Blast from the past – “Where the Wild Things Are”, a “place portrait” of Denny’s

I’m having some real struggle with the thing I’m trying to write today. I know I’m not supposed to care if what I put up is any good, but for some reason it’s really bugging me.

To appease you, I offer instead this writing piece I did back in 2003 for my “Creative Nonfiction” course at UNH. It’s called “Where the Wild Things Are” and it’s a “place portrait” of Denny’s back when I used to frequent it as a teenage mall goth. I haven’t edited it at all since 2003, so enjoy a slice of what my writing was like nine years ago (jeez, has it been that long?)

Where the Wild Things Are

 

Denny’s sits glowing with a dim inner light in the wasted and empty parking lot of a forgotten mall in Nashua, next to a nearly-forgotten movie theater that, like the rest of this part of the city, feels moth-eaten and bare. When I was a child I remember going to that mall and thinking it was so big; today half the stores have shut down and only the addition of a big department store and the Christmas Tree Shop is keeping it alive. Gradually, year by year another shop moves in, goes bankrupt, and moves out, the desolation spreading like a stain from the mall outward through the plaza. Above our head is the old “Nashua Mall” sign that stands ten feet from the highway to our left, proclaiming the time and temperature in blinking lights.11:30pm, 70°F, 21°C. We spill from beaten-up cars blaring heavy metal and gather in clumps, sauntering toward the doors. Clove cigarettes (forbidden here) are stubbed out as we move from the deep, velvet dark of the early summer night and into the entryway, where the smell of french fries and pancakes greets us.

Walking from the darkness outside into Denny’s is a shock to the eyes, even though the lights aren’t bright. The fluorescent tubes flicker slightly under the strain of 24 hours of business, their light fluttering across the pale-powdered skin of the faux undead. Surveying the clustered groups, eyeing us openly or secretly, I am reminded of a quote from Star Wars: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” I don’t feel so cool anymore, all big and dark and powerful in my red lipstick and vampire dress. I’m intimidated by these people I don’t know. These are my people, I try to convince myself as I watch them probe and judge me and my group. They share my love of writing dark poetry and listening to hard rock; they think that Halloween should be every day. They’re so different, so unlike the people I see every day in school. I hope they like me!

I edge closer to my friend, Nyssa, the one who convinced me to dress up like this, to go out with her and “meet people, Am!” She’s doing me a favor, dragging me from the shelter of my house into the world, to circulate and interact with like-minded individuals. She gives my arm a comforting squeeze while we wait for the hostess to stop ignoring us and offer us a table. I can taste the smoke, worse and thicker than the fog that followed my peers around all night. The air is a wispy haze, and the choice is hardly “smoking or non?” but “punk or goth?”

Goth it is; she grabs an armful of menus and leads us past sticky and half-cleared tables to a large corner booth with another table pushed up against it, the only place large enough to seat all of us. We settle our little thieves’ guild down on the stiff, tomato-red vinyl seats that bear deep cracks patched up with duct tape. The hostess thrusts the menus at us in a careless pile, snappishly reminding us of the dire consequences should we indulge in table-switching. She is promptly ignored as fellow Denny-zens are hailed and shouted conversations begin between tables across the room from each other.

In the late morning, if you were to walk in for a late breakfast or an early lunch, you would find Denny’s to be much different. Retirees, perhaps with their grandchildren, would be seated at tables peering at the laminated menus with their bright, cheerful photos of the entrees. The waitresses would look tired but friendly, perhaps a bit careworn but eager to please. Sunlight filtering through smudged Plexiglas windows would soften, giving the place a warm and sleepy quality. The smell of bacon, not cigarette smoke, would fill the air, perhaps mixing with the fragrant pipe smoke of the little old man sitting in the corner reading a newspaper. You would almost expect a hefty but smiling waitress to stroll over to your table, brandishing a coffee pot and drawling, “Refill, hon?”

At night it’s a different story. This isn’t the family-friendly, senior discounting, all-day breakfast-serving nationwide chain posing as a local diner. Gone is the tired waitress restaurant with a weary smile, aching feet and sore back, pocketing her tips. Night falls and she’s an old whore, beaten up and numb past caring or compassion, staring with hollow eyes and sneering red mouth, ugly and mean. Her scars show with rough edges in the dance of light and shadow. The customers are parasites in black, fishnet tights and spikes, shiny vinyl pants, hair dye and eyeliner. They pick at the duct tape, idly work the slashes bigger, pocket handfuls of sugar packets and perhaps a fork or two. They swear profusely, roar with laughter, and put their cigarettes out on the table, conveniently forgetting to tip and sometimes even to pay.

The waitress doesn’t even pretend to be friendly, openly scowling at us, her fellow servers, and the tacky prison she inhabits as she demands our orders. “Each of you has to order something or you’re out,” she barks, “and we don’t do free coffee refills anymore either.” She knows her tip will be tiny no matter what she does, giving her free license to commit her petty revenges, adding a charge, letting the fries get cold and soggy before bringing them, and acting blind and deaf to every entreaty. It’s almost the midnight hour, when service with a smile turns into a stiff middle finger in your face. All she wants to do is get her paycheck and go home, to forget the rowdy, stingy high-schoolers fresh from hassling mall cops, kids not much younger than her who couldn’t care less about her suffering.

I order french fries and coffee, saying “thank you” when everyone else is trying to flub her up by changing their minds five times before deciding. When the waitress turns her back, forks and spoons are slipped into pockets and purses alongside other merchandise purchased or “lifted” from the newer, bigger mall in the south end. I didn’t call them a thieves’ guild for nothing. Nyssa brags that she almost has the entire Denny’s set, including salt and pepper shakers, dessert spoons, and coffee mugs. “All I’m missing,” she sighs, “are plates.” Bit by bit the place is plundered, the robbers not caring if the silverware is bent or the cups chipped. I refrain; that sort of thing isn’t my style. Still, far be it from me to play the preacher; I want to be liked, after all.

“Save the salt shakers until after I eat my fries,” I joke, and the group laughs. The suspicious glances are replaced with approving comments on my attire; I am silently accepted as one of them. I relax; I’ve passed the test. The food comes, and we dig in, still telling stories, still playing pranks. I munch my fries, sip my coffee and content myself with watching and listening. As time drags on, my eyelids droop despite my request for regular (perhaps she gave me decaf out of spite). The illness that plagues this place spreads, rubs off on me; I was full of energy all night, roaming through the mall with the rest of our pillaging Viking horde. Now my tongue tastes sour and feels fuzzy, my contact lenses sticky, and I feel just as grimy as this place, where “clean” means that the filth is kept to a reasonable level.

An hour more of shenanigans and the waitress starts giving us the “order more or get out” look. It’s time to go home, time for fiends to transform into semi-normal human beings. Digging into wallets we puzzle over the check, parceling out debts. I marvel that nothing is funnier than a high school dropout trying to calculate a tip. I thrust out some of my last few dollars to cover it. With a collective yawn we rise, edging sideways out of the booth and making our way to the door with ill-gotten gains a muffled jingle in coat pockets. My pockets are empty and my conscience is clean… mostly. I look back with a pang of guilt at the mess we left; overturned cups dripping soda onto the table, a huge pile of sodden napkins atop a coffee spill, salt and pepper scattered on the seats. Like carrion crows we leave the remains behind, my complacency as bad as their actions.

As we say our goodbyes and break up into our little carpool groups, I cast a parting glance at Denny’s, so full and yet so hollow. People still talk and laugh too loud, move about, get up and switch seats, but it doesn’t change a thing for this animated corpse. The life is in the people; any life in the place is sucked out by them. They take as much as they can and give as little as they can get away with. When we leave, no vibrancy remains, despite fluorescent lights and bright red seats, cheery color menus and dishes with names like “Moons Over My Hammy.” Empty as a shell it sits, waiting for the next round of users and abusers to take their places.

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~ by Amber on June 15, 2012.

2 Responses to “Blast from the past – “Where the Wild Things Are”, a “place portrait” of Denny’s”

  1. Hi Amber,

    My name is Caroline Metzlaff and I am a Canadian author. I have recently discovered that my work has been plagerized and on a website called Booksie.com. After looking through the user’s profile, I saw your book as well and I thought you should know about it. The book is entitled The Price of Longing, it displays the same cover as your Goodreads account but it says that takethatfan19 wrote the book, and she has a ” copyright ” for 2014. I was sure you would be as angry as I was.

    Thanks,
    Caroline

    • Thank you for the heads-up, Caroline. I can’t find that user on their site so maybe they were discovered and removed (a search didn’t turn up that title either). I hope so. Always the danger in putting stuff up online, unfortunately. Good luck against these online thieves! -Amber

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