Lake in the Woods

By Linda Wisniewski

You never know the whole story. When her husband parked their beat-up Prius in front of our motel’s office, I am sure they had no idea. She popped out and opened the rear door, unbuckled a toddler, a little dark-haired boy, from his car seat, and lifted him out. The three of them walked in, the husband holding the screen door open for his family.

My father sat behind our battered old desk in my mother’s chair, shrunk into his sport shirt and slacks like an old sparrow. My mother’s photograph hung high on the wall behind him, a formal studio shot with “Our Founder” engraved on a plaque at the bottom of the frame. Her dark brown hair curled in a fluffy array around her head, framing her familiar face: narrow lips, dark staring eyes, thinly shaped eyebrows. She wore a dark red formal dress. Every time I looked at that picture, I half-expected her to turn her head toward me, her only daughter, and step out of the frame, like a character on a wall in some movie for kids. We had just hung the portrait that morning.

“Hello,” the man said, light and friendly. “We are here to check in.”

Dad asked his name, then looked in the log book under today’s date. “Your reservation is for two, and not with a child.”

The man gave Dad a blank look. His wife stepped up, holding the little boy’s hand. “Yes, we do have a reservation for three, including a child. I just talked to you last week, and you confirmed it.” Her tone was sharp and I could see the tendons in her neck.

“No, no that is not true,” Dad insisted, staring down at the page. “You do not have a reservation for a child. It distinctly says here…”

“Come, Mateo,” the mother said. “We do not have to stay here.” She lifted the boy into her arms and walked out, the screen door slamming behind her.

“Excuse me,” the man said, as if to hold his place in our office while he went outside. I watched them arguing through the porch window, her voice raised, his softer, the little boy standing quiet at their feet.

My chest ached for my father, a man who hid his grief in a cloak of righteous indignation. “Dad, let me see the book.”

“They did not say they were bringing a child. I would remember.” His frown was so rigid I wanted to weep. For him, but also for myself. This day was a long one and hard.

I went to stand behind him. Weak sunlight made its way through the little window facing the parking lot out front, though it was July here in Virginia, where even in the mountains the summer sun is bright. Cloud cover had made it impossible for the sun to truly shine since yesterday, the day of my mother’s funeral.

I read the line in the registration book: the name Santiago, the number three. “Dad, you wrote it here, three people. See?” He looked up at me, his face so blank I knew right away I would have to walk him through it. “We have to do this. These people are our only guests, and they have reservations. I’m going to call them back.”

My leather flats skidded on the gravel and dirt as I hurried toward them in the parking lot. The couple was still arguing beside our sign: Lake in the Woods Motel. Paint flaked off the letters exposing the weathered gray wood beneath.

“I’m sorry. My father made a mistake. We found your reservation.”

The woman turned her head from me to her husband. “I do not want to stay here. The picture on the Internet was not like this, so run down.”

My forehead hurt, right between my eyes. This day would pour all it had over me and it had just begun. “Please, try to understand. My father is upset. We literally just buried my mother.”

The young man lifted a hand toward me, then lowered it. “Give us one minute,” he said, his tone soothing as he took his wife’s arm.

She looked me up and down. “I am sorry for your loss, but we do not have to stay in a place where we are treated this way.”

“Give us one minute,” he said again, pulling her away.

The little boy reached for his mother’s hand and a tear rolled down his smooth brown cheek. Poor little kid. My heart went out to him. It wasn’t his fault his mama was rude. I knew what that was like. My mom had been a headstrong woman. The folks in the business association in town tolerated her, but the fathers of my friends made jokes about pecking hens. They pitied my dad.

I climbed the five steps onto the porch, my legs as heavy as sandbags. The man, Mateo’s, voice drifted to where I stood but I didn’t know Spanish. Pulling the screen door open, I walked back inside and stood before my father still at the desk, my arms folded, biting my lip. Implacable in my mother’s chair, he did not look up at me.

I’d never truly understood my parents’ marriage. They worked hard to provide for us but our family came up pretty short in the affection department. Since Mom’s death last week, my grief was real but very different from my father’s. I would never know a warm and tender mother. In a minute, Mateo walked back up the stairs and into the office, his shoulders straight. He was not tall, but he did all he could to appear so.

“We need a place to stay tonight. We lost our house in the hurricane. My wife, she is upset because sometimes people say ‘No Vacancy’ when they see us. My cousin in Vermont has room for us, but for now…” He turned palms up.

The little boy hid behind his father, one arm wrapped around the leg of his khaki pants. His hair and eyes were the color of my brother Frankie’s. I missed him every day.

“Come on, Dad, we can make this work, can’t we?”

My father grunted and slid the registration book over. “Sign here. Cash or credit card. No checks.”

The boy’s father pulled out his wallet. “We have only this check from FEMA. Perhaps you can cash it?”

“I said no checks!”

“Dad.” I held out my hand to the young man. “Let’s see what we can do.”

The Lake in the Woods Motel had been failing even before Mom’s heart attack, and if my dad didn’t get a grip, it would be all over. Maybe that’s what he wanted. But without its meager income to supplement his Social Security, I could wave goodbye to my new job at the Washington Post. I’d be stuck here at the paper I privately called the Podunk Tribune, supporting him for who knew how long? It could be years, and my new boss had only given me a two-week delay before I had to be in D.C.

I loved my dad. I wanted him to be all right. But what about my own life? My forehead ached. The office smelled musty. All that rain last week had finally let up, but the woods were wet and the cabins clammy. No tourists would come if the weather didn’t change. July had always been a busy month. But not this year. To be honest, last year wasn’t so great either. And now we had almost lost our only customers. I gave the young man a bright smile.

“Gracias, Senora,” he said. His wife sniffed and pulled her thin blue sweater close around her body.

“I’ll show you to your cabin.” I motioned them to follow me, throwing Dad a reassuring smile as I ushered them out the door.

Later that day, the woman came into the office asking for soap.

“The little tiny bar is not enough,” she said, shooting glares at us both.

Dad lost his temper. “You were supposed to bring your own toiletries! It states that in our listing online!” She didn’t know what his loud voice and hunched shoulders really meant: “I don’t want to cry.” But I knew. He was my father, and I’d never seen him so lost.

The woman’s hands flexed, her feet shifted and her face threatened to erupt in a torrent of words, none of them kind. Dad’s anger would lose the business for us. I grabbed a handful of tiny rectangular soaps wrapped in paper from the bin on the shelf and held them out to the woman.

“Gracias,” she muttered and stomped outside.

At the window, I watched her make her way down the path to their cabin at the edge of our small private lake, the evening sun about to drop behind the mountain, leaving one last glimmer in farewell to this horrid day. I prayed I was one day closer to leaving the little row of cabins that held my parents’ lives in their pine-scented beams. I had promised my father I’d help him after Mom died and I would keep my promise. But this business was his life and Mom’s, not mine. It was not my story.

After two years in a loveless, childless marriage that ended that spring, I had landed my dream job, far from my ex and my tired old hometown. My whole life had been a path leading up and away, for as long as I could remember. High school newspaper reporter, college paper editor, grad school in journalism, a column of my own in the local rag and after ten years of hard work building my reputation, the plum was mine. Then came Mom’s heart attack.

Her portrait loomed over us in the quiet office, the setting sun casting deep shadows through the blinds.

“Let’s close up early, Dad. I’ll make us some supper.”

“Not hungry.” He rose and pushed the chair in place behind the desk.

“Come on, you have to eat something. Mom would want you to…”

“I am not hungry!” He stalked to the stairs leading to the apartment above the office where he and Mom lived all their married life.

I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t press him to eat, not tonight. Instead, I called my friend Bella. Back in town after college, and married to a teacher like herself, she’d come to the funeral yesterday. It meant so much to see her there, and she did say to call her if I needed anything. Right now, I needed to talk.

“You were always a good daughter,” she said, handing me a cold bottle of Coke. She settled beside me on her front porch swing, pushing off with one foot. “You can’t live your life for your father…”

“I know, but he looks so lost, and if you could have seen the guests today, the only ones we have. He was kind of nasty to the woman.”

While I told her the story, Bella took a long pull on her Coke.

“He’s distraught over losing your mom. That’s to be expected.”

“Yes, but if he keeps it up, the word will get around.” I rested my head on the back of the swing. “My mom could be cranky, but she knew how to please the clientele.”

“Don’t worry about something that might not happen,” Bella said. “Besides, you don’t know these people’s whole story. Like, why didn’t they go up 95 instead of our old highway through the mountains? They could be running from something.”

“They don’t look like criminals, just a young couple with a kid and not much else. Maybe the motels on 95 were too expensive. She called for a reservation, so she must have a cell phone and some kind of internet.”

“Well, I’m just sayin,’ you can’t be too careful. You don’t really know them.” She put an arm around my shoulders. “Have you had dinner? I made some ribs this afternoon. I’m just going to heat them up for Gray and the kids and toss a salad.”

I didn’t want to eat without checking on Dad, but she convinced me to stay by promising to wrap up the leftovers for him. Her family’s gentle banter at the table was just what I needed. By the time I left, my headache was gone.

The next morning, I sipped the good strong coffee my father had made and looked out at our lake. What a terrible thing to go through, displaced by a storm and traveling hundreds of miles to find a home. In all the stress of mom’s illness and death, I had barely caught the news. Now I wondered if there were more refugees like these. Of course, there were. My breath caught as I envisioned it. What if we could provide them temporary homes? It might keep the motel going for another year or even longer. I decided to call the FEMA office. Dad would pitch a fit, but it could mean a steady stream of business with payment guaranteed by Uncle Sam.

Soft Spanish voices drifted through the window. The little boy came into view, skipping down the path between his parents, holding onto their hands. He looked so like my little brother, I forgot to breathe. My father’s joy, Frankie was only six when he was killed in a school bus accident. This little guy had the same shy manner, the same bright smile.

Behind me, my father made a raspy sound from deep in his throat. I turned and touched his arm.

“Didn’t Frankie used to do that little skip between you and Mom?” My voice broke on the last word. Dad rubbed at his nose and went to the coffee pot.

The screen door creaked open and our three guests filed in. The young man stepped forward. “Good morning. I apologize, I have not introduced myself. But you can see from your register. I am Mateo Santiago. This is my wife, Imelda, and our son Francisco. I have a suggestion for you, if I may.”

My father kept his eyes on Mateo as he took a long sip from his mug. My mouth dry, I coughed and gestured them closer.

“Would you like some coffee?”

Dad grunted but I pretended not to hear. Mateo nodded, and I served them at the low table at one side of the lobby, motioning them to be seated. The maple table and chairs had been there longer than I, over forty years. I ran my hand over its smooth worn surface.

“Now what is it you wanted to say?”

Mateo rubbed at the back of his neck. “We have bad news on the cell phone. My cousin’s family was deported. All of them. They had no papers and the ICE picked them up. So… now we have nowhere to go.”

“Oh, no! That’s awful!” Maybe my future was on hold, but at least I had a home.

Dad was not moved. “If they came here illegally, they should have expected it.”

“On my God, Dad, how can you say that? They’re only trying to live their lives, just like us!” I crossed my arms and looked away. Bella’s words came back to me, stirring up my stubborn streak. So what if we didn’t know much about them? Even if they were like their relatives in Vermont, undocumented, I didn’t care.

Mateo spoke up. “Please, we believe we may be of use here. I notice the shingles are loose, there is paint chipping, the grass needs to be  mowed…” He turned to Imelda.

“I have experience in housekeeping,” she said, her voice low. “I am very good at cleaning, changing the sheets, sweeping the floors…”

“We have no money to hire anybody right now.” Dad’s tone was cold.

“We do not ask for money. We will work for the place to stay, a little food, and my wife she will cook for you, if you permit.”

My heart did a little dance as a picture took shape in my mind: Mateo and Imelda bailing out my father’s business. FEMA sending other refugees to stay here. Me in D.C., reporting for the Post.

I looked at my dad. He stared at the little boy who looked so much like Frankie, then glanced over at me. I gave him a nod and gripped my hands together in front of my pounding chest. Dad cleared his throat.

“Maybe we can work something out. Short-term. You know, see how it goes.” I put my hand on his shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

Mateo stood and shook my father’s hand. “We can start today.”

Imelda clapped a hand over her mouth as tears welled in her eyes, tears my father didn’t see, his gaze on the sun of her little boy’s face.

Linda Wisniewski is a former librarian who shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband and rescue cat in Bucks County, PA. Linda is a volunteer docent at the historic home of Nobel winner Pearl Buck. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published by Pearlsong Press.