Idaho

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.

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?