beef-n-cheddar

Beef and Cheddar, Utah

by Eli Toast

Last summer I drove to Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah to visit an old friend of mine. It was a long drive and on the way back home I stopped for gas at a Texaco in Snowville, Utah, halfway between Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho. I was hungry as a wolf-bitch so I decided to eat at the Arby’s that was conveniently attached. Coupling restaurants to gasoline stations is a relatively new trend that was just beginning as I was exiting America some 10 years back. Used to be a guy could go into a Stinker, Texaco, Chevron etc… and walk out with a station-sourced plate of nachos, couple corn dogs, some kind of burrito, a few hot dogs, a pickled egg, a Hot Mama sausage, some jo-jo’s, maybe a burger, half dozen pieces of fried chicken, and 20 or 30 packets of mustard and taco sauce. Heat lamp food and hot dog rolling machines (equipped with an expertly located bun drawer just beneath the rollers that stayed nice and steamy for optimal bun moistness) were normal. I miss those halcyon days of tasty, American, lamp-irradiated food that gave you heartburn and made your body leak.

In-store heated food merchandisers are a relic of the past; you almost never find them in gas stations anymore. Hot-dog rolling machines, however, have managed to stubbornly remain (God bless). Nowadays, seems everything comes equipped with a fast food restaurant. I’d honestly rather eat heat lamp food than Arby’s so I was a bit bummed-out as I filled-up and listened to the wind whistle through the gas pumps there in Box Elder County, Utah, United States, population 167. Blue sky bigger than anything you ever saw and sagebrush for miles around.

Inside, the place was heroically Republican. Freedom was everywhere, loaded with all manner of camouflage Don’t-Fuck-With-My-Guns-Wolf-Eagle-Barbecue propaganda. A galvanizing mixture of liberty porn and brave sloganeering steeped in the tears of 9/11 firefighters.

I paid for my fuel then drifted over to the counter at Arby’s to place an order for a Beef and Cheddar combo meal. The girl who served me was the quintessential poster child for the harmful side effects of Utah. Sporting a meaningless blade inspired tribal tat; small enough to hide from her family, too small to be daring, but just big enough to be indiscreet: right in the lame sweet spot. Straight up home-cookin, nose-pierced Mountain-Dew addled teenager, with a boyfriend who doesn’t brush his teeth enough, smokes synthetic marijuana, and owns a stolen switchblade.

She was incredibly friendly. The whole outfit was lousy with friendliness. If you spend enough time away from America when you come back you think people are joking. It’s approaches parody. Like, is this some kind of joke? You don’t know me. What have I done to deserve this kind of treatment?

Anyway, I received my Beef and Cheddar combo meal with curly fries and then loaded up at Arby’s free sauce bar. I like to dip my curly fries in plain mustard, like the guy from Slingblade.

There was another couple there. Octogenarians was my guess. Good, salt of the earth folks. Planned on stopping at Arby’s over last night’s steak dinner. The old man needed a new tow-ball installed on his rig so the timing was right. They loped out as I sat down in the empty and bright dining room, the mid-day sun baking the hell out of everything.

I unwrapped my sandwich and beheld it as if it were a glistening ambassador of life sent to me straight from the top of Barbecue Mountain.

As I’m eating the manager busied himself by washing the dust off the fake plants that separated the tables. Mid thirties, dishwater blonde guy with a mustache. Into dirt bikes and Satanism. Tells everyone he loves elk hunting, but he really doesn’t, he just says so to fulfill a vague sense of obligation to what he perceives as his personality. He doesn’t dislike hunting because of the killing, that’s his favorite part: he dislikes it because he finds walking around in woods totally boring.

He turned to me, and asked with real enthusiasm: “How’s your sandwich today?”

And for a second I really wanted to say something snide and nasty. Not to be a dick, but to liberate these modest sandwich peddlers from the unctuous snare of corporate smarm that shackled them so. Then again they’d probably been calling me a lib-tard faggot since the moment they saw me step out of my parents’ Toyota.

I answered his question politely, “It was great, really good actually. I love that Arby’s Sauce. What is it? Horseradish? Mayo? And what else?”

“Definitely horseradish…” he said. “And mayo. The other ingredients are actually a secret proprietary blend… But between you and me.. It’s white vinegar, a little granulated sugar, pinch of salt, and Xanthan gum.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“Nice, thanks, maybe I’ll whip some up someday,” I said as I stood to leave.

“You, have a good day, sir.”

“You too.”

I figured I ought to buy a soda pop for the road so I grabbed a Fresca on my way out. The older, ostensibly down-and-out cashier (with darker, edgier tattoos: the portrait of a dead child lost in a car accident, the name of an asshole ex-husband who’s out on parole now, whom she still spends weekends with getting drunk together down at the reservoir, barbecuing, and having swampy hog-fart-sex that would give a grown man nightmares) wanted to share her Fresca memories with me.

“Fresca, interesting, not many people drinking Fresca these days… Me and my cousin used to drink Fresca all the time. We loved it.”

I couldn’t give a meaningful reply, and she knew that, so whatever I said was fine with her.

“Nice,” I said. “It’s crisp.”

“He lived in Wendell. Drove truck for Jacklin Seed. But whenever he came by we made sure to have a Fresca together… But… He’s dead now, sooooooo.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be,” she said, pursing her lips, “ because I ain’t.”

And with that refreshing bit of candor I turned my back on Snowville and set out for the oblivion of the open road. I Made one more stop along the way outside Mountain Home. Filled up my tank, went inside, grabbed a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a roll of extra-strength Tums because I had terrible heartburn.

“Someone got heartburn?” Asked the guy at the cash register (overweight, beard, lapsed bass fisherman with a rusty boat disintegrating in his driveway.)

“Too much Arby’s in Snowville.” I said.

“Mmm… Love that sauce they do.”

“Well, I can tell you how it’s made.”

“Shit, that’s the last thing I need,” he said.

Fair enough.

Suppose that’s the last thing any of us need.

Picture us, driving down highways knowing how all the secret sauces are made, all the wonder of life sucked out because one loosed-lipped poindexter thought he had things figured out.

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10 comments

  1. Cool stuff. This idea of random strangers sharing really personal stuff with you is a very American phenomenon, especially among the working class. I remember a few years back taking a Greyhound bus from Boise to Seattle (after vising you, Mr. Toast). The bus was full of the poorest of the poor. Most of the men were fresh out of jail; the guy who sat next to me for the first two hours wore a PIECE OF ROPE for a belt, and waxed hopeful about crossing the Oregon line, since their just “ain’t no work in Idaho no more.” Real Grapes of Wrath kind of shit. But what struck me were the conversations on the bus: These people loudly talked to each other seats apart, sharing intimate, unflattering details of their personal lives. They had no shame, bound together out of some kind of fellowship of the poor. We all were trapped on the Greyhound, and yeah, it kind of sucked. No one was better than anyone else, so why not share some secrets and laughs. You’ve touched on this idea before and I think I left a similar comment, but it bears repeating.

    I’ve never seen such openness on a public bus in any other country. In Korea, people don’t say shit to each other, even if they’re family. They just sleep or watch their phones…

  2. Reminds me of waiting in the very long line at the DMV so many years ago and greasy blue collar strangers gifting me with all kinds of seedy details about their lives that I in no way wanted to know
    Poetry!

  3. Great piece. Big fun reading this while traveling up and down California. But, got to say Mr. Toast, seems like you’re missing the finest heat lamp buffet ever: Flying J truck stops on the Mighty 99. Try the thick foot-long crispy skinned hot link wrapped in a giant croissant with a bag of deep fried chicken gizzards on the side. That’s really heat lamp living.

    1. Sounds amazing. And yeah, a good ol’ fashioned truck stop (or travel plaza) like Flying J or Burns Bros, etc… is a veritable cornucopia of irradiated stodge.

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