The online reviews for this motel and the part of the city it’s in are downright scary. But it’s the only low-priced room available in all of Phoenix, Arizona tonight.
We get the key card for our room.
The door swings open and we stare into the darkness, half expecting someone to jump out at us. No zombie lunges, no chainsaw roars, so I take the next step and reach around the corner to turn on the light.
Industrial grey carpet covers the floor and a sagging queen-size bed fills up half the room. The door shuts awkwardly behind us, catching on a bulge where it had at one time been forced open. By who and for what reason are questions I don’t want answers to.
Mr. Jones and I dump our bags on the bed and unhook Dog’s leash, and leaving our shoes on, forge ahead to check out the bathroom.
The sink is cracked and the shower curtain is worn, but other than that, it looks usable. A small relief.
As I turn to walk back across the carpet, my eye catches the irregular shape of a large, dark stain right in the middle of the room. There’s a series of smaller, rounder stains forming a line straight toward me. I suddenly feel like we’re in one of those TV crime shows—we just need jackets with acronyms and latex gloves to complete the scene.
Something unsavoury happened in this room.
With this realization, we do what anyone else would have done. We leave.
I don’t mean for good—there’s nowhere else to go—but just for a bit, so we spend as little time here as possible.
Dog gets hooked back on his leash and we distract ourselves with a walk to the convenience store a short block away. There, we’ll be able to console ourselves with carbs and sugar.
Dog attracts attention
We cross the motel parking lot and a woman in a very short skirt and very high heels stops us to pet Dog. “You’re so beautiful!” she announces and then kisses him, leaving bright pink lipstick on his head. Dog wags his tail in his signature plumage wave; grateful, as always, for any level of attention.
We pass a fenced-off lot and a building that looks like it could be a nightclub, given the hefty man sitting on a stool at the side door. There’s no signage, except for a neon green light in the shape of a swoosh brightening up the night sky.
The next building is what we’re looking for, a 7-Eleven. There’s a tremendous amount of activity at the entrance. People are clustered together in small groups: some standing, others sitting on the edge of the concrete slab out front. Several are dressed in sweatpants and a few are in slippers and clothes that look a couple of sizes too big.
We decide Mr. Jones can go in first while I stay outside with Dog and wait my turn. Just as Mr. Jones reaches for the door, a man’s voice from inside the minivan right in front of us calls out, “Hey, what kind of dog is that?”
Mr. Jones turns back around and answers, “He’s a German Shepherd mix.”
“That sure is a bi-i-i-i-g dog! How much does he weigh?”
Mr. Jones stays to answer this and a few more questions about Dog coming from inside the vehicle.
Given the man’s level of interest in Dog, I venture, “Come out here and meet him.”
“Oh no, no, that’s alright.”
In my trademark risk-taking fashion, I offer a challenge. “You’re not scared, are you?”
My challenge is accepted. The man, who is short and perhaps in his late twenties, steps out of the vehicle with a slender woman in a tracksuit and a boy of about five.
They approach us, and Dog is ecstatic to meet new friends. He immediately asks all of them for pets, pressing into their legs. It doesn’t take long for him to win them over, and they run their fingers through his long, soft fur.
The boy spots another boy about his age and the two start off their own friend-making exchange.
Mr. Jones is now not only fielding questions from the short man about Dog, but also about where we’re from. He’s never talked to anyone from Canada. He wants to know how cold it is, what our political system is like and if there are any black people there. He’s curious, genuinely curious.
It strikes me that this is the first person we’ve met in a long time who’s more interested in finding out about us than in talking about himself.
Just hangin’ out
The convenience store entrance continues to buzz with activity. A long-haired man in a wheelchair enters my conversation with the slender woman by pointing at Dog and excitedly comparing him to the dog he had while growing up. It’s as if he’s transformed into the kid he once was as he describes how special this pet was to him. He has lots of stories to share.
The troupe makes its way toward our modest crowd and I can now read their signs: Jesus Saves, John 3:16, God Loves You.
We’re soon distracted by a small parade of people coming down the street. They’re holding placards, and a man with a megaphone is in the lead. The device adds static to his words, making them incomprehensible, but whatever they are, they’re loud and full of conviction.
The troupe makes its way toward our modest crowd and I can now read their signs: Jesus Saves, John 3:16, God Loves You. The paraders disperse among us.
One of their number, a heavily tattooed young man in a tank top, bends down and gives Dog a big hug. He tells our little group that he’s an ex-gang member who’s living a much better, happier life than he had before. He invites us to Sunday service at a church just a few blocks away.
When the troupe reassembles, he gives Dog one more hug and joins the parade as it continues further down the street, with megaphone-man still in the lead.
Mr. Jones is still answering questions and Dog keeps attracting attention.
A truck pulls up a few stalls away. The window rolls down. The short man from the minivan goes to the window, quickly gives something to whoever’s inside and gets something small in return. The window rolls back up and the truck drives away.
A few minutes later, the minivanners tell us it’s time for them to go. We’ve all enjoyed being together and wish each other well.
Dog’s work is done
Mr. Jones goes inside to pick up some drinks and snacks while Dog and I watch as the crowd thins out. We’ve been here for over an hour.
By the time Mr. Jones comes out of the store, it’s only the three of us left. We have no choice but to go back to the room we’ve been avoiding.
Just on the edge of the convenience store lot, a car with two men standing at either side is waiting in the dark.
“How much for the dog?” calls out one of the men.
“He’s not for sale,” I say, smiling. “He’s part of the family.”
My smile is not reciprocated.
The magic of the night is gone.
We quicken our steps and make it back to our room, with all of its disturbing elements.
As I lay my head on the flattened pillow, I’m strangely glad to be staying here. We’d felt something special tonight, something no one in those harsh online reviews had: a neighbourhood so full of energy, curiosity, passion, and a sense of community. We’d been temporarily accepted as members of the 7-Eleven crowd.
I give Dog a nod of gratitude before turning out the lights. It took an animal to do what humans on our own so often cannot.
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