A mild, sunny, halcyon December Thursday morning in eastern North America found my Filipina wife Monique (Agent 32) and I (Agent 33) in our gray 2005 Kia Rio hatchback, motoring northward up Interstate Highway 77 (aka I-77), nearing the North Carolina – Virginia state line. We were going to rent a car at CLT (the Charlotte airport), but when Advantage tried to slide in hundreds of dollars in additional charges, we politely declined the disadvantage. The cheerful counter clerk then candidly informed us that they had to do such, as some locals were not returning the cars. I thought: What the hell! Who are they allowing to drive off in their almost-new cars? Don’t they do any screening?
The little 4-cylinder engine chugged up the Blue Ridge escarpment. A few miles into Virginia, a breathtaking view of the North Carolina piedmont opened up on the right.
“Nice view, isn’t it, Agent 32?” Agent 32? He’s already in record mode. Unbelievable.
“It certainly is, Parkaar. [my ailing alias] But, please keep your eyes on the road. Slow down! We’re coming up fast on that creeping truck.”
I let off the gas pedal a little. An 18-wheeler was crawling up the mountain side. I then passed the semi on the left and settled in the center lane. I wonder if Monique is getting hungry. I bet she is. She didn’t eat any breakfast. She’s going hypoglycemic, I can tell.
“Want to stop in Wytheville for lunch?” I asked her.
Monique spied a sign. “Is that near Fort Chiswell?”
“Fort Jizzwell?” [sic] He said that for the recorder.
“Gosh, that’s so vulgar, 33!”
“Frank [the late, great Agent 107, a dark-haired Caucasian dude who kind of looked like Bryan Ferry, circa 1975] and I called it that. We always got a chuckle out of it.” They thought that was funny? Men!
“I guess it’s a male thing. Anyway, how far from Wytheville are we?”
“Just 27 minutes out, mahal.” [love in Tagalog]
“Ok, let’s stop there.”
Soon we were sitting in the Appleby’s (an American chain restaurant) on East Main Street (US 11). A very courteous African American waitress took our order. I looked over at the bar, and remained fixated on it. So, that’s where Frank would go on Saturday nights, searching for new love.
Monique noticed my incessant staring at the horseshoe-shaped bar. “Did you meet another agent at that bar, 33? Tell the truth. Don’t lie.”
“No, nothing like that, 32. It’s where Frank would ply the local lasses a decade ago, looking for a compatible date. He told me that he would be doing ok until the girl found out that he hadn’t gone to the local high school.” What?!
“Really?” Monique asked with a stunned expression.
“That’s what he told me, 32. He also said that he was at a further disadvantage, as he wasn’t a ball-cap wearer, much less one to don one backwards.”
“Did Frank drink alcohol at that bar, 33?”
“Yes, even though he never really liked doing such. He told me that he would nurse a Heineken for two hours, so as to not seem odd. I know that he would have loved to fire up a big bowl [of marijuana] instead.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure of that, Agent 33.”
Our waitress then returned with our food. Monique had a grilled chicken and rice dish. I just had a bowl of French onion soup. We ate without speaking; we were famished. This soup is fairly tasty. I’d give it a 7.777777.
I paid our bill thirteen minutes later. Under the tip I left the waitress a coupon for a free download of Gold, a summer story (my 2013 e-novel). Upon exiting, the ever-smiling waitress suddenly said: “Thank you, agents!” Wow! I guess she overheard us. / I wonder if she will friend-request psecret psociety on Facebook. She seems game to it.
Our journey continued up I-77. We were soon approaching the Big Walker Mountain Tunnel. I checked to make sure that the headlights were on.
Monique saw the tunnel’s name next to the portal. “Is there a Little Walker Mountain Tunnel, too, Parkaar?”
“I don’t think so, Monique.”
“Then, why the Big, 33?”
“It’s probably a tall tale, 32, with a short ending.”
“I just had to ask.” She shook her head and sighed.
I had a quick laugh. She then smiled.
Soon we emerged from the northwest portal of the eight-tenths-of-a-mile-long (1.29 km) underground vehicular passage. Nineteen miles (30.58 km) later, we were entering the East River Mountain Tunnel.
“When we emerge from this one, 32, we’ll be in WV.” [West Virginia]
When we exited the second tunnel, Monique made a declaration: “That last tunnel is longer than the first one, 33.”
“How do you know this to be true, perspicacious Agent 32? Did you time our passages through both of them? But, what if our average speeds were different?”
“No, I didn’t time them, Agent 33.”
“Then how do you know that the latter tunnel is longer than the former?”
“It’s a psecret, [sic] 33, with a silent p. That last tunnel was a shade over a mile. [1.61 km] Am I right, Mr. Geo-Almanac?” [sic] Mr. Geo-Almanac? What?
“Well, yes, you are correct, 32. The East River Mountain Tunnel is 1.025 miles [1.65 km] long.”
The conversation ceased until we rolled past Flat Top Mountain. I wonder if she remembers that sledding day.
“Remember when we went sledding next to the Winterplace Ski Resort? Agent 66 [my son] was with us.”
“Not sure that I recall that, 33.” What is he on about now?
“We also tried snowboarding. I think that I made it 70 yards [64 meters] before falling. Agent 66 won, however, as he went 100 yards [91.44 meters] before toppling.”
“Oh, yes; I remember it now. We spent the night in Wytheville. You didn’t want to drive all the way back to Charlotte.” Probably had roid rage.
We stopped and paid at the Ghent Toll Plaza. Twenty-four minutes later, we were rolling into the Pax Toll Plaza to pay another two dollars.
“Is this the last one?” Monique asked.
“No, there is one more before Charleston, 32.”
“What do they use the toll money for, 33?”
“Well, initially it was used to pay off the cost of road construction. But, now it’s used for road maintenance, I suppose. Once a highway goes toll, it rarely reverts back to being a freeway. State governments like that steady stream of revenue too much.”
“I’m glad you have cash in your wallet, 33. They don’t accept debit or credit cards.”
“Yeah, I researched this turnpike yesterday, 32.”
“That figures.” She giggled.
After another twenty-four minutes, we were clearing the Chelyan Toll Plaza. Interstate 64-77 then flanked the teal green Kanawha River all the way to Charleston. The river is wider than I thought. / I bet that water is cold.
When I saw the golden dome of the Capitol Building, I pointed it out (to the left) for Monique.
“Well, after 271 miles, [436 km] we’re finally here, Agent 32.”
“Where is our hotel?”
“Just a mile away,” I said as I veered for Exit 100.
Soon we were parking behind the Charleston Capitol Hotel, an older nine-floor inn on Washington Street that was in the process of being upfitted to become a Wyndham Garden Hotel. Our room – 301 – was definitely pre-remodel: The now-adhesion-less wallpaper had waves in it. But, other than that, it was a decent room for the money.
Monique unpacked our luggage as I examined the room for clues. I soon noticed that the casement window’s sashes were screwed so that they would not slide open.
“Monique, the window is locked.”
“Maybe someone committed suicide, and the hotel wants to prevent another fatal leap.”
“I don’t think that a leap from this window would be fatal, Agent 32. Come over and take a look.”
Monique walked over and saw that the flat roof of the second story was only 13 feet (4 meters) below. “If we had to evacuate quickly, we could jump onto that HVAC unit.” [It was only 8 feet (2.44 meters) below the sill.]
“Yes, we could, Agent 32, like in Tiki Wiki. [a previous short story] Never know when you’ll need an alternate exit.”
“Do you feel tired, Parkaar?”
“Surprisingly, not really, Monique. Want to tour the downtown on foot?”
“Sure! I want to take some pics and videos, 33.”
“Ok, let’s hit the streets of this town of Charles, Agent 32.”
At 3:47 PM we were walking down Leon Sullivan Way towards the Kanawha River. Monique stopped to take some pics of the patina-coated-spires of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
Once across Kanawha Boulevard, we walked northwestward along a narrow riverside asphalt sidewalk. The sidewalk was level with the street curb, but just to the left, a very steep, grass-covered slope dropped down to a lower walkway some 25 feet (7.62 meters) or so below. If you weren’t paying attention – texting for example – you could take quite a nasty tumble. Surprised there’s no railing. Very dangerous for bicycles and skateboards. Maybe they aren’t allowed on the upper walk. And, what about tipsy folks leaving pubs? Just one errant step. Has there not been a lawsuit yet? Not even any warning signs. I guess Charleston is not as litigious as Charlotte. Walker beware.
“Watch your step, Monique. You could literally die if you landed the wrong way. No Facebooking here.”
“I hear you, Mr. Safety. But, unlike you, I can walk and chew gum. Don’t be so paranoid.” Walk and chew gum? She must have got that phrase from my dad.
“I’m paid to be paranoid, asawa.” [wife in Cebuano]
She just smiled.
A few minutes later we were passing under the mighty South Side Bridge, a Parker truss bridge. I looked back and noticed a stairway leading up to the road deck. Ah, nice! The bridge allows for pedestrian crossings.
“Want to walk across the bridge, Monique?”
“Maybe later, Parkaar. I think I’m feeling hungry again.”
“Ok, no problem, 32. Capitol Street is just ahead. Many good restaurants on that street from what I’ve read online.”
“Ok, lead the way, 33.”
We walked up to the historic, twelve-story Union Building, which was where Capitol Street came to a T-intersection with Kanawha Boulevard. The sidewalk was quite narrow. A sign just above the railing warned:
AT FOOT OF STEPS
And they weren’t kidding, either. Motor vehicles whizzed by us – inches from our toes – at 45 MPH (72.4 km/h). You sure don’t want to rush out of this building.
After 30 to 40 seconds, we got a white crosswalk signal and traversed Kanawha Boulevard. We soon came upon a pair of late-20-something Caucasian male hipsters, who were chatting away outside Sam’s Uptown Cafe and Bar. As we passed them, I heard one of them ask the other: “Are you staying in Charlie West this weekend?” Staying in Charlie West? Huh?
While waiting for the crosswalk signal to turn at Virginia Street, I turned to look at my lovely pinay (Tagalog for a Filipina) wife. “Hon, can I borrow your phone for a second?”
“Sure,” she said as she handed the Samsung Galaxy to me. “Need to look at Google Maps?”
“Uh, no. I just need to look up a phrase.”
“What phrase would that be, Parkaar?”
“Charlie West. Oh, I just found it. It’s a nickname for Charleston, West Virginia. I heard one of those dudes back there say it.” He’s always eavesdropping.
I handed the phone back to Monique. We proceeded northeastward on Capitol Street. The sidewalks now had more people on them. Employees were getting off work. A desk clock in a storefront window stated that it was 4:31. Ah, only off by a minute.
We soon came upon The Elite Gentlemen’s Club. Monique then looked at me. “Is this a totoy [boobs in Cebuano] bar, Parkaar?”
“I think so, mahal.”
“So, they have these places in every city in America, 33?”
“Yeah, pretty much. But, they’re not as wild as the ones in Manila.”
“And, how would you know, my darling kano?” [Filipino slang for American] Foot-in-mouth disease strikes again.
“Oh, friends have told me.” What a lame answer. But, I’ll give him a pass for now.
“Well, I’m hungry for some good pizza, Parkaar.”
Right after we passed a packed Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille, there it was: Pies and Pints. Ah, yes – found it.
We passed through the green façade. The place was bustling. Lively conversations abounded between pizza chomps and gulps of suds. Looks like a kewl [sic] scene. / Wonder how long we’ll have to wait to be seated.
Just a minute later, the blonde-haired hostess led us to a 2-top table that was adjacent to a 4-top table in the rear dining area, where a Caucasian dad, mom and two sons were finishing up and preparing to leave.
A brunette waitress soon came over to take our drink order. Monique just ordered a Sprite. I asked the waitress to surprise me with a good West Virginia dark beer. The Big Timber Porter that she brought back was exceptional. Five stars all the way from Elkins. I hope that I can find this beer somewhere in Charlotte.
We then ordered an onion pizza, as a biracial family of four sat down just three feet (one meter) from us. Due to the close proximity, conversations couldn’t be ignored. The light-skinned African American dad made a statement to his Caucasian wife: “We should be able to make it to Mocksville by nine o’clock.” Mocksville?
“Pardon me for asking, but are you guys going to Mocksville, North Carolina?” I queried the mid-30-something gent to my immediate right.
“Sure are,” the man said. “That’s where my wife’s family is from. We’ll have Christmas down there. We always stop in Charleston, because it’s about at the halfway mark.”
“I can remember going to a campground there in the ‘70s with my family. They had this pond with a water slide and diving platform in the middle. I forget the name of it.”
“So, where did you guys start out from?” I asked.
“Just south of Youngstown.”
“Oh, that’s right; eastern Ohio is Steeler country.”
“Most, but not all of it. And, where are you guys from?”
“A fast-growing city.”
“Fast-growing rents, too.”
He chuckled as the waitress placed the large pizza on the silver rack on our table. The pie was delicious. We devoured it, leaving nary a crumb.
Upon leaving, I told the man and his wife that I had a biracial son, and that they had two lovely daughters. The teenage girls blushed. We wished each other safe travels.
Monique and I then sauntered along Capitol Street to Washington Street, where we turned right and walked back to our hotel. It feels fairly safe strolling this town at night.
Once ensconced in our room, I checked the psecret psociety page on Facebook. Ernie the electronic earwig had posted a question about combination sports. Some of the replies from the agents were quite amusing. Billiards using hand grenades. Ha! Agent 4 must have been toked-up.
Monique got into bed and checked her Facebook on her smartphone. She sent a message to me (even though I was sitting in a chair only about ten feet – 3 meters – away):
When are you going to get in the bed? I’m cold! Ah, the madness of this modern digital age.
We fundled [sic] our grundles and then slept like babies through the foggy West Charlie night. After a courtesy continental breakfast, we were putting our shoe soles to the Charleston sidewalks once again. Today’s first target: Charleston Town Center, a three-level shopping mall that was only seven blocks away. Monique demanded this one.
The mall was already packed at 10:10 AM on this Friday before Christmas. I followed Monique as she went shop to shop, diligently searching for refrigerator magnets (her favorite item to collect as of late). As we passed through the food court, I saw a dour-looking, 50-something, Caucasian guy sporting a Cleveland Browns cap. Well, there’s a true fan. I don’t think Cleveland has won a single game this year.
We struck out in the mall proper. However, a nearby corner shop had some very irreverent magnets for the fridge. We bought two: Go Fuck Your Self and one of Mister (Fred) Rogers flipping the middle finger.
The pangs of hunger hit as we arrived at the corner of Capitol & Lee. Monique wanted Italian again, and Graziano’s was right there. Thus, in we went. She ordered a Stromboli and I got a slice of cheese pizza. It was good feed.
Our consumption slowed. I studied the restaurant’s interior, wondering if any patron had ever uttered the phrase Charlie West. And then I mumbled such. Did he say something?
“Are you feeling ok, 33?” Monique asked between bites.
“Yes, feeling fine, mahal. And, how about you?”
“Feeling good now. I love this food. I have energy again.”
Then I thought about the banner on the business next door (Delfine’s Jewelry).
“Monique, did you notice the banner hanging on the shop next door?”
“No, Parkaar, I didn’t. What did it say?”
“Long-term wife insurance. A clever pun for a jewelry store, huh?” I chuckled.
“The ring you got me is fine, 33. I love it!”
We boxed up what we couldn’t finish and walked back to our hotel room. Rain moved in. We just stayed inside, ate leftovers, and watched the local news.
A male reporter was at Yeager Airport giving a delay update. There was only a lone traveler in camera range. The 40-ish Caucasian reporter then made a municipality-deprecating pronouncement: “Well, as you can plainly see, folks, our fair city is not a top holiday destination.” Ah, but we came and have enjoyed it. We could retire in Charlie West. Cheap rent.
On the way out of Charleston on Saturday, Christmas Eve, we had a nice Thai lunch at Su Tei on MacCorkle Avenue SE. The green curry was piquantly divine. Monique’s red curry wasn’t overly sweet, she informed.
Before we left, I asked the late-30-something Asian waitress if Charlie West sounded familiar. She said that she didn’t remember such a customer. And, I just left it at that. Of course, I left another Gold card under the tip. Maybe she knows English well enough to read it. Or, maybe she gives it to her novel-loving best friend. Or, maybe I’m just steadily going knowhere. [sic] Floating down the chilly Kanawha River. Slowly losing buoyancy. Settling in the silt.
another pSecret pSociety pshort pstory
Fries or Freeze by Mike Bozart (Agent 33) | JANUARY 2017
Fries or Freeze
by Mike Bozart
© 2017 Mike Bozart