Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cloud Cap Quest - Part Three-Ish: The L-shaped Room

Once again, I'm telling the end of the story first. Just like with the Coast Saga, the end is easier to tell simply because there are no pictures to wait for.

By the time we left Cloud Cap and the fruit stand in Parkdale, it was close to 6pm &mdash normal people dinnertime. We had an hour and a half of driving until we got home to Portland. We'd sampled a lot of fruit, but it was not dinner. I thought of the long, lonely drive ahead, of I-84 getting dark as my passenger snoozed, leaving me alone with the headlights of passing cars, the darkness of the Columbia River Gorge, and whatever was on the iPod. I thought about how late it would be when we got home. I imagined us trudging up the aisles of New Seasons like zombies with low blood sugar. I imagined us schlepping New Seasons bags into his kitchen. I imagined us belligerently arguing over how to prepare the produce we'd just gotten, as though it was the last farm fresh produce we'd ever see in our lives. I imagined it being 11PM before we finally ate.

"Hey, Handsome Man," I said, "how about we stop at a diner or something so we don't have to cook when we get back to Portland?"

He agreed, so as soon as the farms and open space surrounding OR-35 turned into signs of civilization &mdash Hood River!!!!! &mdash I began to look for a restaurant. The air was crisp and cold; I wanted tea and soup. Not just any soup. Red lentil soup. I followed signs for "City Center." They eventually took me from the emptiness of farm country to a network of busy streets full of tourists and devoid of parking spaces. There was horrible sun glare. The sheer population density of Hood River was too much for me, so I turned around and headed for the freeway. My passenger kept remarking that he didn't care where we ate. I was sure we'd find a diner or "family restaurant" at every exit, just like in New Jersey.

I don't know what I was thinking.

Eventually we stopped at a town that, from the signs preceding the exit, did not seem like it would be desolate. It seemed to be consist mainly of a main street lined with small businesses and expensive gas stations that formed an arc of perhaps a mile before connecting back with I-84. The first eatery we saw was an ice cream shop that advertised HAMBURGERS, but appeared to have no seating. And no hot tea and no soup. Further down the road was a Chinese-American restaurant. This is a phenomenon I've encountered only since moving to the West Coast. I've seen these in Oregon and Hawaii. Does anyone know what they are? I have a perhaps irrational aversion to them; I imagine they can have nothing but terrible American food and worse Chinese food.

Across the street from the ice cream-hamburger place was an inn with a bar and restaurant that seemed to be associated with it. It looked like a diner to me. I was convinced it was the non-Jersey equivalent, the "family restaurant." Nowhere did it say, "family restaurant" on the building, but I kept calling it "that family restaurant over there." In any case, we didn't have any other choice. We parked the car and entered the restaurant, with visions of burgers, fries, a long list of sandwiches, and several types of soup &mdash not spectacular, but edible and cheap &mdash dancing in my head.

We found ourselves in an L-shaped room. The cash register was situated in the corner of the L, opposite the door from which we entered the room. To our left, on the short side of the L, were several booths where I would have liked to have sit, with their large windows and view of distant mountains, but the booths were already occupied by large piles of used dishes. To our right, on the long arm of the L, were two rows of tables and booths, some occupied with customers and some free. I only saw one employee in the room, a woman with a stack of bobby-pinned wispy white hair atop her head. The rest of her was obstructed by a couple paying their bill.

My boyfriend immediately walked across the short L-arm to a dark hallway, in search of restrooms. (How did he know they were there? Maybe he has some kind of uncanny supernatural power. In which case, he is surely a keeper.) I waited where I stood.

After a moment, the white-haired waitress peeked at me from behind the paying couple. She looked annoyed. "Would you like something?" she ask me. She sounded annoyed.

Taken aback, my answer was a stammer. "Um...to eat...um....Well, we'd like to eat here...We'd like a table! There are two of us, but my boyfriend's just in the bathroom."

She looked at me like I'd requested the Martian translation of the menu. "Huh!?" she demanded.

Unsure what needed clarification, I replied, "We'd like to eat. Here. There are two of us waiting for a table, but one is in the bathroom and will be right out."

Met with silence, I repeated, "We'd like a table for two."

The silence continued, until the waitress spat out, "Well, it will take me a long time to clear off a table for you!"

I blinked, involuntarily tilting my head toward the empty tables in the long L-arm of the room.

"Are you over 21?"

It was my turn to be baffled. "Yes...?"

"Then you can sit at the bar. She'll be able to get to you a lot faster!"

I didn't know who "she" was, and I was still digesting being told, at an uncrowded restaurant, that I would be unable to buy food to eat. When she saw I was still standing there, the waitress told me, in the slow voice reserved for loathed idiots, that I needed to go sit at the bar. There was no bar in the L-shaped room. The exits from that room led, as far as I could tell, to the dark hallway my boyfriend had disappeared into, allegedly where the bathrooms were (but at this point, I wasn't ruling out a portal to a deep, dark parallel universe); to the outdoors; and at the moment the waitress was requesting my exit, I was peering down the long arm of the room to see if perhaps there was a door to the bar at the end of the L. But when I looked back at the waitress, she had inclined her head toward the dark hallway, and I inferred that I was to enter that unlit space.

In the hallway, I saw a small nook with bathroom doors, and waited outside them for my boyfriend. The hallway was narrow and I had to move out of the way of anyone who wanted to walk through. Fortunately, my boyfriend exited the men's room shortly after. He started to walk back into the dining room, without seeing me, so I called out to him. He turned to me with a bewildered expression. "We have to sit at the bar," I told him.

In a hushed voice, I began to fill him in on what had transpired in the L-shaped room. We turned and saw that, much to my relief, the dark hallway led not to a deep dark dimension of doom, but to a dark bar with pool tables, arcade games, and tables. It was nearly deserted of customers, and absolutely deserted of staff. Two people sat at the bar, but no one was behind the bar. "She" who would get to us faster was nowhere to be found.

My boyfriend steered me toward a booth by a big window with an attractive view unfortunately not encompassing the Columbia River (then it would have been a stellar view), but of the buildings between the restaurant and the river and, beyond that, large, green, conifer-covered mountains and the sky. I pondered the fact that I was probably looking not only at Oregon, but also at Washington. (Now that I live in the northern part of the city, sometimes I stand in my backyard and wonder if I can see Washington. For some reason, I never actually go to Washington.)

After I'd gotten my boyfriend completely up to date with how the waitress has sent us to the bar, he announced, "Someone was taking a sink shower in the bathroom. He smelled really bad."

"The bathroom smelled bad!?" I asked obtusely.

"No, the guy smelled really bad."

Quite some time passed before we detected that anyone actually worked at this bar. We surely would have begun eating ketchup packets and Sweet 'n' Low, had any such things been on our table. I started to wonder aloud if we should just leave. My boyfriend* seemed in no rush to leave. We were hungry and the town seemed to afford no other options. And then, a chipper voice floated into the room. Rather unreassuringly, the words of this melodic singsong indicated that the hot water was indeed taking awhile to work, but it would real soon! Is she talking about the hot water for cooking!? I thought.

A friendly, peppy blonde woman bounced over to our table. "I bet you want menus!" she chirped. I thought she was positively the antithesis of the waitress in the L-shaped room.

In a blessed short time, we had both menus and large glasses of Pepsi. It was not the Diner Menu of my Dreams. Sandwich choices and burger choices were part of the same short list, and the only available soups were Of the Day, Clam Chowder, and Chili.

I ordered grilled cheese and chili, the closest thing to tomato soup (or red lentil.) MBF ordered a BLT, which came with fries, a side of ranch dressing, and clam chowder.

"We're out of clam chowder!" the waitress groaned, waving and gesticulating with our menus. "We've been out! Don't even ask what the special is, because we're out of that, too! I'm not even going to tell you because then you'll want it! I didn't even get to try it!"

"That's okay..."

"Usually I get to try some!"

We drank our Pepsi and watched the distant mountains grow dark as evening approached. A ketchup bottle suddenly plunked onto the table.

"I brought you ketchup, even though you didn't ask for it, and I'll be back with your ranch dressing, and your sandwiches and your fries and some refills for you!" She whisked our glasses of ice away and dashed into the kitchen.

Next, two plates arrived with our respective sandwiches and MBF's fries. A snack-size bag of Lay's floated toward me and landed next to my plate.

"I forgot your ranch dressing!" were her parting words as she disappeared in a cloud of dust that spelled the word, "WHOOSH!!!!!"

"You should ask her about your chili when she comes back," remarked MBF.

Soon, the waitress returned to the table empty-handed. She leaned, with one hand on our table and the other on her hip, as she told us in a conversational singsong, "I think I just insulted all the Native Americans." Nearly all of the patrons in the L-shaped room had been Native American. She continued, "I said, 'I keep forgetting stuff today, I just want to get rid of this blonde hair and dye it black!' And then I looked around the room and everyone was like," here, she paused to glare. "It was a compliment! You know!?

As she disappeared, MBF and I looked at each other. "That was weird."

She reappeared, singing, "Oh, I forgot your ranch dressing again!"

"And...your soup..." MBF began, looking at me.

The waitress turned to me with kind eyes. "There is no soup," she crooned.

"Oh, there's no chili?" I asked in a small voice.

"Oh! There's chili!" she trilled, whirling away and into the kitchen.

Moments later, a voice came from the kitchen. "Did you want onions and cheese? It comes with onions and cheese!"

"Um, sure!

She returned to our table with ranch dressing and a cup of chili, crowned with a layer of chopped raw onion under a mountain of shredded cheddar that could have joined the Cascade Range.

What she did not bring me was a spoon.

MBF and I started on our sandwiches. As soon as I took a bite out of my grilled cheese, MBF said, with a trace of disdain, "Is that like, Kraft American cheese?"

"I don't know, but it's good!" I said, taking another bite. "This isn't Portland, and these aren't Portland prices!" I dunked my grilled cheese into the chili as though it were tomato soup, using the corners of bread as a ladle for the meat, onions, and cheese.

"Ask her for a spoon," said MBF. But she was nowhere to be found, nowhere to be asked for a spoon.

Soon, I was out of sandwich, but still had chili. I opened the bag of Lay's and began using the curved potato chips as a spoon. MBF offered me some fries, which I ate with chili.

At some point, our waitress appeared at the table, dropped off the check, and disappeared again. I didn't even want a spoon anymore. I offered some chili-and-chips to MBF. He partook, and then his eyes widened. He had an idea.

"I know what you're thinking!" I said, with a trace of glee.

And that is how we ate chips with ranch dressing and chili for dinner.


* Who needs a nickname or an abbreviation. I'm not using his name, yet, and in fact have been reluctant to mention his existence at all on this blog, partly out of a desire to protect his privacy and partly because I don't want to blog all the time about my handsome awesome boyfriend. This blog is supposed to be about an independent Jersey girl who moved across the country! Not a Jersey girl being cutesy with some dude. Anyway, he'll only be mentioned, I think, in stories where it would be weird to exclude him. Such as a story about going to Mount Hood with only him. Anyway, from this point forward, I will write about him as MBF. Until I come up with a better nickname.

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