In 1970, Cookeville, Tennessee, was just another gas stop off the interstate between Knoxville and Nashville, but it did have a reputable state-supported college that I could afford to attend if I got a night job and watched my savings account closely. At first, I was staying in an inexpensive ‘business class’ motel just outside of town while I looked for a place to live. I had arrived a week earlier from a small town in the Cumberland Mountains—where I grew up—and registered for classes using money saved from my job at the Valu-Mart working nights and weekends during high school.
The college had dorms, but I needed to find a place I could afford on my own. Checking the bulletin board in the university center for ‘spaces to rent’ from local residents, I spotted a couple of likely ads. But the first one turned out to be a made-over garage behind a widow’s house, and the ‘apartment’ was more like a tiny warehouse with a cement floor, a half frig, a laundry sink, and a single bed tucked in a back corner. It may not have had a tub or shower—I can’t recall now—but I know it didn’t have a real door. To get in or out, you had to open and close the garage bay door. I confess I was attracted to the idea that I could sleep with my car—you know, like a cowboy might sleep in the livery stable with his horse. But I never went back to the place for a “second viewing,” as the real estate agents say.
The next place I tried was just plain scary. It had two bedrooms, one of which was inhabited by a Vietnam veteran who told me he had been a helicopter gunner just months before. He showed me a flak jacket in his room that had a serious hole just above the breastbone and a projectile imprint just shy of exiting on the body side of his armor. I had to wonder what kind of damage a thing like that would do to your psyche. Did he wake up screaming every night, or what? The house itself was tolerable, but I could imagine this guy stabbing me in the throat with a combat knife some night while having a nightmare about Vietcong invading his space somewhere out in the jungle.
And then there was his pregnant German Shepherd—a large animal who clearly lived there with him in his room. (I could tell by the smell and the claw marks on the door.) She looked frighteningly overdue to me, as though she might give birth to her puppies at any moment somewhere in the house, possibly under my bed in the middle of the night. So I drove away.
Even at eight dollars a day for my room at the motel (the lowest rate for a ‘single’), I was over budget already. I mentioned this fact to the owner, Frank, one day toward the end of the week before classes started at the college, and he surprised me with the offer of both a job and a rent-free room. I thought my luck was too good to be true and, of course, it was to some extent. The job paid only thirty dollars a week, and the ‘room’ was a cubbyhole with a set of bunk-beds wedged in between two regular rooms at the center of the one-story, seventeen-room motel.
Did I mention the room was also connected to a storage room where the maids kept dirty linens, bleach, and toilet bowl cleaner? But Frank seemed to me a more-than-just-tolerable fellow and the price was right for my needs, so I became the new night manager for the Winona Inn. (‘Winona’ was Frank’s wife, just so you know.) I settled into the weekly routine quickly: open the front office by eight in the morning; leave for campus when Frank arrived; be back by six so Frank could get dinner at his home located just up the hill behind the motel; then, be back no later than nine p.m. for night duty. On weekends, I opened at nine, worked ‘til five, and went back on night shift around ten. Truth be told, I hung around the office lobby whenever I wasn’t on campus. I had nowhere else to go.
The ‘Shack Job’
Not too many weekends into the job, I was awakened by a loud man in the parking lot hollering “Bingo!” at the dutch door that served for a night desk outside my room. Most of our late-night patrons either knocked or pushed the lighted buzzer on the door, so I remained dazed and confused for a bit when I first woke up and didn’t connect until the second outburst.
“Bingo!” It was a middle-aged fellow addressing the door from the stance he had taken up in front of his car lights.
“I’m waitin’ fer a room out here in the cold! Ain’t goin’ nowhere else tonight!”
Pulling on my sneakers (I slept in my clothes most weekend nights), I opened the top half of the door to a stout man in a black tee shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. His overly black, well-oiled hair was a bit mussed on one side but combed and neatly trimmed, including the long, pointed sideburns that ran down his cheeks. In the eyes, however, he looked like he’d been on a three-day bender.
“I’m Shumate,” he continued as he walked up to the office door. Somehow I got the idea he thought I should know him by reputation.
“Name’s Buzz,” I responded by way of introduction. “I’m the new night manager.”
“Hey, listen, buzzy boy, I got a girl out there in the car.”
Shumate told me this emphatically as he pointed with his thumb back at the car. I could see a female’s shadowy outline in the passenger seat of his Caddy, but somehow I think he was trying to convince me as much as he was trying to inform me.
“So hurry up and give me a key, son, before she changes her mind!”
I was starting to draw unflattering conclusions about old Shumate. Just because I’m a schoolboy—as the guys working night shift at the Valu-Mart back home started calling me when they learned I was headed off to college—it doesn’t mean that I’m judgmental. I just like to know who I’m dealing with in close quarters. Our check-in system was pretty lax, plus Frank had told me to expect one or two ‘shack jobs’ on the weekends. He told me to get ten dollars for the room so that I didn’t have to count out change this late at night. Apparently, ten bucks was the exact price of discretion for an innkeeper in a small town.
Then, as I handed over the room key: “Hey, buzzy boy, you all got bugs in the beds here? I mean, like fleas and such?”
Now, I’m guessing there’s not a schoolboy anywhere who could have put that equation together on the fly in the middle of the night and come up with a reasonable hypothesis about where this query was headed. But Shumate explained it to me slowly and carefully so that I could understand.
“My girl out here says she got bites all on her legs and butt when we stayed at that place down the road last time—you know, the Matlock Motel. She wouldn’t go back there tonight, so I had to drive her all the way out here after the bar closed down. That was near an hour ago, and she’s startin’ to sober up. So I gotta hurry.”
I knew he was talking about the Maddux Motel some fifteen miles on the other side of town, but there was just no point following his map to crazy town this time of night, so I just told him “no bugs” and let it go at that, but he wasn’t quite done with me yet.
“If my wife calls, you don’t tell her I’m here, buzzy boy. You got me on that? Don’t be puttin’ her through on the room phone in the mornin’. Don’t ferget, now, OK?”
It was an affable sort of instruction with a look of ‘for god’s sake, please’ tagged onto the back end of it, so I got the point. I nodded my consent and Shumate turned to go. As he did, I spent a brief moment wondering how his wife might figure out that he was staying here at the Winona. Then I realized she could cover all the shack job motels in town with just three phone calls.
After a couple of steps back toward his car and the girl waiting inside, Shumate turned back to me with a wide grin:
“Bingo!,” he called out enthusiastically.
“Uh, yeah…bingo,” I answered flatly.
I was old enough to know when to mind my own business. I knew the ‘code of conduct’ when it came to illicit female companionship, even if I didn’t have any first-hand experience. Sure enough, first thing the next morning down in the main office, a call came in on the switchboard from a woman asking to be connected to Shumate’s room. I hesitated too long and she repeated the request, which at that point sounded more like an order. Truth is, I had all but forgotten about Shumate and his ‘shack job’ after I woke up that morning, so…I buzzed the room from the office switchboard. I didn’t really expect Shumate to answer it, considering present company and the fact that he was on the downside of his boozy high when he checked in just a few hours before. But he did.
I know it’s not right to listen in on other people’s phone calls. I learned that early on when my family had a ‘party line’ back home. The temptation is strong, but you can get in hot water quick, even if you don’t hear anything juicy. But this opportunity was too good to hang up on.
“Shumate!” That was the wife’s voice. No response for a moment, then the phone went dead on his end with an audible click.
“Shumate!? Where’s Shumate? Get him back on.”
Whoops! Now I had a problem. I wasn’t supposed to be listening in at the switchboard, but she clearly knew that I was. I thought about pulling the plug on the call, but for some insane reason, I instead replied, “Can I give him a message?”
I was holding the earpiece tilted away a bit just in case she had anything else insistent to say, and it was lucky I did considering the noise she made hanging up on her end. It was then that it occurred to me that her intentions could be lethal for all I knew. When it comes to relations between men and women, ‘to each his own’ and ‘whatever floats your boat’ are my bywords, and I normally mind my own business, but the Winona Inn had never experienced a shooting to my knowledge, and I didn’t want it to happen on my watch.
I have to confess, though, that this little situation was just too rare to dismiss entirely from my impressionable young mind. Even a pimple-faced teenage boy could see what was going on here and that Shumate’s well-being hung in the balance, so I buzzed his room again to give him fair warning. This time, though, the shadow girl from last night answered.
“He ain’t here,” she said matter-of-factly into the room phone.
“This is the front desk,” I told her. “You need to tell Shumate that Mrs. Shumate is on the way here.”
“Asshole!” was the last word I heard before she hung up. But did she mean me or Shumate?
My best guess is that Shumate had been through this scenario before. Next thing I knew, the girl was stalking out of his room located just four doors down from the main office and headed directly toward me at the front desk in the lobby. I had nowhere to hide, so I just waited. Once inside, she barely even looked in my direction. Instead, she passed by the front desk and directly to the lounge, where she switched on the television set and plopped down in one of the leather chairs opposite. For all intents, she looked as though she had been there since I opened up—just watching Saturday morning cartoons like a kid.
Not three minutes later, another big Caddy sailed into the parking lot, pulling up parallel alongside the front walkway between the motel entry door and the other parked Caddy a short distance away. Out of it stepped an older, larger version of the girl in the lobby: same scowl, same crazy looking morning hair, same too-tight skirt, same caked on make-up from last night. The big woman first looked in the direction of Shumate’s car parked a few doors down, then she turned her attention to the motel entry, through which she could easily see me standing at the front counter—frozen there, really.
She did not go toward Shumate’s room as I, and perhaps the girl, had expected. Instead, she marched straight to me at the front desk in the lobby. She was so imposing a figure that I seriously considered pointing to the girl and then hiding under the counter to avoid the melee.
“You must be Mrs. Shumate,” I blurted out stupidly as the big woman stood before me.
“Number four,” I pointed out without the slightest hesitation.
I might have stalled for time by giving the woman a room number located at the other end of the building, but my inexperienced mind didn’t work that fast, not to mention that I feared a beating for it when discovered. At the same moment, she took a sideways glance at the girl in front of the television (who did not twitch so much as an eyelid) and strode directly back out to the walkway on her way to the door marked with a ‘4’. It was impressive how quickly she heard, considered, and reached not only a conclusion but a course of action. As Frank’s lieutenant, I felt compelled to follow and minimize any damage I could, although I knew instinctively that I would not be able to prevent it.
As we passed by his room’s window, I could see Shumate inside, desperately trying to get his pants on to make an escape. It was obvious that he had opened the curtains after his wife’s phone call so that he could keep an eye out, but apparently, she arrived much sooner than expected. Maybe in his hung-over state, Shumate failed to take into account that the Winona was on the east side of town, not on the west side where the Maddux Motel was located.
I watched through the window as Mrs. Shumate pushed open the room door (which the girl had neglected to lock as she exited). Inside, Shumate recoiled in horror when he saw his wife and fell back on the bed with his pants at his knees. He quickly pulled up into a protective fetal position, but it was too late. In the next moment, his wife located the ice bucket on the dresser, confirmed its contents, held it poised above Shumate’s head—waiting just a split second for effect—then dumped it. Shumate was now squirming in the bed to avoid the stream of water, but he simply couldn’t get out of the way. Plus, a left-over beer bottle made a nice ‘thunk’ as it followed the water down on top of his head. And then the universe coalesced into a shaft of righteous light:
“Bingo!,” Shumate’s wife called out as she dropped the bucket on the bed, stalked from the room, got in her still-running Caddy, and scratched off into the sunrise.
Seeing that Shumate had survived his ordeal, that the room sustained no real damage, and, thankfully, that my services would not be required, I returned to the front desk. The girl, clearly annoyed, passed me on her way out to Shumate’s Caddy.
By the time Frank arrived at nine to balance the money drawer from the previous day’s receipts, it was all over and Shumate and the girl were long gone. I never told Frank anything about the incident. And when Darcus the maid asked me later in the day if I had any idea how the bed in number four got so soaked, I opened my hands, shrugged my shoulders, and turned away with a grin. And that was the last ‘shack job’ Shumate brought to the Winona for as long as I worked there as night clerk. I’m guessing it wasn’t any bedbugs that kept him away.
I was gaining more confidence in my ability to handle any late-night incidents that might arise. Then, about three months into my employment—sometime in the late fall—two youngish women showed up together mid-morning at the motel. I had been working the night and weekend shifts for awhile by this time, but I had never seen two women arrive together without a car or this early in the day. The motel catered to business-class salesmen looking for a clean, inexpensive, quiet place to rest before moving on to the next town on their route, so any females normally arrived late in the evening and in the company of men. These two ladies showing up together at ten o’clock on a cold morning was just strange in every way. Moreover, these gals walked up from out of nowhere wearing over-tight jeans, tight flannel shirts (unbuttoned down to one button below modest), and calf-high lace-up leather boots. They carried nothing with them but their shoulder bags. Did someone drop them off on the highway? Maybe a trucker had picked them up on the Interstate hitch-hiking and let them off here? I just couldn’t guess.
So I’m standing there at the front desk trying to appear James Dean-like and several years older in a self-conscious effort to impress. The front door wasn’t three feet from the desk, and I fully expected them to stop there and give me some clue as to their situation and any role they expected me to play in it. I was totally unprepared for them to simply breeze by me with hardly a glance my way and plop down in two lounge chairs in front of the fireplace. I chewed on this scene for a few seconds before my adolescent senses informed my brain.
“Can I help you ladies?” I asked in the coolest possible way, knowing that they would be impressed if I called them ladies.
“No thanks,” they responded jointly.
Then one of them continued in a calm and pleasant voice: “Just waiting on our ride. OK if we sit here where it’s warm? Kinda cold outside.”
Well now it became a matter of chivalry. I tossed two more logs on the fire and stoked it for them. And, of course, I thought nothing of it when they asked to use our restroom after warming up by the fireplace for a few minutes. We had very few ‘drop-ins’ to our lobby because the Winona was located more than a mile off the Interstate, having been built in an earlier era, and Frank frowned on visitors from town hanging around his respectable establishment. However, the lobby did have a small washroom around the corner from the front desk for staff use or for the few guests who happened to be watching television or playing cards. It required a key to enter, so we always knew when it was in use—like a gas station.
I handed the key over to one of the women, and they rounded the corner together out of my line of sight. I was curious, but I knew very well that the tiny room—just big enough for a toilet and washbasin—would not allow both of them inside at the same time, leaving one outside the door who would see me spying if I walked around that way.
Then, just as uneventfully as they had drifted in, they returned the key to the front desk. At that moment, I happened to be in the paneled kitchenette behind the counter, heating up a ‘bear claw’ in the toaster oven. I heard the metal key on its fob hit the glass counter and, so, popped my head around the doorway in reaction to it. All I saw was the front door closing behind the two women as they exited and then their backsides as they turned the corner. It didn’t occur to me to find out what had happened to their ride.
I had my bear claw for breakfast in front of the fire and TV, then got a little busy before noon checking our regulars out of their rooms and getting their bills squared away. These were the commercial salesmen who had finished up their routes for the week but were still too far from home to drive back the evening before. A few others just preferred to stay on with us through Saturday and relax in the lobby before driving out at dark to their favorite local tavern or restaurant.
I had pretty much forgotten about the women from that morning when they showed up again, dressed in the same clothes as before but this time walking back along the highway a short distance from the front of the motel. By now I was curious enough to want to keep an eye on these two. As it happened, a couple of salesmen were now in the lobby playing cards at a table by the picture windows at the front. I could tell by watching their faces from my vantage point at the desk that their eyes were following something other than their cards, so I knew the two young women were in the vicinity. Sure enough, they walked right back in the front door and asked to use the washroom again. They only glanced at the two gentlemen at the corner table as they repeated the earlier visit, then handed me the lavatory key with a polite smile, and simply walked out into the parking lot and out toward the highway…again.
This time I hustled over to the big window next to the card players. We watched the pair as a black Dodge pickup truck stopped on the road for them at the end of the parking lot. They weren’t obviously hitch-hiking and they didn’t hesitate to climb into the front seat, so they must have known the driver. All we could see from inside was a shadowy male figure in a cowboy hat. As soon as the doors were shut again, they were gone down the highway toward the Interstate. The three of us there in the lobby just looked at one another and shrugged. I tossed the last log on the fire for our guests and returned to the front desk.
When Frank arrived mid-afternoon Saturday to relieve me from the desk, I replayed the story for him. Not only did I want to keep him informed about the goings-on of his business, I also liked that he enjoyed hearing the curious tale. Toward the final chapter, however, Frank’s demeanor changed and he looked at me askew as if to say, Son, are you that dumb?
But, instead, he simply asked, “Did you check the cash drawer after they left here the first time—when you were in back?”
Dark thoughts and a wave of shame flowed through me as I quickly counted out the cash drawer twice, but not a dollar had gone missing. I was greatly relieved not to have been hoodwinked, because I secretly knew that I had failed to lock the cash drawer earlier before stepping away to warm up my pastry in the kitchenette. But now I was overcome by a desire to discover whatever mischief these two women might have been up to at my—and Frank’s—expense. Frank, for his part, lost interest as soon as he knew for certain that the money was safe. I remained mildly embarrassed by the obvious implication that I might have been less than diligent.
With Frank now in the office, I was freed up to investigate the strange case of the two wayward women. First, I unlocked the restroom and surveyed for clues. I found nothing amiss, not even a hand towel missing. Nothing was broken or askew, so I moved on. Next I checked the built-in storage cabinet where we kept extra toilet paper, matches and old newspapers for the fireplace, ashtrays, and the like. Again, nothing of any value was missing. I had quickly run out of clues and decided to abandon the investigation to complete a couple of routine chores around the motel.
First, I did a walk-through of the parking lot to pick up litter, and then I went around back to get the wheelbarrow that we used to restock firewood. As I rounded the outside corner of the motel lobby, I was still preoccupied with the wayward women, so it took me a moment or two to realize that the wheelbarrow normally propped against the back wall was not in its usual place. Thinking that Frank might have left it at the wood pile, I walked on through the grass and leaves to the two oak trees where the Mennonites had stacked a cord of cut and seasoned firewood just days ago. As Frank knew, the Mennonites never shorted a cord by even one log and never mixed green wood with seasoned, which is why he was glad to pay seventy-five dollars a load for them to deliver it down from Monterey mountain and stack it behind the motel.
And just then, as I stood staring down at the empty span between the two oak trees, it slowly dawned on me that the women had been sent into the Winona simply as a distraction: the first time so that their accomplice could slip in behind the motel with his pickup, and the second so that he could drive out undetected after they helped him load the firewood.
And to make matters worse, I had completely failed to notice the full load of split, seasoned firewood in the bed of the truck (with the fifty-dollar wheelbarrow tied on top) as they all drove away together right in front of my eyes. What a sap!…And now, I had to go tell Frank.
Soon after the ‘Firewood Affair,’ Frank informed me that he would be hiring a new guy at the Winona. His job would be to carry wood to the fireplace. (I tried not to take this personally.) Also, he would keep the parking lot clean, mow the unkempt grass in front of and behind the motel, and perform general maintenance as needed. In general, I was glad to hear it since I had been carrying some of these extra duties myself.
“I did all of this myself for better than fifteen years,” Frank confided. “Winona convinced me to hire you, and I’m glad I did. But I don’t know if I can trust this new guy yet. Will you keep an eye on him for me?”
The new guy Rafe (for Rafael, I’m guessing) had the look of an ex-con about him. Well, at the least the look of an ex-con ‘as seen on TV’. It’s not like I personally had known any ex-cons myself, but he did have a missing tooth and a panther tattoo down the whole length of his right forearm. The fact that he had a three-day growth of course black beard every time I saw him also gave him a typecast look, along with his greased-back hair.
I was taken aback somewhat by Frank’s decision to hire such a sketchy character to work in his respectable establishment. In truth, I guess I took it as a slight to me in a way. I fancied that Frank saw in me as an honest, upright, and promising young fellow worthy of his trust. So what did it say about me that he would hire some ex-con to work on the place? However, I learned later that Frank had only agreed to take Rafe on as part of a church outreach program in the community—to help bring men in trouble back into society with a paying job. I couldn’t blame him much after that.
When Rafe started his new job, he and I exchanged blunt pleasantries whenever our paths crossed—particularly late in the day during the week or on weekends when I might be hanging around the motel and my room. I’m certain he knew from the way I watched him that we were not going to be buddies. He spotted me right away (you know, ‘schoolboy’) but didn’t call me out on it the way others had in the past. Instead, he seemed wary of me.
I took well to my new assignment as a spy for the man, especially after Frank told me the till had come up short on a recent Friday. Every evening, but on Fridays in particular, Frank gave me a cigar box with fifty dollars in cash to make change for the local ‘shack jobs’ that checked in on any given weekend or to cash personal checks up to twenty dollars for any of our regulars. (These were the days before credit cards or cash machines.) Frank said he couldn’t be certain about the shortage because he had left the front desk for a time during the day on Friday to have his lunch around the corner from the front desk An alcove held three round tables, a few wooden straight chairs, and several padded chairs for customers out in front of the fieldstone fireplace that ran the length of the back wall of the lobby. We couldn’t keep our eye on the cash drawer every working minute, and we weren’t accustomed to locking it each time we stepped away for a moment or two. Frank said he didn’t see any of the guests or either of the two maids hanging around the office on Friday, so the only suspect in the vicinity was Rafe.
Before closing down the main office, I regularly watched the console Zenith TV down in the lobby with one or more of the regulars, since their rooms had no television. The ‘color’ set was a recent replacement for the black and white model as an upgrade for the customers—although it was actually a hand-me-down from Frank’s own living room after he got a new one at home. The Zenith got a decent picture and five channels, thanks to the antenna at the top of a ham radio tower Frank had installed some years before.
Anyhow, I was down in the lounge reading a Stephen Crane short story that was listed on my English 101 syllabus and watching the ‘Tonight Show’ at the same time, so the office was open later than normal. It was a Thursday night, so I was surprised when Rafe walked in the front door. I immediately sensed that his manner was a bit different than usual. I guess he had been on his best behavior whenever Frank was around.
“Whatchaya watchin’, schoolboy,” Rafe asked pointedly. His tone did not match the question and set me on edge a bit.
‘Schoolboy?’ Where the hell did that come from?, I thought to myself. But I responded, “I’m studyin’ for class. Gotta read about fifty pages tonight for an essay tomorrow.”
This is about the lowest common denominator of school-related information I could share with this guy without giving him ammunition to needle me with.
“What’s on the box?” Rafe followed up.
I was relieved, because he gave no indication that he planned to follow up on the ‘schoolboy’ point of entry.
“It’s Johnny Carson,” I replied.
Now I’m thinking, ‘Why are you here tonight this late? And, why are you talking to me?’
Rafe slumped into one of the rocking chairs, feet splayed out before him in what looked like an I’m pissed and hung over attitude. I went back to my reading as he scowled at the tube.
“What time do you close down for the night?,” he asked within the next few minutes.
Clearly, he had something on his mind, and I was not anxious to encourage it.
“Usual time,” I replied casually. “Ten o’clock, but I lost track while I was reading. Guess I should close up now.”
Rafe shifted in his seat. He was still wearing the black leather, zippered jacket he had arrived in, and his hands were shoved down in the pockets as he rocked back and forth on his ankles. He seemed to me to be considering his next statement or maybe his next move. I couldn’t tell which.
“I gotta go to the head,” Rafe announced as he leaned forward to rock his way out of the chair.
At the table, I was feeling a little nervous about Rafe’s actions—or, really, lack of action. He clearly had something on his mind and was paying little attention to the television. I braced up imperceptibly as he pushed forward and up out of the rocking chair, with his hands still in his jacket pockets—not an easy maneuver. At the top of his motion, he hesitated momentarily, then turned toward me. I remained studiously focused on my book. No sideways glances, no nervous twitching. Then, Rafe turned on his heels and moved off slowly toward the front desk to pick up the washroom key.
I took the opportunity to put down my textbook and move toward the front desk, so that I would not be in the same vulnerable position when he returned to the lounge from the washroom. And just then I got a huge break. To my great relief, a weary salesman I recognized entered through the front door.
“I hope you got a room left over tonight,” the tall middle-aged man in a wet overcoat announced to the desk. “I had a flat tire right off the interstate, and it’s raining down that way. Dammit all—just my luck. Now I’m soaked and late.”
“Got plenty of rooms tonight,” I assured the new arrival. “Same price, nothin’s changed since you were here last month.”
“That’s what I like about this place,” the traveler replied in a congenial tone, “always the same.”
Rafe came back around the corner from the washroom about this time, saw the salesman standing at the front desk filling out a guest card, and dropped the key on the counter without speaking. He glanced my way, then exited through the front door. I watched his back as he disappeared into the gloom and gathering rain. I thought he might be walking out to a car, but I never saw any lights nor heard an engine start, so I couldn’t tell where he went.
After checking in the salesman, I closed up for the night, turned out the neon road sign, took out the day’s trash from the kitchenette, and carried the cigar box of cash with me to my room. I worried a bit that I might see Rafe again that night, so I lay awake quite awhile and slept uneasily until the following morning when Frank came in to take over for the day.
“We get any customers last night?” Frank asked me the same question nearly every morning during the week.
“Only a couple, then one of the regulars came in right at closing time. He said he had a flat tire up the way and had to fix it himself.”
“Well, maybe business will pick up later in the week. Not much goin’ on right now, I guess.” This was one of Frank’s standard remarks each morning as I transferred the night cash back to him in the front office.
“Not much,” I said. “Pretty quiet night.”
“By the way,” Frank continued as an afterthought, “Rafe quit yesterday morning. Told me he was headed back home to Clarksville. Didn’t say why or what he was going back for. Guess we’ve seen the last of him, though. Too bad; he was a pretty good worker when he wasn’t drinkin’.”
I decided on the spot that discretion was the better part of valor, so I kept quiet about Rafe’s unexpected visit to the office the night before. I tossed my books in the car and headed out to my classes for the day, as usual.
The night office that served as my living quarters was defined by a set of bunk beds on the one side, a waist-high chest of drawers on the other, and a wooden study table and chair in the middle. I developed a habit of reading in the lower bunk so that I could doze on and off, yet still get up quickly to answer the door buzzer outside. I had an old clock radio in the room but no television, so reading was my only distraction. I kept to the lower bunk until after the new arrivals for the evening tapered off, which was typically after midnight on the weekends but considerably earlier during the week.
One particular Friday evening, Frank the proprietor stopped in right after dinner, as was his custom, to check on the number of guests and the general status of things about the motel. Also, as usual, he removed the cash drawer from the main desk, leaving me with a cigar box containing about fifty dollars in small bills to make change for late arrivals and to start business back up the following morning. (We did business this way so that Frank could work on his books over the weekend and start fresh each Monday when he took over the front office again.) As usual, I locked the front office of the motel about ten and moved myself and the cash box to my little room in the middle of the string of seventeen rooms. I switched off the main neon sign—and sometimes even the ‘vacancy’ sign, if we happened to be full for the evening.
I’ve always suffered from an excess of imagination (probably stemming from too many mystery and horror stories read late at night in my youth), which led me to wonder if some nefarious stranger or even one of the regular guests at the motel might have caught on to the fact that I carried cash with me from the main office to the night office each night and then would answer the door to the buzzer after hours. I was always watchful and a little nervous about that. Fifty dollars was a tidy sum in those days.
This Friday night was no different than many others, with the exception that a cold front moved in late in the day at about the same time I moved to my room. (Don’t let on to Frank, but I looked forward to bad weather because it normally curtailed after-hours check-ins as the highway got harder to navigate in the dark and cold.) I dutifully closed up the front office, tucked my cash box under my arm, and moved the hundred or so feet under the overhang past the first set of rooms and their entry doors and on to the dutch door in the middle that led to the cleaning supply room and my adjoining room separated by a bedroom door.
The dutch door on the exterior allowed me to answer the night buzzer by opening the top half while leaving the bottom part latched. A shelf or ledge divided the two halves and served as a makeshift ‘desk’ for late arrivals to sign the guest card and for me to give them a receipt and key for the room. In effect, this dutch door was my security door between the outside world and my sleeping quarters within. Needless to say, this set-up did not fill me with an abundant sense of general safety.
I stayed dressed as I normally would in case of a late arrival, lay down on the lower bunk to start reading the collected short stories of O. Henry, to prepare for a class assignment the following Monday. In the cold and dark, I drifted off to sleep within a short time, so I didn’t change out of my ‘work clothes’ as I normally would after midnight. Sometime very early that next morning—long before daybreak—I awoke to a grating sound crinkling paper, something like the sound of gift wrap when you wad it up. At first, of course, I was just aware of a sound, but then my suspicious mind jumped to the immediate conclusion—without any evidence other than imagination—that I was being robbed of the fifty-dollar kitty stashed in the cigar box lying atop the desk in the middle of the room. I hate to admit it, but my first thought was that Rafe the ex-con had come back to town.
I had left the desk light on, so I knew whoever was in the room could see me if I moved at all. Worse yet, I was lying sideways on the bed with my back to the room and my face toward the wall. I wanted desperately to take a look in that direction but had no way of doing so without giving myself away and inviting the worst kind of attention. Lacking any visual evidence, my mind began to conjure up an image of an ill-tempered intruder, probably with a lethal weapon of some sort, who would not hesitate to inflict bodily injury upon me. And because I was so frightened by the prospect, I lay perfectly still as my anxiety increased with the incessant rattling of the paper.
Why is he taking so long to pick up the money? Is he counting it here with me lying just feet away on the bed? Why don’t I hear any other sounds but his infernal scrunching of the paper? Why doesn’t he just take the box and leave, for god’s sake!?
These questions tormented me over and again as I lay motionless and barely able to breath, all my sinews and muscles snap-locked in place. Hearing my worst fears unfolding behind my back, my head began to throb at the temples as a searing heat shot through my brain. And then, at long last…I blacked out.
Late the next morning, near ten o’clock, I awoke from my terror-induced coma without the slightest memory of the previous night’s event. Ironically, picking up the money box from the desk in my room and returning the cash to the motel office had absolutely no impact on my conscious thoughts. It was Saturday, and most of our regular business-class guests had departed the previous day. Any other guests were not early risers, so no one noticed that I was late opening the main office that morning. Waking in my street clothes, I assumed that I had fallen asleep, neglected to set the alarm clock in my room, and, as a result, woke up later than usual. I counted myself lucky that no one came banging at my door before I made it down to the office to open it for the day.
As I went about my usual opening-up procedure, nothing seemed abnormal to me. I unlocked the front door, turned on the neon sign located out by the road, transferred the cigar box cash to the locking cash drawer, emptied the waste basket and ashtrays from the lobby, switched on the television, set up the coffee pot in case anyone wanted a cup, and stepped in the back room to heat up a ‘bear claw’ for breakfast. Just a regular Saturday morning on the job.
It was mid-afternoon when a fuzzy flash of memory returned unexpectedly and stopped me in my tracks as I made my usual rounds in the parking lot to pick up litter. I recall quite clearly being suddenly overwhelmed by my senses, standing out in the bright winter sunlight staring stupidly back at my room in middle of the motel and desperately waiting for an image or thread of thought to fill in the blank spot between my eyes. I stood in place with my leg muscles twitching the way a horse stands in a corral waiting for a command to move. But even then, nothing came back to my memory other than the ‘feeling’ that something dreadful had taken place in the dark—the way a nightmare hangs on in the mind as a veil of shadows.Not able to conjure up the specific cause of my uneasiness, I returned to the lobby and set about finishing my several assignments for English class as I waited for the maids to arrive and set to work cleaning rooms from the previous night. Not more than twenty minutes into my reading, Darcus the maid interrupted me by calling the switchboard from a room near the night office.
“Thought you might want to know…” Darcus began as she often did with her standard antecedent to a problem I needed to fix. “There’s a trail of candy wrappers all over the floor of the storage room, and I saw a pile of them under the table in your room. You left your room door open this morning, by the way.”
“Yeah,” she answered. “Candy bar wrappers—the ones in the silver paper. You know, Zero bars.”
“OK, thanks, I’ll check it out.” I assured her as always, but I was dumbfounded.
I passed Darcus in the storage room located to the side and behind the night office. Just as she had said, a line of candy wrappers led from the big silver trash can next to the cleaning supplies, around the corner, and then into my room. And there under the desk, just as she had said, I found a pile of empty silver wrappers with bits of white fudge and peanuts scattered about. Slowly it dawned on me that I had previously stashed an entire box of my favorite snack on the lowest shelf of the study table and forgotten it entirely. The sounds of crinkling paper began to fill the void in my memory before any concrete thought or image of it arose to cure the amnesia of fear from the previous night.
I blacked out? I was robbed? The bandit rattling about interminably, excruciatingly in the cigar box of cash? A flood of relief followed on the heels of realization. It was no masked intruder but, instead, a dirty rat that so inflamed my imagination to the point of terror. Now beyond the fear, I was affronted and embarrassed. My manhood had been challenged by a rodent and found wanting of the courage to rise to the occasion and stomp the living hell out of it. Instead, like a possum, I curled up in a ball of fear and fainted! My god, man, get a grip.
In my sudden realization of the actual event and its delirious effect on my sanity, I failed to realize that Darcus (now joined by the younger maid) remained in the storage area—standing at my back and watching me as I stood in the doorway to my room staring down at the wrappers on the floor.
“Lookin’ for this?” I heard Darcus say quietly just behind my ear.
Twisting my head back to the left, I caught a much-too-close glimpse of a naked grey tail hanging from her two pinched fingers and attached to a bloody rat’s head, eyes bulging where a trap had done its hammer-like job the night before. And Darcus got the desired effect of seeing me jump back and shiver while I made the hissing sound that only a frightened cat can make.
Both maids cackled right on through their afternoon break and on up to quitting time. Seldom had they enjoyed a day at work quite so well. And you can trust me on this point—it was not the last laugh Darcus the maid had at Schoolboy’s expense during his tenure as ‘night manager’ of the Winona Inn.
The Donut Kids
I opened the top half of the night office dutch door when the buzzer sounded near midnight on a cold and dreary Saturday evening in January. I was reading a Zap Comix that I had found in the university center study hall as well as listening to a Credence song on the AM clock radio, so I was awake late and answered right away.
I saw a pair of weak amber headlights sunk back in the dull grill of an out-of-date sedan and a couple of little kids—a boy and a girl near the same age—standing outside the office door, their dirty faces barely showing above the bottom half. I strained to see someone else in the car behind them, but I could only make out shadows—a man and a woman, so far as I could tell.
“Hi,” I said flatly to the two blank faces looking up at me from waist level.
No response. Just a vacant stare out of tired, sallow eyes.
Then the mother stepped up out of the dark behind them—startling me a bit, because I was a little transfixed with the two pitiful looking waifs standing before me in the middle of a cold night. In a timid voice, she told me they needed a room and handed me a ten dollar bill. Normally, we charged twelve dollars for a double room, which was the largest room in the place. But after seeing the kids’ dirty faces and the dark circles under their mother’s eyes, I made an ‘executive decision’ to give them the room for the ten spot—especially since they were checking in so late and we had several empties down the lower row of rooms.
The mom—at least, I assumed it was the mom—was signing the guest card when I noticed the kids still standing there looking up at me, shivering a bit now in the frigid air. Kids just don’t behave this way in my experience unless they need something. But all I had in the night office were six glazed donuts left over from the day before. They were brought in for our guests every week day by the Ralph’s Donuts driver on his route between grocery stores. I often took the leftovers to my room for the weekend. Two-day-old donuts didn’t add much nutrition, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do for them, and they made me antsy just standing there looking up at me. I felt I had to do something.
So I looked down at them and asked, “How about a donut?”
I handed the box over to their outstretched hands across the dutch door, and they eagerly took it back to the car without a word. Their mom looked at me for a long moment but said nothing, handing the guest card over and turning back to the car. They drove down to their assigned room. I never got a clear look at the father that night.
Next morning, I opened the office and put some out-of-pocket money in the till for a couple of packages of Cracker Jacks and Zero candy bars from under the front desk. I put them in a paper bag before heading off to the room where the family had stayed the night. I probably should have knocked, but I didn’t really know what to say and I didn’t want to embarrass the dad in front of his kids. Just as I was leaving the bag at the door, the kids’ mom opened it. I handed her the bag, saying “for the kids.” She looked at me suspiciously for a moment but then seemed to soften a little.
“Thanks,” she finally said as she quickly shut the door back before I could get a look inside. It had become a habit with me, as Frank’s agent, to spy a little every chance I got.
Later, I noticed the car was gone from the lot just before noon, so I let the maids know they could clean the room. Darcus—the older of the two—called me from the room a few minutes later.
“They ain’t gone,” she informed me. “I had to let myself in with the passkey. Kids’ toys and blankets are still on the floor, and there’s a suitcase on the bed with a woman’s clothes in it.”
“Thanks, Darcus,” I said. “Sorry, I thought they were leaving since they only paid for one night. I guess they’re coming back.”
I didn’t tell her I had only charged them ten bucks and that I had failed to find out if they were checking out or not that morning. I didn’t want her telling Frank anything about it. If she had, I would have to confess to him that I made a bad call, resulting in us having a dirty room that could not be rented again until the next Monday. That’s money out of Frank’s pocket, and I wouldn’t blame him if he made me do the cleaning myself. Luckily, Darcus and I got along well enough, and she was not anxious to start anything up with Frank on my account.
So I was relieved when I saw the missing family pull back into the lot later that same day, just before the maids were due to leave for the weekend. Their room was located at the far end of the row, nearest to the exit, so I locked up the office and headed in that direction to sort things out with the dad and get payment for the second day’s stay. However, I made a tactical error by stopping in the laundry room behind the night office to let Darcus know that the family had come back (so she could clean the room and get me out of a jam in case they paid up and checked out). By the time I had talked to Darcus and stepped back out into the parking lot, I spotted the family pulling away again from the far end of the circular entrance and onto the main road toward town.
Daylight was already fading at this time of year, so all I could make out was the little girl standing up in the back seat and looking out the rear of the vehicle, her dark eyes staring back at me as they pulled away. I waved my arms to get them to stop, but she made no motion to tell her parents that I had spotted them. Or maybe she didn’t think it mattered.
Nothing I hated worse than calling Frank at home on a Sunday evening, but I had to let him know I screwed up. Winona picked up the phone but handed it to Frank as soon as she heard my voice. I gave him the facts of the case in a few direct sentences, no embellishments or excuses.
“When did they leave? I mean, what time?” Frank asked.
“Just after five,” I answered straight away. “Was I supposed to do something to stop them?”
“No, but let me know next time a family with kids comes in late at night like that.”
I could sense the irritation in his voice over the phone, although he said nothing in the way of a reprimand. All the same, I hated the feeling of being duped. I knew Frank relied on me to do the right thing by him when it came to watching the property and making sure the rooms were paid up. I didn’t want to let him down, but how was I to know how many days they intended to stay or if they were honest folks or not?
“No use trying to stop these people once they get in their car,” Frank continued as I ruminated. “It’s always the same anyway. They just head down the road and check in someplace else for a night. I’ve seen it over and again. We’ll find them.”
At first, I expected Frank to say it was a write-off, that they had hoodooed us and gotten away with it. I was surprised when he said ‘we’ll find them’ in such an off-hand way.
“You mean we’re goin’ after them?” I questioned Frank with some hesitation. My thinking at the time was along the lines of: What do we do with them if we find them?
“No, I’m calling the Sheriff from here in a minute,” Frank answered. “We’ll let him do the finding.”
Then he added a question of his own: “I’m guessing they didn’t write down the license plate on the check-in card?”
As it happened, Frank had trained me well. I noticed the omission when the mom handed me the card the night before, so I jotted it down without thinking as their car pulled away to drive to the room. That was a relief in one way, but I also had a simultaneous vision of a Sheriff’s deputy pulling the kids’ father out of some other small motel room while they hung back inside with their mother, crying and scared. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t want them to be afraid like that. They hadn’t done anything to deserve it, and they weren’t the cause of the mess they were in.
The next morning, Monday, right after I had opened the office for business, Frank called me from his house to say he was coming in early. When he got there, he told me the Sheriff would be picking me up on the way to Carthage to identify the man who pulled out the previous day without paying.
“You have to be there to identify the father,” Frank informed me. “Sheriff can’t do anything without somebody pointing him out, and you were on duty when they came in.”
I didn’t tell Frank that I had never actually seen the father’s face, but I was already in too deep to backpedal now.
Carthage, a village of farmers along the western road to Nashville, is only an hour away from the motel by car, so I wondered why they would stop again so soon? The Sheriff answered my unspoken question almost as soon as he arrived:
“Good thing this guy had car trouble or he would likely be down in Nashville by now and way out of my jurisdiction. He pulled up lame late last night off the highway at a closed gas station.”
“What about the kids and the mom? Were they with him? Are they OK?” I asked my questions in quick succession while glancing sideways at the Sheriff. I guess I thought he and Frank might find it odd that I was taking a special interest in people I didn’t even know. I worried they might even ponder whether I had played some role in the scam. Ironically, I was making a strained attempt to avoid looking guilty.
The Sheriff continued talking to Frank, who stood outside his rolled-down window. “A Smith County deputy spotted the vehicle on early patrol this morning. We already had another call late Saturday night from Ogletree’s Sinclair station in town. The ‘sombitch’ ran off without paying for his gas, but we didn’t know where he went. Then, when you called me last night with a description of the car, it sounded like the same guy. Good thing you got the tag number.”
Frank turned to walk back into the office, and the Sheriff looked over at me—now beside him in the cruiser—as though my earlier questions had just then registered: “Turns out the whole family was huddled up in the car together all night. Wonder they didn’t freeze to death in this weather. Don’t worry too much about those kids. I called it into Social Services, and the deputy will wait with the car until they get there. They’ll be alright. Better off, really.”
I said nothing more as the Sheriff pulled onto the highway out of the motel entrance. After that, I rode along in my own unhappy and agitated state while the Sheriff chattered away over the police radio to his dispatcher and to the deputy waiting for us some miles up the road. He was taking care of business, and I didn’t interrupt.
I found out that day just how fast the law can travel in a Sheriff’s car. We arrived at the gas station in Carthage within what seemed like only a few minutes. Then, in a blur, I was standing by the deputy’s car, pointing inside to the pathetic-looking, disheveled father. But afterward, I could not stop myself from staring into the frightened, sad faces of the kids standing up in the back seat of their broken-down vehicle as their mother sat sobbing in the front. How could they understand that their father had broken the law and must be held accountable? It was an unwelcome reminder of my role here. I just could not shake the unstated accusation on the kids’ faces. In their minds, I was the sole reason for their father’s arrest, handcuffing and imprisonment in the back of the deputy’s patrol car.
“Ready?” The Sheriff’s urgency woke me from my self-conscious fog. “Frank told me you need to get back for class—back to school. So let’s get goin’.”