The next morning I woke up to an alarm that I’d somehow remembered to set for 8 a.m. so I could call in sick again to work. The guy who answered the phone told me I sounded horrible and to take it easy and get some rest. I think he thought I was malingering. But I really wasn’t. I felt horrible. There was no way I wasn’t really sick. I felt worse than sick. I lay back down for a while but couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing these man-sized, swollen and chapped lips trying to attack me. Eventually it became checkout time and we all got our stuff together and trudged down to get the car. Somehow we managed to get the car brought to us by a speedy valet and threw everything in the trunk and got in for the long ride home. Leroy took the wheel saying, “I’ll drive this thing as far as I can. I just need to get some coffee. We’ve got to stop for some coffee. Don’t worry. I’ll drive this thing until the wheels come off.” Unfortunately, that was what I was afraid of.
We stopped for coffee at a truck stop by State Line. The store there had a lot of room inside, like two 7-elevens squashed together, and all kinds of trinkets were for sale up by the registers. Three registers behind the long counter got banged on by three separate cashiers, one in the middle and one more at each end. It was a busy place. Some truckers were off gambling on a video machine in the corner. When I went in the back to use the bathroom I noticed that the place had showers and a locker room. Truckers must have need doing a lot of deadheading these days. After taking a piss I didn’t take a shower.
I was standing around doing a lot of staring at the trinkets. A plastic, gold colored bust of Mel Gibson was really occupying my attention. The more I stared at the thing the more I became convinced that it was made of Plaster of Paris. And his proud and defiant eyes seemed to be staring right back at me saying, “You want a piece of me Jew boy?” It was really making me nervous, but I couldn’t look away. Then something jarred me away from Mr. Gibson’s image. It may have been nothing but a fly landing on my head. I’m still not sure. But when I looked up I noticed Chet was staring, almost drooling with a jaw-dropping kind of awe, at some biker chick who was standing across the store on the other side of the counter. She wasn’t even that attractive, though she maybe did have some kind of oily flare, kind of like Cher in “Mask”. It wasn’t anything to go gaga over. Staring at her seemed a bad idea, as I looked next to her and saw a real grizzly, mutton-chopped, beefy biker guy with metal chains on his leather jacket and very intimidating tattoo work all over his arms taking notice of Chet’s steady, if maybe a little glassy, gaze. The guy had biceps bigger than my torso and he didn’t look happy. Leroy was obliviously paying for some coffee at the register next to me. There was a moment when I knew trouble was unavoidable, and that this was not going to turn out well.
Chet puts out his arm and extends the blade of a Bowie knife. No. Wait. That’s not a Bowie knife. That is a…pocketknife? With a cigarette lighter on it? What the hell? The biker guy looks as confused as I do. Chet is just standing there trying to look menacing with this tiny pocketknife/cigarette lighter thing in his hand. Leroy walks out with his coffee and I grab Chet and pull him outside too. We start running to the car, passing Leroy who is gingerly walking along sipping his coffee. I yell back, “Come on! Run you idiot! He’ll kill us all!” Leroy just stands there kind of not doing anything. The door to the store opens up behind him. I scream again as Chet and I get to the car and begin frantically trying to get the keys to unlock the thing. “Get your ass in here or we’re leaving you to die!” This gets Leroy moving, and without spilling a drop of coffee, holding the cup high like an Olympic torch, Leroy runs to the car. I throw the keys at him and jump in the passenger’s seat while Chet clamors into the back. Starting the car and throwing it into reverse, still holding his coffee level, Leroy hurls the Mercedes screeching backwards and out of the parking lot to the safety of the highway.
I didn’t look back, but I doubt that the burly biker was anywhere behind us. He probably hadn’t even noticed us leave the store.
Leroy almost killed us multiple times as he smoked and drove and talked away. When we got to Baker I convinced Leroy to get off the freeway so we could eat at Bun Boy. I had great memories of eating there as a child. Unfortunately Bun Boy was now Bob’s Big Boy, though it still looked exactly the same from the outside. It was like Bob’s Big Boy had just bought the place and moved in without changing anything but the sign. The same faded red booths were there crowded with over-sized travelers of route 15. They’d taken out the Bun Boy relics on the walls and put up their own, but they were very similar and could have fooled you at a glance into thinking they were still the same hokey mirrors and plaques and trophies that Bun Boy had had there for many years. I wasn’t sure if it really had happened, if this really wasn’t Bun Boy after all. I kept getting confused and thinking that maybe I’d been wrong all along, that this really had never been a Bun Boy. That it had always been a Bob’s Big Boy. Or maybe we were just in the wrong place. We’d gotten off at the wrong exit. But how the hell was that possible? Everything else was exactly the same as I remembered it. The World’s Largest Thermometer was right outside reading 104°. And the inside of the place was just the way it had always been in my mind. I started to get dizzy and followed my companions to a booth right in the midst of screaming vacationing families. I grabbed my head and pulled the menu close.
I’ve never cared for Bob’s Big Boy. When I was a small child my father had made my brothers and I dine-and-dash the one in our hometown after a horrible meal of cold meatloaf and solidified, salty mashed potatoes. At least that’s the way I remember it. Ever since then I’ve had occasional nightmares where that damn statue of the cherubic, Fatty-Arbuckle-like Bob in his red suspenders is chasing me around with a meat cleaver. I also try to leave an extra buck or two as a tip whenever I dine out as some kind of compensation or penance for my father’s malfeasance, and maybe some awful childish guilt over the whole contretemps of the thing. So I was none to thrilled to find myself sitting there, watching all these families acting like buffoons, feeding their kids this chicken-shit food, arguing and dribbling diet coke on their shirts, and making absolute asses of themselves in front of their spoiled, bratty, no-good kids. When the waiter came I got confused and ordered a salad.
“You fucked up.” Leroy was staring at me in red-eyed wonder.
“I can’t stomach anything right now. A salad sounds cool and refreshing. It’s what I want.”
“They can’t get fresh lettuce out here in the middle of the fucking desert. You think they grow tomatoes and carrots out here? You, my friend, are going to get a mealy, wilted, lukewarm dish of salted crap.”
I didn’t say anything more. There was no need. I drank my tap water and watched the families not get along all around us. There was one miserable table of nuclear Americans in particular who were really making me want to drive my sharper utensils into my eyes. They were sitting at a long table in the middle of the room. The father was yelling at the miserable kids to keep quiet, and the kids kept spitting their food all over the place and making a mess and whining and dropping their forks and spoons and spilling their milk and generally causing the father much distress. The mother would try to help them by babying them, and the Father would tell her to, “Stop mollycoddling them!” and push her hands away from where she was trying to help one of the sniveling little bastards hold his fork correctly. It was an embarrassing and highly revolting scene. I wondered if this was what my family would’ve looked like all those years ago, back when this place really was Bun Boy and I was just another snot-nosed kid sitting at a table crying and holding his fork like an inmate of an insane asylum. It didn’t make me feel good to watch these people. These drab useless things who did their worshipping at Wal-Mart and drove giant gas-guzzling machines off into the white and cozy confines of plastic suburban blandness. These were not my kind of people. I started to hate families in all of their incarnations. All these tubby people wrapped up in the rapid-fire, American-way, consumerism-of-the-moment so tightly that they didn’t even know or chance to dream that a world just might happen to exist outside of their tiny, simple minds and ways of being and buying, if there really were a difference between those two forms of existing for them. I was no different. Maybe that was what was making me so angry. I just hated in them what I hated in myself. I was just using them as an excuse to not correct what was wrong with me, or some bullshit like that. Anyway, I was way too tired to contemplate such things. My salad came and it was lukewarm and wilted. The tomatoes were almost rotten and the cucumber slices were like rubber. I poured on a bunch of Thousand Island dressing and scooped it all up into my mouth.
The last I saw of Bob’s Big Boy was the bathroom. Chet had just come out of there looking amazed and muttering something like, “I can’t believe what I just saw in there. I can’t begin to explain it…” and went mumbling on and racing out of the place. So I went in to take a piss and see what the hell he was going on about.
The bathroom was very small, two urinals and two stalls right next to each other, one a bit larger because it was a designated handicap stall, and a kind of half-sink to wash your hands in right next to one of the urinals. It was very hot and muggy in there, like a steam room, and there wasn’t much room to negotiate the space. One of the urinals had a white plastic garbage bag over it. A handwritten sign duct-taped to the bag read, “Out Of Orders,” in the scrawling cat-scratch of a four-year-old. There was a man with jet-black hair, slicked back with what seemed like a whole jar of pomade or oily shellac-type substance, who was working on fixing the other urinal, which I assumed was also, “Out Of Orders” for the time being. He was wearing blue overalls and sweat was pouring off of him. His face was covered in it. His mustache matched his hair color and it was long and drooping and wet with sweat too. He had a wrench in one hand and was trying to pry apart some contraption that must have been all gummed-up or something, and he was having a really rough time of it. He kept grunting and closing his eyes as he pulled at the wrench trying to turn whatever rusted thing he was trying to unscrew. I couldn’t piss in the trash-bag covered urinal, and I obviously couldn’t use the one the black-haired, sweaty, mustachioed man was working on, so I tried to push open the stall door. I had to walk really close to the urinal mechanic to do so, as there was not even six inches of space between him and the stall. Just as I pushed open the un-locked stall door this voice said, “Somebody’s in here.” I looked and saw work boots and dropped pants down there, but it didn’t register. I was very uncomfortable and nervous, as the sweaty man was very close to me and I really didn’t know what the hell to do. So I pushed open the door harder this time. It knocked against the guy’s knees really hard. He said in a very low voice, as I tried to push my way in the stall, “Somebody’s in here,” and then proceeded to make an obscene grunting noise and I heard a splash of water like a medium-sized rat doing a cannonball. It was very hot in there. I was starting to sweat a great deal. I turned around and almost knocked right into the guy wrenching at the urinal, who was sweating more than anybody I’d ever seen in my life. The back of his powder blue overalls was drenched. Somehow I regained my composure and pushed open the handicap stall door. Luckily nobody was in that one. We were all so close together in there, and it was so hot and humid, I felt like I was pissing in a closet with these two guys right on top of me. It started to smell really awful. I don’t know how the greaser fixing the urinal wasn’t suffocating in the stench, but he kept working away at the thing with his wrench. As I held my breath and tried to piss as fast as possible, I looked back and noticed that my stall door hadn’t closed, and I couldn’t reach it from where I was standing to shut it, and the sweaty greaser was right there smiling up at the roof and tugging like mad on his wrench, just completely covered in sweat. Looking away quickly I pushed out my piss as fast as I could and closed my eyes. The guy shitting in the stall next to me was making all kinds of noise and the smell was starting to make me queasy. I wanted to shout out, “How about a little courtesy flush there buddy,” but I didn’t. There was no time. After I finished I flushed with my foot and got out quick, not even stopping at the tiny sink to wash my hands. I looked back at that black-haired, sweat-soaked urinal repairman one last time just before the bathroom door closed. He was still tugging away with his wrench. Some kid came up to the door and I warned him, “Don’t go in there. It’s not good.” The kid looked real confused and went in anyway. I ran out to the Mercedes laughing uncontrollably.