Mother caught me before I stumbled to the ground and put me back on track. We took a left and ended up at The Dinner Bell all night café. It had the only neon sign in town, a blue coffee cup that looked more like an elephant scratching the back of his ear with his trunk. It was right next to a parking lot so it made the perfect truck stop. Those truckers were like weathered and worn superheroes to me, and I really dug them. They had a way of hunching up their shoulders so their necks would disappear, as if they were always hiding from their past of fighting dangerous villains and saving maidens from the clutches of husbands that beat them. Under their eyes was black shadow that hadn’t been wiped away by sleep’s dirty kerchief for a long time. It didn’t look bad, really; it was just part of the road aesthetic. I guess after staring at blacktop long enough, it soaks into your eyes and you just can’t wash it away, no matter how many filthy gas station bathrooms you stop at. And Belt Buckles. Everybody likes a belt buckle as big as a TV screen. In that late night café, I saw eagles, Peterbilt Semi-trucks, Indian Heads, Turquoise stones, Harley Davidsons, and a lot of text, like “keep on truckin,” and “gear jammer” all riding above crotches, cinching diesel stained jeans to a solid ballooned gut of landscapes that they had been feeding on. Everyone at the Dinner Bell looked like a different strain of human, especially at 3 a.m., and I guess we weren’t excluded. The wait-staff and truckers knew us pretty well there, and it never seemed weird that we showed up in the morning that was still night to me. There was no sense of time in a 24-hour café. The people who worked there never slept, and worked continuous shifts so there were always the exact same faces greeting me. Don was the owner and had some kind of accent, maybe Italian. His eyes were like an Orangutan’s—like big benevolent, sad pennies.
“Hey Kate, How-a the hell are you?;” and then a kiss on each cheek, “Oh Chad, come-a here,” then a kiss on each cheek, and Don would give me some crayons that he stole from the new Big Boy across the street that was trying to put all the little greasy spoons out of business. And then there was Mary, who was definitely on speed. She clicked her teeth all of the time as if she wanted to eat me, and I was frightened. She talked really fast like a radio announcer. Her hair was a foot high, and she wore gold fishing lures with baby blue dyed feathers for earrings. From a distance, Mary could have been a looker, but up close her hips blurred into her breasts and her shoulders into her head—she had no knees or elbows, just tubes for legs and arms. Perhaps she was something Don made in the backroom one night with pasta dough and chicken parts when it wasn’t too busy. Maybe he just ordered her and added water, a couple of breaths, and a lot of coffee. She seemed low maintenance because she never slept or changed. She wasn’t even really there. Maybe she was some kind of trucker construct made to make sure they always had something to come back to. But they could have done better. I came to the conclusion that Don grew her between the three trees on the grass island in the middle of the parking lot. He put coffee grounds and egg shells over the soil until she sprouted. Then he salt and peppered her for three weeks. When her mouth formed, he fed her farina and goat milk.
I had a problem with Mary. She wasn’t a mother. And I couldn’t be sure about any of this, because we never went to the café in the day when I was coherent. Even when I walked by it in daylight, I couldn’t tell what was going on because the yellow nicotine-stained curtains were drawn. Only at nightfall would Don pull the string in unison with the last hour clang of the church bell at 9 p.m., before it went silent for the night so workers could get a good rest without being reminded of the presence of God on every hour.
Gary Taggert often showed up around four after his night shift at the Coleman Company. He was from the south and talked differently too, and when he and Don got to talking it was really something. Don was always adding extra syllables, while Gary Taggert was stretching them out.
“Howww Yaaaall Doooooooin,’” Gary would sing in his placid drawl that tweaked my Mother’s ears.
“Ah, Gary! It’s-a good-a to see you,” Don sang back. Mary cracked a smiled too, revealing a bobby pin that she plucked from her mouth and stuck in her hair. And it was another festive night at The Dinner Bell.
Everybody was always just “doing” and “being,” and most of it was good. People talked for hours about what seemed like absolutely nothing, but the whole gamut of emotions was still covered by simple inflections. We all drank coffee together and ate hash browns and eggs with frozen sausage links that Don brought out from the kitchen where something cooked the food. And Mother grew a little more with every bite.
* * *
Mother was so hungry she started eating men. If she didn’t get enough food she would often bring Gary Taggert back to the house with us, which was convenient because I was usually sleeping in a booth by the time we left, and Gary was strong enough to carry me all the way back to my bedroom. Mom would pull back the sheets, and Gary dropped me in as if he was putting dirty clothes in a hamper. If I was awake, I was too tired to move, but I could hear Mother feeding on him. The sound was like the tiny scull of a mouse being chewed and sucked dry by a cat. In the morning I would run into him in the kitchen, and we would eat cereal together while Mother rested up for another late night.
“Where are your wounds?” I asked him.
“You mean this?” and he pulled up his shirt and showed me a big scar shaped like a canoe. I couldn’t believe how fast he healed. I started to fear Mother.
Tom Karvala was the first I actually saw her try to swallow. I saw her on her knees. Her feet were tiny and her toes were curled so that their knuckles rested on the carpet. Her back was to me so all I could see was Tom Karvala’s huge hands on her head like an ugly hat. I thought he was trying to warm her up by placing her between his legs and putting a hat on her. I smiled. It was nice when people treated Mother well. Soon the wet skull crushing began again, and Mother was swaying her head all over as if she was grooving to the Grateful Dead. She even put her shoulders into it, and wiggled her hips as much as she could while on her knees, feeding on Tom Karvala’s legs while he relished in the pain. When Tom finally contorted his face and pinched his eyelids shut as tight as he could, I saw Mother expand another inch. Then she lifted her head and I saw her profile. She wiped off her mouth with her forearm and left Tom Karvala there all exposed, and I saw his profile—top and bottom. I wasn’t naïve anymore about what she was feeding on. And now it made perfect sense to me, given the relationship I had with Barbie. I figured it would do Barbie good if she could feed on me.
* * *
Since there was never balance in her nights and days, she wanted to celebrate stability when it occurred naturally; so, Mother planned a Fall equinox party and invited everybody we brushed into in Iron River. The cast of characters included all of the above and then some. All of Grampa Duke’s sons came: Brian, Bruce, Marty, Sheldon, and daughter Julie. Grampa Duke himself came with Gramma. Brian and Faith came up from Lower Michigan ,and Melody caught a ride from them. The Dinner Bell must have shut down for the night, because for the first time ever I saw Mary and Don outside of work. Some of Mother’s snacks came: Tom Karvala, Gary Taggert, bad old Big Tom. The three of them wore the same type of ripped knee bell-bottom blue jeans with shit-kicker cowboy boots, and drank beer with cocked elbows. The frayed threads hung from their knees like trembling tendons as if they had just been scrapping in the alley and won. That was their way of showing what they were like on the inside. No emotion, just raw meat. But the three were just different flavors of the same ice cream to Mother. They never took their eyes of off Jensen, the Indian, who also had received an invite from Mother. He didn’t have holes in his knees—because he had cut his pant legs right off and came over in a stained muscle shirt and cutoffs, to ensure everyone that it was indeed Indian summer.
It seemed Mother was trying to validate her existence by recalling every event that had happened to her thus far. It gave her a purpose in a world of welfare money and disrespect. The house was decorated with candles and dried grass. The few antiques that she had acquired from Joe Harvey were polished with olive oil. In each ashtray was a cone of patchouli incense. Silk scarves batiqued with suns and moons hung from the mirrors. In the corner of the living room, a card table was set up with a fishbowl turned upside down. It was stuffed with dried trilliums that looked like white tongues, and a pack of old Tarot cards she got in exchange for a couple of joints when the town went dry and Molly Shepic was parched. The house smelled like a rainbow farm, and my buddy LittleMan was spending the night to keep me occupied so we could watch the harvest.