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The sky grew dark and high winds caused the hotel lights to flicker off and on.
"I think we're going to need the candles tonight," said Jane Whitley, the owner and manager of The Rawlings Hotel.
"Should we start up the fireplaces, ma'am?" asked Ronnie Mc Vicar, the desk clerk.
"That's a good idea, Ronnie. Please get someone on that immediately."
Miss Whitley struggled to suppress her concern, but it was clear that this storm was going to leave quite a trail of devastation in its wake. Still, she was determined to keep her staff, her guests, and her hotel from feeling the full effects of the coming weather. It didn't seem to matter that she had long ago paid her dues, becoming a bona fide local resident in one of the most active storm areas in the country. Each time a storm passed through the region, Jane felt as if she were starting over again in the area. With each and every storm that barreled through Eatonville, she felt tested by the weather, tested by her past, and tested by her neighbors.
"Arnie, please help me to shutter up the windows and secure the screen doors," barked Miss Whitley.
"Yes, ma'am," Arnold Beanfield replied.
One by one the shutters on all 45 windows were forced shut as a steady, windblown rain beat against everything in its path. The magnolias and palms down near the shoreline swayed back and forth as the tempest made its presence known. Rain gutters started to fill and overflow. And birds that should have been settling down to roost for the evening had already taken flight either further inland, or north or south, it didn't matter, as long as it was away from the coming storm.
Neighbors in the nearby Colonial, Victorian, and Revival houses also went about closing up their shutters and protecting whatever they could, however they could, from the impending nor'easter. Up and down Main Street there was no one to be seen. Occasionally, a vehicle would pass by slowly, driving visibility hampered by the pelting raindrops upon its windshield as it rode, as it sought out refuge somewhere away from the storm. Traffic lights dangled and danced in the heavy breezes, shooting multi-colored searchlights in odd directions. Huge clusters of leaves flew from the trees down on to the cobblestones. And now and then, an unfortunate soul would run by, coat pulled high above the shoulders in an attempt to keep at least some of the cold rain from getting into their clothing.
On Rugby Road a window screen was loosened from its sash and sent crashing down to the street below. The noise startled those inside the house, and they promised themselves they would investigate what had happened when the winds died down. But this squall was just getting into gear. The night was young and so was the storm. Leaves and twigs were blown from the tallest and the smallest trees, collecting in rain gutters and storm drains, threatening to clog these as the drops continued to fall. Water pooled at street corners and wherever the run-off was slow, and in most places it had gotten to the point where it was no longer safe to be outside. Wherever shelter could be found was where anyone previously out and about on this night with any sense already was, or already quickly headed. By the time Miss Whitley and Arnie Beanfield were done, both were soaked and exhausted.
Miss Whitley stood alone on the screened porch drying off. She watched as the waves crashed over the breakwater several hundred feet away. The loneliness and desolation of this image brought tears to the eyes of the 37-year-old hotel owner. She often wondered what it was that a year and a half ago had lured her to accept the challenge of running a small southern business such as The Rawlings Hotel, being that she was a born and bred, die-hard native New Yorker. But it was at trying and defining times like these that the memories of how it all came about reminded her. The locals would rudely question her presence through odd head games that they played on strangers, upsetting her, and at times causing her to forget why she had decided to drop everything and relocate. But even early on, deep down she did indeed know the reason, whether she admitted to it or not. And that reason was a personal one, and thus far known only to Jane.
In the strictest sense of the word, Jane was not a total stranger to the area. A branch of her family on her mother's side had long-standing roots in the region, and the young family from New York had visited them on a semi-regular basis. And tomboy that she was, Jane had spent entire summers running around the marshes and fields looking for one adventure or another. There wasn't a field or a face that she didn't know back then. She became acquainted with the folks and the area, and they came to know her as well.
But people have short memories, and when she was 13, her parents divorced and these visits occurred with less frequency, eventually coming to a complete halt. Jane never questioned the cold shoulders and odd treatment she had since received, understanding the wariness toward strangers on some level, and trying to block these unpleasant experiences out when they did occur. It seemed to her the easiest remedy. For Jane, it was far simpler to avoid these thoughts rather than face them, and so that was what she did most often. This was not the case with other memories, however, such as those surrounding the legal aspects of her latest twist in life.
The images of the reading of her great-grandfather's Will came to mind often, along with the feeling that she might be doing something worthwhile and rewarding with herself after years of wandering through life, going through the motions, and working toward a career she wasn't even sure she wanted back in New York. Jane knew it was vital that she feel useful in whatever it was she ended up doing. She needed to know that whatever she did with her time, it would ultimately have to mean something to somebody other than herself. And so she decided that the challenge that would come with relocating and running the hotel to be possibly what she craved and had been searching for all these years. Her great-grandfather intuitively seemed to know what was missing from Jane's life, even if he hadn't a clue as to how dissatisfied she had become with her existence. He could not have known what she had wanted, Jane not knowing this herself, yet he made an overture with this final act that had the potential to change Jane's life in ways she hadn't imagined. Roscoe Miller never explained why he had chosen Jane as heir to the hotel, he merely did it. And the arrangement he set in place made it difficult for her to make any decision other than to accept his terms.
Miss Jane Whitley was studying to become a teacher at Columbia University in New York City when she was informed that she would be receiving an inheritance from her deceased maternal great-grandfather from North Carolina. Unfortunately, this windfall did not come in the form of a financial inheritance, a trust fund, or any sort of outright cash sum. Instead, her great-grandfather had decided to leave her the hotel that he had established a long time ago. Had he chosen to leave her the cash equivalent, this godsend would have enabled her to continue her education and then some. He apparently did not think that this was in her best interest, and in accordance with his wishes, Jane was to keep his business running. If, the Will stipulated, in a specified period of time, there was or continued to be verified and documented difficulties, or hardship of any kind, then, and only then, would Miss Whitley be permitted to sell the property and recover whatever cash value could be obtained.
At first she returned to New York, making no overtures toward accepting the proposition. She was content to let her inheritance quietly slip away. Then, in July of 1994, three months after the reading of the Will, Jane Whitley suddenly sublet her Brooklyn Heights apartment and moved to the tiny barrier island of St. Helena, a section of the tiny town of Eatonville off the coast of North Carolina. She had never given anyone any explanation as to why she decided to accept ownership of the hotel, and Jane was not always certain that she understood, but she had accepted it, proclaiming to any who would listen that she was in for the long haul. Many family members guessed that her reasons were financial, and to a degree they were, but this was not the only reason. In any case, putting her finger on her true motivation was perhaps more complicated than she wished to admit or address. That she needed a fresh start was all that she would allow herself to acknowledge.
And so, Jane Whitley set out late one Friday afternoon from Penn Station. It was the second week in July, during the middle of a heat wave, which should have made leaving easier, but strangely enough, it didn't. Her first thoughts regarding whether or not she had made the right decision in leaving the safety of her home in New York for the uncertainty of a new one in North Carolina surfaced at this time. Soon, however, she became lost in her travels and in her thoughts. The rolling of the dismal-looking commuter train seemed to tranquilize and hypnotize her into a different mind-set, one where she no longer worried as much about the importance of this particular decision. The rhythmic beating of the steel wheels against the tracks and railroad ties dulled the pangs of anxiety and doubt, hammering out a sense of calm in Jane, to the point where it no longer felt as if this were a life or death situation. Instead, she looked at the move as if it were the perfect opportunity for a new beginning, and this was what she had secretly hoped for all along.
The train let out a whistle at every crossroad and every town it came to as it passed from New York to Eatonville. cities, towns and stations with names like Newark, Trenton, Rahway, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Carrollton, BWI, Union Station, Newport News, and Charlotte passed in an endless parade, blurring as the trip wore on. Soon it grew dark, and the faces, cars, and homes were no longer visible to her except whenever there was a scheduled stop, and then it was only when porch lights were turned on that she was able to discern their presence.
Still slightly depressed, exhausted, and unable to sleep, she stared out the window. Under the dim moonlight, she was able to make out the homes and shops along the way. Jane wondered what the people in each little town and each city she passed through were feeling, dreaming, thinking, doing for a living, and doing at that precise moment. She wondered had they heard the whistle blast as the train barreled through and if they had thoughts of a similar nature about her and her companions on the train. Were they as curious as she?
Under a steady rain, the train pulled into the Eatonville station at 1:15 in the morning. She arranged to have her bags delivered the next day, and with her travel bag in hand, she enlisted a local cabby to take her across the Ballard Street Bridge to St. Helena's. With a little bit of difficulty, she managed to find the hotel and was led to her room. Ronnie Mc Vicar, the youngish desk clerk was there to greet her.
"Hello, Miss Whitley, let me show you to your quarters. I hope your trip wasn't too rough. The kitchen's already closed, but I took the liberty of leaving some chicken sandwiches and a bottle of wine on the coffee table in your suite," he said, as he led her up a half flight of stairs behind the darkened kitchen.
Copyright © 2006 Robert Segarra.
Posted December 7, 2014