The motel is at the end of a road where passing trucks hurl waves of dirt over the sidewalk. Across the road a short precipice leads down to the Connecticut River. The parking lot in front of the motel is mostly empty, gray and sad. On top of the building, placed like a jeweled crown, a sign with giant red letters mounted on rusted poles.
The lobby is in a small building to the left of the sign. By the front door is a life-size statue of a black butler holding a tray and smiling. The door creaks as it opens. No one sits at the front desk, which is protected by glass with a small opening like a box office at the theater.
“Hello?” I hear a voice from behind the shield. A man and a woman holding a young girl on her hip stare at me.
“I’m an English student just looking around for stories to write.” They don’t understand me but I can’t explain any better.
“How much is a room?”
“Fifty-nine dollars,” the man says.
I decide to decide later. I sit on the couch and look outside across the parking lot to the Shady Lawn rooms.
At first glance, the Shady Lawn Motel seems empty. Not a soul in sight. The overcast sky sets a dull mood. But as time goes by bodies begin to emerge. A thin man with shoulder length hair smoking a cigarette walks to the street. A woman with a long black coat and exposed bony ankles takes her trash to the dumpster. A couple in army jackets drives away.
At the other end of the lot a child plays on a mound of ice and filth. I greet her and she smiles back. I watch her shoot down the ice on a cheap purple sled.
“How long have you been here?”
“About a year,” she says. “I’ve seen all the rooms. Some are big. Some are small.”
She is ten years old and likes to draw. Sometimes she goes to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth to look at paintings. She tells me that she has three sets of aunts and uncles living in the motel and points to each of their rooms.
“A creepy guy lives there,” she says as she points with one finger to a room smack in the middle of the building.
“How do you know he’s creepy?” I ask.
“Cause he’s a guy kids shouldn’t hang out with.”
She sleds down the hill again, tilting her body to avoid the tree stump in the middle of her lane.
“Be careful or you might break your neck on the ice,” I say jokingly.
“I already did. Well not break my neck. I sprained my wrist a week ago.”
“Did you go to the hospital?” I ask, seeing no cast.
Some of the rooms have chairs next to their doors. I sit on a chair with yellow stains and ripped fabric. It squeaks as I lay back and I think it might break, but it doesn’t. The temperature drops fast as the sun goes down. I walk to the lobby to warm myself up before catching my bus, which I never do.
A large woman in a tight army print shirt without a bra walks into the lobby. She complains to the front desk about a man the next room over who keeps banging his door. They tell her to call the cops. She already has twice. I notice she is wearing flip-flops and make some dumb remark about it being cold.
“I wouldn’t be wearing them but my feet can’t fit into anything else. I’m 30 weeks pregnant.”
“Wow, what is that like 3 or… 4 months?” I ask.
She sits down on the couch across from me. She is nineteen years old and moved to the Upper Valley from Tennessee with her boyfriend. She hasn’t made any friends here yet. I tell her I’m writing about the motel. We go to her room.
“Eddie won’t be back till later. It’s his first day at work,” she tells me.
Eddie is twenty-eight years old. This is his first relationship.
“Before me everyone thought he was gay,” she tells me.
“Are you getting married?” I ask.
“We’re taking things slow.”
Her name is Maddy. Her mother left her dad three months after Maddy was born. Since then she has had a number of bad stepfathers.
“I saw my mom being beat up since I was five. I was a depressed kid.”
“Damn. I actually just started anti-depressants a few weeks ago,” I tell her.
“I went on anti-depressants when I was eleven years old. I was hospitalized in the mental institution when I was thirteen. I was anorexic.”
In Tennessee she sang with her church’s youth choir. Her senior year she signed up through her church to be a missionary in Romania. Three weeks before her departure she found out she was pregnant.
“Eddie and I were in the car on the way back to his house and I felt a small thump,” she flicks her finger to demonstrate, “in my stomach.”
She was in her third month and didn’t believe in abortion. Eddie bought a pink pacifier with a black skull on it when they found out it was a girl. He started smoking electronic cigarettes so his tobacco habit wouldn’t harm the baby.
“All I need to do is give her a better life than I had and make sure I don’t end up like my mother.” She pauses. “So, do you have a boyfriend?”
“Actually… I have a girlfriend.”
“You seemed like a lesbian. When you first said hello,” she tells me as I smile. “Homophobia is crap like racism. Because their blood comes out righteous like ours.”
I miss my bus. She says Eddie can drive me home when he gets back from work. When Eddie comes he wears a red and black McDonalds uniform. He hates working at fast-food but today wasn’t so bad. In Tennessee he worked for eight years at Wal-Mart as a cashier. He never made more than seven-fifty an hour.
“Do you have a few bucks to spare for gas?” he asks.
I don’t. But I promise I will pay him back next time I come.
“Danny thinks I’m interesting,” Maddy tells her boyfriend on the way back to Dartmouth.
Eddie chuckles. “But you’re so boring,” he says.
* * *
I'm on the green line again crossing the frozen Connecticut River into Vermont. A light snowfall falls. The bus makes a right turn onto Maple Street. I watch the houses and pickup trucks go by before my stop. As I leave the bus driver asks me, “Is this the part of White River you wanted?”
I see no one, nothing. It is cold. I walk into the lobby to wait. The man behind the protected glass already knows me. He looks at me for a second and returns to minding his business without a word or a smile. I sit on the couch. On cue the thin man with a bushy ginger beard walks out of his first floor room. He stands slightly hunched smoking outside the lobby. Every four seconds he lifts his cig to his lips, I count. I was warned about this guy, that he might try to rob me. Last week he was kicked out of his room and slept in a red sleeping bag on the ice across the street.
A young man with a wide-brimmed cap stands smoking menthols outside his room. I walk up to him and start a conversation. It gets too cold so he invites me inside. His room is a little messy but mostly empty. Friends is playing on the TV. I tell him I am an English student writing about the motel.
“Why?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Because it has character.”
“There are some crazy people here. So many people knock on my door and ask me for money. I thought you were coming around to ask me for money.”
He is from South Carolina. His biological mom had him when she was sixteen.
“I don’t remember much about my dad cause the nigger wasn’t around.”
Then a white family in the Upper Valley adopted him when he was four years old. His mom is a receptionist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and his dad “built McLaughlin”—he told me with pride that his dad was the supervisor of the construction team that built the residence hall. His parents adopted him because they didn’t think they could have kids. They named him Isaiah. Almost immediately afterwards their daughter was born, the “surprise.” His sister is just like me, he tells me.
“She likes books and horses. She’s super smart—graduated high school and went to a private school like Dartmouth. She won’t friend me on Facebook. They can’t stand rap music. My mom calls it trash, calls it garbage. She used to forbid me to listen to it. My parents were strict—douche bags. I got whipped with what I broke. I definitely could tell I didn’t belong there. But they got me out of a lot of trouble.”
He shows me a bong and a glass pipe with pink and purple swirly lines. Then apologizes for not having any weed. I ask him how he likes to hang out.
“Sometimes I go to the strip club.”
“What’s that like?”
“If I wanted to see beat up women I’d go to the battered women’s shelter.”
He’s been roaming for a year since quitting high school for the last time and moving out of his parent’s house.
“I never took school seriously. I was picked on for being black. Once I went swimming in New Hampshire with a friend. A group of people was in the lake. I was the only black one. Someone said ‘Are we here to go swimming or to hang a nigger?’ I thought I was going to get beat up.”
Now Isaiah is living off social services. Social Security gives him $800 a month “but it goes by in a week.” He’s been at the Shady Lawn Motel for two weeks and tomorrow is check out.
“Where are you going after here?” I ask.
“Maybe Massachusetts. I’ll go stay at a friend’s tomorrow night.”
His cell-phone rings and I take the opportunity to take a closer look around the room. Near me split wires and a little blob of mercury hang exposed from a destroyed light switch. He answers.
“What up, nigger? Nothing. What are you doing right now? You got fired! For what? That’s fucked up. You can come over. Yeah. I’ll see if I can get money.”
* * *
Locals call it the "Shady Lady." Rooms are rented per week and if you stay there long enough you can offer your labor for a reduced rate or none at all. There are thirty-four rooms total but the room numbers are in the hundreds. One room doesn’t have a number, it just says “Davis” and has a hanging “Welcome Friends” sign on the alien-green wall next to the door. Davis’s window is thick translucent plastic taped to the frame, not glass. Outside his room a pile of stuff obstructs the path—two rusty fans, a box of empty Pepsi cans, and old clothes.
A man walks past me reeking of weed. I stare out at the view. The Shady Lawn Motel has no lawn, just a big dirty concrete parking lot. Behind the motel is an alley way and houses. On one side, the train station and on the other more houses. I walk down the stairs past two stacks of old TVs and a rusty bike. A woman comes out from her room with two little dogs.
“Come on, assholes” she yells while pulling their leashes.
An old white couple drives up and gets out of their car slamming their doors shut. The man marches to his room and back out again. Turns around, sees Isaiah smoking his menthols, and leans in so close to him their noses almost touch. His right index finger points up erect.
“Someone broke in to my room two nights ago. They can get fifteen years for a motel, you know that?”
Thunder rolls. His wife carries a minute shivering dog. They get back in the car and speed off.
* * *
“Mommy, how many times of winter are in a year?”
“Darnit. Isaac your boogers are black.”
Isaac is the youngest, Joe is the middle and Makayla is the oldest. Isaac’s boogers aren’t black—he’s playing in the smut on the parking lot. The three children plus their parents live in room 127. They have a chair outside where I sit to observe the kids. Beside me stands a four-foot plastic basketball hoop. Autumn, the mother, comes out to chat or smoke. She is tall and smells rank. She keeps her cigarette in her left hand and turns her head away from me to blow out smoke. From the corner of my eye I see her looking over my shoulder to read what I write.
“Makayla told me her dad is an artist,” I tell her.
“Why’d you say that? He’s not an artist.”
“Yes, he is! Remember he made that picture for you,” Makayla retorts.
“He draws but he ain’t no artist.”
“I write but I’m not a writer,” I shrug.
“You a senior?”
“You’re graduating. That’s good.”
“Yeah, it’s good. But it kills your soul.”
She snorts and goes inside. Out of nowhere a beige dog comes running. The kids try to pet him as he swerves behind my chair and around a car following a scent. Above us a woman yells.
“Where are you ass-clown?” She whistles. “Come on, butt-licker.”
The kids laugh as they watch the woman clumsily scoop up her dog. Makayla looks at my notebook aghast.
“It’s not a pug! It’s a pit bull!”
Two doors down from room 127, five cats live with an old couple who hardly go outside. Isaac tip-toes to the window to get a closer look at two perched felines with pointed ears. Joe shoots hoops with a foam football. Makayla rocks back and forth on a skateboard.
“You guys know how to play five hundred?”
“Do you want to play?”
Makayla grabs the football.
“500!” she throws the ball directly to me. My turn. I turn around and close my eyes. I fling the ball behind my back as high as I can.
“200!” No one catches it. I close my eyes and throw it again, much lower.
Joe and Isaac are restless. They jump on each other like monkeys and roll around on the concrete like puppies. 200, 100 dead or alive, mystery box! Joe wins. Makayla again. Then they let Isaac. We get bored and the game ends.
“Do you know a girl name Kasha? She goes to Dartmouth.” Makayla asks me.
“No. Who is she?”
“She comes to my afterschool program. We make cool things like putty. We made the green slimy things aliens are made of,” she tells me.
Autumn comes out and hands me a flyer.
“Girls on the Run. It’s an afterschool program for young girls. Teaching them confidence, empowerment. They go on a 5k run and do activities. You can keep that.”
“Mommy, she’s been spelling my name wrong,” says Makayla.
“I have?! Why didn’t you tell me?”
I let Makayla write her name in my notebook. Her letters are big—they remind me of second grade. Her mom walks back inside. Isaac follows her and then returns with a plastic cup full of cookies. The three sit on the ground around me. Isaac passes out the cookies one by one.
“This is the world’s biggest chew,” he says while putting the whole cookie in his mouth. “And this is the world’s smallest chew.”
“He swallowed a golf ball once,” Makayla tells me.
“Someone punched it out of him,” Joe explains.
It gets quiet as the kids eat their cookies. The sun starts to set. The smoker with the ginger beard has come and gone. In a few moments I will leave to catch my bus. I look around me. Washed out colors, grimy cars, concrete playgrounds. The ‘Shady Lady’ has never known sweet caresses—here the living is harder. Her name rests emblazoned in the sky—you can see it driving on the bridge crossing the Connecticut River. But she is pale green and swampy.
Makayla asks me to time her on the slowest scooter ride in the world as she glides to the dumpster and back. I watch her counting in my head. Joe comes over carrying the family’s soiled chair. He says to no one.
“I’m so righteous. I’m going to sit on this chair.”
* * *
Maddy is moving out. Her sister Jamie and I help pack up the room.
Jamie is fourteen years old. She wears black eyeliner, rectangular glasses and plastic jewelry. When she was eleven, her mother’s ex-boyfriend raped her while she was sleeping. She woke up but he kept going and got her pregnant. She had an abortion. Now she goes to high school in White River Junction.
“I call him It.” Jamie tells me.
“When did it happen?” I ask.
“Memorial weekend about three years ago.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She is sweet. “My friends get all worried about me whenever memorial weekend rolls around cause usually I just like shut down. I’ll just shut down in the middle of class. The teacher be trying to get my attention and it won’t work. Lately I’ve been seeing and hearing things that remind me of It.”
“What reminds you?”
“Anything red. He drove a red dodge with silver handles.”
“This is all perfect for my book.” Maddy interjects. “I was thinking of writing about my life and then turning it into science fiction so I can go back in time and kill It while he’s beating the hell out of my mom.”
We hear two loud blows. Jamie and I jump.
“What was that?!”
“That was the crazy who bangs his door all the time.”
We pack. Hamburger helpers, video games, peanut butter, toilet paper rolls.
“Eddie was so happy to get those ready-to-go meals. We got them at the haven yesterday.”
The Upper Valley Haven is a homeless shelter in White River Junction. It has regular volunteers and an icon of a dove carrying an olive branch on its website.
“Do you want these in a special bag?” I ask, holding a zip-lock bag full of pill-bottles.
“No that’s just melatonin,” Maddy answers.
“Thank god for melatonin,” Jamie adds.
We pack in silence.
“Do you remember Mom’s new boyfriend Brian?” Jamie asks her sister.
“Yeah, he’s my cousin,” she replies.
“I’ve already told him if he dare hurt Mom I will hunt him down. While he’s sleeping, cut his dick off, run off with it, put it in a blender, blend it to where it’s drinkable, and make him drink it.”
“Well, you better get a good blender then.”
* * *
“Sir, is this your stop?” The bus driver wakes me up. I am visiting Maddy at her new place: The Sunset Motor Inn. It is peach-colored and less gloomy than the Shady Lawn Motel. Maddy is so large she can barely move. She is a high-risk pregnancy and will be induced in the next two weeks.
“I grew up in a trailer. A very shitty, ugly and nasty trailer in Kansas,” she tells me. “After I get released to go to work I’m going to get a job somewhere. I’ve never had a job before. I need to get out into the real world.”
“Where are you going to apply?” I ask.
“Wal-Mart, Friendly’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, pretty much anywhere. Not Burger King. Burger King is disgusting.”
We sit in silence.
“Are you tired?”
“No. I slept quite well. I only had to get up to pee twice. I’m not sleepy I’m just tired of being pregnant. I’m tired of my back hurting. They have me on anti-depressants now. I’m on Zoloft. Again.”
“How many milligrams?”
“That’s pretty low.”
“I’m pregnant. Of course it’s low… The doctor thinks she’s probably going to bump it up after she’s born. Not too much because I plan on breastfeeding exclusively for the first year. But enough to keep my seizures in check… I’m not surprised. I mean I live in a motel room. And my boyfriend and I haven’t been getting along very well lately. And I worry about everything all the time, so of course I’m depressed… Eddie keeps saying everything is going to be okay. I guess we’ll see if that’s really true… He likes to look at the bright side of things and sometimes that’s annoying. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world. He’s the best family I’ve ever had.”
She sits in a red plush chair. Her belly protrudes from her tight army shirt.
“If you stay till around six, I’ll feed you.”
I stay. We eat hot pockets. As we eat she gets a call from Eddie’s father. Half an hour goes by and they are still talking. I tell Maddy I have to go. She mouths “I’m sorry” as I wave goodbye from the door.
* * *
In low light I bike up and down the Upper Valley hills between White River Junction and Dartmouth. My phone vibrates. It is a text from Maddy.
“Hey dude. Been in hospital since Thursday. Avacyn was born at 3:01am yesterday morning!!!”
She sends me a picture. Avacyn is honey-colored. She has a pink hat on her head and a blanket covered with imprints of tiny feet.
I zoom in and out of her picture. Her closed eyes look crusty. I imagine her newborn smell.
“Come visit. Back side of the building, across from the pool. Room 36.”
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.