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?
— 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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Jo: I’m not sure I see the difference.
Jo: How about Steak ‘n Cake?
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.