Dorm rooms are squares more akin to coffins than living spaces. A coffin is useful immediately, whereas a living space takes time to create and mature.
My arrival at the dorm was the dropping of a soul into the desert. I knew no one. I had yet to develop the urge to explore. I brought no books, had no TV or writing machine. So I took to going down to the lobby and met the Dorm Mother.
Her name disappeared within days of the last time I sat with her to speak. She had incredibly white hair, glasses the Cleavers would have found stylish and arthritic hands that moved restlessly. I sat with her the night after my arrival and started a conversation. It didn’t take much. She went on about her daughters, her garden, Tupelo, the pains she endured daily, her husband pushed to work beyond retirement age and Tom Snyder.
She loved Snyder, watching him faithfully every night. She got home too late to catch Carson, she’d say, but then Carson said things she didn’t quite understand. Snyder—she always called him Snyder—spoke simply, made himself understood and his jokes always made her laugh.
I told her about Puerto Rico, which was the same as telling her about the Amazon, Nepal or Xanadu. She wasn’t slow or ignorant; it’s just that her world was a familiar wool blanket and mine was a cascade of clashing colors. She focused more on family and friends and seemed distressed that neither group was large in my life. She made up for it by telling me all about hers.
Several times I spent the last few hours of her shift with her, from early evening to late night. She asked me if I knew anybody or did anything; I shrugged. Several times, other lost souls would drift into the snack room and give me dirty looks because I was talking to her. I felt superior to them because I never gave dirty looks when the situation was reversed. I was too proud.
A couple of weeks into that first semester, the urge to explore hit me, a few tentative friendships were being established and books were piling up. I skipped a night, visited her again and then went no more.
Occasionally I’d see lost souls wander in, their attitudes changing as they saw her. A few weeks later, I passed through the lobby and we saw each other. She seemed more tired, stiffer and I thought she looked at me with a touch of anger.
She probably didn’t. That wasn’t her style. Nevertheless, my guilt was real.