Bing Crosby Dreaming at The Lamp Post Inn
You slow for a light and your husband springs from the car. You are driving home from your sister-in-law's on Christmas Eve and in a matter of seconds your husband is here and then gone. He does this, your husband. He bolts from stopped cars. You lost him once in Wisconsin. You stopped for gas in a town you never bothered to learn the name of and by the time your tank was filled, he was nowhere to be seen. You were on your honeymoon then. That was three years ago. You should know better by now. You should know to lock the doors on nights like these when he's been drinking.
The light turns from red to green and still your foot remains on the brake. The streets are empty and messy with snow and unfamiliar to you. This is his city, not yours. You have driven this way only once before, in daylight hours, with him sitting beside you, directing you through this ghost town. Now it is dark and silent and frozen. The houses on either side of you stare back at you, abandoned and afraid. Their windows are bleak and unadorned. No trees shine through to illuminate the night. No plastic reindeer graze from these roofs or lawns. Christmas does not bother to come where only ghosts and forgotten men roam.
The car edges forward, through the light, which has turned now back to red. Your head swerves left and then right, searching the darkness for signs of life, searching the alleyways for evidence of your daughter's father. You look though you will not find him. Not tonight, anyhow. He is not ready to be found. He needs this night for himself. And so, for that matter, do you. In the morning he will find you. He will come to you with apologies on his lips, ready to be forgiven, and you will oblige him his wishes. You take a deep breath and drive faster, no longer looking for what has been lost, no longer in search of what you have come to call home. You drive wanting nothing more than a room for the night, a place to lay with your child uninterrupted until morning. The pavement turns smooth beneath your tires. Green overhead signs announce various freeways and unseen destinations. On the other side of the overpass you spy a graying building, its name spelled out in blue neon, a vacancy sign blinking red underneath. You pull into the drive of the Lamp Post Inn and hold your breath. Three cars are parked before numbered doors. Seven spots wait empty. You count your money and hope it is enough.
Your daughter opens her eyes as you lift her from the car. She has been sleeping since you left Lisa's and there is a red crease on her cheek that you brush lightly with your lips. You pull her hood up over her head and hold her close to your chest, sheltering her from the wind and the unfamiliar surroundings. You run to the office and ring the bell. An Indian woman appears from behind a wooden door and asks you in broken English if she can help. She seems surprised when you ask for a room. She wants to know if it is just the two of you, just you and your baby, and looks around you and past you, to the parking lot, to your car. Yes, you say. It is just us, just me and her, kissing the baby on her sweaty head. You hand her your last twenty dollars and tell her you have money for the tax in the car. You tell her you have it in change in your glove box but she waves you away. She hands you a key and tells you to pay the tax in the morning, when it's not so nighttime and frozen. You thank her and tell Baby to wave bye-bye. You wrap her inside your coat and run with her to your room.
The room is stale and dank. It smells of spilt beer and cigarettes. It smells like the living room of the house you lived in in college. When you breathe you can see your breath. You open the lid of the heater in the corner and turn the knob as far as it will go. The bed is hard and thin and the orange and brown coverlet reminds you of the afghan that hung over your great-grandmother's davenport when you were young. The coverlet is worn and speckled with stains and tears. You spread a baby blanket out on top of it and lay your daughter down to rest. There's a T.V. on a table across the room. You look around but there's no remote. You don't count on it working. You turn it on and it only gets four channels, but that's one more than you get at home. You leave it on the one that comes in best and settle down with Baby.You haven't fed her in three hours and she's starving. You roll over onto your side and lift your shirt to her open mouth. You pull her in close and feel your body relax with the let down of your milk. Her face is sticky with jam and as you dab at it with a wetted fingertip you contemplate taking her away somewhere. Just the two of you on the road. You close your eyes and see yourself slinging hash in a little roadside diner in Albuquerque. You envision yourself in pink, talking up customers for tips so you can buy a cake for you and Baby on your way home from work. You imagine a cowboy named Billy taking you out on your day off; a real man who'll be sweet to you and not jump from moving cars or pull handfuls of hair from his head when another man smiles too long in your direction or says howdy, how you doin' while you're filling your tank.
Your daughter's mouth has fallen slack in her slumber. Gently you extract your breast from her mouth and tuck the covers in tight around her. Your stomach is grumbling and you fetch the basket of goodies Lisa sent home with you from the car. You make a meal of sugar cookies and glazed nuts and caramel popcorn and try the other three channels before getting back in bed.
On the last of the four channels Bing Crosby is singing. His blue eyes are wide and his voice drips like honey and you think perhaps it isn't a cowboy that you need after all. Rosemary Clooney sits across from him on a train and you know now that this is White Christmas. You've seen it a hundred times. You watched it every year with your mother before she moved away. You still know all the words.
You nestle in close beside your daughter with the covers pulled up to your chin. You're cold and tired but happy you've found an old friend. You try to stay awake. You force your eyes open but the bed is finally warm and you're too comfortable within it. It's been so long since you've gotten a full night's sleep. It's been an eternity since you've slept without listening for his steps.
Your eyes betray you first. They shut tight but you don't give in. You continue to listen a while longer. You listen dutifully and then you're there. You're standing at the counter with your robe pulled tight around you and he's making you a sandwich and pouring a glass of milk. You're sitting by the fire as he sings your favorite song. "When I'm tired and I can't sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings." You're weeping openly into your pillow and mouthing the words into the air.
You sleep and dream on until morning. You dream of cowboys and crooners, of Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby, and in the morning when you wake, it's Christmas. You stand at the window and look out at the snow. Six inches have fallen while you slept. Still more is drifting swiftly down. You stand and watch and wait. You crawl back under the covers with your daughter. It is her first Christmas and she claps excitedly. You lay still and wait. You listen for his steps, hoping never to be found.
About the author:
Elizabeth Ellen lives in Ann Arbor.