MOTEL. A writer's memories of his grandparents' motel are vivid, warm, and sometimes revived only by the art of language.
AS far back as I can remember recognizing relatives and the places where they lived, my grandparents lived in a motel in Erick, Okla., a town of 7,500 some 15 minutes from the Texas Panhandle. Three or four times a year, mostly in summer, we would make the trek down Highway 66 from Oklahoma City in a station wagon to visit them. There were 23 units to the motel. Behind the office, which doubled as a living room, my grandparents had a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and finally an almost hidden, boy-sized second bedroom, with a window from which, at night, one could hear coyotes, train whistles, the whine of semis out on the highway.
With the help of one or two maids, who were always replaced before I could learn their names or faces, my grandparents cleaned the rooms, did the laundry, tended the swimming pool, kept the lawn, and registered guests. I realize now that managing the motel was not my grandparents' idea of ``the good life.'' My grandmother's memories of the motel - the drudgery of the chores, the inconvenience of waking up at 1 a.m. to register a sleepy trucker, the distance between Erick and her children's homes - are her own. My memories, I suspect, are quite different. To me the motel was a palace, a place of luxury and adventure.
If Mom and Dad would condone such extravagance (and if vacancies allowed), we boys could sleep in a different room every night and watch TV in bed. Summers, we swam every day in the pool, sometimes both morning and night. Town kids, I knew, had to pay 50 cents to swim. Although we were the strangers, the out-of-towners, we were also the privileged, the elect.
At the motel I held my first job. If a guest buzzed the switchboard for a bucket of ice or a newspaper and I was awake, I would carry it to his room. Even this was an adventure, confronting strange people in the room where they would sleep. At first I didn't know about tipping. A man in bare feet gave me a quarter for bringing the bucket of ice. I tried to give it back. Should one get paid for this?
In the morning I would accompany Grandmother on her cleaning rounds, helping her to strip each room of dirty linens and towels, throwing these into a white wooden cart we wheeled from room to room. Wastebaskets had to be emptied, ashtrays wiped, dirty glasses replaced with clean ones wrapped in crinkly protective paper. Meanwhile my grandfather would be vacuuming the swimming pool. And at midmorning our room-cleaning crew would meet the pool-cleaning crew for a bottle of Dr Pepper and a sit in the metal lawn chairs that lined the walk between rooms.
One night while riding back to Oklahoma City from Erick, I lay curled beside my brother in the bed of the station wagon and gazing out the window when suddenly I saw lights - a brightly lighted house on a hill. I begged my parents to stop the car. Red neon across the front of the three-story farmhouse flashed ``Haunted House.'' We woke my brothers, paid our admission fees, and went inside. There we saw ghosts flitting from room to room, passing us on the stairs. I must have been at that age when one is no longer enamored of dinosaurs, not yet puzzled by girls, but fascinated instead by monsters. These ghosts were not scary. They were a tourist attraction, after all, convincingly otherworldly, ethereal, but no more threatening than the glass-enclosed rattle-snakes one might find in the ``Reptile Zoo'' advertised farther down the highway.
I was asleep, of course. The house was a dream. The next morning I awoke in my own bed in the city and couldn't wait to talk about the haunted house we'd toured the night before. I asked everyone: my parents, my brothers - nobody remembered it. But I could still describe it: the lights that had attracted us from the highway, the layout of the rooms. They said I must have dreamed it. This confusion between the dream and the reality is a little like what happens when you write, it seems. Hereafter, now that I've seen some of these memories transformed into the bright color and concrete shape of language, I may have trouble separating the memory itself, the memory pure and chaotic and divorced of language, from these careful, word-bound renderings of it.
My grandparents sold the motel and moved to the city some 15 years ago; and on its beeline push toward Amarillo, the newly built Interstate veered from old 66 at this point and passed up the little town with my grandparents' motel. Despite my curiosity and fondness, I've never revisited that place where I first tied my shoes, learned to swim, and rode a horse. No, I think I'll take my chances with memory - and with language, its new home. Unlike places, these two are always close at hand. And any transformations or illusions I risk might prove small adventures in themselves, and surely no more threatening than the ghosts of rising highway heat that make a receding scene to dance and shimmer shamelessly even as, gazing from the rear window of an accelerating station wagon, you try to fix it solid in your mind.