The two Mikes from the Mobil next door crouched in the front corner of the QuickieMart, crowded against the glass between the magazine rack and the pay phone.
“Here he comes!” said Mike #1, stealing a look at me.
The gas station was dark, except for the icy glow of the lit Mobil sign. Somewhere in the back of the service bays a fluorescent work light threw dull squares of light through the roll-up doors. A lanky figure with long hair and a winter coat approached the garage door, arm extended.
“Fuckin’ Toby, man!” cackled Mike #2, covering his mouth with his fist.
Suddenly the gas station lot was blasted in light, and a horn whooped inside. Toby turned and ran on spindly legs, his flapping coat completing the impression of a terrified stork. The two gas station attendants whooped and slapped their knees.
“Did you see that? Oh my God! Fuckin’ Toby!” Mike #1 was holding his hand over his greasy heart.
“What the hell is that?” I made a face in the direction of the gas station. “Can you turn that racket off?”
“It goes off automatically after thirty seconds.” Mike #2 explained. As if to bear him out, the siren stopped. “See?”
“Jeez, man, you gave Toby a heart attack. What’d you do?”
“We hooked up a motion sensor to the alarm, and put it right up against the glass—he shouldn’t oughta bang on that glass. We’re always telling him, ‘Toby, don’t knock on the glass, we’re not gonna give you a quarter.’”
It was 11:15. I turned off the coffee machine.
Just then I had a sort of flashback, to second grade at the Horace Miller Grade School. The school was brick and the playground was covered in cracked gray asphalt. Toby was a gangly kid with glasses and a crooked smile; worn plaid shirts buttoned up to his neck; a sweet kid probably except that you never think like that in the second grade. I suppose he seemed like sort of a goof. Second grade or no, being a goof isn’t enough reason to trip a kid during a relay race, but someone did—Toby crashed head first into Horace Miller Grade School and sat holding his bloody face, twisted glasses in his lap. He was trying not to cry, but he was hurt pretty bad and he couldn’t help it. He was trying to smile his crooked smile so no one would call him a baby, but it was more crooked than usual. The teacher tried to comfort him but like everyone else in the scene, Toby included, she had no idea what he needed. The teacher’s aide ran off to call an ambulance—you knew something was wrong when a woman ran that fast in a skirt. There was nothing for us to do but stand around with our hands in our back pockets, scuffing our shoes; wishing Toby would stop making that scared-dog sound, wishing we could get back to the race, wishing that Toby hadn’t cracked his head open on the brick wall of the school.
Fucking Toby, man. He didn’t wear glasses anymore, although he probably needed them. His eyes were too deep, as if someone pressed on them with their thumbs when he was a baby. He haunted North Main like a raindog.
* * *
“OK, you guys got to clear out, I’m closing.”
Mike #2 looked up from the Easy Rider he was leafing through.
“You close at twelve.”
“I’m closing now.”
“I’m gonna miss you after you get fired. Where we gonna hang out?”
“Come on, Mikey, don’t be thick. Junior here has got a hot date.” Mike #1 had poured himself a coffee in a Styrofoam cup. “He won’t forget his pals who cover for him, ain’t that right?”
“Come on, give me a break, guys.” I herded them towards the door. “I can’t make a cash drop until the door’s locked. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“At least tell us who she is…” Mike #1 tugged at his crotch.
“Just a friend. See ya.” I was trying to push the door shut so I could lock it.
“Hoo hoo!” crowed Mike #1.
“This used to be a good place…” complained Mike #2. I locked the door.
I made a large coffee, light and sweet, and flipped off the lights.
* * *
I walked south, softly calling Toby’s name. He wasn’t at Hay’s Carpet, and he wasn’t at Marshall’s; he wasn’t haunting any of the houses on North Main. On a whim I stole into the yard at Burt’s Greenhouse, and stopped and listened. They had a nasty German shepard that they left out at night, and I didn’t want to cross his path.
“Toby!” I whispered, as loud as I dared. I listened. “Toby!”
I heard the soft jingle of dog tags and froze. Shit. If I could make it out to the street without the dog getting his teeth in me, would he follow? I looked where the sound had come from, ten or twelve ornamental evergreens stacked in a circle, their root balls wrapped in dirty burlap. To my surprise, a head emerged from the branches, not a dog head, but a Toby head. I held up the coffee.
“You want some coffee?”
He nodded, and I made my way over to the fir trees and found an opening—it was like a lush green teepee. Toby sat on the ground, the dog beside him, his massive head on Toby’s lap. Toby accepted the coffee cup and pried off the lid, offering it to the dog, who sniffed and took a few dainty laps.
Toby squinted, and sipped cautiously at the coffee.
“They didn’t mean nothin’ with that alarm. It was just a joke.”
Toby stroked the dog’s head. The dog snorted, and Toby shook his head imperceptibly, and looked at me.
“Loud!” he said, eyes wide.