As I write this I’m wondering if I can slip out the window. I’m sitting in a cheap hotel room that has Internet access, and outside my door are two girls, one ten and the other eleven years old. They are bored. I talked to them. “You look like you would be fun to hang out with,” the younger one said. So much for ‘don’t talk to strangers’. They are out there, waiting to pounce. I’m hungry.
I stopped here for two reasons. First, the name Ritzville was such an obvious misnomer I just had to become an active participant in the non-ritziness. (I am far from a stylish and suave sort of guy.) Somewhere nearby is the Historic Center of Town, which is likely to be a far cry from ritz but potentially a good place to find my sort of bar. I’m sure I’ll have more to report later.
* * *
Ah, the incremental blog episode! I have wandered the Historic City Center and I can say that it’s pretty close to exactly what I expected, although based on the signage the area enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1960’s. I was looking for a pizza place that had left a flyer in my room. They name their options after ammunition. Although Kate’s favorite cartridge in Dark War is the .40 Smith and Wesson, I was going to opt for the simpler .357 Magnum. Unfortunately, I could not find the pizza place. Considering that there really isn’t much of anywhere to hide, I suspect R2J2 is defunct. It’s hard to stay funct these days.
Instead I am at the legendary (just ask ’em) Circle-T Inn, a comfortable diner-like place; it’s easy to imagine that this restaurant hasn’t changed since the oldies playing on the radio were hits. I ordered pure Americana — an open faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes piled on top. I was just digging into it when the next set of customers arrived and I thought about the price one pays for a regular diet of this stuff. (One lady ordered a 12-ounce New York steak, baked potato with extra sour cream, and a diet coke.) After seeing them, I felt my waistline expanding with every bite I took. Every yummy, gravy-coated bite, until my plate was clean. This was no goo. This was food. The price was reasonable as well, even for the Alaskan Amber I washed it down with.
* * *
“You want another?” Dave the bartender asked.
“Yes, I do,” I said, “but I’m not going to have one.” And so I departed the Whisperin’ Palms. As I looked back on the sign, I though it an odd Tex-tropics hybrid of a name to find in a small town in central Washington. In the bar there are no palms, and there is certainly no whisperin’.
There’s a difference between loud and boisterous — boisterous implies a certain joy of being loud. I was approaching the bar and I heard the voices inside, along with loud laughter that spilled into the deserted street. I hesitated, then walked in. The place is fairly large, but the booths were all empty. All the action was around the central bar, a squished horseshoe with the tender in the middle and the ragged assortment of drinkers arrayed around.
I say ragged and perhaps that’s not fair, it’s not like the partons were grungy or dirty, hell, I was probably the only one there who hadn’t showered that morning. But there was something of the ragged about them, a feeling that these folks could make a little go a long way, a feeling that ‘used’ is synonymous with ‘broken in’. Probably I’m just romanticizing. Anyway, I walked in.
“Excuse me,” called out one of the regulars (they’re all regulars in places like that — except for the flies), “we’ll have to check your backpack.” There was general laughter. I wasn’t ready for this sort of welcome, usually the locals are happy to ignore me. Of course, now I know what I should have said. “Oh, you don’t want to know what’s in here,” I should have said. I just laughed along with the others and took my seat on the opposite side of the horseshoe. “We got a warrant,” another guy said. More laughter. “You got rolling paper, at least?” asked another. My hair has gotten long again. I’m a hippie.
I pulled out my pen and paper; the laptop I thought would have been too dissonant in that place. A guy pulling his hair out as he scratches with a ballpoint is a curiosity, a guy with a laptop is (at least in his own mind) doing important work. Whisperin’ Palms is no place to be doing important work.
Don’t ask what I’m drinking as I write this, and I won’t have to lie to you. The bartender asked what I wanted, and I knew that I was in Rome and I thought I’d roll with whatever the Romans brought me. “Beer,” I said. That was not good enough. “What kind?” Dave asked. “What you got?” “Well, Coors Light, Bud and Bud Light on tap, pretty much everything in bottles.” I allowed myself to hope. “Do you have anything like Sierra Nevada?” “No.” I did not order Bud Light, but beyond that I will plead the fifth. I had more than one.
A regular punched some buttons on the juke box, and music blasted forth with all due loudness. This was a bar for people who like to be inside the music as it replaces the air in the place. There was singin’ along. There were requests to turn up the volume. There was good happy loudness. As I write this, all the tunes have been ones I like. A song just came on that is our song (it doesn’t matter who ‘we’ are), and it’s probably a good thing that my phone could get no signal. Nations have been bankrupted by their monarchs getting a couple of beers in their bellies and picking up the phone.
“You drive up from California?” the cook just asked me. California plates parked outside, strange face, the math is easy. “What are you writing about, over there — if you don’t mind my asking?” “Playing around with a short story,” I said, which at the moment was true. “Are we in it?” “Not yet, but you might be.” He laughed. “As long as it’s not a murder mystery.” Big laugh from all, including me. I didn’t mention the above paragraphs I’d already written, and I felt a little dishonest about that, but I didn’t want to put a stink in the good atmosphere of the place. I liked it there. I liked the acceptance they offered me.
There are lots of Jerry’s in Ritzville. I met two of them tonight. One of them was particularly outgoing and accommodating. “You know, you should write about Ritzville,” he said. I’ve heard worse ideas, but I think I’d just end up doing another Centennial. Someone else is going to have to pick up the ball there. When the next Jerry arrived, First Jerry told me he knew all about the history of the town.
I was pretty much done with the place when First Jerry came over to my stool. I wasn’t ready for a sustained conversation, but just then Johnny Cash started singing about the Battle of New Orleans. I started to spew Battle of New Orleans trivia, and First Jerry stopped me. “Can I just listen to the song?”
I shut up. I’m glad he stopped me. Often enough I’ve wanted to say the same thing to the people around me. Our conversation (never sparkling) did not recover, and First Jerry moved on. It was time to go.