Majesty: (Highway 101 South)
We stop in a place called Smith’s in Paso Robles and order turkey-gumbo soup and lemon-meringue pie with black coffee. This ensemble somehow fits together although it sounds as though the tastes might clash. The theme from The Godfather is playing on the jukebox; very dreary and always reminds me of that shocking scene with the decapitated horse head. What goes on in Coppola’s mind? How could a guy come up with that? You must have to be Italian. The skinny waitress here has the worst skin I’ve seen in a long, long time. She seems to be drowning in Clearasil, poor thing. Already suffering and she’s barely sixteen. The decor in here is very weird: old-time meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, unless maybe they’re ice hooks. Either way it’s incongruous for a roadside café, it seems to me. After blowing laboriously on his gumbo soup, Dennis, out of the blue, starts telling me how his aunt had a stroke recently and can’t remember the names of things. Some sort of aphasia or something. She seems to recognize the object itself but can’t remember the correct name for it. Like “door” might become “key” in her mind or “dog” might turn into “bug.” Close but way off. I remember that happened to me once when I was a kid—not a stroke but the confusion about naming a thing. My mother became very alarmed about it and marched me over to the icebox. She threw the door open and began hauling out things like a cube of margarine, for instance, holding it up close to my face and demanding that I pronounce the name of it. I knew it wasn’t butter because we never had butter but I couldn’t remember the other name so I called it “majesty.” I remember the panic on her face, as though she suddenly thought she had a cabbage head for a son on top of everything else she was worried about like the old man and taxes and the price of milk. I think it may have also been the extreme heat back then. We were having one of those desert heat waves that summer where it would sit and swelter around a hundred and twelve at midnight for days on end. No rain. And this was in the time before air-conditioning was even thought of. The hills were all black and smoky from wildfires and when you breathed in you could taste the ash on the back of your tongue. At night I would have dreams where the clouds would just ignite into flames. Anyway, I don’t know why it was that I suddenly had this little spell of not knowing what to call things. It didn’t last long but it was as strange to me as it must have been for my mother. I absolutely could not remember the name for margarine. That’s all there was to it.
I understand there was a man who got trapped inside a Cracker Barrel men’s room once. (I’ve heard the story three or four times now in various convenience stores and gas stations just outside of Butte, so there must be some germ of truth to it.) He was trying to take a dump in peace in one of those oversize stalls for the handicapped (even though he wasn’t). He liked the extra space around him, the aluminum handrail, the hooks to hang his hat and coat. It must have been after closing hours, I guess, because the night manager had mistakenly locked him up in there and had also left the sound system on and, evidently, Shania Twain songs played all night long in an endless loop. Over and over, that’s all he heard was Shania Twain. She sang songs of vengeance and good riddance, infidelity of all stripes, callous treatment at the hands of drunken cowboys; maudlin ballads of deprived youth, the general inability of men to see into her hidden charms. Songs where she refused to be a slave anymore to the whims of men, like for instance making toast, doing the dishes, washing clothes, frying an egg, shopping for groceries. She wasn’t buying into any of that stuff. Then she had songs full of praise for her mother, prayers to her baby sister, her great-aunt, her sister-in-law, her sister’s sister-in-law. She praised God for making her a woman. She praised Jesus for her spectacular body and her luscious red mane falling down to her luscious ass. The man became desperate to escape the Cracker Barrel men’s room. He tried to dismantle the door hinges with his trusty Swiss Army knife. He tried pounding the walls. He tried screaming his head off but there was nobody there. No dishwasher, no waiter, no cashier, no janitor, no night manager, no one but Shania Twain, over and over and over and over again. There was no escape from the onslaught. The man collapsed to the tile floor in a heap of resignation and tried to fall asleep but sleep wouldn’t come. Shania’s voice taunted and tortured him. She clawed at his ears with her long silver talons. He hauled himself up off the floor and turned all the water faucets on full blast. He punched all the hand dryers. He flushed every toilet but nothing would drown out the piercing voice. He could still hear it pealing through the background somewhere, whining away in mawkish misery. He tried climbing up on top of the toilet stall and unscrewing the speaker but he stripped all the screw heads with his trusty Swiss Army knife and fell backward to the floor, impaling himself with the open knife blade. He writhed in pain and managed to extract the knife from his left thigh but blood gushed freely into the overflowing water of the sinks and steam was rising like off some primordial stew. He dragged himself through the darkening red mess of it, back toward the door, moaning like some butchered stockyard animal. He kicked with his one good leg and flailed his hands and screamed one last time but nobody answered; nobody but Shania Twain in her endless refrain. Then he surrendered completely and did something he’d never done in his entire life. He prayed. He prayed to Jesus to stop the bleeding. He prayed to God for a little peace and quiet. He prayed someone might find him before he drowned in his own fluids. Then a miraculous thing happened (and this has been verified by at least two eyewitness accounts—window washers at the very scene): the men’s-room door swung slowly open and there she was—Shania herself, towering before him in her spectacular body, her spectacular red hair, her spectacular lips, her spectacular tits. She was singing her head off. She was singing like there was no tomorrow. She didn’t seem to notice the man on the floor, bleeding to death. In fact she stood right on his chest in her green-satin stiletto high heels and kept right on singing. She seemed to be focused on something in the far, far distance but it was hard to tell through the steam.
Little waitress doesn’t get it, when I push my half-eaten steak away and ask her for dessert, that I really want dessert. She thinks there’s something wrong with the steak. There’s nothing wrong with the steak. I’m just ready for dessert. Another thing she doesn’t get is that I have enough cash in my left boot right now to buy a small car or half the town and when I ask her if she wants to take a spin around the dusty block she doesn’t understand that either. She thinks I have ulterior motives. I tell her I’ve just come from “the land of milk and honey.” She backs nervously away with my half-eaten steak on the plate and bumps right into the chef coming out of the swinging chrome doors of the kitchen. Chef wants to know what’s wrong with my steak and I tell him nothing—nothing’s wrong with the steak. All I want is dessert and she giggles as though the implication is that she’s the “dessert” and the chef picks up on this and decides I’m seriously demented road trash and starts asking me to leave. I tell him I haven’t finished my lunch yet and that I was very much looking forward to the butterscotch pie. He says the pies just came out of the oven and they’re too hot to cut and I tell him I don’t mind waiting but he says he can’t cut into any of them because it would sacrifice the whole pie just trying to get a single slice out of it. I tell him sometimes sacrifice is necessary. I can see them all steaming behind him on a Formica shelf, lined up like little locomotives—puffing away. He tells me it’s going to take quite a while. It’s going to be at least an hour. I tell him that’s fine, I’ll just go out and buy a paper and come back. I’ll stroll around the town and take in the sights. He says there are no sights; there is no town. But I tell him I’m a big fan of desolation. I’m fascinated by the way things disintegrate; appear and disappear. The way something very prosperous and promising turns out to be disappointing and sad. The way people hang on in the middle of such obliteration and don’t think twice about it. The way people just keep living their lives because they don’t know what else to do. He says he has no time for small talk and leaves me staring at the sugar.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
Richard Powers, Enquire Within Upon Everything
Elizabeth Arnold, Effacement