20051119

Friday Special at Jiff’s Texas Barbecue


I flicked my eyes at her twice and then shrugged. We were seated on stiff particle board pews by the door, waiting for a table to clear up. There was gum all under the seat and the flappy fabric around my calves kept getting stuck in it.

“Well?” she asked, nearly peeing herself with expectation.

“I don’t get it,” I said, “I guess I fail. Shit, Rosa, there’s checkered tablecloths. It looks like every other barbecue restaurant in the world.”

And it did. The floor wasn’t swept – on purpose. Greasy wood paneling ran up and down the walls in interlocking grids. Ceiling fans crawled around on long steel poles, threatening to stop at any moment. The walls were pimentoed with beer signs, license plates, and framed pictures of embarrassed-looking minor celebrities shaking hands with a gabardine chicken leg who must be the owner. A jukebox played softly in the corner. Twang, twang, twang; cockle-doodle doo. People didn’t say rope here: they said lasso. Especially when they were wrong.

Except…hmmmm…

“Except I’ve never seen so many old people around so many young people. What’s the deal with that? Half of these people are about a billion years old, and then half of them look like they just got out of some decadent Berlin night club. There’s only one family: the rest are lizards and rotters. That’s kind of strange.”

Rosa squealed happily and kissed me on the cheek. I remained perplexed.

The mordant greeter looked up from her mints-and-menu-booth and gave us an apologetic grimace.

“I’m sorry it’s taking so long,” she said. “You guys can sit at the bar if you want to.”

“We’ll do that,” said Rosa, standing and pulling me with her by my paisley jacket. “Come on.”

“We’re not really even eating,” I said to the greeter as we passed. She didn’t seem to care.

As we moved through the restaurant, I was further amazed by the clientele. There were certainly some standouts – the type of folks you just didn’t expect to see wolfing down brisket and pork sausage. In fact, many of them were just sitting there.

Underneath a velvet painting of a buffalo, there was a group of three pansexual teenagers all wearing black eyeliner and smoking cigarettes that smelled like burning crayons. Next to the “Cowboys” bathroom, a man alone in a business suit was drinking Scotch straight from the bottle and staring off into space in front of an untouched plate of mashed potatoes. There was a cigar box next to him tied with string, and a scrap of notebook paper scored with blocky, expulsive text gummy with thick black ink. As I craned my neck to read it, I tripped on something and nearly knocked over a table full of steaming ribs.

“Gently with the feet, ace,” said a shivering wino whose table I had jounced, slopping sauce into his beard. He clapped his fingerless gloves together, slapped his tatty black fedora against his knee, and laughed like a crashing rollercoaster.

I looked down to see what I had tripped over. It was the end of some sort of plastic tube. From behind me, I heard horrible, sucking wheezes. A pile of bones, blankets, and crumpled newspaper in a wheelchair was scratching at an infected hole in his throat and turning blue. The whole restaurant halted in mid-bite, but Rosa promptly grabbed the hose and popped it back into the man’s neck. The diners resumed eating, and Rosa and I ducked past the tables as fast as we could.

There were two empty seats at the long, sawdust bar in the back, and the rest were filled with what appeared to be regulars. They were all laughing together about something as we sat down, and I noticed that the man serving drinks was the man from the photographs. The pictures didn’t do him justice. He was taller in person, and it was impossible to tell if the knotted plastic bag of his face was the result of age, the ravages of syphilis, or years of shaving with a fork and tweezers. It was an endlessly engaging mug and impossible not to like: all of his lines went up toward his crown in a crinkled mask of mirth.

“Howdy,” said the grinning restauranteur, holding out a scarred and veiny meatsmacker. I shook it, and Rosa gave it a squeeze. “I’m Jiff Ivy. What are you drinking, killer?”

“Two milks,” said Rosa. “We’re not eating anything, so we don’t need menus.”

“Big spenders,” said Jiff, winking.

“He’s never been here before,” said Rosa, dropping her purse on the bar in front of her and handing Jiff a twenty. “My parents used to bring me all the time when I was a squirrel.”

“On Friday nights?” asked Jiff, raising an eyebrow and bringing up two ice cold glasses of Wisconsin from underneath the bar.

“Yep,” said Rosa with a smirk.

“Well, it’s still early yet,” said Jiff. “But the betting’s closed, if that’s what you’re after. Drink all the milk you want, honey. On Friday nights we clear all our money on the book.”

“Looks like you’ve got a pretty full house,” said Rosa.

“Sure,” said Jiff. “Best cole slaw in three counties. If you can keep it down, you’ll shit rainbows.”

“Betting?” I asked quietly. Rosa just smiled.

The other three patrons at the bar swiveled in turn and gave us a trio of appraising glances. They were quite a collection. A watermelon man the size of a prop plane sat next to me wearing several layers of wool. The bar stool disappeared underneath his mammoth hide and made him look like a bloated ball of dandelion fluff. Next to him was a smoldering woman in red who was smoking a matching scarlet cigarette from a pair of emerald clips. She barely wore clothes at all, and I was reminded of the principle that in civilized society, the clothes of the privileged classes only serve to accentuate primary sexual characteristics. I was reminded of this by the drool on my chin.

Next to the woman was a priest in a full Roman collar. He wore a long purple scarf and no shoes. His blue eyes sparkled merrily, but I had a pretty good idea that the spirits inside him weren’t specifically holy.

“Little Rosa Moneycounter,” said the priest. “You got bigger. I knew you’d grow into that nose.”

“Glory be, Father Paint. How’s Jesus, these days?”

“Fuck if I know,” said the priest, shooting his cuffs. “Once you get famous, you forget your friends.”

“Little Rosa Moneycounter?” I asked.

“My parents used to count all the money from the collection baskets for St. Basil’s,” explained Rosa. “Father Paint can barely add two digit numbers. Some days Father Paint can barely stand.”

“The soul floats, Little Rosa,” said Father Paint, saluting her with a frosty pint. “And why settle for drizzle when you can drift on the sea?”

“We were just discussing our favorite subject,” said the enormous man next to me. “Where did humanity go wrong?”

“Fatso here says it was the first time somebody tried to make work into fun, by appealing to the greater good,” said the woman in red, taking a bird-puff of her cigarette. “That was when abstractions became deadly. I’m Fiona, by the way.”

“Doesn’t she look like a Fiona?” said Fatso to me, nudging me with an elbow like a bowl of oatmeal. “And my name isn’t Fatso. It’s Brown.”

“I like work,” said Father Paint. “You should try listening to people’s sins for a few hours every day. It’s better than going to an art gallery.”

“I say humanity went wrong the first time somebody put chisel to stone,” said Fiona. “Now the stagnant well of eternity could fill with clumpy green layers of human waste, excreted from the dirtiest of man’s holes – his mind.”

“I’ve seen dirtier holes,” said Father Paint.

“I’ll bet you have,” said Brown.

“Humanity went wrong on November 20th, 1962,” said Jiff, leaning casually against the counter.

“What happened on November 20th, 1962?” asked Rosa.

“That was the end of the October Crisis,” said Jiff. “When we lost our nerve and didn’t blow up this rotten ball of puke water with all those lovely nukes. Up until then, humanity was headed in the right direction. Now what the hell are we good for?”

“Drinking,” said Father Paint.

“Speculation,” said Brown.

“Kindling,” said Fiona.

I laughed, gurgling up an undertongue of milk. Rosa clapped me on the back.

“You guys are great,” I said, dabbing at the milk on my shirt with a paper towel pulled from the ribs of a steel dispenser.

“Just discerning,” said Brown.

“What brings you back to our warm embrace, Little Rosa?” asked Father Paint. “I haven’t seen your parents in a millennium.”

“Well, they did DIE,” said Rosa. “You did the funeral.”

“I always think corpses are faking it,” said Father Paint. “Death is such a convenient way of avoiding problems. The rest of us never have it so easy. Why, I remember this one kid. Jimmy Radcliffe. Always wore a leather jacket to mass. One day they hauled me out of my nice, warm bed and made me go do the last rites down at some highway embankment where he’d wrapped his brains around a telephone pole. He kept shouting my name, and they couldn’t move him without ripping the top of his head off. I get there and start hosing him down with holy water, but all he can talk about was how I owe his sister two hundred dollars for an abortion we’d agreed to go halfsies on. The man was obviously delusional. I would never agree to something like that – not on my ‘salary.’ Believe me -- I stopped right there, cops and country be damned. No last rites for Jimmy Radcliffe. He got out easy, in my book. The priestly classes should never tolerate rudeness.”

There was a moan from the restaurant tables. The man in the business suit with the Scotch and the cigar box had stood up and was swaying drunkenly. His fingers grazed the edge of the table like claws in a shuffleboard pit.

“Come on, you bastard,” said Brown through his teeth.

“Too obvious,” said Fiona. “It’s going to be the transient fellow on his last all-you-can eat dollar.”

“What do you think, Jiff?” asked Rosa.

“I think it’s going to be a long night,” he said with a wink.

“This place must do pretty good business,” I said. “I haven’t seen a lull yet.”

Jiff just chuckled.

“I lose so much money, the tax collector thinks I’m dealing heroin. The truth is: my wife loves me enough to keep the dream alive. She’s got the real head for investing. Makes the green like she was pulling it out of her nose. But this place is really more of a social services project. The money we make off the vultures is highly negligible.”

I nodded politely as if I knew what he was talking about.

“I resent that,” said Brown.

“You know where the tip jar is,” said Jiff. Jiff leaned in close to me and shut one eye.

“But maybe I like a little spending money of my own,” he said. “You ever ride the red lightning?”

I opened my mouth to speak. Jiff laughed, flung off his apron, and sauntered into the back kitchen.

“Drugs are for idiots, just like everything else,” said Jiff.

Fiona took Brown by the arm and started whispering to him. Father Paint put an arm around Rosa and started asking her question after question about what she’d been doing since she left town. I’d heard these tales before, so instead I watched the tables. There was definitely something strange going on here.

Like I said, there was only one family and they were seated in the center of the restaurant like the center ring of a circus. They looked Poor to me. Very Poor. The Father was chewing his own mustache, his big arms crossed and a look of milky oblivion sealing his eyes into a sliver of blue sunset. Like a frog on a fence post. The Mother was staring sadly off into space while a very serene and serious little Boy watched them both with a worried look. He was feeding his little Sister hunks of bread. The children were dirty, but very pretty as far as children go.

The three teenagers under the buffalo had finished their meal and were looking bored. They were playing some sort of game where they tried to see who could hold a match between the knuckles of their pinky and ring finger the longest. The wino was eating like a freelancer on expense account, and the doomed businessman appeared to have fallen asleep. All of the old people on life support were motionless. Some of them were being fed. Some of them were being poked with meter sticks.

Suddenly, the Father fell face-first into his plate of borracho beans. The Mother stood up with quiet defeat and shook his shoulder.

“John, we’re in a restaurant,” she said. “You got to wake up, John. You can’t be noddin’ off here in a good restaurant. This ain’t no cattle train.”

Father did not wake up. In fact, he fell completely out of his chair.

The Boy stopped feeding his Sister and stood up defiantly. The little baby girl looked at the rest of her blood and started bawling. This got the restaurant’s attention, and Fiona and Brown ended their soiree and started watching with cool eyes.

“You better get in here, Jiff,” shouted Father Paint.

The Mother started screaming as she dropped her husband’s limp wrist.

“My husband! Somebody help my husband! We can’t afford no doctor!”

Father Paint strode over to the table and felt the man’s pulse. He gave her a sympathetic smile.

“He’s gone, ma’m. You want me to say a few words?”

“Gone! What the hell are you talking about?”

“He’s dead. It happens,” said Father Paint.

“It was those pills!” shouted the Boy with tears streaming down his face. “Daddy said they was aspiring, but they weren’t aspiring! They was poison!”

The businessman had awakened from his drunken slumber and was watching the scene with bleary, fried-egg eyes.

“Goddammit,” said Brown. “Goddammit all to hell. It’s been a month since I’ve picked a winner.”

“Nobody got firsties tonight!” shouted the wino. “Cept me! Ha ha! Old Bobby can pick ‘em! Old Bobby knows the future! Pay up, Jiff! Pay up, you rotten bastard!”

What the hell was going on? I stood up and walked over to the nearest table and grabbed a menu from the hands of an old woman with a breath mask over her face. I opened it up and looked at the specials, seized by a sudden intuition.

FRIDAY NIGHT SPECIAL. WE PAY FOR YOUR FUNERAL. NO QUESTIONS ASKED. COME ONE, COME ALL.

“Strictly speaking,” whispered Jiff into my ear, “The betting ain’t legal. But it makes things more interesting, don’t it?”

1 comment:

the herb said...

I liked "laughed like a crashing rollercoaster." Such economy of words.

Another good one. I'm thinking this is the kind of story where bigger notions will hit me in a few days, weeks, or months what you mean in a greater more, um, philosophical sense. I get the feeling that it's again some sort of fable or quasi-fable... that you're drawing parallels, but you don't want to be too specific, that you want your reader(s) ... (haha, that's a joke) that you want your readers to have to figure out some of this for ourselves. I like the mystery, I don't think you're being too cryptic.

And of course I get what's on the page: a restaurant offers free funerals to patrons who die on the premises on Fridays, so they can sell a few hamburgers on that day. And people bet on who's gonna die that week. But more than that, and I think there is more, is that this restaurant is a microcosm of perhaps a nation of seemingly gambling, suicidal, forced to be competitive poor people, and their competition, against their own better interests, is what drives the economy.

Or maybe I'm the one who's drawing that parallel, maybe I'm reading a lot of extraneous stuff into your story.

I'd rather type less words here and leave it at: "I like it that I think I know what's going on in this story, but I'm not sure, and I like it that I'm not sure."

Great story. I get it. I think I get it.