Listen to this article

The gears strained against the stalwart brakes, and grinding in defiance, the big rig slowed. Jake coxed the steering wheel gently to the right, and eased his truck onto the Cloverleaf off ramp. He’d been driving west on Interstate 40 for days now, beginning before dawn and stopping for cat naps in rest stops and truck stops.

He needed a decent shower, a Texas-sized steak with barbeque beans, a couple of beers, and a good night’s sleep in a decent motel. He didn’t have far to go. A new Traveler’s Express was just off the ramp. He passed the motel and spotted an empty alleyway behind the motel. He turned left at the next intersection. There he turned left again, onto the wide unpaved alleyway, bordering an empty lot behind the motel.

Skillfully he parked his rig in the very back of the motel’s parking lot and far from the entrance. Though the parking lot was basically empty, he knew that it would fill up soon and was too tired to hear complaints about his rig taking up space. The motor quieted, Jake opened the door, hopped down out of the seat and onto the pavement. With one arm, he pulled a back-pack out from behind his seat and slammed the door shut. Keys in his pocket, he walked towards the entrance, took off his cap, and slicked down his hair with his free hand. Never could tell who might be behind the counter.

A couple was checking in; he waited. Probably retired, going to a graduation or spring wedding. Only other travelers on the road excepting for us truckers, a few businessmen here and there, he thought.

“I’ll be right with you,” a middle-aged woman smiled at him.

“Now are you sure you don’t have a dog? We don’t allow any pets here, especially dogs.” She pointed to a sign on the counter: NO PETS ALLOWED

“No, we don’t have a dog.” The man was clearly exasperated.

“Well, if we find out you have a dog, there’ll be consequences. To start with we charge double the rate and you will be asked to leave.” Her voice was firm with authority. She finally handed them a card to their room. “Consequences.”

“Now how can I help you?” she asked Jake.

“A room, a room for the night. Queen-sized bed, if you have one.”

“Do you have a dog?”

“No, Mam, no dog. Gave up, long ago, traveling with a dog.” Though it was true, he could tell, she wasn’t going to be easily satisfied with his answer. He was going to have to hear her out.

“Well, I have to ask, you see. That couple checking in?” She nodded her head in the direction that they had gone. “Yesterday, another couple, just like them. Told me they didn’t have a dog, snuck one in, anyway, and I had to answer complaints about some dog barking all night. They left early, before my shift. When I checked their room, I smelled dog pee in the bathroom. It was all over the floor, the rug too. Had to sanitize the whole room. Won’t be able to use it for at least a couple of days. ” She paused, “Credit or cash?” He handed her his credit card.

Waiting for the receipt to print, he changed the conversation “Is there a place close by where I can get something to eat, grab a beer? A place I can get my hands on a good steak?”

“Right across the road. Take the back hotel exit. Best steak house in Texas, if you ask me, even if it’s the only one in town.” She handed him the receipt and smiled,” You’re on the ground floor, Room 112.”

“Thank you,” he smiled.

“You’ll let me know if you see any dogs?”

“Yes, Mam,” he answered.

He walked to his room, unpacked his few belongings, undressed and took a long hot shower. The warm water running down his body, soothed his sore muscles and, with the help of a bottle of hotel shampoo, unmatted the oily, strands of hair that had been clinging to the top of his head for the last two days.

Finally, his skin shriveled, he turned the water off, dried, dressed, and headed out the back exit door as the manager had directed. Without warning, the smell of barbecue overcame his senses, and his stomach answered with a demanding growl. In less than five minutes he was facing the restaurant.

The words, TEXAS STEAK HOUSE, were etched onto a front window. It was encircled with a large steer, a cowboy hat and spurs. He pushed the door open and stepped into a spirited room. The voices and laughter flowed over him from a near-by dining room, lively and vivacious. A bar tender in the next room looked up at him and went back to wiping the bar. Jake spotted the “Specials” board by the cash register. He didn’t bother reading the selections. He knew exactly what he wanted.

As he removed his hat, he was greeted by the hostess behind the cash register.

“Right this way,” she guided him to a table for two. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and her gray eyes were friendly and pleasant. “Is this okay? Or would you rather be at the bar?” she asked.

“This is fine,” he answered.

“Your waitress will be right with you.” Before he could say anything, she walked away. One of the local families had entered the restaurant. “Birthday party?” he overheard her ask. Not waiting for an answer, she guided the group of five toward an adjacent room.

Distracted, he hadn’t noticed as a waitress approached his table. “Sorry, we’ve been busy tonight. Birthday party. Been celebrating all day.”

She smiled down on him, handed him a menu.

He could tell by the lines on her face and her thick waist that she was older than the hostess. Her hair was brown, streaked with pale yellow strands and guessed that she was in her forties.

“Don’t need to see a menu.” He returned her smile. “I want your largest steak with French fries and a salad with extra Ranch dressing.”

“Something to drink?”

“Beer, what’s on draft is fine. A tall, cold glass too.”

“Been a long day?”

“Been a long week,” He smiled.

“I’ll be right back.” She picked up the menu as she wrote down his order on a small pad of lined paper.

While he was waiting for his beer, he noticed an older couple, probably in their eighties. They were standing in between the two rooms, stationary and stiff. The man wore circle glasses, the top of his head was bald except for a semi-circle of gray-white hair, and his face was round and wrinkled. With both hands he held a silver tray with a dome cover.

The woman standing next to him wore her hair in a gray streaked bun, and the same circle-style glasses framed her gray blue eyes. She held a pitcher in one hand and glass in the other, as if ready to serve a customer. Their bodies were shaking slightly, and the smiles they wore were strained, but eagerly friendly. A funny shaped dog sat in between where they stood. Its tongue was hanging in amusement.

It took him a minute to realize that they weren’t real, but some kind of animated characters. Creepy was the word that came to mind.

When the waitress brought his beer, he asked her about the display.

“Aren’t those something?” she said. “There’s a guy in town, used to work for one of those fantasy parks out in LA. Makes them to sell. He works out of his family’s car repair garage. He sold one last week for $1200. $1200 for each one. You just plug them in.” He saw the plugs in the outlets and the attached cords peeking out from behind the three characters.

“That’s something you don’t see everyday,” he answered. “Too realistic for me.”

The steak turned out to be fantastic, thick and juicy. The beans were the best he had had in a long time, and he ended his meal with a piece of homemade pie. He paid his bill, and grabbed a packet of toothpicks as he left.

“Thank you for coming in,” said the hostess closing the register drawer.

“Come visit us again, next time you’re out this way.”

“You can bet on that,” he answered.

Jake walked outside and noticed the sky turning into a dusky shade of evening. Silently, he crossed the street; the only sounds were the monotonous cadence of cicadas in a lonely, old tree near the road and the hum of cars from the Interstate. He recognized a man in the empty lot behind the motel. The man and his wife were the couple who checked in ahead of him. He was hiding something behind an area of thick brush.

When he saw Jake coming toward him, he brought his finger to his lips, as a quiet signal. He smiled, uncomfortably, as a small curly haired dog stepped out from behind the dry vegetation. It wore a designer collar around its neck and the leash, which the man held tightly in his hand, was studded with fake jewels.

Jake tipped his hat in recognition, but said nothing.

“Evening” the man said.

He started to say something, but Jake looked at him and said, “Not my business.”

The man smiled in relief.

Jake arrived at the back hotel entrance, swiped his hotel card, and found his room. He turned on the television, but fell asleep too soon. He had a good sleep that night and headed out the next morning.

Six months later, he was heading back toward the East Coast with another load and decided to stop at the same place. The closer he got to the Cloverleaf turnoff, the more his mouth started to water at the thought of that steak. He pulled into the same motel parking lot.

“Got a dog?” the same woman was at the check-in counter.

“No, dog, Mam,” he answered.

“Well, there’re consequences if you try to sneak one in.”

“No use for dogs. They don’t travel well.”

He was spared the rest of the conversation and found his room. He headed over to the restaurant and was seated at the same table. The waitress recognized him.

“You’re almost a regular,” she laughed.”I have a good memory, especially when it comes to generous tips.”

Waiting for his beer, his eyes were drawn toward an animated couple standing in between the two rooms of the restaurant. They were different than the first ones he had seen on his first visit. They looked so real, but he stretched his neck and saw the electric cords plugged into outlets. Must have sold the other ones. Business must be good, he thought. $1200 a piece.

Oddly, they looked familiar, very familiar. He stretched his torso to get a better look. Then he saw something at their feet, and recognized a small curly haired dog with a designer collar around its neck and jewel studded leash which the man held tightly in his hand.