Burlington Minimum-Security Correctional Facility
There is no more bullshit premise than writing a letter to oneself. There, I have said it. It is the work of hack psychologists and tired script writers reaching for a voice-over. In fact, I withdraw the former—Dr. Keen has actually been very helpful. Under her instruction I am supposed to send letters to a friend, or a family-member, or a pen pal whose name we can pull out of a hat. Apparently, there is catharsis in the written word.
However, one of the drawbacks of becoming a keeper of secrets is that confession cannot liberate the soul. There can be no touching correspondence with friends, no olive branches of reconciliation with family. There is only one person who will understand, one person in whom I can confide. So I guess now it’s just me and you, or (to be more specific) me and future me, or you and past you—I and thou?
What will you think, future me? Will I look at this past self and say I was an idiot, I let myself get carried away, I made the wrong choice?
Or will I be proud? Will I know that this was all worth it?
People like to think that prisons are either white-collar resorts with golf courses and four-course menus or stark, gray concrete blocks full of criminals like the ones on TV dramas who spend their days raping and shanking each other. The reality is far duller, but it is in that mundanity that the penance lies. These small rooms with their bare walls, the cot tucked into the corner, and the luxury of a television are what grind a person down. It’s not the deprivation, not even the stigma. It’s the stock and value that a TV can possess. If I weren’t in prison, I know exactly what I would be doing right now—the TV would still be on, and the room would still be small and stark and bare. The difference is that in here that reality is driven home, and there is nothing to do but sit with it, and try to feel lucky that life is not a whole lot worse.
So, future me, what can really be said?
If you have given up, that’s okay—don’t hate that; better people have given up over less.
If you’ve lost yourself entirely, then I’m not surprised. Looking for oneself can be a hazardous pursuit.
If you are just trying to keep a job, pay rent, do the everyday things that need to be done, then be well with that, and all manner of thing shall be well.
But if you are doing what I think you might be doing, if, in this future that might not exist, you are still me and you’ve decided that all of this was worth it, if ideas of fixing the past or ludicrous notions of redemption have gone clean from your mind, leaving only an ideal, a dream, then I am truly sorry. I have made you do what I think has value, and that is a very dangerous business indeed.
Part One: Origin Stories or a Lack Thereof
The low hum of paid programming and the twenty-four-hour TV cycle beat back the early-morning quiet in Harry’s studio apartment. The glow of snake-oil salesmen, promises of twenty-minute body perfection, and tales of a flawless muffin every time flickered against the walls. He slept fitfully on the twin bed that was jammed between the kitchenette and what passed for his living room—a tattered brown couch and a weathered coffee table that had been liberated from a curbside across town.
He threw an arm out from under his comforter and brought his watch close to his reluctant eyes—nine-thirty a.m. Just as his eyes had sealed themselves shut again and his back had found the comfort of the ravine between the dip in the mattress and the three missing slats below, the sound of a familiar advertisement woke him. He peeked out, while pulling the comforter tightly over his head, and squinted disapprovingly at the television.
The opening shot wobbled slightly in its frame, and a low-level hum of feedback lingered in the background, as if the commercial had been shot on a camcorder borrowed from a neighbor. It showed an arced, neon sign stretching thirty feet wide. Two huge horseshoes glowed pink, then green, then pink again as they bookended flashing letters that spelled out LUCKY DAVE’S. The jauntily angled pirate hat over the D blinked from black to white at almost strobe-light pace. Around the sign, chipped paint clung desperately to the front of the largest building in the warehouse complex.
The shot panned down and focused on Lucky Dave and his two pirate wenches standing on the steps of the casino. A jingle played: “Come and play at Lucky Dave’s, where everyone can be a lucky pirate… ARRRGHHHHHH!
Wearing an outdated attempt at a sharp white suit and adorned with a cheap pirate hat and eye-patch, Lucky Dave had an arm a little too tightly around each of the smiling, nervous, scantily clad girls. Despite having to work feverishly to keep themselves in their minuscule costumes and to fight off Lucky Dave’s wandering paws behind their backs, the girls still managed to flash whitened teeth and stare straight at the camera.
Lucky Dave appeared unperturbed by his co-stars’ unease. He launched into his shtick with an impossibly downhome accent: “That’s right, folks. Come on down to Lucky Dave’s, where we’ve got all your favorites—slots, tables, tournaments, and a few other surprises thrown in. And don’t forget that Lucky Dave’s is home of the Ultimate Deep-Fried Buffet. We batter it, we fry it!” A crudely taken picture of a deep-fried square, supposedly containing some sort of meat, flew up into the top right corner of the screen. “We bread it, we fry it again!” Another picture of a deep-fried oddity flew into the opposite corner. “Then we batter it again, and yes, you guessed it, we fry that thing one, more, time!” Lucky Dave could barely contain his open-mouthed excitement as one more corner was filled with yet another fine work of fried-food photography. “In fact, you bring it, and old Lucky Dave here will give anything that triple-fried treatment!” A final picture filled the last corner. It was supposed to look as if they had deep-fried a little dog whose eyes were still moving through holes in the batter. It was supposed to be funny.
All the while, the girls did their best not to shiver on that typically overcast, chilly Rous Falls afternoon.
The shot changed to show the front of a smaller building with a plywood, smiling pirate’s face above the door and a large, faded, inflatable pirate swaying in the breeze. Weeds were forcing their way through the cracks in the parking lot. “And, parents, don’t forget Lucky Dave’s Pirate Funland Emporium and Daycare Center. Conveniently located in the south parking lot!”
The next shot moved inside the casino. An eight-foot-square fish tank contained a few disinterested fish, their formerly perky colors jaded by their surroundings as they drifted for the umpteenth time around the large plastic treasure chest in the middle of their home. Underneath the tank was an equally huge slot machine with the arm jutting alluringly from the side, daring people to venture a dollar just for the satisfaction of pulling it.
“No one leaves Lucky Dave’s without having a shot at my Pieces of Eight! That’s right, the largest dollar slot in the Midwest. Eight wheels, eight symbols, and eighty thousand dollars if you can get all them treasure chests in a row! You win it, and I’ll personally deliver my pieces of eight right to your door!”
The final shot showed Lucky Dave, still flanked by his pirate wenches with their uneasy, hopeful expressions, leaning over a craps table with dice in his hand. “So come on down to Lucky Dave’s!”
The jingle played again: “Come and play at Lucky Dave’s, where everyone can be a lucky pirate…. ARRRGHHHHHH!”
Lucky Dave threw the dice and launched a wide-mouthed grin at the camera, rushing through his final sentence to keep the ad in its running time: “Just west of 218 at the corner of Hammond and Chippewa.”
What niggled Harry most, as he splashed cold water from the kitchenette faucet onto his face, was that the man who had screeched at him from the TV wasn’t even Lucky Dave. Some make-up, a fake beard, and an irritating couple of hours practicing a pirate accent had created the persona—it had sounded as if Charlie Dawkins, the actor, were preparing for opening night on Broadway. His greatest success to date had been a few lines on a network crime drama, but that had been enough to make Charlie Dawkins a celebrity by the small-town standards of Rous Falls, Iowa, and enough to land him the Lucky Dave advertising gig.
Harry tried to slip his pants on, get his t-shirt over his head, and find his car keys, all with his toothbrush hanging from his mouth and ever-foaming toothpaste threatening to escape from his cheeks at any moment. As he rummaged through a pile of laundry, the thought struck him that maybe today would be the day he snuck upstairs at work and tried to catch a glimpse of the real Lucky Dave.
He threw two slices of bread into a toaster oven that already deserved a medal and a comfortable retirement for so many years of service, then opened the kitchenette window. A small black cat leaped up onto the windowsill.
“Good morning, Mr. Cats,” Harry said as he produced a saucer of milk from the counter. “Just stopping in for breakfast again before a busy day, eh?”
Harry took the meow to mean yes.
“What do think? You reckon Lucky Dave really is sitting up there in some luxurious office, surrounded by huge flatscreens on the walls? You think he really is a mastermind controlling his kingdom from a swivel chair?”
This time there was no meow, but Harry took Mr. Cat’s continued licking to be a good sign.
“Five years I’ve worked there, and I’ve never even caught a glimpse of him. Closest I came was seeing his tacky white limo drive away after I’d done a late shift in the kitchens.” Harry leaned across the sink, gently stroked the cat’s velvety ears, and whispered, “Carl told me that Lucky never won that limo in Atlantic City like everyone says, and Carl knows because he was the one Lucky sent over to Illinois to buy it for him.”
The unfortunate scent of burning toast invaded Harry’s nose and caused Mr. Cat to leap from the windowsill, heading out for whatever catty business he had planned for the day.
With a slice of blackened toast clamped in his mouth, Harry slid out past the apartment door that never fully opened and into his car with the passenger-side window that never fully closed. Then he began the daily ritual required to start his old, blue Civic—a gentle, friendly stroke across the dashboard and a low whisper: “Come on, today is not going to be the day you break down.”
He turned the key in the ignition, pumped the gas pedal exactly four times, and then pulled the key out before the ratcheting, spluttering sound from under the hood could tear anything apart. “Okay,” he said reassuringly to the steering wheel as he flexed his hands on it, “we’ve been together a long time. You got me to the casino every day when I had to work the fryers.”
His memory of that era—the days spent slicing open bags of frozen chicken fingers and pouring out boxes of goopy batter, the nights trying to get the acrid stench of fryer oil out of the fibers of his clothes and skin—sent a little shock down his spine.
He wiggled the gear stick, switched the lights on and off, put the key back in the ignition, turned it until the car nearly coughed up a lung, and then turned the ignition off again. The chill in the air nipped at the back of his hands and neck. “Even though I’m a fully waistcoated Guest Services Manager now, I still need you more than ever, buddy.” He kissed the steering wheel and flicked the turn signals on and off. “And we’ve got Operation Cupcake to take care of first, so I’m going to need you to start for me now, okay?”
He closed his eyes hopefully, twisted the key again, and revved the engine until it turned and found life from somewhere deep within itself. “You beauty.”
The west side of Rous Falls still clung to its quaint-small-town-heartland-downhome-America feel—the colonial houses, Old Main Street with the chain stores and restaurants that at least attempted to keep the appearance of Five and Dimes and soda fountains, the oak trees scattered proudly and cared for by devoted homeowners and local preservation efforts. Even the weathered bandstand had managed to stay out of the clutches of drunken teens and their marker pens.
The east side of town, however, the one where Harry’s rusting Civic had begun its lurching journey, had been formed by layers of quick, insipid progress wrapping around each other. The brick-built apartment blocks were only three stories high, but they might as well have been sky-scrapers to the eyes of those who had seen Rous Falls in its 1950s heyday. The breeze-block utilitarianism in the 1990s had dumped empty storefronts and graffiti along the streets, as well as the derelict warehouse complex on the edge of town. By contrast, the mega-marts and mall that had come in the 2000s kept themselves separate, their tarmac tentacles reaching out from a distance to towns and highways, sucking at places like Rous Falls through a long straw.
Harry drove passed the boarded-up storefronts with spray-painted signatures that littered his street. He turned down Bellevue Avenue with its abandoned homes. He subconsciously navigated the pot holes on 17th Street. He swung wide to avoid the shards of rusted bus stop that had spread themselves across the corner of Washington and Capitol Drive. He headed on, past some kids throwing a basketball at a curb and an errant terrier barking at a large green trashcan, toward the edge of town. The sounds of morning radio-show hosts, spouting insulting, clichéd wordplay about the latest teen-singer melt-down, bounced around the car.
The streets turned into fields, and private development roads with their long-armed barriers emerged sporadically from wooded lanes. After five miles of county highway, the Gates Mall, a rambling concrete insult to the pastoral landscape, listed over the horizon. Its sprawling parking lots oozed into the surrounding, muddy-green fields. As the Civic crept closer, Harry could see the huge department-store signs that shone throughout the night, so that even owls knew where to go for kitchenware.
He parked in the multi-story lot and made his way down the concrete stairwell. The flimsy plastic doors at the bottom reminded him of the freezer entry in the casino kitchen. Harsh mall lighting stung his eyes as he ran his finger down the directory board. He rode the creaky, jerking elevator down, getting a full view of the leviathan that lay before him—the blue and orange gleam of an Orange Julius stand in the distance, the black and white checkered floors etched in grime, the fake ferns in plastic pots. His hand closed a little tighter on the rail.
He stepped out of the elevator to the sound of a floor-polisher whirring and grinding. The smell of bleach was strong and thick, as if a hopeful cleaner were trying to disinfect the place into submission once and for all. The white paint on the columns that stretched up to the concave ceiling was peeling, it too slowly trying to make its escape.
He strode past the once bright kids’ play area, with burst stitching in the padded flooring and a lonely slide in the shape of a small tree. Two wrong-side-of-husky security guards sat on the otherwise empty bench meant for parents. The guards were exchanging stories about last night’s TV, unmoved by the noises of scuttering truants on the floor above. They managed a courteous nod to an elderly couple getting their mall-walk exercise before moving to the more pressing matter of discussing where to have lunch.
A few paces later, Harry stood in front of Tamara’s Cupcakery. The store’s sign was jagged and lit with garish neon pinks and greens. Through the window he could see chrome stools, tiny tables, the digital ticker-tape rolling across the top of the counter detailing today’s flavors. The store looked as if it had been designed in the 1980s for an emporium-of-the-future competition.
Harry stood and stared, and Tamara’s Cupcakery stared straight back at him. He tried to walk in but found that his legs weren’t listening. The numb feeling swept suddenly up and over him in a gray wave. His body was still, but his mind raced unchecked. His thoughts swam in impossible circles, and his synapses fired at a terrifyingly rapid pace—sensory stimulation and chemical reaction in syncopation, mind following body, body following mind, chasing each other’s tail. The stench of bleach filled his nostrils. He felt the queasiness, the shivers, the dizziness, the unsteady feet of a fever-ridden stowaway.
The sound startled Harry, and the rest the world came back into focus. Harry turned quickly, half to see what had made the smacking sound and half to make sure a crowd hadn’t gathered to see the weird, frozen man staring at the cupcake store. He almost expected to see a dog being scolded for sniffing where it shouldn’t. Instead he saw a kid’s head hanging low and heard an angry, tired voice yell, “I told you to stay next to the stroller!”
Harry tucked his hands deep into his pockets and concentrated on keeping his footing as he walked to the indoor fountain at the center of the mall. He took a seat on the cold stone ledge, shook his head, rubbed his hands across his face, and hoped that the gentle trickling of the water might ease his mind. Putting his hands on his knees, he tried to take a few deep breaths.
In spite of his efforts, the next thing Harry felt wasn’t relief but an unpleasant tingling sensation dancing down his spine. He turned his head with slow, cautious concern, and there, posed in the middle of the fountain, was a five-foot cherub glaring at him and spitting across the water, its short, pudgy arm raised to the sky. One stumpy leg was bent gaily backward at the knee, the other provided contact with the crudely sculpted rock that hid the tubes and pump. Its head sat at an angle—jaunty, sneering. The glistening, faux-marble statue looked down at him with contempt. Harry was fixated, trapped in its bloated, ugly gaze.
The sound that startled Harry this time was more familiar than a smack and altogether more nurturing in tone: “You look like you could do with a hug.”
Barn stood waiting for Harry to reply. He wore his usual attire—a cotton shirt with a 1970s-wallpaper pattern that hung large and loose, combined with knee-length shorts with pockets, always as many extra pockets as possible, each with a brush or the wooden handle of some sculpting tool sticking out. His hands, forearms, and face were covered with gray dust. Barn—sculptor, painter, artist, part-time community-college professor. Those composite parts of Barn, the surface details, Harry knew well.
After an uncomfortable couple of moments that he spent swaying on the spot with his hands in his pockets, Barn continued, “Hey, man, I know how that feels. Wanna grab a coffee?”
Harry blinked slowly. “All I wanted to do was buy her a cupcake,” he thought. The last vestiges of throbbing heat disappeared from his head, and he looked up at Barn and said calmly, “Yeah, coffee sounds good. I think I have something I need to tell you.”
Home of the Ultimate Deep-Fried Buffet is a tragicomedy that asks questions about why we come together as a society and what that means for how we treat each other. It investigates themes of fate and destiny, individuality and community, agency, martyrdom, and human nature. It begins as a character study, becomes plot driven, and offers a resolution that leaves the larger thematic questions on the table. The division into three parts acts as a frame that both guides the arc and questions the nature of how we expect stories to be told.
In Part One, after coming to terms with the immorality of his job at Lucky Dave’s Casino, Harry begins telling former customers that they were cheated. He puts off telling Janie, a co-worker, about his role in the fraud for fear that she might never speak to him again. Meanwhile, in New York, Lloyd, an infotainment TV-show producer, returns home to find his girlfriend dead in a bizarre aquarium accident. The callous reaction from his boss, Dean Carrington, TV’s shiniest fear-monger, leads Lloyd to make Dean look like a fool on air. In revenge, Dean sends Lloyd out to gather small-town stories that are never going to be aired.
Part Two begins twelve months later, as Harry meets a hungover Lloyd at a run-down motel. Harry convinces Lloyd to chart the story of what has happened at Lucky Dave’s over the last year. A reluctant Lloyd is drawn in as he meets Janie and then Barn, an artist and gambling addict; he is even convinced to visit Lucky Dave’s itself. Not only does he learn about Barn losing everything, Janie killing Lucky Dave in self-defense, Harry convincing a group of people to abandon their lives and head for a ranch in Mexico, and how interested the police are in the casino, he also discovers that perhaps Harry and the others aren’t simply running away from their old lives—they’re running toward a better way to live.
In Part Three, Lloyd is left with a choice. He can give Dean the story and get his old job back, tell the police everything he knows and avoid arrest, or keep quiet and give Harry and the others a chance. Ultimately he has to ask himself—what would you be willing to give up for a chance at a better future?
Before beginning this novel I had re-read some Enlightenment thinkers—Rousseau and the like—and wanted to write something around a discussion of man in the state of nature. I walked past a cupcake store and was suddenly struck by the absurdity of a store that sold only cupcakes. I wondered what it would be like if the force of this feeling were amplified and were trigged everywhere, by everything. I wondered how that would change a life, and whether definitions of sanity, success, and happiness might not only alter but become new things altogether. Then I started jotting ideas down for the novel, and I bought a cupcake.
Pete Hadland wrote the original version of this novel for his MFA thesis and in the last year has revised and edited it. He is currently a stay-at-home dad in Iowa City and feels incredibly lucky that he gets to play with his kids all day.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019