Planet Here - Paul Hadella
My server, a young man forced to wear a bowtie the color of an Anaheim pepper, brought me my Southwest Egg Salad on Garlic-Crusted Panini. I said, “I’m surprised anybody would name their restaurant the Aztec Bistro, especially a restaurant with vegetarian overtones. It’s common knowledge the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice. On top of that, according to some experts in the field, they might have even dabbled in cannibalism. Kind of a disturbing morsel to meditate on while you’re eating, wouldn’t you agree?”
The young man, with practiced politeness, asked if I wished to speak to the manager about it. “I’d be happy to get her for you,” he said.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” I said. “It’s just a thought that popped into my head.”
“All right then,” he said with that kind of trained-seal enthusiasm that comes as second nature to people in the service industry, “enjoy your lunch, sir.”
Every time I go downtown, it has changed a little since the time before. Businesses moving out; new ones moving in, like this Aztec eatery. It’s never the same place twice. Sometimes I find that sad, but usually not. The locals mostly avoid downtown. They say it’s just for tourists. But I like going a few times a year.
I stopped by the used bookstore next, because there’s this certain book I’ve been trying to find. I spent about fifteen minutes checking on every shelf and in every corner. The establishment is under new ownership, and has a new name, and nothing is where it used to be. Finally I asked the gentleman at the front of the shop. He looked to be about a hundred and ten—wrinkles all over his face, bifocals, and a long Moses-style beard that was spread out in front of him on the counter like a placemat for the Ten Commandments. He seemed comatose when I spoke to him, but his fingers sprung rapidly into action on the computer. In five seconds flat, he was able to tell me they didn’t have the book I desired. Next time I’ll know to start there. They didn’t used to have everything on computer.
Since I had some time to kill, I tried striking up a conversation. I said to the old man, “Shakespeare and Company, huh? Wasn’t that the name of a famous bookstore in New York City or someplace?”
“Paris,” he replied, in a voice like something from the grave. “It was the name of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, where Hemingway and other literati used to gather.” He seemed old enough to have first-hand knowledge.
“Oh yes, Paris,” I said. “That’s right. So how is it that you can take the name and not get sued?”
“Maybe we will,” he said, coughing up a chuckle that I was afraid was going to cost him his last breath. “It remains to be seen. But I doubt we will. The bookstore is defunct by now, of course. And the name is essentially public domain.”
“Well if they threaten to sue,” I said, “you should consider switching to that name instead.”
“What name instead?” he said.
“Public Domain,” I said. “I like it much better than Shakespeare and Company.”
The open—though severely wrinkled—expression on the old man’s face changed, and he asked if there was anything else he could help me with. Then I remembered that I needed to order some flowers. So I left.
Funny I wound up having a much better conversation in the flower shop, even though bookstore people are known for being able to talk endlessly on any subject. I even wound up talking about books in the flower shop, because I mentioned I’d just come from the bookstore, and had been disappointed at not finding what I wanted. The woman asked me what I liked to read, and I told her I’ve been very fascinated lately by ancient archeoastronomy.
“How cerebral,” she said.
“And what kind of books do you like?” I asked, because it was my turn to keep the conversation going.
“I’m always looking to improve myself,” she said. “Body, mind, and spirit. So I’m attracted to anything along those lines.”
Definitely I could see that. Because she was extremely good-looking—the word these days, I suppose, is hot—for a woman in her mid-forties or so. She had dazzling dark hair, a good figure, and was dressed very smartly in a blue skirt ensemble. If I was in the market anymore, I might have tried to find out if she was available. I’m pretty sure she was. I’m pretty sure she was flirting with me, even—just by the way she stressed the words body and attracted to.
The shop smelled glorious, but I told her I wished it had a suggestion box because there’s one thing that has always bothered me about the place. “Though this is the first time I’ve actually stepped foot inside,” I confessed.
“It’s not often we see men in here,” she acknowledged. More flirting.
“Is that so?” I said.
“But, please, tell me your suggestion,” she said. “Cindy, the owner, is a dear friend of mine. I’m sure she would want to hear it.”
“OK, then,” I said. “Here goes. Change the name,” I said.
“Seriously?” she said.
“I mean it,” I said. “The name is just so blah. Everyday Floral? It’s rather lazy. I mean, you could put the word everyday in front of anything. Everyday Hardware. Everyday Liquor. Everyday Counseling Services. Everyday Gyros. It has no distinction.”
She gave me a funny kind of scolding look—which brought out the sexy even more.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but my name is Sounding. Ben Sounding. Blame the name if perhaps I say things people don’t want to hear. You see, a name is everything.”
“So, Ben Sounding,” she said, “you think you can come up with a better name for this business?”
“Me, personally?” I said. “I’ve always thought Primrose Path would make an excellent name for a flower shop.”
“But we don’t sell primroses,” she said.
“That doesn’t matter,” I told her. “Just as long as it gives the public a nice image of flowers. Or,” I said, “you could go the clever route and name it Prim Rose’s. Of course then you might run into the problem of everybody coming in and saying, ‘Where’s Rose? I’d like to talk to Rose’—not being keen to the play on words.”
The charming woman handed me a catalogue to thumb through, then helped me select the Luscious Lavender Gift Basket when I couldn’t make up my mind. We parted as friends.
I had skipped having a beer with lunch at the Aztec, because the only kinds they had on tap were expensive microbrews. So, after the flower shop, I went across the street to a new pub that had caught my eye. With a name like the Red Zone, I didn’t know what to expect. But they had a Budweiser sign in the window, telling me the price would be right, at least.
Much to my amazement, the only customers in the place were male, about a dozen at the time, and they were all staring at the ninety or so TVs lining the walls. They were bringing French fries and onion rings to their mouths, as images of football and baseball and soccer and platform diving and basketball and skeet shooting and football and soccer and pole vaulting and car racing and golf and football and kayaking and billiards and dogs on an obstacle course entertained their placid souls. No tennis, though.
A pretty young girl wearing a tank top and short shorts came to take my order, and I asked her, “Isn’t it degrading for you to work in a place like this?”
“Huh?” she said.
“A place with this name? Serving all these men?”
“Wait a sec,” she said, shaking her blond ringlets. “I don’t follow. What about the name?”
“Are you serious?” I said.
“What do you have against the name?” she asked.
“Am I really that old?” I said with a sigh.
“I can’t answer that,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “when I was in college—like fifteen billion years ago, I guess—the Red Zone was code for when a girl was having her, um, monthly flow. You’ve never heard that? Are you telling me things have really changed that much? We boys would say, ‘What’s up with Rachel? Is she being so bitchy, pardon me, because she enjoys it—or is she just in the Red Zone?’
Abruptly my server spun on her heels and disappeared, leaving me in an uncertain state about my order. Had she even heard that I would like a Budweiser? A minute later, a beefy fellow with a frown and a goatee was standing at my table, saying “we don’t like it when customers make our women workers uncomfortable.”
“I wasn’t trying to make anybody uncomfortable,” I said. “I was just explaining to her what the Red Zone used to mean—and what I thought it still means. My mistake.”
The beefy fellow said, “It’s a football reference, guy. This is a sports bar, in case you haven’t noticed. Don’t you watch football?”
Truth of the matter is, I don’t hardly. But I didn’t tell the beefy fellow that. He informed me, though not in so many words, that my pint of Budweiser—so the server did get my order!—would not be forthcoming, and it would be a good idea if I left the Red Zone immediately and never came back. Yes I’ve been expelled from my share of places in my life, but never in the daytime and never while I was sober. So this was something of a shocker to me.
The beefy fellow walked me to the door, and as I was going out, he said, “Let me ask you something, guy. What planet are you from anyway?”
I have no problem with people doing their jobs, but I found the rudeness unnecessary. I told him as much.
And then I said, “You want to know what planet I’m from? I’ll tell you what planet. I’m from Planet Here. That’s my planet, buster. I live HERE. This is my town.”
Not originally, of course. Everybody who lives here, in this town, has come from some other place. But you would think, after living here for twenty-three years, I’m due some respect.
All in all, today was not the most enjoyable day I have ever spent downtown. But I did make the beefy fellow regret he had spoken to me that way. So that’s something. “OK, sorry, guy,” he said. “Whatever. Just leave, OK? Have a good day.” Apology accepted.
The locals say, “The shopkeepers and the restaurants downtown treat you like a big dollar sign. They assume you’re just passing through, so there’s no attempt to engage you on a real level. They just want your money.” I say you really can’t claim you live somewhere unless you have felt it from every angle. So I put myself out there. I go downtown.
Paul Hadella is a teacher, journalist and musician living in southern Oregon. His creative writing has appeared, off and on, in literary journals since the 1990s. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.