Author: Eli Toast

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.

The (not so) Good Earth

Heron trash

by Eli Toast

So I’m sleeping in fifth gear and lurch awake as if I’ve accidentally down-shifted into first. I run to my kitchen which stinks like hot batteries. The electric stove is glowing orange, the refrigerator door is open, and the shelves are collapsed inside. As my panic ebbs, I await the inevitable emotional tidal wave of jagged flotsam to surge over the levee and dump a bunch of bush-league angst into my so-called soul. I look out my window and life outside is a blazing shithole of consumer goods.

There are warm coins stuck to my body because I slept naked, which is rare because I usually pass out fully clothed, but last night I called multiple people retards and engaged in a vehement argument about whether or not a bear can beat up a lion; which it can.

As I shower, more coins fall from my body and clang in the tub. Beneath the hot water I engage in a, flat, red-eyed, vaguely suicidal shower-thought about eating a heaping spoonful of the entire periodic table of elements and washing it down with a tall glass of the fluid that leaks out of air conditioning units.

Shower finished, I pose in my post shower glisten and behold my grossly flatulent apartment in ruin. I notice the heat from the stove has dissipated and left the room cold. Before dressing I check the news hoping that a family of rich people have sunk their yacht into a shoal of hungry barracuda.

Last night I tried to chop a hamburger in half with my hand. I honestly can’t believe that I have any friends at all. I’m convinced this is the worst hangover of all time, and maybe it is. Well… It probably isn’t the worst, because my first year in college I got so drunk I almost died.

I need to eat and I’ve got wicked heartburn, but whatever, so I use the end of a dirty spoon to apply I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to some stale whole wheat bread I grabbed out of the cupboard. Then I remember that when I got home earlier this morning I ate three boiled hot dogs smothered in mustard, accompanied with several rugged chunks of cheese that I pried free from a one pound brick of Kirkland sharp cheddar with a fork. I also ate around fifteen kalamata olives and remember dropping several pits on the floor and defiantly leaving them there. Hot dogs, bread, and shorn  hunks of cheese with fiteen or so olives? Sure. I remember that. It was a swarthy and reckless eating session and I’m a steaming pile of shit.

Every single dish I own I leave in the sink, partially submerged in tepid bilge.

Everything will collapse and anarchy will be loosed; roving mobs of murderers will riot with impunity; the seas, lakes, and rivers are so choked with toxic slime and plastic, nothing but poisonous heaps of garbage will be left to our mutated babies when they inherit our newly slag-pitted earth; the banks will burn and the oily smoke will twist into the radioactive sky. Wholesale murder is already rewarded with fist bumps in corporate genocidal fraternities. This is where my head is as I step out the door, dressed, on my way to work.

Outside the sun’s muted rays slant at a cruel angle through the winter haze. A dirty, feral cat roots around a ubiquitous pile of Asian garbage and quickly regards me with near poultry-level skittishness that has been bred into it from a lifetime of matter-of-fact cruelty. On the way to work I walk past a river full of sewage where off in the distance a gray heron stands at the bank and I think about these poor birds forced to live next to this stinking river…but then again, I live next to this stinking river, and so does everyone else.

I turn from the river into an alley and there is an ageless woman bent in half, wearing a puffy nylon jacket, parachute pants, and rubber shoes, pushing an old two-wheeled cart full of cardboard. She’s prowling for more cardboard so she can sell it to a cardboard buyer in some infinitely straightforward cardboard transaction. She is obviously alone and poor, because why else would she be collecting cardboard at her age and condition on such a horrible morning? We pass each other in complete silence.

Then an old Korean gentleman waiting at the bus stop asks me where I’m from.

“The States,” I say.

“I’m a minister,” He says, “Are you a Christian?”.

“No, I’m not religious.”

“I lived in the US for 11 years, in Pennsylvania. I’ve met Eisenhower. Are you familiar with Eisenhower?”

“Yes,” I said, “somewhat.”

“How about Pearl Buck?” He asked.

“Sure, I know,” I said, lying.

“She was a friend of mine.”

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“I hope that someday you find God,” were his parting words.

A headache as evil and big as Monsanto hunkers down behind my eyes as I think to myself: “Pearl Buck? Huh… That was weird.”

Crossing campus I encounter a handful of errant goofballs who’ve strayed from the student body pack; they greet me with unrefined, though hardly pure, glee. I get to my office and thankfully no one is there. I look around and can’t believe any of it’s true. I haven’t earned any of this, but I’m also starting to give up on all that “woe-is-me” bullshit. I find eye drops and gum in my desk drawer and apply both. I take off my jacket and lay it over the back of my chair. I gather my things and wonder if I can summon the cowardice to cancel the day.

I exit the office and wade down the hall until I arrive at my classroom. I take a big breath, walk in and say:

“Good morning everyone. Are you ready?”

And they are.

sagebrush

Nampa, Id

by Eli Toast

I used to pour concrete foundations for homes out in Nampa, Idaho. A one-story culture rising from the agar of I-84; an open-air mega-church with monster trucks and weed-cracked parking lots staffed mostly with overweight freedom lovers swaddled in Looney Toon clothing, pious addicts on foolish errands, and soil working Mexicans. A modest Intermountain Northwest town, leveraged by usurers and strip mall layaways, with broad hissing avenues crusted by pawn shops, car title and payday loan joints, Carpet Barns, and auto parts stores; urban blight decked out in tacky signage. If Nampa were a plate of food it would be an indifferently cooked plate of chicken fried steak and eggs with a cigarette butt smoldering in the eggs.

And on the periphery, on huge plots of rammed and flattened earth, were guys like me who poured concrete foundations for all of the modest, nondescript homes for the not-so-wealthy people who come to live here.

I worked for one of my best friends, Ted, at an outfit called Galactic Concrete Construction. My other boss Mark, was a born again Christian who was forever persecuted by a compelling pornography addiction that ripped him in two. Raised by severe parents who believed in demons from hell and eternal damnation, he was certain porn punched his ticket to an eternity in the lake of fire. He was tangled in an insanely persecutorial double bind that made him weird, intense, and obsessed with saying the word “dildo.”

Then there was John, a general laborer like myself, a half Indian from Yuma who had lost his right index finger to a machine.

I was never any good at the work. On days when I was stoned, hung-over, and suffering from hemorrhoids I was almost worthless. Almost… I could still manage my primary duty of lifting things and moving them to different places. Occasionally, I got to use my hammer and sometimes I would smash my fingers with it. Often in the summer it was 100 degrees by 10:00 a.m., and for an inflamed sphincter that was bad news. At times I could think of nothing more than my swollen, aggravated, bound-tight-as-a-knot-on-a-balloon hemorrhoidal asshole. All of who I was, everything I had ever experienced, and everything I would become… swallowed in that needling singularity of anguish. I would put my head down and plod away in a miserable un-life emerging only for profanity and tobacco.

We all got hemorrhoids from time to time, although John would never admit it. Hemorrhoids in our line of work were about the worst thing a guy could have and still function. They’re not debilitating, but imagine if one morning you woke up and as you were getting ready for work you discovered you had a pulsing, hot sauce soaked cactus growing in your lower rectum. Mark claimed the best thing for hemorrhoids was Ambesol, the toothache medicine, and I believed him, though I’ve yet to try it.

Each day the erratic pop of nail guns being set loose on innocent lumber was constant. In the distance, backhoes and dozers dug holes and moved dirt, roiling thin clouds of khaki dust that loitered around us throughout the day. The sorry fuckers who framed houses were bony, impossibly sunburned men with violent, inky black tattoos, crawling over the skeletons of new homes, forcing lumber into involuntary positions, and full of vile dreams.

Occasionally Ted and I went over to John’s apartment after work to smoke weed and drink a few beers. John’s dim and swampy apartment was a two bedroom affair steeped in soiled clothing and broken toys. The massive television took up half the space in the living room, and, below it, on the floor, were Play Stations, Nintendos, DVD’s, and wires splayed out like the guts of a slashed television belly. The kitchen was a filthy display of fast food litter and dishes smeared with highly processed, low quality sauces. It smelled like cigarette ash, meth, wet skin, brackish carpet, and boldly organic compost.

John never seemed comfortable talking about hemorrhoids, or, masturbation, (both firmly in my wheelhouse) but he always wanted to talk about fucking his wife, whom we all hated. John’s wife Elaine (or whatever) would come around at lunchtime in a chronically fucked-up root beer-colored Ford Econo-Line packed with all six kids. The kids were filthy little buggers, but nothing was inherently wrong with any of them. Nevertheless they were totally doomed; doomed to a life of boring episodes in the Auto Parts stores, unable to find, or, unable to afford exactly what they need. Or worse. At least that’s what we all thought.

“Sometimes I wonder how people keep going like that,” Mark would wonder.

“Dudn’t know any better.”

John and his wife did quite a bit of meth. They weren’t stabbing babies yet, but they were basically always under its sway. These were the days when meth was everywhere, especially in a place like Nampa, Id.

The last time I went home I met John, by chance, at the Cactus Bar in Boise, a bar where I once witnessed a man getting raped in the men’s bathroom. (Seriously depressing story. It was Ted’s birthday and we were getting drunk, on, like, a Wednesday afternoon. I go to the bathroom and intrude on two guys engaged in anal sex. One of the dudes is so drunk he’s barely conscious [obviously he’s the one taking it up his keister]. Afterwards, that guy, the barely conscious one, manages to make his way back to the bar where he passes out and shits his pants. Eventually the police were called to take him away. The other dude sticks around like nothing happened, and at one point even offered to suck my dick. It’s likely he was high on meth as well.)

Anyway, John looked like shit. His teeth had become soap-soft and jagged like tiny black spires eroded by the winds of meth. He explained to me that he was broke and being evicted from the trailer he was living in. Came right out and fessed up to being broke. It takes balls to admit you’ve failed to manage a stable life. It’s like admitting something fundamentally embarrassing, like you can’t read, or tie your own shoes. When it’s confessed with no self-abasing shame, it comes across, at least to me, as kind of endearing. Small town America is famous for this kind of openness.

He had quit the concrete racket and was working as a street hot dog vendor (Gator Dogs) that sold sausages to late night drunks–keeping the coolers stocked, chopping onions, in charge of general tidiness and what not. Probably 45 years old, nice as could be, too. I suppose it’s a gradual wearing down of one’s expectations, a gradual acceptance of one’s lot. Surely there must be some hope involved, a belief that things will get better with time.  But when it comes to meth addiction time isn’t on your side.  If you’re at black tooth stage I’m afraid things are fairly un-do-overable.

I think about them, the meth addicts, the ones destined to be blown away by the shit, the gas huffers and glue sniffers, the Indians you see on COPS caught huffing gold spray paint behind blighted junipers in strip mall parking lots, beneath the stark “this is what you’ve become”  high wattage bleach of sodium bulbs. Those who occupy the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, these are the people whom I look at and ask myself: how do they do it? Carry on, I mean. Don’t they feel as hard? Because if it were me, I’d… I don’t know… I don’t know what I’d do.

All this was in my 20’s. I’m older now and live halfway across the planet and the most difficult part of my job is the stairs. I still see Ted from time to time when I go home. These days Ted is a rancher in central Idaho. Last time I was there we rode horses and four-wheelers through his pastures. Neither of us have any idea what Mark is up to. I have no idea why, but I think he lives in Spokane with a god fearing wife whom he hides from when he can. Maybe he still pours concrete and has a medicine cabinet full of Ambesol. Who knows?

deathnet

Snuff Click

By Eli Toast

A while back I watched a man get murdered on the internet.

The video, referred to as “3 Guys 1 Hammer,” came out of the Ukraine and was shot well before the country erupted into civil war. It was a well known case involving three teenage boys who went on a murder spree that only gas-huffing, Eastern European death metal fans seem capable of. The boys were known as the “Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs:” picture three Slavic teens with cold, pink faces, and translucent post pubescent facial hair in knock-off Adidas jumpers, getting drunk, smoking cigarettes and nailing live cats to pine trees; killing vulnerable people who wait on stone benches, and pregnant women who walk home at dusk next to frozen ditches in the blank evening shade of abandoned buildings. Or, maybe you’d rather not picture that.

The guy they murdered (who I learned had recently survived a bout with throat cancer), was dressed in the clothes that I imagine a lot of humble and avuncular Ukrainians wear: grey slacks, a cotton, green collared shirt, pastoral work boots. Older guy, maybe 50, mustache, riding his Soviet era bicycle into town on his way to buy a loaf of bread, or, help his Aunt’s grandson move a stove. The things a lower middle class Ukrainian gentleman does on a Tuesday afternoon.

In the video (taken in some leafy nook of the Ukrainian countryside where I imagine the drone of cicadas mid-summer would be deafening) one of the boys knocks the man off his bike and drags him into the woods. Then he films his friend as he smashes the man’s face in with a hand held sledge hammer. They covered the hammer in an yellow plastic shopping bag like a sort of forensic weapon’s condom. After the assailant thoroughly flattens the guys face with three or four practiced and swift blows, he goes on with exquisite depravity to put a screwdriver into each of the man’s eye sockets; like the way you would plunge a dipstick into a car engine, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, delicately, but with obvious sociopathic intent. Then he uses the same screw driver to stab the victim in the stomach and root around in his guts, eliciting giggles and naughty approval from the filmers. The victim moans the wilting moan of blunt trauma–a nearly unconscious, beauty melting death-moan into his near surroundings–his obstructed and emergent breath wetly percolating out of the newly broken fractures in his horribly battered face.

It is easily the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Mostly because it lacked any sort of causal back story. No ameliorating intent to blunt the edge of this trauma. This was not a mob killing, or, jilted drug dealers exacting revenge; it even lacked the cushioning glamour of stylized American psycho-murder. It was just straight-up ugly and imprudent murder at the hands of some seriously fucked-up adolescents. It was as sharp as tragedy gets.

 ***

I’m not sure why I watched it, and am still unsure of the repercussions. Perhaps I’ve become a detached latter-day-neo-post-modern-mass-media zombie in need of a full-on violent and bleak punch-to-the-liver-reality to jolt me out my indifferent stupor and remind me that life is precious. As if poking a dead guy on the internet is some kind of weak, misdirected reaction to neo-liberalism and the devouring maw of corporate profiteering, the commodification of human existence, the misappropriation of all of life’s cool iconography ejaculated back into our faces as bland advertorial goo.

Bottom line: everyone loves a train wreck (some obviously more than others); and I’m not trying to beat you over the head with post-grad gobbledygook…Anyway,somehow, someway, watching murders on the internet actually didn’t fuck me up that bad.

***

I reckon the majority of moderate to heavy internet users have seen some kind of murder by now. Whether it be through the emotionally refracted lens of night vision as some war machine strafes armed militants, or, the grainy footage of a predator drone missile exploding a wedding party thousands of miles away, or, perhaps a more intimate beheading that’s popular these days. Those are our drones, by the way, bought and paid for with our tax dollars (if you’re American, I suppose) and commissioned by our elected leaders. The sites that host these kinds of films usually present a sort of portentous and expository devotion to the absurdity and cruelty of the modern condition. A–this is real life, get used to it– kind of justification. There also seems to be an implicit assertion that a modern adult consumer who participates, however abstractly, in the diminishment of life elsewhere should see the imagery they’ve been complicit in manufacturing. And to me, that has some merit.

 ***

When I was younger I used to pour concrete out in the American West. There was this old truck driver (forgot his name by now) who drove one of those trucks with the slowly spinning barrels of concrete on back. One day he was telling us about elk hunting with horses. He told me how horses hate the smell of blood, how it freaks them out. So if you have a dead elk you want to pack it out on your horse, the horse needs to be calm. So when the horse is young you collect a puddle of elk blood in the palm of your hand and smash it into the horse’s nose. The idea being that you inoculate the horse to the smell of blood. I tell myself that Internet chaos is a sort of blood-nosing for humanity, immunizing us against the potentially paralyzing array of mutilated corpses we’ll be packing out.

***

A while back Louis C.K. went on Conan, and in a fit of hysterics, claimed his i-phone was distracting him from an overwhelming sadness; and the next day my Facebook page was plastered with joyous encomiums lauding how “spot on” he was. And he’s right. But I’ve grown wary of internet-sadness-hysteria. I’ve grown tired of people bitching about the mind numbing ubiquity of technology… this hip and emasculating notion of sadness that maintains that we are at the behest of our gadgetry. I’ve grown wary of the ultra-predictable pro and con wars that always erupt around celebrity upheavals i.e. deaths, surgeries, feuds, etc. The gross wholesale distraction from the grist of reality. I’ve grown tired that everyone has grown tired of being tired of being tired of everything. Staring at the internet almost completely caged in some kind of self-reflective feedback loop.

But, I’m torn. If my phone keeps me from bawling my eyes at the bus stop because the oceans are turning into acid, so what?

 ***

We’re often reminded by the sages that despair and loneliness, free from technological intrusions, are mandatory if we are to experience the exaltation and transcendence of beauty. I ain’t buying it, and, I can’t help noticing some kind of vaguely religious and imperial edge to these kind of yin and yang homilies. The reality is that life is a cake-walk for a few, and, a nightmare for others and the amount of suffering and ugliness one experiences is not necessarily commensurate with the amount of beauty and love they experience. I imagine some billionaire blithely doling out this sort of zen bullshit to his subjects while chilling his champagne with frozen diamonds, feeding his pet tiger a filet mignon, while his servants dine on hot dogs and Mountain Dew.

The internet. It lets you take measure of it all. If you want to stare into the void? It’s there. Those are real people who you saw covered in beige war-dust, dying in the uneven shadow of a demolished hospital. They woke up that morning and died that day. They never made it to their nephew’s house to help him move the stove, never made it to the bakery, and you know this because you saw them killed on the internet and it made you sad. But, at least you didn’t bawl your eyes out.