Mimi and Max were just about to put the final coat of paint on the exterior of the La Sal Junction Café on a certain breezy Saturday in April when an eagle flew overhead and stopped them in their tracks. Its wings, prehistoric in spread, hardly moved while it glided above, high above, superior to other beings and their tiny lives on the close-cropped landscape.
The two mortals beneath, dressed in jeans and painting shirts, stood with their heads tilted back, mouths open and paint brushes dangling, unable to move while such a creature circled over them. From its casual state of soaring — and without warning — the eagle swooped down to a spot not more than a hundred yards from the café and snagged a small animal, probably a pack rat, gripping it in its claws greedily and without mercy, and then headed back to its nest flapping powerfully. Events like this interrupted and filled the spring days for this pair of lovers who had made the move to the desert during the first week of April, the beginning of off-season back in the wilds of snow country.
In the last few months, much had happened. The book deal had gone through, Mimi had gotten her advance of $17,500, and “Letters to a Handsome Mentor” would be published in September. There was nothing they could to about the title. It was mortifying, but the professor’s name would not be used.
Max, with his inheritance, decided after much deliberation to move his trailer to La Sal Junction for the two of them to live in, and to buy one of the warehouses from Mimi — another $7,500 for her down payment on the land — so that he could begin making his own tiles, glazing them, and doing custom projects. The old trailer now sat comfortably and handsomely on a little knoll fifty feet from the café — right on the old air strip, as a matter of fact — its two occupants playing house as happy as clams. They were having sex again (it seemed appropriate when they moved into the trailer), running every morning, and fighting only intermittently on issues directly related to the renovating of the café.
In fact, the only dissonant chord in an otherwise harmonious drama were the two animals, Nero the black lab and Dale Evans the big orange cat, who would not be around each other without raised hair, stiff legs, and a lot fo squaring off. Dale Evans spent her days guarding what she presumed was her trailer, hissing at Nero every time he tried to get to this food that was kept inside in order to force the two of them to resolve their differences. Nero, scared to death of Dale Evans; claws that had already swiped him across the nose on numerous occasions, tried to eat as seldom as possible and spent the good part of his days outside. It would take time, but Mimi and Max were both convinced that their pets would end up the best of friends.
The café had been brought back to its original white with red trim, and all that remained on the exterior renovation was the final coat of white on the three buildings. which they would spray with a rented rig Max had somehow refurbished the turquoise sign atop the café — that read La Sal Jct Café — and it looked almost new. Even the little bubble lights on the yellow arrow pointing to the “La Sal Jct Café” worked perfectly for the first time in probably thirty years. Mimi, unaware that the lights could ever work again, would have herself a thrill when opening day arrived and Max flipped the secret switch to turn the sign on. He looked forward to this day.
But much remained by way of renovation. The café itself would have new black and white linoleum floors and a formica bar. They could salvage the stools if they replaced the vinyl. Mimi wanted booths, three or four, built for couples or families, and she wanted to keep all fifteen stools, the old kind, along the bar for the truckers whom she was sure would be arriving in great numbers. “Where else do you think they’re going to eat, Max, Dove Creek for god’s sake? Give me a break. And it’s a long ways between Monticello and Moab. Even in Moab, there’s not that much to eat. Unless of course you like your hamburgers flat, greasy and chewy. Or perhaps the salad bar and donuts at the super market. Nope: they’ll stop once they discover real food again,” She was a s sure of this as she was of the dryness of the landscape , the bigness of the sky. “But the coffee’s got to be good.”
Max had his doubts The traffic was there alright: big semis flew by, rumbling the earth below them and eroding the black ribbon of highway like a natural and continual phenomenon. Sometimes, these trucks were the only signs of other human life Max and Mimi would see all day; and the tracers would either honk or lift of that single index finer off the wheel, the friendly slate amongst co-conspirators on the road of life. Sometimes, standing out on her land, with nothing but Max and the dog and cat, the wind howling, some tumbleweed and a few clouds, Mimi felt the truckers, intermittent pieces of the landscape, were as much a part of her plan as the café itself. She didn’t know why.
Max didn’t have this feeling; he just prayed that for Mimi’s sake and the survival of her investment, that people would come.
The vinyl and the linoleum would be red in the café. Mimi would do the sign in the window in white, its design matching the one on the turquoise sign. As for the kitchen itself, the old commercial gas range was salvageable; the refrigerator was dead; the countertops needed re-tiling, and the cupboards needed hosing out and painting. Max, caught up in Mimi’s overwhelming enthusiasm promised her that they could have it all done by June 1st, which he still thought was reasonable. “But after that, you’re on you own,” he’d told her, already getting anxious about getting his own business built and functional. No small feat for Max.
As June 1 approached, one small miracle had occurred. s much as they had hated each other for over a month, Nero and Dale Evans had come to adore each other. They fanned over each other, in fact, and could be found together in various animal tableaux during every waking hour of the day. She curled up with him; he nuzzled her; they placed around out of the doors together; they ate meals at the same hour. Sometimes. as Nero lay there, at rest, Dale Evans would come over to his mid section and perch there, two paws on his stomach and her legs on the floor. Evidently in heaven, just to be near him.
Max and Mimi, former cat and dog lover respectively, had done their own little dance around the animals. Max Lee Perdue, once holding cats above all others, and seeing his cat now subservient to a giant black beast, had to give Napoleon credit for putting up with it. He grew to love the bounding, wagging canine and his tenderness with the cat. Mimi, obviously more closely allied to canine nature than to feline, saw in this cat, however, an outgoingness she had not encountered before and taught the cat how to retrieve tiny paper balls, which it did with quiet urgency, dropping them at Mimi’s fee for the next toss.
One day, while Mimi was fixing peanut butter and tomato pizza for lunch (something a meat-eating friend had taught her to do), she looked out into the front yard area to see Dale Evans standing upon Nero’s back as he trotted about, much like the men who ride horses by standing on them in circus acts. The animals, heavily involved in the concentration of such a feat, seemed nevertheless to be enjoying themselves. This domestic circus act sent Max and Mimi into riotous fits of laughter every time they saw it, usually from the kitchen window. Their stomachs would hurt. And they would reward their animals with tuna juice for the cat and an extra-large biscuit for the dog. Dale and Nero inhaled the treats as though it were all in a day’s work.
Spring in the desert, in the flatlands but not far from the snow-dusted La Sal mountains and the sandstone cliffs so much a part of Utah, played on the sensibilities of those used to weather patterns being just so — spring bearing a hint of summer, summer holding a hint of fall, and so forth. Teasing one day, a warm and arid wind would blow through and that first layer of dust would form on one’s teeth, and it would be time to wear tee-shirts and shorts and hats with big brims; and then the next day the same warm wind would be cut with cold spots, much like the cold spots in an otherwise warm ocean, and winter’s echo would persist. Then it would rain, a spring downpour, and the earth, shocked by the feel of the pelting water instead of absorbing the life-giving substance, would let it flood the landscape and collect in rivulets and large pools. On these days, it was good to eat comfort foods like rice pudding, and macaroni and cheese, and tuna sandwiches (which Mimi still ate on occasion).
With rain, sadness overwhelmed Max; but Mimi loved it, the smell of it, walking in it, and even seeing it flood. Mimi liked to feel small and speck-like in the greater landscape of nature; it emphasized her place in the universe. Max preferred to sleep on rainy days, and to dream long and involved dreams, which lately had covered topics from tiling an underground tunnel to robbing a bank of not money but raspberries. On such a rainy day taking a breather from either painting, scraping, or cleaning, Max had his first so-called lucid dream.
The dream began with a woman whose face was shrouded, beckoning to him with hands that had become birds. Somehow he realized that these hands could not be real and he awakened inside the dream — without actually waking from sleep – and had the ultimate revelation; that he could do whatever he wanted in the dream. He then flew over to the woman, releasing her hands, which flew away revealing tiny and delicate human hands in their place, and lifted up the veil. Underneath was a beautiful woman who spoke to him n gibberish — which he understood — and he responded in gibberish. Taking her hand in his, he pulled her up and they flew up, far away from the Earth into the atmosphere, looking down the whole time. Max awake from Sleep feeling as good as he had ever felt in his life. No, better.
Mimi was jealous that he had flown and had spoken intimate gibberish to a strange woman.
“How do you know it was intimate gibberish and not ‘Would you like to go for a quick spin into the sky?'” he’d inquired.
“That’s intimate enough,” she’d answered.
Perhaps the nicest thing about living at La Sal Junction, Utah in the spring or any other time was the lack of TV. No news networks, no MTV, no shopping channel, no sports. In the evenings, after a leisurely stroll around the property, they would read or experiment with recipes for the café. Max Lee, though not entirely vegetarian, was happy eating Mimi’s food and contributed more actual recipes and ideas than she herself did. Of course, the meatless loaf recipe, and his chili recipe. Then, one afternoon, stuck with a fresh and overabundant pot of Anasazi beans, he created a vegetarian burger made from the ground bans, walnuts and a secret blend of spices, a bit of tomato paste and just a touch of tabasco.
The night he invented the “Burgamax,” Mimi had been giving Nero a bath outside. Dale Evans, curious but still a cat, and seated herself approximately twenty feet away and stared at the spectacle of a grown dog being demeaned in water. It didn’t look as though he minded it too much; in fact, he had the appearance of a water dog being reunited with personal but elemental pleasure. Without explanation to anyone, the cat strolled over and stepped into the water knee-deep, looking around, until, as if shocked by her own actions, she lay down.
“Burgers!” Max screamed through one of the windows he was sliding open. He’d learned to scream from Mimi, who was unabashed, especially in the more intimate acts. And here in the desert, you could scream all you wanted. “I think I have created the bean burger to end all bean burgers! Mimi, get your skinny butt in here!”
Mimi, who had convinced Max that they ought to advertise their “burgers” extensively, and by name instead of content, came inside, followed closely by a wet dog and equally wet cat, and nibbled on the surprisingly well-formed burger. Nibbling some more, she gave her taste buds a chance to find the flavor. It was marvelously chewy and had just the slightest kick. “MMMMM,” she said, nodding her head with her mouth still chewing. “Mmmmm.”
Worried that she would never be able to create the perfect burger — which was to be the backbone of her lunch or even dinner business — Mimi had been driving Max crazy with it, talking endlessly about what nuts to use, what spices, which binder,. Paralyzed by fears of failure, she finally asked Max for his opinion on the proper ingredients. “I’d have to experiment with it,” he told her, being a doer more than a talker, at which point he began testing burger combos very methodically one after the other. With or without peanuts, with or without garlic, molasses, flax seed, sunflower seeds. With or without paprika. He had tried a lentil/bean burger and stale-bread burger. None had been nearly as good as this one, and Mimi agreed one hundred percent.
Get out the condiments,” she said to him, “We’re giving it the ultimate test. “And let’s have a beer with this burger, too.” On a bun with onions and pickles and ketchup and mustard, the Burgamax held its own. “Delicious” was the one word that correctly summed up the last-testers’ reactions to it. , and they were thrilled — Mimi because she had her burger and Max because Mimi had her burger. “Burgasazi” was the name Max had come up with originally in honor of the dappled bean from which it would be made. But Mimi disagreed. “Too esoteric” she proclaimed. “How about Burgamax, after the man who invented it? It also makes it sound like a fast food chain, which is good.” Marketing, she told him, was everything. “Burgamax,” she repeated. I love it.” Mimi O. O’Rourke was having more fun getting this café going than she ever dreamed possible — in spite of all the cleaning and renovation, and in spite of all the fighting over the cleaning and renovation.
She was nearly done with the menu, a diner-like and laminated thing in black, white and pink with a fifties script and a little picture of a woman smiling and holding u a pie in one hand in the top right corner. “welcome to the La Sal Jct. Café” it would say at the top, and, “It has bean our pleasure to serve you” at the bottom. There would be a Sandwich section, a Burgers section, a Chili section, and, of course Side Orders and Specialties. Desserts would be listed, as would other daily specials on a black board above the counter. The trickiest part would be the beverage section. Mimi had no intention of serving Coke or 7-up or diet drinks to any of the patrons, even though she knew they would be clamoring for it. Instead, she would serve a natural cola, seltzer with fruit syrup in it a, and fresh carrot juice shots. Her coffee, she suspected, would make up for the lack of ordinary drinks, for it would be double strength and freshly ground a couple of times day.
Truckers would be doing no hard drugs if they stopped by the La Sal Junction Café for coffee; in fact, she hoped they wouldn’t be doing downers just to get some sleep. Unfortunately, Mimi thought, that coca-leaf tea was no longer available through the health food stores; but it had been several years now since they had been forced to let it go. This might have been a good natural stimulant — and a good trump card — for weary drivers everywhere. It could have been her little secret. Now, coffee and bean burgers would have to do.
In the little town of La Sal Junction just eight miles toward Colorado, Mimi and Max had leased separate post office boxes. Sheer luck had given her number 22 (a favorite number, along with 222) while Max ha received 47. Together, these numbers added up to 69, a source of perpetual amusement for Max and Mimi who were still intimate with this particular number. It was on their trips to the post office, zip code 84530, that they met their neighbors and chatted with them.
Sally Varner Vicks, the postmistress, had been the most overtly curious about their endeavors, pressing them about their plans, their renovations, and yes, their religion, presumably for the purpose of passing on this information to every one of the folks of La Sal Junction. “We’re Buddhists,” Mimi had unabashedly told Sally regarding religion. “Which is why we don’t kill flies and we don’t serve meat. Right Max?”
Max, annoyed by this habit of Mimi’s to draw him into her arguments, felt there was no better time to put his foot down. Looking at Sally as much as looking away from Mimi, he answered, “Mimi thinks of herself as a Buddhist; and while I have no problem with that, I feel myself to be more of an agnostic.” With this comment, he succeeded in alienating both Mimi and Sally, which is what he had hoped to do, in one fell swoop. Sally, thinking Buddhism was strange, then felt that at least, in comparison, Mimi was religious; whereas Max, an agnostic or whatever he called it, was without a god altogether. From then on, the folks were more distant with Max. And Max, by temperament distant from folks, was relieved. Mimi, however, played up the Buddhism thing, and in the land of Mormons, was considered as exotic as an onion bulb in a field of blooming poppies. Especially with the vegetarian business.
“How can you live without the protein in meat?” Sally Varner Vicks — whom Mimi had dubbed V.V. — wanted to know.
“When was the last time you heard of someone getting sick from lack of protein, V.V.?” It’s unheard of. We get too much protein in the country anyway.”
“I like my links in the morning,” she answered, almost guiltily, at which point Mimi felt she had made some progress.
Not everyone in La Sal Junction was Mormon, of course, but the fact is the laws in the state of Utah reflect this most widespread religion pervasively. Max and Mimi hauled their beer and wine in from Colorado and drank at home mostly. They were at home, mostly. They felt their concession to the desert, to Utah, and Mormonism consisted mainly in keeping Sunday a day of rest. On Sunday, Max and Mimi shut down their quiet lives even more fully. They decided not to play music, and not to work with their hands except to cook dinner. No erotic pleasures or oral vices were allowed. Instead, the day was spent reading and taking walks and taking it all in. Talk was infrequent.
Such days gave the two of them a chance to savor the solitude and the beauty of this windy and rocky landscape; and it was on such a day that Mimi, in yet another attempt at meditating, felt she actually connected to the silence within — not an easy task for one whose inner voices chattered and hummed and cleared their throats all day long and sometimes well into the night. Mimi O’Rourke, used to having five thoughts at once and furthermore accompanied by intermittent riffs of rhythms and blues, had simply let herself go. Let her shoulders go limp, her mind go blank, her face relax, and her breathing slow down. It became easy just to sit, and her mind effortlessly focused and slipped away at once. Without fear or anxiety, completeness was hers, however briefly.
Meditation was cut short by the sound of the blender, which confused Mimi, as they did not use machines on Sunday, Reluctant to leave her moment behind, she nevertheless unfolded herself and hurried toward the uncomfortable noise. The blender, tipped over and set on “chop” was vibrating across the counter on its own. Only because Dale Evans and Nero sat obediently five feet from where Mimi stood did she realize that the cat must have jumped down off the kitchen window ledge, a forbidden spot, and unknowingly set the blender off by landing on one of the buttons. Nero had apparently joined Dale for moral support, and to make her appear less guilty. “Dale Evans,” said Mimi with accusation in her tone and volume, “You know that we don’t run machines on Sunday,”
“Nooooooow,” was the cat’s loud response. Nero ventured to wag just the tip of his tail.
What Mimi did not see was that Dale Evans had knocked over a candle, which had fallen into a curtain close by, which had in turn begun to smolder. Mimi lit candles on Sundays as vigils to their day of rest. By the time she noticed the curious smell, her back was turned toward the animals both curtains were on fire. With her heart in her mouth, she froze for what seemed an eternity.
After no more than a few seconds, she began to thaw and opened her mouth, which screamed in slow motion. “Maaaaaax. Fiiiiiire!” She saw herself in this instant as if she were looking in from outside the trailer, hands on her face and framed by two blazing curtains. A woman trapped in a burning kitchen. The colors struck her as beautiful and profound — the yellow and orange of the flames against the black and white of the curtains.
In fact, the beautiful flames were certainly not big enough or hot enough to warrant such alarmist behavior. She could have taken a dish rag and swatted them out. She could have used the hose Max had rigged to the kitchen sink for the purpose of watering plants to hose it out. But she had frozen instead, seemingly immune to the action-provoking adrenaline coursing through her body.
Max, who had been sitting on a stump outside, whittling on a piece of pinion pine with a very sharp knife, showed up just in time to see the flames die out on their own. Mimi’s face held no explanation; it was as if she were in a trance, stuck in a moment without being able to break free. And then there they stood, he staring at the two-inch burnt remains of the black and white curtains, and she with her arms wrapped around him and staring into her own soul, her eyes pressed into his chest. The animals, lying down where they previously stood, did not dare move. Their eyes were closed but they were not asleep. Max, rocking Mimi, kissed her hair and reached over to open a window; and the breeze that blew in broke the spell and the smell of the fire. That had been an odd Sunday. And had left Mimi ambivalent about the whole notion of meditating.
“It leaves you unprepared for fires,” she told Max some weeks later after he’d noticed she’d stopped even her practice of progressive relaxation. “Completely unprepared.”
After Mimi stopped meditating, Max started. Two people meditating in one house seemed too much, but now he felt he could get away with it. And as it turned out, Max Lee was the one with the gift for silencing the mind, and his practice of morning meditation became more frequent until he ultimately made a habit of it. It made him feel good, and strong and peaceful; and strangely enough it changed the course of his dreams, dreams that he began to jot down less and assimilate more. Max Lee, used to dreaming about women of all kinds began to dream about men more and dream about Mimi more. Equilibrium replaced fixation, and in his waking life, he roamed about and worked and plotted with vigor and happiness. Mimi, naturally, was jealous of this spiritual advancement, but found it in her heart to be happy for her companion. “It doesn’t seem to leave you unprepared,” she noted.
Sunday was the only day Max didn’t meditate, since he needed a day of rest, and since he wanted to observe the day in the same way Mimi did. On Sunday, though silent and physically apart, Max and Mimi were united in their rituals and observances. he appreciated the candles she lit and took special care to keep them away from loose fabrics, curtains in particular. Max Lee Perdue, frankly, was as good a companion as anyone could hope for. Even Mimi, not one to count her blessings each day, dared not admit to her luck on this one. She was more one to create little conflicts in order to assure that sailing would not be too smooth. Or to test the waters. Max, who did not mind little conflicts, participated accordingly.
One morning in mid-May, Mimi reached all the way into Post Office Box 22 and pulled out a letter from Anna, smiling as she noted the gold-flecked stationery and the fountain pen ink used. They had not had a phone installed yet, reluctant to succumb, and resigning themselves only to installing one in the café once it opened. They weren’t sure about a work phone for Max yet, either.
The aesthetic and pleasing looking letter was postmarked Los Angeles, which surprised Mimi, though only mildly. She ripped open the letter right then and there, as she did with all interesting-looking letters, and shuffled slowly out of the building, head bowed, using her feet as a blind woman would use a cane to wend her way forward.