Mint and sweat discolored his t-shirt. He spoke in fractured sentences, yet conciliatory, into his cell. The mint made sense; there were miles of the stuff just northwest of the diner. I remember mint always hanging in the air near harvest, and this young man must have been bathing in that oil all morning, all afternoon. This town was a hub for potatoes; not necessarily mint. I grew up near here in the Eighties; this diner has changed names a half dozen times. Steamy day.
The young man slipped his cell into his pocket. He scanned the room as he tucked in his shirt and then wiped his black hair back. He stretched, taking little notice of me and what I would think of his green-splotched elbow in my face; glanced around the corner at a man sitting at a table pushed into wall near the bathroom and who caught his eye pretty much deliberately, gave a single nod. His friend was similar in age and stature. His massive arms were reddened by long stress marks as if a rope had been tied around them, though Mint & Sweat’s were deeply tanned and glossy.
Mint & Sweat ordered two BBQs with two large fries, and two large root beers, making sure the round, gray-haired woman behind the counter heard ‘large’ root beers correctly. The diner was as small as it ever was, and the only tables not being used were covered with the wrappers and cups of the previous customers; customers who must have been quick to eat, to leave, and to never return. Even I was to never come back, or so I thought. This poor town has gotten even poorer. What brought me here was a stop for gas, tenderloin, and a large reconstituted iced tea before I moved on to Knox, for a funeral. Out of tenderloins....
Indianaville just kind of stumbled into existence along Highway 421, where wild roses, swamp grass, and red-shouldered black birds patrolled a staggered margin between agriculture and civilization. Money was always raised on the one side and poured into the other; until, that is, when the green was tapped to other places, to other hands. Set back from the streets, many of the turned-milk colored houses were as dreary as they were back when I lived here: cavernous porches ornamented with plastic red carnations or burnt ferns bending over their concrete pots; front yard sand pits peppered with crabgrass and dandelion… Seas of sand, crabgrass, and dandelion. Every other house or so had signs propped against tobacco stained windows warning of dogs or Honeywell Security. Some houses, even a couple of Victorians, had become permanent markets for antiques and car parts, displayed on plywood tables held up by shop horses and homemade stands with mismatched legs. But there was no one in attendance; no one in the streets, save a black and white cat that lazily crossed the road as I nearly put the steering wheel into my lungs. The cat was as old and stiff as the 50's street lamps already lit in the early evening sun. Ghosts stuck in molasses, this town.
I sat at a table near the bathroom and where Mint & Sweat and his friend were sitting. The two nodded at me. Suspecting they wanted some privacy, I sat facing away from them as much as I could, grabbed some fries from the paper boat, dipped it in some window-smelted ketchup, and appreciated the salt and grease and vinegary emulsion on my tongue. Small towns always taste like that.
Same tables; same plywood bathroom door, and same off-white blinds, too, as when I was a teenager. I must have sat in this corner over a hundred times. Out that window, there’s the edge of Burke’s woods where my buddy and I caught anything that moved in the swamps. The road cutting through was paved now...new fencing, too. Some rich farmer might have bought it. There was Burke’s farm at the edge of their woods, and then Ogden’s farm where my buddy ended up, and then Mom and Dad’s farm, near the county line. Indianaville was our closest town; roadside homes, two gas stations, and one broiler where hell raisers like my buddy and I roamed in outdated Monte Carlos and salmon-colored, convertible Mercs, and a fairly new metallic blue Cutlass we stole from his sister once and steered it right into a drag race on 3rd Street.
“Naw. It’s not like that. Crazy. Listen to yourself, man.”
This town was a weekend playground for us teenagers, and I was happy here for a few summers until we discovered that other worlds were only a gas tank away, as they say. Indianaville had roads that hemorrhaged, and it could not stop the bleed from Main Street to the steel mills up in Gary or to the universities to the south. I guess we all just got up and went.
“Less than an hour’s difference, Perry. We could stay at Regina’s place here in town.”
The elderly and their migrant workers were left to tend the corn, beans, potatoes, and mint. The poor farmers sold their land to richer farmers; the rich farmers sold their precious acres to conglomerates. We were poor farmers. My family, more or less, sold out. We always had more sand dunes than muck, anyway. That’s progress, I suppose.
“Naw… Stacy’s pretty smart. She’s probably heading to Bloomington. Getting a new car, too.”
I knew the guys were looking around; making sure I wasn't listening. Their pauses were too perfect placed. Their words were heavier than they wanted it to sound. I scooted my chair further into the table, finished all my fries when I realized that about four minutes had passed when neither one of the men said anything. There was a heartbreaking silence in this town. Really. A car or truck couldn't break it for very long. And the winters…man. For a teenager, it was frustrating and cold, uncertain and desperate.
“Oberlander’s sister lives just south of Knox. She’s cool about things.”
“F***in’ listen to yourself. Why would you work here and live up there? Think about it.”
There was a movement – a rustling -- that struck a familiar nerve. I felt the deep loathing of reality, a wakening from a satisfying fantasy. I hated how the metal chairs squeaked, how the tables wobbled on the cracked and gouged linoleum and banged against the dry, warped window sills. I hated the greasy fingerprints on the homemade curtains --
I felt a sudden fear of being alone and stuck somewhere in a forever kind of way.
“Just sit your ass down...”
And I was familiar with that kind of forever. I know what happens when people leave: they leave others behind.
I smelled Dial soap or some generic under arm deodorant as Mint & Sweat’s friend walked past me and towards the door where he dunked his food into the waste basket. We both watched as his friend opened the door, hesitated and held the door open for a young lady and an older woman to come in; a family who Mint & Sweat knew would someday be his wife and mother-in-law. His friend said nothing, looked down at the floor, and let the door creak shut behind him.
They saw Mint & Sweat in the corner, waved, and then got in line to order their usual. There was no love there; not as much as with the one who had walked out. I knew this; I knew Mint & Sweat knew this. I knew he feared the odor of fried food and its everlasting imprint connecting to this moment; the sense of leaving something important behind – something unfinished. The silence behind me was uncomfortable. Actually, it was typical of Indianaville.
I finished all I could of the hamburger. There was no reason to stay any longer. Jan’s Broiler held a gripping guilt. Mint & Sweat was sitting there, quietly eating his meal. He was sitting there, handsome, massive, and on a hair trigger moment to run out the door and find his buddy and leave this place altogether. This town was like fingernail impressions in a waxed paper cup; an attempt to conjure the strength to escape, or to stay and live a lifelong repression. Expose the lie, or to live the lie? Wax shavings fell to the table.
The lie: when a man really wants something, he goes and gets it. Mint & Sweat had a sudden hatred of his Baptist lessons. And he hated his girlfriend, too, though by no fault of her own. He hated her mother even more and her disapproving eyes which could guilt the one-winged Satan. The two were beautifully dressed in matching summer colors, clueless to the complexity that layered a man’s heart. He nodded to his girl, and then he stared into the diner’s table at the ambiguous initials etched together inside a heart. He would have carved his buddy’s name in the faux marble, between “Class of ‘77” and “Darlene Loves T.A.L.”, but someone in this small town would have recognized his hand, seen him do it, or so he thought.
But he must. He should do it, even if Jenny Cole saw him do it. So he wrote it out with his green-stained finger; he wrote it big using the condensation pooled around his cup. He dared to not wipe it away, hoping that someone, anyone, would see it… finally see it! He would knock down the first one who said anything derogatory, anyone who made a face or dishonored his buddy in any way. He would leave it there for all to see. His girl called out his name. He stared into the initials, smelled her perfume. His girl called out his name again and sat down and shook his arm.
“Mamma has a big table by the door. Hey, are you all right?”
He dropped a napkin over the table and watched his buddy’s initials soak through, and then grow in the paper and fade into themselves like gray clouds. She watched him do it, without a word, and she must have thought he was losing it. She will always be left wondering.
I knew what he was going to do next. Mint & Sweat was going to leave Indianaville. He was going to the steel mills up north, or maybe follow his gifted girl to Bloomington. And he would not be passing by here for another ten years, on his way to Knox for a funeral. He may pass Jan’s Broiler three blocks north of Main Street, drive by Burke’s woods and past Ogden’s little farm, and then drive on through the acres of mint to the northwest, leaving it all behind. The fields would seem to swell like a sea, like a green sea, broiling in the late summer sun while mint, ever-present, never seems to leave the tongue.
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