The commute was long and, as is my wont, I struck up what I intended to be a casual conversation with my seatmate. I expected he would be amenable to it, as he had already spoken to me, asking if I would mind his sitting next to me or switching seats with him, for he must (and he trembled as he said this) sit facing forward.
I made room next to myself and urged him to make himself comfortable. Travel sickness is a ghastly experience.
In order to distract him, then, as much as to pass the time, I asked him one of the questions I keep in my pocket, as it were, for starting the sort of conversation I expected.
“What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?”
To my surprise and dismay, the blood drained from his face and his stare became fixed. He spoke as if compelled, and this is what he said:
THE TRAVELER’S STORY
I was passing through the state of Maine. My destination and, indeed, my starting point are of no matter. Nor is the make and model of my car or any other detail. My intention was to drive until I had reached my terminal point, but I had arisen betimes that morning, and sleep threatened to overcome me as I drove.
For safety’s sake (and here, he gave a bitter laugh), I stopped in a small, to-me-nameless town. The hour was late, and all was dark, save for one establishment. Although it was dimly lit, it glowed in the otherwise-dark street.
I pulled up to the curb, grateful (another bitter laugh) for the stillness.
As I approached, I saw a sign that, in another town, at another time, I would have thought was neon. The glow was dim, if you can visualize that, and the color was of another spectrum, suggesting colors in our own, rather than displaying them.
The Eldrich Cafe 24/7
A deep feeling of dread overcame me, but I often feel that when eating at a local cafe on the road, so I ignored it and walked in. (Here, he shuddered.)
The patrons at the tables and at the bar all turned as one to stare at me, a newcomer. Some of them were grim and pale, some flushed and with fever-bright eyes and ghastly grins.
I looked in vain for a menu board. One of the patrons, with an inexpressible expression, said, “There is only the special. Seat yourself.”
I thanked him and sat.
A man stepped out of the kitchen, fixed me with a gimlet stare, nodded curtly at me, and retreated.
There was no murmur of resumed conversation. Somehow, I sensed there had been no conversation interrupted. In a way I cannot explain, although nothing was being said and the diners had resumed their previous wordless occupation, I sensed a building tension–a hideous anticipation.
My gaze was drawn to and fixed upon the door to the kitchen.
At length, the man I had seen so briefly earlier came forth fully, a covered dish held in both hands.
“Your order,” he said. “It comes.”
He brought it to my table. He sat it thereon. He lifted the cover from the dish.
My senses, which had been buzzing and tingling as if an electric current were coursing through me, building by the second, were nearly overcome.
The nameless offering before me was squamous, ineffible, and otherwise indescribable.
Slowly, with infinite care, I forced my nerveless fingers to retrieve my wallet and to draw therefrom all the cash therein. I slid the cash across the table, eased from my seat, and backed away from the hideous abomination and out the door.
How I found my car, started it, and drove from the town I cannot tell, for I do not recall. I only recall the blessed dawn breaking in New Brunswick.
My loquacious seatmate collapsed as if he were a marionette the strings of which had been snapped. He mopped his face with a large handkerchief and took what appeared to be a cleansing breath.
I gazed out of the window at the gibbous moon, turned back to him, and said, “Yes, but what’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?”
MY PROMPT TODAY: The strangest food you’ve ever eaten.