A Carol Christmas
Carol Campbell had never been to the lake in the dead of winter and there was a certain eeriness to the place as she drove through the mostly empty village (she saw that the Country Store was about the only business open among the most boarded up summer shops).
She travelled along Lake Shore road and while there were some year round houses showing signs of life, the many smaller cottages and cabins were also boarded up and deserted for the long winter. The lake had yet to freeze but it looked gray and angry in the winter air.
She turned onto the Route 99A extension which ran along the far side of the lake – the deserted Christian Youth Camp, the public beach, the cottages where the drive in movie theater once stood and, finally, she approached the old Lakeside Motel that still clung to life nearly seventy years after it first opened. It was weather beaten and sagged by age and why it was open in December was beyond her but she thought it might make for an interesting column to see who stayed at a forgotten old motel on a deserted lake on Christmas Eve.
'Let the lake sun shine upon you' read the old logo of the place atop the roadside Lakeside Motel sign.
She pulled into the parking lot and parked in front of the office section which was in the center of the structure with two wings of motel rooms on either side. There were a couple of other cars parked in front of a few of the rooms but there was something lonely about the motel with its faded paint, aged wood siding, outdated screen doors, and ghostly appearance. The motel had definitely seen better days even if the winter weather added to its gloom.
Carol climbed out of her car and pulled her jacket tight against the winter wind blowing off the lake beyond the motel, protected by trees a few other cottages between it and the water's edge. The red "vacancy" light shined in the lobby window that was decorated with Christmas lights around its boarder. Carol noticed an ancient artificial Christmas tree on a stand in the window but the decorations looked more sad than celebratory to her.
She stepped into the warmth of the lobby and tightly closed the door behind her in hopes of keeping the wind out. The lobby was small and it had a cluttered feel to it with the extra Christmas decorations. An overstuffed old couch was on the far wall and a couple of chairs were against the other wall. Several photos of the motel in its heyday of the 1950s and 60s hung on the wall along with a large painting of the lake. There was a counter with office equipment behind it and a door that led to an apartment behind the lobby.
A bell was on the counter with a sign that read 'Ring for Service.' Carol gently placed her finger tip on the bell top and pushed, allowing the 'ding' to echo through the room.
A moment later the door to the adjoining living quarters opened and a man about ten years older than her stepped into the office area.
"Hello," he said pleasantly. "Looking for a room?"
"Maybe," Carol said tentatively, staring at the proprietor trying to place him.
He was taller than her and in reasonably good physical shape. His brown hair was streaked with gray at the temples and he barely looked at her as he studied the motel register on the desk. He was wearing heavy sweats and sneakers.
"I'm Carol Campbell from the Greenville News and Dispatch," she said, causing the man to look up at her with a glare.
"What do you want?" He asked rudely.
"I had the idea for a column," she said nervously.
"Not interested," he said curtly. "You can leave, thank you."
"Don't you think writing about people who spend Christmas Eve at an old motel by an isolated lake might be interesting?" She asked, hoping to change his mind with her pitch.
"That's your story idea?" He asked suspiciously.
And then it (finally) hit her when she saw his eyes boring into her. "Oh My God!" She said with recognition, her eyes growing wide. "You're Jimmy Mac!"
He sighed, disappointed to be found out. "That's not going to be your story," he told her.
"You remember me, don't you?" She asked hopefully.
"Of course," He said, taking a seat at the desk behind the counter. "How's your brother doing?"
"Great, fine," she smiled. "Don't you ever go to the Serguci League Reunions? He's always there."
"Of course not," Jimmy said blankly
"Oh, yeah, I guess," she realized. "Sorry."
"You didn't come looking for me?" He asked suspiciously, staring up at her.
"I didn't know you were back," she replied truthfully.
"Let's pretend I'm not," Jimmy suggested.
"Can we at least talk off the record?" Carol inquired
"About motel guests on Christmas Eve," he cautiously stipulated.
"Okay," she reluctantly agreed.
"You've come a long way since your days at the Inn and Tavern," Jimmy said with approval.
"Thanks," Carol said with pride. "I worked my way up and now I'm a features editor and columnist."
"Is it okay if I come around the counter and sit back there with you?" Carol asked. "To talk? I feel awkward standing up out here like this."
"Sure," Jimmy said.
Carol circled around the end of the counter and stepped into the small space. There was a small folding chair at the side of the desk and she took a seat. She was wearing heavy green corduroy slacks and a white turtleneck sweater under her coat which she took off.
"Why is this place even open in the winter?" She asked, a small tape recorder in her lap and a steno pad and pen in her hands.
"The school, mostly," Jimmy replied, leaning back in his chair.
"The Sun Rise Lake School for Boys?"
Jimmy nodded affirmatively. "Some visitors don't want to drive all the way down to Greenville for a nicer room," he said. "This is convenient for them."
"And you get enough business?"
"Some of the boys get rooms here on the weekends," Jimmy said.
"For extracurricular activity?"
"Partying, whatever," Jimmy shrugged.
"How many rooms?"
"Twenty," Jimmy answered. "There's also a contract with the state during the off-season."
"What kind of contract?"
"Temporarily housing homeless people until more appropriate accommodations can be found when shelters are full," Jimmy explained.
"So those are the guests here on a lonely Christmas Eve?"
"There are other people down on their luck who come on occasion," Jimmy said. "People with questionable records who can't get good housing recommendations. People who can't afford the security deposit, first and last month's rent to get a place. So they save up a couple of hundred bucks and rent a room for a week or two in between couch surfing and freeloading with family members."
"That sounds pretty lonely," Carol sighed.
"There's an occasional drug deal. People obviously having affairs. Things a proprietor like me looks the other way on."
"But in the summer it's all vacationing families?"
"Pretty much," Jimmy said.
"Do you think any of the people staying here tonight would be willing to talk to me?" Carol asked.
"A lot of people here tonight have walked a hard road," Jimmy told her. "But they still have feelings and emotions and hearts. They each have their own stories."
"So you don't think I should talk to them?"
"I'm not going to tell you how to do your job," Jimmy replied.
"Is that why you work here?" Carol dared to ask. "Because you're someone down on his luck who walked the hard road?"
"I already told you your column isn't going to be about me," Jimmy reminded her.
"But you identify with them, right?"
"Not everybody has a chance at the American Dream and the happy Christmas," Jimmy said. "There are always people in need."
"And people who made choices that got them in trouble," Carol said.
He knew she was talking about him but he ignored her comment. "The circumstances of the people who end up here in the off season are as varied as the people themselves," Jimmy said. "The working poor. People who can't get an apartment. People with drug issues. Women escaping domestic violence. People who are estranged from their family."
"It makes for a sad Christmas," Carol observed.
"There was a woman who stayed here a few weeks ago," Jimmy volunteered. "She had been living with her parents in the trailer park over in Mt. Griffin but the old man was sick and they got behind on their mortgage payments. He died and the funeral costs wiped them out so they had to leave the trailer. She and her mother stayed here while they tried to figure out what to do next."
"What did they do?" Carol asked.
Jimmy shrugged. "They checked out a few days ago. I didn't ask."
"Maybe I'll go knock on a few doors," Carol said. "Get a few quotes from people."
"Rooms 1, 7, 11, 12, and 14 presently have guests," Jimmy let her know.
"Thanks," Carol said, standing. "It's really good to see you again, Jimmy Mac."
"Nobody calls me that anymore," He told her.
She put her coat on, stuffed her tape recorder into her pocket and started for the door with her notepad still in her hand.
"Let me know if you still want a room for Christmas's Eve," Jimmy called out to her.
She turned and looked at him. "Do I look like a lonely sad person to you?" She asked with surprise.
"No," Jimmy replied. "You look like someone on a mission."
"Merry Christmas, Jimmy."
"Merry Christmas, Carol."