No vacancy motel sign

The Landlady short story

I feel the need to explain myself. I’m not a bad person but if you were to judge me by the attacks I’ve endured on social media for the past few months you’d be inclined to think me a monster. Or at the very least a heartless, money-grubbing landlady.

I’m not. I am simply trying to run a hotel in the best way I know how, which means doing things in an orderly fashion and not re-juggling the books to satisfy the occasional visitor who hasn’t bothered to think ahead and book a proper room. It’s not like I turned them out in the cold. Even if I’d wanted to – and believe me, when someone comes ringing the bell after midnight I am not in the best of moods – Herschel wouldn’t have let me. That man has such a kind heart, you wouldn’t believe it. A true mensch. If he had his way, we’d give our own rooms to strangers and end up sleeping in the back seat of the Volvo. Seriously. He’s too good, that man. I’ve been telling him that since we first got married. “Hersch,” I say, “you’re too good. You let people take advantage. You give every putz that comes your way the benefit of the doubt. One day, I’m telling you, you’ll lose your shirt.”

Does he listen? Of course not. When does a man ever listen to his wife?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the girl and her baby.

We knew, of course, it was going to be busy. It’s not every day you get a decree saying the whole world needs to register for a census. I didn’t like the idea, myself.

“What do they need to register us for?” I asked Herschel. “So they can find new ways to stick their hands into our pockets? Isn’t it enough we pay our property tax and the poll tax and God forbid when your great-aunt Abigail dies we’ll have to pay an inheritance tax on whatever measly sum she decides to leave us? I don’t care who hears me say it, Herschel, but we were better off before we lost our independence.”

But of course I did care who heard me. Since the Romans took over you can’t say shit, pardon my French, without getting in trouble with the authorities. And the spies, they’re everywhere. People say children are doubling their pocket money spying on their parents. It’s a terrible situation but what can you do? It is what it is.

The phones started ringing the moment the census was announced. Well, the day after. I had to get Gertie, the girl who helps out with the laundry, to come and help manage the bookings. They were coming in from everywhere – I had bookings as far away as Samaria, Decapolis . . . and yes, Galilee. For a village of 300 people you wouldn’t believe how many Jews claim to be born here.

They started arriving a few weeks later. Most of them, of course, were staying with family. Or as close to family as they could get. Houses here are small. People put up tents in back yards, they slept on the front porch – at least one family slept in their car. I know because they parked it outside our motel, in the handicapped parking space, if you can believe it. It was lucky for them I was too busy getting rooms ready and checking in guests to order them off the property. Not that Herschel would have let me.

“Bathsheba, my sweet,” he would have said, “it’s a difficult time. We must make allowances. What does the Torah say? ‘Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

That’s Hersch for you, always quoting the Torah to me when I try to stand up for my rights.

It was two weeks into the madness – that’s what I call it, madness, all these strangers descending on us like a plague of locusts, looking for places to eat, places to sleep, places for their children to play while they waited in line at the magistrate’s – yes, two weeks into it when the young couple came knocking on the door. It had been a very long day. A couple from Jericho had lost a valuable necklace and were accusing my housekeeper of theft. She’s as honest as the day is long, that girl, and besides, what idiot brings a valuable necklace on a trip like this? We found it, eventually – it had dropped behind the dresser and was lodged under a section of the carpet. What a to-do! And when we found it, do you think Mrs. Jericho Woman was grateful? She just sniffed and said if we were going to accept reservations from the better class of people we should provide portable safes to store their jewelry.

And no sooner had we sorted that out, an old couple arrived unexpectedly with their granddaughter and I saw that Gertie had made a mistake with the bookings. We gave them the pull-out sofa in the front lobby and promised to find them something in the morning.

Anyway. It was almost midnight when Hersch and I got into bed and I had just turned out the light when it dawned on me I’d left the “Vacancy” sign on. I’d forgotten all about it. We did have one room free earlier in the day but it was taken late in the afternoon by a family from Philadelphia. Five children and a dog in a room with one double bed! I told them it wasn’t suitable for such a large group but they were exhausted and said they’d take a broom closet at this point if it was all that was available. So I charged them extra for the dog, gave them the key and left them to work it out.

I was hoping Hersch would get up and switch off the sign, but he was snoring almost before he lay down so I got up, threw on my housecoat and made my way downstairs to the office. Just as I reached for the switch, I heard a noise at the door. There was a knock, and then the front doorbell began ringing.

I’ll tell you right now, I was of two minds to go back to bed and ignore it. What’s the worst that would have happened? They would have pushed on down the road to the Motel 6. Or, at the very worst, spent the night in their car.

The doorbell rang again and again; whoever was standing out there was not about to give up and leave.

I opened the door.

It was a young man, not more than a teenager, really, and he looked dead on his feet. He was not bad looking but his outfit wasn’t up to much – rough homespun linen pants and shirt, leather boots like the peasants wear. Lovely hair, though – glossy black like Herschel’s. When he had hair, that is.


“I’m sorry to trouble you, Ma’am,” he said, “but do you have a room for my wife and myself? We’ve come all the way from Nazareth to register for the census.”

“Have you booked?”

He shook his head.

“No. We had hoped to stay with my relatives but they’re overrun with guests and there’s no room.”

“Well, there’s no room here either. I’m sorry.”

I went to shut the door but he put his arm out and kept it from closing.

“Please, I’m sorry to have to say this, but my wife is ready to drop. She can’t go another foot. She’s fainted twice already.”

It was then that I looked out past the young man to where his wife was waiting for him. I got such a shock. I’d expected to see her passed out in the front seat of their car, exhausted from the trip. Instead, what I saw was a girl on a donkey. Yes, you heard me right – a donkey. And not only that: she was pregnant.

“My wife is with child,” he said.

“She’s more than with child,” I told him. “She looks ready to hatch.”

He nodded. “She’s been having pains all day. . . they’re closer together now. I’m afraid she’ll be giving birth any moment.”

He waited. Obviously, he expected me to do something, now that I saw the situation. And if I’d had an extra room, I’d have given it to them, even without a reservation. But we were full, we had the old couple in the front room and the granddaughter on a mat in the kitchen. There was, quite simply, no room.

And here’s where I think I should be congratulated, instead of vilified as I have been. It occurred to me that the shed in the back garden, where we kept our cow and a couple of goats, was warm enough this time of year. It was against the Innkeeper’s Act, letting people stay in a shed without all the proper amenities, but these people were desperate.

“I can let you have the outbuilding in back,” I said. “I won’t charge you. The girl will bring you some blankets and a bucket of water so you can do your – well, you know.”

Again, he nodded. He was too tired to say more than thank you, but I think he was close to tears. Well, that’s all right, then. Sometimes it does you good to do a good deed. Herschel is always saying that and I suppose he’s right.

I woke Gertie up and gave her instructions to take a couple of blankets and towels out to the shed, and told her to fill the water bucket and take that, too. At the last minute I handed her a couple of pillows.

“Give them these,” I said. “The young woman is going to need them.”

I switched off the “Vacancy” sign and went to bed. By the time I got around to checking out the shed in the morning they were gone, donkey and all. And that was the last I thought of it until three weeks ago, when the posts started showing up on Facebook.

“No room at the inn says heartless hotel owner.”

“Son of God born in lowly manger – shepherds abandon flocks.”

“Little Drummer Boy plays for newborn – I cannot stop watching this video!”

And the worst one, from my personal point of view: “Lock her up! Share now if you think the innkeeper should be publicly shamed.”

Business is down, as you can imagine. Yesterday alone we had six cancellations. The Rabbi crosses the street when he sees me coming, the butcher suggests I look elsewhere for chopped liver.

And so my friends this is my final post. I’m deleting my Facebook account, and selling the inn. Herschel is suggesting a move to Pompeii. They have an abundance of tourists and a shortage of hotel rooms. And I’ve always wanted to see Mount Vesuvius.