White River Junction, Vermont, is an old railroad town right on the New Hampshire border, and it once was one of the busiest train hubs on the eastern seaboard. It fell on hard times, like a lot of other railroad towns around here, but has emerged in recent years as a strangely busy little village, without some of the cloying preciousness of a lot of other Vermont towns that have been eyed as fixer-uppers by folks from out of state.
White River Junction is the kind of town that has resident drunks and a hotel that boasts—in white paint on the side of the building—that it has hot AND cold water. The train stops here. There’s a Greyhound station. Just down the road from the Polka Dot Restaurant, there’s now a vintage clothing shop, and the old Tip Top bakery building has been turned into artists’ studios and high-tech office space. There is a museum that has featured important and interesting exhibits of things like Elvis’ toenail clippings and art made by accident— boards people have found in their woodsheds that miraculously look exactly like paintings by well-known abstract expressionists.
There’s a strip club called The WRAP (White River Amusement Pub, an imprecise name), a store called The Trend that claims to sell “club wear” (there are no clubs in White River Junction), and an adult book store called Silhouette. There are a lot of motels in White River Junction—the Pleasant View and the Coach an’ Four and the Pine Crest and the Maple Leaf. And there is the Shady Lawn.
The Shady Lawn has a large red sign (“The Shady Lawn Motel”) up on stilts on the roof. When the sign is working and you can read the whole thing, the name calls up mint juleps and walnut trees and white dresses. It seems like the kind of place you’d want to go on vacation. You could sit in a chair and read and people would bring you cool drinks.
But when you get there, it’s just a motel with a lot of new lumber lying around. The sign in the parking lot features the words “Shady Lawn Motel” superimposed on a dark green tree shape, reminiscent of a leafy maple or perhaps a drawing of a tree in a child’s painting. At night, in the headlights of your car, the tree looks black and there’s something sinister about it. The tree resembles a mushroom cloud.
The motel has a bit of a roguish reputation. It was always known as the place in town where you went to have an affair. When people ran away together, they ran away to the Shady Lawn. When you stayed, you would hear things in the night, people fighting and running up and down stairs. Then, about ten years ago, it was bought by Ishavar Patel. Now he and his family run it. They’ve renovated a lot of the rooms and cleaned it up. The beautiful girl working in the office is asked if she remembers anything untoward ever happening at the motel. She is told that there are stories about it in town, and she looks shocked. “I don’t know. I haven’t been here very long,” she says. “I came down from Canada.” She says that Vermont is too cold. Another night a young Indian man in a black down jacket is working the desk. He’s a cousin of the owner and his parents manage the motel. He is asked if he knows why it’s called the Shady Lawn. He does not.
The Shady Lawn’s mottos are “Home Away from Home” and “Owned, operated and managed with you in mind.”
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