Chapter 13 – When a man loves a woman

Mimi would continue to walk to the village of La Sal for quite some time before Yates Bishop, on his way to the post office to bring Sally a little gift from the outside world, was to pick her up. After only fifteen minutes of trudging, she had taken off her outer tee-shirt — draping it across her head in the manner of a desert dweller — and began to wonder if she would die on this trek to nowhere, die the meaningless death of a thirsty pregnant woman with no one willing to be the father of her child. Such heat, altering the mercury in the thermometer of life, had brought this sweating woman’s version of herself very close indeed to self-pitying and pathetic.

Max, back at the Junction, was panicking like a cornered animal. Rambling aloud, not something he regularly did, he nevertheless managed to express his feelings on the subject succinctly. “She used me and got pregnant just because she felt like it. She used me, and she got her way. Well, what if I wasn’t ready to be a father?” Addressing both animals, who listened patiently and quizzically, he gesticulated and fell to pulling on his hair. “Or what if I was? What if this whole feeling of being pressured will prevent me from ever knowing the truth about what I feel?

“I’ve got to et out of here. I need some time to become myself again. I need to get out of here just so that I won’t hate her while I’m here.” Max wasn’t one to threaten idly. He began plotting a brief vacation for himself. The animals let their feet slide them into a lying down position, thinking it was all over.
“Why do women do this to men?” he said to his attentive audience of Dale, Nero, and Mirabelle — the brand new one — who were once again sitting at attention. He really wanted to know. Of course, he would feel bad and guilty about Mimi having the abortion, and they would no doubt have plenty of trouble between them, but in spite of a decision and outcome in his favor, he would resent her for his position of possibly having to acquiesce, of having his life’s road paved for him for keeps, of having his mind made up for him.
Max came up with a plan to leave the scene for a month if he could get Anna Ortiz Kidd and possibly Syd Renoir to come out, on the spur of the moment, to help out with the restaurant. This would relieve Mimi of the responsibility of having to hire outside help, and it would give her some time to renew her friendship with Anna. Wasting no time, he dialed the LA number and actually got through to his great surprise. “Anna,” he said, newly calm. “It’s Max Lee.”
“Max?” she answered, half repeating half questioning. “Is anything wrong?”

“Not exactly wrong, but not exactly right either,” said Max slowly. “I was wondering… if you would want to come out for a while, with Syd of course, and help Mimi run the restaurant. I have to get out of here.” Silence traveled the distance just as talk would have. “You two could have the trailer and Mimi could use the guest room in the restaurant.” Sensing that some explanation was required in order for them to want to do this, he quickly added, “She’s pregnant, Anna.” His voice was low. “And I don’t want her to keep it, and she’s going to give it up, but I think we need a break from each other. I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Oh Max, ” was all Anna said to him as she pressed the receiver more tightly against her ear. “Poor Mimi. Poor both of you. Hang on a sec, Max; or no, let me call you right back. Just as soon as Syd’s out of the shower I’ll talk to him and call you back I don’t see why we couldn’t come out, though. But give me just a few minutes, OK Max? Are you alright?”

Max was unused to giving testimonials on his own behalf and felt he’d already said too much, but he’d needed their help and was grateful they were there. “No, not really,” he sighed, staring down at the animal wards who had converged around him. “Mimi doesn’t know I’m leaving; but the fact is I’m leaving as soon as I find out if you’ll do it. I feel like I’m suffocating — like she had no right to get pregnant, even thought I know I’m half responsible. I love her, Anna, but she’ll drive me nuts right now, she’d run it into the ground, you know her. I think we should both recover ourselves.”

“Where’s Mimi, then?” Anna’s thoughts were scattered and she longed to talk to her friend.

“She went walking aimlessly down the road toward La Sal. Feeling sorry for herself like only she can do. She might be back any minute or she might not.”

“Do you think it’s fair to leave her right now?”

“Not really,” said Max, “But I get the feeling the relationship is in  more danger if I stay. I’m not ready to wear this one out, and I don’t think she is either.”

“Well, where would you go, Max?”

“I should go back to New York for awhile. To visit my family. Take my time getting there, and take my time getting back. The drive would do me good.”

“OK, Max,” Anna said, trying to remain upbeat. “I’ll get back to you tout de suite.”

 

Sydney Renoir was more receptive to the idea of heading to Utah than Anna Ortiz Kidd soon-to-be-Renoir would have imagined.

“But don’t you think we’d be interfering by saying Yes even before Mimi knows about the plan? We’d be abetting Max with no regard for Mimi’s feelings.”

“But if Max is so sure it’s for the good of the relationship, then we’d be the cause of their collapse if we didn’t help. It depends on whether or not you trust Max that he’s telling you the truth.”

Anna, truly torn now that Max was not there to defend himself and the invisible presence of her best friend was, bit her lip and wished with all her might for a Lark. She was hoping that the length of her pregnancy would be enough to rid her of the two-a-day habit for good. Instead, she popped a piece of violet gum in her mouth and began chewing quietly but with the gusto of someone with a newly acquired fixation. “I trust that Max loves Mimi. I think he really does. I trust him when he says he’d got to get out. But how do we know that Mimi’s feelings won’t be destroyed by his actions?”

“Well, the whole thing will be ruined for sure if Max stays, according to Max. So what have we got to lose, as long as you trust Max that he’s telling the truth?”

We’ll, what tdo you think, Sydney?”I mean, you’re good at figuring these things out Do you think we’d be doing the right thing?”

“Yes, Anna. I do.” He smelled the aromatic chewing gum and backed up a step or two. “What kind of gum is it today, floral essence from a can?” She had indeed tried more flavors of gum during her pregnancy than during the rest of her entire life, hoping to find one flavor she could live with and wondering all the while why no one made a non-flavored gum for people like herself, incapable of committing so much time — so much of herself — to peppermint, or cinnamon, or worst of all, wintergreen mint. The violet flavor was not unpleasant, but Syd was right; it was too heavily deodorizing or something.

“Violet,” she answered. “It comes in candy, too.” She smiled at him. “Mais ne t’inquiête pas, the first pack was the last pack. Anyway, I should call Max Lee back.” Having a man who spoke French as a fiancé allowed Anna the luxury of practicing one of the four languages she had, at one time or another, spoken well enough to carry on a decent conversation. “Okay, cheri?” It pained her not to speak it as well now, so she had begun with easy idiomatic expressions and interjections.

Syd was beside himself with the company of the woman he as about to marry and who would have his child soon. They got along like friends and like lovers, and he believed they loved each other in light of their complexities, something that touched him deeply. He nevertheless felt for Max, who was not yet ready to be a father. He himself had not been ready at Max’s age, not at all ready. Staring at Anna while she told Max they could indeed come immediately and that they would bring their recently acquired camper so as not to displace Mimi, Syd again noted the changes in her appearacnce since the pregnancy. A face, normally haloed by its own pallor a, had become rounder, shinier and more flush with color, as if, in Anna’s case particularly, she were slightly embarrassed by her own physical changes. Her hair, once as straight as an Asian’s, had become wavy, giving her face an even fuller appearance. The hair change had taken Anna by surprise one morning while Syd lolled in bed at 8:30, far past his normal rising hour. Anna, a frequent visitor to the bathroom now and perpetually poised in the night on the side of the bed closest to the toilet, came out that morning looking as if she’d seen something from the other side — and ran to the bed, diving under the covers like a child.

“My hair!” she cried. “It’s not my hair!” She was afraid even to touch it. “Someone has been meddling with my hair hormones, my straight-as-a pin hair has curled.” This episode, in fact, was instrumental in letting hseself go the way of the inevitable changes she would have to resign herself to. After that, the idea of fatness became easier, and of roundness, and oily skin. As well as the idea that she was now eating enough for two, maybe three Sumo wrestlers

Anna Ortiz Kidd had mellowed out, truly, in the ripening, soft, and sweet sense.

They had been taking it easy  ever since Syd had quit his job, planning for their move to Jamaica, and getting to know one another in ways two people can only do when they have free time together and when they learn things together — be those factual things, or emotional, or spiritual. In Telluride to sort out Anna’s affairs, they had spent four days entirely at the tiny little museum, staring at photos of miners, fingering objects, and nearly feeling one hundred years old themselves at the end of the ordeal. The library, replete with helpful books on the period, served as their evening den, and when they returned at last to Anna’s remodeled shed, they would share historical facts and quiz each other, as if it were all a game. Sydney, the former teacher, could find no faults with Anna’s beautiful brain; and Anna, tickled to have a companion willing to participate in such exploration, loved him for it.

If Syd Renoir had truly been an intellectual at heart, he might not have stooped to the museum level, or gone to the local library. He would have even too busy reading historical theory. Hypothesizing about this and that, talking not about famous people but about famous historians and famous post-historians and about the uses of history. Anna recognized this because she had been on the doctoral trail when all of a sudden she’d seen herself, as if from a distance, spouting nothing -isms out of a fountain mouth, making no sense, babbling in no particular language but in one whose words were long and tortuous. Not a good sign, she thought, for a linguist. The bottom line was she’d felt like a hypocrite; and a good intellectual should never feel like a hypocrite, of this she was sure.

With her partner, a fellow stranger in a strange land of academia, she felt she could be hserlelf at last. She felt he had the right kind of brain to figure her out and that she had enough of one to figure him out.

Then there had been the whole issue of interior decoration, a fascinating study to them both, not for its superficial aspects of trend, and statement, and acquisition but for its more subjective effects. Anna, whose little shed done up in a Renaissance style again in blues and golds and sepia sketches and balconied bed had amazed Syd, had not yet decided how they should or could decorate together. Maybe, she figured, the Caribbean would cure that; she would find the Caribbean style so alluring it would become her own. The alien-ness of it surely would appeal to her and make her forget everything else. Syd, no longer feeling the need to re-decorate for its curative effects, nevertheless looked forward to the Caribbean in much the same way Anna did. When she’d learned of his office fetishes, the themes that had amused him, she made the following comment: “Well, at least you’re willing to not simply to design but be designed. I believe this would cause me to founder.”

Now with the pregnancy, however, she was willing to be designed, and she knew this. Not reveling in it, exactly for fear of freaking the sell, she simply let it happen. Let herself grow fat, let her hormones flow, let her appetite run wild, let the course of events change for the next month not with apprehension but with eagerness. They would go to La Sal Junction and help out her friend, cheer her up without being overbearing, and just be there for her. Mimi would need a friend for the abortion, and even though a pregnant woman might not be the best of choices, there were no other choices. She spent the rest of the day packing both of their suitcases while Sydney, with Jamaican business regarding the cafe still unfiishhed, wrote to his parents. Then he wrote to his French uncle and aunt. And while in the swing of things, wrote to Hanratty to apologize for not having recently bicycled and to bow out of further bicycling. With bicycling in mind, and realizing he hadn’t had any real exercise for nearly a week, he headed out to the beach for a good long run. “A tout à l’heure,” said Anna gayly.

“Oui, ma poule,” answered Snd in the sexiest “Yes, my chicken” she thought she’d ever heard.

Alone in the apartment, Anna began systematically to pack underwear in each valise. Two pairs of white socks each, three colored, one wool. Five pairs of boxers for Sydney, eight pairs of underpants for herself. While rummaging through her man’s Hanes undershirts to get a good grip on the four she was about to pack, her hand brushed against something hard, a package of some kind. What she puled out, slowly and with dread, was nothing more than a stack of old photos, wrapped with a ribbon and looking as though it had not been touched in a long time. The bow, flattened, could have been the bow off an ancient box of candy-coated almonds.

Anna stared at the packet, wondering if it had been hidden or left for her to find. She tried o slip some of the photos out. Several small ones fell onto the floor easily, old photos of foreign looking people, some white-skinned, some black, some in-between. Sydney had not spoken often of his parents, other than to create a skeleton of the story for Anna’s sake, facts it would have been inappropriate to withhold; but she never pushed. Their parents would meet soon enough, and then there would be no turning back on family matters, especially with the the two of them returning to Jamaica. Blood would thicken in the watery veins of two individuals leading their own lives far from the pressures and plots and confrontations of family life. Not wanting to intrude further — in spite of a burning desire to know Syd better and at an advantage — she didn’t try to put the loose photos back but scooped up everything and lay the pile on the dresser. She would not lie about it. It turns out, Sydney never wore the Hanes tee-shirts and had forgotten about the photos. Just to prove to Anna that he had nothing against his family, he untied the ribbon and went through the stack with her, identifying each face and each location. When he put the stack down, even though his tone of voice hadn’t changed in volume or texture, tears streaked his cheek.

 

Max, packing aggressively, was trying to beat Mimi and get out of La Sal Junction before her return. But just  as he had zipped up all purpose nylon gym bag/suitcase, which he had had since the age of fifteen (and still said Tappan Zee High School on it), he heard the screen door slam, and realized he would have to face the woman he loved before leaving her. It made him both tense and relieved.

The suitcase, packed and ready to go, caught her eye in much the same way a flaming object would. Mirabelle had already perched herself upon it, and was about to attempt a kitten’s fledgling shoulder roll on the skinny bag. Mimi’s face, red with heat and the new blood rising to it, froze in its neutral state of greeting. “Going somewhere?” she asked, not looking at Max but rather down at Mirabelle who now lay on her back in a full-on stretch on the suitcase. “Mimi,” said Max, aching that he had already hurt her feelings and was about to do more damage, “I’ve got to leave for a while. I can’t deal with this right now. Right here. I have to go.”

“You have to go,” she repeated in a voice both flat and panicked.

“But Anna and Syd are coming out in the next few days to stay on for a month or so; it’s all arranged. They’ll live in their camper. They wanted to come.”

“You told Anna and Syd,” she said in the same voice.

“I had no other choice. I have to leave and you can’t run the place alone. They’re your friends.”

“You’re leaving me at a time like this, Max?” Slowly the color of her skin matched that of her voice. “Alone with my pregnancy, my cafe, my life. My friends. Gee, doesn’t that reassure me about the kind of relationship we have.” She felt herself getting crazy but couldn’t stop.

“I feel so good, now that I’ve wandered into your perfectly timed exit. And to make things ever better, you would have left me a note, isn’t that right, instead of waiting for me to come home?” The craziness spread to her extremities. Her hands and feet, already hot, now throbbed. “Fine,” she said loudly and looking him in the eye at last.  “Take your stupid gym bag and your stupid car and get out of here. I’ll work it out on my own. And I won’t even expect you to come back. And as soon as I make some money, I’ll pay you back the money on the warehouse.”

Max , not good at fighting the visceral battles waged on the homefront, could not defend himself. He could not think straight, or even say what she wanted to hear, he was simply overcome by the feelings of being incompetent in an argument. For these reasons alone, he would have preferred leaving a note. For these reasons, he had to leave her. “I’m coming back in a month, Mimi, I’m coming back. We’d ruin ourselves if we stayed together now.”

“Oh really,” she lashed. “And so for every problem that comes our way, your solution will be to split for a month. Great solution. So glad we’re not having a child then. She’d become an escape artist, just like her father.” Mimi was becoming ludicrous.

“We never even talked about having children. We never even talked about getting married.” Max not meaning he was against either, nevertheless made it should that way. “I mean it came as too much of a surprise; and I’m not ready to be pushed into something that serious.”

Mimi wasn’t ready for a child, either, and she knew it somewhere deep inside. She should have been ready, she thought. Her body probably was. But the relationship wasn’t. Even if Syd’s and Anna’s was.

 

By the time Yates Bishop had picked her up and taken her to La Sal and all the way back again, she had done some thinking on her own. At La Sal, Yates was greeted with a kiss on the cheek by Sally Varner Vicks who flushed a deep burgundy, in splotches across her face and neck, as Yates presented her with his gift from the outside world: a ladies Casio multi-function watch. She had admired his on several aoocasions. “Oh my,” was all she could say as she put it on and held it at arm’s length. She inquired immediately as to the location of the instruction booklet, and began fingering all the buttons inquisitively. “How did you know, Yates?”

“Oh, just a little male intuition,” he told her. “Being a postmistress and all, you’ll have plenty of opportunity, I imagine, to use the various functions. And to think of me at the same time.”

“Oh my yes,” she answered, unable to take her eyes off the thing on her wrist, and rocking it to and fro’ as one would have done with a diamond ring. “I mean, about the functions. Isn’t it killer, Mi?” Sally had recently purchased a satellite dish and had become addicted to four things: MTV, Andy Griffith reruns,The Frugal Gourmet, and This Old House. She somehow managed to pick up on words  leagues from her realm, and tested them out on Mimi. “Way killer,” answered Mimi, momentarily absorbed in the drama, and tickled by Yates’s gesture. On the drive back to La Sal Junction, she’d asked him what it was exactly about Sally that he liked. He thought about it a while before answering. “Her mind isn’t the mind of a 50-year-old postmistress. She wants to learn how to build furniture next.”

“You gonna show her?” Mimi inquired, verbally nudging him in the ribs.

“I’d like to, ” he said, dead serious.

She asked to be dropped off about half a mile from the Junction so she could think a bit before walking thorough the door. Olive, the big grey cat, was happy to have her passenger seat back. “I hope you get it squared away with that man of yours,” he said as he reached over to help her with the door. “Remember, the grass is always greener.”

I know about the  grass, she thought. I wrote a letter about it, which is going to be published with the rest of my secret thoughts in about three months. But what, she wondered, did it have to do with her situation now? As she plodded in the now familiar heat toward the homestead, she asked herself about these little bits of wisdom that applied to thousands of situations in different ways. Yates always seemed to bring out the philosophical in her. Did it make them more true, or less true that the wisdom was so broad? Like Tarot cards, or the I Ching, wasn’t everything they said always true??

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” she repeated the advice. Yes, it did apply to her situation. It would be better to be fully, willfully pregnant like Anna. To have a man who wanted children like Syd. It would be better at least to have a man who didn’t attach her situation and accuse her even though he was half responsible. They she remembered that in “grass is always greener” letter she had mentioned something her mother had told her, something that had stuck like to taffy to the very basest of responses in her soul, Just remember;” her mother had said, “That when you play the wishing game, wishing you could be someone else for example, like you are, that you have to take everything that goes along with it. Would you be willing to change places completely with Kelly Devore?” Kelly, her best friend at the age of eight, had frilly dresses with lots of lace and at least five pairs of school shoes. Her hair was thin and straight, and Mimi, at age eight, was jealous. This question of her mothers had give her pause to think.”No,” she had answered with a child’s logic, “because I don’t like her parents as well as mine, or her house.”

In the course of the rest of her life, this arbitrary rule that you couldn’t wish to be more like someone unless you wished to be them, probably made up on the spot by her mother, had greatly curbed her jealousies, or at least had made her feel guilty about them. Now, 25 years later, again she asked herself the wishing game’s loaded question, “Would you like to trade places completely with Anna?” and once again came to that same reply. “No.” Even thought the rules of this game were arbitrary, they still worked, and Mimi went over the things about her own life that made it hers and only hers and reluctantly counted her blessings. “One, I have the cafe. Two, I have a book being published. Three, I’m t, although you would never know it by the way Max is treating me.”

When at last she walked through the door of the trailer, she had cooly and reasonably decided to play the hand dealt her, have the abortion quickly and on her own, and work it out with Max. With whom life would be difficult, no doubt. She almost wished he would go away and leave her alone with this, removed the burden of the relationship when it was so obvious the failing would not be sooth.

Now as she stood by him, throbbing with rage and hurt and feeling her eyes fill up against her will, she forgot her own righteous conclusions and her vague wish that he would leave and focused on Max’s conclusions, his own decision to leave.

He would walk out that door and he would never come back, this she felt was  given. He was abandoning her, leaving her with no one. “What about your cat?” she asked him, “You’re obviously taking her –”

“No, Mimi, I’m coming back, I’m leaving the animals with you, and all my stuff, see? Max knew enough about Mimi to know her fear of abandonment was part of the problem with his leaving. “I’ll be back in a month, I promise, and then I’ll be fresh for tile work, you’ll have found someone to help you out, and you’ll be refreshed as well.”

“I’m glad you have the whole thing figured out, Max. I’m glad you made it so orderly for yourself. I’ll be refreshed and I won’t be pregnant. You’ll be ready for me again.” She could no more help herself from speaking such harsh words than she could from thinking them.

“And you’ll be ready for me,” Max softened toward this woman who looked so stern and so hurt. “Don’t you see, Mimi, it’s better if we have a little vacation from each other. You need to get independent with your cafe. I need to collect myself for my own business.”

“We’ve only lived together a few months and now you’re leaving for a vacation. Which you would never done if I hadn’t gotten pregnant.”

“That doesn’t mean it didn’t still need to be done. I know it’s only been a few months. But we both know a lot has happened between us. We got close fast. It feels like much longer than that.”

On that score, he was right, thought Mimi. It felt like they had always known each other, like they had been together for a good many years.

“You’re going to go, then go,” she said shrugging her shoulders wearily and giving up. She sighed a professional-strength sigh. “I feel like you’re deserting me.” Finally, at the root of the anxiety and the hurt, she felt some of herself come back with her simple words. It felt good just to say them, as if a breakthrough had been made. She’d been too hurt and embarrassed at the beginning, too close to the feeling.

“I know, Mimi,” he answered, “But when you got pregnant I felt you had deserted ME. Can you understand that?”

“I wanted you to want a child.”

“I may want a child, in time. But it’s too soon right now, even if I did want them. Things aren’t settled enough. We don’t have enough history between us, not enough conversations, vacations, private jokes, not enough in the scrap book.”

Mimi’s knees, feeling wobbly, gave way slightly and she sank onto the closest object to sit on, another piece of luggage. “I feel guilty about the abortion and bad about it and worried about it, and I don’t like the idea of the whole thing. How do I know when life starts? In principal, I agree with it entirely but it seems so wasteful. Maybe I was counting on you to convince me that it would be wrong to have one — silly me. Maybe on some level I feel I should have a child because I’m not getting any younger. The truth is I’m just confused and in some ways very relieved that you’re not ready. Maybe I wanted to be more like Anna or something. More serene — did you see how serene she was?”

“But would you want to BE Anna in every way, have her life in its entirety?”

Surprised that he would remember such a thing, she smiled for the first time in what felt like an eternity, almost afraid to shatter the delicate topography of her unhappy face. “Exactly,” she said to the man who sometimes made her feel good.

And as she watched his car glide away into the heat, she held Mirabelle, their only real child, so close that the cat started to labor with its breathing. “Oh sorry, Mirabelle,” she said beginning to cry again. Putting the cat down delicately, she offered it a little tuna juice peace offering from her reserves in the refrigerator. “It’s just –” her lip quivered. “It’s just I wonder if it’s all going to be okay and stuff.” And with this she gathered the animals into her arms like favorite aunts, and she cried and cried, and she cried until her chest felt less heavy, her eyes nearly closed in on themselves. and her body relaxed. “Oh shit,” she finally said aloud. “I’ve got to open in 45 minutes.”

Exigent circumstances can crowd a mood right out, and Mimi hurried through a cool shower, called Anna who told her they would be there the following day, and put on fresh clothes.

Today’s specials would all be comfort foods. Thick slab toasted cheese with tomato soup. Tapioca, which she would have to make pronto. And soy milk malts, which were better than the “real” thing.

Two to four in the afternoon was never very busy at the La Sal Junction Cafe, except for smoothies and iced coffee. Mimi had recently started advertising the iced coffee, inspired by a shipment of red and white striped paper straws Max had ordered on a whim. Much to Mimi’s delight. Somehow they were catching people’s attention, especially when strategically placed in a tall glass full of some iced and frothy substance. Her sign “TRY OUR ICED COFFEE! YOU’LL LOVE THE TASTE AND THE STRAWS! had included an illustration that Mimi was proud of and that folks actually commented on. “I’ll have an iced coffee, just like the one on the poster!”

Leading them down the skittish path of heightened nerves once again, the owner of the coffee clutching cafe resumed her familiar feelings of guilt. But at least with iced coffee, the kick-in time was longer — or she personally felt it was — so that she rarely had to watch them go from desert somnambulists expiring with heat to anxious folks arguing about those turn it was to drive next or what was going happen to Hong Kong in ’97. That would happen in the car, five or ten minutes down the road.

The weirdest thing for Mimi was that some of the truck drivers had actually converted to iced coffee, and filled up their steel Thermoses with it. This picture of truckers lined up at her bar drinking from tall glasses and out of straws rather than thick white cups made her see them as comical — bulky figurines perched delicately with their ice drinks. But then these fellows were turning out to be her best customers, and so whatever they did was fine with Mimi As long as they didn’t smoke inside the cafe, idle their trucks in her lot, or make rude comments about the absence of beef. So far the only one fitting into this last category hadn’t even been a trucker, it had been some whiny brat in cycling gear, probably half crazed with exhaustion, who’d gone on, hyperventilating, about his need for a good old-fashioned burger. Mimi had been completely intolerant of his behavior. “Good old-fashioned burgers are the by-products of gold old-fashioned cruelty.” She glared at him and waved her hand in front of her own nose. “Now for your own good and the good of my customers’ olfactory receptacles, get your stinking butt out of my vegetarian cafe.” As he headed out the door in a fit of rage, Mimi waited until he had the door open to mercilessly add, “God, don’t these people ever take showers??”

Yates Bishop, who happened to be there with none other than Sally Varner Vicks, slapped his knee and turned to the other customers. “We got ourselves a live one here, folks,” he said looking at Mimi. For her own part, Mimi was grateful for the witnesses who would no doubt pass this little story along.

No, the truckers didn’t seem to mind about the burgers once they got the hang of not expecting burgers, chicken friend steak, and fried chicken. They were more than willing to try new food, as long as it was plentiful and no too “Japanese” as one of them put it. The most Japanese that Max had gotten had been vegetal Nori rolls, actually, and the clientele had balked, come to a screeching halt. He’d pretty much known it wouldn’t fly, but had gotten a craving, so the two of them ate nori rolls at the midday break for four days straight. Curiously, the wasabi actually cooled them down. The most Japanese Mimi had gotten had been millet soup, plenty nourishing but not that great to eat. Or smell or touch. On the other hand, the vegetable Chinese dumplings  — or pot stickers — had taken everyone by surprise with their chewy texture and sweet and sour dipping sauce. Someone suggested she don one night of Irish-Chinese food — which Mimi was still considering as a viable option.

Trucker favorites included her orange rind pancakes with vanilla syrup, Texas sized bran-and-stuff muffins, grilled tempeh and potato casserole with gravy served with peas and carrots, mashed potato dinner with mushroom gravy, and, of course, the burger itself, which outshone all the rest easily. All of these were menu items. Her Irish Mexican specials usually went over pretty well, too.

As for the loyalty of the truckers, she had garnered fourteen signatures so far, testifying to the goodness of the Burgamax. She felt she had to see a truck driver twice before she could ask him to sign and testify, and though plenty had passed through and tried the vegetarian burger, invariably on the suggestion of a fellow trucker, it took a while for them to pass her way again sometimes.

Of the fourteen who’d signed, many had become regulars, knew Mimi and Max and the animals by name, and hung out in an atmopphere that had become comfortable to them. Of course, Yates Bishop was father to them all and still Mimi’s personal favorite, though many of them were worthy of having their stories told.

This afternoon, as Mimi wondered if she could handle all the cooking and the serving and the ringing up herself, and worried that it would all come crashing down on her, one of her favorite truck drivers walked through the door. M.O. Robbins by name.

Mary Ondine Robbins, “Mo” to everyone except her granny who called her Mary-O, drove a rig for a specialty foods company out of Salt Lake City. The first time she’d come inside, it had been with some hesitation about entering the newly re-furbished place. One thing about her — she didn’t care for change too much. Mo liked going to a cafe where everyone knew her name, knew what kinds of food she liked, and knew the rich questions to ask, questions like “How’s that chip shot, Mo?” or “How’s the putting green treating’ you?” The cafe’s closed thing to a pro golfer, Mo played every chance she got and usually scored in the high 70s, something no one in the cafe could get over.

Her first time at La Sal, however, found her worried about the new environment. By the grace of God, she was lucky enough to hear the words “Hey Mo!” just as soon as she’d walked in. Carly Balfour, another woman trucker, was having a burger in one of the booths all by herself and motioned her over. Mo considered this a good omen and made herself comfortable. She’d felt welcome ever since — and had opened the door to the fascinating world of specialty foods for Mimi ad Max, to boot. That had started the nori roll thing.

 

Today as Mo walked in and noticed she was the only one in the place, she let out a whoop that, besides being out of character, was completely out of key. Like she needed practice with that whooping or something. Mimi, stirring the tapioca and nearly done with it, peered around the range and saw the last person she expected to see. “Mo!” she said, genuinely pleased, “What’s with the animal sounds?” That’s what Mimi thought they were. “That was a whoop, Mimi,” said Mo feeling too good to feel offended. “I thought I’d try it out since no one was in here. “I shot my first 75 this morning.” Mo, a small woman in her mid to late thirties, had the golf bug bad. Everyone knew she played by the way she talked, but there was considerable argument over whether she was being honest about her scores. “Geez Louise and holy shit, Mo, congrats!”

Mimi, not a golfer and therefore uninvolved as to the integrity of her scores, didn’t really care whether she was fibbing or not, but she did want to show it to the nay-sayers. “Want some iced coffee?”

Mo said she did and they proceeded to talk about her game, and about tapioca and about where Max was. “Oh, he needs some time off, so being the magnanimous woman that I am, I gave to him,” said Mimi, trying to pass it off as nothing more than the facts. “I’ve got friends coming in tomorrow to help me run the place.”

“Well, that Max is luckier than most,” said Mo. “Would he do the same for you?”

She answered before having to think. “Yes, I think he would.”

“Then he’s one in a million. And I’m talking men OR women.” Mo’s sexual preference tended toward females. She had gotten married at the shocking age of 21, given birth to twins within a couple of years, and divorced shortly thereafter. The twins, 10 year old girls named Eleanor and Emma, were somewhat  aware of their mothers lifestyle and when pressured to comment on it by their friends were told to say, “She prefers the company of women.” This made complete sense to them as they preferred the company of their girlfriends; and they took it no further than that. Mo knew that she would have some explaining to do in the next few years. She desperately hoped her daughters would not judge her too harshly, and had faith that they would not; nevertheless her fears spilled over messily into the rest of her life. Hence the distrust of change, the clinging to the familiar and the orderly.

Golf, when mastered, was a very orderly game.

In addition to the validity of this particular golf score, the regulars at the La Sal Junction Cafe routinely asked Mimi about Mo Robbins’ sexual preference, something they wondered about all women truckers, but in the case of Mo, it really aggravated them. “You’re friends with her, Mimi. Is she, you know –” Mimi ready to fly off the handle with the first hint of derogation on their parts, wouldn’t budge on it. “If you want to know something about her sexuality, maybe you ought to ask her yourself or ask the right questions.” It drove them nuts because Mo was so hard to peg.  She appeared to like men and women, once she got to know them, and she talked easily about all kind of things. Her taste in clothes was eclectic but very expensive. Oe day she’d strutted in wearing a pair of deerskin pants that must have cost $300 — and truly she’d loved all the whistles and compliments. “Going’ on a date, Mo?” of the guys had asked.

“If I was going on a date tonight, back in Saslt Lake — cause you know I only do day trips — why would I be wearing these things right now?” Lowering her voice, she added “I just like the way they feel, Derek — you can appreciate that, can’t you?”

The line, delivered in half dead pan and half Mae West had left Mimi and Max and all the rest of the guys holding their sides. From then on, any line spoken surprisingly out of character was referred to as a Classic Mo, even if it were coming out of someone else’s mouth. Mo, though she didn’t much care for change except in girlfriends and clothes, was full of surprises. Today was no exception beginning with the whooping.

“Say Mimi,” said Mo now as she sucked up the last of the iced coffee foam. “I have a favor to ask you. Although this may not be the right time with Max away and everything. But I don’t have anyone else to ask.”

“What’s the favor?” Mimi asked, seeing two Mack trucks pull in at just about the same time.

Mo, following Mimi’s gaze, quickly said, “Maybe this is a bad time.”  Mimi signaled her to go on.

“Well,” said Mo, running her tongue over her teeth nervously, I”I have this big golf tournament coming up in Denver next weekend. My mom was supposed to fly in to stay with Lee and Emma, but is stuck in bed with a fever and the flu. I can’t miss this tournament, though, I’ve been planning for it, practicing for it, praying for it and everything, and if I score well, I could break in. As a pro, I mean. I’m pretty close, Mimi, and I think I could do it. It’d just be for two and half days. I figure they can’t get into any trouble out here. And they’re good at amusing themselves, and they love animals.”

Mimi, touched that Mo would entrust her with Eleanor and Emma and overjoyed at Mo’s standing as a golfer, said yes. “No problem, Mo. Syd and Anna will be here and we’ll all look after them. I’ve been wanting to meet them anyway.”

Mo jumped up and hugged Mimi just as two truckers, Big Tom and Cecil Moore, approached the front door.  Mo was saying to Mimi, “Thank you so much, thank you. I wasn’t sure what I was doing to do otherwise.” It was a good long hug, from Mo’s heart, but the truckers just saw it as a good long hug between two good-looking women and smiled when they walked in .”Hallo girls,” said Big Tom looking around “Where’s Max?”

“Yeah, Where’s Max?” echoed Cecil. Cecil was a echoer.

 

It was in point of fact a long night for Mimi, who ran the place all alone. From four in the afternoon until midnight she served 36 burgers, 11 toasted cheese and tomato soups, 42 malts, 27 assorted sandwiches, 5 grilled tempeh casseroles and 7 mashed potato dinners. She ran out of tapioca at 7:30 and had to make 16 pots of coffee over the course of the night. But somehow she got through it. Miraculously. On her own. Well, with the help of Chinette plates.

In terms of the events of the evening, the turn of the conversation, the mood of the customers, Mimi was too busy most of the time to listen in, or even to inquire politely as to the general welfare. Big Tom felt obligated to tell someone what he had seen as he’d walked in the door with Max nowhere in sight. The hug witnessed by Big Tom had turned into a kiss by the time the tapioca had run out. Yes, by then, everyone was tittering about Mimi and Mo, the fact that Max was gone, and the answer to the question they had been asking about Mo for so long.

Finally, Dodge Robuck had the nerve to wander over, pulling on his oversized belt buckle, to ask Mimi if she could tell them anything more about Mo’s golf scores now that Mimi and her were s close and all. He had the double nerve to wink at her — up at her, actually — and the whole place fell to a hush except for the few bicyclists and families amongst them who didn’t have a clue what the deal was. Mimi took it all in at once, the hug, Big Tom’s big mouth, the implications , and felt the blood rush freely to her cheeks.

Facing the lot of them stolidly with her eyes blazing, she had much more the look of the Irish than the Chinese. “Well if you must know,” she said loudly enough for the neighbors to hear if she’d had any, “Mo Robbins is playing at her first pro tournament in Denver next weekend. If you have any doubts, well, you can just call them up and ask the authorities if her name is on the roster or not. As to the the hug some big-mouthed brother  witnessed and no doubt passed along in an unmanly whisper, which no doubt turned into something juicier, forget about it. If you want to know about her, well ask HER.  As for me, you already know about my preferences. Max is gone for a little vacation. He’s coming back in a month. He left his cat and all his stuff, and you can go out and check the barn if you don’t believe me. Now, Dodge. Do you or your belt buckle want to know anything else?”

Dodge Robuck, a wiry, wrinkled and tan son of a gun whose hat and boots combined gave him that full extra foot he needed, had no choice but to laugh at himself because everyone else was laughing at him, including the stray families and bicyclists who’d managed to fill in the missing parts of the story. “Now,” she summed up. “As your repayment of any injury to me or my reputation or Mo’s, it’s your turn to testify to the worth of my burgers. Are you ready to testify?”

He looked confused. Then someone at the end of the bar started banging his cup on the bar. “Testify. Testify. Testify.” Slowly others joined in. “Testify. Testify. Testify.” Dodge looked pained. As thought he truly thought he would have to stand up and claim allegiance to some religion of Mimi’s and evidently to the others next to him, as well. He began, therefore, to remove his hat.

Mimi, not by nature wicked, came to his rescue. “For those of you unfamiliar with this request, Dodge Robuck is being asked to testify to the goodness of my vegetarian burgers. He will be asked to sign a slip – and I’m gonna have to forge the notary’s signature folks, so forgive me because the notary is on vacation — a slip claiming that my burgers are worthy and wonderful and that he will eat more in the days to come. He will supply his license plate number and his handle if he has one. The purpose of these required 25 signatures is to win a bet with a cattle rancher in Montana. If I win, he lets his cattle go and becomes a vegetarian. If he wins, I agree to make his designer beef available in the form of steaks and hamburgers to my customers here. The reasons behind the bet are far too long to get into. Any problems with signing Dodge? You’ve eaten my burgers.”

Relieved that religion was not involved, or public speaking for that matter, Dodge said he’d be happy to sign. As a matter of fact, Mimi garnered another four signatures right then and there from first-time customers who said they really really liked her burgers and would certainly be back. Was it always this lively, they wanted to know?

After midnight, after she’d served her last burger, her last malt, her last cup of coffee, Mimi sat down in one of the booths and put her legs up on the cushiony vinyl seat. It was so incandescently light in the cafe and so black outside she fancied herself part of an unpainted Edward Hopper painting. Instead of spotlighting her as a lonely soul, however, this light protected her, it enclosed her in a warm and happy space vibrating still from an evening’s activity and noise. Mimi heard echoes of their voices, their laughter and listened harder, straining for the comfort of such relics that seemed to live in the air itself.

With the lights out, nothing would have separated her from the loneliness of the night. There were no rigs parked in her lot, no vehicles on the road. there was only one woman in a brightly lit room in the middle of nowhere, putting her feet up after a long night. She hesitated to move, unable to bear the thought of turning out the lights, of being an indistinguishable part of the night landscape.

But then a brilliantly simple solution came to mind. Even with the CLOSED sign on the door she could leave the lights on. Then she would not be without the company of her well-lit cafe and she could walk back to the trailer in its light. In the darkened hours before dawn, she would be stepping into a place that had waited for her all night long.

Comforted, she nevertheless sprinted the fifty yards to the trailer and then forced all the animals to sleep next to her on Max’s side of the bed. She was unused to being out there, on her own lad, with her own business, all alone.