by Courtney McDermott
At the Chickasaw Motel, three generations of the McGuinness clan are led by their elderly and overbearing patriarch. Only little Riley, “the smartest f-ing kid”, is spared the brunt of Grandpa McGuinness’s cruelty; ironically, it is his encouragement that provides her with a way out.
OFF THE MAIN HIGHWAY of Chickasaw, resting in front of a backdrop of soybean fields and an auto parts garage blackened by the touch of an old fire, lies a motel with eight rooms.
I’m not here for a room. I’m not a stranger to the town. The Chickasaw Motel is where I grew up with Grandpa McGuinness and the rest of the clan. I guess it would’ve once been called my home, but only in name, not in definition.
It doesn’t live up to my mind’s memory. Maybe it’s because the paint on the shutters is peeling and the roof has caved in or because the four southern rooms have been turned into apartments and the building next door was torn down. Or maybe I’m not really seeing it because too many memories cloud my mind.
I sit down on the front stoop of the motel entrance, watching the occasional car go by. The highway used to be busy, a few years ago. Before the bypass was built. Back then, we all lived here: Grandpa and Grandma, Papa and Mom, Morgan, Uncle Chet, and me. Yeah, it seems like a long time ago.
THE MOTEL WAS BUILT in the sixties, when the only thing on Grandpa McGuinness’ mind was not the war or drugs or the feminist movement—though that worried him a bit—but how to make money when his business was just taking off and he was $10,000 in debt.
Grandpa McGuinness was the sort of businessman who would charm you with a clever joke about the current president, shake your hand firmly, and wink at you as though you were sharing a funny secret. He could put anyone at ease. Though he was a tough haggler, he was always honest. When it came to business, he never cheated anyone in his life.
“That’s the difference between me and them English bastards,” he would tell me. “Never trust an Orangeman.” Grandpa McGuinness was always giving advice like that—advice that only applied to some old-world beliefs. I remember the first thing he told me by way of advice. “You’re not too young to be reciting the rosary every night. Every good Catholic should do it. Sacrifice every once in a while—that’s the key.”
“The key to what?” I asked.
Grandpa McGuinness didn’t answer. He just nodded, a cigarette cradled between his lips. At times like that, my papa would sit silently by, smoking and coughing, watching my grandpa and me.
Grandpa McGuinness and Grandma Eva had nine children. I suppose that made Grandpa McGuinness the child expert, though they hadn’t had much luck. One died when she was four months old, and I don’t even know her name. Ian and Thomas were declared MIAs during Vietnam, at which time Grandpa McGuinness decided to start over and moved across town to buy the motel.
The other six had been slight disappointments. Cari died in a tractor accident before too much was expected of him, and the four eldest left the McGuinness clan to do the sorts of things that Grandpa McGuinness disapproved of. Mary Elizabeth married a Protestant minister; Brian moved to New York to become an actor; Chet left home only to come back; and Kathleen joined the circus. That left the youngest—my papa, Shay—to be Grandpa’s protégé.
Not fit for the big cities or college, Papa stayed on with the motel. He started his own business in foreign auto parts in the backyard.
My sister, Morgan, and I were the third generation to live in the motel. Grandpa McGuinness and Papa had converted two of the motel’s rooms into living quarters and added a kitchen and a bedroom off the back for Papa and Heather, my mom.
I never minded the suffocating size of my home, not until I was eleven and I brought home Jamey Schwickerath. The next day, she went back to school telling everyone that “Riley McGuinness is one step up from trailer trash. The only difference is her trailer has a basement.”
Everything in our home was worn and suffering. The tile in the bathroom was missing, and the sink dripped to the beat of an Irish pub song. The carpet of our living room was thin and speckled brown, like leaves fallen on the ground in autumn. If I pulled really hard on threadbare patches, the carpet would tear and Mom would scold me.
There was a time when the stray cat that we took in, Muriel, had fleas, and then Morgan and I got fleas. I prayed to Jesus that no one at school would find out. It was miserable sitting in class trying not to scratch the red bumps, but eventually I gave in and had to rub my ankles together to relieve some of the itch. Mom bought the special red shampoo for our hair and burned the rug from our bedroom.
On days like that, Mom would go to her bedroom and cry.
“I never wanted to live like this!” she would sob into her pillow, as Morgan and I eavesdropped from the other side of the door. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but Morgan was pretty sure it was God.
about the author
from the library
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— Dave Margoshes, author of A Book of Great Worth