The No-Name Motel

[The motel with no name]

Most of the time I can erect a fence to contain the images and imaginations from escaping my brain.  Sometimes a little white picket fence with pink daisies in purple pots are enough to hold back the most innocent and decent imagery that my mind can create.  Then, there are times when a more sturdy wooden enclosure is necessary.  My thoughts have gotten a little darker and far-fetched.  At the end of the line, I need to put up a stockade of lichen-covered stone, dusty bricks or cement blocks…topped by razor wire.  These keep in the real demons; the ideas, thoughts, dreams, musings and nightmares that one finds along a dark path in the dark woods, deep ravines and foggy patches in misty churchyards.  These fences hold my odd thoughts where they belong…in my brain.  It works.

Most of the time.

I’m on Route 11, the main highway that crosses the North Country.  I’ve been on this road many times heading either west or east out of Malone.  This isn’t the first time I’ve spotted the old motel.  I pull over.  The weeds in the old lawn are chest high.  The welcome sign is getting loose around the hinges and bolts.  I don’t know how long this place will exist.  Perhaps the next time I drive this way, the whole structure may be replaced by a Tractor Supply, a Bowling Alley or a Car Wash.

To me, that would be a shame.  It’s obvious it will never again function as a motel…and that is why it attracts and charms me.  Here, in what may have been the driveway, I sit in my Honda and survey the old buildings.

The style of the buildings could be 1960’s, but I’m going to place it in the mid-1950’s.  It suits my narrative style better.

Then I close my eyes.  I can see the phantoms that once stayed here.  I can imagine their stories.  I can feel their history.  It’s happy and sad, tragic and fortunate.  The lives that passed through these rooms, pass through me now.

I see the shadows move about.

The traveling salesman, with his valise full of brushes and combs, slips into Room 2.  Once inside, he hangs his seersucker jacket on the door hook, kicks off his worn wing-tipped shoes and stretches out on the lumpy bed.  He unscrews the bottle of bourbon and takes a long pull.  He doesn’t want to go home.

A blushing teenage couple from Watertown just bluffed their way intro Room 9.  He has a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon that is slowly getting warm.  He uses his church key to open two.  They sit awkwardly on the sofa before moving to the bed.  In exactly ten months, she’ll give birth to a baby boy who will grow up to own his own auto repair shop outside of Burlington, VT.  His parents will each die in separate car accidents in 1974.

A cheap thug who just robbed a liquor store in Plattsburgh takes Room 5.  His girl has a bruise on her cheek, her arm and her thigh.  They will stay one night and then drive non-stop to Chicago. There she will leave him for a chiropractor.

A family is on their way into the heart of the Adirondacks.  They have driven south from Quebec City and will spend the next two weeks swimming at Golden Beach on Raquette Lake.  One child  will become an astronomer and the other will become a teacher.  Room 10 is their final night under a roof.  Tomorrow night the tent comes out.

A troubled couple from Binghamton will argue well into the night about in-law problems.  The wife will turn up the radio when Billie Holiday comes on.  Maybe the volume will drown out the threats from Room 14.

An insurance salesman from Buffalo will quickly enter Room 7.  He knows this motel well.  Room 7 is hidden from the office.  Following him through the door is his secretary, Helen.  He promised her many things during the long drive.  Anything, he thinks, as long as she gives me a night of pleasure that he can’t find at home with his lawful wife.

Two young men in their twenties passing themselves off as brothers on their way to visit family in Lake George walk boldly into Room 11.  Here they can be themselves and love each other like they have wished for the past three years.

Yes, the lawn is chest-high with Timothy grass, Ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.  Butterflies and black flies flit from flower to flower.  No more cars will be stopping here, ever.  The motel once had a name, but even the sign is gone.  A little VACANCY sign is visible.  Those who passed through this office, slept on creaky mattresses and used the stained toilet are long gone.  Some of the stories had happy endings while others ended with a broken heart or a bleeding nose.  These travelers have moved on.  Many are still alive, most are buried in some local cemetery or a burying ground a thousand miles away.  A few who laughed, drank, sinned and prayed in these rooms are possibly being sedated by an RN in a nursing home…somewhere.

I go back to my car after taking a few photos and I notice something that may seem ironic.

The empty motel with no name is directly across the road from a hospice.

Another flood of imaginings come rushing from my brain.

[All the lonely people.  All the empty rooms.]



World Gone Wrong

Change, its been said, can happen slowly like the pace of a glacier or as fast as a bolt out of the blue.  I’ve seen it come at me both ways.  Brushing my hair one day…and I saw the gray.  Another day, I heard the slamming of the front door and I never saw her again.  Yes, I’ve seen change passing me in many gears, like a semi on I-95.

But nothing prepared me for what I found in my little town the day I took the wrong turn and came home on a different road.

I was miles away from my garage apartment in a small lake town in the northern Adirondacks.  I was busy all day photographing the arrival of Autumn.  There was a certain location near an old backwoods cemetery where I had marked for my tripod.  I would set up the camera and take a photo a week, at the same time each day (always on a Monday).  My lens was pointing at a particularly interesting oak tree at the edge of the cemetery wall.  I planned on putting together a time-lapse sequence of the tree as it turned from deep green to a blinding red.  Perhaps someone would purchase the DVD.  I hoped so, because I needed the cash to complete the month’s rent.

Once my photo for the week was finished, I took to driving the back roads, stopping to snap an occasional picture of something that caught my fancy.  The rural landscape seemed immutable.  On a recent Monday, I discovered a red-headed teenage girl sitting on a wooden fence.  She appeared to me as the “perfectly innocent” child of her surroundings.  A red barn behind her was the hue of a fire engine.  Her hair was that of copper.  She blended in with the scenery like she had been planted there by her ancestors, yet she was so much a part of the living world that encompassed her.  It was a perfect match and she let me shoot several views of her while she stared across the road at the cows wandering the pasture.  We said only a few words to each other.  So much was left unspoken.  I yearned to tell her how fortunate she was to be here now in the present moment.  I thanked her and drove away.

On this day, I noticed a small unpaved lane that had escaped my notice before.  I wanted to see where it led so I inched my car through the hedges and across a cattle grate.  The narrow road wound its way through second-growth pine trees.  The layer of needles on the track muted the sound of my tires.  It was very quiet.  In fact, it was so intensely quiet I found it somewhat unsettling. The day had begun with a sky the color of the sea, clear and crystalline.   Now, however, a dark cloud, almost black in its grim presence in the sky, drifted overhead and made the afternoon seem like dusk.  I felt the need to get back to my apartment and have a cup of strong tea laced with brandy.  The road went on for a few more miles, passing abandoned farm houses, collapsing barns and truncated silos.  The cloud passed and I soon pulled out onto a county road that I vaguely recognized.  I took a left turn, relying on my gut instinct.

It turned out to be a wrong turn in more ways than one.

The houses of my town soon began to appear along the road.  As I drove toward the town center, something seemed wrong.  There were no people, anywhere.  Usually, I would see a guy standing beside a BBQ grill or a couple of kids tossing a football.  Not today.  There wasn’t a soul to be seen. I parked and went up the back stairs to my apartment.  Everything was quiet.  Even the neighbor’s dog was not barking.

I became aware of how hungry I was, so I decided to take a drive to Arnold’s Diner and get an order of french fries.  I pulled into the parking lot.  I  skidded to a stop in the gravel parking lot, shocked by what I saw.  The diner was closed, not just for the day, but shuttered tight and mute. ArnoldsEatsAthensPA What the hell?  I thought.  Business can’t be that bad. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, then I went looking for my favorite gas station.  Mike and Ruth would always be good for a laugh (the joke was on me, I guess, for paying their jacked-up price). Hey, man.  What the f….?  It too was closed.  Not just after-hours closed, but abandoned. EmptyGasStation And still no one on the road or sidewalks.  I was getting spooked.  I had been around this town and down these streets a zillion times in the past year.  But…but all was different.  Something was wrong.

In a near panic, I drove out to the Hi-Ho Motel.  I had been seeing Hilda once a week for about a year now.  She and her husband ran the place.  When Ralph was away at motel conventions, Hilda and I would check into Room 13.  This was where I stayed when I drifted into town.  It took me a week to find the garage apartment of my dreams.  Hilda made sure my sheets were changed every day.  Then she and I would pull apart the bedspread  again.  Room 13 has always been a lucky place for me, if you get my drift. Hilda would be behind the desk.  She’d help me make sense of what was happening.  She always did.  When I made the turn on the highway I nearly went head-on into the utility pole.  The motel was empty and nailed down. EmptyMotel I was getting desperate.  I was starting to panic.  Where could I go for help?  I know.  I’d go by the factory where I work three days a week.  Butch, the floor boss would set me straight.  That was his job.  I made a u-turn and headed to the Alpha-Omega Ladder Company. I felt nauseous when I pulled into the parking lot.  Instead of the parked cars of the poor folks on the second shift, only grass grew in between the concrete slabs. ClosedFactory I drove back to my rooms over the garage.  I peeked through the glass window of the automatic door.  Sidney’s ’54 MG was still there, covered by a blue plastic tarp.  Some things never change.  Upstairs, I poured another shot of Irish Mist.  It calmed me down and the panic subsided.  I had to decide my next move…when it came to me.  I would go back to the farm with the red barn and find the red-haired girl.  She lived in the country, a place where time stands still and change came slowly.  She would help me. She would take me to her parents.  They would give me something to eat and let me spend the night.  When morning came, they would explain everything. People who lived in the country, amid the slowly changing seasons, watching the barns fall apart at a rate that would take decades to notice, always knew best.  I needed gas, but I was certain I had enough to get me to the red barn.

I prayed I could remember the way.