Here's my 2016 Christmas story - enjoy!
Christmas Eve at the Starlite Motel
The radio crackles. Outside, the snow falls thick and heavy, silently piling up in the quiet road. It's late afternoon, and the bad weather has finally slowed the usually-heavy traffic on this highway. It's been a slow day in the motel office. Just three check-ins.
One was a young couple, Bibi and Sean, who had eyes and hands only for each other. There hadn't been much conversation with them. They just wanted to be alone. I remember what that was like, 20 years ago. But you could see they were excited to be traveling the route – they did say that this is their third trip the length of Route 66. They unzipped their parkas in the warmth of the office, and underneath their coats they sported Route 66 souvenir t-shirts from earlier stops. They were a charming and attractive couple. Sean had a wild mop of red hair and Bibi had lovely dark eyes and shiny dark hair. As they hurried out of the office, I envied them.
The older couple, Ron and Kathy, checked in an hour or so later, and they had talked much longer. They were empty-nesters, boomers, pros along this old road. Their first trip on 66 had been on their honeymoon over a long-ago Christmas holiday, they said. And they did the whole route again at Christmas time every four or five years. Another pair of lovebirds, but old ones. They weren't desperate to get to their room. They said they had stayed here a couple times before, and they praised my Uncle Don, who had saved the place. This pair was so comfortable together. I envied them, too.
Then there were some students, four young men exploring Route 66 for the first time together over their Christmas break from school. Pete, Brad, Jimmy, and Mark took another two rooms. As they checked in, they chattered about the souvenirs and memorabilia on display. They took turns taking each other's photo with their cell phones, and made sure I was in each picture.
Other than that, I'd answered the phone a couple times, rearranged the tourist brochures in the card rack, eaten my lunch sandwich, an hour later consumed my supper sandwich, made two pots of coffee, stood at the door to watch the snow fog down, and wondered how in the hell I'd ended up here all by myself. At the Starlite Motel, in Edwardsville, Illinois. On a curve of reconstructed state highway once known as Legate's Curve, after Orval and Virginia Legate's motel and restaurant, once a stop on old Route 66.
Of course, I know how I got here. My Uncle Don Ferris left it to me not quite a year ago. Uncle Don had no children to leave his property to. And his brother, my dad, was already gone—and my mom was too, for that matter. And also—well, there was just me. “So,” the attorney said, “You are now the proud owner of a genuine Route 66-era motel, saved from the wrecking ball and lovingly restored by your Uncle Don.”
Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to be here. I mean, I had to have somewhere to go, something to do. And Edwardsville has turned out to be a really okay little city, with a lot of friendly people. And of course, the Route 66 crowd, who patronize this little vintage motel, are enthusiastic and so, so friendly. But, it's Christmas Eve. And I'm alone. And really, tonight, who cares about all that Route 66 stuff anyway?
The bell on the door jangles. I guess I was nodding off, but I come to and get my bearings. I don't have any more reservations, so I don't know who this is. It's dark out now but I can see by the street light that the snow is still fogging down. A person is stomping snow off his shoes, as the now-ajar door is allowing sparkling snowflakes to drift inside. The man gives up on the snow and opens the door wide, stepping in.
“Hello, young lady,” he says affably. “I was hoping you'd be open.”
“Hello and welcome to the Starlite Motel,” I am awake now and remembering my manners.
“Snowing so hard I could hardly see if there were other cars here. Guessing you might have a room available?”
“Yes, sir, I do...uh, for two?” No way can I even see clearly his car outside, let alone see if there's a person waiting inside it, but it's been a couples kind of day. I mean, seriously, it's Christmas Eve. Who travels alone on Christmas Eve?
“No, no, it's just me.”
“Well, that's just fine,” I smile at him, trying to sound convinced that it really is fine for him to be traveling alone in a snowstorm tonight, and that it is just as fine for me to be here all alone when once, well, when once I wasn't alone. “Just sign our guest book here, please,” I ask him.
“Of course.” He pulls off his gloves, signs the book, and reaches in his back pocket for his billfold. He has a pleasant face and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
He pays for the room and I give him a receipt and the WiFi code. His name is Ash, and in the guestbook after his name, he has added “Chicago IL.”
“So are you headed west or east?” I ask him.
“Back east,” he says. “I'd planned to make it up to Springfield tonight to have Christmas with my son and his girlfriend. Maybe tomorrow morning if this snow stops.”
Just Ash. Another single, alone person on Christmas Eve.
We exchange a bit more small talk, and I notice that Ash has a nice twinkle to his eye. He's probably a dozen years older than me. He has a lean look about him, like maybe he's a vegetarian. Or maybe he eats steak every day, but no desserts.
“You must be the new owner?” he asks.
“I am. I'm Carly Ferris. My uncle left the place to me.”
“You know, I read about it when Don Ferris died. Your uncle was a hero here, you know. No one, I mean the Route 66 enthusiasts, stopped much in Edwardsville for many years. But your uncle really got it; he knew the importance of bringing back this motel and he knew he could get the Route 66 fans to stop. He saved this place from the wrecking ball. It was originally Legate's, then it deteriorated into weekly rentals, then it sat empty for many years. Don really did a great job restoring it. Practically had to rebuild it. He'd traveled all over the country and knew that "Starlite" was a popular motel name. He said he just liked the name. By then, the old Hilltop House restaurant next door had burned down. Don got someone else interested in putting an eatery right next door, and that's how come you've got that shiny new diner sitting right over there—the Hilltop Diner, in honor of the much-loved restaurant that once occupied that spot.” He motioned out the window. “But you undoubtedly know all that. I'm just rambling.”
I should have known all that. I should have known it way before the attorney called me and told me. I had never come to visit, never checked out Uncle Don's pride and joy. The road isn't that long from Chicago, but I hadn't come. Not until it was time to hand me the keys.
I mumble something about Don's excellent restoration work, and I make sure Ash has his room key, and he says good night, with a look about him that maybe he'd like to talk more. Maybe share his story of why he is driving Route 66 all by himself on Christmas Eve. Maybe I could share my story, too, although I'm not sure why I would when I don't say anything about it to anyone else. The office door closes behind him as I start to squeak, “Wait, Ash...”
Well, it's a Blue Christmas...
The office phone is ringing. I start, wondering why my head is on the desk. I have a tiny apartment, really just a big motel room, next to the office. But some nights the “arms of Morpheus,” as my dear father used to say, lull me to sleep before I ever get up and get through the door cut between the office and the apartment.
I pick up the phone. “Starlite Motel, this is Carly.”
“Carly, this is Kathy in Room #3.” I can hear the distress in her voice. “It's Ron! I think he's having a heart attack. I just called 9-1-1 for an ambulance.”
The whine of an ambulance siren soon cuts through the night. I pull on my parka, slip the hood up over my head, and go outside. The driver pulls in our lot and expertly positions the vehicle, despite the slippery coating of wet, heavy snow. Kathy is hanging out the door of Room #3. Two more doors fly open, with Sean and Bibi hanging out one, and Mr. Twinkle-in-his-eye out another. Then down at the far end, the doors of the two rooms of students pop open.
Bibi goes to Kathy right away as she guesses what is going on. Why do other people always know just what to do for another person, while I hang back? Bibi quickly volunteers to ride along with Kathy and Ron to the hospital, so, as Bibi tells Kathy, “there will be someone to sit with you.”
The siren screams as the vehicle trundles onto the roadway, heading for the nearby hospital. Ash and Sean and the students look at each other, and away, and at me.
“I'll put on some coffee, if any of you would like some,” I offer.
“Won't be able to sleep anyway.”
I make coffee in the motel office and we all sit in the Mid-Century Modern chairs that Uncle Don picked out in the 1950s vintage store over in St. Louis. They are a nice orange color. None of us know what to say.
Sean slides his fingers along one arm of his chair. “Bibi wants chairs like these for our apartment. When we can afford them,” he adds with a little smile. “We spend most of our spare money traveling 66.”
Ash smiles at that. “Best use of your discretionary income that I can think of.”
“Very cool chairs,” says Pete.
“My mom has them in turquoise,” Mark observes.
Sean nods and we all sit quietly for awhile. Suddenly, I remember the plate of Christmas cookies that a local friend had dropped off during the day. “Oh, we have cookies,” and I get up to retrieve them from behind the counter. Their buttery, sugary fragrance as I carry them reminds me that I haven't eaten anything since my supper sandwich at 2:00 pm.
I set the pretty plate down on the boomerang table between the easy chairs, where it looks like one of those styled magazine photos. We all look at them for a minute before Ash picks one up, dips it in his coffee, and tastes. He nods with approval. All the young men take that as a sign and help themselves.
Time drags on. There would be tests, maybe a mad dash into the operating room, with tubes and wires and monitors. I am glad that Bibi is with Kathy.
As the hours pass, Sean and Ash flip through magazines and talk of favorite places along the Mother Road. Pete, Mark, Brad, and Jimmy are restless. After asking me, they retrieve shovels and brooms and salt from the shed and go to work, clearing the walks and the parking lot.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas...
Finally, the phone rings and I hurry to pick it up. It's Kathy, and she explains that Ron had a mild heart attack and that they want to monitor him at least overnight. He is resting comfortably and should fully recover. Kathy wants to stay with him at the hospital and the staff is making her comfortable. Bibi, however, should come back to the motel, she says, if Sean can make it through the snow to come pick her up.
Sean leaves right away, assuring me that his Jeep will make it just fine. I tell him how to get to the hospital. The four students look relieved. They have worked off their restlessness and excuse themselves to go back to their rooms.
“So all will be well,” Ash nods at me as I sit down across from him.
“Yes,” I agree.
We didn't say anything for a couple minutes. Then, at the same time, we say “I should go back to my room, I guess,” as he rises to leave. “So, Ash, it's none of my business, but why are you traveling Route 66 alone on Christmas Eve?”
We laugh, and he sits back down.
“Well, Carly, I make the trip every year over the Christmas holiday. The Christmas season was my wife's favorite time to travel the route. She just loved seeing all the lights and decorations, and we'd done the route so many times, she'd be exchanging little gifts along the way with the people we know. It was all very special. And I just keep doing it every year, to honor her memory, you know.”
“Oh,” I said. “How long ago did you lose your wife?”
“Four years ago. To cancer.”
“But you still seem...I don't know, happy, I guess. You still have a twinkle in your eye.”
“Well, now, what else can I do? I can't change the fact that she's gone. So I'll be happy that she was with me as long as she was. And I'll remember how much we enjoyed every trip. Of course, that doesn't stop me from shedding a few tears along the way.”
He looks at me. A long, thoughtful look. “So now turn-about is fair play. Will you tell me why you are all alone at the Starlite Motel, on Christmas Eve or otherwise?”
“You know, because Uncle Don left it to me.”
“But that doesn't explain why you're alone here. Or why you've erected an electric fence around your emotions.”
I sigh. He's on to me. I take a deep breath. “My husband was in an accident a little over a year ago on one of the Chicago freeways. It was a multi-car pileup, cars and semis, on a day with freezing rain. He didn't make it. And that was just a year after I lost both my parents.”
“So when I found out Uncle Don had left me the Starlite, well... I didn't have anything or anyone else anyway. I had a job in Chicago that I hated. So here I am.” I shrugged. “No family to tie me down.”
“You know, you've got the Route 66 family. I know, I know, it sounds like a cliché, everyone says it, but pretty much everyone is there for each other, given the chance. You just need to let us all into your heart.”
I think I am witnessing this being-there-for-each-other stuff tonight. Maybe it isn't as corny as I thought.
My face must reveal my deep thoughts, as Ash switches to a lighter tone and talks about some of his favorite stops along the route. As he tells me stories, it all becomes more real to me – the idea of traveling this famous highway, enjoying the sights and the people, and doing it over and over again, revisiting friends, rephotographing sites, reliving history.
Then, headlights shine in through the window. It is Sean and Bibi, and they come in the office, snow swirling around them. Another vehicle pulls in beside the Jeep, and the occupant of that vehicle comes in. It is Henry, the operator of the Hilltop Diner next door. I remember that he plans to be closed on Christmas Day.
“I'm going to open up the diner for a couple hours and fix breakfast for all of you,” Henry announces.
“Why?” I ask stupidly. “It's Christmas, and you're closed.”
“Because my wife works at the hospital, and she called and told me you'd all been up all night,” Henry explains as if he is talking to a five-year-old. “Isn't that reason enough? Round up your guests and you all come over in 15 minutes or so. My Christmas treat.” And Henry is out the door.
“Wow,” Bibi says. “That is sooo nice.”
“Let's go alert the students. They'll be up for free food. Come on,” Sean pulls at Bibi's sleeve.
Ash is smiling at me. “Christmas Eve on Route 66.”