Ever since, we've made every effort to find accommodations off the highway by midafternoon.
But on this baking summer day our goal was to make it at least into Canada, if not home to Toronto, after three weeks on the Maine coast. So we slogged on, putting the miles behind us with, in the backseat, three weary small sons and an English au pair whose unfailingly sweet nature was on the verge of abandoning her. We wound through the mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont and northern New York state until finally we crossed the St. Lawrence River and entered Canada at Cornwall.
This afforded a definite feeling of triumph. It meant we had broken the back of the journey and there remained only the long, straight haul down Highway 2, along the northern edge of Lake Ontario to Toronto. But the exhausted children could go no farther, so the last stretch would have to be left for the morning. What mattered now was to find a place for the night.
Easier said than done. For the magic hour of 4:30 p.m.--when traveling businessmen call it quits and turn off the road for food and lodging--had come and gone and the signs in front of motels along the highway all proclaimed full (or was it fool?). It wasn't a matter of picking and choosing the one that appealed the most. We were going to be extremely lucky to find two empty rooms with space for all of us anywhere.
We stopped at a roadside place to fill hungry and increasingly cantankerous maws and boost flagging morale, then continued along the highway, by now driving in bright moonlight.
John's eyes were red and weary, and his knuckles on the wheel white with strain. An occasional wail issued from a child followed by Susan's gentle reassurances that it wouldn't be long now. But it was. Finally, in a stretch of unrelieved monotonous highway there, mercifully, was a motel like an oasis at the point of extremis, with that magic word Vacancy flashing from its neon sign. It wasn't near anywhere. Flat stubble-filled fields stretched off into total darkness on either side and behind it was a field of wheat.
The Ritz it patently wasn't. There wasn't even a coffee shop. But when the woman at the reception desk said, yes, she did have two empty rooms, each with a double and single bed, we nearly fell on her neck and wept hot tears. We drove to the rooms, which were separated by only one other, parked the car in front and fell wearily out.
The rooms were the kind where you don't study the carpet too closely. There was no television, no air-conditioning and no phone; the neon light from the motel's sign glared through the curtains and the lock on our door, which seemed a bit uncertain, just might have been jimmied at some time. No matter. There was running hot water in the bathroom and sheets and pillows on the beds, and if they didn't smell of lavender we certainly weren't going to complain.
We distributed ourselves over the two rooms, with Susan and the 3- and 5-year-old in one, and ourselves and the 7-year-old in the other. Night clothes were out of the question on a night of such heat, so we unpacked only our washing gear, and I helped Susan bathe and tuck in the already sleeping little boys in the double bed in her room. Back in our own room, 7-year-old Richard was also asleep, so we both quickly showered, and John got out his trusty flask, fetched tumblers from the bathroom and poured us two of the greatest Scotches we've ever drunk. Then we too collapsed into bed.
Both of us fell asleep immediately. I have no idea what made me wake later. Perhaps it was the unaccustomed Scotch just before sleeping. Who knows? But since I was awake and thirsty, I took my glass and walked to the bathroom to fill it with water.
The moon was so bright I didn't even turn on the bathroom light, and I moved over to the window to admire the scene. It was an amazing night. In the vault of the sky the moon sailed overhead, aureoled in wet, white light. And then, with a lurch of my stomach, I realized that there was a man standing quite still, not very far away from the window, at the edge of the wheat field that stretched back from the motel's property.
It was impossible to distinguish him clearly since the moon shone from behind him. I couldn't even tell if he was looking at me, but I instinctively drew back--partly because I hadn't a stitch on, but also in self protection--and went on watching him from the shadow.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to justify anyone being out there. The man didn't move while I looked at him and seemed to be holding something. I suddenly realized with a sense of deep foreboding that what he held was a small stepladder. He had to be a Peeping Tom who propped the ladder up against the side of the motel and peered into the bathrooms, which all faced the back.