Friday, November 24, 2000

God Damns the Barbecue Man

    “Goddamn it’s hot!” I thought as I went to my car.  I took off my white formal over shirt and fetched my wallet out of the trunk and slammed the lid down, hard.  I was on my “lunch break”, more accurately the endless daily temporal expanse between my split shifts at the Japanese restaurant where I waited on tables.  And goddamn, it was hot.
    I checked my pockets:  “Goddamn no cigarettes!”
    So, off I headed across the baking half-empty shopping center parking lot toward the “Cigarettes Cheaper”.   As I pushed through the doors I saw that there were three old guys languishing in line to buy expensive exotic cigars.  They each held the cigar packages in their fat old hands as they had probably had candy bars when they were children. 
    “Goddamn old-timers, so slow!” I thought to myself, captured behind them in line.  They stood there, all three pot-bellied and suspendered and baseball-capped.  Two of them were having a gravely voiced conversation about guns and landscaping.  One guy favored guns to pass his retirement, the other landscaping.
    “You should come over sometime, see my collection,” said one.
    “Yeah, and you should come over sometime and see my yard,” said the other.
    Eventually it became my turn.  I paid for my single pack of clove cigarettes, asked for a book of matches and left in a hurry as if I had somewhere to go.
    I headed back across the parking lot to the local market.  It was called “the Apple Market” and the theme there was one of unconditional friendliness toward its customers.  One aspect of this theme was their longtime policy of providing free little shot-glass-sized portions of coffee to customers.  Once inside I immediately filled up three of the little micro-sized styrofoam cups up with “French vanilla premium blend”, added a little cream and sugar to each one and, trying my best to ignore the disapproving stare of the woman in the green apron emblazoned with the cheery Apple Market logo, carried all three outside to a bench.
    I sat down.  It was hot, but at least it was in the shade.  And at least I wasn’t serving sushi.  I lined up the little cups underneath the bench.  I lit up a cigarette and had a long drag.  Then I picked up one of the cups and took a sip. One time a waitress that I had worked with had tried to convince me that it was preferable to drink hot beverages on hot days than cold ones, the theory being that with a cold beverage in your gut the body has to heat up more to bring the stomach contents up to normal body temperature.  This had always sounded like bullshit to me, but, alas, there were no free mini iced coffees at the Apple Market, so there I was, gingerly sipping a piping-hot beverage in the dull midday heat of August. 
    I had over an hour and a half to kill.  I took my notebook out of my bag and opened it to a blank page.  I stared blankly at the lines on the blank page and the lines stared blankly back up at me.  Silence.  It was obvious: we simply had absolutely nothing to say to each other. 
    “Goddamn blank page of a day,” I thought to myself, looking up to squint out at my surroundings.  The Petaluma Plaza Shopping Center: Radio Shack, Ross, K-Mart, Longs, JC Penny, Sizzler, goddamn Army/Navy recruiting office...
    Just as I closed my notebook along came my friend Billy.  He was a young, multiply pierced, yet clean-shaven lad who worked at the music supply shop next to “Fuji”, my Japanese place.  He had just moved into town and was thus very friendly to me, especially when he heard that I, like he, was a musician.  He was one of those flailing young artists caught between being the idealist guitar player who hadn’t quite gotten his material up and a burgeoning computer programmer with no in.  Yet another child of California caught between Bohemia and the Silicon Valley.
    “Hey Damian,” he said, sitting down next to me on the bench.  Then, “hey, could I bum a-“
    “Sure,” I interrupted, taking a clove from the pack and handing it to him.  I was only allowing myself one cigarette a day, for fear of falling into the realm of the full-blown nicotine addict, and cloves came in packs of twenty, so I was always very happy to give them away. 
    “Right on,” replied Billie as I lit up a match for him.  He leaned into the match, his face young and smooth and somehow not sweaty at all, regardless of the heat.  Kids like him always make me feel old; them with their whole pointless future to look forward to and me already living in mine.  Billy took a drag and I waved the flame from the match.
    We talked for some time about the vanguard of music computer software and such.  Young musicians always like talking about the newest music software.  They love comparing stories and technical stats.  I can always hold up my end, but, to be honest, when it comes down to it I don’t even know what kind of computer I have.  I’ve just ended up with a certain set up and that’s it.  Still, I had a lot of time to pass, and talking electronica with Billy seemed better than driving my car across hot-ass cross-town traffic to my apartment, just to have to fight my way back through in an hour or so. 
    The conversation seemed to be reaching the half-hour mark, with Billy doing most of the talking.  He was telling me of a hot new program called “Tracker” and how I had to have it or else perish in a technologically outdated wasteland when I noticed a sudden breeze picking up seemingly out of nowhere.  It appeared as if it had gathered up all of the leaves from the parking lot and was swirling them lazily about in front of us.  It coaxed one of my two empty styrofoam cups into it’s collection and then Billie and I watched, our conversation quelled, as it quickly began to pick up force, now resembling a mini-tornado as it headed away from us across the parking lot.
    Then, seemingly for no reason, the force of this mini-twister seemed to triple just as it reached a spot in the lot occupied by a small tent structure where a man employed by the market had been barbequing tri-tip steak sandwiches.  The tent was basically a shade structure, a white nylon roof supported by steal poles that ended in cement-filled tires for stability, under which the barbecue man was running four or five different coal grills.  There was also a heavy-looking folding table with condiments galore and other sundry items pertaining to the grilling and serving of tri-tip steak sandwiches. 
    The man stopped whatever he was doing as Petaluma’s first tornado began pelting him and his equipment with leaves and other parking lot debris.  He tried in vein to hold down his stuff, but napkins and styrofoam cups and cardboard boxes began to swirl about him with great force.  Then the strength of the thing stepped up another exponential notch, taking on the appearance of an angry outdoor poltergeist, tearing the roof from its poles and sending it flapping off into the sky like just another napkin.  The poles themselves swung around crazily on their round concrete-filled tire bases, one of them tipping over and landing with a crash against one of the steal barbecues.  A cloud of grease and napkins and bottles and raw meat and cooked meat and garbage formed, out of which leapt the barbecue man, his hands protecting his head from the violent swirling insanity, abandoning his post to the vicious elements, covered with grease and barbecue sauce, attempting now only to save his own life!
    “Goddamn!” I said aloud.
    All of this had taken place in only about thirty seconds.  It had been such a calm day!  No wind at all.  All of a sudden it was as if the tornado had realized this and stopped its merciless hazing of the barbecue man, first moving off about ten feet away and then factoring itself out mathematically to zero in thin air.  All that was left behind was a pile of garbage, the barbecues themselves (these were huge dark cast iron beasts, probably weighing hundreds of pounds each), a pale, shaken barbecue man and a hot calm Summer day.  A few seconds later the tent cloth fell from the sky like a deflated weather balloon, landing on the concrete about 15 feet from the rest of the wreckage. 
    Billy and I just stared for some time, both of us totally speechless, wondering if the twister would return, and then, when it didn’t, got up and went to check on the barbecue man. As I got closer, I could see that he was middle aged, middleweight and halfway bald.  He wore a now filthy green apron.  He had a sizeable cut on his head and the hair he did have was stuck out comically in all directions.  Surrounded by the wreckage he resembled a mad-scientist barbecue cook in the aftermath of the violent backfiring of a recent experiment.  Perhaps he had been working on a new, more efficient way to fuel the grills, or maybe he had erroneously tried to combine pork and a beef to make “Bork”, a hybrid grilled cuisine of his own invention, but unfortunately the enzymes of the two animals had combined to form some new highly volatile compound.  
    Some of the other employees had heard the commotion and had already come out to see if he was alright.  All about him they stood in their green aprons, walking gingerly about the puddle of unknown liquid that was seeping all about under the piles of barbecue-related wreckage.  Some sort of grease was splattered on one of the surrounding cars in the lot, obscuring its windshields with an opaque haze. Another car had a hood freshly adorned with a smear of barbecue sauce. Only three of the original four tent poles remained standing.
 “It just blew the whole thing apart” the barbecue man was telling them.  Most of them were giving him weak looks of disbelief.  However, a few of them had seen the incident, or at least part of it, and were hesitantly beginning to come to the barbecue man’s aid in explaining what had happened. It really had just blown the whole thing apart.
    Although the man seemed like he had more than enough people concerned over his welfare, for some reason I still felt like I should say something.
“Are you okay man?” I asked.  “I saw the whole thing from over there,” I added, gesturing toward the bench. 
“Yeah,” he said, to which he added, “man, that was some strong shit!”
“Where did the ketchup and mustard jars go?” asked an employee.
“I don’t know, man...” replied the barbecue man in a far off, defeated manner.  Someone handed him a piece of cloth for the gash on his head.  It turned out that the injury had occurred when the giant folding table for the condiments and such had been lifted up and tossed about in the chaos.  It now laid upside-down in the muck.  Had the barbecues not been so steady and designed with covers that locked on tight the barbecue man would have probably ended up resembling a piece of medium-rare steak himself from the hot coals that probably would have taken flight.
Billy and I decided to stroll back to our bench.  Once there, we sat down just as we had been during the whole incident.
“Have you ever seen anything like that before?”  I asked him.
“Not here in California,” he replied.  “I’ve seen some pretty mean dust-devils back out in Arizona, but never one that cranked it up like that.  That was really something...” he trailed off as he reached into his backpack and took out a large sandwich that he had been saving.  It looked real good, some sort of barbecued meat surrounded by hearty French bread and wrapped in silver foil. 
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
Billie pointed at the barbecue tent mess as he began laughing through a mouthful of sandwich. 
“Hey, watch out man, that thing might be cursed!” I joked.  Billy continued chewing his mouthful.  “Well, that proves it, God’s a vegan!” I chortled.  Billy let out a snort of air from his nostrils.  Then I adopted what I thought would be God’s own booming tenor, saying, “Feel the wrath of God, meat man!” as I motioned toward a small spot on the bench with my pinky finger, then adding “this is what you get for cooking up my beautiful creatures!”  Billy covered up his mouth as if he was about to lose his lunch.    
Just then a middle-aged woman rode up on a gray vintage bicycle.  She stopped in front of us and quickly dismounted.
“Would you like a clove cigarette?” I asked enthusiastically.  The twister had lifted my spirits and plus the lady appeared to be holding her looks together pretty well, sporting little-girl pigtails and a tight baby-blue t-shirt.  The bike seemed playful as well, all retro with plastic red, white and blue tassels hanging from the handlebars.  
“No thanks!” she replied with a girlish grin.  Her voice was unbelievably raspy while still sounding like a five-year old’s.  I found myself perversely intrigued. 
“Hey,” I said, arching my eyebrows “there’s free coffee inside the market, you know.”
“Free?  Oh yeah?” she asked. 
“Right near the front.” I told her.
“Cool!” she replied.  She was looking more wrinkled to me than at first.  Still, I was interested.  She put the bike up on its kickstand.  
“Hey, you missed the tornado!” I exclaimed.
“The what?!” shouted Girlwoman with cartoonish disbelief.
Billy finally swallowed and substantiated my claim, “a huge whirlwind just took apart the barbecue man’s set-up over there,” he said.  Girlwoman followed Billy’s finger to the scene of the incident. 
“Wow......” she uttered.  She stood there, looking across the lot at the mess.
“And now I’m eating this here cursed sandwich,” added Billy.
“What?” asked Girlwoman, her gaze returning to us.
“Go in and get some coffee,” I said.
“Will you guys watch my bike?” she asked, shifting her weight and sucking on her little finger.
“Of course.”  I said. 
Girl woman looked at the both of us with a child-like distrust.  After all, we were strangers. 
“Okay!” she burst out suddenly with a spooky smile and ran into the market.  Billy and I looked at each other and both shrugged our shoulders simultaneously and then laughed at that.  A few seconds later she returned with her little styrofoam cup of free coffee.
“How many sugars did you put in your coffee?”  she asked me.
“One.” I replied, to which she burst out
“I put three!”
“Three?!” exclaimed Billy, adopting the same grown-up talking to a child tone that I had been using, “in that little cup?”
“Yeah!” replied Girlwoman triumphantly.  “I like sweet stuff!  Do you guys like sweet stuff?” she asked, somehow without a hint of sexuality.
“Not me,” said Billy, “I’m hyperglycemic.  Sugar gets me all hyper and then I just want to sleep.”
“Hey, that’s what coffee does to me without the sugar,” I said, mostly to Billy.
“Oh not me!” cried Girlwoman, eyes wide.  “I never feel anything!” She was shouting all of this without a trace of sarcasm.  “Hey!  How old are you guys?” she asked.
“25,” said I.
“18,” said Billy.
“Well I’m fifty!” she exclaimed with a strange pride.  Had she fifty fingers she would have no doubt been holding them up to show us.
“Are you serious?” I asked, somewhat facetiously.  I had thought her to be around 40. “I would have figured you to be around 35!” I told her.
“No.....I’m old!” she replied.  “Fifty!”  she repeated.  Then she got back on her bike.  She had finished her shot of coffee and had placed the cup neatly in the garbage can opposite us. 
“You’re not that old!” I said, playing along.  “You’re lying!” I called out to her as she began to ride away.
“No!  I’m old!” she said over her shoulder.  “But I’ve got a new boyfriend so that’s okay!” she added.
“Is he young? “ I called out to her.
“Oh yeah!” she yelled back.
“Well, there you go!” I shouted, not knowing what else to say.
She rode off into the parking lot. 
Why had she stopped to talk to us in the first place?  She didn’t want cigarettes, she bought nothing at the market and hadn’t had any idea about the free coffee.  Had she known about the coffee but not let on?  Had she thought we were older?  I thought she liked younger guys.  And had there actually been a tornado?  What was going on?
Billy and I discussed these mysteries briefly before Billy rose from the bench.
“Half-hour lunch-breaks suck dick.” he said.  It seemed to me that it had been a lot longer than half and hour since he had sat down to bum a smoke.  Billy gathered up his empty sandwich wrapper.  “I’ll catch ya later, man,” he said, extending his young smooth hand out for a slap of five.
“Hey, beware the wrath of God’s pinkie,” I said as we slapped palms, then I pointed mine at him; “you may be next!”  He laughed quietly as he headed back to work.
I sat there, alone once again.  I could feel the stale heat radiating off of the parking lot.  I looked at my watch: still 45 minutes left to kill before the dinner shift. I knew it was going to be a slow one, too, on account of the heat.  People didn’t seem to go for sushi as much during this type of weather.  Maybe it was the thought of all that hot sake and tea.  I guessed that would mean that they didn’t buy my co-worker’s “hot day/hot beverage” theory either.
I overheard a bit of conversation from over by the barbecue ruins.
“ where did the mustard go?”  said a woman’s voice.
“I told you before, I don’t know!” yelled back the barbecue man, to which he added, “Goddamn!”


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