Please excuse me, forgive me, ignore this and leave early. When I got the invitation to speak here today, I began eagerly preparing an outline, graphs and other substantial distractions, which included but were not limited to colorful handouts, nametags and logo-branded coffee mugs. But as you can all see, I'm arrived empty handed, save for these few notes I scrawled out sitting in my car fifteen minutes ago.
You see, there's a town with no name in Northern California. It's about 10 hours from here if you're driving fast and it's made up, from what I could see off of this tiny exit ramp, of only a single rickety, collapsing storefront made of knotty wood from local barns long gone. The entire place looked to be gummed together with twine and chewed bubble gum. Out front there was a single overpriced Exxon pump, and although a sign read "WAIT FOR ATTENDANT TO PUMP FUEL", I gave up after a few minutes and filled the tank on my own.
Inside that crooked structure, a mean looking red-faced man with an enormous beard sat behind a counter with what I believe to have been his fat-assed wife. They were sipping coffee and reading the paper respectively, and neither were the least bit concerned with me, the customer.
I cleared my throat loudly twice and finally fatty looked up at me, obviously irritated as all hell. "Do you have a bathroom?" I asked.
Old chunky just made a grumbling kind of sound and went back to her paper. The old man took another sip of his coffee, and then gave me the evil eye, honest to god, for a slow count of at least thirty seconds. Let me tell you folks, this shit was like a scene from a comedy about aliens. I'm thinking: This old man's head should shrivel and turn green any second. Certainly his eyes will soon glow like burning marbles, claws will grow from his finger tips and he'll take a massive swipe, turn me into a front page story in a small town paper, and keep you people here waiting for me all day long.
But no. As it turned out, the man and his hefty bride were, indeed, from this world. He ticked his neck behind him. "Bathroom's back around here," he said, his vocal chords dry like bones.
I walked tentatively behind the counter and into a tiny closet of a back room where there were various supplies and plastic crates holding dusty cans of soda and juice. There was a door labeled in thick black marker with the explanation: "SHITTER'S IN HERE", and I opened it.
"WHOA SHIT! SWEET JESUS GODDAMM!"
I had screamed it out loud, a fierce and terrified yelp of a sentence. Not only had I screamed it out loud, but I'd damn near pissed right down my leg, too.
The most unexpected thing one might find in a busted-down gas station bathroom in a place three notches below a ghost town is a pretty, curly-haired woman submerged seductively in a bathtub, naked and hot as can be. And so I saw her there, and I screamed and stood panting, holding my chest in an attempt to keep my racing heart inside.
And then I heard them laughing, the proprietors of this fine shit hole, laughing at me.
Within five quick seconds, the bathtub revealed itself as dirty and waterless; nothing more than a chipped and worn claw-foot antique. And this beautiful lady waiting for me like a dream just through the threshold of this perfect porn movie setting? Nothing but a stark-white mannequin dressed in dirty sweatpants, a God Bless the USA t-shirt and a pink, green and orange plastic visor holding down a wiry blonde wig.
They were still giggling out there behind the counter. This was the usual gag. Each traveler that stops through for the john, spooked awake by a dummy and safe to drive for many more miles. I poked my head out and smiled. Chunky ass rolled her eyes with a smile of her own, and the old man winked in a friendly manner, the whole mean-guy routine gone now. They'd had their fun for the day, had lightened up, and sold some gas.
I swung the door shut and sat down on the toilet staring at the fake doll. There was something about the gag that had me spinning, and I had to sit there for a number of minutes. Something about the way these people thought about business; the manner with which they treat their customers. I was on my way to speak here, to you fine people, about the state of our industry. There was something to be garnered from this bumpkin patch of a station.
I flushed and washed my hands. I took one last look at the plastic woman in the old ceramic casket. She was smiling, still laughing about her own performance. A customer is an opportunity. A customer is the event of all events! The purpose. The puppet. This duo, the gas station owners of Nowhere, California, understand this above all.
I paid for my gas, laughed a bit with the pranksters at the counter, thanked them, and went back out to the car and popped the trunk. Stashed there were your pamphlets and your coffee mugs. Stapled and bound together were pie charts and statistics to last you until Christmas.
I took each of those boxes out of the trunk one by one. I stacked them up next to a giant blue oil drum, cut open now and transformed into a garbage can.
And so I'm here today, not to pitch you my latest and greatest pathway to success, but instead I'm here to tell you about a naked lady in a bathtub, and how my heart swooned with evil terror for five long seconds of being caught hook line and sinker. The customer, people! The goddamn customer!
**7/16/02, written for a reading at Confounded with Al Burian of Burn Collector. Story finished around 4:58pm. Reading begins in two hours.
Adam Voith launched the book company TNI ( http://www.TNIBooks.com ), the magazine Little Engines, and lately is releasing his second novel, Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You're Dead. He is a man of many titles, it would seem, though we are delighted to have him back.