By C. E. Cheese 2005

Sweet smoking Judas. I’m at the coffeehouse, where the Burly Pest mentioned several weeks ago appears to be a regular. He lumbered over behind my seat where the public internet terminals are located, and called up some online poker game. So now we have casino noises, with the bongings and bingings and snippets of twangy guitar (it’s a western-themed online poker machine) making sure no one can concentrate. Every time he wins half a dozen heads snap up and swivel around. As if the Incredulous Glare accomplishes anything. In a perfect world it would make people fall down unconscious and lose bladder control, but alas.

The other guy at the public terminal is what a Seinfeld character would call a Loud Typist; he bangs the keys as though they know the whereabouts of the President’s secretary, and only minutes remain before the country will launch an airstrike which may or may not be a fatal mistake.

This is not my weekend to be around people. Nearly every interaction I have had with people this weekend has been off by a few degrees. I blame myself. I have Zicamed this cold into nothingness but on Saturday I suffered from some slight mental discombobulation that made me feel as though I vibrated at a different frequency than everyone else. Let’s start at that ghastly carb-trough, the Cheesecake Factory at Southdale Mall.

I was to meet Wife and Gnat at the place Saturday night. Since it’s always crowded with people who begin their pie-hole cramming early, I went to the front desk at 4:30, an hour early, to get on The List. You know, THE LIST. The names of the supplicants who have expressed their desire to eat here, and who can vault ahead of the Johnny-come-latelies who just wandered in five minutes ago. I hate the list; I don’t understand the list; I wish everyone took reservations. But they don’t. So you get on The List. And to get on The List you go to The Desk.

You can’t mistake The Desk at the Cheesecake Factory. Popes have spoken from less impressive structures. The clerk had her head down. Two other groups came up while I was standing there. Both groups were served first. The First Law of Cheesecake Factory Hostesses appears to be “help the party you see first after raising your head from the computer terminal. ” Granted, it was a tall desk, and I am short; perhaps only I was visible from the forehead. But still. Times like these you want a Roman Candle. I swear, if I’m going to get ignored because I’m short I’m going to dress in the costume of the Lollipop Guild and beat people out of my way with a large iridescent sucker. Finally her eyes found me. I smiled.

“Do you have a list?”


“I’d like to get on it.”

“How many?”

“Three, for five-thirty.”

“Oh. Well, it’s a fifteen-to-twenty minute wait now.”

Hmm. Wha? “Well, it’s only 4:30 - we’d like to eat at 5:30. If I could get on The List -”

“We don’t take reservations.”

“But you have a list.”

“Not now. Not now for then.”

“So when will you have a list for then?”

“If it’s still fifteen minutes, then at fifteen after five.”

“I’ll come back,” I said, and I thanked her and left. Ah. There was no list, in the sense I expected. There was a wait, which was different. I despaired; I hate the wait. I don’t like to stand around for an hour to get a table at a restaurant; drives me daft. Especially when I’m hungry. Especially when you know the food is going to taste like a mouth full of dead bread and dense potatoes slathered with glutinous cheese product, tarted up with a few adjectives.
So I went to get a haircut. I went to the place that doesn’t insist on washing your hair. I don’t like having anyone wash my hair. That’s my job. And it’s not like I put on my special Valvoline Helmet before I came here. I told her what I wanted, removed my glasses and stared at the strange blurry thing in the mirror. (Me.)

“So,” I said. “I wonder what the new owners are going to do to renovate the mall?”

“Einno,” she said.

“Because the 50th anniversary is next year, and the mall’s not doing all that great.”

She didn’t say anything. Okay! Fine! God forbid I should want to draw you into some difficult and distracting conversation about the mall. You know, that thing out there outside of the store.

(Note: the Burly Pest just left his casino machine to go outside and have a smoke. You can feel public opinion really shift against him now.)

She cut the hair with such tentative snips I wondered if she was trying to overcome some lingering suspicion that it full of nerve endings; when she cut the back, there was something bizarre about her posture, like she was trying to crawl up on my shoulder. In the end the back was too long, and I had to ask her to cut it again. Twice. Lady, you’re here to cut the hair, not chastise it. But no. Unclench, jerkwad.

Off to A Certain Clothing Store For Men, which has shirts that fit me in colors I like. Hey: twenty bucks off the normally inflated price. Cool. Got one shirt and two ties. (It’s rare I find ties I like; 98% of them are ugly, and I don’t mean that as a matter of taste; I mean they are objectively ugly. The sort of ugliness that can be proven in a lab under controlled circumstances.) I take them up to the register. There are two clerks. One is wearing a very-very low cut blouse, which shows off her planetoid-sized bosomry. No, planetoids are spherical. These were not spherical, and thanks to the enormous open space of the blouse we can see that they are incapable of being gathered into cleavage without some sort of engineering project on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam. But the fellow ahead of me – all eight feet of him – is enjoying the attention she is giving him, so they chat merrily while the line grows. Finally the other clerk waves me over.

“Did you get one of these?” he says, and he holds up a “Ten dollars off” card.

“No,” I said, and I reached out to take it.

Whereupon he withdraws it, slowly and unsurely. He places it with exaggerated care on the counter, beeps it, beeps my shirt, and announces the price is “29.99.”

“With the ten dollars off?”

He gives me a blank look, as though I just said “Mixfizbok Crantacles?”

“It’s twenty-nine ninety-nine with the ten dollars off?” I say.

He picks up the ties, one in each hand, stares me the eyes, and says “Twenty-nine forty, Twenty-nine forty.”

Okay. Either I’m high, or he is. I can speak for myself here, so let’s assume he blew a joint the diamater of a Pringles can on break. Let it all go. See where this takes us. As it turned out he hadn’t beeped the card yet. All was well. He handed me a card for 15 dollars off on my next visit, but again he had the same tentative oh man my hands are moving sooo jerky better slow them down or everyone will know I’m high characteristic that gives away the paranoid pothead. Then he asked for my phone number; I said no, and that was it. That did not compute. He looked at the cash register as though it was full of vipers, and if he pressed the wrong number his finger would be severed at the first digit. I bade him a good weekend and left.

Goes without saying that I triggered the security alarm on the way out, eh?

Back to Cheesecake Factory. Back to the high holy pulpit where the priestesses of the Cult of Large Portions held forth. By now the place was packed. Once again, the hostess turned her attention to someone who wandered up after I’d approached. I let it ride. That person was handed a pager, and the hostess entered the information in the system. Another couple wanders up. Mind you, there was no one on the supplicant side of the pulpit but your humble narrator before these people approached to seek the mysteries of The Wait. “Excuse me,” says the female part of the couple, “but how long is The Wait?”

She must have assumed that whatever business I was conducting with the hostess was so complex and knotty – translating the menu to Aramaic, perhaps – that it couldn’t hurt to hop right in with a question.

The hostess looked up; she saw the new customer, and her programming consulted the First Rule. She said “Twenty minutes.”

The woman nodded, looked at her mate, said “okay.”

“How many?” said the clerk?

That was it. That was the point where I snapped, and had no choice but to deploy the Incredulous Glare. And it worked! The woman said “oh I’m sorry I thought you were . . .” but nothing came, because she had nothing. I was what? Posing for a Whistler painting? Study of a Man Annoyed By Chain Restaurants?

We sat. Menus were handed out; they had advertisements. Tells you all you need to know. My meal was awful - bread whose crust resembled a PVC pipe, chicken cooked by pressing it under a red-hot cement block for half an hour, some sort of BBQ sauce made of sugar and hubris, and 23,192 french fries. I looked around and saw dozens of tables, all filled, everyone bent before ENORMOUS platters of crap. We left; I bade farewell to Wife and Gnat, who oddly enough seemed pleased to part from me, and I returned to the joys of the Mall. At the Apple store they had no new iPod accessories. Bastiches. I went up to the Bath & Body Works to get some fragrance nodules for the bathroom; it’s a popular aroma, and they’re always out of it. As they were today. But they had plenty of Christmas stuff. They were playing Christmas songs.

“Is there a contest in the mall for the first store to push the season?” I asked the manager. (With a big smile.)

“Nooo,” she said, with that expression that says she’s stabbing the release-the-hounds button under the counter.

“’Cause you’d win.”

“Is that a good thing?” she said.

“Nooo. It’s October 22, for heaven's sake. A little early for Santa songs, isn’t it?”

She pointed to my purchase: pine scented fragrance nodules. “It worked on you.”

Damn. DAMN! “Yes. BUT. BUT. I only got these because you’re going to sell out of them, just like you sold out of the Eucalyptus Spearmint bulbs I came in for. You’ll have a million Frosted Cranberry in two weeks, but no Pine.”

She smiled. She gave me a coupon for $15 off. I wished them all Merry Christmas. They laughed and wished me one too.

Later that night I had relaxed somewhat. The cold felt better and the discombulation was mostly gone. Slight aches, no fever. I poured a Bulleit. Gnat came into my studio, and I noticed she had on a shirt that reflected her personal tastes, and conflicted slightly with my own aesthetic preferences.

People. They’re hopeless.

new Quirk; new match. Same old me.)