“Always eat the cherry before the shake,” said the senator at the counter at a diner late at night. I wasn’t at the counter and the senator wasn‘t speaking to me, but I paid attention as if we were, because one seldom walks in on a senator, especially one sitting alone at a counter at a diner, drinking and talking to a vanilla shake.

“If you eat the cherry first, it doesn’t turn pink,” the senator reasoned with the shake, after he‘d gulped down its cherry whole. “My son Jeff used to work in the factory.”

It was late Sunday night — Oscar night — and I’d been driving around for a couple of hours, enjoying the wide clear streets of the abandoned city, running low on coffee, singing along with Derek and Clive (Live), when on a whim I decided to pull over at an all-night diner on Pico.

I used to go to this diner to write when I had no particular home. I recalled writing there one Easter Sunday afternoon, when the parking lot was packed and the place was filled to capacity with the hearty chuckles of heaven-bound church folk; a chaos of cleanliness, all scrubbed and squeaky and wearing shiny shoes, neatly trimmed mustaches, flowing dresses, colognes of mass destruction . . .

Tonight, though, the parking lot was empty but for one black Mercedes sedan. Inside, I found this senator alone at the counter, talking to what must have been a very patient, understanding beverage. All around and above the senator, the dining room had been hung with crepe paper and mobiles for Easter, to commemorate the famous foil-wrapped chocolate bunny–rabbi returning from the dead to sell nontoxic egg-painting kits as seen on TV. Kitchen-sounds came from the kitchen: a voice, a clang, a sizzle. I stood waiting, watching and listening from the safety of the please-wait-for-host-to-seat-you sign.

“That‘s why your stomachache goes away when you take Pepto-Bismol,” said the senator. “Jeffy found out about the long-term contracts in the background. All your major firms — Bechtel, Northrup, McDonald’s — chemical research teams and so forth. Methodically poisoning with radioactive waste. Turns everything pink.”

Perhaps I‘d made a mistake; perhaps this wasn’t the senator at all, but a dead ringer hired by the opposition party to attract bad press such as myself.

“Jeffy knew everything. The kids with their pink bubble gum, the Jews with their smoked salmon and beet borscht. Affects only the nervous system. God‘s will. Take years to show up on tests.”

No; no question about it: It was the senator. And while I’d long ago concluded that this senator‘s motherboard was missing a few chips, it was still fascinating to verify it in person, for free.

The senator finally shut up and began to sip (though rather loudly) at his radioactive shake. As he did, a second black Mercedes pulled into the lot. A businesswoman in her 50s walked in and past and sat at the counter, three seats down from the senator’s shake. She placed her hard-shell aluminum briefcase on her lap and released the clasps. Figured she was either going to catch up on some work or assassinate the senator. Instead she pulled a hardback novel from the case, assumed a slouch and settled in to read.

Someone appeared at last from the kitchen: An elderly man in busboy garb placed before the woman a glass of water and a menu, looked at me, nodded blankly, turned away and disappeared back into the kitchen.

The woman glanced at me; the woman glanced at the senator. The senator was quiet and sipped his shake. The woman read her book. I waited for the elusive host. Someone disguised as a waiter appeared, looked at me, nodded blankly, took the woman‘s order, looked at me again and returned to the kitchen.

The senator stared quietly across the counter.

The woman read her book.

The waiter returned and placed before the woman a chocolate shake with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

The story gets rather complicated, but I’ll try to summarize: It was the good senator‘s opinion that his son’s dentist had given his son a shot of an alleged anesthetic, and that this alleged anesthetic had rendered his son (“Jeffy”) unable to tell a lie — assuming he had wished to — for about 30 minutes; that during this period of oblivion, Jeffy had revealed much of the sensitive, classified Defense Department information that the senator had revealed each night at the dinner table for the past 25 years.

Moreover, it was the senator‘s opinion that the dentist had been bought out by “the enemy”; that someone had paid the dentist $120,000, in cash, to ask Jeffy “certain sensitive” questions during this half-hour window of vulnerability; that Jeffy had answered heroically; that two hours later a second man arrived at the dentist’s office; that after the dentist had delivered Jeffy‘s answers, the second man thanked him, robbed him at gunpoint of the $120,000, and left; that the dentist was so embarrassed to have been conned, a week passed before he alerted the authorities, during which time Jeffy had vanished.

And so on and so forth, and shit like that: “The enemy” that the senator described was a group of mercenary scientists who’d figured out a way to dispose of radioactive waste by putting it in our foods and medicines (to what end I didn‘t comprehend), and that the only way to tell if the product was tainted was to look at it.

“If it’s pink,” the senator said, after the woman had settled in to read, “it‘s radioactive.”

The woman shifted slightly, otherwise ignored, read her book.

It was then that the waiter arrived with the businesswoman’s chocolate shake. The senator and I watched her eat the cherry, then stir the whipped cream down into the glass, take a small sip and return to her novel.

“It only works with vanilla,” said the senator.

“No shit,” said the woman, quite loudly, without looking up.


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