The first time I said it aloud, I felt free. The words rolled out of my mouth like birds released from a cage. I was standing in a seedy motel room in front of my dog. I said it again, “My husband is dead.”
My dog wagged her tail.
“That’s right,” I said to her, petting the top of her head. “Dead, gone, forgotten.”
The only glitch was that my husband, Johnny, was very much alive and most likely trying to track me down. When I left L.A., I not only took all his money, I took his dog, too. Dolly, a small mutt with curly brown hair and pointy ears, was just a puppy when I met Johnny, so I figured she was as much mine as his. Probably more since I was the one who fed her, bathed her, and cleaned up her shit.
I scooped Dolly into my arms and cradled her like a baby. “You’re the only good thing I got out of marrying that man.”
I’d made plenty of bad decisions in my life, but Johnny had to be the worst one of all. We got married only two weeks after we’d met. Now, six years later, I was almost thirty-two and on the run from a man who smacked me way too many times. I should’ve left him long ago.
I put Dolly on the bed. She pressed her nose into various spots, inhaled with interest, and settled into a ball between the pillows. I sat down next to her and counted my cash. I had stopped by the bank that morning and cleared out our account. Seven hundred dollars seemed like a good amount at the time, but after buying a bus ticket to Fresno, some food along the way, and paying for two nights in the motel, I could see it wouldn’t last long. But I only needed enough to get to Boise. I had a few old friends there . . . folks Johnny didn’t know about. One of them would help me start over. That was my plan anyway.
We both napped. Dolly’s gentle, rhythmic snoring distracted me from my worries. But then I dreamed about Johnny and his temper and the way it felt when he squeezed my neck with his huge hands. I woke up to Dolly licking my face. She let out a yelp, jumped off the bed, and sat by the door.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll go in a minute.” I recounted my money, put a twenty in my pocket, and hid the rest under the mattress. Dolly watched, her tail thumping on the floor, as I tucked my short, dark hair into a black baseball cap and put on a gray sweatshirt.
Outside, the sun was fading. The motel seemed deserted except for a few cars parked in front of some of the rooms. There were three old bicycles locked to a bike rack outside the motel office. A chalkboard on the wall said: “Bikes for Rent.” From where I was standing, it looked like all six tires were flat.
As Dolly and I walked across the parking lot to some bushes, I noticed a man in a wheelchair coming out of a room. A moment later, he was rolling down the sidewalk in my direction. He had long gray hair, a bushy beard, and wore a blue hat with Vietnam Veteran embroidered on the front.
“Cute pup,” the man said, getting closer than I liked.
The man snapped his fingers near his knee. “Com’ere Pup.” He made kissing noises. Dolly approached. She sniffed his hand and wagged her tail. Dolly was a good judge of character — she never liked Johnny very much — so if she thought the man was okay, I did too.
“Mind if I walk with y’all?” The man patted the wheels on his wheelchair and laughed at his own joke.
I did mind, sort of, but I didn’t want to be rude. “Okay. Sure.”
I walked at a moderate pace and the man rolled along beside me. We chatted about the weather, and he said something about how hot it had been a few weeks prior. I nodded, not wanting to mention that I’d only just arrived. At the end of the driveway, next to an old neon sign that read Driftwood Motel, I stopped and asked, “Do you know if there’s a market nearby?”
“Down the street.” The man pointed to his left. “Crappy convenience store, but they got the basics.”
“That’s all I need.”
The man eyed me. He seemed nice, concerned actually. “You married?”
My heart skipped a beat. I almost said yes, then I remembered. “My husband’s dead.” It was my first time saying it to another human being.
“Sorry to hear that. You’re a young widow.”
I once read an article entitled “How to Tell a Convincing Lie.” It said to provide as little information as possible, give few details. So I made a somber face and said simply, “I know.”
The man turned his wheelchair around. “Walk to the corner and go left. Market’s right there. Can’t miss it.”
“Great. Thanks.” I sensed he wanted to get away from me, as if my being a widow made him uncomfortable.
The next morning, I saw him again. We waved but didn’t speak.
It rained that afternoon. When it stopped, I took Dolly outside. As we left our room, a young girl walked by us. She had frightfully pale skin, tattoos, and pierced eyebrows. Dolly sniffed at her, but the girl didn’t seem to notice. I watched her move unsteadily down the walkway. As she neared the office, the motel manager came outside wearing a coat over her nightgown.
“Goddamnit!” she said, grabbing the girl’s arm. “Get the hell out of here, you lousy piece o’ white trash!”
The tattooed girl fell against the soda machine and slumped to the ground.
The manager kicked her foot. “Oh no you don’t. How many times I gotta tell you to quit hanging out around here? You and them drug-dealing friends o’ yours. Next time I’ll call the police, I swear I will!”
The girl struggled to get up. I could tell, even from a distance, how wasted she was. It made me sad. I watched her stagger away. She stepped off the sidewalk into the street. A car careened toward her, breaks screeching. It skidded on the wet pavement and came to a stop only a few feet from the girl. The driver got out and shouted at her, but she moved on, apparently unfazed by the fact she had almost been killed. Part of me felt I should go to her, see if she needed help. But I didn’t. I had enough of my own problems.
The motel manager went back toward her office. When she saw me, she waved. “Oh, hello,” she said pleasantly, as if we hadn’t just watched somebody narrowly escape death. “I been meaning to ring your room.”
“Oh?” I said. “What about?”
“Just want to make sure you got everything you need. Room’s okay?”
“Yes, it’s fine. Thanks.” I started to walk away.
“Hold on there,” the manager said, her voice slightly less pleasant. She came toward me. “Just reminding you, you got one more night paid for, so if you ain’t leavin’, you need to bring in more money.” The manager had made me pay upfront because I had no drivers license or credit card. At least none I could use with the fake name I’d given.
“I’m not sure when I’m leaving. Can I let you know tomorrow?” I didn’t have a plan yet, and Fresno seemed as good a place as any to hide for a few more days while I figured out the best way to get up to Boise.
The manager crossed her arms. “I suppose. Come in by noon, else the room goes to another guest.” She made it sound like there was a waiting list. “And don’t let that dog piss on the rug.”
“Don’t worry. She’s well trained.”
The manager frowned. “I doubt that.”
Dolly let out a low-throated growl, as if she knew she’d been insulted, and lunged. The leash slipped from my hand, and Dolly took off. The manager scurried into the office and slammed the door.
“Dolly,” I said. “Get back here!”
But Dolly ignored me. She ran around the building, so I had to run after her. The gate to the pool area was open, and something in there caught Dolly’s attention. I followed her into the courtyard.
There was a little boy sitting by the pool with his feet in the murky water. His face lit up at the sight of my curly-haired dog. Dolly trotted over and sat down in front of him.
The boy looked up at me. “Is this your dog?”
I nodded. “Her name’s Dolly.”
The boy put his face close to Dolly’s. She licked his cheeks. He giggled.
“She sure seems to like you,” I said.
“I love dogs.”
“Me, too.” I sat on the edge of the pool near the boy and watched him pet Dolly. I had a soft spot for children. “Why are you out here all alone?”
“My mom’s busy.”
“Uh-huh. In our room. She has a visitor. But when they’re finished visiting, we’re going to get pizza. Do you like pizza?”
“Sure do. I think everyone does.” I wanted to touch the boy’s brown hair, smooth his cowlick, put my hand on his rosy cheek. “Isn’t it too cold to have your feet in the pool?”
The boy shrugged and took his feet out of the water. They were tinged blue. I pulled off my gray sweatshirt and wrapped them in the warm fabric. The boy smiled at me. One front tooth was missing. He reminded me of a Norman Rockwell painting.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sandra.” I gave him my real name without even thinking. “What’s yours?”
I squeezed Ricky’s feet and hated his mother for sending him outside alone while she turned tricks in some crappy motel room. I wished I could take him to my room, let him watch TV and play with Dolly, make him a snack. “How long have you been out here?”
The boy raised one shoulder. “I don’t know.”
“How old are you?”
“No kidding! Dolly is your exact same age.”
“Really.” I was falling in love with him. Why couldn’t he belong to me? I’d take much better care of him.
Ricky wrapped his arms around Dolly. I thought she might squirm out of his grasp, but she didn’t budge.
“I wish I could have a dog,” Ricky said. “Someday me and my mom are gonna get a house with a backyard. Then I can get a dog.”
I hoped it was true. Ricky deserved it. That was what I had wanted when I married Johnny. A little house with a little yard and a little dog. At least I got the dog. “I hope that happens for you real soon.”
“Yeah. My mom says . . .” he stopped mid sentence and looked past me toward the motel building.
I glanced over my shoulder. A disheveled looking man with a suit coat over his arm walked out of a second floor room and headed down the stairs.
“I have to go now.” Ricky stood and handed me my jacket. “Thanks for letting me pet Dolly.”
“You’re nice,” Ricky said.
“So are you.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Maybe,” I said, although I was pretty sure he wouldn’t.
A girl came out of the room on the second floor and waved at Ricky. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen, a child herself. I didn’t hate her anymore.
“Bye,” Ricky said, giving Dolly one more pat on the head. He ran toward his mother without looking back.
I felt a pang of loneliness. I watched Ricky climb the stairs. His mother put a hand on his head as he walked through the doorway. The door closed, and Ricky was gone.
That night, as Dolly and I snuggled in bed together, I decided it was time to move on. Too many lost souls, dead dreams, and sad people drifting in and out of this place.
We left the next morning before the sun came up. I sat on the bus with Dolly in my lap and looked out the window. As the bus rolled out of the station and headed toward the highway, I leaned my forehead on the cold glass and watched the neon lights that said Driftwood Motel flicker and fade away.
(Editor: Steve Beisner)