First to go was the Indian restaurant off exit 291-A. India House, it was called. It was attached to the Gas-n-Go and owned by an old Indian couple who had bought the gas station a decade earlier and built the restaurant with the profits. We all gave the Gas-n-Go plenty of business, but we never ate at the restaurant, which was usually deserted and smelled vaguely like diesel, and we never bought the samosas the couple stocked by the milk in the cooler, because we weren’t sure if you heated them up or ate them cold and were too embarrassed to ask. If we wanted Indian food, we went two towns over to India Palace, where the waiters brought you a hot towel that they lifted off a hammered-brass plate with tongs and dropped gently into your hands.
India House occupied a long, green, wood-shingled building behind the Gas-n-Go’s red pumps and looked more like a barn than an eating establishment. You entered through a side entrance or, more directly, through the Gas-n-Go itself — the obvious choice, since you couldn’t see India House’s entrance from the gas pumps, and the Gas-n-Go was brightly lit. In the rare event that a person wanted to eat at the restaurant, the Indian couple doubled as waitress and cook, the wife grabbing menus and shuffling to the hostess stand, the husband ducking into the kitchen to heat the rice and aromatic, pre-prepared dishes. All of us wondered who India House’s customers were — travelers looking for a decent roadside meal, we assumed, though wouldn’t most people be in too much of a hurry to wait for table service? Filling our tanks at the pump, we jokingly speculated that the restaurant might be a drug front. The couple, however, seemed too weary to be involved in such activities: her stooped behind the cash register, graying hair pulled into a loose bun, red forehead dot a little off-center to avoid a small mole where the dot should go; him with his faded mustache cropped close to his thin upper lip. Nephews newly arrived from India shuttled in and out, working the cash register and stocking the dusty shelves with Hostess cakes and heavy bags of basmati rice, but they never stayed more than a year. Each time we stopped for milk or scratch-off tickets, the couple seemed a little more stooped, a little older. The minimart and restaurant grew dustier and more run-down along with them.
So when India House closed, we weren’t surprised. The blue highway sign still advertised the restaurant, and once we saw angry travelers in the minimart, asking when it had shut its doors, telling the owners they should really look into taking the sign down, the woman listening, nodding, apologizing, looking a little wearier. We stood in line behind the travelers and waited our turn, shooting her sympathetic looks as her head sank lower and lower, the pale crescent of her scalp setting like a slivered moon in the western sky. We felt smug then, in the know, patient, not pushy or obnoxious. Not the sort of people who would harass a poor old Indian woman.
Three months after the restaurant went out of business, the Gas-n-Go closed, too. A sign hung in the window, scrawled in smudged pencil: “Back in five minutes.” The first time we saw the sign, we rattled the locked door tentatively, then hard enough to slap the welcome bell against the glass, but no one came. Inside, a styrofoam cup of tea cooled on the counter, the tea bag’s string wet and brown. The register’s numbers, twin zeros, glowed green. When we came back five hours later and the sign was still in the window, we worried that perhaps the couple were inside, injured. We went around back, but that door was locked, too. Pressing our mouths to cupped hands against the door, we called to them, but no responding groan came from within. The shelves were stocked, and, as far as we could see, the store’s interior looked normal, but the place had an emptiness we couldn’t explain. We didn’t know what to do. Finally we bought our gas from the automated pump, which for the time being still accepted credit cards, and drove back to our houses, scattered haphazardly beside the highway like seeds flung by a careless hand. Days passed. We considered calling the fire department, but what would we say? The place didn’t smell, as we imagined it would if the couple were dead inside, and the minimart was private property, even if it felt public.
Then the supermarket shut down. For renovations, supposedly, which made sense, because Price Chopper had always been considered a second-rate supermarket, not nearly as nice as the Whole Foods in Denfield, a town large enough to warrant three exits to our puny one. (The 291-A suggested there would be a 291-B, but there was none.) The gleaming rows of produce — red beets and yellow peppers and green cabbages wet from the automated mister and shining like Christmas ornaments — gave Whole Foods the competitive edge. Its cheese counter featured foreign cheeses wrapped in paper, tied up with red string, or netted in pale webbing. Price Chopper’s cheese counter was a shelf in the dairy section that held individually wrapped slices of American cheese. The most exotic product you could buy there was sharp cheddar. So we were kind of excited when the bulldozers tore up the parking lot. But then the big machines just sat there, waiting. For what, we didn’t know. Warmer weather?
Our town was split in half by the highway and without a center. Sparse trees dotted the land, and our houses studded the area just beyond the exit on a flat plain prone to winds that tore through, kicking up a choking fog of dirt before miraculously disappearing, like a genie snapping his fingers and, poof, wishing himself out of the world. DUST STORMS MAY EXIST, yellow highway signs said, and their too-tentative formulation made us laugh and shake our heads when we passed.
Besides the gas station, the shuttered India House, and the torn-up supermarket, we had a bank — First National of Denfield — a Bickford’s, whose waitresses served food with comforting efficiency; and three shops: a ninety-nine-cent store, a pharmacy, and a florist/comic-book store called Roses, Etc. (the “Etc.” being the comic books, we assumed). Adolescent boys browsed the comics, and men bought the roses by the dozen for anniversaries or apologies. Funeral arrangements were the florist’s specialty. No one got married in town. Weddings took place elsewhere.
Because we lacked a traditional gathering place like a town square, a church, or a post office — we used blue postal drop boxes to mail letters and bought stamps at Price Chopper, when it was still open — most of us knew each other only by car. Oh, there’s that ’87 Buick with the duct-taped exhaust pipe, we might think, driving past Bickford’s, and feel some small sense of community. We sometimes longed for the trappings of a real town — and here we imagined a stately brick courthouse with a wide green lawn, the town’s historical-society offices tucked in the basement; a quaint, clapboard church, white steeple visible from the highway; a post office run by a kindly old postmaster who would deliver our mail even if the sender wrote only our name, town, and state. Living in such a town would change our interior lives, we imagined; furnish them with the safety we remembered from our childhoods or, prompted by television, dreamed we did. We would become people who nodded to each other on the street and asked after the health of failing aunts, who brought turkeys and homemade cranberry sauce to the poorer members of the community on Thanksgiving, who left a Bickford’s waitress down on her luck a fifty-dollar tip hidden beneath our stained place mats. We would be better. We wouldn’t be so lonely.
About the time the bulldozers halted work, a flyer appeared on telephone poles around town. The first copies were affixed with Scotch tape and soon blew away, but then new ones were stapled to the poles, and there they remained, growing dirty and tattered. The flyer was written by a poor speller with a tilted hand, so that the words seemed ready to slide off the page, as if pulled by gravity. “BIG REWARD” topped the flyer, enclosed by a jagged-edged circle, much as “blow-out sale” might be.
- Tan pitbull
- Male, 50 pds., 1 yr. old, gentle and playfull
- Long tail, flopy ears, white streek on nose
- Very larg head
- Answers to Pelito, Gerrr, or Fat Head
- He is a good boy
It was this last bulleted item that got us: “He is a good boy.” It turned the flyer from a fact sheet into a plea for fairness, for mercy; a plea we worried wouldn’t be heard. We wondered about that dog, suspected he might have been hit by a car, or else stolen by dog fighters who would turn him from a sweet, domesticated creature who answered to “Pelito” into a scared, beaten animal, muzzled and whipped and forced to fight to the death. Would they even give him a name? We hoped he’d been found, considered calling the number listed on the flyers to ask. Out for walks on warmer nights, we scanned the road for Pelito, calling softly for him.
Gradually, as though some agreement had been reached that the telephone poles would be the town bulletin boards, new flyers appeared for other lost pets: a puppy with a piece missing from his ear; a cat who needed kidney medication and had to be found within the week; an iguana named Iggy Pop, last seen in the Price Chopper parking lot. Flyers covered flyers until the telephone poles bulged and it seemed all the town pets had picked up and left in a massive caravan. The original flyer remained, not papered over by others. People left that one alone.
We didn’t feel real alarm until we got the news that First National of Denfield had decided to consolidate branches, which meant our bank would be replaced by an automated teller machine: a lighted glass enclosure in the middle of a long stretch of cracked cement. Conducting banking business at night made customers look like the lonely figures in an Edward Hopper painting. When we withdrew money after dark, we felt watched. We’d shade our eyes — foolishly, because of course it didn’t help — and look into the darkness beyond the ring of light cast by the streetlamps First National had erected in a circle around the ATM. We felt there was something moving out there, just at the periphery of what we could see: A desperate meth-head who had emerged from the shacks out on the plain? Feral dogs? Ghosts? We didn’t know. We kept catching motion at the edge of our vision, but when we swept our eyes over the landscape, we saw nothing.
Then boom, boom, boom, the stores fell like dominoes. Without the Gas-n-Go to anchor the town, and with the grocery store and the bank gone, the rest couldn’t hold. The pharmacy shut one day and never reopened. Armored trucks were seen emptying it. Bickford’s ran a franchise-for-sale ad in the Denfield paper, and, seeing what was coming, the waitresses quit, followed by the cook. Without them, the place couldn’t run. The ninety-nine-cent store hung an orange banner in the window that read, GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! EVERYTHING MUST GO! A week later its windows were dark. Two weeks later they were smashed. Roses, Etc. limped along the longest, but within the month, it, too, closed.
The flyers multiplied anarchically, spreading like weeds wherever a place had been vacated. They plastered the boarded-up shop windows and shrouded the buildings’ awning-sheltered walls. People hung notices of lost bicycles, pleas for work. Eerily these were joined by a flyer for a missing exchange student: Alex Chen, nineteen, his hair shaved into a mohawk. The blurry, photocopied photograph gave the impression of a boy who might vanish while you looked at him, like salt dissolving in water, leaving only a cloudy film.
Travelers almost never turned off the highway anymore. It was as though they could sense that something was wrong with the town. When they did, they’d swipe their credit cards, discover the pumps were empty, and take off. Crops wilted, wheat and cornstalks drooping, fields going unharvested. Our neighbors’ houses were dark. On vacation, we told ourselves, until, standing on our porches at night, we could see hardly any lights. It began to seem as if we lived at the bottom of a canyon rather than in a town. Driving around after dark, we might see a few lit windows, but they grew rarer and rarer, one after another blinking out. The strange thing was, none of the houses had FOR SALE signs. They appeared to have just been abandoned. We’d call the one or two families whose numbers we knew, and the phone would ring and ring, or the answering machine or voice mail would pick up. We wouldn’t leave a message, and they’d never call back. We took to thumbing through the phone book and trying numbers at random. Every so often a voice would answer, faltering and tentative or projecting a hollow confidence. We’d want to invite the person on the other end of the line over for coffee, ask them what the hell was happening, but a panic would grip us, and we’d hang up. The next time we called, a telephone-company recording would say the number had been changed or disconnected.
And then we left. Unexpectedly at night, the loneliness and fear growing too much, or in the daytime, pretending our departure was temporary so as not to attract the attention of whatever it was that seemed to be swallowing us up. We loaded our cars, and we left. As we drove out of town, birth certificates stuffed into glove boxes, perishable goods in the trunk, we thought we spotted that tan pit bull, the one with the large head and floppy ears, eating grass by the exit ramp. We thought maybe we should pick him up and go back, if only to return him to his owner. We slowed down, leaned out the window, and called, “Hey, boy! Hey, Pelito!” But he bolted away from the highway and loped into the plains, running with a slight limp, until his figure blended with the fields of dying corn, and the shadowed rows grew still.