John drank coffee in a bar in Mogadishu. Filthy stuff. Filthy place.
He’d paid four bucks for his lousy coffee. Back home, back in the states, there was a place getting started called Starbucks where a cup of black coffee cost you three bucks. It was a shock, three bucks, but it was great coffee and John loved coffee so he paid it. Worse, though, he’d be out ten bucks if he bought coffee for a pal or took a break with a business colleague and she ordered a Mocha Whatever, the one with the fringe on top. There wasn’t a Starbucks in Mogadishu, though they’d started locking down corners in nearly every other city in the world. John had even found one overlooking the Dambovita River in sleepy old Bucharest last year.
His plane was seven hours delayed, leaving him a lot of time to drink a lot of coffee. John drank it black, had done so since starting to drink coffee when he was nine or ten years old. All the children in his family drank coffee: hot black, strong black. Households, cafes, truck stops, kin near and far were goddamned for serving weak coffee. Hot, black, strong was the social, moral, and ethical norm by which all new burgeoning prospering relationships and deals and transactions measured up or fell apart. John’s Mogadishu coffee was Nescafe and lukewarm.
It was a puzzle to him that a coffee growing continent like Africa allowed wretched packets of powdered anti-climaxes to be called coffee. Nobody in the joint seemed to care, though. Except for John and a couple of robed Muslims arguing in the corner, everyone else was drinking whiskey straight up or with a splash of bottled water. They wore wasteland camo khaki, boots, shiny bits of things on leather or chains around burnt necks, and belts strung with some sort of gun. Rifles leaned against the bar or lay next to chairs; rifles napped under the tables or sprawled like sleeping girlfriends across laps. John wore a seersucker suit and a rumpled Countess Mara tie patterned after the one that caused the old Countess’s husband to kill himself. John didn’t have a gun, and he hadn’t wrapped his hands around a rifle since 1969 when a cracker Army DI from West Virginia stuffed one into his pale unwilling draftee hands.
John didn’t talk to the khaki wearers; they didn’t talk to him; they didn’t talk to each other: they stared into their drinks and studied the geography of whiskey and water and glass. They were Germans, Aussies, a couple of Yanks, maybe a Serbian, a Polack, a Brit or two, and sour looking French guys working as bodyguards, security guards, mercenaries, or as hired guns for rich guys and government guys—who were always Muslims with money scared of getting killed by Muslims with no money. John was waiting to catch a plane and drinking bad coffee. Muslims and mercenaries could go fuck themselves as far as he was concerned.
With any luck, benevolently granted in seven, no six hours and thirty minutes, he’d fly to Johannesburg, then to Charles de Gaulle, then Dulles, then Bentonville, Arkansas. Then he’d drive to his new home in Withered Plum, Arkansas, called Bumfuck by John’s pals in D.C., or Minneapolis, or New York: uncivil funny guy pals living in real and mostly civil places. John didn’t call it Bumfuck, not then at least, not aware there, sitting in Mogadishu waiting for a plane, drinking bad coffee and wearing a suicide’s tie, that familiarity bred contempt as well as confidence. He just wanted to go home, even if it was Bumfuck, and give up his chair to a khaki gun boy.
John remembered Bogart’s alibi in Casablanca to describe how he landed in Withered Plum, Arkansas: “I was misinformed.”
Like the surrounding Ozark “Mountains” themselves—scrubby little hills clenched tight as fists, knuckles damp with chicken shit filtered water—his days were full of peaks and valleys. In the early Withered Plum years, John was gone so much he didn’t really notice what was around him. He was up in the air, home on weekends, gone Sunday night and, on Monday morning cabbing around Boston or Seattle or Atlanta having conversations with Jews, buying real newspapers from real newsstands, seeing clean necks, seeing pretty women, pretty women the rule and not the excruciatingly rare exception…and not a goddamned pick-up truck in sight.
Mrs. Heartbreak, John’s wife, spent most of her time in the Ozarks while John was working, traveling. She liked it just fine, better than flat cold understated self-effacing stoic Minnesota where John had taken her after they got married. She had grown up among Appalachian Americans—immigrants from Kentucky and West Virginia who went north to Indiana to work in automobile plants—and her parents farmed. She was used to rural America, familiar with AAs, as John called them, and was unfazed by their self-proclaimed genius, was perhaps even admiring of their naked self-assurance and self-aggrandizement, however unfounded. She judged Minnesotans to be infuriating mumblers, eye-contact cowards, and incapable of completing a sentence. Why she’d married Heartbreak was something of a mystery, even to him. True, he was an employed heterosexual, but otherwise was no more than a semi-skilled intellectual in frequent social distress when surrounded by Mrs. Hs’ relatives. John had married her because she was beautiful and close with a dollar—a characteristic they shared and profited by.
Before John retired he’d missed observing, and escaped participating in, the cultural social moral political civic ethical religious economic and intellectual dump that was the place Mrs. Heartbreak rather enjoyed living in. She enjoyed it because it was cheap to live there and the weather was good. Better than Minnesota weather for damn sure. And she had also grown up in a small town and couldn’t understand John’s claustrophobia.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” she told him.
“And Ozark’s people finish their sentences,” she said. “They don’t rely on Finnish telepathy. They say what they mean.”
And they never stop talking, John said—to himself. But only nodded.
They were both speaking the truth. It was true enough that native-born Minnesotans relied on a shared culture and history, and strict adherence to the Scandinavian ethos of hard work, datum-based reality and understatement to effect communication. Most of their sentences fizzled in the middle, stalled, and then got a (the) crank-start commonplace ending... “well, you know” … and the person, group, audience, and their tightly woven flat little world entirely did indeed know.
“Ozark People,” on the flipside of the downhill cultural divide, never paused between sentences. They’d usually start one by roundly damning some absent miscreant for stupidity, avarice, laziness, or all of the 7 Deadlies combined, and then in the place where the period should go would parenthetically murmur “bless his heart,” before launching another character assassin into the ether. Mrs. Heartbreak saw folks engaged in social conversation. John saw shrieking Baptists with knives.
Minnesotan’s shared a universal three-word call and response to every “how are you?” query. “How are you, Lyle?” Elmer would ask. And Lyle, who had just won $250,000 on a scratch off ticket, would respond, “Not too bad.” But if Lyle had just lost his wife in a fatal car wreck that morning, or was scheduled for chemotherapy the following week, he’d say, “Not too good.” Then Elmer and Lyle would nod at each other—they didn’t make eye contact—and go back to work. (They weren’t paid to stand around, you know.)
An Arkansawyer in the same boats would run up and down the town’s streets weeping and screaming. If they’d won the lottery, it was, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” and do somersaults across Highway 62. Or, if things were “not too good,” they’d call a county-wide meeting and ask for $20 love offerings to ignite a worldwide prayer chain. It got to the point where John wouldn’t leave his yard for fear of conversational opportunities.
The thing that really got up his nose, though, was the hyperventilated lime-lighted self-regard in which they held themselves. Some guy who’d inherited a two-pump 66 Station from his old man would walk around town acting like he invented petroleum and was solely responsible for automotive transportation in the US. He was absolutely certain that his conclusions, and only his conclusions, about international finance, world economic performance, the right price for cane sugar, and what went on in your pants, were the right conclusions. There were about a thousand of these guys in Bumfuck, and if you took out the women and the Mexicans and the children they were everybody, everywhere.
John hadn’t noticed his town’s plethora, abundance, surfeit, and the glut of geniuses at first. When he got off the road and got home for the weekend, the first thing he’d do was say hello to Mrs. Heartbreak in the sincerest possible way. Then he’d head into his office and make phone calls scheduling next week’s trip.
That was John’s life, for years and years.
But John got old. John slowed down. Instead of working 7 days a week he started working 5 days a week. Then 4, then 3. Out on the road a couple of times a month, then not at all, zero, nada until weekends became an endless, infinite well of twenty-four-seven Ozarky “our way of life” southern heritage bullshit sessions that felt like a night in jail. Instead of drinking bad coffee in Mogadishu, he sat in Mrs. Heartbreak’s Bumfuck bookstore, staring out the bookstore’s windows at VVVIPs climbing in and out of heavily financed pick-up trucks.
“There’s Buster Williams Jr.,” John said to himself, nodding at the window.
“There’s Buster Williams Jr.,” Mrs. Heartbreak said, sneaking up behind him. “Why don’t you go say hello to him? Buy him a cup of coffee?”
John jumped. “My goodness! You startled me.”
“You can’t spend all your time staring out the window, John. Go out and meet some people. Share some stories.”
“I’ve met Buster Williams Jr.,” John replied. “Buster Williams Sr. left him the Buster Williams Sr. Plumbing Company. Thus, and consequently, Buster Williams Jr. believes he is Thomas Crapper reincarnated. That is if Crapper was a Baptist tea-totaling American Independence Partying Wingnut who had never crossed the Arkansas State line except once, to see the Razorbacks play LSU in Shreveport.
“Why would I want to buy Buster Jr. a cup of coffee?”
“God, you’re such a snob,” Mrs. Heartbreak said. She shook her head slowly, as if it had a painful kink needing straightening out. Then she pointed at a pile of old books. “Why don’t you go and shelve some books? Will you—can you—do that?
“I can—and will—do that. But I’m not a snob. I admit to facing some cultural challenges. It’s probably a Scandinavian heritage thing. Everyone here is Scotch-Irish. Scandinavians are suspicious of second-string Protestants in checkered skirts who will do anything for money. I can’t help my upbringing.”
“Plaid, John. Kilts are plaid. They’re not checkered. And what, pray to tell, is a second-string Protestant?”
“I grew up among Catholics and Lutherans, and the odd Episcopalian or Methodist,” John said. “I admit to befuddlement over the seven or eight Baptist groups in town, and of an understandable theology emerging from the All Holy Temple of Righteous No Holds Barred Truth Devine and Reveled Assembly, over there on Main Street. These are, as you may not know, emblematic of denominations springing out of Appalachia. The very places settled and ruled by Americans of Scotch-Irish descent. Violent places. Places where six rich families con every other family into extracting things from the earth in exchange for no money and barrels of Southern Heritage. These places are low on Catholics and Lutherans and seem prone to hippity hoppity religions and free market excesses.”
Mrs. Heartbreak stared. “How did we get from “have coffee with Buster” to the “All Holy Temple”? I can’t for the life of me understand how your brain works, John. You’re drifting, sweetie pie, and it’s really screwing up your retirement. Maybe you should see a doctor? Get your brain plaque checked? I’m starting to worry.”
“We’re both getting on, dear,” she said. “I wish you’d enjoy life more.”
John nodded. He smiled. “I’ve never thought of you as “getting on”.”
She smiled back. “To be honest, John, I’m not getting on. But you, you’re beyond on. You’ve always been a bit odd, but now you’re quite frankly getting to be not just odd, but strange.”
Mrs. Heartbreak turned away and walked back to the sales counter. John went back to staring out the window. He remembered sitting in a bar somewhere in Africa. The details were sketchy but involved a cup of coffee. It didn’t taste good, and it had gotten cold.