Applebee's Falls Apart
The Pancake Palace used to rule over a weedy quarter-acre lot on highway 16, past the Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store but before the Citgo that Mrs. Hodgkin’s son held up last April after Amanda Shepherd cheated on him. Now it is an Applebee’s. The new owners are an old couple from out of town that no one knows. They put up the neon APPLEBEE’S sign, but couldn’t afford the neon apple to match, so instead they painted over what used to be a neon pancake and glued on some green fourth-of-July glow sticks for the stem. It doesn’t look awful.
In the back booth closest to the kitchen, Kitty and her daughter Dora sit and pick at the layers of a bloomin’ onion. When it was still The Pancake Palace, they would come every week for free-bacon-Wednesday. Now, suddenly without this ritual, they are making due.
“Mom, why is it eight dollars for an onion here when at the grocery store they’re 98 cents? And why are there old black and white pictures of Applebees’s that aren’t this one on the wall? And why did they put us in the worst spot when there are so many open tables? And why—“
“Honey,” Kitty says, lifting her head ever so slightly from the bendy straw sticking out of an electric blue fishbowl-sized margarita. “Drink your milkshake.”
Dora does so gladly, in the same moment noticing the trail of little red lipstick smudges on everything her mother’s funny thin lips have touched: they wind down her straw, sweep faintly across the edge of the large glass, and can just be detected on the palm of her hand from when she brings it up cough her cigarette flem into. The same thought must have also occurred to Kitty, because she takes the opportunity to smear on more Riche Red.
“Can I get you gals anything else?” the 20-something waiter asks, seeming to pop out of nowhere. He asks the question the same way a Ken doll would, despite his greasy black hair and savage neck acne. “Refills? Another onion to munch on? Some desert maybe?” He winks at Dora.
“I’d love one more of these,” Kitty says with too wide a freshly-painted smile. The drink has dyed the inside of her mouth blue. “Dora, you want one more?”
“Then just the Fruit Punch Sunset Beach Tea for me, dear.” Bland Ken nods and smiles back as if Kitty is Barbie and winks at her this time. Dora wonders if his eyes work okay.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Dora says, scooting desperately out of the red leather seat. Her mom mumbles something like “okay honey,” and keeps her eyes locked on lackluster Ken as they small-talk about the recent snowfall and what the new owners have done with the place (not enough) and if greasy Ken is legal.
* * * * * * *
“Jeremy, stahhhhp,” Kitty is laughing too loudly when Dora returns. Her mother’s blonde-streaked bob just barely reaches to her shoulders and the true gray roots are almost visible, but not quite. Dull Ken, apparently Jeremy, is sitting on Dora’s side of the booth, staring into her mother’s copper-colored eyes. He takes a sip of his own fishbowl now resting on the table.
“Do you guys want some more unlimited breadsticks?” he asks, blinking crazily. Kitty laughs like she’s forgotten what words are.
“Huh?” Dora asks, now standing at the end of the table. “That’s not an Applebee’s thing; that’s a different restaurant. I’ve seen the commercials.” Jeremy shakes his head flippantly and stands to get up. Kitty shoots her daughter a nasty sort of glance.
“What?” says Dora, powerless. “Olive Garden has unlimited breadsticks, not here. And why do his eyes keep twitching like that? And why was he siting with you and drinking while he’s working? None of it makes sense.”
“Honey,” Kitty says with all the weight in the world. “Do you really think the world makes any sense?”
This is a bit much for even smarter-than-average Dora to handle at thirteen. Not sure of what to do, she takes her place back in the booth and returns to her milkshake, slurping it up in big, fast gulps. At the bottom the rainbow sprinkles swirl and begin to loose their colors, waiting to be sucked away one by one.
* * * * * * *
Soon enough Jeremy is back, his eyes now unable to remain open for hardly any time at all, carrying another onion bloomin’ in the middle of a basket of Olive Garden breadsticks. He has also brought back two more blue bowls of alcohol. After setting it all down on their table, he sits down next to Dora and rejoins them. He smells to her like sweat and something that has been left in the refrigerator for way too long.
“You hadn’t for blue them said isn’t no yet?” he says with a completely straight face. Kitty throws her head back to laugh, but Dora just stares at him, confused.
“What?” she asks. How many fishbowls has he had?
“For you no hadn’t yet blue them said isn’t,” he says more slowly through cheery, yellowing teeth. Dora looks at her mom.
“I don’t get it. What’s going on?” She asks, but the others only go on spewing gibberish. Kitty’s laughs are growing louder and more theatrical and Jeremy’s eyes now seem to be glued shut to his stupid smile.
Just then, one of the framed photos of an old Applebee’s falls to the ground and shatters somewhere close behind their table. Dora gasps, but no one else in the whole restaurant seems to notice it. Another photo across the room falls, and more glass flies. She looks around for verification, but no one has even looked up.
“Mom, didn’t you hear that?” she asks Kitty. But her question is met by the most exaggerated laugh yet, her mother throwing her head back so far that Dora worries it might fall off.
“Breadsticks Unlimited Breadsticks Unlimited!” Jeremy screams. Dora hasn’t even noticed that he has left, but here he is again, the very picture of insanity. He lays eight more baskets of Olive Garden breadsticks on the table. Another picture falls.
He sits down next to cackling Kitty this time and begins to touch her face softly. “You,” he coos, feeding her breadstick after breadstick. “You.” Smash goes more glass.
Then, the music starts. At first it seems to flow out of nowhere, but Dora soon realizes that it’s coming out of every crevice in the brick walls, an inexplicable swelling of a heartbreaking string symphony. But, once more, only Dora seems to be aware of it.
“What’s going on?!” she asks no one this time. “It doesn’t make sense!” Kitty and Jeremy ware kissing now, a revolting mess of blue tongues and low chuckles.
Dora throws her hands up, looking around the room for help but finding none. An elderly couple two booths over is going at some Chicken McNuggets with painful urgency. A group of pierced teenagers is building precarious towers of condiment bottles. A father and his twin sons, all three with flushed red hair, are piling ice cream into their mouths and crying. The music grows louder with every second that passes.
“Craaaaaack,” goes the wall next to her, a gigantic fissure opening up. Not one person flinches at this loud destruction either. Pieces of the brick crumble into what’s left of Dora’s milkshake. Kitty and Jeremy are now in the process of taking off each other’s clothes. Overhead, the hanging lights flicker, faintly swaying back and fourth.
“Stop!” Dora shrieks, unable to think of anything else to say. It feels as if the back pockets of her jeans are glued to the seat, forcing her to stay and watch the world fall apart.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees the old couple finally turn to look at her. However, there is no real comfort in their faces. Finished with their meal, the pair looks utterly lost. Peering closer, Dora sees that the old man has a tiny crack running down the left side of his face. It streams in and out of his forehead wrinkles, through a gray eyebrow and gently down the cheek. The woman too, she notices, has a similar type of slit traveling across her thick freckled arm. Dora searches the room and to her alarm finds that everyone is slowly fracturing this way. There is no blood, she observes; behind these growing openings is only darkness. No one shows even the slightest indication of pain.
At this point the music makes any more pleas useless. Maybe Dora should run out of the restaurant, or shake the others to try and make them see, or call somebody good or 911. But the tragic music and tragic people and the senselessness of it all, together with the crowd’s mutual apathy, make any course of action seem ultimately futile—so she stays sitting.
Above her the ceiling suddenly opens up and giant pewter tiles begin to come crashing down. Dora dives out of the booth onto the floor just in time as one threatens to flatten her. Lying on her stomach, the smell of syrup wafts up from the red carpeting. Kitty and Jeremy are now copulating underneath the table. Violins take over the melody.
Turning over as to not witness the potential conception of her newest sibling, Dora gazes up through the large gap in the ceiling. It is night, and by some absurd grace stars are visible even against the hanging fluorescents that remain. For one moment, looking into the handful of faraway light and listening to bows drift softly across strings, she thinks maybe a person can accept the chaos if it were always this beautiful as it is in that second.
Then she feels a crack. Looking down, she finds it is in her right hand, beginning at the pinky, twisting across the palm, ending in a sliver below the thumb. She does not cry out; it doesn’t hurt. Actually, the fracture feels warm, and somehow, she thinks, like coming home after a long trip away.
The walls have split deeply enough so that the entire building begins to shake, the whole place threatening to give way. Music still sails through the air, mixing with the smell of smoke coming from the kitchen and the icy January breeze. Kitty and Jeremy have finished, and are holding each other tightly as they too began to crack. Dora sees the redhead twins sheltering themselves under the bar, holding hands.
The sight of the twins make her think of being that small, even though she still doesn’t feel so big. Birthday parties and ice-skating and freshly made peanut butter cookies float across her memory, mixing together in a pretty, pleasant way. She feels the crack in her hand crawl further up her arm, and another start at the base of her neck. She closes her eyes and makes herself see more good things: John Deere, their dirty beagle, welcoming her home after school like he had missed her more than anything. Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper that lined her first bedroom. Her mother before one of her dates, standing in front of a mirror in a red dress from Goodwill, looking like she walked straight out of a magazine. Another crack lunges across her stomach.
Just then Dora feels someone touch the hand that is still whole. She opens her eyes to see Kitty lying next to her, a crooked opening running down the center of her face, Riche Red clinging to the edges.
“I—“ Dora begins in a shaky voice, but Kitty cuts her off.
“Shhhhh,” she whispers kindly, kissing her on the nose. Dora imagines the faint red print her broken lips have left there. Though Kitty is silent, the look in her eyes says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Examining the crack in her mother from up close, Dora can see that beyond it, where the spongy insides of a person should be, there is nothing. If anything, from this near it is possible to detect in the blackness a faint collection of tiny, distant lights.
You would think that at a funeral home, the primo place for people to contemplate their own mortality, that a part of that thought process would include taking into consideration the finite amount of meals left in a person’s life, and that whoever is running this thing from behind one of the many closed doors who doesn’t suddenly have one less family member could spread some fucking mayonnaise on the dozen subpar finger sandwiches. The food here is shit.
The onslaught of casseroles has begun before we’ve even put Owen in the ground. We’re a casserole family now, isn’t that something? One day you’re sitting at your desk at work, or letting your legs dangle off the kitchen counter, or driving to the bookstore thinking, “Hey, you know what I haven’t had for a long time? Green bean casserole. I could really go for some of that. Wow, that sounds really good right now.” Then the next day your brother is dead and the overwhelming urge flows over you to smash half of the glass casserole-cradling dishes and sprinkle the broken shards into the other casseroles and see how comforted that makes everybody feel. But you don’t do that. I won’t do that.
At what point are you supposed to give the casserole dishes back? Nice glassware like that people just don’t give away, even at times like this. What’s the statute of limitations on post-mortem Pyrex returns? Is it more socially acceptable to redeliver the scrubbed-clean dishware before all warmth has left the corpse, or only after you forget the way his face lit up when he found his birthday presents hidden in the dryer last summer?
Ugh, and the deviled eggs. They smell like rotting—like my brother is rotting in the box one room over. Maybe some sadistic employee of the funeral home is doing this on purpose. At least my brother is not splattered with little paprika-colored beads of blood, because there was no blood. There was only water. There was only so much water.
Everyone is sipping coffee out of cups that don’t even keep your fingers from being burned, because that’s the thing you do at a funeral, that’s what you do with your hands instead of pinching yourself to make little bruises as a distraction from watching all the people do default things. Why do they all want to be more awake? Maybe they are trying to wake up. I don’t think the coffee pots are big enough for that.
The desserts, though: on point. No one risked bringing a celebratory-associated cake, so kudos to you friends and neighbors. Can you imagine the sickening frosting-scribbled sayings, anyway? “Greatest Condolences.” “We Miss You Already.” “What A Shame The Lifeguard Had To Use The Bathroom Right Then.” “Bit Of Bad Luck, Really.” “It’s No One’s Fault.” “The Sister Probably Should Have Been Paying Attention But We Can’t Blame Her, Of Course.” “These Things Happen.”
An image of a sheet cake with glaringly white vanilla frosting comes to mind, across it, in a 5 A.M.-hung-over-at-the-bakery-daze, some high school student has half-heartedly written: