“Here?” he asked Scooter, who just shrugged.
“It’s as good as anywhere else. I’ll get a room.”
They had plenty of money for food and motels for the next few days, and even after that it would be easy. When you’re on the run from yourself you can still use your credit card and access your bank account—you’re not going to find the trail unless you let yourself.
Scooter came back out to the car and threw a key through Jake’s open window. Then he tried to slide across the hood of the car, but his jeans stopped him halfway and he ended up with his face on the fender.
“Shit, that’s hot!” he yelled, and rolled off onto the gravel, because sometimes the things I see on television are wrong
. . .
The key was for room 112 on the end. It was all fairly nondescript, and we’ve all been in room 112 before. The dark green carpet with white dots. The eight layers of bedding tucked in way too tight. The water that doesn’t get hot enough or is too hot and feels different on your skin than you’re used to. The grimy bathroom floor and the A/C unit mounted underneath the window next to the door. The end of the toilet paper folded into a triangle. Two plastic cups and an ice bucket. Bolts in the television. Bible in the drawer. All across America the image is static. The only thing that changes is the rotating cast of characters, and even then most of us wouldn’t notice.
. . .
They jogged across the freeway when the coast was clear and made their way into the parking lot of a rundown looking barbeque restaurant called Jojo’s. The restaurant was rough wood on the outside with a low roof, a lonesome and dusty half-finished landmark standing out in the history of these people’s lives only because it was there and it was a place to go and other places weren’t. The glass doors said “Come on In, Y’all!” Jake hated Texas. Scooter was indifferent about the matter.
They came on in and were struck first by the jarring noise of a crowded room full of lifelong friends and next by the half-wave of a sixteen-year-old girl at a cash register. Her face was acne-ridden, and when she smiled her teeth were shackled in braces. She was the quintessential before picture, the kind of girl you hope can take a joke for survival’s sake. Just looking at her made Jake uncomfortable.
Jojo’s BBQ was packed, all locals. It was a cheap buffet-style restaurant with fake wood on the walls. The tables must have been from my high school cafeteria, twelve plastic seats attached to a sheet of particle board. On the wall right behind the girl and the cash register was a mural of a giant football helmet emblazoned with what could have been any type of generic mascot cat, snarling but so poorly drawn that all the menace was gone from it. Underneath, it said “Division II-A Champs ’96 ’97 ’99.”
The whole place was decorated with high school football bullshit, but the worst was on the far wall: a shrine to the local god of war. It was a six foot painting of a man with his arms crossed and a big grin on his face. He wore a blue polo shirt, and his head was huge under his curly blond hair. Coach Brooks was written underneath. He was clearly a paragon of coaching excellence, the mark which all assistant coaches and opponents should measure themselves against.
Jojo’s Barbeque is the kind of surreal place that has to exist, at the very least in order to validate our stereotypes. I know because I’ve been there. It should be a shrine. There should be pilgrimages. But there’s just dry meat under hot lights.
Sitting below the mural was the American God himself, Coach Brooks, gorging on a plate of ribs. He was wearing an old red embroidered polo shirt that must have been from his glory days, whenever they were. His shirt tugged at his body, revealing every detail of his breasts and distended belly. His jeans were too tight around his inhumanly small legs that didn’t belong to the obese man atop them. His jawbone protruded from a big bowl of fat under his chin. In short, he was even more perfect than Jake could have possibly imagined.
I am being unfair to him by making him into a symbol like this, because in truth he is a complex man. He loves his wife. He knows how to tell a joke. He only hits his kids when they really, really ask for it. He tried out for the NFL but didn’t make it, and this moment is a long way farther along his descending trajectory than he’d like for me to write about. But Jake would not understand all of this, so I made Coach Brooks into little more than a model for the American version of God, for my friend’s sake.
Jake was staring openly when the girl in front of him spoke up.
“Are you guys getting the buffet?” she asked.
“Sure.” Jake said it nervously. Talking to people makes him nervous.
The girl smiled at him and tried to make eye contact, which Jake took as an act of aggression, as if he were caught up in a canine hierarchy. He looked at her nametag instead of meeting her eyes. Joyce, it said. Hello, Joyce. The gold letters on your nametag are faded, the Y is peeling at the bottom. This used to happen to my nametag at Fargo’s. It’s funny how there’s always some point of connection. The K in Jake, the Y in Joyce.
Jake often rehearsed conversation, bagging up and preserving bits of small talk without ever uttering a word of it, swallowing whole his concept of a stranger, creating a whole life before this chance meeting and then aborting the whole effort by remaining silent. Suddenly he realized that her nametag was placed over her chest, and to anyone looking his fixation was with her under-developed breasts.
His head snapped up and he looked anxiously across the room at Coach Brooks, wondering if he had seen and was rendering secret judgment.
Joyce smiled that awful pubescent smile that spoke only of the planning stages. “Drinks?”
“Yeh.” Jake wasn’t even sure he’d said it until she punched it in and told him the total. $17.56. He handed her a twenty, and as she reached out to take it she touched his hand, just barely. It was probably an accident, for all that I put it in words out of a dozen other subtle motions she had made that I ignored. Jake thought that somehow she was making fun of him.
She gave him his change and a receipt, and she brushed his hand again, and she brought out two plastic trays, two cheap plastic plates, two plastic frosted glasses. My high school must have had a yard sale.
“There’s a great future in plastics,” Scooter said as he grabbed his tray. Joyce smiled that awful smile at them again. Jake wished he was invisible because he had ogled a minor right in front of Coach Brooks.
“Enjoy, Hon.” She winked at Jake. Maybe she was already figuring out the rural customer service heuristic, but Jake took it as another cruel joke of unwanted attention. This is one of the ways that author and character converge: pleasantries are acts of violence.
The buffet, it was wood paneled like everything else. Some of the panes of glass in the sneeze guard were missing. Others were chipped at the corners. Each thing under them was either deep-fried, sitting stagnant in its own oily juices, cooked into tough and dry fibrous protein, or had the consistency of a mass of heaved up bronchial fluid, spongy and wet. Choosing food wasn’t a matter of what they wanted but rather the avoidance of what they didn’t. The options presented seemed to be more about mortality than anything else.
“Man this shit looks awful,” Scooter said, loudly enough that all the people getting seconds and thirds looked up at him. He sucked air in through his teeth at the macaroni and cheese, which was somehow at once yellow and gray. The end of the buffet was marked by the presence of doughy, undercooked rolls that are produced en masse on sheets and carry a wholesome industrialized goodness in the gluten. Here, alive again in this restaurant, in the food and the people, is the America I grew up in. The crowd was depressing—Jake had never seen so many people who were either terminally ill, terminally fat, or terminally old, which is what we all have to look forward to in one way or another. Even the people around Coach Brooks were sad and lost, but his radiance was hardly diminished any by it. In the back corner was a table half-filled with high school kids, a collection of teenaged caricatures that don’t bear describing. Scooter and Jake claimed the end of this table, which caused a momentary quieting. I want to abort this scene that I’ve filled up with old tormentors, old problems, but I’m a little angry with Scooter for what he’s going to do later, so I want this one kid at the table to just kick the shit out of him.
Scooter leaned down the table towards the kids. “Hey! What’s up?”
They all just looked at him. He started eating with a stupid grin on his face. Jake was nervous again.
One of the kids, the one who used to stare you down in the lunch line while fucking the girl who wouldn’t talk to you, started talking again. He was big and muscular, a proud look into the homogenous future of America. This is what he said:
“Man, that fucker at practice today. I hate his fucking guts. Said if I didn’t hustle I’d be riding more wood than the community cunt on Saturday.”
One of the kids at the end of the table laughed, which was greeted with a challenge from the future community cunt.
“What? It was funny.”
“Doesn’t matter. Point is I’ve got more tackles than fuckin’ Evans anyway, and he don’t ride his ass near as much.”
The kid kept talking for a moment while Scooter kept looking over and then looking back at Jake. Jake just looked down at his tray, wishing there were some kind of pattern on it to look at. It was just yellow.
“Well, you’re the protagonist of this story, so it can’t be your fault.” This was Scooter, talking to the kid Jake would not look at. Scooter had had enough already.
The kid looked over at him, disgusted and shocked that he was being addressed. “What the fuck did you say?”
“I said you’re a fucking idiot, you shit-faced prick.” Scooter said it as he took a bite of corn, and he continued with his mouth full, totally at ease. “If you weren’t, you’d realize that if you spend your time after school knocking people over and learning the proper way to give a concussion then it should be no big surprise that your fire is fed with hatred. You should be on your knees sucking his cock as a gesture of thanks, not bad mouthing him.”
The kid said it slower this time. “What the fuck did you say?”
Scooter flashed a grin bigger than his whole face. “I said you should go with him to the prom, and then at the end of the night take him out to half field and swallow whatever he offers.” And he went back to his dinner, poking at green beans with his fork.
Jake just looked straight down at his plate. He had mashed potatoes, brisket, some barbeque sauce, fried okra, and the kid stood up and hit Scooter square in the forehead in one rigid motion. Scooter fell off his chair and out of view, but he was up again almost instantly with food on his shirt and a gash centered between his brows running blood. He got the kid once in the jaw before the kid landed an open hand at the side of his throat which sent him to the table. His eyes and Jake’s met and he smiled without any hint of panic in his face and blood now ran into the corner of his left eye. The kid grabbed his hair, and they were too close together for a real punch, but the kid tried anyway, mashing a fist into Scooter’s face. Around them a space had cleared but for Jake, who sat riveted with fork still in hand.
The kid let go of Scooter and he sat back down in his chair thanks to gravity while the kid stood over him. Scooter immediately pulled a piece off of his roll and put it in his mouth, chewing with his mouth open because he couldn’t catch his breath. The restaurant had stopped in the meantime. Everyone in the restaurant sat there looking at them in mid-sentence, mid-bite. They were all still life paintings, Portrait of an American Asshole. Coach Brooks finally stood up and started a long slow walk to their table.
Scooter found his fork and took a bite of his green beans while the kid watched with flared nostrils. “Stop eating,” the kid said. Then he said louder, “Stop eating.”
“Maybe we should go,” Jake said, and he rose to leave.
“Sit down and finish your dinner,” Scooter said. Blood ran into his mouth. Jake sat down but kept his hands in his lap.
“Come on. Eat.” He turned to the kid. “It’s over, man. Let’s all sit and eat.” He looked out to the whole room. “It’s a restaurant. Eat.”
Coach Brooks arrived finally, placed a hand on each corner of the end of the table, and leaned in real low, the kind of pose that belonged to football coaches. “What the hell is this about?” he asked.
“Well, sir,” Scooter said, “my friends and I are just fulfilling our biological imperatives.”
“Eating and fighting are both a product of the guts.”
“That’s mighty philosophical, son, but what say you get the fuck out of here?”
The kid, still standing over Scooter, started to speak, but Coach Brooks had only to look to shut him up. Jake thought that Brooks must be a spectacular kind of asshole to command that kind of respect and still scar generation after generation for life. To have a mural painted in his honor because he called the local children cunts.
Jake again made a move to go, but Scooter pointed his fork at him with a full mouth, chewing loudly. His left eye had started to swell already. Brooks looked at each of them in turn and then pushed himself off the table so hard it shook.
“Finish eating, then go. And you,” he pointed to the kid standing over Scooter, “are in a world of shit. I suggest you sit down and finish your dinner. I suggest you and your friends tell your little stories and laugh, and then I suggest you go straight to hell home, because you’ll want to be there telling your parents what happened so that my phone call isn’t such a surprise.”
The kid nodded and sat down. All of his friends followed. When Coach Brooks was far enough away, Scooter said to Jake, “I ever tell you about the time I got punched in the throat at a house show in Fort Worth?”
“That’s because it’s not a story worth telling. I didn’t even black out on him. The kid couldn’t hit worth a damn.”