A Field Guide to Motel Chairs by Doug Brewer

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Most Memorable: February 2017

a camera with a photo of a motel chair in its viewfinder


I am peering through my camera at an empty chair next to a mostly empty motel swimming pool. It’s pushing 4 o’clock on this early spring afternoon, and the sky hints at later rain. Soggy leaves leach their tannins into dark copper dregs of water in the deep end of the pool, and the soft yellow of the chair calls my eye.

It’s off-season; the motel is closed. A winter’s worth of debris gathers in hard corners. Limbs fallen from the overhanging trees reach their wrecked fingers across parking places or hang from dented gutters. Paint that was probably warm in the fall now looks despondent. A small sign indicating the way to rooms along the second floor has come loose and rests near the silent ice machine. The stylized finger on the sign juts its nail at a place in the sadly weedy lot sloping away from the building. I’ve examined these scenes through the viewfinder, taking a shot here and there, watching the light, waiting for something to come into view.

This watery yellow chair, two vaguely square scallops of metal attached to a long, bent tube, bears the wear of many winters, many a summer tourist. A stubble of rust clings to its edges and the slow grind of time is etched onto its surfaces.

I study it in the viewfinder, tapping softly on the shutter button to keep it in focus, letting muscle memory and habit guide the process. The yellow plays against last year’s blue clinging to the pool walls, and that single tube, serving as arms, support, legs, and offering a subtle cant, relays the feel of a chromed, curving handrail leading both into and out of the blue of the pool.

In Utah once, I found a chair along a concrete walkway in front of an abandoned roadside motel. The room doors, a variety of once-vibrant colors, stood open at differing angles, offering slanted secrets to curious observers, there across the tracks from an old train station.

That chair was padded and wore a faded vinyl skin that may have been orange at one point. It looked like part of a set, matched to a small dining table where traveling workers or a wandering family sat and ate crowded meals as they watched pronghorns and tumbleweeds move slowly past dusty windows.

Slapped onto the seat back was a handprint, slightly smeared, of white paint gone tan in the desert air. It was an ancient mark, like the Sioux or Comanche used to decorate their horses, a symbol of ownership or pride, but then it was only tired, left on a decaying chair in a town that wasn’t there any more. In the angled light of late afternoon, the handprint stood out, became a subject, a small I was here contrasted with the shadows cutting into each empty room.

There was snow on the ground in Greeneville, South Carolina, the night my sister called to tell me our mother was gone. I was just checked in, and still had the key in my hand. The door was open. Cold air filled the room, and where housekeeping had left the curtains parted I saw a chair overlooking the covered pool. It was white, one of those molded plastic ones you see in crooked stacks in front of hardware stores on sale, cheap.

They are not made to last, but they do the job, allowing you a place to be until they have one winter too many, and you don’t know when it will be, when it will get to them, when wind and time pile on and they crack, and you should have seen it coming but you didn’t because they were always there, just out of sight.

When we hung up, I brought the chair inside and rested in it, thinking of going home, my old home, where memory weighs more. I thought of miles and sleep and the terrible reunion to come. When I checked out and drove away, I left the chair inside, where it sat waiting to be moved, and I felt the same, but there was too much to do.

Now, in the passing warmth of early spring, I fiddle with my camera, and while I do so, it strikes me that this is a particularly southern chair. It carries in its wide seat the weight of memory. There is no hurry in it. I see it paired and grouped with others on sultry evenings as lightning bugs write their yellow-green slits and commas over darkening yards. They are spread along shade lines around courthouse squares, old men in shirtsleeves and women in flowered dresses fanning themselves. I imagine children splayed out, legs swinging, dribbling seeds from salted watermelon slices. I see it in wan light outside a motel room, moths and mosquitoes scribbling the air as the smoke from a last cigarette before TV and sleep hangs in heavy coils.

The chair with the handprint I saw in the brutal light of the west was also of its place, breaking down, going back to the dust. Its mark was one of desperation, a broken branch on the way to somewhere else as desperate, and there was no memory, no looking back, no sitting still, because to do so was to perish.

I hear tires scrubbing by on the other side of the trees. I hold my camera and stare into the wet leaves floating in the stagnant pool. The chair is familiar to me, as though I’ve been in many like it on many nights outside interchangeable motels. I knew a pretty girl—improbably named Destiny—and we traveled the same roads years ago, ending our nights beside a hundred pools, blowing smoke across the water, talking about work, about the loneliness of the job. We both knew the silence of travel, the strain of empty nights, the questions crawling along phone lines. Is she cute? Does he like you? We knew how long it was before the workday, and we wore away the hours before peeling off to our different rooms to call home and family. We left those chairs full of waiting.

I think of chairs. I think of working and learning to photograph. I think of my wife and my kids who are in the car while I walk my camera. They want to find a field and test new kites in the building wind. I think of nights on the road, of decay and rebirth, of the promise of a new season, and I wonder why I never thought to point my camera at Destiny.

The light has brightened a bit, so I glide back into the process. I lean against the cyclone fence around the pool to get a wider view, then move forward, hoping to see the picture. I decide I only want to catch the idea of the chair, to play its lines and curves, and that soft color, over the angles and blue of the pool. The whole of it disappears, and in the frame remains the memory of waiting.

doug brewerDoug Brewer has an MFA in creative writing from the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. He lives in Richmond, Kentucky, with his wife, two kids and several indifferent fish named “Steve.” A recovering studio photographer, Doug sometimes wanders around with his camera or forces friends to pose for him while he attempts to work out exactly what it is he wants to accomplish in the frame. It is the same in his writing, where he veers from fiction to nonfiction and back, pondering the function of memory and the lasting influence of random moments.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Laura Thorne

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