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Welcome to the Wasteland MAG
The cars roar across the highway, speeding down to Florida or up to New York, or racing to pass through "the middle of nowhere," as the wives proclaim with wrinkled noses as they stare at the hills of West Virginia.
"Brown. Brown and yellow. That's all it is," the wives say their noses now raised, as if getting a stronger scent of the car roof will provide them with solace from their husbands' refusals to pay for plane tickets. Their rush seems out of place in the stillness around them.
In their haste to reach their vacation spots and free themselves from the children's backseat antics, they pass the peeling sign advertising Auntie Mae's Diner. Although this is the first sign of life without four wheels and a license plate, the promise of food cannot compare to the appeal of leaving the wasteland. In response to the children's whines, the wives snap, "Do you want to get to Disney World/New York City, or not? West Virginia is a passing-through state. We are not spending any more time here than necessary." Their noses then resume their comfortable in-the-air positions, this time with such exaggeration that they threaten to damage the women's necks.
Meanwhile, Auntie Mae's Diner stands lonely, a slight droop in its patched screen door and peeling paint, as if it knows it has lost another customer. It was never anyone's final destination. Fresh coffee and blueberry pie were not enough to distract drivers from the "brown and yellow." Even Auntie Mae's once-red sign was losing its color from the constant sun that pressured the pigment to melt so that the building could conform to its surroundings.
Lonely was how a little boy with a red baseball cap described it, one of the few who was allowed a quick chocolate milk before continuing to the land of Mickey Mouse and his band of furry friends. The slight woman behind the counter stared at this boy inquisitively. She had worked at her aunt's diner since she was a young girl, spending her summers hiding behind the shiny linoleum counter rather than playing "Red Rover" with neighborhood children. This escape from her loud peers did not protect her from human interaction as much as she had hoped, for however infrequent, her largest fears pushed open the broken screen door and invaded her small haven. Luckily, she had become aware of their impending entrance long before they crossed the threshold.
The wives always surveyed the vulnerable diner before going inside, loudly noting the visible imperfections. "Patched screens. Yellowing shingles. (Husband's name), do you really think this diner is suitable for our children?" Faint protests and grumbling stomachs would then be heard, as well as a comment from the father proving he had finally surrendered to the children's hunger pains. The door had no need to make its ritualistic creak of a warning, for by the time the children romped through, the last of the shy woman's yellow hair had already slipped into the back kitchen never to be seen by them.
This particular little boy did not fit her pattern. Not expecting any unusual behavior, she was meticulously scrubbing her favorite counter, whose minimal coffee stains had long ago been washed away, when she heard the door's familiar call. Cleaning was her favorite engagement at the diner, as long as no one was there to watch her. With a swirl of her fraying rag she could bring an uncharacteristic glow to the linoleum, the shine adding streaks of class to the cheap material. When the inexorable sun beat through the windows, the gleaming strips were accented with tiny gold specks, or what she liked to think of as the counter's hidden treasure that only she had the power to reveal. Her buoyant aunt chuckled at her "fascination with purification," as she liked to call it, deeming the obsession unimportant, although her niece knew that the customers subconsciously appreciated her efforts.
"What's your name?"
She looked up, startled. A little boy sat comfortably on the stool in front of her, his blue eyes curiously searching her gray eyes that had expanded to the size of plates at the three simple words. She stared back, at first merely frozen with fear at the prospect that this small child had slid past her "catch-the-customers" system, yet soon becoming mesmerized by a glint dancing across his left eye that matched the golden freckles of the counters. She wished more than anything that she could take the eye and place it on her counter in the sunlight; it would add the perfect embellishment to her private glowing territory.
"What's your name?" he asked again, exaggerating each syllable as if she could not understand his inquiry. She stared again at the seven-year-old, wondering if the extreme redness of his cap and blueness of his eyes were giving him such exceptional confidence, before whispering, "Rowena."
She hated her name. She always wanted to be called Anna, or Sarah, or something more suitable for a quiet West Virginian like herself. Rowena was much too showy. In fact, her mother had given her the name because it sounded like a movie star, someone who was adored. Rowena never shared her mother's vision of greatness; she pictured Rowena the Movie Star as a woman who was silent, like she was in real life, but out of an extreme superiority complex and disdain for everyday life rather than due to perpetual shyness. She would not walk but would glide, with her nose pointing straight toward the sky. This contrast between name and person is why Real Rowena refused to wear a name tag. Even if her name were Anna, she would be much too shy to allow a stranger to catch even a glimpse of her personality.
"What's your name?" Rowena asked, surprised at her own courage.
"My name is Bo." Interesting, she thought, as she had always heard the mothers yelling at Billy or Bobby to stop blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk, but never something as unusual as Bo. "My real name's Bobby. Mom and Dad call me that." Oh, never mind. "But I call myself Bo, it fits better."
Oh, just kidding, that is interesting. With Bo's stream of comments, Rowena's mind was stirring with its own silent commentary. She was experiencing so many seemingly ordinary things for the first time; a customer sneaking by undetected, a customer observing her clean the counter, a customer conversing with her, all because of Bo. Her private boundaries were rapidly shattering, each word acting as a wrecking ball. Except it is more construction than destruction, she thought, with a faint smile, as she heard him mention Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Her grin widened as the prospect of this contradiction drew its own little cartoon in her mind. A wrecking ball flying at exaggerated speed would shatter a brown wall, whose bricks would fly across her head until they landed in an ever-growing pile of bricks striving to reach Bo's shining left eye sparkling high above them. Rowena had never thought so abstractly before, a realization that suddenly transferred another huge heap of bricks from one pile to the other.
"I made you something."
Rowena blinked and stared at Bo, her chain of thoughts acquiring so many new links and growing in myriad directions that she had completely forgotten he was there. He modestly held out a small piece of paper to his new friend, and she, just as unsure, gently received it. The paper was covered in cheery blotches of color, forming the shape of a friendly green building with big blue eyes and a wide red smile. An orange circle was scribbled in the top left corner of the page, bleeding orange lines onto the smiling structure. Red and blue squiggles grew past the bottom of the building, melting into the blast of lime. "The orange is the sun rays. So it's shiny, like this counter. And those are flowers. And that building is this diner. It's smiling. That way it won't be lonely anymore. It seems lonely."
Rowena stared at the drawing. The bright colors contrasted so greatly with the desolate yellow of the building, the brown of the surrounding sand. It breathed of confidence. Rowena's concentration was broken by a nasal squeak outside the door.
"I can't believe that Bobby just ran inside! You always let him get his way, and look what you've done. Now he thinks he can do whatever he wants, and run into some old diner like this. Really. I hope it's sanitary. Look at the color of the shingles, the state of the door!" A woman was clearly gawking at Auntie Mae's defenseless structure. She pushed open the whining door, followed by her shuffling husband, as she marched to the counter where her small son was seated.
"Bobby! That was unacceptable!" After her reprimand, she turned to glare at Rowena. "You weren't suspicious of a little boy coming into a diner in the middle of nowhere all by himself? You didn't ask about the location of his parents?"
Rowena stared at the woman's reddening face, pointing toward the ceiling. She was shocked at the accusations, especially considering she had never come into direct contact with any of "the mothers" before. She took a deep breath before looking the cranky woman straight in the eye.
"He was actually very well-behaved, so nothing appeared to be the problem. And please, don't raise your nose to me."