A Short Story by George Wier
It’s 1986 and they sure make good potatoes at the Mayhill Cafe. But Dalton has no idea what year it is.
“Yeah, the secret is to cook ‘em with real butter. Not deep fried, but fried in a pan, just the right heat. That way the butter don’t burn up and you ken cook more of ‘em for the next customer. Just keep addin’ butter. Yep. They sure—”
“make good potatoes at the Mayhill Cafe,” I mouth the words to the ceiling as he speaks them.
It’s 1986 and two weeks to go until I walk out, a free man.
Dalton is down there in the lower bunk, droning on. There’s something comforting about knowing what comes next. But then Dalton says, “I ‘spect you’ll get some them potatoes I been tellin’ you ‘bout when you walk free, Chuck.”
My heart skips a beat and my throat goes dry.
In two years John Wayne Dalton had not parted company with his spiel about the twins and the Mayhill potatoes, about killing Officer Dan Royal with his own sidearm, or about his sleep in the cow pasture and his dream of the mountain lady with no clothes on. Dalton is like a grasshopper with a missing hind leg that can only hop in a figure eight. He’d never, to my knowledge, spoken my first name. Dalton is a might soft in the old bean.
It gets me to thinking about freedom. About what I might do with what’s left of my life. In two weeks my time is considered served.
Some people have to live in the city with all the noise and the crowds and the constant this and that. Others prefer the lonely stretches where it’s not people per acre but sections of land to the person. I suppose I’m somewhere in between. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem being around my fellow man. But suddenly there is a whole world out beyond the prison yard and the wall with its razor wire and the peckerwoods up in the pickets, watching. Always watching.
A world waits for Charles Englewood Lyman, after parole.
A bus ticket is what they give you. A new suit of clothes and a bus ticket anywhere.
When I close my eyes I dream.
That Officer Dan Royal, I tell you. He’s a mean sonuvabith. He goes outta his way to screw a fellah up but good. I sure was tired of him pushin’ me. Always pushin’ me. So one day he stops me at the corner of Signal Hill and Persimmon. It was a hot day and you could see the heat waves comin’ up off the road like you was lookin’ inside one of those heaters with the white bricks that lean backwards that get so hot they glow. It’s so hot the grasshoppers are too lazy to play a tune on their hind legs, and it ain’t even two in the afternoon yet. Officer Royal flips on those red and blue lights behind me and bumps that sy-reen he’s got and it goes “Bew! Bew! Bewwp!” and I pulls over almost into the bar ditch. I’s hoppin’ mad, I mean to tell you, but Officer Royal, he’s got this shit-eatin’ grin when he gets out and he comes over to me and says, ‘Dalton, now you know they done upended your driver’s license and you ain’t ‘sposed to be drivin’.’ But me, I plays it straight only I’m ready to kill the sonuvabitch only he don’t know it and I don’t let on none. So I just nods my head and gets out with a big smile and scratches my head like I’m tryin’ to figure out what he’s sayin’. I gets out slow and easy like and I grabs him. Boy, let me tell you that smile of his turns into somethin’ else. I slams him against the back door of my uncle’s 1955 Chevrolet and I pulls that hog leg from his gun belt and sticks the damn thing into his gizzard and I pulls the trigger. It goes off loud, too. BAH-LAM! But there’s this other sound comes right after it, and it’s like what it sounds like when I’m sloppin’ the hogs and I gots this big bucket of slop and I tosses it down the length of the hog trough. It makes a right nice sound, which was what it sounded like in a whisper right after that big bah-lam. Yep. Officer Dan Royal. You know, they sure make good potatoes…
In the dream I hear the gut-killing sounds and see Royal slump down onto the burning road. His dying skin cooks with the heat. His heart beats its last and he looks up at Dalton with eyes glazing over in shock. I can see Royal’s eyes. I see his eyes and I wonder about freedom and death, and try to work out how the two are distant cousins.
I rise above a scene of hot murder and whisk away to a country inn set back among the pines. Smoke rises from a brick chimney that is blackened around its own small square roof with the soot of ten thousand fires. I drift downward to peer in the kitchen window to see the cooks at work. There are three of them there—two Mexican women and a teenaged boy. I see Dalton poking his head around the corner, watching, mesmerized by the large skillet on the stove. There the butter simmers and the potatoes begin to crisp.
…at the Mayhill Cafe. Yeah, the secret is to cook ‘em with real butter. Not deep fried, but fried in a pan, just the right heat. That way the butter don’t burn up and you ken cook more of ‘em for the next customer. Just keep addin’ butter. Yep. They sure make good potatoes at the Mayhill. I mean to tell ya. I worked there one summer busing tables, so I should know. More like it was two weeks afore they made me mad ‘cause of shortin’ me on ma wages. I told ‘em I didn’t want no ef-eye-cee taken out of ma pay. Don’t knows no ef-eye-cee, don’t owe no ef-eye-cee, and I tells Miss Gladdus that if I see her—get it? Ef-eye-cee her—takin’ out any more ef-eye-cees, I’ll punch her in the en-oh-ESS! That’s when she fired me. But not before I finished my potatoes. I coulda killed that bitch but she never made me half as mad as Officer Dan Royal. I coulda cut Miss Gladdus with her own chicken guttin’ knife. I sure coulda, on more than one occasion. Miss Gladdus was ugly too, and I ‘spect she weren’t any purtier ‘neath all them clothes, ‘count of she was so broad in the beam. That reminds me of the mountain woman. I seen the mountain woman once. I goes to sleep in this cow pasture after a long day workin’ on the road crew, and I git this dream. Only I ain’t so sure it be a dream, ‘cause the mountain woman is comin’ down through the pines…
I float upwards through the air and the layer of smoke from the kitchen, up through the rafters and the tin roof and find myself high in the air. I make like an arrow for the far mountains on the horizon and the landscape blurs beneath me. I slow once I get to the mountains and there is a meadow where a simple-minded fellow is sleeping in the grass.
…and the mountain woman is comin’ down through the pines. Of course I’m dreamin’, but it’s as real as seein’ a bowlegged man at a square dance. The mountain woman, she don’t wear a stitch of clothes. Her skin is fine and white like fresh cream from the cow’s nipple. Her body floats over the grass and her toes barely touch the bluebonnets and the Indian Paintbrushes, but her face is all ugly, and it seems like to me she wants me to make like I can’t see her and if I don’t she’ll disappear. That’s what I needs to get me. I needs to get me a mountain woman with a face what’s uglier than sin so’s no other man will want her, but hidden away just for me is all the purty that a whole world of men would kill for. You knows what I mean ‘bout a mountain woman, now don’tcha? Sure you do…
And somewhere along the mountainside the dream fades. I awaken to a new day that is a rough approximation of every day that has come and gone over the last twelve years.
All that stuff about the bus ticket and the new suit of clothes? It’s a pack of lies. When I walk out the gate it’s with the clothes I walked in with twelve years ago, and they’re far too loose. You don’t find any fatties in prison. Those three squares a day…only, they’ll keep your belly like a washboard.
Town is three miles away, and I’m set to walk it in the hot August sunshine, but I get picked up by Boss Carroll, who’s coming off shift.
“What are you gonna do now, Lyman?” he asks me during the drive into town.
“I don’t know. I expect I’ll have to find a job somewhere. I wanted to see some of the country first. But I’ll have to report to a parole officer somewhere. Maybe down in Houston. That’s where my momma lives. I don’t expect she’ll take me in, though.”
Boss Carroll spits his tobacco in an old peach tin, and I wonder how many times he’s had to empty that nasty old thing. Most of the bosses dip snuff. “Thirty days,” he says. “A fellow can see an awful lot of country in thirty days. By the way, we got Dalton on suicide watch.”
I’m stunned for a moment.
“Precaution for what?”
“Just in case the sad sack of crap was in love with you.”
I shiver, then dismiss the idea. Probably it was in some damned procedure manual somewhere. Something like, “All cellmates of cons who die or are released must be placed on suicide watch.” Just like that. No explanation, but plenty of space for the mind of a bored guard to wander in.
We’re almost into town—the town I’d only ever seen once before when I took the bus ride to the Diagnostic Unit. “Say, Boss Carroll?”
“You don’t have to call me Boss anymore, Lyman. By the way, what’s your first name?”
“Good to know you, Chuck. What were you gonna ask me?”
“Uh, do you know where the town of Mayhill might be?”
Boss Carroll has no idea where Mayhill is to be found. There isn’t any Mayhill, Texas. Casting farther afield, I find that there is a Mayhill in Oklahoma, a Mayhill in Louisiana, and a Mayhill in New Mexico.
New Mexico, then. There are no mountains worth spitting at in Oklahoma or Louisiana, and the likes of the Daltons of the world never roam very far afield. It so happens that Mayhill, New Mexico isn’t terribly far from the Texas state line. And according to the nice young lady at the Huntsville Public Library, Mayhill, New Mexico sports a Mayhill Cafe. It’s the only restaurant in town.
A cool day with mountains on the horizon. I’ve never been outside of Texas, but the air and the smell of the pines on the wind beckons.
The town is at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. I suppose you could say it runs from nowhere to nowhere else, but the locals might disagree. It’s quaint, though.
I’m thinking about Dalton as I get out of the pickup truck. It took me a few weeks to get a driver’s license, a few weeks more to scrape up enough money for a vehicle. I’ve got a job offer on the table down in a little town called Kurten. Something about checking power lines. They say it’s a lot of alone time out in the woods. Suits me fine.
I don’t have very long to stay in Mayhill—nor nearly enough money—before I have to head back and get ready to meet my new parole officer. They say she’s a hard-driving bitch, but I intend to be straight with her, and nice.
Thinking about Dalton—the fellow always had the same story to tell. He had it down verbatim. He only ever varied that once, to my mind.
An interesting thing about the outside world, it’s got a damn lot of mirrors in it. I hadn’t seen my own face but once every few months, and only then on the bottom of a stainless steel kitchen pan, or in the prison barbershop. It’s a funny thing about mirrors—if you look in them too often, you can’t tell how time changes you. From one day to the next there’s little change. But from one month or a year to the next, the changed is plenty. The change is a reminder of what awaits us all. I suppose I’m one of those guys who thinks it’s better knowing what’s coming, and keeping it in mind.
Mirrors. It’s because she sees me standing there on the front walk looking at my reflection in the morning sun that she stands so still, watching me. After a moment I see movement beyond my reflection. An arm waving me inside. A pleasant smile.
I open the door.
“Never been to the Mayhill before, have you?” the waitress asks. She has a cheerful voice, and she can frown even when she’s smiling—smile with lips, frown with eyes. A special talent.
“No ma’am,” I tell her. “Heard about it, though.”
“Oh yeah? Well have a seat and tell me what you heard while I get you something to drink.”
I choose a table near the wall and where I can look back of the counter all the way into the kitchen.
“A coke, please,” I say.
“Mighty fine. So what’d you hear?”
“I heard,” I say, “they sure make good potatoes here.”
“Hmph. Now where’d you hear that?”
“From a friend. It was something he always said, but I expect he hasn’t been back in a long time.”
She turns her head toward the kitchen, raises her voice, “Say, Fred!”
After a few seconds a thirty-something fellow pokes his head out. Fred is fat. I see a lot of fat people nowadays.
“Yeah?” Fred asks.
“Did we ever make good potatoes here?”
Fred scratches his head. “Hmm. I seem to remember they were good when I was younger. Gosh. That’s been going on twenty years ago.”
“How do you cook ‘em now?” She asks Fred.
“You know how I cook ‘em,” he says.
“Yeah, but he don’t. So tell him.”
“All right. We’ve got one of those deep fryers. I hate the damn thing. Heats up the whole place. You have to turn it off and wait half a day before emptying it. A nuisance.”
I notice the waitress’s tag says ‘Beatrice’. She turns to me, “We deep fry ‘em.”
She turns to me, “According to your friend, how’d they cook ‘em?”
I looked over at Fred and saw that I had his complete attention.
“I a pan on the stove. You use good potatoes. You use butter to fry to them. Not margarine, now, but real butter. You don’t let it get so hot that the butter burns, so I reckon it probably takes awhile. I hear they’re good.”
“We got real butter,” Fred says. “Hardly ever use it.”
“Why don’t you give it a shot?” Beatrice tells him.
Fred nods. “Yeah. Why not?” He disappears into the kitchen.
Beatrice goes and gets me a coke. I don’t recall cokes being so sweet. I haven’t had a coke in a long time.
I get to thinking about time as I wait for my Mayhill potatoes. I think about little fellows growing up. About five or eight years old you’re just learning how the world is put together, but with just enough of the blinders on from the parents and grandparents that the world can’t overwhelm you. It can be one hell of a place at times. It can be beautiful and it can be ugly—as beautiful, maybe, as a mountain and clear-running stream, or as ugly as a cop’s guts getting splattered into the side of a car.
Beatrice stops by, sees I’ve drank half my coke and asks if I want a refill. I shake my head, smile at her.
“Did a Miss Gladdus ever work here?” I ask her.
She flicks an eye at the ceiling, then back down. “Nope. Not that I reckon. Why?”
“Just curious. Nevermind.”
“You’re a cute fellah, with that red hair and all those freckles,” she says. “What are you doing later?”
“I don’t rightly know,” I tell her. “I thought about headin’ back to Texas.”
“You should stay the night in the Mayhill Hotel. It’s right through that door over there. Pretty cheap, too.”
I smile. “I’ll think about it. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.” She passes by me, and at the last second reaches out a hand and runs it through my hair. Quick as a wink, she’s gone back into the kitchen.
Time. There’s a passage in Ecclesiastes, I believe, that says something about a man’s life is the same as a year going by. You get four seasons in the course of a year. The new baby and childhood is represented by Spring. Adolescence and manhood, Summer. Middle age is the Fall. We all know what Winter is because by that time we’re wearing the snow in our hair. A year. A man’s face changes in a year. A part of him can die, if he lets it. He has to hold on. He has to clutch something because it’s a long, slow slide and the bottom always comes too soon.
I’m forty-two years old.
I look up to see Fred hand off a plate to Beatrice, who brings it from the kitchen, putting a little wiggle into her walk.
And I smile.