Drowning in the Land of Madness (Day 3)

A bed has one function. To be comfortable enough for you to fall asleep on. Any bed that fails at this important and basic function is not in my eyes a bed at all, but some kind of mystery furniture. Whoever invented the pull-out sofa bed that I am lying on now surely did not have the words bed or sleep in mind when they made it. So then, what is this machine that I have been doomed to spend two weeks on? It looks to me like a giant cigarette rolling machine. I imagine the bed popping back into its sofa shape in the middle of the night and me getting wrapped in the bed sheet and dispensed out of the bottom like a giant cigarette.

This evil device of impractical chiropody has twisted me almost in half during the night and now I feel like a rung towel. I stretch to ease some of the tension and feel my spine crack into place with the pleasing sound of falling dominoes.

David has already put the coffee on and a fresh cup appears on the table in front of me.

“Cheers. Jerky,” I say.

“In your coffee?”

“No. Jerky is what is needed. That is what I want.” My head is hanging heavy, looking down into my coffee I can see a circular distorted reflection of my face in the brew and realise that I am clearly not a human. Not yet at least. And I realise, if I intend to have any hope of making sense, I need to concentrate on what I am saying. “Today, wherever we go, I want some jerky. Proper American jerky. I need to start understanding this country. But I know I never will. Jerky will help me along my path. I have seen jerky in every store we have been in so far. It must be important. It must be.”

“Don’t you eat it all the time in England?”

“No. That’s the biltong. It’s more or less the same. Just more misshapen and softer. And I think it’s made of deer instead of cow. And from South Africa maybe. Or not. I don’t know. Maybe. Who knows? It has a different name but is the same but also different in some way I can’t recall. You know? No? Well, never mind that. But it must be better here. They say all the food is better here. Not that that’s been proven so far.”

David takes the seat opposite me. “I just want to find some normal fucking beer.”

“Here, here.” I drink my coffee and then a thought strikes me. “Where are all the girls?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you seen any? Anywhere? I haven’t seen a single woman under the age of forty five since we got to this country? I thought these lands were bountiful when it came to perfect beautiful women. Where the fuck are they all?”

“I don’t know. Hiding from us probably.”

“I want one. The States should be bursting at the seams with beautiful Hollywood-moulded immigrants (for all Americans are immigrants except the famously moody Natives). I know they’re around here somewhere. I’ve seen them in the movies. I want jerky, a gorgeous woman, and a decent pint. These things are not hard to come by in England. My ex was a beautiful American. And I met her in a pensioner’s clothes shop in Bournemouth. Why can’t I find any here?”

On Venus (the planet) all of the landmarks have female names except one mountain which was named before the idea to give everything feminine names came about. Imagine being the only man on an entire planet of women. Being in an RV park is kind of like the opposite of that. The only women you see are, what people in the know call, Snow Birds. Grey haired women who travel south for the winter. We are awash in a silver sea unable to get to shore, where, in our delusions, a kingdom of beautiful women lies just beyond sight.

After breakfast it’s time to leave the RV Park and drive to Flagstaff; a place we hear to be an interesting stop on Route 66. We put away anything that could move and break or become a lethal projectile should we crash or break suddenly. When an RV of this size starts to move at speed any sudden stop can cause a normally harmless toaster (or cup, or shoe, or frying pan, or souvenir cactus etc.) to become weaponised. Being kicked in the face by a shoe is embarrassing enough. Being kicked in the face by a shoe that doesn’t have a foot in it is an embarrassment one finds hard to live down.

The sun-blinds that shield the windscreen when parked are taken down. The dining area and double bedroom are retracted back into the RV. The hydraulic feet that are used to level the floor are withdrawn. Sewage pipe, water supply, and electric hook-up are unplugged and put away. The beer cooler is stored safely in one of the luggage compartments. Dad takes the driver’s seat. Mum programs the destination into the sat-nav. Me and David lounge in the two double seats in back and we are set to go. The engine starts with a rumble. The CD player turns on automatically and plays Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. We leave this worn out RV Park in search for greener pastures.

BANG!

“What the fuck was that?” says David.

Less than three minutes into our journey we are forced to pull over to investigate an enormous boom that had resonated around the RV from above. To me it is obvious what has happened. Someone has jumped to their death from a tall building and landed on us. Or perhaps an angel has been cast out of heaven and burned up on entering the atmosphere and is now smouldering on top of the RV, blackened and charred. Some people in the RV seem to have different ideas.

“I left the damn antenna up!” says Dad, coming to a more reasonable conclusion than my own mind tends to allow. “David, get up there and have a look will you? I always bloody forget to wind it down.”

David is not the kind of person that needs persuading to climb up on top of an RV and fix something. He is by trade a shop fitter and is a natural master at fixing all things (this normally involves merely the application of force. It seems there are few problems that can’t be rectified with a good hard wallop. It never works for me. I am always dumbfounded and amazed when he does hit something that was previously broken only for it to spark back into life. I can only conclude that appliances fear him).

“How’s it looking?” says Mum, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looks up at him from the pavement.

“It’s fucked.”

“Can you be more specific?” says Dad.

“The bracket at the bottom is fucked.”

“Can you fix it?”

“I think I can help.” I say (although it’s no secret that I am only capable of making things worse), and make my way around the back to climb up the ladder and join him.

“Yeah, it’s fucked.” I say, when I get to the top.

“Great. Thanks for your help,” says David.

“It’s fun up here. I feel like we’re in one of those old cowboy films where they run around on top of trains.”

“You are a child,” says David, without turning to look at me.

“So now we can’t watch TV?” says Dad. “Wonderful.”

David tapes the areal down so it doesn’t come lose and we get back in the RV and carry on with our journey to a place called Black Bart’s in Flagstaff.

The scenery is scenic as, by definition, all scenery is. We roll down endless roads flanked by mountains that are dotted with cacti. So much cacti that if you were to recreate the scene with CGI, or paint it, people would accuse you of exaggeration. Every square foot for miles around contains at least one hostile green plant. It looks fake. Like the land has green stubble.

After driving for a bit we stop at a place called Black Canyon for petrol. Not much is going on here. There are signs on most of the shops that say they are closed on Mondays. I was hoping to poke around the Navajo shop to see if they sell knives. A knife is the only thing I intend to buy over here. Lock knives are illegal in England, though I’m not sure why. I think it has something to do with not being allowed to stab people in the UK. In America you can do what you like so long as you let the police shoot you afterwards.

You can buy knives in petrol stations. They seem to sell them everywhere and they’re always brightly coloured or in novelty shapes. They are either marketed to children or the adults over here have a particularly juvenile mind-set. But I’m not after a toy. I want something to replace a knife I brought in Mont Saint-Michel in France when I was 14. I’ve always found it useful, you’d be amazed how often I used the thing, and I’ve almost never stabbed anyone with it. One day, after making a Galileo Galilei Pendulum Wave Machine with my daughter it vanished. I used it to cut the strings that held the weights after we were done, put the knife down, and never saw it again. I am lost without my handy sharp implement. Kitchen knives just aren’t the same and the kind of knives that don’t lock are lethal, especially if you intend to keep your fingers. There is an idea in England that the only reason you could possibly want to own a knife is if you want to murder someone. However, if you’re the kind of person who likes sitting around a fire, or camping, or hiking, then owning a decent knife is no different to owning a tent or hiking boots. I was hoping the Navajo shop would sell something a bit more authentic than the brightly coloured laughing stock of shitty knives I’ve seen so far but I guess I’ll never know. Still, I have two weeks to find something.

I buy some chilli jerky and David buys a 6-pack of some kind of cherry drink from a convenient store and we climb back into the RV. Before we are all the way in we are startled by a strange sound. A bellowing noise. I couldn’t quite place it. I go back outside to see what the commotion is. It turns out to be something you don’t hear much in England; loud affectionate geniality. A fat American wearing a cowboy hat is impressed by the size of the bus and is practically “Ye-Hawing” in astonishment. What’s with the overt kindness and whooping at strangers that is so common over here? I’m more comfortable with the cynical miserable bastards back home. You don’t have to try and work out if someone is actually happy to see you or just putting on a façade. People are either happy or they are not. They like you or they don’t. They are impressed or they couldn’t give a shit. There’s no guessing in the UK. Although, as the American culture continues to penetrate ours, I’m sure with each passing generation we too will become fake shills. But this man seems genuine in his astonishment. He probably yells in genuine astonishment at everything he comes across.

The weighty cowboy wishes us a good day and safe journey and runs down the street with the bright sun high above him, whooping and firing a gun into the air. So I imagine anyway. I’m in the RV now escaping from his unwarranted kind words. I’m just assuming he’s whooping and shooting his gun. He probably is.

“Well, that’s one goal knocked off my list.” I say to Mum, opening the giant bag of jerky as we pull out onto the interstate.

“I’ve never tried Jerky before. It doesn’t look very appealing,” says Mum.

“No, it’s delicious, try some.” I proffer the bag and she peers in dubiously.

“Are you sure it’s not going to kill me?”

“I can’t promise anything, but it is tasty. It’s kind of like meaty chewing gum.”

She takes a piece out of the bag and puts it in her mouth. She chews, frowns, and then nods. “It’s ok. A bit chewy.”

People who are new to jerky will not know about that one piece of rogue jerky you sometimes come across. For whatever reason that particular piece of jerky is utterly uneatable. You can chew it and chew it for hours and the meat will never separate in your mouth. It seems to be fixed together by an unbreakable bond. The best thing to do when you get one of these pieces is to discard it immediately and pick out another piece. Otherwise it won’t be long before your jaw is aching and you find you can’t eat or speak for the rest of the day due to mouth fatigue.

I am on my sixth piece and I offer Mum another one. To my surprise she is still chewing.

“I don’t know how you can eat them so fast,” she says.

“I think you got a dud one. They normally fall apart in your mouth.”

“I think I’ll take your word for it.”

I think she should too. More for me. I offer David one but he’s happy enough with his bottle of cherry soda.

*

It was hot in Phoenix, as has been established, but things are set to improve. We are traveling upwards, from 2000ft to 6790ft. As you rise in elevation the air gets thinner and the weather gets milder. The closer to the sun you get the colder you will be. Go figure. Flagstaff is up a mountain surrounded by volcanoes.

We finally drive past a sign that says 6000ft elevation and arrive soon after at Black Bart’s RV Park. This park is essentially a restaurant car park. The only difference that separates this from any other restaurant carpark is that the parking bays are huge and each contain a picnic table and a pine tree. The weather is fantastic. It is hot but not so hot it would melt your skin like it was in Phoenix.

We book in at reception and I buy two large bags of ice for $6 and David haplessly pours them into the cooler from standing height. I open the second bag but the ice is stuck together in one giant ice clump.

“We’ll have to get a hammer or something”, says David, passing a practical eye over the block of rock hard water.

I hold the block of ice up above my head and prepare to let it drop.

“Don’t be so fucking stupid,” says David, trying to stop me.

But it’s too late. The ice is already falling through the air. It hits the edge of the cooler and breaks into a hundred pieces. By some miracle most of them land in the cooler. “Problem solved.” I say.

David reaches down and picks up a can. A thin spray of beer is emanating from a tiny hole in the side of the can. “But at what cost?” says David.

Shit. How many cans have I sacrificed for this labour saving ice drop? I dig through but it seems only one of the cans has been hurt.

“Boys, can you give us a hand getting the RV set up?” comes Dad’s voice from inside the RV.

“Yea,” says David, dropping the broken can back into the cooler, where it continues to spray.

I help mum put the blinds over the windscreen while David sorts out the sewage, electricity, and water. We finish quickly and wander down to the restaurant to have a poke around but it’s closed. It looks cool though, from the outside. It’s an old fashioned western place with a wooden porch. There’s a decrepit horse cart by the entrance and the walls are decorated with rusted stirrups and saddles.

“It’s not open till five,” I say, pointing at a board with the opening times. “Shall we cross the interstate and see what’s around?”

“Sounds like a plan,” says Dad. “How do we get there?”

Mum notices a gate in the fence and we make our way towards it but we stop when we see something move. “What are they?” says Mum.

“A gofer, or are they called Prairie Dogs. Or are they the same thing?” I say. “I want one. Let’s see if we can catch one.”

“Andy, don’t be an idiot,” says Dad.

David takes out his camera to take a picture but they all scarper down their burrows before he has a chance.

We cross the interstate without getting killed, stopping at a petrol station on the way to see if they sell fridge magnets (mum is collecting fridge magnets from every state/town she visits as a souvenir. She is also collecting pins that she attaches to a cowboy hat that hangs on the wall beside the passenger seat in the RV). I ask the guy behind the counter if there is a bar nearby and he recommends a place called Porky’s Pub.

Porky’s is just across the road. We enter and hover for a while. A British person in an American pub will always be confused at first. What are the rules? Our natural instinct wants us to go to the bar and buy a round of beers that we’ll take to a table of our choice by ourselves. But they do it differently here don’t they? Or do they? Is it table service everywhere or just in some places? Maybe there’s a sign. If you find yourself in a table service pub in England you’ll know about it without question. There will be a small lectern as you walk in the entrance with a book of reservations on it and a big sign that says, “Please Wait To Be Seated.” If you try and make your way to the bar by yourself you will be grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a mean looking waitress with thick arms and be led to a table where she will then leave you for an unreasonable amount of time before returning to scornfully take your order. But not here. Not in America. The people here are kind and good at customer service. They are the best at it.

Porky’s seems to be run by one man. A thin bald guy, about my age, is standing behind the counter. He sees us looking unsure of ourselves and recognises us for what we are; simple British folk. “Take a seat,” he says, “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

We take a seat and a few moments later he is with us. He doesn’t stand next to us waiting for commands like one of our guys would, instead he pulls a chair from table and sits down. “So, what can I get you?”

“Have you got any Blue Moon?” says Dad.

“Sure.”

“Three pints of those I think.”

“What’s that?” I say, having never heard of the beer and being dubious of American lager.

“It’s nice trust me,” says Dad.

“It’s cheaper if you get a pitcher,” says the barman.

Dad looks at me and David for affirmation and we nod in agreement. “Pitcher it is,” says Dad.

“And for the lady?” he says, looking at mum with a smile.

“I think I’ll have a gin and tonic.”

“No problem. Can I get you guys any food?”

“I am a bit peckish,” says Mum.

“Ok,” says the man getting up, “You have a look through the menu while I get your drinks.”

“Cheers,” we say.

“So what is this beer you’ve ordered?” says David.

“Trust me, it tastes like oranges.”

“Oranges? I want it to taste like beer,” I say.

“It does. It just also tastes of oranges. I drink it all the time.”

“Right. I’m choosing the next beer,” I say, picking up the drinks menu.

The barman comes back with the drinks and mum orders a basket of Teriyaki chicken wings with blue cheese sauce for us to share. “Sure thing, they’re on their way,” he says, and disappears into a back room.

The beer really does taste like oranges. It’s drinkable but faintly sickening. I fear more than one pint of the stuff would cause an organised revolt from my stomach. A mutiny of bile.

The barman returns with the chicken wings. “Can I get you anything else?” he says, putting the chicken wings down in the middle of the table. They smell fantastic!

“We’ll have a pitcher of Padst Blue Ribbon,” I say, our beers already finished.

“Ok, anything else?”

“I’ll have another G and T,” says Mum.

“On its way.”

“What’s Blue Ribbon?” says Dad.

“It’s the beer the Hipsters are drinking. I’ve been wanting to see what all the fuss is about for some time.”

The barman returns with the pitcher and mum’s drink. We thank him but by now all the chicken wings are gone so we order more. Those chicken wings, my god, I wish you could taste them. I must remember to Google teriyaki sauce when I get home. I don’t know what it is but spread it on chicken and dunk it in blue cheese sauce and you will create, in your mouth, a kind of heaven.

Sadly with the new beer comes more disappointment. The regretful taste of Padst Blue Ribbon splashes over my tongue and down into my gullet, destroying any taste recollection of the delicious chicken that came before it.

David frowns at his glass. “Great choice,” he says.

“What is that?” says Dad, trying to place the flavour. (Note the “u” in the word “flavor”. Americans, take note, it might not make any sense but it is a well-loved language the quirks of which should be embraced. These random letters that are not needed are relics, a small reminder of the languages origins. You wouldn’t burn all the fossils because we no longer have dinosaurs would you? Wait. We do do that don’t we? Isn’t that what petrol is? Never mind, you know what I mean. Sadly, your version of English makes a lot more sense, is easier to teach, and much more economic. The spell check on my laptop was automatically set to American when I bought it in England, and with the flood of American culture that whispers in the ears of our teens, soon the American way will be the only way. Your power and charm will overwhelm our pointless holdfast on a beloved yet outdated tongue. I must try and stop going off on these tangents, it distracts from the scene).

I have another sip of my beer and the taste brings on a feeling of nostalgia and then a clear memory. “I know what it is. Do you remember those milk bottle sweets we used to get when we were kids?”

“Yes! That’s what it is! It has an aftertaste of milk bottles,” says David.

“It’s not bad,” says Dad (who will admitted drink anything), “A bit strange but quite drinkable.”

“One of these days I will find a normal pint,” I say.

“We could just get a Bud?” says David.

“No! We must persevere and find a beer you can’t get in England that doesn’t taste like fruit, candy, or furniture polish! Once we have found it we can give up and just drink Bud. But not until we find it.”

“Ok.”

*

We’re back at the RV. We left Porky’s, looked in a few shops, and since then we’ve mostly been milling around. David managed to take a picture of a gofer. Other than that it has been relaxing and uneventful. We sat around the RV, enjoying the sun, smoking cigarettes (I was anyway, the others don’t smoke). Now we are heading over to the restaurant for dinner.

We enter and are shown to a table a row back from the stage. The back wall of the stage is a book shelf loaded to the brim with music books. There is a piano and next to it, at the front of the stage; a microphone.

The waitress appears at our table and asks if she can get us any drinks. She’s kneeling, looking up at us with wide welcoming eyes. They really have nailed the customer service over here. If a British waitress knelt down at a customer’s table in the UK she would be fired for public indecency. She would probably get a good tip though.

“Do you have a beer menu?” I say.

“Yes, sir, right here,” she leans forward and takes a meu from a small stand on the table. She opens it and hands it to me.

“Bloody hell, quite a few.”

“Yes, and they are all brewed locally.”

Here we go again, I think, and David flashes me a look that suggests he’s thinking the same thing.

“Get me a drink, I’ll be back in a minute,” says Dad, excusing himself to use the restroom.

Me and David look through the menu and settle on two different ales. For me and him we get an ale called Left Hand into the Dark Side. Not a promising name but its description makes it out to be a light and refreshing ale. For Dad we order what is called Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale and is described as a Scottish IPA but is actually made locally and the reference to its Scottish-ness is ungraspable and probably non-existent.

Dad comes back and the waitress joins us again to take our food order. “Have you decided?” she says.

“Yes, could I-“

We are interrupted by a sudden tinkering of keys from the piano on the stage.

“Could you excuse me for a moment?” says our waitress.

“Sure.”

“Thank you,” she says, and then puts her order pad down, walks up on to the stage, up to the microphone, and sings Sweet Virginia. The song ends, she thanks the audience, we clap vaguely, and she comes back to finish taking our order.

“What was that about?” I say, as she picks up her order pad.

“This is a live music restaurant. When we don’t have a band the waiters and waitresses take turns doing Vaudeville songs.”

“Got it,” I say.

“I’ll have a 9oz steak,” says David, presumably finding nothing noteworthy or unusual about our singing waitress.

“Me too,” says Dad.

“And me,” says Mum.

“And you sir,” says the waitress to me.

“I think I’ll also have the 9oz steak. But can I have peppercorn sauce with mine?”

“Sure.”

“Pepper what? Where’d you see that?” says Dad.

“On the menu.”

“Add that to mine as well please,” says Dad.

David and Mum also add the sauce, for what is steak without peppercorn sauce? Nothing but a bit of dead cow, that’s what.

The ale, as you will be expecting by now, is another disaster. The worst yet in fact. It has the consistency and hue of dirty toilet water after a bad night on the curry. It is just unpleasant. I can’t understand why anyone would consider this a drink? Not one to be beaten by a drink I force mine down. I have a taste of Dad’s but it is just as bad, not that he seems to mind it. He acknowledges that it is indeed disgusting but drinks it without issue regardless. David gives up on his and calls the waitress over. What is left of David’s beer dad uses to top up his own, creating a combo that would, I suppose, now be called Dirty Bastard Left Hand into the Scottish Dark Side (which is a hideous yet apt description).

“Any chance we can get a few tasters of the rest of your ales?” says David, to the waitress.

“Sure,” she says, “Back in a mo.”

She returns with a wooden rack of shot glasses each filled with liquid that goes from amber, to burgundy, to brown, to black. After tasting them all we order two pints of the amber coloured ale, the name of which I never discover. Dad pours the undrunk shots of ale into his pint glass creating a mixture David and Me are both unwilling to try. Dad continues to drink it like water but grimaces when he finally polishes the thing off.

The streak is good but the Vaudeville tunes are sung with the gusto and brevity of a dying breeze. They inspire boredom and a deep overwhelming sense of loneliness. As they sing you can see the emptiness in the eyes of the waiters and waitresses as they are forced to perform every day for a weirdly delighted, and easily pleased, gaggle of Snow Birds.

The moderate food, iffy ale, and terrible live music has finally taken its toll. As I’m watching the big finale (where all the waitresses and waiters gather on stage and sing something very proud and patriotic about America and how great all of its citizens are), someone taps me on the shoulder.

I turn in my chair and there, at the table next to us, is a young and very excitable Chinese guy. “Yes?” I say.

“I’m sorry to bother you.”

“That’s ok. What do you want?”

“I was just wondering, that guy, is he your dad?”

I look over at the man in question and am quick to surmise an answer, “Indeed he is.”

“Is he famous?”

“That depends. Who do you think he is?”

“Is he the guy that played the doctor in Back to the Future?”

“Great scot!” I shout, “We’ve been rumbled!” David starts laughing, but Dad, in his curiously vacant way, hasn’t seemed to have noticed the interaction. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to the table at large. (Dad is not, by the way, Dr. Emmett Brown.)

Dad calls for the bill and I chuck some money on the table for my bit. David and I wait outside while the rest of the bill is paid so I can have a cigarette.

The evening at this elevation is chilly (a welcome break from the sweaty night that preceded). Luckily David brought a spare jacket with him so we are able to sit outside and have a few cans before we shoot off to bed. I, stupidly, did not think I would have the opportunity to get cold enough on our journey between Arizona and the Mojave Desert in Nevada to need a jacket. David, on the other hand, has enough scepticism (when it comes to weather) to bring two jackets.

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