Around that time of night when things are either going real good or veering into long-term consequences territory Baxter took it upon himself to challenge me to a potato-eating contest. We had been outside in our God-forsaken corner of Idaho surveying the potato fields (what else? what else??) and smoking cigarette after cigarette until Baxter got himself sick and puked into the ditch next to where I parked. The ‘ditch-mowers delight’ he eloquently called it after wiping his mouth with a napkin from the driver’s side door and throwing that down in the ditch too.
Anyway, potatos was on his mind for reasons aforementioned but the fact that he would think about eating potatos, after a mild episode of nicotine-poisoning, is a wonder to me and tells you what kind of person Baxter is.
“I could go for some potatos right about now,” he says to me.
“You’re a fool.”
“I’m hungry, Alec. My stomach’s empty.”
“Your head is empty,” I say.
I wrinkle my nose but it’s too dark for him to see. I’ve had enough and get in the car. He would stand outside and stare at that field all night, but since I get in first he thoughtlessly gets in after me — a bundle of reactionary nerves and a stomach is all there is to Baxter. I ease the car onto the road leaving a hundred mostly finished cigarettes and the most putrid part of Baxter’s being behind for the ditch-mowers to discover.
We can’t leave the potato field behind, though. Maybe there’s some reality where the potato field we was lookin at ends at the next 4-way intersection, after which a different potato field takes its place. But that’s not how I see it. All the ground around me, the whole world, is one never-ending interconnected singular potato field. The surveyors and deed-owners can pick and nit until they’re all dead and buried and their bodies turn into potatos. Don’t make a whit of difference to me.
Baxter’s moaning in the passenger seat.
“You gonna be sick again?” I ask.
“No. I told you, Alec. I’m hungry. Stop at Hartlet’s up ahead.”
“I ain’t gonna do that.”
“Do it,” Baxter says. “Do it.”
Hartlet’s is a 24-hour diner that serves the families around Richfield (fields rich with what? not gold, I tell you) during the day, and the trucking community and idiots like me and Baxter at night. It’s not a good place or a bad place. It’s just Hartlet’s, always there when you want it but don’t occupy any mental space when you don’t. Truth be told I forgot it was coming up even though I drive by it twice a day at least, to and from work. I never stop there unless my girlfriend’s mother is visiting. We sit at a booth, Ann next to her mom and both across from me. I listen to them rave about home-cooking while I sit quiet and think about potatos. I don’t want to be thinking about potatos but Ann’s mom is a Mormon so I don’t drink in front of her. I would theologically argue that the Good Lord granted us vices so we don’t have to think about potatos all the time, but that’s not how Ann or her mother see it.
I pull into Hartlet’s and Baxter practically falls out of the car trying to get out. He’s just so excited to eat, bless ‘im. By the time I get out he’s already inside. There’s one other car in the lot; I squint at it because I might recognize it, but I can’t tell. It looks like a Camry. The night’s still pitch black; I forgot to check the time when I was in the car. I guess I didn’t want to know. I can smell the grease from the burgers and fries they cook, and now I start to feel hungry too.
The inside smells less greasy than the parking lot. They clean more often inside. Baxter is sitting at the counter, ordering. He probably doesn’t have his wallet, so I’m on the hook for whatever the both of us get.
“I ordered for you,” he says when I sit down. “Since you’re paying.”
“What logical sense does that make?”
“Shoot. If you don’t like what I got I’ll eat it for you. No harm.”
I look around and recognize the other patron, a girl from my high school class. Marla Solstein. Well, she ain’t a girl no more, is she? Here with her two kids. She sees me looking and smiles but doesn’t wave. I do my best to look happy, though I’ve been told I have a fake smile. Irresponsible to be up so late with two kids. I wonder if she’s runnin’ from something.
Waitress comes out with two identical plates. Single cheeseburger and fries. I smile at her too. I feels genuine but honestly I can’t tell. She smiles at me the same way she always does. I don’t remember how long she’s been working there — I asked her name once in a fit of friendliness but I forgot it, and I can’t ever ask again because I know she remembers me. Whenever I have to think about her (which is only when I’m in Hartlet’s) her name is Hartlets2. Easy. I’ve called her that so long I don’t even think about the number — I’m thinkin about it now ’cause I had to type it out. To me she’s just Hartletstoo. Hartletstew? Don’t matter. Hartlets1 died of a heart attack (I heard) 3 or 4 years ago.
Baxter’s half done with his food by the time I start. We eat without talking. The food goes down easy — when I finish I feel hungrier than when I started. Makes me mad when that happens. A body is a stupid thing.
“You still hungry?” Baxter says.
“Yeah. We shouldn’t’ve come here.”
He doesn’t say anything for a while, like nah is supposed to mean something.
“You want more food then, or what?” I say.
“Yeah. You want to make it interesting?”
“Food ain’t interesting, Baxter. Just something you do.”
“I could eat more than you I bet. I could eat a whole potato, and you couldn’t.”
“Sure. You couldn’t.”
Baxter is gesturing at Hartlets2. She been watching us anyway because there’s nothing else for her to do. Marla Solstein’s looking at us; I know because I was checking on her through my plate of food to try and figure out if she was gonna come over and talk to me. Doesn’t seem like she is.
“I want 2 potatos, please.”
Hartlets2 looks at Baxter real confused, even though she was listening to us before. Maybe she was just half-listening, I don’t know. Like when you watch TV ’cause you’re bored, just stare and stare at the TV for an hour, but then something inside you clicks over and you couldn’t tell even one thing that you just seen. She’s looking at Baxter like that now. Like she been watching him for a while but can’t remember ever seeing him before.
“We don’t have potatos.”
“Come on. You do. What do you make the fries out of?”
“They come frozen in a bag,” she says.
“The one place in Idaho without patotos. They don’t have to be cooked, just 2 plain old potatos. Alec’ll pay you a dollar each.”
She disappears in the kitchen. There’s a conversation — must be a line cook back there too. Funny, I never think about that. That’s why I go to restaurants. I want the food to just appear, to grow out of the ground and have somebody like Hartlets2 brings it to me. It’s too depressing to think about otherwise; all that cooking I do when I’m home, or when Ann is over, cooking and cooking and cooking forever and then eat it up just like that.
I hope, if she doesn’t find 2 potatos in the kitchen, she goes outside and picks ‘em out of the ground. I wasn’t hungry before but now I am, thinking about it like this. Real, raw food…a distillation of dirt and water; a solution of soil and sunlight.
Hartlets2 comes back out and wouldn’t you know it? 2 potatos. They look like Classic Russets. She sets ’em down in front of Baxter. She looks wary, like she don’t know what he’s gonna do. Like we was gonna do anything but eat ‘em?
He gives me the bigger one. Tactical. It’s washed but otherwise nothing special about it. He asks me what the terms are.
“No terms,” I say. “It’s just a bet. You thought you can eat more potatos than I. That’s what it is.”
He raises his potato up for me to clink it, like we’re toasting. Salut, Baxter. We both start eating.
A raw potato is a lot like a carrot in texture, I am surprised to learn. I realize after a few more fibrous bites that for all my life living, working, breathing potatos I had never troubled to just pick one up and eat it. Nobody I can think of has either.
I know why that is, now. It’s hard to explain what it’s like eating a whole raw potato — you’d have to try it to see for yourself. But I cannot in good faith recommend doing that, so I’m gonna describe it as best I can and save you the trouble: it is the opposite of satisfying. Insufferably dull. An unforgiving white mass. In my brain I’d got all hepped up about the purity of a raw potato and that mental idea did get me through the first couple bites — romanticism as ranch dressing. But in truth there ain’t nothing pure about it. Eating it is a white and brown grind.
I finish my potato the same time Baxter finishes his. He must’ve been watching me to make sure he didn’t eat any more than was necessary to win the bet. Strategic. If he used that brain in some actual capacity he might be able to get out of here some day.
“That was delicious,” I say with my best fake smile.
“I think I prefer it raw,” Baxter says.
“2 more potatos!” I call out to Hartlets2.
I hear another conversation in the back, more pitched this time. When Hartlets2 returns with 2 more Russets the line cook comes out with her and leans against the wall directly across from us, arms folded. He doesn’t say nothing, just watches. I glance back over to see if Marla Solstein is still watching but the booth is empty. She and her little family must’ve up and left instead of watching a couple fools eat raw potatos just to win a meaningless bet.
I get it now. She was running. From people like me.
I take the potatos from Hartlets2 and give the larger one to Baxter. He makes a little hum noise like he wants to protest but thinks better of it. He knows it’s fair. More relevantly, he knows I know it’s fair. We toast potatos again. His face seems a little pale but it could be just the lighting.
After the first bite I decide this is gonna be the last raw potato I ever eat, win or lose. What a horrible food. It falls apart in my mouth like chalky clay. It really is like eating the dirt, which I ate plenty of times as a young boy. I wonder if dirt wouldn’t taste just as good as a baked potato if you baked it in the oven for an hour. Probably nobody ever tried it before, just like nobody ever ate a raw potato before. Me and Baxter are breaking new ground here, I think as I grind up another chunk of potato with my teeth.
I still got half of it to go and I really don’t want to finish. I pause to take a reading on Baxter. He’s only taken 2 or 3 bites, but he sees me looking and flashes a big smile, potato skin stuck between all his teeth.
“Delicious,” he says.
“I could eat another one easy,” I say.
I take a huge bite of my potato to prove it. If I take larger bites there won’t be as many left, and this makes the potato smaller than it was. I know this isn’t true but in this moment I believe it. I believe it until that bite in its entirety hits my stomach.
All the cigarettes and the greasy Hartlet’s food and the compressed dirt that is one-and-a-half raw potatos has been holding a quiet caucus that just violently adjourned. I put the rest of my potato down and grip the counter with both hands. I must have a distinctive look on my face because the line cook breaks his silence.
“You can’t get sick in here,” he says, frantically pointing at the front door. “Go outside! Go outside!”
“I’m not gonna get sick,” I say. “I just need a minute.”
But I get up and go outside anyway. It’s too much energy to fight my stomach and the Hartlet’s staff at the same time. What’s so precious about their dang counters that it can’t get cleaned off if someone gets sick on it? I sit on a wheel stop in the spot next to my car. The parking lot smells worse than I remember. I wonder how many times the line cook has told someone to go outside and throw up.
I’m not gonna do it though. He shouldn’t’ve been worried. I’m tough. Ann always says that about me, that when you make up your mind about something that’s how it’s gonna be. I never know how she means it — like a compliment or a surrender. She ain’t wrong though. I gone through worse feelings than eating too much potato and I come out of it fine. I put my head between my knees and squeeze, to give my stupid body something else to worry about so it forgets my stomach.
Baxter comes out and sits next to me.
“How you feeling?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say. “It ain’t nothing. You?”
“Fine. I guess I won the contest.”
“You didn’t. My first potato was bigger than yours, and I ate more of my second one.”
“I ate the rest of both of ’em just now while you’re outside moanin’ about your tummy.”
“Sure,” I say. “Sure. Let’s go. We shouldn’t’ve stopped here.”
I stand up and feel around in my pocket for my keys.
“You need to pay,” Baxter says.
“I’m not going back in. Here.” I pull a $20 out of my wallet. “This is what you win from the contest.”
“Aw,” he says, taking the bill and standing. “You were gonna pay anyway.”
“Yeah well. You didn’t really eat those potatos, did you?”
After Baxter goes back inside to pay (with my money) I walk over and lean against the trunk of my car, facing away from Hartlet’s. The night’s still pitch black. There could be anything out there, beyond the pool cast by the parking lot lamp. There is anything out there, because my eyes can’t see otherwise. As soon as they adjust it’ll be the same potato fields as always. I close my eyes so the sensation lasts longer. I can’t change what’s outside of me. When I open ’em again I’ll see the potato fields, the same potato fields I grew up with. The same job I been working for 9 years. The same Ann, the same Baxter. While my eyes closed, that’s all inside me, and I can change it to anything I want and the rest of the world can’t do a thing about it. For a few moments, there ain’t nothing.
I hear Baxter chime out the restaurant door and come around and put his weight on the trunk with me.
“What’re you looking at?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say.
“You can’t look at nothing,” he says.
We get in the car and I drive him home. He says he got a new bottle of some fancy bourbon and asks if I want to come up. I don’t know why he would ask. We both gotta sleep. I’m gonna see him again in a few hours when I pick him up for work. Potatos don’t pick themselves, and the boss don’t care how tired you are.
All through typing this story my auto-correct been highlighting every instance of ‘potatos’ like I don’t know how to spell ‘potatos’. Potatoes. You happy now? You satisfied with me, now? I swear I ain’t made for this world.