Authors: Mona Simpson
Travel Lodges were the kind of motels that were set a little off the highway in a field. They tended to be one or at the most two stories, with cement squares outside your room door for old empty metal chairs. At one end there would be a lit coffee shop and a couple of semis parked on the gravel. The office would be near the coffee shop. It would have shag carpeting and office furniture, always a TV attached by metal bars to the ceiling.
Those motels depressed us. After we settled in the room, my mother looked around, checking for cleanliness. She took the bedspreads down, lifted curtains, opened drawers and the medicine cabinet, and looked into the shower. Sometimes she took the paper off a water glass and held the glass up to see that it was washed.
I always wanted to go outside. My mother would be deliberating whether it was safer to leave our suitcase in the room or in the locked car; when she was thinking, she stood in the middle of the floor with her hands on her hips and her lips pursed. Finally, she decided to bring it in. Then she would take a shower to cool off. She didn’t make me take one if I didn’t want to, because we were
nowhere and she didn’t care what I looked like in the coffee shop. After her shower, she put on the same clothes she’d been driving in all day.
I went out to our porch and sat in the one metal chair. Its back was a rounded piece, perhaps once designed to look like a shell. I could hear her shower water behind me, running; in front, the constant serious sound of the highway. A warm wind slapped my skin lightly, teasing, the sound of the trucks on the highway came loud, then softer, occasionally a motorcycle shrank to the size of a bug, red taillights ticking on the blue sky.
I acted like a kid, always expecting to find something. At home, before supper, I’d stood outside when the sky looked huge and even the near neighbors seemed odd and distant in their occupations. I’d watched the cars moving on the road, as if by just watching you could understand, get something out of the world.
At the motel, I would walk around to the back. I’d stand looking at the field, like any field. The back of the building was ordinary, brick, with glass meter gauges. There was a gas tank lodged on a cement platform, pooled with rusty water. The field went on to where you could see trailers and a neon sign for Dairy Queen in the distance.
The near and the far, could have been anywhere, could have been our gas tank, our fields and sky at home. Our yard had the same kinds of weeds. Home could have been anywhere too.
“Ann. A-yun,” my mother would be yelling, then. It all ended, gladly, when she called me from the door. She was finished with her shower and wanted to go for supper at the coffee shop. Our day was almost done. And we enjoyed the dinners in those coffee shops. We ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and side dishes and beverages and desserts. We were anxious, trying to plan to get all the best of what they had. We rolled up our sleeves, asked for extra sour cream and butter. We took pleasure in the scrawled figures added up on the green-lined bill.
Mornings, we always started out later than we’d planned. The manager ran the credit card through the machine and filled the form out slowly. My mother drummed her nails on the counter top, waiting. Then she sighed, holding the credit card form in
both hands, examining it a second before signing. “Okay,” she said every time she handed the paper back, as if she were giving away one more thing she’d once had.
We’d drive off in the morning and I’d look again, at the plain building, the regular field. I’d forget the land. It was like so much other land we’d seen.
My mother had clipped out pictures of houses in Scottsdale, Arizona. We loved the colors: pink, turquoise, browns, rich yellow. The insides of the houses had red tiled floors, clay bowls of huge strawberries on plain, rough wooden tables.
We went out of our way to go to Scottsdale. When we got there, my mother drove to the Luau, a good hotel, one they’d listed in
Town and Country
. I sat in a chair on one side of the lobby while she went up to the desk. She came back and whispered me the price.
“What do you think? It’s a lot but maybe it’s worth it once to just relax.”
“I think we should find somewhere cheaper.”
“There might not be a Travel Lodge in town,” she said. “Well, think, Pooh-bear-cub. It’s up to you. What would you like to do?”
“Let’s find out if there’s a Travel Lodge.”
She sighed. “Okay. I don’t know how we’re going to find out. There’s probably not. In fact, I’m pretty sure. So what do you think? What should we do?”
I worried about money. And I knew it was a bigger system than I understood. I tried to pick the cheaper thing, like a superstition.
“There’s a telephone. Maybe they have a phone book.” We were standing in the dark Polynesian lobby. A phone hung in the corner.
She did the looking and it was there, Travel Lodge, with a boxed ad showing the bear sleepwalking, in the yellow pages, listed as being on Route 9. “Nine where?” my mother said, biting her fingernail, clicking the other hand on the metal shelf. “Now, how the heck am I going to find that? It says right out of town, yeah, I’ll bet. I didn’t see anything, coming in.”
“We don’t have to go there.” I felt like I’d done my duty, check
ing. I looked around the lobby. It seemed nice. I was beginning to hope she picked here.
“Well, come on.” She pulled her purse strap over her shoulder. “Let’s go. We’ll go there. We should.” She had that much worry, apparently.
But driving to the Travel Lodge, not even halfway there, in town, at an intersection near a gas station, we had an accident. My mother rear-ended a car on a red light.
* * * *
I was sitting on a curb of the intersection, pulling at grass behind me banking the closed filling station. Nearby, the cars were pulled over to one side and a police car with a flashing red light was parked, making traffic go around them. The policeman stood writing things down as he talked to my mother.
She was moving her hands all around her hair and face. Then she folded her arms across her chest, but one hand couldn’t stand it, it reached up to tug at her collar.
“I was going to just stay at that hotel, I
. I was tired. I know myself. Now, God, tell me, really, how long do you think it will take to be fixed?” She bit a nail.
The policeman looked into the dark gas station. “Problem is, it’s a weekend,” he said.
My mother looked at me and shook her head. The policeman walked over to the other driver. She was a woman in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. She seemed calm.
“See, I’m not going to listen to you anymore,” my mother said. “Because I know best. You try and save a few pennies and you end up spending thousands.” She exhaled, shoving out a hip.
It was ten o’clock and finally getting cooler. We were hungry, we still hadn’t eaten dinner. The other woman, having taken the numbers she needed, left, waving good-bye to us and to the policeman.
“Calm down, Adele,” she said to my mother.
My mother pulled a piece of her hair. “Calm down, well, that’s easy for you to say. Jeez, calm down, she says, when she’s going to sue, she’ll get her kids’ college educations out of this, I know how it’s done.”
The woman laughed and slammed her car door shut. She rolled down her window. “Barry’s Hanover might have a mechanic in on Saturday,” she called to the policeman.
“Mom, I’m hungry.” My rump was cold and it seemed we might be there all night.
“Well, we have to stay,” she said. “If we’d just checked in, then we’d be there now, probably eating, no, we’d be finished. We’d probably be having dessert. But now we have to wait.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know.”
The policeman came over to us, still holding his notebook. “We’ve done all we can do until tomorrow,” he said. “Now I’ll take you wherever you want to go and you can just leave the car here and call in the morning and have her towed.”
“They’re probably not even going to have room left at the hotel now,” she said to me.
The policeman had freckles on his arms and his hands, like my mother. He put the notebook in his back pocket. “Now, you are both welcome to stay with my wife and I for the night, if you’re worried. There’s plenty of extra room.”
“Oh, no, thank you, though, we couldn’t.”
“Because it wouldn’t be any trouble. And my wife makes a mean apple pie.” He looked at me.
“Thank you, but no, really.” My mother inspired offers like that, often. I didn’t know until I was older how unusual that is. “But would you mind dropping us off at the Luau?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Nice place.”
We both sat in the backseat while he drove. The windows were covered with chicken wire. “I just hope they still have room,” my mother said, stretching her fingers out on the seat and looking down at their nails.
The thing about my mother and me is that when we get along, we’re just the same. Exactly. And at the Luau Hotel, we were happy. Waiting for our car to be fixed, we didn’t talk about money. It was so big, we didn’t think about it. We lay on our stomachs on the king-sized bed, our calves tangling up behind us, reading
novels. I read
Gone With the Wind
. Near the end, I locked myself in the bathroom, stopping up my face with a towel. After a while she knocked on the door.
“Honey, let me in, I want to tell you something!” I made myself keep absolutely still. “Don’t worry, Honey, she gets him back later. She gets him again in the end.”
We loved the swimming pool. Those days we were waiting for our car to be fixed, we lay out from ten until two, because my mother had read that those were the best tanning hours. That was what we liked doing, improving ourselves: lying sprawled out on the reclining chairs, rubbed with coconut suntan oil, turning the pages of new-bought magazines. Then we’d go in the pool, me cannonballing off the diving board for the shock of it, my mother starting in one corner of the shallow end, both her arms out to the sides, skimming the surface as she stepped in gradually, smiling wide, saying, “Eeeeeeeee.”
My mother wore a white suit, I swam in gym shorts. While I was lying on a chair, once, she picked up my foot and looked down my leg. “Apricot,” she said.
At home, one farmer put in a swimming pool, fenced all around with aluminum. That summer, Ben and I sat in the fields outside, watching through the diamond spaces of the fence. Sometimes the son would try and chase us away and throw rocks at us, little sissy pieces of gravel.
“Public property!” we screamed back at him. We were sitting in Guns Field. We kids all knew just who owned what land.
Every afternoon, late, after the prime tanning hours, we went out. Dressing took a long time. My mother called room service for a pitcher of fresh lemonade, told them not too much sugar, but some sugar, like yesterday, a pinch, just enough so it was sweet. Sweet, but a little tart, too. Come to think of it, yesterday tasted a little too tart, but the day before was perfect. This was all on the telephone. My mother was the kind of customer a waitress would like to kill.
We’d each take showers and wash our hair, squeezing lemons on it before the cream rinse. We touched up our fingernails and
toenails with polish. That was only the beginning. Then came the body cream and face cream, our curlers and hair sprays and makeup.
All along, I had a feeling we couldn’t afford this and that it would be unimaginably bad when we had to pay. I don’t know what I envisioned: nothing, no luck, losing everything, so it was the absolute worst, no money for food, being stopped on a plain cement floor in the sun, unable to move, winding down, stopping like a clock stopped.
But then it went away again. In our sleeveless summer dresses and white patent leather thongs, we walked to the district of small, expensive shops. There was an exotic pet store we visited every day. We’d been first drawn in by a sign on the window for two defumed skunks.
“But you can never really get the smell completely out,” the blond man inside had told us. He showed us a baby raccoon and we watched it lick its paws, with movements like a cat but more delicate, intricate features.
More than anything, I wanted that raccoon. And my mother wasn’t saying no. We didn’t have to make any decisions until we left the Luau. And we didn’t know yet when that would be.
In a china store, my mother held up a plain white plate. “Look at this. See how fine it is?” If she hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have noticed anything, but now I saw that it was thin and there was a pearliness, like a film of water, over the surface.
“Granny had a whole
like this.” She turned the plate upside down and read the fine printing. “Yup, this is it. Spode.”
I remembered Granny almost bald, carrying oats and water across the yard to feed Hal’s pony. But still, I didn’t know.
“Mmhmm. You don’t know, but Granny was very elegant. Gramma isn’t, she could be, but she isn’t. We’re like Granny. See, we belong here, Pooh-bear-cub. We come from this.”
I didn’t know.
A week after the accident, we had good news. The bill for our car was far less than we’d thought and my mother paid ninety dollars,
off the record, to fix the other woman’s fender. They both agreed not to contact insurance companies.
This was all great except it meant we were leaving. The car would be ready in a day. My mother sat on the edge of the bed, filing her nails, when she put down the telephone receiver, gently. “There’s still a few things I’d like to see here,” she said.
We went out to the pool and tried not to think. It seemed easy, lying on towels over warm cement. I’d gotten tan, very dark, the week we’d been there. My mother had freckles and pink burns on her cheeks and shoulders, and her hair was streaked lighter from the sun. That day, my mother got up and went inside before I did. She had to be careful in the sun.
I was in the pool, holding on to the side, kicking my legs in the water behind me. I was worried about my knees. Lately, I’d noticed they were fat, not knobby and horselike, the way my mother’s were. So I was doing kicks to improve them. Around the pool, other women slouched in deck chairs. I thought about my knees again. At least tan fat looked better than white fat, I was thinking.