The night I met Miss Shirley, I was too sick to pay much attention to her. I hadn’t felt well all afternoon, and by the time I pulled into the driveway at the Tumbleweed, I had two goals: Check in and pass out, preferably in that order.
I must have looked as rotten as I felt, because Miss Shirley handed me the key to my room without even bothering to take my credit card. “You look terrible, dear,” she said. “You go lie down now, and we’ll settle up in the morning.”
Five minutes later, she came to my door with a lavender-stuffed eye pillow and a steaming mug of peppermint tea. I don’t know whether they helped, but it certainly lifted my spirits to think that this birdlike little woman would go out of her way to help a complete stranger feel better.
I was feeling almost human again by the time Miss Shirley invited me to have breakfast with her and her handyman, Joey, who had lived on the premises for the better end of 40 years.
Over green chile omelets and thick cheese grits, Miss Shirley told me about her adventures as a Harvey Girl in the late 1940s, before her husband married her and bought her the Tumbleweed as a wedding present.
She had come to the Tumbleweed in 1950. A year later, a son was born; he died in infancy. The motel thrived as vacationing families stopped on their way west. Then the interstates opened, and business dwindled. Miss Shirley’s husband took a job as an over-the-road trucker to supplement their income until a snowstorm in the mountains claimed his rig and his life.
Miss Shirley maintained her sanity by taking care of every creature that crossed her path — be it a stray dog, a wounded coyote, or, a developmentally disabled young man whose father had left and whose mother had passed away, leaving him with no one to look after him.
Joey had lived at the Tumbleweed since 1969. Miss Shirley fed and sheltered him in exchange for his services as a handyman. In point of fact, he wasn’t particularly handy, but he tried hard, and Miss Shirley didn’t have the heart to turn him out to live on his own.
Now, however, Miss Shirley was facing a problem: Her doctor had diagnosed her with a serious illness, and while she seemed fine to me, she feared that the day would come when she could no longer care for Joey or the Tumbleweed.
“What’s to become of them?” she asked, her voice shaking.
When I offered to buy the property and look after Joey myself, Miss Shirley broke down crying and declared that I must be an angel sent by God himself to solve her problems.
I hope I can live up to that.