected cars or coins or anything most people would perceive to be of value. Little chance we’d discover dusty Pollocks and de Koonings squirreled away in a basement corner—Dad unaware or unconcerned with the fortune that lived by the furnace—paintings mysteriously acquired after World War II in trade for a bottle of port or a carton of cigarettes after a drunken night of Greenwich Village revelry. Nothing that romantic or story-worthy. This was Montana.
He was an amasser of moments, choosing to collect strange symbols of place and time. There were dozens of baseball caps rimming the window of his den, filthy brims, sweat-stained headbands, commemorating golf outings, friendly electrical contractors, Rotary Club fundraisers, and long-forgotten conventions. Unspectacular gray rocks pulled from favorite rivers, piled high in the alley with the unfulfilled pledge that someday he would construct a stone barbecue or fence to highlight his fishing adventures. Bowls overflowing with matchbooks no longer destined to create fire, but instead celebrating special evenings at favorite taverns and restaurants.
But most unusual – his soap collection. Hundreds of tiny bars of motel soap, attached to a six-foot square piece of worn brown corkboard with fuzzy pipe cleaners. One could almost comprehend and appreciate this assemblage if the soap commemorated great memories in magnificent hotels—The Waldorf Astoria in 1955, or a thick bar of Eau de Wonderful from the Ritz in Paris brought home after a magical second honeymoon—luxurious soaps placed in temperature-controlled display cabinets for generations to enjoy. But Dad was a traveling salesman on a budget, spending his days piloting a wobbly Dodge station wagon around the West, the back overflowing with catalogs highlighting gas pumps and steam cleaners, a supplier to men in steel-toed boots. He wore short-sleeved Arrow dress shirts and skinny clip-on ties, a cracked plastic pocket protector overflowing with pens. The kind of man that always carried a pocket knife and a clean white handkerchief. Dad seldom ventured any place more glamorous than Spokane or Denver. Most of the soaps he collected were the tiny slivers delivered sparingly in cheap motels; acidic, often soggy bars that lived on the edge of stained tubs and mysteriously transformed into arrowhead-sized soaplets after one rub of the armpit, from places called The C’mon Inn, The Butte Super 8, and Rusty’s Motel in Forsyth, Montana.
Even as a kid I had trouble comprehending the attraction, but was a big fan of the dad and lad camaraderie that resulted from the hobby. He’d come home on Friday night and empty the week’s bounty out of his worn leather Dop kit, the two of us spending a half-hour before dinner cross-legged on the frigid basement floor. Dad would place the soap against the corkboard, lining it up so I could wrap the flexible wire pipe cleaner around the bar and wind it through the nearest two holes, twisting the wire together in precise little knots on the back of the board. Jack’s Motel in Malta, Buck’s T4 in Big Sky, Budget Inn in Cody. Each bar a movie trailer for my father’s stories:
– The dead rat he found in the motel pool in Havre.
– The hotel in Dillon with coin-operated television and a vibrating bed.
– The great steakhouse next to the motel in Great Falls.
– The motel in Polson that only charged four dollars a night.
–The guy that had a heart attack and died in the room next to his in West Yellowstone.
– The time he let his friend Wally sleep in his motel bathtub in Jackson Hole.
There were the anonymous bars, “lowest of the low” in the world of motel soaps that didn’t even bother to mention the establishment, with names like Lovely Lady and Camay, or the semi-anonymous Best Western. Even these were board-worthy, Dad licking the tip of his pen before making a tiny notation on the bottom of the bar.
Sometimes after a convention, or if he and Mom returned from a vacation, there would be a special bar, an almost full-sized model with ornate lettering from a famous hotel. It would receive special treatment, Dad fingering it gently, pointing at an embossed gold leaf logo. These bars would be placed on soap Fifth Avenue, a special section of the board for oversized bars that required two pipe cleaners to properly mount. Dad would puff on his pipe, the two of us in sweet haze, the expensive soap a parable for my future.
“Son, work hard and be careful with your money, and someday you’ll stay at The Ridpath in Spokane. Fanciest hotel you’ve ever seen. They serve these shrimp cocktails. Nothing shrimpy about them. Huge. When they get really big they call them prawns. Not sure why.” He smiles and points at me with his pipe’s mouthpiece, one hand rubbing back his crew cut, his eyes surprisingly tender, and I can see my reflection in his thick black framed glasses. “I know you’re going to be a big success, and your board will be filled with nice hotels instead of motels. Fancy places with big lobbies and room service. I can’t wait to see your soap board someday.” This from a man who more than once spent the night in his car so his family could live a little bit better.
One night my sister brings home a new boyfriend from college, a sketchy frat boy we struggle to like. Dad gives him the soap board tour, which he greets with smirks and smart-assed remarks my father mistakes for compliments, Dad from a world that has no need for sarcasm. I wish I were older so I could drag the kid into the alley and throw him headfirst into a dumpster. That night he’s relegated to what passes for the basement guest room, technically a squeaky World War II era roll-away mattress covered by my dead grandmother’s quilt. The bed sits in the corner of the unfinished concrete tomb, separated from my sister’s room by the furnace, twenty steps, the kitchen, and Dad’s watchful eye. Two days after the kid leaves we discover he’s removed one of our rarest specimens, an almost full-sized bar from The Fairmont in San Francisco, brought back from the 1972 Tokheim Pump convention. Dad emits a sad little moan when we find the mangled wrapper, carelessly tossed in the bathroom garbage can like the bloody clothing of a murder victim. The bar is half-melted in a soap dish, still slimy and covered with disgusting coarse black hair, a cruel move that assures this kid will never be part of the family.
During big rainstorms I worried about the soap board. What if the basement flooded? Soap and water might be a natural mix, but bad for soap collectors. One day I rushed home from school during a phenomenal storm, water bucketing against the roof, and ran downstairs to check on it. All was well, but as a precaution I mounted a stepladder and pounded a few nails six feet up the wall, struggling to get the board to safety.
Dad would proudly drag guests into the basement to show them the board, my mother and sister’s eyes rolling in embarrassment whenever he said “Come downstairs, I want to show you something.” Without the benefit of motel narrative it was a confusing thing to see, row after row of crummy bars of soap hanging against the studs of an unfinished basement, like tiny motel tombstones. The guests, always gracious but baffled, smiled and nodded, then congratulated him on his mysterious accomplishment.
When I started dating and bringing girls home I would warn them, “Listen, my Dad is going to do something really weird, and invite you down to the basement to see his soap collection. Keep your jacket on until afterwards. It’s always cold downstairs.”
“Soap collection?” Two words never used together.
“Just do me a favor and don’t think he’s crazy. Just tell him how much you like it.” And because I tended to have good taste in women, they would see the excitement in his eyes, grab a little glimpse of soap board magic, and respond accordingly.
– Look how nice the brown pipe cleaner compliments the tan on Harley’s Motel.
– Wow. Irish Spring. That’s a good one. I love their commercials. When the woman says “but I like it too”.
– Seeking artistic and travel advice…
– Why do you think Ben’s Inn uses a tractor as their logo?
– So of these three motels in Rapid City, which one do you prefer?
– Philosophical discussions…
– Do you ever look at this and say “here’s my entire life told in soap?” And what does it all mean? (I didn’t date her for long.)
When I bring my soon-to-be wife home she receives the deluxe soap board tour, complete with detailed lodging narrative that spans two glasses of wine. Afterward she hugs Dad, assuring him it was the best soap collection she’d ever seen and cementing herself into the family.
When my folks were very old my mother decided to die, an event that shocked and baffled Dad. This was not part of the plan, especially as he slipped into old age fat and happy, unconcerned with any of the disciplines that might lead to elderly health and longevity. Mom was supposed to outlive him by at least five years, pad around the TV room in her quilted blue housecoat, make him toast in the morning, the two sipping coffee amidst a shrine of family pictures, maybe take a road trip now and then to collect another bar of soap. But in their 66th year of marriage she gave up early, even personally calling up the priest so he could come over and help guide her through her last hours.
A few weeks later Dad takes the now-perilous journey down the narrow wooden steps, planting himself in an old plastic deck chair in front of the soap board. I find him there, leaning forward, chin against his glossy cane, discreetly rubbing moist eyes as if he were watching a home movie.
“Look at this one from The Royal Hawaiian.” He slowly raises an age-spotted hand and points at a big pink bar. “Your Mom, and Tommy and Mary and I went there in 1968. God, we had a great time. That was a lovely hotel. All pink. Imagine that, a pink hotel. Your mom would wear those flowers around her neck all the time. I was so proud of her. Guys would say to me, “How did you ever get such a good-looking woman to marry you?” Don’t know. Just lucky. The luck of the Irish.” And for the next two hours we sit in front of the soap board, Dad retelling stories I’ve heard a thousand times but which somehow seem fresh.
A year later he gives up too, nodding away in his sleep. My sisters and I struggle to close out two lives, empty a house full of memories and somehow properly disburse things technically worthless but invaluable.
And what to do with the soap board? We stand in front of it for almost an hour, over forty years of stories rolling off it. One of my sisters takes down the bar from the hotel in Napa Valley where she was married, one of the fanciest on soap Fifth Avenue. My other sister removes the bar from a motel next to the hospital where her son was born. I remove a bar from a hotel outside of Portland, Oregon, the place we stopped when he drove me to college.
The next day we carry the board to his funeral, and prop it up next to the photo of Dad that sat in the back of the church. Friends shuffle in, and most smile when they see it, veterans of the soap board tour. When you live as long as Dad, funerals are less about grief and more about celebration, and at the end of the service I point to the board.
“I know most of you were dragged into the basement to see his soap collection.” A collective smile goes through the crowd. “We want it to be Dad’s gift to you, so if you see a bar that has some special significance, please take it with you to remember our father.”
After the service, family and old folks surround the board. Wally Streeter locates the soap from Jackson Hole, now almost fifty years old, soap dust sifting through the edge of the paper, and smiles widely and points.
“Your Dad let me sleep in his bathtub at this place.”
One old man I don’t recognize removes a tattered bar from the bottom of the board—The KC Motel. “They went out of business thirty years ago, but I used to love the place. There was a bar next to it where I did some drinking, and it was easy to stumble home. The bartender had a dog that liked to drink beer and would howl when he played Nat King Cole on the jukebox. Not sure if it was because he liked it or didn’t.”
The soap board becomes the center of discussion for the next hour, and slowly most of the bars disappear, memories taken to new homes. I take four or five, and keep them dry and safe in a wooden box on my dresser. Sometimes I find myself adding to the collection. Not like Dad; not every inn is worth commemorating, but some trips need to be remembered. My wife and I returned from a two-week trip to Europe, and I pulled several bars from my luggage as we unpacked. Fancy hotels with big lobbies and room service, just like he predicted.
A refugee from the advertising world, where he helped create thousands of television commercials, Timothy O’Leary is now a full-time writer based in Portland, OR. His non-fiction book Warriors, Workers, Whiners, & Weasels was published in 2006. He was a finalist for the 2015 Mississippi Review fiction award, and his stories have been published or are forthcoming in Lost River Review, Fabula Argenta, Talking River, Mulberry Fork Review, and the anthology And All Our Yesterdays. He received his MFA from Pacific University.