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The Golden Molar Café in Airwood, Kentucky has a six-foot golden tooth outside the door with cigarette butts and whiskey bottles filling up the hollow space. The gold paint is chipping away. The town ragamuffins arrive early to beat the flies to the café’s dumpster. Inside, they will scrounge for cheese Danish, withered bacon, and petrified scrambled eggs. There is no more disgraceful sight than a homeless man inside a dumpster stuffing his face with blue cheese on Italian bread so hard it can hardly be ground up in his rotting teeth. They gnaw and they greedily reach with blackened fingertips. If only they could find a real treasure…a half-filled bottle of whiskey, a joint not yet all smoked, a razor blade, or a lottery ticket.
The windows are full of pink tulips that turn brown around the edges when the window is cracked open to let smoke and fumes escape.
So far, that’s the outside of the Golden Molar Café. Inside there is a broken jukebox. It plays three Elvis songs on nonstop rotation. “Hound Dog,” plays all morning, “Teddy Bear” plays all afternoon, and “Blue Christmas” plays all evening. Sometimes the volume is broken and it blares all over town. The jukebox, often called the junk-box, is covered in generations of moths laying their intricate eggs between levers.
A cockeyed sign hangs in the window. Sometimes they even change the menu. The food goes on and on. A roast beef sandwich with buffalo dressing, French eggs with cream-whip, macaroni el dejour (just a meaningless, made-up foreign phrase to dress up macaroni and cheese.) Also, there’s special, mouthwatering, classic Kentucky fish. One might wonder what’s so special about Kentucky fish. There’s nothing different about it.
The owner likes to play games with food. Mystery Soup Day is held every two weeks—he will blindfold each customer and feed them a soup they have to guess the name of. He has fortune cookies that are really river-shells. A greedy child will try to bite into it, thinking it’s a cookie, and get a chipped tooth for his troubles. The fortune will say something dumb like, “You won’t chase the spotlight, the spotlight will chase you.” Or, “When life gives you the lemons, stick them in your husband’s teeth.” Or, “Your toilet’s running. Better go catch it!”
A customer who eats at the Golden Molar a certain number of times gets an exclusive prize, a handmade hat. The hats are hung on dummies behind the front counter. Nobody would be caught dead wearing these hats, so they are careful not to solicit the Golden Molar too many times.
Evenings at the Golden Molar are high entertainment. It’s a spectacle to watch. Not one normal person goes in those doors. One old man has great big round spectacles and has lost all his teeth except two yellow fangs. He thinks the owner owes him money and he grumbles nonstop, “Gimme my money or I shoot you dummies in their hats. I shoot you dummies right off their stands.” One old lady has the misfortune of being named June Winters, a season mix-match that has made her a laughingstock of the town. June Winters has infected patches on her neck, the sight of which destroy everyone’s appetite in a fifty-mile radius. Also head lice. She looks like a chewed cat-toy. Wherever she goes, an oversized knitting-basket goes also. June claims to have knitted sixty sweaters, but nobody wears them because nobody comes near her. The sweaters are simply stuffed into her mothball closet. And June’s needles clack and click, clack and click.
The occasional child will walk inside if he dares. Eustace Twibbs who wets the bed is a frequent customer. Alice May Twibbs wears little pink dresses so short they show her underwear, high buckled shoes, huge sashes, long blond curls, and front teeth that stick out like a rabbit.
The lineup of cars on “busy nights,” is always the same Hispanic people in Buicks.
The Golden Molar’s owner is like a god who is spoke of in whispers but never seen. To him go up the perpetual offerings of filthy dishes and napkins stuffed into glasses. He provides for his children fish, buns, chips, and Pepsi. He does not reveal himself but stays in the back room doing goodness knows what. He leaves the cash register to a blind girl named Fritzi who swears she knows the customers by smell. His infallible word is written in the sacred tattered menus held in racks above the door.
Always in the Golden Molar, there is the sound of hot water gushing down on the plates and cups that are thrown into the washtub sink. Many of the dishes miss and break. Grease drips from the frying pan, grease drips from the oven, grease drips from the counter, grease drips from the meat, grease drips from the sink, grease drips from the ceiling. All that water running all day and nothing ever gets clean. The café seems to have a permanent sheen of grease. The whole place is as irritating as a wind-up Elvis doll that swings its hips in the same fashion year after year. And the years thrown us into the sink of life. Many of us break and perish along the way. So be it.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Airwood has changed. The café used to be called Queen’s Gazebo and it was called the pride of the Kentucky shore. It closed down in 1961 and didn’t dare to reopen for many years. When it did, it crept to life in shame, timidly raising a sign in the window but never again putting out an umbrella.
How did Airwood come to be?
Airwood is in Kentucky and full of rednecks, many of whom “emigrated” from the “deep river parts” of Mississippi and Alabama.
During the Great Depression, these poor factory workers and tenant farmers, who found themselves with starving children and yanked off what little property they had, traveled on foot or on raggedy Fords to find a better life. Some of them hopped freight trains. Others wandered and hitchhiked, grabbing or stealing their bread, leaving their initials in railroad tunnels and under bridges. Some of them died, and some survived. Their dirty-faced children, hot and dust from the road, caught sight of the green-glowing river, and splashed inside with shrieks of joy. Their parents chose to settle a town that wasn’t much more than a squabble of spruce trees roosting by the river. They got out a sign, called the town AIRWOOD, and founded it in 1933.
Old relics of the “Airwood pioneers” are scattered along with tornado rubble in the narrow wood trails. Here and there, a busted-down baby-buggy or a man’s hat. A woman’s dress hanging from a dead tree. A child’s eyeless doll, buried under dry leaves. Cabins are moldering and full of raccoons. Farther down is the swimming hole, the meeting place of the old KKK of Airwood, and a spot of quicksand that kills within seconds of a hiker’s wrong step.
The Linton family got lucky. They started a coal-mine in 1940, old Grandfather Judas Linton hiring out workers by the score to bring life into Airwood’s wilderness. The Lintons’ oldest son, Graff Linton, hated the sooty business and mushroom houses and tarpaper walls. He decided to build a restaurant, the largest and most beautiful restaurant on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
He did. He worked hard and didn’t sleep. Nails and boards and whitewash went up and up and up, day by day, and suddenly there stood a shining gem of a restaurant. Queen’s Gazebo. Umbrellas and Japanese lanterns lit up the Queen’s Gazebo far into the night. Wine sloshed freely, and ragtime rang from a grand piano that seemed to laugh as the chandelier glowed brighter and brighter.
Soldiers filled up the Queen’s Gazebo and kissed their dainty little sweethearts in the moonlight. Girls stood outside the doors at midnight, crying as they left down the river for military camp and then Germany. World War Two had come and rationing had gained a chokehold on America. Still, the Queen’s Gazebo was their only escape, and it was forever lit up boldly against darkened wartime skies.
Nineteen-fifty came. Wedding rings glistened outside under the golden umbrellas. Old Judas Linton died at last and left his coal-mining fortune to Graff Linton, who used it to add an extra wing to the Queen’s Gazebo. He wanted to add a hotel over the roof and hire a band from Jamaica. He wanted to have a stuffed flamingo in the windows and a crystal staircase and a waterfall. The more money poured into his pockets, the more ambitious he got. Customers were eating sautéed duck with cream sauce and éclairs on specialty nights.
“Reckon Old Linton done did purty well with that there restaurant,” citizens said approvingly.
“He’d better watch his britches—he’s too good to git himself stung by a mosquito.”
“Old lump better watch his behind. He ain’t gonna last.”
This was all too good for a redneck town. It didn’t last. By the time Graff Linton’s son, Kiwi, was born, he had burned himself into debt and fell into illness. The Queen’s Gazebo was on the decline by 1957, but that was nothing compared to what would soon overtake Airwood.