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#116

Buffet Campaign



 
             It wasn’t like Arlo had never eaten at a buffet before. He had. Lots of times. He had even eaten at The Dingin’ Dinner Bell in Multioak before. But for some reason, on that particular night, it all came together for Arlo, and he had what he eventually came to realize was the finest dining experience of his life. And he was 58 years old, so he had plenty of past dining experiences with which to compare it: home-cooked meals, fast food, catered events, cafeteria food, bar food, hotel room service, food cooked over campfires, fancyish restaurants, ballpark concessions. But none of them were as good as that one Thursday night in The Dingin’ Dinner Bell all-you-can-eat buffet.

Arlo and his wife Rosie were out on a weeknight dinner date in the early fall, enjoying some time alone now that their son was back at college. Rosie had actually been the one to suggest The Dingin’ Dinner Bell. Arlo had even protested a little, not wanting to drive all the way from Dalcette to Multioak and thinking he was in the mood for nachos anyway, but Rosie had pointed out that it was a nice night and that at The Dingin’ Dinner Bell, Arlo could assemble his own nachos however he liked from the nacho-bar area of the buffet and he could have peach cobbler for dessert. So they went to The Dingin’ Dinner Bell, and who knows why, but as Arlo stood with a hot, empty plate in his hand and gazed over the buffet with its myriad well-lit, steaming options, heaped and mounded, awaiting the gouge of silver serving spoons, the grasp of tongs, every one of them available to him in any quantity he could reasonably desire, he felt goosebumps rise on his arms and tears prickle behind his eyes and he knew then that this was all he could ever hope for from a meal.

On the drive home, his stomach crammed full and warm, his eyes unconsciously scanning the fields on either side of the road for deer drawn to death, Arlo said, “Why doesn’t Dalcette have a buffet?”

“Dalcette isn’t big enough to support a buffet,” said Rosie.

“Sure it is,” said Arlo. He was ready to argue the point all night and at any volume.

Rosie said nothing.

“Yep,” said Arlo. “Dalcette could definitely support a buffet. An all-you-can-eat buffet. Easily.”

Rosie wouldn’t take the bait. She never took bait. It was her most annoying quality.

 

In the days that followed, Arlo couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful it would be to have an all-you-can-eat buffet in Dalcette. Why should he or any Dalcette resident have to drive to another town to eat at a buffet when they were already in a town that could have its own buffet? How had no one thought of opening a buffet in Dalcette yet? It seemed so obvious to Arlo. As he drove through town running errands or on his way to and from work, the complete lack of a buffet anywhere in sight nagged at Arlo and made him irritable. As he sat down for meals at the dining room table at home or at one of the handful of small cafes in Dalcette that were not Newsworthy Burger (since he and Rosie never went there), all Arlo could do was stare glumly at whatever he had been served and dream about endless variety in unlimited quantities. Furthermore, Arlo couldn’t even go back to The Dingin’ Dinner Bell because the thought of Multioak residents taking it for granted filled him with such envy that he knew he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.

Arlo worked at the Gasoline-O gas station right off of Highway 6 on the East end of Dalcette. He’d gotten laid off from Runker Boat Company over in Multioak two years prior and, unwilling to move and unable to find anything better, Arlo had reluctantly taken the Gasoline-O job out of necessity. Rosie was the school nurse at Dalcette Elementary, but she barely made enough for the monthly house payment alone.

But the funny thing was, even though it paid a lot less than he’d been making towards the end at Runker, Arlo liked his job at Gasoline-O much better. He liked being at one of the central hubs of activity in town, seeing so many different people, being one of the first to know whatever was going on in the area, regular customers greeting him by name, giving fountain drink discounts to kids he knew from church, commiserating over Multioak basketball defeats, convincing Gasoline-O’s owner Mr. Bortone to sell live fishing bait in the store, tearing flyers he didn’t approve of off of the store bulletin board when no one was around, and getting paid to do all of this and more. Sure, there were annoying parts of the job, but actually, no there weren’t. Not really. Arlo even liked the smell of gasoline.

All this to say that Arlo felt justified in his belief that he truly had his finger on the pulse of Dalcette. He knew what Dalcette wanted even if Dalcette didn’t know it yet: an all-you-can-eat buffet like The Dingin’ Dinner Bell or better.

To prove this, Arlo began to ask everyone who came into the Gasoline-O what they thought about his buffet-in-Dalcette idea. Reactions were mixed. Some people were all for it, some people liked the idea but didn’t think there was any way Dalcette could sustain a buffet, and some people hated buffets. The buffet-liking doubters were frustrating in their lack of faith, but it was this last group that Arlo couldn’t stand. Sneering, snobby, unlikeable people going on about buffets being “disgusting” and “dirty” and “only for old people and fat people.”

“Who knows how long that food’s been sitting there?” these people said. “It’s all cold and greasy and crusty.”

Arlo couldn’t be civil to these people. They were denigrating something they knew nothing about, merely parroting what they’d heard other ignorant people say about buffets and expecting everyone to take it as established fact. After Arlo had several ugly incidents with buffet-haters while he was on the clock, Mr. Bortone intervened and asked him to stop harassing the customers about the Dalcette buffet, especially since it didn’t even exist.

Outside of work, Arlo had grilled all of his and Rosie’s friends about the theoretical Dalcette buffet, and some of them had argued against it for a while, but none of them could match Arlo’s passion for the subject and they had all eventually conceded that a buffet in Dalcette would be a great idea just so they could move on and talk about something else.

With most of the people that he crossed paths with in his daily life either in agreement, feigning agreement, or off limits, Arlo decided to broaden the scope of his campaign in the best way he knew: he wrote in to the “Speak Out” column in The Paper, a free weekly newspaper servicing Multioak and the surrounding area. Arlo’s letter appeared in truncated form in the next “Speak Out” under the title Why No Buffet in Dalcette?

 

Why are there no all-you-can-eat buffets in Dalcette? read the letter. My wife and I have lived in Dalcette for 24 years but we have to drive to Multioak to eat at a buffet. I’ve talked to many people in Dalcette and almost all of them want a buffet here in town. It’s ridiculous that somebody hasn’t put a buffet here because anyone who did would make a fortune. There are people out in the country who would come into town for a good buffet too so it would be good for all the businesses in Dalcette. Lakers in the summer would also like a buffet in Dalcette.

 

Arlo was irritated that The Paper cut his letter where it did since it came to such an abrupt end, but as he re-read the original letter on his computer, he could see where someone might find the third paragraph, and especially the last two paragraphs, a bit redundant. Ultimately, he felt as if he had made his point and he was pleased to think about all the people in the area who received The Paper and could very well be reading his words at that exact moment.

“See?” Arlo said to Rosie, crowding her in the front doorway as soon as she came home from work, waving The Paper in her face and pointing at his “Speak Out” letter.

“That’s really great,” said Rosie in a tired voice, trying to maneuver around Arlo in order to hang her coat in the closet.

“Awareness,” said Arlo. “It’ll get people talking, get people thinking.”

“I suppose,” said Rosie.

“It’s happening,” said Arlo, following Rosie down the hall to their bedroom. “The wheels are turning.”

“What do you want for dinner?” asked Rosie as she changed clothes.

“What everyone wants,” said Arlo. “A buffet in my own town.”

“How about enchilada casserole?” asked Rosie.

 

The next week there was only one response to Arlo’s letter in “Speak Out” and it was not favorable. Arlo trembled with rage as he read it over a breakfast of five eggs in a shallow bowl. The letter was titled No Buffet in Dalcette.

 

Get real, it read. No one wants an all-you-can-eat buffet in Dalcette. What kind of fantasy world do you live in where you think Dalcette should have a buffet? Every buffet I’ve ever been to was awful. Why would anyone want one in Dalcette? And if someone wanted a buffet, they could just get in a car and drive to Multioak. You’ve heard of cars, right? You need to get real about buffets in Dalcette and go back to dream land or wherever you come up with ideas this dumb.

 

Arlo hurled the newspaper across the kitchen and stormed down the hall to the computer room to dash off a response. He left three fifths of the eggs sitting in the shallow bowl on the table, untouched and forgotten.

 

The back-and-forth war over the mere idea of a buffet in Dalcette raged in the “Speak Out” column for weeks. All traces of civility were soon gone and each letter was filled with clunky sarcasm, mock-incredulity, juvenile name-calling, and, since all of the letters were anonymous according to the rules of “Speak Out,” unflattering speculation about the opposing speakers out real lives.

After one particularly inflammatory letter from Arlo’s nemesis, Arlo had called The Paper and demanded that they give him any information they had concerning the letter’s author. When they refused, Arlo told them to print his name along with his next letter so that his nemesis could find him. This they also refused. They were very prickly about their “Speak Out” rules over at The Paper. Arlo asked why this strictness didn’t extend to the proofreading of their front page headlines, which were notoriously fraught with error, and The Paper hung up on him.

And so the anonymous battle raged on. At work, Arlo eyed every customer with suspicion, wondering if each one of them could be his “Speak Out” adversary. Or maybe there was more than one? Maybe it was a different person every week, all of them working together to try to shame Arlo into renouncing his buffet-in-Dalcette idea, or at least into silence. But their doubt and derision only made Arlo more committed, more fervent. He was no longer simply defending the concept of a buffet in Dalcette, or the concept of buffets in general, or even his own enjoyment of buffets. He was defending an entire group of people that these buffet-hating elitists sought to dismiss as an undiscerning, overweight rabble, gorging themselves on lukewarm mashed potatoes and coughing on the pudding. It was as if the buffet-haters had never even heard of a sneeze guard.

Arlo knew that buffet enthusiasts were good, honest, hard-working folk and he knew that most of the people in Dalcette, his friends and neighbors, were good, honest, hard-working folk, and even if an actual buffet in Dalcette never came to be, he would defend the idea of one as long as he could draw breath. It might have been easier to win the argument if “Speak Out” didn’t insist on editing all of his letters for length, but Arlo had decided that even if he couldn’t fully articulate his thoughts in the forum available to him, he could at least stand strong and remain defiant, letting the snobs know that the normal people could not be bullied into surrendering their deeply-held values like all-you-can-eat buffets, preferably within one or two miles of one’s home.

And then Arlo met Jameson.

 

One early summer evening, Arlo had just gotten out of the shower and was sniffing his hands to check for a remnant of gasoline smell from work, which Rosie disliked, when the doorbell rang. Arlo pulled on an all-gray sweatsuit and answered the door. On the porch was a man who Arlo guessed was in his late thirties. He had good clothes, bad posture, good teeth, and bad hair. “Arlo?” said the man. “My name’s Jameson. It didn’t take Iong to find someone who knew who’d been writing the letters in ‘Speak Out,’ so here I am. I figured whoever you were, you should be the first to know.” He extended his hand. “I’m going to open a buffet in Dalcette.”

Arlo’s mouth fell open. Tears welled in his eyes. He clasped Jameson’s hand between both of his and pumped it up and down. “You won’t regret it,” said Arlo. “If you give this town the buffet it deserves, this town will support that buffet like no other. This town will cherish that buffet for decades to come.”

“That’s what I’m hoping,” said Jameson, graciously allowing Arlo to keep shaking his hand. “I came into a small fortune unexpectedly, and this is what I want to do with it.”

“You have my blessing,” said Arlo, his smile so bright it attracted moths. “What are you going to name our buffet?”

“Tastes Like More,” said Jameson. “What do you think?”

Arlo put his hands on his hips, squinted his eyes at the power lines across the street, and mouthed the name to himself. “I’ll think about it and get back to you,” said Arlo.

“Well, that’s definitely going to be the name,” said Jameson. “I just wanted to know if you liked it or not.”

“Then I suppose I like it,” said Arlo, but something felt strange. It was an unwelcome sensation in what should have been the happiest moment of Arlo’s recent life. “How soon do you think it’ll be open?” asked Arlo.

“I want to move fast,” said Jameson. “I’m not a patient man.” He laughed. “I’m aiming for a Thanksgiving Day Grand Opening. I can count on you and your family being there?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to open during the summer while the lakers are around?”

“That’s too soon,” said Jameson. “Why, don’t you think Dalcette can support a buffet with its year-round population?”

“Oh, no, no,” said Arlo. “I’m sure it can. But won’t people probably have dinner at home with their families on Thanksgiving? Maybe it’d be better to open the day after.”

“The date’s set in stone,” said Jameson. “So will you be there for the Grand Opening?”

“We’ll be there,” said Arlo, and the strange feeling, whatever it had been, was smothered and devoured by a swell of pure joy.

 

Tastes Like More took shape very quickly. Jameson purchased the failed Never Not Whicker patio furniture store that had been standing empty for over a year and immediately launched into a complete remodel of the interior. The windows were boarded up so that passersby couldn’t see what was happening inside, but a giant “Tastes Like More Coming Soon” banner was draped across the front of the building and Arlo shuddered with pleasure every time he saw it.

Arlo was a tireless advocate for Tastes Like More, doing everything he could to drum up excitement in the community. He was careful not to be too confrontational while on the clock at Gasoline-O so as not to upset Mr. Bortone, but in truth, naysayers didn’t anger him nearly as much as they had before. Knowing that a real buffet would soon open for business in Dalcette had mellowed Arlo. It meant that he had won. The buffet-haters hadn’t been able to prevent the arrival of the buffet, and once it was open, the skeptics would all be proven wrong. They could either drive by the cheerily glowing buffet in their dark, cold cars, muttering their hatred where no one could hear them and stubbornly denying the allure of the hundreds of distinct food aromas mingling in the night air, or they could swallow their pride and join the crowd of happy buffet-goers inside. The choice would be theirs.

Arlo’s one disappointment with the whole thing was that Jameson didn’t include him in the process of bringing Tastes Like More into existence. He had assumed that he would function as some sort of consultant for Jameson, that Jameson would want to at least pick his brain about what kinds of decorations and seating layouts and weekly specials would most appeal to the citizens of Dalcette, but since that first night when Jameson had come to his front door, Arlo had hardly seen him.

Arlo tried to pry information about Jameson out of the foreman in charge of the Tastes Like More renovations when he came into Gasoline-O for chewing tobacco, but there was little information to be had. All Arlo could gather was that Jameson was from Multioak and that he rarely visited his buffet. The foreman said that he mostly communicated with Jameson via cell phone, but he wouldn’t give Arlo Jameson’s number. Arlo typed up a list of suggestions for the buffet for the foreman to pass along to Jameson, but the next time the foreman came into the store, he told Arlo that Jameson had forbidden him from accepting any more unsolicited advice. “And he also told me,” said the foreman, “not to solicit any advice.”

 

The week before Thanksgiving, Arlo and Rosie’s son called to tell them that he was going to be spending the holiday weekend with his girlfriend’s family and that he wouldn’t be able to come see them until Christmas. Arlo was sad. “He’s going to miss Tastes Like More’s Grand Opening.”

“He doesn’t want to go to a buffet on Thanksgiving,” said Rosie. “That’s why he’s not coming home. He knows his girlfriend’s mother will give him a home cooked meal.” She appeared to be near tears.

 “We have to go to the Grand Opening,” said Arlo. “After all the people I’ve told about it, we have to be there. I, of all people, have to be at the Grand Opening.”

“You of all people,” said Rosie, but it didn’t sound like she was agreeing.

The days crept by. Tastes Like More appeared to be finished, but there were blinds in all of the windows through which, Arlo discovered, it was impossible to peek. Arlo changed his route to and from work so that he could drive past the buffet twice a day. The building wasn’t much to look at, but that was the thing about buffets: they weren’t flashy. Buffets were all about value. You weren’t paying for the building to look trendy, you were paying for variety and quantity, the two most important elements of any meal.

Thanksgiving Day was bitterly cold. There was snow, but the flakes were like white dust particles, tiny and tossed about by the wind so they could never settle anywhere. Arlo and Rosie pulled into the Tastes Like More parking lot two minutes after noon. Arlo had wanted to be there right when the buffet opened at 11, but Rosie had pointed out that if they ate later in the day, they would probably only need a light snack for dinner. Since this idea was very much in the spirit of all that buffets stood for, Arlo agreed.

There were six other cars in the parking lot. It wasn’t a great turn-out, but it was Thanksgiving Day. Most people were probably having family dinners at home. Arlo had tried to warn Jameson, but he’d been ignored. Arlo didn’t understand why anyone would want to settle for the limited options of a traditional Thanksgiving meal when all of those options plus many, many more were available at a conveniently nearby all-you-can-eat buffet, but he supposed that this was one of those traditions that people adhered to simply out of habit. He just hoped that Jameson didn’t take the low Thanksgiving numbers as an indication that Dalcette wouldn’t support his buffet.  “More for us,” he said to Rosie, and they stepped out of the car and into the merciless, biting wind.

 

How else to say it? Tastes Like More was terrible. It was everything the chorus of buffet-haters had predicted and worse. The restaurant was oppressively lit. Despite the newness of the interior, it still seemed grimy, somehow, which did not make sense. The top of the table where Arlo and Rosie were seated was sticky. The buffet itself was small, the options were shockingly limited, and those options that existed were uniformly unappealing. The food was lumpy, lukewarm, bland, greasy.

“What happened?” asked Arlo, his head in his hands, staring down at his second plate of barely-touched food. His first plate of barely-touched food had still not been cleared away.

“The rolls aren’t so bad,” said Rosie.

“What happened?” Arlo asked again.

“It’ll get better,” said Rosie. “They’ll work the kinks out in time.”

“We don’t have time,” said Arlo. He looked around the restaurant. The other patrons sat in silence, chewing morosely, or circled the buffet with their spotty plates in their hands, waiting for something that did not exist to catch their eyes. They looked poor and unhealthy, weary and defeated. They and the buffet fed on each other and neither was satisfied.

“This,” said Arlo, “is wrong,” and he took Rosie by the hand and led her out of Tastes Like More, back to the car, back to their home and the leftover beef stroganoff in the fridge.

 

That night, Rosie awoke to the sound of sirens. She was alone in bed. She looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was almost 2 in the morning. She got out of bed and looked out of the bedroom window. A large swathe of the night sky glowed red and orange. Rosie saw great, swollen billows of smoke rising over Dalcette. She knew then that Arlo would be home soon. He would probably smell of gas and he would probably say that it was because he’d had to go into work, which would not be true. He would lie, but he would know that Rosie would see it was a lie, so in that way the lie would be harmless. Anyway, whether Arlo lied or didn’t lie, there was no longer an all-you-can-eat buffet in Dalcette and there never would be.




Discussion Questions

  • This Thanksgiving, list several reasons for which you are thankful for buffets.



  • Do you think one’s opinion concerning buffets is in any way an indicator of one’s emotional stability, social status, self-image, mental state, cultural heritage, etc.? How so?



  • Envision your ideal buffet. Now imagine yourself approaching that buffet. What do you put on Plate 1? Plate 2? Plate 3? Plate 4? Plate 5? The Dessert Plate (Plate 6)? The Dessert Plate 2 (Plate 7)? The Dessert Plate 3 (Plate 8 (Optional))?



  • When someone insults something that you like, are they actually insulting you and everyone who agrees with you? And are they doing it on purpose in order to make you feel unsophisticated and stupid? Would it kill you to expound on your answers here? Don’t just sit there saying “yes” and “no” all the time.



  • Are some ideas more important than things? Should you burn a thing to the ground if that thing makes an idea that you hold dear look bad?



  • Go to a buffet right now. If it’s closed, wait outside its front door until it opens. Eat there. Observe everything with perfect objectivity. Doesn’t it kind of suck?