Sunday, April 11, 2010

Gone Coastal, Part 3-ish: I Paid 75 Cents For This Story

Where are "Gone Coastal" parts 1 and 2? They will be written later, once the photos get developed.

Coming back from the Oregon coast on Monday, I was in desperate need of a restroom. Coffee, cafe soup, and buckets of rain will do that to you. "It's OK," I told my traveling companion. "I can make it to the Elderberry Inn, if we don't see something sooner."

We continued toward Portland on US-26, a paved hallway that wound between walls of massive, dark fir trees. Soon, we came upon an intersection with another highway. In the crook created by the two roads sat a parking lot. In the parking lot, a sprawling building reclined, with two small gas pumps standing sentry. Large signs hung above the door reading, "GAS" and "ESPRESSO."

"I don't remember seeing this place before!" I exclaimed joyously, turning the car sharply to the right.

"Me either," said Julianna, less joyously.

I believed that this rundown country store had the potential to be quaintly cute. I parked next to a pickup truck and announced my decision to use the restroom and buy a coffee. Julianna announced her decision to stay in the car.

A sign caught my eye as I entered the store. It was a flattened cardboard box labeled in black Sharpie and propped against the magazine display. It read, "No reading. No looking. Just buying." It was a display of porn magazines. As I looked around, searching for the coffee machine, I took in more magazine racks with MORE porn magazines. Straight ahead of me was a doorway to another room, above which hung cute pastel letters spelling the words, "COFFEE SHOP." What I saw through the doorway looked like anything but my Portland/East Coast definition of a coffee shop—bearded men in work boots, sweatshirts, and hunting pants seated at folding tables, drinking from beer bottles. No one was behind the register. A sense of alarm began to creep into my conscience, until a man approached the register and said, in a perfectly friendly voice, "What you would like, miss?"

"A coffee and the bathroom key, please," I said, before contemplating the wisdom of disguising my heavy Jersey accent on the word, "coffee."

"Which would you like first?" he asked.

"The bathroom key!" I replied.

"It's right there," he said, waving to the side of his counter. Hanging from a nail was a long chain attached to a hubcap. I slowly realized that the key was also attached to this hubcap.

After I unlocked the bathroom door, I took in the scene before me. Even in its dim lighting, I could see that it was filthy. A panoply of obscene messages and drawings adorned the walls. My eyes took in a lack of paper towels; in their place was a rotating cloth towel dispenser jammed stuck so that, should I wish to dry my hands, I'd have to do so in someone else's dirt. The toilet seat had been left up, leaving me to fear the worst. I could see that the trashcan contained a miscellany of unusual waste—receipts, a coffee up, and the pièce de résistance. (Or repulsiveness.) Lady's underwear. Bloodstained. Thong.

I thought about running like hell back to the car. But my deeply ingrained pedantry forced me to return the key and buy my coffee, making me an official "customer."

When I re-entered the store, walking toward me was a vision. He looked like a deranged lumberjack Santa Claus. He was tall and wide, white-haired, with a long white beard and overalls. Only the bottom quarter of his shirt buttons were buttoned. The top three-quarters opened to reveal a torso like the trunk of a tree, a true Oregonian Coastal Range tree covered in Usnea longissima*.

I had never felt more like City Folk in my life, and I am from the country. I have also traveled extensively throughout North America, including plenty of remote, "country" places.

The coffee machine was located under the television that the beer-drinking men in the "Coffee Shop" were watching. With my back to them, I tried to retrieve my coffee as quickly as possible. The hood of my rain jacket fell down and revealed my pinned-up long hair and gold hoop earrings. I bristled, then tried not to, as I didn't want to seem judgmental toward the country. But I couldn't stop thinking about the excessive porno magazine displays; fears of beer-drunk porn-obsesed perverts raced through my mind as the dispenser spit coffee into my styrofoam cup.

In front of me on the checkout line was a long-haired woman. Standing to the side of the line was Scary Santa. They seemed to know each other.

"You're looking real nice today!" said Santa to the woman.

Thanking him, she explained, "I went to the dentist today."

I could not hear his reply over the shouting of my inner monologue, which was saying, "Why am I in Stereotype-Land and how did I get here!?"

When it was my turn, I approached the register with two singles in hand. "Seventy-five cents for the coffee," said the cashier.

Please and startled, I put the second single back in my wallet. A good minute passed as I paid and collected my change. As my receipt printed, Scary Santa proclaimed loudly, "Well, look at that! She just stepped right in front of me!"

I turned to him was a baffled smile that I attempted to make friendly. A cluster of beef jerky had appeared in his hands, which had previously been empty of merchandise. "Oh!" I said, trying to maintain the smile. At this point, I was also growing annoyed, because Scary Santa had been standing next to the line. Not in the line. And I was sure that beef jerky hadn't been in his hand before!

"I didn't realize you were waiting!" I said. "I'm sorry!"

I picked up my coffee and rushed outside. As the door shut behind me, I heard Scary Santa say, "I'll take that bean burrito too, and also I'll take--"

I was just paying for a coffee, I thought with indignance. And I was actually on the line. I had a right to check out first!

I set out toward the car at a normal pace, but as the rain and the memories of the store—from the bathroom to Scary Santa—caught up to me, my pace quickened. I began to jog across the parking lot. I broke into a full-on run, which I hoped the locals would think was from the rain alone, and, laughing as I saw Julianna's face, flung open the car door and jumped in. I shut and locked the door in one motion and said, "Let's get the hell out of here!"

"What happened?" she asked.

I sat for a moment, catching my breath before I could start to drive away.

We both heard a sound and turned to look. The door to the convenience store had opened. Scary Santa was standing in the parking lot, staring at our car and grinning.

"That guy..." I said, and trailed off.

I put the car into gear. "When we drive by his truck, take a look at him!"

"I just did, and I noticed he was looking at you," said Julianna quizzically.

"Take a his chest hair!" I exhaled these cryptic last words.

As we turned onto 26 East, toward Portland, I recounted for Julianna the events that had transpired inside the country store. "For 75 cents," Julianna noted, "you got a story!"

It was like the spooky country store, which we had not seen on our way from Portland to the coast, had materialized from the Oregon fog. The experience was surreal, perhaps supernatural. Maybe the next time we take the 26, this country store won't be there at all; maybe the entire intersection will be gone as though it never existed at all. I wonder, if we'd continued on that other highway, where it would have taken us. Maybe it's better we don't know.

* Usnea longissima is a type of lichen which grows in the Pacific Northwest, especially the Coastal Range. The common name is Old Man's Beard, which is appropriate, as it did kind of look like an extra beard was sticking out of Scary Santa's unbuttoned shirt.

The Whole Story
Part One - The Road
Part Two - The Elderberry Inn
Part Two and a Half - The Coast
Part Three - I Paid Seventy-Five Cents for This Story

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