Do you recognize a good story when it passes by?
January 14, 2016
THE WORLD IS A STORYBOOK just waiting to be read.
Wake up to a new day, and you’ll find another story waiting to be told.
Travel another mile, and there’s a story waiting for you if you slow down long enough and take the time to notice.
That’s our trouble. At least it’s mine.
So often, I’m in such a hurry that I never realize I passed the story until years later when my mind suddenly connects with a distant memory that refused to leave me.
That’s what happened in Hohenwald, Tennessee.
I didn’t even know Hohenwald was there until we turned off the Natchez Trace Parkway, knew the sun was going down, and decided to find a place to spend the night before darkness came to swallow up the landscape.
Photographer Gerald Crawford and I had driven up from Natchez, Mississippi, detailing a story on the famous, infamous, and notorious trace.
It had been a slow go. The speed limit was way below cruising. I had to stop every few miles.
Crawford saw a new photograph everywhere he looked.
The sun was always right or almost right.
And he was willing to wait. I had no choice but to wait.
The question was a simple one when I drove past Hohenwald’s city limit sign.
Was the place big enough to have a motel?
In fact, the town may have had several, but I stopped at the first one I saw with a vacancy sign.
I thought the neon might be flashing. The light was burned out.
In the dark, we would have missed it altogether.
But the sun was still sitting just above the pines.
It was an L-shaped tourist court with two wings that met in the center.
It didn’t have a name. It didn’t have a lobby. It didn’t have an office.
Only one other unit was occupied.
A ’69 Ford sat out front of Unit Eight.
The tourist court did have a buzzer where the two wings came together, and a hand-written sign suggested that I press it for service.
I pushed the buzzer and waited. Sure enough, within a minute or two, a ten-year-old barefoot boy came running down the hill with a barking dog at his heels.
He wore overalls and a big grin. “Mama’s cooking supper,” he said.
He was almost out of breath.
“If you can wait ‘till she finishes cooking,” he said, “she’ll come down and rent you a room for the night.”
He looked at Crawford. He looked at me. His grin grew wider.
“That’s fine,” I said. “We’ll just go into town and grab some supper ourselves. By the time we get through, she’ll probably have a room ready.”
He nodded. He said there was a pretty good steak place on the town square.
We said we’d be back.
I don’t know whether or not he heard us. He was running back up the hill.
Supper was waiting.
As we climbed into our rent car, I glanced over my shoulder.
The ’69 Ford was gone.
A ’72 Chevy pickup truck was pulling up to Unit Eight.
I didn’t think anything about it, and we drove into town.
Steak so tough we couldn’t cut the gravy with a knife.
But all in all, we did all right.
When I drove back to the tourist court, the ’72 Chevy pickup was gone, and a seven-year-old Mustang was parked in front of the door to Unit Eight.
I pressed the buzzer again, and a lady who looked much older than she was, made her way down the hill, holding a key.
“The room’s twenty dollars,” she said.
I handed her two tens.
“The sheets are clean,” she said. “The hot water’s a little slow, but if you’re in no hurry, it heats up pretty good. We get two stations out of Nashville and one out of Memphis on the teevee.”
She looked at me. She looked at Crawford. She grinned.
“You have plenty of towels,” she said.
By the time she climbed the hill back to her house, the seven-year-old Mustang was driving away, and a new Dodge Charger was turning off the highway.
I knew where it was headed.
A blonde was standing in the doorway.
She smiled. And winked.
She looked thirty. I doubted if she was much older than twenty.
She was swaying to the sound of a country song. Conway Twitty, I think it was.
“Crawford,” I said.
He looked my way.
“I think we have found the hottest business in Hohenwald,” I said.
By now, the Charger was empty.
The door to Unit Eight slammed shut.
The night around us was quiet.
If it hadn’t been for Conway singing in the background, we would have felt alone.
It didn’t matter much then.
It does now.
The tourist court in Hohenwald – the one without a lobby or an office – has worked its way into the novel I’ve just finished: Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.
I had forgotten about it,
But the old motel was sitting there in my mind, waiting in case I ever needed it again.