|The sign read, "Buster's Roadside Buffet," and there was movement behind the smoked windows. Sherman Gibbs was relieved to see "Open 24 Hours" scripted in orange neon in the window to the left of the door and "All You Can Eat $5.95" in the window to the right. Having spent the past five hours on unfamiliar highways and country roads, he was hungry for something deep-fried and dripping, thirsty for lots of coffee. With less than three hours before he reached Mama's new home near the Gulf, he saw no reason to waste money on a motel, especially these Bates Motel clones so far from the interstate. Besides, Mama would be waiting up for him, and it had been eight months since he had last seen her. A roadside restaurant, where he would not be out of place in jeans and scuffed cross trainers, was just what he needed.
The gravel parking lot was crowdedsedans and wagons and vans, Chevy pickups and Ford Broncos. Three cross-country rigs were lined up in back as if protecting the rest of the vehicles from the woods. Sherman squeezed into a spot near the dumpster, cut the ignition, and climbed out of his red Firebird. For a moment he stood in the darkness, listening to crickets and inhaling the pure country air, surprisingly sweet to be so near the trash. It was a warm night, lit by more stars than ever could be seen over Manhattan. He left his cotton jacket on the front passenger seat. Pocketing his keys, he stretched and shook the fatigue out of his arms. Then he walked around the aluminum-sided building to the front.
The entrance was a solid door of heavy wood, maybe oak. He couldn't tell. Accustomed to hollow apartment doors of plywood or metal, he had just about forgotten the feel of real wood, real doors. On this one, though, even the age-blackened knob had a solid weight to it, the feel of craftsmanship. Sherman turned the knob and stepped insideto find himself in a vestibule and facing another door, this one of stained glass. He pulled it open and entered the softly lit dining hall of Buster's Roadside Buffet.
From one end to the other, the hall was packed with diners sitting three or four to a table or balancing plates and trays as they lumbered back to their seats. The air carried the sounds of chewing and swallowing and the clatter of utensils against china. Sherman was surprised to hear so little conversation and to see so many people at this time of night. Damn, he thought, these are some serious eaters.
Sherman fell into line behind a heavyset couple and forced his mind into freefall. He had worked so hard these past few months that lately he found it difficult to relax. The Paulsen case had consumed him, had cost him both his lover and a friend. A weaker attorney might have buckled under the pressure and the threats, but Sherman had toughed it out, adding to his growing reputation as a civil rights lawyer. When it was over, and Dave Paulsen's reinstatement was guaranteed, Sherman had experienced a curious mix of emotionselation at victory, yet sadness at his personal losses and moral compromises. He wanted to bury himself in another case, another crusade. But senior partner Thornberry had been right. He needed time off, time to himself, a vacation. "Go see your mother," Thornberry had said.
Weary of ticket lines and metal detectors and crisscrossing the country by air, Sherman had decided to drive.
"Now relax," he told himself.
He reached the cash register, tended by a pale wisp of a woman with straw-colored hair and hollow cheeks. She smiled, revealing a mouth full of small teeth, and said, in a Dolly Parton twang, "One for dinner tonight?"
"Yes." Sherman slid his left hand into his front pocket for his wallet. "I'm starved."
The woman laughed, a near musical laugh that seemed too deep to have come from her narrow chest. "Don't worry. We'll fatten you up."
Sherman grinned. Then, on the wall behind the cashier, he noticed an oil portrait of an enormous dark-haired man in a white suit. Below the portrait was a framed letter. The type was too small for Sherman to read, but he presumed it promised quality food and service, for below it was a large, flowing signature: "Buster."
"Any chance I get to see Buster tonight, or is he too busy in the kitchen?"
"He's back there all right," the cashier said. "You'll see him sooner or later."
He paid and followed the couple in front of him into an aisle formed by waist-high brass railings, which led straight to the back of the dining hall. The aisle turned and then widened so that the railings ran along either side of a series of long cafeteria islands. The end of the first island was piled high with trays and plates and silverware. Sherman laid out tableware and napkins on his tray and stepped into the nearer of the twin self-serve lines. The lines stretched almost the entire length of the building, with patrons standing two or three deep as they tried to get at food bathed in the light of warming lamps or swimming deep in stainless steel serving pans.
"This must be the place to eat late Thursday night," he told himself. "I've never seen so many people in a restaurant before."
Something about this thought made him uneasy, but he could not identify what. His hunger, teased to tumescence by the smells that laced the air, interfered with his reason. He started down his side of the food islands.
Though brought up in a small North Carolina town by black Baptist parents, Sherman had attended law school in Chicago and now practiced in New York City. He considered himself as world-wise as the next man, but never before had he encountered such variety in the display of food. The range of choice was overwhelming. The first three islands held only vegetables, from the commonplace to the exotic, in a dizzying array of recipes. He counted more than thirty different potato dishes, twenty red cabbage concoctions, fifteen zucchini preparations, a dozen each for carrots and corn, and ten for peas, including one for which each pea had been halved, sprinkled with a mixture of pepper and brown sugar, and baked.
The next islands offered pasta and rice in more colors and shapes and combinations than he would ever have imagined. Pasta shaped into rows of mansions was new to him, as was green rice landscaped to resemble the Irish countryside. There was even royal blue rigatoni in a series of imperial crowns. And breads, not just white or wheat or rye, not just rolls or loaves, but sculptures, lambs and fowl and fish, even human figures clad in poppy seeds and flour dust and vegetable shavings, legless human figures standing on stumps, glistening as if perspiring butter. The patrons pulled off hands and breasts and chunks of torso and head and piled them on plates.
Marble cutting blocks on the meat islands were heaped full of slabs and backstraps and ground patties of beef, pork, mutton,venison, buffalo, yak, rabbit, and other meats above empty label holders. The poultry spread looked as if someone had slaughtered the entire population of an aviary. Serving pans held deep-fried, roasted, baked, and honey-dipped wings, breasts, and drumsticks, some of which must have come from ostriches. Platters displayed entire birds, stuffed, from tiny sugared hummingbirds sitting in puddles of glaze to something the size of the American eagle, boneless and jammed full of creamed walnuts, white raisins, diced red cauliflower, and glazed stingerless honeybees. Next came the seafood spreadfruits and vegetables spilling from the mouths of huge, savage-looking fish positioned on their bellies, crab legs and popcorn squid and crayfish and octopus bites served on beds of kelp in oversized half shells, and a dozen different dips for sushi.
Sherman moved from one island to the next as if in a daze, spooning, scooping, and plopping everything onto his tray. He was only vaguely aware of the reedy employees who kept the food islands full. They moved silently, as if gliding on compressed air slippers, nodding and kowtowing as they wedged themselves between patrons to replace pans or platters or bowls. Dizzy now from his hunger, Sherman stumbled into one, who helped him catch his tray, and he apologized and thanked her in the same breath.
"No trouble, sir," the woman said, and she smiled, light glinting off her small, even teeth.
Against his rapidly diminishing better judgment, Sherman stopped at the island of cheeses and the island of fruit before he reached the dessert peninsula against the far wall. His tray was unbelievably heavy now, food spilling off both plateshe could not remember grabbing a second plateand sliding into the corners, where blue cheese swam in yellow gelatin and steamed pecans floated on molasses-dipped mint leaves.
He moved toward an empty chair, the smells of spiced meats, barbecued corn, deep-fried pineapple rings, sea-salted butter cake, bat-wing bacon, and white chocolate escargot making his hunger almost unbearable. He sat, somewhat shakily, and attempted to introduce himself to the three broad-bodied men at his table. Two ignored him; one said, "Yeah," and continued shoveling cherry-inlaid sweet potatoes into his mouth.
Sherman ate with an abandon he did not understand. He stuck his fork into each bit of food as if killing it. He sloshed down six cups of coffee, four glasses of water, and three tumblers of apple juice. He ate and drank so quickly that he could neither name nor taste what he crammed into his mouth. He ate with such unbridled determination that he would not have recognized the names Paulsen or Thornberry or Donna, his former lover. Even Mama's face would have been lost to him. His eating was elemental, primal, resistant to the voice of doubt growing fainter in the center of his brain.
Only when he was finished did he relaxonly when he had soaked up the last of his sauces with blue and yellow bread, when he had swallowed every baked grape, every kernel of curried corn, every crumb of cake, when he had licked every shard of pastry from around his lips and sucked every sliver of fermenting meat from between his teeth. His reason surfaced briefly, and for the first time, he realized that the customers in Buster's Roadside Buffet were the fattest people he had ever seen. Every belly hung over a beltline. Every posterior dripped, lava-like, off the sides of a chair. Every woman's breasts looked like sacks of flour, every man's fingers like a row of greasy bratwurst, every child's face like a bloated cabbage head doll. For the first time, he noticed the mirrors where the smoked windows should have been, and he could not believe the sight of himself, his own belly bulging, the diamonds of flesh taking shape between the buttons of his shirt. He felt the seams of his jeans opening, the sides of his cross trainers splitting.
Something's wrong here, he thought. Very wrong. But the thought, the awareness, began to sink almost as abruptly as it had surfaced. Struggling to hold on, he pushed himself away from the table and climbed to his feet. As he lurched toward the exit he was surprised to see that there was no exit. He stood there, confused.
A pallid, rawboned man appeared at his elbow, gripped it hard. His eyes were flat and colorless, his voice smooth as spun sugar.
"The way out, sir?" He gestured toward a door near one of the meat islands. "Whenever you're ready," he said with a smile. His mouth was full of teeth, tiny and triangular and serrated, row upon row of them. "Whenever you're ready." He moved away as Sherman puzzled over the significance of the nameplate on his black vest, "BUSTER."
When the man was gone, Sherman scratched his head, trying to remember where he was and why he had come and what it was about Buster that seemed unsettling. The door across the room, the door which Buster had indicated, bore a single word stenciled at eye level in black letters so large Sherman could read them from where he stood: "RECYCLING."
Sherman was certain that if he thought hard, if he squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip, he could figure out what that word meant. R-E-C-Y... But, hunger ballooned in his belly, crowded his efforts to think. Unable to remember where or when he had last eaten, he squinted at the word. Somehow he knew that sooner or later something would draw him toward that word, past that door. The more he concentrated, however, the hungrier he felt. Eventually, he blinked and gave up and waddled back into line, where he picked up a clean plate.