"We should find a fancy RV park tonight," Mom decreed from the driving throne. "One of those real ritzy joints with showers and laundry, where all the residents pay taxes. Maybe we can even find somewhere with wifi..." Thinking about wifi made her sigh like someone in love.
I checked out the window to make sure I wasn't missing anything. There was nothing between me and Utah except a bunch of rocks and prickle bushes. "Where are we going to find a fancy place like that in the middle of all this nothing?" I asked.
"Nonsense! I'm sure there are plenty of places." She called on the Witch to back her up. Mom's goo-goo eyes hardened in disagreement as she poked at the secret message on the Witch's screen. Eventually, she hit the shut-up button and sighed. "I guess we're going to Reno."
"You will arrive at two twenty-three PM," the Witch added smugly.
"Sounds exciting! What's Reno famous for?"
"It used to be where you would go to get a divorce, back when divorces were illegal everywhere else," Mom said, like a divorce was a bad thing instead of her biggest achievement.
"Romantic! Sounds like the perfect place to meet ladies who are looking for a handsome man-dog that's always happy to see them and doesn't tell them how to drive." My tail wiggled just thinking about it.
As the exits got closer together, so did the trucks. Except for the car-house, it seemed like every car in Reno was a truck.
On a billboard beside the highway, a lonely lady in an itty-bitty-teeny-weeny-bikini pouted as if to say, C'mere big guy so I can scritch that belly. I was about to ask Mom what the words meant, but then a truck in the next lane blocked my view. Another truck was in front of that one, and by the time we passed them all, the lady was gone.
The car-house followed the next truck off the freeway and we rolled past buildings the size of boxed-up cities. Each passing building sucked in more trucks from the road, until finally we reached a truck kennel that was different from the others. "You have arrived," the Witch announced grandly.
Zillions of truck-houses lined up in orderly rows like proud soldiers, their pockets bulging with extra rooms. None of them had cement bricks for wheels, and the pavement underneath was pulled tight as a drum so that not one single stray leaf or grassy tuft poked through.
"Now this is the kind of place I was hoping for," Mom said as the car-house rolled to a stop in front of the kind of fountain you see outside a really fancy shopping mall. She looked in the mirror and tucked the escaped fur back under her hat before releasing the seat leash. "You wait here, I'm just going to get us a spot for the night."
In front of the nearest truck-house, Hulk Hogan and Chuck Norris stopped their conversation to watch Mom walk by. She waved. They looked at the car-house instead of waving back. Mom didn't seem to notice the staring as she bounded toward the building with a spring in her step. An invisible butler slid the door open for her, and she disappeared inside.
I slouched confidently in the driving chair to show the guys that this hot rod was all mine. When I was sure they were looking, I gave them the side eye that means, Your ladyfriends will be begging to rub my belly by dinnertime. Impressed, they went back to their conversation.
Before long, Mom stomped out of the building with smoke coming out of her ears. Or maybe it just looked that way because the stray hairs had escaped her hat again.
"Now what?" I asked. "Will we need to wait long for a kart to come guide us down the red carpet? Will there be trumpets? Confetti? Oh! Do you think they'll send the Popemobile?"
"They said the place was full. They wouldn't even let me pay for a shower!" Mom fumed. "Get this: She wouldn't sell me tokens for the laundry machines because she said it was for 'guests only.' What? My money's no good? I could buy and sell this place..."
"Not if they won't sell you the right tokens," I reminded her.
"Okay, well maybe not me, but people who could buy and sell this place trust me with their social security numbers. And they treated me like a vagrant!"
"How rude!" I agreed. "You're not supposed to call someone a runt, no matter how small they are."
"A vagrant person who wanders around without a home or a job," Mom humphed like someone who still had a job. "It's just a giant parking lot with a lousy water feature in front, not the dog-gone Ritz."
I sucked a big noseful of the funk that Mom's big gestures stirred up. It smelled like armpits, wet socks, and indignance. "You sure smell rich," I reassured her. "But you've got to think about presentation."
"Well maybe I wouldn't look like a hobo if they'd let me take a shower." Mom glowered at the closed door. "She said I could go to the truck stop! Imagine that! A truck stop! Who does she think she’s talking to?" Mom pulled the seat leash across her chest like a diva cape and the car-house huffed to life.
The next place was more like a yard than a park. A few ramshackle car-houses were planted in the tall grass among the rusty dishwashers and old tires. A stuck house stood guard by the entrance like a junkyard dog. Through the screen door, I could barely make out a dirty light deep inside.
The car-house slowed to a not-quite-stop in front of the house and Mom cautiously rolled down the window for a better look.
"Just nine-ninety-nine. That's right! Just nine ninety nine! But wait... there's more!" a voice inside barked aggressively.
The car-house picked up the pace from curious to nope. Mom waited until we were around the corner before ordering it to pull over so she could ask the Witch for another suggestion.
The next place reminded me of Princess Peach's kingdom, where grown-ups came for protection from schools and playgrounds.
"This place doesn't have laundry, but at least I can buy more socks at the Walmart around the corner," Mom said.
Mom got out and stood in front of a big board to read the papers stuck there. She lifted the Witch to her face and paced around the car-house for a few laps, talking to the ground the whole time. "...just for tonight..." I heard her say as she passed on the first lap. "...not even just..." I heard on the second. "THREE MONTHS!" she squawked loud enough to hear all the way at the Walmart. "...pay double..." she pleaded on the next revolution. "...do all these people come from anyway?" she asked with her hand on the door.
Mom threw the Witch onto the driving chair with disgust and then sat on her to show her dominance. She sat staring at distant Walmart sign as if it had the answers to all of life's questions.
"Home sweet home?" I asked.
"They said that that all the RV parks are full of people who work at the Amazon warehouse and Tesla factory. That's why we can't find a place to stay. Everyone gets on a waiting list and just sleeps at Walmart until there's an opening somewhere. The waiting lists are months long. I had no idea."
So dreams do come true! There are people who live in car-houses all the time. "Are all strays just regular people who spend less time on their careers and more time with their dogs?" I asked.
"God, what must that do to your self esteem?" Mom asked the Walmart sign.
The sign must have told her something I couldn't hear, because Mom perked up. She woke up the car house and said cheerfully, "At least Walmart is the Ritz of parking lots."
I was excited to see how big the water feature would be outside the Ritz, but it wasn't as grand as I hoped. Sure, it was spacious, but the landscaping wasn't very nice. All the plants were piled behind bars so you could barely even see them. Only their branches reached desperate leaves through the bars. Kayaks and lawn chairs guarded their cage from the outside to make sure that no flower pots escaped into the wild.
The car-house rolled to a quiet neighborhood far from the road and parked next to a sculpture that looked suspiciously like a dumpster. They turned on the water feature as soon as we checked into our spot. Or maybe it was just rain.
I thought we would spend our free evening napping, but Mom set right to work gathering the Witch and her wallet. She hung the keys on a spare finger and announced, "I need to go to the bathroom. I'll be back."
"How long will you be gone?"
Mom looked around at the trucks, the dumpster, and all the doors on the backside of the Walmart. "Ugh, I don't feel like walking all the way around to the front in this rain. I wish I could just..." She looked behind the dumpster with interest, then up to where the rain was coming from. "...but it's too well lit. I'd probably get arrested."
I'd never heard of a person going to the pound for using the dog bathroom, but you can never be too careful playing hide-and-no-peek in an unfamiliar town.
Mom kissed the spot between my eyes, opened the door, and disappeared into rain.
I tried to take a nap, but every time I started to nod off, a screeching truck would make me jump. The trucks always growled behind the car-house long enough to make sure I was too uneasy to sleep before pulling away.
Finally, there was a rattling outside. Mom appeared behind a cart heaped with more sacks than Santa's sleigh.
She opened the door with even more excitement than it gave me to see her again. "They don't charge for grocery bags here!" she gushed as she stacked her booty on the car-house floor. "We'll have enough trash bags for the rest of the trip!"
She slammed the door and gleefully rode the empty cart like a dogsled back toward the front of the store. I sniffed her treasure. The sacks were too full to leave much room for trash, but Mom would figure that out for herself soon enough.
When she came back, Mom pulled each prize from the bag like the Wizard of Oz granting wishes. I shoved my snout in close so I wouldn't miss a thing. "I don't suppose there's anything in that bag for me?" I sniffed.
"It's in here somew— Look! Vegetables!" Mom held up a bag in each hand like a people-puppy in a toy commercial. She threw them toward the kitchen and kept digging. "And Hubba Bubba bubble gum!"
She pulled out more bags of M&Ms than she could fit in two fists and stashed them in the secret compartment under the front window with the bubble gum. She held up two packets so I could admire the happy people in old-people underpants on the label. She threw them on top of the suitcase and turned back to the sack.
Finally, she pulled out a bag as big as a couch pillow and ripped it open. A spool of cheese sticks unfurled like the red carpet we'd expected at the snobby car-hotel.
"Open sesame!" I wagged.
Mom filled my bowl to the brim with kibble and then snapped a cheese stick off the roll. She peeled back the plastic and arranged a net of cheese strings over the top before serving it to me.
I ate my dinner while Mom finished putting her treasures away. After I'd licked the bowl clean, I joined her on the couch.
"I love Walmart because I can go impulse shopping without worrying about how much I spent," Mom said, reaching past the bag of snow peas and cracking open a bag of M&Ms instead. "I just bought a packet of socks and underwear for the same amount as I would have spent on a load of laundry, and I don't even have to pay for the parking spot!" She squeezed an M out of the bag and cracked it between her teeth. "But the best part is that no one in Walmart judges you, no matter how rough you look. Life is a lot less stressful when there aren't any expectations or consequences."
"Why do people save up to spend their vacation at snobby places when there are Walmarts everywhere?" I asked. "Who wants to stay somewhere that won't let you piddle in the garden or wash your clothes in their water feature?"