Breaking Fast in Ghost Town (Oregon; August 2011)
Driving with Sugar down south, leaving the city behind us in fits and starts. I didn’t really want it (the reprieve), but I needed it. There probably comes a time when one should leave the incarcerating grid, even if one only escapes to encounter another of a similar kind. Is freedom just another form of confinement, all relative?
Yeah, when I let it press down and in, on top of, compressing and compelling, suddenly I need to leave. I feel the lump in my throat expand, I’m afraid it might block the meager breath, the jagged inhale, altogether. Let’s get the fuck out of here.
So to breathe, we drive away south. OUTSIDE.
(Someone once told me that when he lived in the Yukon, the guys he worked with referred to anything south of the 60th parallel as OUTSIDE. It didn’t matter where you were going. Many of the carpenters, the ones he worked beside day in and out—minute days of winter and eternal days of summer—would fly to the Philippines to have psychic surgery performed. Now, this is a type of healing that originated in the Philippines and in Brazil mid-20th century. It is also known as “bare hand” or “fourth dimensional” surgery; it refers to a PSEUDOSCIENTIFIC procedure in which the body is operated upon in the absence of any medical instrument, only with the use of the bare hands. Pathological matter is removed from the body, after which the incision spontaneously heals. The healers would most often remove the eyeballs of these carpenters in order to clear out the sawdust that had accumulated underneath, and then neatly pop them back into newly polished sockets. The patients would return to the dark northern place feeling restored. It brings to mind Hamlet’s claim that
I AM BUT MAD NORTH-NORTH-WEST. WHEN THE WIND IS SOUTHERLY, I KNOW A HAWK FROM A HANDSAW.
My friend suspects the draw to the south also had something to do with sex tourism. Anyway, whatever the reason, wherever the destination, they went OUTSIDE all the same.)
Sugar and I went outside—anything south of the 49th parallel in this case—down to the country that sits beneath us in the south, that strange place that seems more neon, plastic, rubber colour, excess and fat, bloated gorged but lacking. We left at 3 am because she thought it would serve us better to avoid traffic. We avoided human contact altogether at that hour, let alone traffic. The highway was a deserted wasteland for the first few hours, and the border crossing had seemed more arbitrary than ever before. You’ve got something rare and special there when you can see the eerily filtered light as it strikes through silver clouds upon the water, but at 3 am, it was nowhere to be found; it leaves neither trace nor shadow in the night. WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
I noticed a strange structure that in another world might have appeared to be an art piece (if it looks like it should be an art piece, why wouldn’t it be an art piece?). Made of a material reminiscent of chicken wire but more substantial, it formed a mass like a strange tree, and in the middle, a perfect cube cut out of it. Cube in absence, floating, and only ever in absence. It is out of place, a contrast to the imposing white classicality of the Arch, and casts a net of surreality about the place. I slept for long, flat stretches of the I5 as I usually do, leaving her feeling a little alone. We passed a sign that threatened: IF YOU LITTER, IT WILL HURT.
So time skips along, the road moving up in front of us and under us, we move forward and it moves back; it seems we and the road are never in the same place at the same moment. We are never really ON THE ROAD then, are we? We occupy each centimeter of it only for a fraction of a second, before we are moving away, forward or backward. It is only when we are parked immobile that we can really be said to be on the road… what say you?
We arrived in —– (the ghost town, which I will refrain from naming because it is tiny; my paranoia is so extensive that I actually had the thought that it might be simple enough to travel to said ghost town and identify the man I am about to tell you about. Thus, we must be content with a mere series of dashes as a substitution) at 7 am, making the 7 hour drive in 4. Good idea girl, the plan worked, only we aren’t expected at the hippie commune until 1 pm, and all the shops in —– are closed. The town is empty. The main strip is quaint, wide concrete, bare, tragic in its efforts to invoke the HISTORIC—a small opera house. I was hungry. We did the historical strip. The mall was just opening and we went in to check the food court. It was too sad, so we left. Strange small American town: 4 hours to feel like an alien, or more accurately, to feel like everyone else is an alien and I better watch myself lest they get inside my head with toxic thought and telepathy (more paranoia).
All the cafes were closed. Venga, café, venga. Finally we saw a small sign in the window of the building adjacent to the opera house that appeared to be a kind of strip mall; it read Gluten-free Waffles, with an arrow indicating descent. Okay. Potential human activity. We entered the building and headed down the stairs. It was like an indoor market, a bit of a maze, with carpeted floors and low ceilings, and in the corner a tiny waffle shop, with another sign corroborating the promise of alternative flours. There was a man in the back who sensed our presence despite the muffling effect of the dark green carpet. He emerged, awkward—everything about him was awkward, just a little off-kilter, the way he walked, the way he placed the menus ever so carefully on the table in front of us, only to pull them back crooked as he withdrew his hand. His eyes a little out of focus, his teeth too crowded, jaw on edge. Hair buzzed. But nice, a little too nice, a slow niceness. He spoke slowly, carefully forming the sounds of his words, trying to remember which flours they used to make the waffles. We decided—waffles with fresh fruit and maple syrup, and lattes. He went off to fix the food and drinks. We whispered to each other, feeling strange in the deep silence, broken only by the sounds in the nearby kitchen. How strange when public space is silent.
Sugar loves to talk to strangers. Normally, when she sees someone around, she will start a conversation with me, but loudly, loud enough to make clear that the conversation is meant more for the stranger; she hopes for a laugh, she hopes that the stranger will find something familiar in what she has said, something to close the distance. She raises her volume as a way of dropping bait. Talk to me! I want to hear your story. I want you to hear mine. Even she was subdued in the shop’s quiet, in the muted strip mall with its as yet unopened opera house, but when the waiter arrived with the food, she couldn’t resist. She complimented the food, and asked about the business. He only worked there, he told us, didn’t own it. The company also had food carts.
”the food cart is where I really want to be. out, free on the street, moving about, not stuck in this basement.”
“And why not?” she asks. Maybe she didn’t ask directly, but somehow her curiosity was communicated. This is the kind of question that a normal person might be weary of asking. The guy wants something, and he doesn’t have it. Of course we wonder what might be standing in the way; there has to be a factor, either internal or external, that inhibits. And our idealism demands: If you want something, why can’t you have it? It betrays our speaker’s naivety—or her optimism (maybe a little of both).
“well the thing is i was in jail for a while, see. didn’t do nothin’, not really. all a misunderstandin’ really. they found pills on me is all, but they wasn’t mine. they was my wife’s prescription. i just had ‘em for her. anyway, had to do some time and after that, it’s hard to get work ‘round here. boss hired me, nice guy, but i’m stuck to the basement for now. it’s too risky for them to let me work the cart on the street. who knows what I might get up to up there. there’s a whole world after all. we’re working on it, if things go good ‘round here it could happen, but right now this is it.”
Ah, Sugar’s face. Her big blue eyes getting just a little wider in well-veiled surprise, and the consciousness of the fact that we are eating waffles made and served by an ex-con in a deserted basement in a ghost-town.
Suddenly the imprinted grid-checked waffle pattern suggested incarceration. We were caught like pooling syrup in the stigma that follows the once incarcerated.
That was all over a year ago now. I wonder if he has been promoted to food cart operator, or if he found his wife’s pills again in transit.
Has he perfected the science, or the art, of making waffles?