The Usual

Chapter One — Take the Bus and Leave the Driving to Us

It must have been one hell of a going-away party. When I woke up with about 20 minutes to get my stuff together and make it to the Greyhound terminal on Glendale, the forces of good and evil were waging holy war in my head and the guys that didn’t make either one of those teams were kicking the shit out of each other in my stomach. Nor could I locate my pants.

Why was I even taking the bus in the first place? Everyone at last night’s party seemed to have an opinion about my choice of transportation:

— You’re nuts. How long does that trip take, man?

—  49 hours and 8 minutes.

— That’s totally crazy. A plane would get you there in a couple of hours and probably cost the same. Greyhound’s the pits, man.

I had already made up my mind.– I wasn’t gonna fly. Distance without time lacks meaning. Julie had taken my car with her when she cut out on me, and the idea of a bus trip intrigued me.

A plane in the air moves faster than most of us —  I for one — can think. Sure, with a clear day’s view you can follow your progress over the earth below, which is cool, and all those singular roads going nowhere and rivers fucking around in mountains, farmlands unexplainably in circles, people in pickup trucks listening to country music — or so we assume, but then just when you think you’re getting a grasp on the world beneath you–

— Sir, would you please place your window shade in the down position. Your fellow passengers can’t see their consoles.

If you really want to know where you’re going, best to go there at street level.

Take the bus and leave the driving to us

Between Phoenix and Williston there are 37 stops and 4 transfers. That’s forty-one carats of gem-americania, forty-one paintings in an exhibition, forty-one poems in the great western anthology: Sheridan, Casper, Parowan, Hysham, Miles City, places with theme songs, local heros, Rotaries, Elks, VFWs, big shot realtors, and high school football teams — Eagles, Panthers, Wildcats, and Bulldogs incited to deeds of glory by cheerleaders with fat thighs and bright futures. Yes, it’s basically the same shit all the way — a mactacokfcwendysihopcirclek highway, but different just the same, as the dice of rural evolution don’t come up with the exact same numbers on every roll.

It’s not like I was in a hurry to get to North Dakota, anyway. I knew it would be cold and honkey up there and that I might have to start in working right off. They say there’s so much work in Williston you can’t avoid it even if you’re trying to. Somebody will acoust you on the street and two days later you’re a miner, or driving a truck, or lubing clutches on an oil rig. That’s scary.

So why was I going in the first place? I still had money left from the inheritance. I still had friends in Phoenix even if Julie had given up on me. It certainly wasn’t all the make-something-of-yourself  flak I was getting. That didn’t phase me.

― How can you, a grown man, piddle your life away spending 12 hours a day in a dark cellar dickin’ around with fantasy figures on a computer screen?

— It’s easy. I’m an athlete competing in top notch world-encompassing sporting activities. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

— But you’re competing with 13 year-olds!

— That’s right and I’m kickin’ their asses.

No, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. But my nutrient base of Red Bulls, Doritos, and spliffs was probably not as healthy as it’s cracked up to be, and my face had developed a rash of purple stripes so weird I couldn’t even find it described on Wikipedia. The clincher, though, was my computer blowing up. I mean literally — smoke and everything. And I realized I didn’t have the juice in me to take it somewhere and get it fixed. It seemed like a good time to get frackin’.

My bus left Phoenix at 12:40 — an hour later than scheduled. I had rushed like crazy to the depot with half the stuff falling out of my bag, only to sit around for an hour watching border patrol guys hassling Mexicans and 13 bums in a row groveling through the same trash can in search of shit to recycle or — worst case — eat.

I want to say the first leg of the trip between Phoenix and Vegas was uneventful, though in truth, a whole bunch of crap was going on both inside and outside the bus. I was just too numbed by my new environment to take it all in.

We got into Vegas for a layover at 9:30 that evening which gave me five and a half hours to amuse myself in the capitol city of sin. The Greyhound terminal is downtown. It’s the place to be if you can’t get in anywhere else; if your drugs are not up to spiff, your whoring is off, your pickpocketing ambitions low, your conception of sanitation rooted in the middle ages. I was starting to think positive about the airlines.

I hung out in the Plaza Hotel next door playing the video slots. Twelve hours into the new me and I had regressed from the brilliance of StarCraft II to staring at six ugly pieces of fruit dancing in an unsyncopated chorus line. Onomous.

The bus left Vegas two hours late, which I was beginning to learn was SOP for Greyhound, but I was lucky enough to have two seats to myself to stretch out on all the way to Cedar City, where we pulled in around seven in the morning. I was woken by a woman who obviously intended to be my seat neighbor. I sensed right away she was a talker and I hastily got some music going. She was not to be deterred. After a couple of minutes, she politely knocked on my headphones.

— Where you heading for?

She was too old for me.

Now, isn’t that a stupid thought to have in your head. I mean, like, do we really have to do that? Classify everyone we meet by the probability of cohabitation? Too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too married, wrong sex? Wrong sex, that’s a deal-breaker. Life must be soooo strenuous if your sexual preferences are totally multilateral — any port in a storm. You would always have to be on your toes. Exasperating.

This woman needed to talk and I couldn’t sleep anyhow. She had just been fired from her waitress job at Denny’s in Cedar City after 10 years of, what she called, loyal service. I sympathized. Even if I had, technically speaking, never held a job myself, I realized that doing the same thing on end for 10 years would form habits that, when interrupted, could bring on withdrawal symptoms. My right hand was already experiencing a longing for my Razer Deathadder 3.5G.

— Why did they fire you?

— I was tampering with the usuals.

I had already figured she was a waitress. She had permanently stiff waitress hair and waitress shoes and a deep-fried odor which made me feel like eating breakfast. I think she was blind in one eye, but that, of course, ought not to have anything to do with waitressing.

Oh, am I stereotyping? Sorry, but it’s my prerogative. Just look at me. I’m a Chink. And I ain’t no suave, good-looking Chink like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. I look more like one of those dispensable, dime-a-dozen, Macau hoodlums Jackie and Bruce take out parenthetically with a flick of the wrist. Shit, I’ve been profiled and discriminated and jeered at since nursery school. It’s a give and take world you know, so bear with me.

I asked her what she meant by “tampering with the usuals”. She gave me the long answer.

— We can’t all make it to the top.There is not enough room up there for all of us. Everyone can’t be homecoming queen or a VIP, or Justin Bieber, or the realtor who sold the most property. But we all need the sort of recognition those achievements bring.

This would have been an opportunity for me to let her know of my rankings on Battlenet, but I didn’t want to interrupt her. She had a lot to get off her chest. I let her go on:

— A diner like Denny’s in Cedar City, or anywhere else in the smalltown part of the world, is all about locals and regular customers; customers who want to be seen, known, and remembered. For a good waitress, well, that is one of our primary duties — remembering people.

I nodded encouragingly.

— Remembering names and faces is not a challenge. I know well over a hundred of my customers by name. Yet anybody can do that. Remembering what people care about, what they like — that’s what counts. When I know what a customer wants before they order it, when I always know they are going to have ‘the usual’, that signifies a bond between us. I could put in orders for my usuals when I saw them driving into the parking lot. You see, the less that had to be said between us — the stronger the bond.

I remembered just then the song ‘You say it best when you say nothin’ at all”, which I had assumed was about a guy telling his babbling partner to keep her mouth shut and get it on. But this waitress-philosopher would no doubt offer another interpretation. I said:

— Yeah, but that means your regular customers would always have to eat the exact same food day in and day out. That’s a steep price to pay.

— You’re right. Attaining usual-status is an investment, and investments come at a cost. But the payoffs in self esteem are high. Don’t think my usual customers aren’t interested in trying out new dishes, it’s just that the bond between us means more to them.

— Maybe the food at Denny’s all tastes the same anyway, no matter what you order, and there wouldn’t be any point . . .

— You’re a very cynical young man. Denny’s offers a wide range of dishes.

She turned to me sternly and I got a whiff of decaf that has been coagulating on a Bunn-o-Matic brewer for five hours. I had never thought about it before, but my Uncle Charlie had been buying a new Chevrolet Suburban from the same sales guy at the same dealership for the last 20 years. When he comes in in August the guy just takes his credit card and hands him the keys to a new gray Suburban. No discussion. No haggling. I’ve always thought Uncle Charlie was an idiot, but in this woman’s thinking I guess he had just taken “the usual” to a higher plateau. I told my new friend about Uncle Charlie.

— A Chevrolet Suburban is an unusual usual compared to eggs sunny-side-up, but, yes, the principle is the same.

— If you took such good care of your customers how come Denny’s fired you?

— Like I said, I was tampering with those usuals. I was breaking the rules messing with people’s food. The idea came to me one day when my most usual of all, Big Ed, didn’t come in, and I was looking at the counter seat he always sat in and I noticed that his butt imprint was visible on the cushion even though he wasn’t there — counter stool A3 to be exact. Ed’s butt was permanently moulded in A3’s naugahyde.

— Like the hand- and footprints of famous actors and actresses at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood?

— Ha, I guess you could say so. And that’s when I took it upon myself, without endangering Big Ed’s status as a usual, to diversify his eating habits. When he showed up the next day I had already started making changes.

— What was Big Ed’s usual?

— Do you know what a Denny’s Grand Slam is?

— Of course. It’s a whole bunch of breakfast crap  and you pour maple syrup all over it.

— It’s not really maple syrup, and I would prefer if you didn’t refer to Denny’s food as crap.  Ed’s usual was the Super Grand Slam Extremo: Three slices of bacon, three sausages, three scrambled eggs, jam and toast, hashbrowns, a jumbo stack of blueberry pancakes with butter and syrup, a 16-ounce orange juice, and a bottomless mug of real American coffee.

— Wow, Big Ed was cramming in more calories in one sitting than a  third-world family consumes in a week.

— He’s a hard worker. I am not a hypocrite. I’m not going to criticize people for eating what I serve them . . .  Anyway, from then on I started altering all the usuals — Big Ed’s and the rest. Expanding, modifying, experimenting. But never mentioning it to the customers. If they knew what was going on they never let on and neither did I.

— You were changing the usual orders of all your regular customers? That is quite a feat.

— I wasn’t alone on it. Emit, the breakfast cook — he’s from Turkey, and he has worked in a lot of different restaurants in countries I’d never even knew existed. He could cook up just up about anything imaginable. He could do Arab and Mongolian and . . . he could make the kind of food you are used to, as well.

— I’m used to hamburgers.

— What I meant was, the food that is native to you . . .

— Hamburgers are native to me. And Enchiladas. And Pizza.

— Oh, I’m sorry, I thought . . .

— You thought I’d say, like, chop suey? It’s OK — go on with your story.

— No, really. I’m sorry. We don’t have many oriental people in town and they don’t often come in to Denny’s.

— Forget about it. Go on.

— Well, Emit had his own personal vendetta against bland american cooking so he really enjoyed pimping the usuals as long as I kept track of who was eating what. He brought in his own herbs and spices and cans of exotic foods, which was a flagrant violation of the Denny’s code of conduct. Denny’s has a very strict policy about the consistency of what we serve. Every item on the menu must be prepared exactly the same, look the same, and it goes without saying, taste the same in any of Denny’s 1500 restaurants.

— That’s probably true for your patrons as well.

—  I wanted to offer some variety to my regular customers — a variety they themselves couldn’t initiate.  I was going for subtle changes, like gradually moving coffee drinkers over to tea and visa versa, whole wheat to rye, that sort of thing you know, but Emit was on to something bigger. He wanted to change the eating habits of America. And his creativity was putting our jobs at risk.

— So what happened? You got caught obviously.

— Our boss’s wife ate with her mother one day a week in the restaurant and both of them had been on a usual basis with me for over a year. The boss’s wife had long ago started out on Bacon Avocado Burritos and her mother always had, or thought she was always having, a Banana Caramel French Toast Skillet, while in fact, the mother was being served Bubur Manado with minced Kangkung and the wife was chowing down on an Alexandrian Ful Medames topped with fermented figs.

— That does sound pretty exotic.

— One day either Emit was out of Kangkung, or he had felt it was time to move it up a notch. He minced some Durian paté onto a candied plum on the mothers dish. Are you familiar with Durian paté?

— Nope.

— Well I wasn’t either, but when the poor old woman put her fork into that plum it sort of popped and an unimaginable odor spread across the dining area that I guarantee you, nobody has ever smelled in a Denny’s before or since. The weird thing was that she didn’t bat an eyelid. Apparently she had lost her sense of smell long ago. The rest of restaurant went into shock. It was like a bomb had gone off, or a gas leak.

— That must have been hilarious.

— You have a strange sense of humor, young man. We weren’t doing it as a joke. And the owner didn’t find it amusing either. He has several Denny’s franchises in the state, and he was rarely on the premises, but as fate would have it he happened to be in on some errand just that day and witnessed the whole thing.

— And it was his own family that were the victims. Bad luck.

— They would have found us out sooner or later. The owner said that Emit was a menace to society, unamerican, a perverted, corrupting foreigner and a lot of other nasty stuff. He was chewing him out in front of everyone, both staff and patrons. I had no choice but to step in and tell em it was all my fault, that I had put Emit up to it, and that if they had to fire anybody it should be me. The owner axed both of us on the spot right then and there.

— And the lawsuits?

— Lawsuits? What, are you a lawyer?

— No, but I’m an American and I assume that once word gets out, some of your regulars are going to demand compensation for all you put them through.

— You think?

— But of course with those racial slurs from the boss, Emit might have a case for countersuing.

— Well, I won’t be around to see that happen. I’m heading up to Green River to stay with my sister for a while.

— And then?

— And then, well, Emit and I are talking about opening our own restaurant.

— No kidding? What are you going to call it?

She laughed for the first time since she’d sat down beside me.

— ‘The Usual’. Now it’s your turn to tell me your story.

–I’m heading up to Williston, North Dakota to get in on the gold rush.

— No kidding? I was born just a few miles outside that town. My Dad owned some mines and a few oil wells.

— Then you should be fabulously wealthy.

— North Dakota may be jumping now because of the fracking and the horizontal drilling, but in the nineties we were in a depression. My father died a poor man.

— And the wells and the mines?

— My brother had bought them off of him before he died. My sister and I got nothing. And now of course —

— Your brother’s fabulously wealthy and you’re an out-of-work waitress.

— That’s about it.

Chapter Two – How Green Was Your River

Hey man, I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. It would be pretty stupid to get off the bus, rent a car, and drive a woman whom I had only known for three hours to Green River. Or perhaps I am stupid. A possibility I should be giving serious thought to ever since I killed my father.
Be that as it may, I did tell my waitress I would happily get off the bus with her in Grand Junction, rent a car, and drive us to Green River. Since we were already on a bus heading for Green River, what was the problem?
Utah — that was the problem. We were about to arrive in Green River, Utah, and my waitress was on her way, or so she thought, to Green River, Wyoming. You see, she was, like, 300 miles on the wrong bus.
This unfortunate detail was discovered as she was waking up from a nap and I, looking out the window, saw a road sign: Green River 70 miles. I told her the bus was still running late and that we wouldn’t get in before noon, so maybe she should call her sister and let her know.
 — You’re mistaken, she said. We won’t get into Green River until late this evening. It’s hours and hours away.
— You’d think — so as slow as this bus moves, I said, but we’re almost there.
— That’s not possible.
I showed her my printed bus schedule with the 41 stops between Phoenix and Williston. I pointed to where Green River was next on the list and she almost fell out of her seat.
— Oh my God, I’ve really screwed up. Are we on our way to Green River, Utah? My sister lives in Green River, Wyoming. I have bought the wrong ticket. I didn’t even think about there being a Green River in Utah.
She went up to the front of the bus and conferred with the driver and came back to her seat not looking too happy.
— I must either turn around and go back to Cedar City and take the bus via Salt Lake, or continue on and transfer in Denver. There is no route that runs directly north from anywhere near here.
— Which alternative is the fastest?
— Yeah, I asked him that and he said there are 17,000 Greyhound departures every single day and since he was a bus driver and not an encyclopedia he couldn’t tell me, but he estimated around 24 hours either way because of the waiting times.
She got on her phone and called her sister. It was a bad connection and she had to shout some. The passenger directly across the aisle from us, a guy wearing a Dodgers baseball cap, tapped on her shoulder in the middle of her call and said: Greyhound rules, lady — no cell phones, which had to be bullshit, since half the people on the bus had been using their cell phones. An oversized woman on the seat ahead of the complainer tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The only rule is that you have to turn off your ringer, adding, give the woman a break — she’s on the wrong bus.
— She doesn’t have to scream into her phone because of it, said the guy in the Dodger’s baseball cap.
My waitress was still being pretty loud talking to her sister: It’s OK, Janet. I’m not expecting you to take a whole day off to come down here and get me. I’ll work it out.
— You could get a rental in Grand Junction, said the oversized woman who had intervened against the man in the Dodger cap. It would only take you around 5 hours if you headed straight up the i39 and then took the 191 through the Flaming Gorge.
― I wouldn’t dare drive that road by myself, said my waitress to the five or six passengers who had taken an interest in her predicament. There is nothing there for hundreds of miles.
And now comes the part where I am either crazy, stupid or both. I tell her I will get off the bus and drive her.
— You can’t be serious, said my waitress.
I tell her I had always wanted to see that part of the country anyway.
— What part? There’s nothing there, she said.
— The Flaming Gorge sounds pretty exciting.
— It would be night by the time you got there, said a latino man in the seat behind us.
— He’s right, said my waitress. And though it’s really sweet of you to offer, I could never accept.
— Why not?
— People don’t do that sort of thing. It’s just too much.
— Nice try, kid. She’s old enough to be your mother, said the asshole in the Dodgers cap. My waitress asked him to mind his own business.
— It’s up to you, I told her. But I’m in no hurry. I could get on the bus again once I’d dropped you off. It would make a nice break.
She wasn’t going to say that there were risks involved in being alone with a near-stranger, a male, on an isolated highway. She wasn’t going to say that it wasn’t safe. She wasn’t going to say that, despite all, people simply can’t trust each other outside of our controlled environments and contractual arrangements — the usual circumstances of our lives.
— Thanks again, but I am going to turn around and take the next bus going west, she said.
— But then you’ll have to go back through Cedar City.
— So what? It’s not like I’m a fugitive from justice or something. I didn’t poison anybody. I just tried to enrich their lives a little.
And I wasn’t going to say that she had got me all wrong. That I had no ‘ulterior’ motives. That I liked her for what she had done. That I admired her whole crazy food project. I wasn’t going to say that because it wouldn’t have changed anything. It could be just bullshit. How was she to know? For all she knew I could be Ted Bundy or Gary Ridgway.
 I helped her take her bags off the bus in Utah’s Green River. We had a coffee together. She wrote down her Facebook name on a piece of paper and said she hoped we could be friends. Actually that came as a shock to me. I couldn’t fit her and Facebook in on the same planet. Cruising on that bus with my waitress, I had forgotten that there was such a thing as Facebook.
— We are friends, I said. We don’t need Facebook.
— But how will we keep in touch? she asked.
— Don’t you have plain old email.
— No, she said. I’ve never understood how it works.
— Open that restaurant with Emit, I told her, and I will be one of your first customers. Which obviously was a promise I could never keep. I was going to be in Williston, 300 miles away working in the oil fields or something like that. So much for honesty.
And now I am going to relate a chain of mysterious circumstances. I am not a religious person, but I will have to concede that when seemingly isolated events stack up like this we have got to consider that there are forces in this universe beyond our fathoming.
1. The first song that came up on my phone after I got back on the bus and waved to her on the pavement below just happened to be “Dancing Shoes” by The Green River Ordinance. Those guys are from Texas, not Utah, and not Wyoming. The name of their band refers to a law that was passed in Green River, Wyoming in 1931.
2. This ordinance or law prevents salespeople, tinkers, canvassers, missionaries and their like from knocking uninvited on people’s doors. Similar laws exist in many communities in America, and are collectively referred to as Green River ordinances.
3. Wherever Green River ordinances are in force, traveling salespeople have it rough. In 1935 the Fuller Brush Company, who together with Avon were the largest door-to-door operations in the country, challenged this law all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost, by the way.
4. My father had tried his luck as a Fuller Brush salesman in the fifties. His oriental mien was not an asset. He was the worst performing Fuller Brush Man in the Central states, and he eventually got arrested and convicted as a trespasser under a Green River ordinance in Coldwater Kansas. This experience convinced him to go into business for himself.
5. Dad established the Shanghai-Phoenix Import & Export Corporation and he got rich from among other things importing brushes from China that cost a tenth of those sold by his former employers.
6. With the profits of the Shanghai-Phoenix Import & Export Corporation, my father was able to send my sisters and I to college. I enrolled at Arizona State, but dropped out after half a semester. I was able to hide this fact from the family for most of that year, but eventually my sister Alice ratted on me.
7. It is accepted as a de facto truth in our family that my failure to last more than a few weeks at a university was the cause of my father’s heart attack. It is also said that my reclusive life as a gamer, the ending of my relationship with Julie, and even my trip to the badlands of North Dakota are all due to the shame and guilt I feel on account of my patricide.
8. Gary Ridgway, one of the most prolific serial killers of all time, was known as the Green River Killer. Gary was not from Green River — Wyoming or Utah, but the bodies of many of the 70 or so women he strangled were found half-buried on the banks of the Green River in the state of Washington.
9. Gary did door-to-door missionary calls for the Pentecostal church in the SeaTac area, but his work, as that of my father’s, was seriously hampered by Green River ordinances. I am not saying that he wouldn’t have murdered all those women if his proselytizing had gone better, but you never know.
10 Gary Ridgway’s sexually motivated evilness served as inspiration for the 1991 TV series, Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was filmed in the very same mountains Gary made love to dozens of young women — both before and after strangling them.
11. One of the stars of Twin Peaks, playing the part of the beautiful widow Jocelyn Packard, heiress to the Packard Sawmill, was an actress named Joan Chen. Jocelyn Packard was very popular with all of us Sino-Americans. She was, at that time the only positive Chinese role-model in American media. She was brave, beautiful, and smart — that is until David Lynch turned her into a very nasty individual: a manipulative schemer who duped Police Officer Truman, a murderess who shot Thomas Eckhardt and attempted to kill Agent Cooper, and a coward, who died of fright.
12. Joan Chen was in her first marriage wed to my cousin, Jim Lau a film extra.
13. Gary Ridgway was captured in 2001 while eating a Grand Slam breakfast at a Denny’s in Renton, Washington. He had apparently just arranged a date with his waitress when the police stormed into the restaurant. Lucky girl. Gary is serving a life-term at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla Washington. Walla Walla means ‘bright prospects’ in Mandarin. It was also the name of our cat which my father was very fond of.
14. I am beginning to think that the guy sitting next to me on the bus — the guy in the Dodger cap who objected to my waitresses’ phone call, is Gary Ridgway, or at least his twin. I know what Ridgway looks like because my roommate at Arizona State had a ‘Naughty Boy’ t-shirt with Gary’s face on it.
Between Green River and Grand Junction, Colorado, the guy who for all I know is Gary Ridgway decides he wants to talk to me and moves uninvited into the seat vacated by my waitress.
— You know you have to watch who you talk to on these buses, buddy. Though he is alluding to my waitress, I feel he is warning me about himself. He tells me a story:
— A friend of mine was so excited about getting a great PIN number for his credit card, that he just had to tell the woman sitting next to him on a Greyhound bus. Visa had given him 1234. And you know, what are the odds of that? It’s like winning some kind of lottery. That’s what he told this woman. 1234. When he woke up a few hours later she was gone and so was his wallet.
I told the Dodgers cap man that must have happened a long time ago because nowadays, as far as I knew, everyone can chose their own PIN codes. I added that I had chosen the French Revolution for mine. He said he didn’t know the Frenchies had even had a revolution. But then some wheels and gears meshed in his brain and an astonished look came over his face.
— Hey man, that’s crazy. If I can find out when the frenchmen had their revolution … well then you’ve just told me the PIN to your credit card.
I tell him not to worry because I know a face I can trust when I see one. I think this is funny, because there is a good chance I am sitting next to Gary Ridgway. Once again I prove myself to be either crazy, stupid or both.
 After a while he asks me if i can guess how many murders have been committed on Greyhounds. I say 47.
— Wise guy, Huh?
— No, I answer. I was only guessing.
— You’re a chinaman aren’t you? Nothing personal. I was just curious.
— It’s OK. People ask me that all the time. But no, actually I’m Inuit.
— What’s that?
— Eskimo, I said.
— Hmmm, that’s interesting. It’s not that I have anything against Chinamen, of course.
— Well, I detest them, I said. You perhaps didn’t know that the Chinese are killing off our polar bears. The claws of polar bears — they use them for aphrodisiacs. Same goes for the teeth of our walruses and the nose hairs of our seals. It all goes into Chinese sex potions.
— I didn’t know that, he said. But it doesn’t surprise me. The guy that cut off that kid’s head on a Greyhound in Canada in 2008 was a Chinaman. Can you believe that happening? On a bus filled with passengers? He ate some of him as well and went around the bus waving the kids head by his hair. They didn’t even execute him. Insanity.
— No I didn’t know that. Listen, it’s been nice chatting with you, but I am going to try to get a little rest now. Do you think you could move back to your own seat?
— Yeah, I should get some shut-eye myself. I got to stick with this deutschbag outfit all the way to Hysham, Montana.
Oh crap, now I have problems. This guy is headed to a place just a few miles from where I am going, which means I would have to spend the night with him on the bus. At our stopover in Denver I am worried that he wants to hang out, but he disappears, probably headed over to some bookstore to find out when the French Revolution took place.
There is a switch of busses in Denver. We are now on something called the Black HIlls Stage Line which I assume is owned by Greyhound. In any case there is no noticeable change in the level of service. My new ‘friend’ looks like he is intending to sit with me, but I slide in next to the first person I see with an empty seat beside them.
I get off the bus in Cheyenne. I had no choice. We were stopping for 25 minutes. I waited until minute-24 before making my getaway. The Greyhound / Black Hills bus station is located in the lobby of a hotel called the Rodeway Inn. In my paranoia I imagine that it says Ridgway Inn on the sign and this freaks me out. The guy in the reception is playing Super Mario on a Gameboy when I check in. He actually tries to process my credit card without interrupting his game. It dawns on me that I actually know the plot to Super Mario. Here it is, dedicated to the Ridgway Inn desk clerk who never once looked me in the eye:
One day, a mysterious alien named Tatanga appears and hypnotizes the inhabitants of Sarasaland, including Princess Daisy. Mario’s task is to rescue Princess Daisy. But he keeps running into monsters, pretending to be Daisy and has to waste precious time engaging them in battle. Mario finally confronts Tatanga in the kingdom of Chai and saves Daisy from her tormentors. There is some romance and kissing and then Daisy takes Mario home to live happily ever after. 
My room is depressing and I realize it could be the first of many on this trip. But I, am at least safe for now from the Green River Killer. I can get back on the bus tomorrow. I turn on the TV and go to sleep dreaming about creating exotic foods with my waitress.
 . . .
The Rodeway / Ridgway Inn has a buffet-style continental breakfast, but one can order extra stuff like eggs and bacon. The breakfast attendant asks me what I would like and I tell her ‘the usual’ just to see what will happen. She doesn’t bat an eye. She brings me poached eggs on toast. I don’t even like poached eggs on toast. Either she thinks I am somebody else or she’s joshing with me — Poached eggs on toast can’t possibly be the most common breakfast in Cheyenne.
The breakfast attendant’s name tag says ‘Sandy’. I say to her, Sandy, can you heat up this coffee. She chews me out:
— Sir, Just because I am wearing a nametag, that doesn’t give you the right to address me by my first name.
She might have a point there, but I assume she is having a bad day.

Chapter Three — The Ultimate Insult

First they wipe them out a little, sign some bogus treaties, break promises, wipe them out some more, break more promises, wipe them out again, this time — big time, and then they name their town after them. Sorry guys, you lost, you’re dead, nice try, but we do like your name and we think it’s just perfect for our capital city … and our baseball team, a market, two bars, and a Frosty Freeze drive-in.

Must be the ultimate insult. And they don’t even get a casino. The Shawnees and the Arapahos have casinos on their reservations upstate somewhere, but the Cheyenne don’t have jack diddlysquat here in Wyoming.

I saw an old John Ford western on TNC in my room this morning. I needed to rinse my mind of all the Gary Ridgway crap that had been freakin’ me out. Cheyenne Autumn. It was supposed to represent the other side of the story, you know, as told from the losers’ point of view. Guess what? Out of a cast of zillions there were, like, two Native Americans in the entire film. The rest were a bunch of Hollywood bozos and Mexicans dressed up in Halloween garb.  You see, the Cheyenne didn’t even get to act in their own films. Chief Stick-In-The-Mud was played by Paul Anka.

Now, I want you to compare this to the deal my relatives in Guilin got:

Our family comes from a fishing village on the Lijiang River outside of Yangshuo. We are Zhuang, a minority sort of like the Cheyenne—the Zhuang have been pushed around a lot too. Anyway, around 8 years ago the government decided to expropriate the village of my ancestors. Our land was situated on one of the most beautiful spots on earth, with the river and the karst peaks you see on all the postcards, and the Party guys had determined that it would be the perfect setting for one big, whopping, folklore pageant — a magnet for tourists from all over the world.

Thus they kicked everybody out of their homes, tore down the entire village, and replaced it with an exact replica, only now with souvenir shops, fast food stands and shit like that, and they knocked out some lesser mountains to build an amphitheater for 4000 plus spectators.

Lijiang River Fishing

They brought in the same guy who did the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics to produce a romantic saga depicting the lives of the villagers. Huge success. Runs every evening to a full house – two performances a day on weekends. But the twist here is that all 600 of the villagers have been recruited as players in the show. Overnight they got promoted from being poor fishermen and peasants into being actors portraying the lives of poor fishermen and peasants. Now they have more status, make more money, and, I mean, like, how authentic can you get? The Cheyenne should have been so lucky.

Speaking of bad luck – there is no bus out of here today. At least not in the direction of Williston. I’ve got to wait until tomorrow night at nine-thirty. How is that for a bummer? The Wells Fargo stagecoaches probably ran more frequently than the Greyhounds here. I really should have checked up on that before jumping ship and stranding myself.

There is a computer in the lobby of the motel. I’ve been steering clear of it. You know, I am on the wagon so to speak, and I can see from a distance that it’s running Windows 95, which I would have thought was even more obsolete than Chief Stick-in-the-Mud and his renegades. A banner on the front screen says.

Join the Digital JetSet — $7.50 for the first 20 minutes of internet access. Please enter your room number. 

What a deal! Assholes! But I figure it won’t hurt to just check out Battlenet and see what is going on, and I sit down, give them my room number, and start clicking away.

The desk clerk from last night had been in the breakfast room the same time as I, eating donuts and working away on his Gameboy. Now suddenly he appears out of nowhere standing next to me and wants to talk. He must have run out of batteries.

“Don’t worry, it’s free,” he says. “The sign is just to keep the wrong people from coming in here and using it. Where you heading?”

“North Dakota. Williston,” I answer with a hey-man-can’t-you-see I’m-busy  voice.

“That’s where they have all the oil and gas and stuff, right?”  The Gameboy desk clerk was not to be deterred.

“So they say. I’ve never been there before.”

The keys on the computer are greasy and the disk drive wheezes like my Aunt Siqin. I check my mail and log on to Battlenet.

“You going up there to work?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Most ideas are bad ideas,” says the Gameboy.

“Yeah, you’re probably right about that.” He had me pegged there, for sure.

If you remember, Gameboy here wouldn’t even look me in the eye when I checked in last night and now that I am trying to do something on the computer he is all over me. Reminds me of some of my friends who never call me unless they are stalled in rush-hour traffic or think it’s taking too long to get served at Urban Spoon.

I see that someone named Jo wants to be my Facebook friend.

“As a matter of fact 99.99 percent of all ideas are bad ideas,” says Gameboy confidently.

“Is that figure based on some sort of study or something?” I ask while friending Jo.

“It’s based on science for sure. It’s based on the scorecard for the mother of all ideas.”

“Which is?” As if I cared.

“Genetic ideas.”

I realize from her profile picture that Jo is the name of my waitress. That’s crazy, I never learned her name. Or if I did, it didn’t register. I know that waitresses need to have short names so as to fit nicely on their nametags, but ‘Jo’ was a little unexpected. Before this she was just my waitress — and now she is Jo.

“I don’t get what you’re talking about.”

“When genes get ideas about improving themselves and the orgasms they are part of  . . . ”

“Organisms. I think you meant organisms.” As if it really mattered?


Jo:  Hi! What are you doing? How is Williston?

Me: Not in Williston. Stuck in Cheyenne. Long story.

Jo: I am at my sister’s place. She’s at work. I’m bored.

“Yes, thank you. I meant organisms. 99.99 percent of all those ideas lead to failure and sometimes the self-destruction of the entire organic unit.”

Me: Really? So am I. Bored I mean. Some confused soul is standing next to me talking my head off as I try to type.

Cheyenne’s Frontier Days world-class rodeo is truly the Daddy of ’em All. Known for its fast pace and large number of contestants, Did you know that you can get your tickets for the rodeo right here at the motel?

“It’s not like genes really get ideas. They get clobbered by cosmic rays and other junk from outer space and they mutate at random. And you’re right, most of those mutations are cock-ups, but it’s not like the genes themselves are planning those changes. Genes are not dudes with minds that work out their own strategies.”

“What are you? Some sort of college professor, or something?”

“No, I’m just telling you what most people take for granted.”

Jo: I met the Marlboro Man on the bus out of Salt Lake City.

Jo: Why is he confused?

“Scientists say that genes are selfish.” Gameboy has more cheese up his sleeve. “You  would have to have a brain in order to be selfish. Not brains like ours. Smaller. You know, like the sperms.”

Me: I thought those guys all died from lung cancer. I haven’t seen a Marlboro Man ad since I was a kid. Are you sure he wasn’t putting you on?

Me: Just some guy who works in the motel? He’s learned everything he knows from playing Super Mario 16 hours a day.

“I don’t think sperm has a brain either, buddy.”

“Oh yeah? Then how can they swim? And how would they know where to swim to?” It is pretty obvious that 99.99% of this guy’s sperm ends up doing kamikaze nose-dives into a toilet bowl.

Wise guy

“I think you are confusing ideas with random events. Sperm and genes just bumble about.”

“Are you denying intelligent design?”

Jo: No, he was for real. He showed me a lot of pictures and clippings. The Marlboro Man is alive and kicking in Japan and a lot of other places. He said that in Asia he was an icon with greater recognition value than the Mona Lisa and Jesus put together.

Jo: What can you learn from playing Super Mario?

“Whoa. I’m not denying anything. I am just trying to chat with someone here.”

Me: Did the Marlboro man make you feel like smoking?

Jo: No, he made me feel like having sex with him. He was very sexy. He had reptile skin and green eyes you could see through.

Since turning into Jo, my waitress has become surprisingly candid. I can’t imagine her telling me she would like to get it on with the Marlboro Man when we talked on the bus yesterday.

“Hey dude, if I respect your right to preach Darwinism then you might want to return the favor of respecting Intelligent Design, which, for your information, is a scientific theory supported by a majority of Americans.” He is huffing and puffing as he says this.

Me: You can learn about Zen from Super Mario.  But this guy missed that nuance.

Me: Did the Marlboro man have a lot of tattoos?

Me:  If he was so big in Japan, what was he doing on a Greyhound? 

” I’m not dissing Intelligent Design. But if some kind of supreme being  . . .”

“That would be God, dude.”

“Sorry . . .  OK, God — so if God created everything through genetic mutations, then aren’t you more or less saying that most of God’s ideas were stupid?”

Jo: Of course, everybody has tattoos. He even had his Marlboro Man image tattooed on his forearm.

Me: I’ve never heard of anyone tattooing himself with himself!

Jo: Me neither.

Me: Sounds weird. Did you ask for his Facebook contact info?

Jo: LOL – of course not. He gave me his telephone number. He lives in Jackson.

“You think you got me stumped with that. Huh?”

“I am not trying to stump anybody. But if God used genetic changes to create, and those changes were ideas, most of which go bad, as you originally claimed, then you are essentially saying that it was God who had a lot of bad ideas.”

Me: I just stumped him good!

YOU HAVE 10 MINUTES LEFT IN YOUR INTERNET SESSION. 2 Stays Pay! Earn a $50 gift card for dining, shopping, or gas on your next visit with us.

“I thought you said this was free?”

“Your phone’s ringing.”

I knew that. I hadn’t planned on answering. But then again if I did maybe Gameboy would flake off. It was my sister, Alice.

Me: Hold on. My sister’s calling me on my phone.

Lee, why haven’t you been answering my calls? Are you in North Dakota?

Almost. Actually I am at the Ridgway Motel in Cheyenne. What’s up, Sis?

“Hey man, this is the Rodeway Inn. Why are you telling her it’s the Ridgway Motel?”

“Would you mind terribly if I had this conversation in private?”

I’ve been reading up on what’s going on up there in North Dakota. There are a lot of environmental issues with what they are doing. There is a lot of pollution going on. They’re pumping chemicals into the ground. 

“But God can’t have bad ideas. It’s the genes who aren’t thinking straight. God works his wonders in strange ways we can never understand.”

Have you visited our Gift Shop? We are offering 30% off on authentic Arapaho jewelry. Today only!

“Are you hard of hearing?”

Lee, are you talking to me?

I’m trying to, and a couple of other people at the same time.

Come to where the flavor is.

Could I get your undivided attention maybe?

I am not capable of undivided attention. You know that. 

“I think you’re a wise guy.”

Me: For the second time on this trip somebody just called me a wise guy.

Listen, Alice. They’re giving people jobs up there. The country needs energy. And people need work.

There are jobs in solar power and windmills, Lee. You should be doing that instead  . . .  and you haven’t called Mom. 

Jo: You shouldn’t provoke people. You could get hurt.

Me: Yeah, I’m a wimp. You’d better watch your step as well. The Marlboro Men have done a lot of bad shit. Probably exterminated more folks than Mao.

Lee, are you listening to me?

YOU HAVE 3 MINUTES LEFT OF INTERNET USAGE – Please re-enter your room number for an additional 10 minutes. 

Jo: Not by having sex with them.

Me: guess not.

“Are you from one of the reservations?”

Yes, I’m listening, you just told me I haven’t called Mom. 

Me: How is it going with yours and Emit’s restaurant?

You, really need to be good to her after all that has happened. 

Jo: Not much is happening. We’re going to need money. We’ve got some ideas, but most of them are bad, I guess.

“No, I’m from Phoenix.”

“You’re not Indian?”

Me: 99.99 percent of all ideas are bad.

Jo: Yeah I know – pretty discouraging.

Tell Mom I’m doing fine, I miss her, and I’ll call her from Williston.

Me: No, actually I meant to say that 99.99 percent of all ideas are good.

Jo: You changed your mind that quickly?

“Actually, I’m Jewish.”

Me: Real ideas mean saying no to the usual. You, of all people, should understand that. There are no bad ideas. There are infinite possible worlds out there and every idea is perfect in at least one of them.

 You promise?

Jo: I’m not sure I see the difference.

Jo: How about Steak ‘n Cake?

Me: What?

I promise. Gotta hang up now, Sis.

If I send you a book about what the energy cartels are up to, will you read it?

Jo: How about Steak ‘n Cake as a name for our restaurant.

Yes, I’ll read it. Gotta go.

“You don’t look Jewish.”

It’s up to each and every one of us, Lee.

Me: I thought you were going to call it ‘The Usual’. Steak ‘n Cake is terrible.

YOUR TIME IS UP – Thank you for using our service. And welcome back! 



Chapter Four– The Virtuous Circle

─ So Jay, Give me some figures. I think we’re almost there.

─ 963,233,563 dollars and 37 cents.

─ Seriously, Jay.

─ Seriously, Hiram.

─ Don’t fuck with me, Jay.

─ Hiram, you know very well I can’t nail it down. There are too many variables. You might make the list this year and then again you might not. All I can say is you’re close. If the markets don’t go haywire or some asshole pushes the wrong button … with the momentum we have now, I’d say the odds are pretty much in your favor.

─ So how can the guys on the list have exact figures after their names―Gates 72, Buffett 58.5? How can Forbes pin down those numbers when my own accountant can’t tell me what I’m worth?

─ Those are approximations, Hiram. They can be pretty far off. And your assets can go up and down by millions in a matter of minutes. That can’t be news to you.

─ Yeah, well, no big deal. It doesn’t matter. Being on the list would just further encourage the hordes I suppose.

─ As if that was possible. You have no idea … the extent of it.

─ I guess everybody wants something they don’t have, Jay.

─ People who can’t help themselves want others to do it for them. Looking for handouts instead of hard work.

─ It’s hard to deny that we’ve been lucky, Jay.

─ It’s not the luck, Hiram―it’s what we do with what we’ve got. Luck comes with hard work. And success breeds success―it’s called the virtuous circle.

─ You are aware that Terry Wilson is on the list this year? They have him at 1.3. He’s been needling me about that.

─ Terry Wilson is a nincompoop. And what’s he doing with a goddamm Gulfstream? He never leaves the state.

─ He’s going to take it to the Superbowl. He’s says it was a steal and that he can get me a good price on one as well.

─ That’s what I said―he’s a nincompoop.

─ Terry Wilson has a plutonium card, Jay.

─ He has a what?

─ Plutonium! We were in Kobe’s in Bismarck and I paid for our dinner with my Centurion Black Titanium and Terry says to me right in front of the waiter―oh, so you don’t have plutonium?

─ Hiram, plutonium is radioactive. American Express wouldn’t issue radioactive credit cards.

─ That’s what I would have thought―but Terry showed it to me. It was, like, glowing. He said it was encapsulated in a protective graphene shell, but he could feel the heat nevertheless, like it was going to burn a hole in his pocket.

─ Don’t you think he was speaking figuratively?

─ Our waiter said it was the most awesome thing he’d ever seen. It did look pretty nifty.

─ I’m sure it did, Hiram.

─ There’s another thing I need to ask you about; my sister wants me to invest some money in a project.

─ What? Which sister? Jo? How did she get through to you? Tracy shouldn’t have let that happen. Tracy’s job is to protect you from that sort of thing. I’ll have a word with her.

─ It’s not her fault. I was in Tracy’s office when the call came in and when I heard who was on the other end I asked for the phone. I hadn’t spoken to her in so many years.

─ What does she want to do with your money?

─ Open a restaurant.

─ Oh, now that’s a brilliant move. That’s a humdinger.

─ Chef Rocco says ninety percent of all restaurants go belly-up their first year in business. Is that true, Jay?

─ Chef Rocco talks out of his butthole. That ninety percent rate is a myth. But the majority of new restaurants do fail the first year and hers wouldn’t even last that long.

─ She was thinking about Salt Lake City. I told her she should do it up here. If there is any place on earth that needs more restaurants it’s Williston.

─ Hiram, you’re not actually considering . . . shit, I find this very alarming. Do you want my advice?

─ No. It’s OK. I know what you’ll say.

─ Hiram, both your sisters walked out of here fifteen years ago when Hank was sick and needed them. You stayed―they left. You and your Dad were living on canned beans and oatmeal. This whole operation was collapsing. You were a frog’s tit from losing everything and in the midst of all that they forced you to buy them out.

─ They needed the money. They were never interested in the properties.

─ Be that as it may, Hiram, they got their 10,000 and left you to rot. You had to both nurse your father and put in 18-hour workdays to keep you and Hank off the streets. You had to sell the house. You were living in a trailer. This whole state was going down the tubes and you with it. Have you forgotten all that?

─ No, how could I ever forget?

And when Hank died, did they even show up at the funeral? Uh-uh. They only came around when it was time to open the will. Their only concern was the inheritance. Boy, the look on their faces when it turned out everything was already in your name?

─ That was thanks to you, Jay.

─ They got their 10,000. It was their choice. But you owned the properties.

─ That was also thanks to you, Jay.

─ I did it for your father. What did those girls ever do for Hank?

─ She’s never asked me for anything before.

─ That’s what you think, Hiram. Luckily for you, you don’t have to read your own mail. Ever since the Bakken boom started getting national exposure both of your sisters have been asking you for money.

─ I didn’t know that.

─ That’s because I’ve been taking care of it, just like Tracy and I take care of all the crackpot schemes and phony sob stories: Invest in me―my new product will revolutionize shopping. Give me money―my kids all have cancer. Send me cash―my car’s in hock, can’t get to work. Make a donation―when I get elected you’ll feel my appreciation.

─ Okay, Okay. I get it. But we’re talking about my sister here.
─ Contribute to our cause―help us save the whales, the rain forests … the fucking chipmunks. Hand over some bucks―you have way more than you need.

─ That’s enough, Jay. I get it.

─ That kind of shit pours in here every day of the year.

─ So you’ve never given my sisters … ?

─ Are you serious? Of course not.

─ Maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet? Jo just lost her job as a waitress. Hell, I didn’t even know she worked as a waitress. Denny’s, of all places.

─ They fired her, Hiram.

─ How could you possibly know that?

─ We keep tabs on your sisters, Hiram. Always have. They’re potential trouble makers. They’re grudge-bearers.

─ Why did they fire her, then?

─ Poisoning diners.

─ Ha ha. Very funny. But it’s hard to see how a restaurant could fail here, Jay. The waiting lines are atrocious.

─ Hiram, dammit, are you forgetting all that your Dad taught you? The more you have, the tighter you have to hold on to it. Wealth is a responsibility. A god-given responsibility. You want to do your part in making this a better world? You want to keep the country strong? Then hold on to what god gave you, man. Be smart. Invest wisely. Charity’s a blight. It doesn’t help anybody in the long run. Misdirected pity.

─ But this is family.

─ Family is the worst.

─ If you say so.

─ Thank you. Case closed. I’ll take care of Jo, Hiram.

─ What do you think Dad would have said if he had known I was a billionaire―when I become one, that is?

─ He would have been very proud of you, Hiram, We both know that.

─ When and if I make the list, the only satisfaction it will bring me―the only thing that would really matter―was knowing how proud it would have made Dad.

─ Let me handle your sister, Hiram.

─ I didn’t promise her anything.

─ Let me handle her.



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