The rain has erased the smoke and the fog, but the dark sky and the reflecting sheets of rain make the handful of flickering signs glow with preternatural light. I turn and look through the dark windows of the restaurant behind me—vacant and locked down, the empty tables standing like ghosts behind the tinted glass.
There’s a McDonald’s across the way, with a blazing red and white sign offering cheap coffee and half-price egg sandwiches. I pass it and go into the coffee shop next door. It looks like a Swiss ski chalet, a log cabin with a wide, heavy roof, sloping down to overhang the sides of the building almost to the ground. I step through the thick oak door as a little bell tinkles overhead.
The place is dead quiet, outside of the sound of tinny pop-country coming softly from speakers echoing somewhere inside of the ceiling.
I sit in a corner, give the place the once-over. Everything is decorated in gingham check and rustic farmhouse kitsch. No less manufactured a look than the plastic tables at McDonald’s. Paintings of pies and twee messages of faith dot the walls.
Pleases and Thank Yous Keep the Lord Alive
Love is a Fresh Baked Pie
Happy is as Happy Does
Jesus Loves Us All Equal
I’m pretty sure if there is a Jesus, were he to arrive here on the edge of Pitamont-by-the-lake, this is the kind of place he’d set one foot in, and then head across to the McDonald’s. Which is what I’m contemplating when she waddles out of the back, through a wood-paneled door. She’s like a troll doll version of Loretta Lynn playing Barbie dress-up at the 50s Dream Diner. Short, fat, and stuffed like a sausage into a frilly, pink, poly-acrylic uniform straight out of a bad TV sitcom. Her hair is teased high and thick, bangs curled down onto her forehead. She stops for a breath, waves to let me know she’ll be a minute. She reaches under the counter and comes up with a plate of fries and the world’s biggest presumably-cherry coke. She leans in, obviously spent, and munches a dozen or more fries, then takes a long sip through the bendy straw before she draws another ragged breath and finally makes her way over to my table.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Blood sugar. You know how that can be!” she laughs, as if I have any idea what she’s talking about. “But the good Lord has spared me from the dia-beet-us. Yes he has. Every year they check, and every year I am just fine.”
She waves her arms in the air, praising this Lord Doctor of Diabetes, then plants her fat hands down on the table.
“Now. You’re not from around here, are you? Never seen you before. You just come in on the bus? It’s not tourist season, you know. No skiing in the summer, then. And nobody’s coming out for the nature this year, on account of the forest fires and all this yucky smoke, hmmm? Maybe you’re new in town. No. I would have heard about that. Maybe your car broke down, is that it? Maybe you’re visiting someone. No, would have heard that.” She’s breathing hard and sweating. There’s a scent to her that I don’t like. Cigarettes and tuna fish, but something else.
“Blood sugar,” I explain with as polite a smile as I can muster. “Just need a sandwich. Maybe some coffee?”
It’s obviously the wrong answer. I must not be worthy of praying at the altar of the dia-beet-us saviour.
She sits down in front of me and continues her guessing game, as if I was some strange thing she found on the sidewalk, and not a hungry customer in her cafe.
“Well, that won’t do, will it, mister smarty-pants? Come in here and tease a lady about her blood sugar, now will you?”
She glares at me, looking more and more like a troll, and less like Loretta Lynn.
“We don’t care for smarty-pants answers here. The good Lord tells us to suffer the fools, and the Jews, and the little children… Doesn’t say nothin’ about smarty-pants answers.”
The scent gets stronger. Something sour and sickly-sweet. It’s on her breath like a curdled milkshake.
“You can go and get back on that bus, if you’re not going to be nice.”
Was she watching me? Saw me get off the bus in the pouring rain? I just want her to stop breathing at me.
I lean back in my seat and put my hands up in resignation.
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I was feeling faint is all? I honestly haven’t eaten in a long time. Like, since yesterday.”
She looks me up and down. I guess she’s trying to discern if I’m a Jew or a fool, or something even more offensive to her sensibilities. She heaves herself up out of the seat and waddles back to the counter for another sip of her drink. She finishes it, keeping her eyes on me the whole time. I want to leave, but I’m afraid she’ll throw a knife at me, or damn my mortal soul if I try to make a break for the door.
She doesn’t bring me a menu. She doesn’t take my order. She goes into the kitchen and comes back out almost instantaneously with a cup and a plate.
She drops them unceremoniously on the table in front of me, with a wheeze.
The pie is brown and syrupy. The coffee seems about the same. I’m afraid to touch either one.
“Raisin. All we got left.”
She’s staring at me, scrutinizing my face. I imagine she’s looking for a reason to throw me out into the rain.
“I think I’ll just be going.” I smile again, as polite as I can muster, and try to slide out of the booth.
She pens me in with her big, pink belly. She leans in close, looking for something in my face. I’m hoping she’s not considering it for a snack. Her brow is furrowed, her face twisted into an old man’s prune-faced grimace. She’s breathing her sour milk stare straight into my ear. I freeze up, looking back at her from the furthest corners of my eyes.
She reaches out a pudgy hand, still sticky with raisin syrup and grabs my face, twisting my head toward her to examine my eyes. She looks like she wants to pluck them out.
“You’ve got those eyes, don’t you? You one of them? From up the mountain? One of those freaks? Dirty gypsy freaks. Mother lovers and sister fornicators. And those filthy godless Indians, sending their whores up there for those beasts. Drugs, and devil-worship, and fucking in the woods.”
The words are shocking coming from her pudgy little face. All the talk of Jesus and put-on hominess is gone. The look of disgust twists her face up even more until she has completely transformed into some kind of apple-face demon, shriveled and terrible. She’s a dried out mummy stinking of ancient dust and spoiled strawberry milkshake.
I nudge her out of the way and step out, carefully, keeping her in front of me as I back toward the door.
“Thanks?” I manage, fumbling the door open and falling back out into the driving rain.
She’s still staring at me through the foggy glass of the window. She’s just standing there, watching me, standing guard against whatever devils she think I might unleash on her miserable little pie shop. We’re standing there, like gunfighters in the street, separated by a log cabin wall and a deluge of rain.
I run across to the McDonald’s and duck under the overhang of the roof at the front doors, hoping for a few seconds out of the rain. I fish the scrap of paper out of my pocket. Devil’s tightly looping script.
Vargas Brothers Garage
No address, no directions. Fucking Devil. All the answers in the world, except the one thing I need.
I strain to see through the rain and get my bearings. I don’t see anything resembling a garage out here in the outskirts. When I get around past the diner, she’s there, at the window, glowering at me. Jesus.
I go into the McDonald’s, as much to escape her damning eyes as to get that cup of coffee.
After an uneventful cup of shitty coffee and a lukewarm McMuffin, I ask the kid at the counter if he knows where the Vargas Brothers Garage is. He looks to be about fourteen and highly suspicious, in that nervous way that kids have with strangers. I wonder if he’s had the pleasure of being terrorized by the troll across the street. He gives me vague directions with no street names.
“A couple blocks down there, turn right, go a few blocks up, left, down another couple blocks, and it’s over a few places.” The only real descriptor he gives me is that there would probably be a yellowish tow-truck out front, a real old one, the kid says, Vargas Bros written on the side.
I thank the kid with a five dollar bill, which finally elicits a pimply smile. I wonder why he’s not at school. He’s not grabbing my face or screaming at me about whores and devils, so I just get on my way, making sure to take the door on the opposite side of the building from the diner. Still, I feel her eyes on me, and her rancid whipped cream whisper seems stuck to me. Athwart the gloom.
*The preceding is an excerpt from the novel
FURR by Axel Howerton.
All rights are reserved and © Axel Howerton 2015.
Any reproduction or distribution beyond this page is
strictly prohibited by the author.