I was staying in a hotel. Not a nice hotel, just a hotel. The kind where the lamps are bolted to the bedside tables and the glasses beside the bathroom sink are covered in Saran Wrap ripped from the roll. It was a hotel in a town where I’d lived not too long ago. I’d taught there and had met kids with more and less than I’d ever known.
It was nearly 1:00 a.m.by the time I pulled into the parking lot. I went into the lobby and rang the buzzer to get a key to the room where dogs are allowed. That is who I was with, my German Shepherd. He’d needed to go out.
I was standing, admiring the moon, waiting for my dog to finish sniffing around the base of a tree, when I heard my name. I knew the voice, but couldn’t place it.
The shadow of a young woman bounded down the stairs from the second floor of the hotel. It wasn’t until she stepped into the puddle of streetlamp light that I recognized her. This young woman had once been a girl who sat at a table at the back of my class, she and her younger brother, always side by side in jeans that hadn’t made the acquaintance of a washing machine even once.
Her life between then and now hadn’t been good. Her father still hit. Her mother had gotten better at forgetting how to cry. Her brother wasn’t so quiet anymore. He’d learned to yell. Just like Dad.
For this student, it had been heroin that made ashes of her life, leaving her here, in this hotel. She could stay as long as she cleaned the parking lot. That’s what the manager had said.
She bent down to stroke my dog’s ears and asked, “Do you remember that book? The first one we read?”
I did. We’d gotten a classroom set. Brand new for the kids who swore they never read.
“I got sent to GED after you left. I could see the library from my desk. One day, I just went in and checked that book out. You know, the one we read?” She smiled. Embarrassed. “I guess I didn’t really check it out. I kind of took it. I’ve still got it. Sometimes I sit down and read it. Did you know it was the first book I ever read all the way through?” She paused. “I guess I should take it back. Do you think I should?
“No,” I said. “Keep it. That book is exactly where it should be.”