Monday, November 20, 2006

Sheila's word challenge

This is based on this post of Sheila's, where she takes a long list of words and dares us, the reader, to write a paragraph with all of them. I confess that the following does not use those words in order. (I came very close, but at the end I shoved a few in.) Neither is it just one paragraph, unless you read really fast and without proper pauses - but that's up to you.

It was the first time I’d ever seen a cemetery in the parking lot of a restaurant.

Cemeteries are sort of a pastime of mine. I love the twilight of life, the evensong of existence… Others don’t understand. One girl I dated called it “bullshit” – or to be more specific, she called the description “evensong of existence” “bullshit.” “You aren’t poetic, so don’t try,” she sniffed.

She eventually went to Turkmenistan on a two-year mission, if you really want to talk nonsense.

It’s not like I hang my hat on my epistolary achievements. (Hm, there’s the assonance again.) I dig the wordplay, and for that matter I dig the whole mission for God thing, too – they’re just not my normal spheres of operation. Meh. I stick to the simple things: eating and dying, the two unavoidables; that’s my pastime, and if some dour, frigid chick gets her panties in a wad over how I express myself on that, then she can excuse herself.

Well, others have been more polite than she, but not too much more understanding. People think I’m a glutton if I talk about food, but I don’t overeat, I just study. I love how food works, even when I’m not fond of the taste; and then, eventually, it stops working and off you go to be food for something else. It’s totally linked, and nobody sees it. Nobody wants to. Keep them separate; don’t remind the customers that those yummy sausages are simply fattening you up for the insensate earth. That’s why the Cemetery Restaurant startled me.

I was driving through Rampart when I saw it. Everyone here will know where I’m talking about, though I ought to say Township of Glendalough for the visitors. (If you’re driving to Narragansett Beach, they always tell you to stay right at that statue of Alexander Hamilton or you’ll get lost; well, to find Rampart, get lost on purpose. Then you can’t miss it.) It’s not called Cemetery Restaurant, but the Orion Diner. The owner, Mr. Darcy, told me that it’s not his cemetery, either.

“Well, there’s no church around,” I said.

“Can’t help that.”

“Was there a church once upon a time?”

“Can’t tell.”

“It’s only one fence around the whole property,” I said. All the same fence, too – wooden posts with two slats between each, and recently whitewashed. The headstones along one side looked almost like the concrete stops for the parking spaces, and a quick walk around the building revealed that they wrapped around in the back.

“Yep; one fence,” he said. But then he failed to elaborate.

I turned to the other customer at the counter for help but he was reading James Joyce and ignoring us.

“You want to eat?”

I wasn’t hungry, to be honest, but I pored over the menu. I wondered aloud how he prepared the grits, since one recipe goes much better with buttermilk pancakes and the other is more of a compliment to buckwheat, but “Can’t tell,” of course. He didn’t seem impatient that I took so long. Finally I just bought a cup of coffee and a Milky Way from the candy under the register. I didn’t eat it. The wrapper was one of the older designs. Somehow he read me, and brought over a toasted corn muffin with fresh butter. It was sort of heavy. His oven probably ran a little cool and it didn’t cook properly all the way through.

Outside, the traffic ran sparsely, one lane each way, and beyond that was a large field with a few cows and a billboard for Mac Cosmetics. A quarter mile off, one ran into the outliers of a suburb a few miles off the beach. Ahead was another hour drive. I decided to linger over my coffee and muffin.

“You heading for the beach?” a voice asked. It was the Joyce fan, large and lumbering.

“No, just driving.”

“Around here?”

“Why not?”

“Nothing’s here, that’s why not,” said the Joyce fan. “No music, no theater.”

“Well, you’re here,” I replied. “You got family around here?”

“Nah.” He hefted his tome. “That’s why God invented books.”

“So you never get out to the beach or anything?”

“I don’t like to read on the beach,” he said. “You get no peace from the crowds or the sun or the wind.” He scratched his chin absently. “And of course you get food here. Not as good as the Versailles Inn downtown, of course, but Darcy here’ll let you start with breakfast, read all through lunch, have dinner, and go home after a nice cup of jello.”

I glanced over to see if Mr. Darcy had heard the slight to his food, but he didn’t even bother to shrug. I got the impression that he agreed with the endless reader on the relative merits of his menu. “Say,” I asked, “you know anything about this cemetery?”


I may be a fool, but I began to wonder if they all did and were simply having some fun at the expense of the interloper who merely drove past things instead of stopping in for whole day. I was mentally compelled to apologize. “I mean, it’s just that you come in a lot.”

“Yeah. Coming back tomorrow, probably – medieval poetry. It’s gonna rain and that puts me in the mood for medieval poetry.” He suddenly darted down to one side, startling me – he was sort of a bulky bird, with the same quick, peering manner as a fat pigeon eyeing a new discarded morsel. He came back up, sighing, and then handed over a bimonthly chess magazine. “This, here – this is for you.”

“Uh… Well, thanks, but I don’t play.”

“Neither do I.” He scratched his stomach, the all-too tangible expanse marking his life of entropy.

“Why would you bother with reading it if you don’t understand it?”

He turned, and I was shocked to see that he was angry. With a sneer he said, “Who said I don’t understand? I said I don’t play. I don’t have existential quests, neither, but I read Joyce. What’s the point of only reading about stuff you actually do? If you do it you don’t need to read all that much about it, do you?” And with another birdlike twitch, he was placid again. “Now, chess reading is great if you’re stuck in the mud, mentally. That’s for fog and gloomy evenings. That sort of weather is enervating, so I read chess to keep that weather outside where it belongs.” He waved down at his bulging satchel. “I come stocked for a lot of different weather.”

“But you don’t play chess,” I said, but very carefully.

“I play mahjong.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Maybe mahjong was only for a particular climate condition, and I was afraid to anger in my ignorance. I took a sip of coffee. It was outstanding. In my excitement I totally forgot about chess and books for weather and practically flung myself toward Mr. Darcy.

“This is fantastic!” I blurted. “How did you do it? It tastes like a fine-ground, and almost like you ran it through an old percolator, but I saw you pour it from over there” – I waved wildly at a old tin pot – “and it smells different than a perk… Where did you get the beans?”

“Supermarket, of course,” he said. He betrayed utterly no emotion; somehow he’d brewed an elixir worthy of hosannas and halleluias, but it was entirely by accident. Then, thinking a little, he turned to the side of the counter and brought forth a blueberry muffin. “You didn’t seem t’ enjoy the corn,” he said. “Probably a little underdone inside. My oven needs fixing.”

I gaped. To my right, the other patron, unperturbed at my abandoning our conversation, had broken into a calculus textbook. It suddenly occurred to me that he’d know about the coffee, being here for long hours every day, but he was wholly absorbed. Given his previous proclamation about chess, I idly wondered if he could even solve a quadratic equation. The weather must have been equally suited to intractable sentences as it was intractable formulae.

“Uh, thanks.”

“On the house,” Mr. Darcy said placidly. “And if you switch t’ tea, I’ve got a scone around here somewhere.”

I took the muffin back to my booth and sank into the plether. It was better than the corn, but even that turned out not as bad as I would have guessed. I took to the other side of my little table and looked out the side window, out at the regiment of headstones. They faced away from the lot. Without going around to check, it was impossible to know who was minding your car while you ate. I wondered if they minded, or if there was ever enough work for all of them at once.

Two hours later I’d also had a good lunch, and had pored over a game that Paul Keres had played in 1952. The man at the counter had switched to a Batman comic as the afternoon grew dry and cool, but as I laid down a twenty I noticed that he actually looked up and said goodbye with a hat-tip. Mr. Darcy didn’t smile, but nodded as imperceptibly as Pei Mei. Mindful, I nodded back.

My car smelled warm. I tossed my jacket to the back seat and rolled down the windows. I decided not to look at the name on the headstone before I drove away.

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