The Vespa was far more stable than I had expected and wonderfully easy to run. As I got better at the twist-grip gears, I began really to drive the little machine instead of just riding on it. The acceleration—up to fifty in twenty seconds—was good enough to give the ordinary American sedan quite a shock, and I soared up hills like a bird with the exhaust purring sweetly under my tail. Of course I had to put up with a good deal of wolf-whistling from the young, and grinning and handwaving from the old, but I'm afraid I rather enjoyed being something of the sensation my aunt had predicted, and I smiled with varying sweetness at all and sundry. The shoulders of most North American roads are bad, and I had been afraid that people would crowd my tiny machine and that I would be in constant trouble with potholes, but I suppose I looked such a fragile little outfit that other drivers gave me a wide berth, and I usually had the whole of the inside lane of the highway to myself.
Things went so well that first day that I managed to get through Montreal before nightfall and twenty miles on down Route 9 that would take me over the border into New York State the next morning. I put up at a place called The Southern Trail Motel, where I was treated as if I was Amelia Earhart or Amy Mollison—a rather pleasurable routine that I became accustomed to—and, after a square meal in the cafeteria and the shy acceptance of one drink with the proprietor, I retired to bed feeling excited and happy. It had been a long and wonderful day. The Vespa was a dream, and my whole plan was working out fine.
I had taken one day to do the first two hundred miles. I took nearly two weeks to cover the next two hundred and fifty. There was no mystery about it. Once over the American border, I began to wander around the Adirondacks as if I was on a late summer holiday. I won't go into details since this is not a travelogue, but there was hardly an old fort, museum, waterfall, cave, or high mountain I didn't visit—not to mention the dreadful “Storylands,” “Adventure Towns,” and mock “Indian Reservations” that got my dollar. I just went on a kind of sightseeing splurge that was part genuine curiosity but mostly wanting to put off the day when I would have to leave these lakes and rivers and forests and hurry on south to the harsh Eldollarado of the superhighways, the hot-dog stands, and the ribboning lights of neon.
It was at the end of these two weeks that I found myself at Lake George, the dreadful hub of tourism in the Adirondacks that has somehow managed to turn the history and the forests and the wildlife into honkytonk. Apart from the rather imposing stockade fort and the harmless steamers that ply up to Fort Ticonderoga and back, the rest is a gimcrack nightmare of concrete gnomes, Bambi deer and toadstools, shoddy food stalls selling “Big Chief Hamburgers” and “Minnehaha Candy Floss,” and “Attractions” such as “Animal Land” (“Visitors may hold and photograph costumed chimps”), “Gaslight Village” (“Genuine 1890 gas-lighting), and ”Storytown USA " a terrifying babyland nightmare which I need not describe. It was here that I fled away from the horrible mainstream that Route 9 had become, and took to the dusty side road through the forest that was to lead me to The Dreamy Pines Motor Court and to the armchair where i have been sitting remembering just exactly how I happened to get here.
Part Two: Them
Seven: “Come into My Parlor...”
THE rain was hammering down just as hard, its steady roar providing a background to the gurgling torrents from the downspouts at the four corners of the building. I looked forward to bed. How soundly I would sleep between the sheets in the spotless little cabin—those percale sheets that featured in the advertisements for the motel! How luxurious the Elliott Frey beds, Magee custom-designed carpets, Philco television and air-conditioning, Icemagic ice-makers, Acrilan blankets and Simmons Vivant furniture. (“Our phenolic laminate tops and drawers are immune to cigarette burns, alcohol stains”)—in fact all these refinements of modern motel luxury down to Acrylite shower enclosures, Olsonite Pearlescent toilet seats, and Delsey “bathroom tissue,” otherwise toilet paper (“in modern colors to harmonize with contemporary decor”) that would be mine, and mine alone, tonight!
Despite all these gracious trimmings, plus a beautiful site, it seemed that The Dreamy Pines was in a bad way, and, when I had come upon it two weeks before, there were only two overnighters in the whole place and not a single reservation for the last fortnight of the season.
Mrs. Phancey, an iron-gray woman with bitter, mistrustful eyes and a grim slit of a mouth, was at the desk when I came in that evening. She had looked sharply at me, a lone girl, and at my meager saddlebags, and, when I pushed the Vespa over to Number 9, she followed me with my card in her hand to check that I had not entered a false vehicle license. Her husband, Jed, was more genial, but I soon understood why when the back of his hand brushed against my breast as, later in the cafeteria, he put the coffee in front of me. Apparently he doubled as handyman and short-order cook and, while his pale brown eyes moved over me like slugs, he complained whiningly about how much there was to do around the place getting it ready for closing date and constantly being called away from some job to fry eggs for parties of transients. It seemed they were the managers for the owner. He lived in Troy. A Mr. Sanguinetti. “Big shot. Owns plenty property down on Cohoes Road. Riverfront property. And the Trojan Horse—roadhouse on Route 9, outside Albany. Maybe you know the joint?” When I said I didn't, Mr. Phancey looked sly. “You ever want some fun, you go along to The Horse. Better not go alone, though. Pretty gal like you could get herself roughed up. After the fifteenth, when I get away from here, you could give me a call. Phancey's the name. In the phone book. Be glad to escort you, show you a good time.” I thanked him, but said I was just passing through the district on my way south. Could I have a couple of fried eggs, sunny-side up, and bacon?
But Mr. Phancey wouldn't leave me alone. While I ate, he came and sat at my little table and told me some of his dull life-story and, in between episodes, slipped in questions about me and my plans—what parents I had, didn't I mind being so far from home, did I have any friends in the States? and so on—innocuous questions, put, it seemed to me, with normal curiosity. He was after all around forty-five, old enough to be my father, and though he was obviously a duty old man, they were a common enough breed, and anyway Mrs. Phancey was keeping an eye on us from the desk at the other end of the room.
Mr. Phancey finally left me and went over to his wife and, while I smoked a cigarette and finished my second cup of coffee (“No charge, miss. Compliments of The Dreamy Pines”), I heard them talking in a low voice over something that, because of an occasional chuckle, seemed to give them satisfaction. Finally Mrs. Phancey came over, clucking in a motherly fashion about my adventurous plans (“My, oh, my! What will you modern girls be doing next?”), and then she sat down and, looking as winsome as she knew how, said why didn't I stop over for a few days and have a rest and earn myself a handful of dollars into the bargain? It seemed their receptionist had walked out twenty-four hours before and, what with the housekeeping and tidying up before they closed the place for the season, they would have no time to man the desk. Would I care to take on the job of receptionist for the final two weeks—full board and thirty dollars a week?
Now it happened that I could do very well with those sixty dollars and some free food and lodging. I had overspent at least fifty dollars on my tourist spree, and this would just about square my books. I didn't much care for the Phanceys, but I told myself that they were no worse than the sort of people I had expected to meet on my travels. Besides, this was the first job I had been offered and I was rather curious to see how I would make out. Perhaps, too, they would give me a reference at the end of my time, and this might help with other motel jobs on my way south. So, after a bit of polite probing, I said the idea would be fine. The Phanceys seemed very pleased, and Millicent, as she had now become, showed me the registration system, told me to watch out for people with little luggage and big station wagons, and took me on a quick tour of the establishment.
The business about the station wagons opened my eyes to the seamy side of the motel business. It seemed that there were people, particularly young couples just married and in process of setting up house, who would check in at some lonely motel, carrying at least the minimum “passport” of a single suitcase. This suitcase would in fact contain nothing but a full set of precision tools, together with false license plates for their roomy station wagon that would be parked in the carport alongside their cabin door. After locking themselves in and waiting for the lights to go out in the office, the couple would set to work on inconspicuous things like loosening the screws of the bathroom fixtures, testing the anchoring of the TV set, and so on. Once the management had gone to bed, they would really get down to it, making neat piles of bedding, towels, and shower curtains, dismantling light-fixtures, bed-frames, toilet seats, and even the Johns themselves if they had plumbing knowledge. They worked in darkness of course, with pencil flashlights, and, when everything was ready, say around two in the morning, they would quietly carry everything through the door into the carport and pile it into the station wagon. The last job would be to roll up the carpets and use them, the reverse side up, as tarpaulins to cover the contents of the station wagon. Then change the plates and softly away with their new bedroom suite all ready to lay out in their unfurnished flat many miles away in another state!
Two or three hauls like that would also look after the living room and spare bedroom, and they would be set up for life. If they had a garden, or a front porch, a few midnight forays around the rich out-of-town “swimming-pool” residences would take care of the outdoor furniture, children's heavy playthings, perhaps even the lawnmower and sprinklers.
Mrs. Phancey said that motels had no defense against this sort of attack. Everything was screwed down that could be screwed down, and marked with the name of the motel. The only hope was to smell the marauders when they registered and then either turn them away or sit up all night with a shotgun. In cities, motels had other problems—prostitutes who set up shop, murderers who left corpses in the shower, and occasional holdups for the money in the cash register. But I was not to worry. Just call for Jed if I smelled trouble. He could act real tough and he had a gun. And, with this cold comfort, I was left to ponder on the darker side of the motel industry.
Of course it all turned out perfectly all right and the job was no problem. In fact there was so little to do that I did rather wonder why the Phanceys had bothered to take me on. But they were lazy, and it wasn't their money they were paying me, and I guessed that part of the reason was that Jed thought he had found himself an easy lay. But that also was no problem. I just had to dodge his hands and snub him icily on an average of once a day and hook a chair under the door-handle when I went to bed to defeat the pass-key he tried on my second night.
We had a few overnighters in the first week, and I found that I was expected to lend a hand with the housekeeping, but that too was all right with me, and anyway the customers slacked off, until, after October tenth there wasn't a single one.