I hope the image above doesn’t serve as too much of a spoiler. However, I felt the irresistible urge to share with you all my Thanksgiving plans. Well, not so much my plans, as my ordeal. And not so much Thanksgiving as an excuse to wear pajama pants in public. That’s right! This year, in order to avoid the Holiday Holocaust that is cooking a large meal with my family members, my sister and my mother have voted that, in lieu of any option resembling effort, we head on out to the Golden Corral for their oh-so-affordable $12.99 Turkey Carver special. Now this year my goal is to be “easy”. I don’t want to make waves, I don’t want to cause drama. I am here for the people, not the food, and I want to enjoy my family. However, the bitter irony of this state of affairs is that I will be spending the day I am supposed to focus on being most thankful in a place I have almost won an award for mocking. Below is my runner-up short story “Hey Billy”, written in 2010 about my one other experience at a GC. It follows the celebratory experience of young Billy. I hope you enjoy, and that at the very least, this will remind you not to take the holidays quite so seriously.
(Hit the jump for the story)
Billy squints until the letters on the sign out front of the restaurant swim together; Golden Corral. He tries to let the colored shapes that compose the squatting building blur into a shade which compliments the flawless blue sky which envelops the otherwise ugly structure on three sides. The fourth side, the one he stands on, is marred by the asphalt parking lot beneath his feet, like someone took a dollop of black face paint and smeared it under the Mona Lisa’s nose.
Billy is thirteen today. A bonafide teenager. His real birthday party is on Saturday. Today is Wednesday. Today is Grandma’s day. Today is the execution of a family tradition at least as long standing as Billy was, and likely longer. Birthday dinner at America’s most over-hyped waste disposal plant. Thirteen years Billy has walked the planet, and thirteen years, on the fourth of June, he has walked into the fat hut, and for twelve of those years he has emerged full and happy. But today he is a teenager. Not a little kid. Today he can see this place for what it really is.
He tries to focus on the sky, letting the building become small and insignificant by comparison to the skyscape framing it. But as he and his Grandma approach the tinted glass doors, the building grows ever larger; the warm orangey brown hue of the paint covering the cheap textured façade looks increasingly like it belongs on the color wheel somewhere between butterscotch and diarrhea. He feels his stomach protesting the imminent arrival of family style buffet cuisine. Billy doesn’t belong here.
The building is enormous now, and the bright blue sky is only a reflection in the murky glass of the front windows. The metal handle is unnaturally cold in his hand as he holds the door open for his Grandma, who pats his shoulder as she walks by. She is silent and slow, as if entering a Catholic church and not the auspices of the nutritional provider-of-last-resort. He steps inside, the temperature of the sweat on his upper lip immediately plummeting under the seductive caress of industrial strength air conditioning.
The air inside the antechamber is tainted with the scent of window cleaner and sweat. He, like everyone else who enters the building, stays only as long as it takes his feet to carry him across the dingy pink tile to the true entrance. He notices a garish sign propped in a forgotten corner of the pre-restaurant which declares: LOVER’S PARADISE! INDULGE IN OUR SUMPTIOUS SEAFOOD TODAY. The sign is held aloft by a fraying cardboard facsimile of a pirate. Though he tries to hurry along, he cannot stop his mind from conjuring the image of the cardboard pirate, one leering eye peeking through banana tree leaves to watch a pair of naked lovers, one fat and the other old, who are rolling about on a beach made of fried shrimp. He didn’t think it was possible he could be happy to be inside. But he is.
The restaurant isn’t crowded. A few more hours and it will be, but today Billy is held captive to the earlybird anxieties of his grandmother, which means that the relative absence of bodies leaves no cover between him, the soda fountain, and Mandy. Of course, he wouldn’t know her name were it not affixed proudly to her left breast, but he recognizes her from his church youth group. This must be her afterschool job. She definitely looks like she works here though. Even if she weren’t in uniform, you could tell. The Golden Corral is like a nursing home. It’s easy to tell the patients from the staff. The employees are happy, healthy, and beautiful (or Mexican). The customers look like what happens when a Diversity-in-the-Workplace poster fucks a Childhood-Obesity-Campaign-Slogan in a Veterans Affairs hospital.
“Do you want Orange Soda or Root Beer today, sweety?”
His Grandma’s voice pulls his eyes away from the impending meeting with Mandy. She has two glasses in her wrinkled hands, one already iced and filled with Sweet Tea, the other wiggling enticingly back and forth, as if she were jingling keys at her cat. He glances back to Mandy and smiles nervously, aware that she is watching them go through the pre-meal ritual of beverage acquisition with dispassionate eyes and a radiant smile. As he takes the glass from his Grandma and begins to fill it with clunking ice cubes from the machine, he hears the smile deliver the word-babies that it has been in labor with since the opening of the front door.
“Welcome to Golden Corral! Will it be just you two dining with us today?”
The bright orange liquid looks unnatural in the brown tinted plastic cup.
“Why yes! Just me and by grandson today.”
“Grandson? Oh my. I thought you were his sister!’
The two women exchange hollow-point chuckles.
“Well aren’t you sweet? Bless you child.”
Billy turns to approach the register, realizing that he has only seen the strange customer flow setup in two other places; Movie Theaters and Amusement Parks. He approaches the podium that Mandy clings to, and marvels at the subtle arrogance of arranging a restaurant in this manner; as if the owners were claiming you were paying for no mere meal, but a veritable wonderland of caloric attractions, from homestyle ranch log rides, to yeast roll-ercoasters, dining with Golden Corral isn’t a meal, it’s an experience! Your buffet ticket is a passport to a brand new world of flavor.
“Oh, hey Billy!”
Billy’s eyes are suddenly wild, looking from left to right. Mandy clears her throat and waves.
“Oh…uh, hey M-Mandy.”
Mandy’s eyes are still dead, smile still blinding.
“Hangin’ out with your grandma today?”
‘No, I’ve been highjacked by an ancient terrorist bent on blowing up this restaurant and everyone in it with a bomb made out of depends and artificial sweetners’
Instead he says,
“Uh, yea, I guess. She takes me out every year on my birthday.”
“Oh, so I guess you’ll be paying then ma’am?”
“Mmhmm. None of my grandchildren get to pay for a thing…until they’re out of school at least. And today is lucky 13 for my little Billy. Seems like just yesterday he still needed me to wipe his butt.”
Billy’s face is a twisted bastard child of polite smiles and utter horror. Mandy remains on autopilot.
“Oh, well, that’s really nice. Isn’t your Grandma nice Billy? That’ll be $21.57 all together.”
And all at once Mandy is behind them. She did not save Billy from the impending drop into the flotsam covered sea of peasant beyond, wasn’t able to identify him as being beyond and above the festering cattle that mill about beyond her little cash stuffed oasis. With an unconsciously held breath, he follows his Grandma to a nearby table.
As Billy slides along the slick plastic cushion covering his booth seat he notices with some discomfort that a one legged man in a wheelchair is watching him with placid indifference, his dirty faded jeans knotted on one side as if to seal in his stump. Billy is spared the burden of finding some way to resolve the unspoken tension when a frumpy looking woman with too much back fat and too little hair returns carrying two plates piled high with indistinct but differently colored food stuffs. Her eyes are as dead as her companion’s.
“Well, I think my first plate will be fried chicken, beef enchiladas, and a strawberry shortcake. What about you Billy?”
Billy barely hears his grandmother’s small talk. The familiar sense of unease is growing inside of him as he catches sight of more and more patrons.
Sitting in the table behind the man in the wheelchair is a young family; fat father, fat mother, and eerily beautiful blonde toddler. The father is held hostage to a series of small wallets spread out in front of him, coupons ruffled in his fingers, being methodically sorted into various compartments. Billy imagines the man’s lard whispering to him, not of this current unending meal, but of the discounted meals to come. How big do you have to get before you start spending one meal planning the next?
A sudden screech from the sanguine toddler beauty queen startles Billy. He watches the mother’s chubby fingers desperately trying to peel a large curled lock of perfect blonde hair out of a lurid red blossom of jelly which is growing on her daughter’s smooth cheek. The daughter is frustrated because her mother’s vain attempts to prevent her from eating her own hair is also preventing her from shoving more jelly covered cookies into her mouth.
“Billy! Don’t stare. It isn’t polite. Now let’s go get some grub, ok?”
As his grandmother’s voice passes over the word grub it dips down into a gruff growl which he knows from years of watching old VHS recordings of Saturday morning cartoons (from when his father was a boy), is his grandmother’s Fat Albert impression. He looks around smiling broadly, as if to encourage anyone that might have heard her embarrassing remark to reconsider their judgments on the elderly woman’s opinions of race.
Billy and his Grandma round the large wall that separates the seating from the buffet line. Billy is always momentarily stunned by the wide open space that houses the endless parade of food troughs. It’s like a warehouse of hot lamps, with a six lane highway of feeding frenzy running straight down the middle. Every ten feet there is a new sign hanging over a section of the buffet, announcing in cryptic allusion the theme for this stretch of desiccated tub sludge; The Grillhouse, Fishermen’s Landing, Aunt Jeannie’s Bakery, The Sweet Station; on and on the options stretch. Billy feels a loud rumble in his stomach and he almost punches the traitorous empty organ.
“Every man for themselves!”
His Grandma almost skips to the plate stacks and before he knows it he has lost sight of her in the teeming throng of consumers. Billy has to pick his way through roving packs of shrieking Mexican children who chase each other back and forth, weaving through the legs of negroid giants who lumber lazily back and forth between buffet sections in ceaselessly hungering zig-zag patterns.
Billy wonders where all these people have come from. The parking lot was almost deserted, and yet here was a veritable racial rainbow of unwashed masses come to graze at the wellspring of reheated culinary refuse. Did the company bus them in? Were they hired actors?
Billy wanders slowly down the buffet line, his stomach demanding little bits of every stainless steel food bin they pass. His eyes try to sift through which entrees have likely been cooked, and which are merely warmed to a legally digestible threshold by the EZ Bake oven lamps that hang ubiquitously over every ounce of counter space.
Billy sees a woman standing at the counter for fresh grilled steaks, tapping her foot impatiently as a haggard and gaunt looking Hispanic man tries to find space on his grill top for one more piece of graying beef. The woman already has a plate covered in mashed potatoes, sweet and sour chicken, nacho cheese sauce, and cornbread. Billy feels his stomach rumble salaciously.
Suddenly he has to get out. Looking desperately from sign to sign, he finally sees the one plain and unassuming mark that represents the one sure oasis from the culinary abomination parade; a little stick figure man on a swinging wooden door. With quick steps he crashes into the restroom and finds it empty and hollow and safe.
Taking deep breaths of non-deep-fat-fried air, he holds his stomach and closes his eyes, trying to resist the urge to give into the steaming seductions of the buffet line. Last year he would have. Last year he was stupid. Last year he didn’t understand how ugly this whole place was. Last year he had been taken in by the chocolate fountain and the ranch boats. But this wasn’t a place for fun. This was a place to be made fun of. Why couldn’t people see that he didn’t belong here? Why couldn’t his Grandma see that he didn’t belong here?
He wasn’t like the fat kid over there, standing near the urinals, holding his stomach, barely able to circle his fatty arms around his blubber belly. He wasn’t like that kid, with cheeks so fat they made his eyes squinty, and two chins when he looked down. He wasn’t like that kid. He wouldn’t ever be like that kid.
Suddenly, two giggling children burst through the bathroom door, the large wooden slab briefly obscuring the whale-like object of Billy’s hatred; then the door swung closed again, revealing the mirror once more.