It’s a tiny motel: four rooms, two tacked on to each end of our house like the spreading wings of a Southern plantation. But we’re the opposite of a plantation, we’re the site of endless uprootings. Poor soil for weak vegetation. The less successful variety of traveling salesman, in cheap suits, bearing leatherette briefcases and expressions of bewilderment at how fruitless their lives have turned out to be. Men who’ve been kicked out of the house by their wives and aren’t quite sure yet whether they can go home tomorrow. Drifters who’ve scrounged up enough money somewhere to settle down in one of our nineteen-dollar beds for the night, often leaving behind them the evidence that they had enough left over for a good-sized bender. Even hippies sometimes, though there aren’t a lot of them in this blue-collar, conservative town; maybe they’re just passing through on their way to someplace more congenial — a commune, a city squat, a rock festival. They arrive, unlike most of our customers, in clumps, too young yet to want or need or have to be alone. Most of these people don’t stay long; the wind blows them to us and then blows them away.
Then there’s Miss Knight. June comes and so does she, in her sky blue VW bus, crammed to the ceiling with everything she owns. All summer it sits in front of the motel, down by Room 4, which is her home for the summer and always has been. (As far as I know, anyway; my “always” isn’t very long.) She fills the room up quickly. She’s not the kind of wanderer who travels lightly, who pares down her possessions. She likes things. Not luxurious things but things that are her own, that make her feel at home. Her room feels like nothing so much as a nest, lined with bits of fluff and feathers and string, trifles that seem worthless on their own but make excellent insulation. She wears layers of clothing too, shapeless skirts and sweaters draped around her tiny thin body, even in the heat of summer. She coddles herself, but she thrives this way. Nothing blows her away; she’s rooted.
We don’t know how old she is. Seventy-five? Eighty-five? Her hair is pure white and scant, her spine bent, and sometimes her mind, to us, seems to travel on illogical paths — but maybe it’s our minds that are at fault, too limited to follow her flights of fancy, her mental travels into the less explored regions of the universe. She’s energetic, her eyes sparkle, she takes good care of herself and her dog, the Chihuahua that goes with her everywhere: so whatever age she is, it isn’t too old. We’re not inclined to be critical anyway; the place seems entirely different with her around, less like a dreary way station for the desperate, more like a bucolic paradise, a fit resting place for any respectable elderly woman who spends the year driving around New England in a VW bus. It never feels like summer until her bus arrives, to remind us that we have an acre of land out back, filled with fruit trees and shade trees and flowering bushes. Miss Knight takes daily constitutionals around it, looking at everything with appreciation and curiosity.
She’s friendly, even ebullient, but guarded. She looks hazy-eyed past questions. We don’t know her story, her past or her future. It’s as if she only exists here and now, in the summer in a small motel in Connecticut. The only indication we have of her life away from us is the one postcard that arrives every spring, in advance of her own arrival, letting us know to be on the lookout for her. It sits propped on the dining room table for weeks, while the weather grows warmer, the school year wears on, our other customers come and go, our own lives mutate and progress inexorably. It’s our surrogate for her; we read it over and over, day by day, until she pulls into the driveway again, and then we put it away in a drawer with the ones from every other year.
The year it doesn’t arrive, we all start wondering whether we’re any more real than she is.
how much of my life story