Saturday, February 12, 2011


From my journal, 03/10/01

I hadn’t even taken a seat at the counter, and they were already talking to me. It was a ratty, smokey little diner, across the street from a storage and shipping joint in what could’ve been just about any town in America.
“How tall are you, son?” he asked me. He had salt ‘n’ pepper hair and a salt ‘n’ pepper beard and sparkling old eyes and a goofy grin.
“Uh, six feet four,” I answered.
“Six feet four,” he exclaimed, “Now, that’s the perfect height for a center. Do you play basketball son?”
“Why not? You’d be a great center.”
“I might be if I could shoot the ball. I’m tall, but I can’t shoot.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. He just kept going. “Oh, you’d be a great center. Six feet four is perfect height for a center. I got that from the old basketball players. Now they got those real big boys, but six feet four is the perfect height for a center. You try again son. See, you let ‘em get under you, before. You try again, you’ll be great. You’ll see. Six feet four is the perfect height for a center."
He didn't care what I said, so I couldn’t really argue. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll try.”
I glanced around the place just as the waitress came up. Everyone in the joint was over fifty, and she was no exception. Her hair was dyed a tacky auburn and she looked tired and sounded worn out, and she had a bright pink tee shirt under her black sweatshirt. There were big, sloppy, neon pink letters running diagonally up the sweat. “RENO.”
“Didja need a menu?” she asked.
“Yeah, and a cup of coffee, please.”
“Okay, just a minute.”
“No hurry.”
I looked around the place again, and Salt ‘n’ Pepper was still smiling at me from his seat on the other side of the register. “How ya doin’ today?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m wonderful son. I enjoy this as much as you enjoy basketball.”
I think he meant that he enjoys life as much as he wishes I enjoyed basketball. Truth be known, I couldn’t care less about basketball, but he certainly seemed to be getting a kick out of life.
“How much to settle up for the coffee?” he asked as the waitress came by.
“Ninety seven cents,” she answered.
“That’ll work out perfect,” he warbled, “I’m gonna give that three cents to this young man here.”
He came around the register holding his dollar. Then he caught sight of my backpack. “That’s a mighty fine backpack. But there’s one thing wrong with this backpack, you know what it is?” He looked up at me from behind his thick, rectangular glasses.
“No, what’s that?”
He grabbed hold of a black and grass green nylon zipper pull. “This right here. That’s the only thing wrong with your backpack. But I’ll take care of it for you.” He stuck his thumb through the loop and pulled, trying to snap it, but the braided nylon wouldn’t budge.
“Huh. Tough fucker,” He grunted, “And I don’t have my knife.”
The waitress had come back with my coffee in the standard issue chipped brown mug, and she brought the standard plastic eight ounce glass of water too. I watched her set down the napkin and silverware, and when I turned back, Salt ‘n’ Pepper had the nylon in his teeth, tearing at it and grunting. I was about to tell him I’d take care of it later, but his teeth slipped and he pulled away, apparently thinking he had won the fight.
“There you go son,” he grinned. “Now there ain’t nothing wrong with your backpack. You can just leave that corpse right there.” He was smiling a big, toothy smile, obviously pleased with himself. “You just leave that corpse hanging there,” he repeated, grinning.
The waitress came by and took his dollar and gave him his three cents change.
“That’ll work just right,” he said. He took up my right hand and pushed the penny hard into the center of my palm. He looked me square in the face, eyes gleaming behind his spectacles. “That’s for you.”
I smiled at him and he grinned back, then said, “Give me your other hand, son.” I held it out, and he pressed another penny into that palm, hard and flat and right in the center. “That’s for your wife.” He grinned wide, then said, “Now put them together, son,” so I closed my palms with my thumbs toward the green styrofoam ceiling. He slid the third penny under my thumbs and into the crack between my palms.
“That’s for your son,” he stated brightly, and he shuffled through the door, past the red and white Miller Highlife sign and into the lounge.
There was a woman with thinning hair and a pile of pull tabs in the booth behind me, and a man with no hair, a wrinkled scalp, eight or ten teeth and a pile of scratch tickets in the next booth over.
“Do you know what you’re having?” the waitress asked me. Her hair was done up in puffy pigtails, and the line of yellow light bulbs made a funny haze around her head in the loose auburn hair.
“Yeah, could I have a short stack of cakes and the combo with scrambled eggs please. And I won’t need any toast with that.”
“Short stack of cakes and eggs and hashbrowns then,” she echoed.
“Yeah, and can you tell me where the restrooms are?”
“If you go back over there, there’s a red sign that shows the way.”
“Thanks,” I said. I followed the sign past a couple of doors and around a few corners. The toilet seats were cracked and stained; there wasn’t a door on either stall, but when you gotta go you can’t be too picky. My shit was just this side of liquid. Probably because my last meal has consisted of Triscuits and cream cheese and a Butterfinger bar in the back of a Greyhound. Oh, and a pint of Kokanee and one of some local IPA in an Irish pub at 1:55 in the morning.
Sometime halfway into my flaky instant hashbrowns, an old woman in pink and blue pajama pants came up next to me, leaning on a copper cane. “Morning Laura,” she called to the waitress. Laura responded, but I didn’t quite catch the other woman’s name. Edith or Edna or something, I think.
“Is Michael working today?” she questioned.
The waitress got a strange look and said, “No, he walked out of here.”
“He did?”
‘Yeah. He was just standing around, talking about his cat, and I asked him to cook an order and he walked out of here. Broke all kinds of things on the way, plates and mugs. He slammed the microwave door and we had to replace that.”
“No! The microwave?”
“That’s not right, I mean, he had no business doing that. And he was just standing around, talking about his cat?”
“Yeah, and when I told him he needed to cook an order he started yelling and walked out.”
“Well that’s not right. Work is no place to be standing around and talking about your pet.”
“Not when there are customers anyway.”
“And then he just stormed out.”
“That must’ve been awfully embarrassing.”
“Well, I was just embarrassed for our customers.”
“And he just stormed out?”
“He must’ve been drunk.”
“I think he was.”
“Well he must’ve been, to do something like that.”
It kept going. So did the people. Coming and going. Everybody knew everybody else. Ruthie and Russ and Rob and Dan and a stream of tepid coffee and eggs over easy and more coffee and plaid shirts and worn out jeans and dirty baseball caps and coffee and ruddy faces and baggy eyes and pull tabs and coffee and a fella in a wheelchair with a foot missing and a black beret with a silver cross on it and hawaiian print tee shirts and coffee and people giving the waitress five bucks on four ninety and saying “keep the change” and pull tabs and the woman with the cane saying “he’ll kill somebody when he’s drunk one of these days, Michael will,” and coffee and cowboy hats and a girl with a cane who couldn’t have been more that twenty five but looked well past forty and twelve cent tips on six dollar tabs and coffee and coffee and coffee in a steady, brown, tepid stream and cream out of innumerable little plastic cups and body odor and baggy eyes and a guy in a plaid shirt and a baseball cap with a scraggly beard and dirty hands with long, uncut nails and fingers that shook and clenched his fork and a yellow bag of rolling tobacco, and when he saw me spin my pen in my fingers he stopped and turned towards me as Laura topped off my coffee.
“Wow, that’s cool,” he stated. “I had an uncle who did that with a quarter, or…or was it a fifty cent piece?”
“Right on. That’s tough. I could never do it with a quarter.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he stammered, “I did it one time. It had to, to uh, go under,” and he held out his shaky hand to try to show me, but his fingers wouldn’t do what he wanted. “Oh damn,” he half mumbled, half chuckled, “I did it once. I had an uncle once who could bend a fifty cent piece like that. An Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe.”
“Takes some strong fingers to do that,” I said.
He smiled, “Yeah, I had an uncle who could do that once.”
And they just kept coming. Old men with buttons and patches on their hats, saying things like, “Say, where’s the waitress,” and, “I’ll just let John blow in your face, he’s got the cold on him,” and throwing trash at the can in the corner and saying, “Damn, I missed that bucket,” and I had just noticed that the one guy had a tan leather coat when his friend said, “I don’t want no damn gravy on my chicken fried steak, what’s the soup?”
“Chowder,” Laura answered.
“I don’t want no damn chowder, what else you got?”
“What the hell is Soukatash? Aw hell, just give me a salad.”
“You want bleu cheese on that?”
“Hell no.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“Ranch, damnit. Isn’t this a cow town?”
I’d probably had eight cups of what we had all tacitly agreed to call coffee. The sign over the pink lemonade dispenser read
all in block capitals.
There was a machine dispensing Chicklets and one with Hot Tamales next to a newspaper box in front of the door.
The bus ride took almost six hours. It was raining when we started and I was eating Triscuits out of a box and using them to scoop Philly cream cheese out of the foil wrapper. I turned off my overhead light; I thought I had seen lightning. I started counting the cars somewhere outside of Issaquah. I was stuck on one eight seven for well over a minute. Getting through from two oh one to three hundred took longer than any other count of one hundred. The moon tried to poke through the clouds at two four seven. I saw snow on the ground at three one one. The fog came up thick at three twenty four. Three four eight came along and we hit the top of the pass and I noticed that it was snowing. At four seventeen the bus started braking and groaning and I figured I was gonna die just east of Snoqualmie. Four ninety three and it was still snowing. The driver stopped the bus and got out to adjust his left headlight. An Alaskan fisherman was coughing. At five seventeen the moon came through. I lost count somewhere around six hundred.
The sky cleared up. Somewhere around Moses lake a fog rolled in. It was heavy and thick and it fuzzed up everything. Fog creates all the visual effects of good acid, without that nasty feeling in the pit of your stomach. I hadn’t taken acid in years, but I had that nasty feeling just the same.
There was a rest stop with a burned out sign. One side read “Restau” and the other side “aurant.” Funny thing. It was missing “rest” and “rant.” The two things I had come to do. There were three radio towers with bright, flashing, white lights that looked like lightning.
I fell asleep on the open plains somewhere just east of Ritzville. I woke up as we pulled into Spokane.
“Everybody needs to get off the bus,” said the driver. “You can put your stuff on the seat if you don’t want to take it with you.
The streets smelled like middle America and there was dirty snow and piss in the alleys and the first motel I came to was closed.
I found an open one three blocks away. The room was forty five dollars for the night, and checkout was 11 am.
“If you need a little more time, just call down and let us know,” the attendant informed me.
“Is there an open bar around here?”
“Well, I guess the best place is Thudpuckers. That’s…oh, do you have a car?”
“No, but I saw it. I just came from there.”
“Oh. I guess there’s next door.”
‘Right on.”
He looked hesitant. “It’s a gay bar,” he choked out.
I just wanted a beer. I went upstairs and stashed my bank card and three hundred twenty six dollars cash in the microwave and went to find a bar. The bar next door had black cellophane over its windows and a silver and black awning. It didn’t look too inviting, so I went the other way. Four blocks up I heard shouting and saw a Ford Bronco pull away from the curb.
“I don’t wanna fight you,” the kid in the black coat said. Then the yellow hat started throwing punches. Yellow Hat got Black Coat on the ground and smashed his face into the pavement. He pulled him up by the hair and punched him again.
“Don’t you ever fuckin’ talk to me that way,” and he slammed Black Coat’s face into the sidewalk while a guy and a blonde girl in a black leather coat and miniskirt stood there watching.
I went into a shitty Irish bar and had a couple pints of beer. A minute later, Yellow Hat came in, blood on his fists, staggering and crowing. Half a beer later, the cops came and gave Yellow Hat a new set of matching silver bracelets and a ride somewhere. I went back to my motel.
I took a bath when I got back to my room. I tried to jerk off, but my dick just wouldn’t get hard. The towels were thin and rough, and my hair never really dried.
I must’ve woken up six or seven times, and every time I went back to sleep, I asked why I was running.

My dead friend was there, the one who slit his throat and knelt over the drain in a bathtub in Vermont so that he wouldn’t make a mess while he bled to death. Everything was wrong, he said, and he was gonna get the KKK to fix it. It’s this place, I screamed, can’t you see what it’s doing to us? It’s driving us all crazy. But he wouldn’t listen and he went off to slit his throat and die behind the bushes. Lets’ burn it all, I screamed. Alex came to help me. He busted all the gas lines behind the stove while I scrambled to get my shit from my bedroom. Computers and comic books, and I thought I had it all, but when I turned there was a bookshelf stretching away for miles in front of me. I had to take them all. Alex was screaming at me from the bottom of the stairs. Get the fuck outa here, we gotta light it, we gotta go. I started to leave, then went back for my bowling ball. I couldn’t carry any of it, so I dropped it all. When we got outside our friend was there. He had come back from slitting his throat and he had brought the KKK and the police, and there was a river of blood oozing from two nicks in his jugular and running into a puddle on the ground, and we ran off through the back yard. We were screaming. The house never burned.

I woke up ten minutes before checkout. For the first time, I knew why I was running.
I checked out at 10:59. “Is there a diner worth eating at around here?”
I barely heard what the girl said, but I thanked her and set out walking. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, but after a few blocks I saw the run down diner and went inside.
I hadn’t even taken a seat at the counter, and they were already talking to me. It was a ratty, smokey little diner, across the street from a storage and shipping joint in what could’ve been just about any town in America.
A guy with a bushy beard and a camo hat and wild eyes stumbled in just as I finished my last cold sip of coffee. “Who’s took my money?” he growled, and took a seat at a booth in the corner.
The shift had changed, and the waitress was putting on a new pot of coffee.

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