Last year, my boyfriend and I were returning home from a holiday visit with family when we stopped for gas at a station in the middle of snowy-mountain nowhere. The store was dark inside and piled up with junk, and the locals all turned and looked at us like they knew we weren't from around there. There was a nervous pitbull sitting out front and a lazy cat sleeping on a post. It was surreal and spooky, and it stuck with me until I could finally write down this story.
His name was Elvis, and he was a good boy. The best boy, Papa often told him.
Elvis’ favorite things were warm cooked meat in the shiny dish, nap time with Mama and Baby on the couch, and when Papa took his leash off for long walks in the woods. He liked Tina, the gray tabby who usually lazed on the old oil drum by Papa’s storefront. He liked suntime more than nighttime, but nighttime was okay sometimes. Especially when the faraway-dogs sang their strange songs at the moon. Elvis liked to sit out in the backyard and listen. He liked their strangeness.
Elvis used to like the strangers who came to Papa’s gas station, but not anymore. They used to be exciting to him, with their new smells, and the way they would pat his head as they walked inside the store. They’d say, “Who’s a good boy?” and smile. Elvis knew the answer to that question, but he would wag his tail and pretend not to know just so they’d tell him again.
That was when he was still a pup. He hadn’t learned yet that the coming of strangers was often followed by the bad sounds.
Strangers came by so rarely that it took Elvis a long time to make this connection. But now he knew. Elvis knew that when the strangers parked their cars at the tanks, they’d soon come up to the store. They’d pat his head, and then they’d go inside, their wallets already in hand. But when they got inside Papa’s store–always half dark, always piled up with old and broken things–they’d wind up talking with Papa and his friends. And then Papa and his friends would give the strangers bad hugs and drag them screaming screaming screaming to the room underneath the floor.
Elvis wasn’t allowed in the room underneath the floor, and he was glad. That was where the loud tooth monster lived. The same awful, mean thing that chewed through trees for Papa. But the trees didn’t scream like strangers did. They didn’t cry and beg, and they didn’t need to be surrounded by Papa’s friends. Elvis loved Papa more than most anything, but he didn’t like to be around Papa when the strangers came.
When the strangers came now, Elvis would pace nervously by the storefront. He’d watch them put the gas in their cars, and he’d wish to God they could understand him.
Go away! he’d whine. You’ll wake up the monster! Go away before it’s too late!
He’d look to Tina for reassurance. Tina never seemed bothered by anything.
No sense getting worked up, she told him once. She was a few years older than Elvis, and he thought she must be the wisest animal in the world. The strangers weren’t here before. They come. Then they’re not here again. What’s the difference?
But Elvis worried all the same. He wished he could go nap with Mama and Baby up at the house, but Papa always wanted him to stay out front and guard.
At least, Elvis thought, it never lasted very long. The screaming would stop after a while. He’d hear Papa and his friends talking and laughing like nothing scary had happened. Then Papa’s friends would leave, carrying big packages wrapped in paper. They’d get in their trucks and drive away.
Then it would be quiet. Elvis could go up to the house with Papa and his own paper packages. Mama would make supper like always, except that on these nighttimes, Elvis would get extra meat. Because I was a good boy today.
After supper, Elvis would go outside and sit in the yard. Give himself time to shake off the bad feelings. He’d look at the moon and listen to the faraway-dogs sing their strange songs, and he’d feel all right again.
He was a good boy. The best boy. Papa said so, and that was all that mattered.