”What's wrong?” asked the real estate agent. The building was already mine, along with the forty acres of land it stood on. He told me a woman shouldn't be out on the highway alone, and insisted on coming with me. I think he was afraid that, after I saw the place up close, I would stop payment on my check. I wasn't afraid of going thirty miles out of town--I had backpacked alone in areas more remote than that.
“Nothing.” I stared at the building. Most people would bulldoze it. I would rebuild it.
I stood across the street, digging for memories I didn't have. All I knew of my beginnings was a street address on a two-lane highway, Route 66, in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt. Just being there made me think I should remember my past, but, like every other time, there was nothing but wasted dreams.
I wondered why my mother abandoned me here, at a soda fountain, outside in the August heat, wearing a diaper and a onesie. She must have known I'd grow up to be too tall, skinny, and awkward to be adopted, or for a man to take home to his mother and claim me as his own.
My heart felt a strange kinship with the building, a certain kind of loneliness mixed with pride. Neither of us needed anyone. Yet, we both wanted love and care. Its doors and windows had been boarded against the elements, a wall of protection put up to keep others out. That protection was eroding and, before it was noticed, the building would be taken, reclaimed by the earth. I wondered how long it had been abandoned. For me, it had been forty years.
The cement signpost had crumbled and fallen. There used to be neighbors on either side, a gas station and a curio shop. Both were gone. Not far down the highway stood the crumbling remains of the Sleep Tight Motor Motel. There was a time when Route 66 was an essential, well-used route across the country. Now it was the middle of nowhere and no one would come for a blue-plate special and homemade pie.
It was time to get closer. I didn't bother to look both ways. We'd been out there for ten minutes and had seen no cars. I strode across the street, leaving Mr. Real Estate standing next to the car. He watched me walk toward the building. Rejects like me can feel staring eyes. He'd done nothing on the drive but clear his throat and chain smoke. He was one of those people who smoked and twitched like he didn't need any caffeine, but couldn't get enough nicotine.
Standing at the door, I shifted from one foot to the other, looking down and picking out little pieces of the cement step with the toe of my boot. From across the street the two big windows and shredded awnings glared at me like two hooded eyes. Maybe mysteries would be revealed when I opened the door. Chances were good it wouldn't be the one I wanted, but never needed, to solve, the identity of my mother.
I peeked over the edge of the plywood that covered the glass door. Amazingly, part of the soda fountain was still there, the stainless steel backsplash and counters dusty and dulled by time. Poles stuck out of the cement in front of the main counter. I imagined them topped with red and white vinyl seats to match the deteriorated upholstery in the booths. A jukebox would have played the latest Beach Boys hit, maybe the Turtles or Herman's Hermits. The plastered ceiling had fallen into the middle of the room, all but blocking access to the rest of the building. There had to be a kitchen, at least one restroom, and a back door for disappointed boys to run away through.
I took a deep breath. The door knob turned easily, inviting me inside. My eyes scanned the interior of the building. I imagined the smell of the breakfasts my mother would have made had she worked here. I would have liked eggs and bacon with white bread toast. She would have cut off the crust just for me, her little girl. Today, it smelled like hot dust kicked up by a car speeding away. I reached up and pulled down more of the ceiling. A scorpion fell from above and scurried through the weeds that had sprung up through the tiled floor. With the heel of my cowboy boot, I crushed it with murderous nonchalance and kicked it out the open door with the same attitude. I glanced outside. The real estate agent still stood by the car, twitching. The only thing that didn't move was his helmet of black hair. He didn't engender respect or trust. He made me nervous. I was glad he was no longer needed for my adventure.
I half-crawled over the fallen ceiling, and found two bathrooms and the kitchen. A large and lonely tumbleweed stood in for the bottom half of the back door. Wires from the old lights still hung from the ceiling. I would hang new lights, the color of red lipstick my mother may have worn. I took photos with my cell phone and measured each room with a measuring tape. My mind spun with plans, opportunities. I would make the building alive again, for her, for the two of us together. For the first time that day, I smiled. It didn’t matter that I felt a dusty grit on my teeth.
Contractors would do the complicated work. I would do everything else myself. This wasn’t the first time I had gutted and rebuilt a building, but it was the first time I cared.
I walked back to the car and the twitching agent. “Let's go?”
“Okay.” He got into the car, waiting for me.
I took my time getting into the car, thinking of the vintage, neon sign I would hang outside.
Once we were on the road, he relaxed into the passenger seat. “So, what are you going to do with the place?” Without looking at me, he threw a butt out the window and reached his nicotine-stained fingers into his shirt pocket.
“Make it my home.”
Written by: Julie Hodges
Photograph by: Matt Crump