Pardon this non-foodie interlude. This is an experience we had a while ago that I had to write down.
It Wasn’t Halloween, But . . .
I’m not quite certain if the translucent woman answering the door had been drinking her homemade wine or if she was just tipsy on age and a whole ton of Jesus. What I was certain of was that our stay at her bed and breakfast began with an unnerving chill.
A few steps in, we found ourselves surrounded by what looked like a church organist’s 1950s parlor, complete with supersized brass crosses, faded pastel furniture, and the first of a series of lifeless paintings of family members. The too-perfect solid black circle eyes. The way the army uniforms were crisp against fat-brushed teal or turquoise acrylic backgrounds. Names in a thin red script. These were not warm interpretations of “Dad,” “Uncle Jimmy,” “Big Robert,” “Auntie Dot,” or “Jimmy II”.
I’m sure she said something as we creak-stepped our way up the three flights of increasingly narrow and steep stairs, but I was distracted by the half-finished farm murals wrapping the rooms and the persistent appearance of more large, flat portraits. There were so many of them! By the stairs, by the tiny nook on the second floor, at the top of the third floor, and more. Someone had taken a mail-order art class and had found themselves with a whole lot of time.
We arrived at our room and our host nodded in the direction of the bathroom before closing the door. Twenty-seven fading creaks later, we let out the nervous laughs we had stored up. This was not the laughter of people who found something truly funny, but the laughter of people who could not quite fathom how they had landed in a place that was equal parts Poe and half-witted Martha. Hadn’t the website looked fine?
We were off for a relaxing weekend away from home and now here we were, in a slope-ceiling room on the top floor of an inn that was half church and half paint-by-numbers colony at the end of a twisty muddy road. I decided it should be referred to as The Eerie Little Cottage.
The Elizabeth Jane room was packed with bookshelves lined with paperbacks. The bed had a low mattress piled with phyllo layers of thin quilts and surrounded by a rusty iron canopy. A window seat, just the right size for a seven-year old, held stacks of ancient Country Living and Water Wildlife magazines. Ivy was painted on the walls with a dry brush but a good hand.
After getting settled, we ventured out to dinner. Uncertain of the area, we headed towards the one restaurant that had a sign on the road.
Imagine driving down the darkest road you have ever been down in search of what is supposedly the only meal easily found in the area. You’ve never been to this area. The air is crisp and you can smell that the water is near. You are lost, hungry, and wondering if you should just go back to the main road and get the hell out of town. Waiting for you back at your inn is a translucent woman.
This is the situation we found ourselves in as we rounded our fifth dark corner and finally saw a light about a quarter of a mile ahead. Despite the fog and feeling quite out of sorts on the trip there, we pulled up to Earl’s next to the other car that was in the gravel lot and decided to go in.
The sign outside quite plainly read, “NO CREDIT CARDS.”
It did not say, “Hey, when you come in there will be half-eaten food on most of the tables, and one family picking at the bones of some sort of seafood. There will be smoking, but no one to seat you. There will be beer signs and a feeling that some people eat here every day, but none of them are here. Perhaps they will come back and finish the remains of their last meal, so we just leave it on the table for them. Someone might eventually come talk to you and will then take your order. He might scare you.”
If I had seen that sign, it could have prepared me.
We were at the end of another too-dark road seeking just a scab of sustenance and it was clear that that was unlikely. After about eleven minutes of watching the Johnson family make their meal look as mangled and half-chewed as the food resting on the other tables, a thirteen-foot tall man with a beard and a truckers hat emerged from the kitchen and came to our table. By this point, we were ready to go, our feet shuffling on the thin planks on the floor and swaying a bit in the ripped red vinyl chairs. All I could muster was, “Do you take credit cards?” Thank God for signs. The giant man said, “nope” and we were free.
So, we trekked about 30 miles away to a town with a great seafood place and, again, a return to normalcy. Full and prepared to face a return to The Eerie Little Cottage, we headed back.
We had just started feeling safe from Earl’s and our delicious island meal when we approached the road leading through the mud field back to The Eerie Little Cottage. It was about 9:30 by this point and as we approached the door, and we heard some something.
We opened the door to find our host sitting with her husband, a man of about eighty-five with astounding deep lines around his wide mouth. His grin made me think of those multiple function math problems where there seems to be as many sets of parentheses as there are numbers. When he smiled he slowly tilted his head back, and then back down again like a mechanical Christmas elf in a mall display.
As if this were not enough, in the corner, a tiny man wearing crisp lumberjack clothes with shellacked hair sat behind a Casio keyboard. The Tiny Tidy Lumberjack was fingering old bar tunes but was not singing.
I may have taken liberties elsewhere in the story, but this is absolutely real.
Our host invited us to join her, her husband, and The Tiny Tidy Lumberjack for a glass of wine. My first thought, “Is that what happened to him?” My second thought was, “We’re staying and sucking up every moment of this.”
It took about an hour to figure out that The Tiny Tidy Lumberjack man was actually related to at least one of the others in the room. Maybe he was Uncle Jimmy?
Our host, who now seemed to be three-ply, felt it was her part to offer a refrain. It would have been nice if the refrain had related to any of the songs Mr. Lumberjack was prancing out on the Casio, but her constant words were “Play ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown!’ Play Bad Bad Leroy Brown!”
No one acknowledged it the first time she said it. Nor did they the third, fourth, and fifth times. It was almost as if she was repeating, “I’m a tipsy old lady with a Casio playing lumberjack friend and an automated, parenthetically-mouthed husband! Woohoo!” Everyone just seemed to accept it.
A few songs in, a blonde guy appeared from the back hallway. He was well-mulleted, bushy mustached and was wearing cut-off shorts. Let me stop there. He introduced himself, shook our hands, and had a few things to say, but I just couldn’t handle much more. He eventually blended into the scene.
We knew it was time for bed when Uncle Lumberjack looked at our host and said ‘I don’t even KNOW “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown!”
That was the end for me.
After a night of running around and the Tiny Tidy Lumberjack Show, we were ready to sleep. I passed the portraits on the walls slightly less phased this time by the portraits and the creaking stairs, and decided to read a bit before going to bed. And talk. We had to process what we had just seen, but it was more of a reality check than anything else.
Tiny Tidy Lumberjack on a Casio? Check.
Homemade wine with a translucent woman? Check.
Automated man nodding and smiling, blonde guy in cutoffs? Check, check, check?
We thumbed through some Country Livings, and Wild Birds of the Shores and it was lights out.
Unfortunately, lights out did not mean rest just yet.
Shit, what was that? Maybe folks out here just like to fire guns in the middle of the night?
“Ding ding tst diddle tst ding POP! Ding ding tst diddle tst ding POP!”
And that? I think the tiny lumberjack found the preset bossa nova rhythm on the Casio.
“Mumble, mumble, mumble, sell your cats for you, mumble mumble”
Ok, and that? I believe it was, “Hey Bob, I’m going up to Somethingtown to sell some of these things, want me to take some of these cats?”
With that, we just laughed our fool heads off and waited for morning.
At the breakfast table, we met Jessie, Charlene’s daughter. We had met Charlene briefly the day before as she was checking in. She was a Quaker with a gay son. We were pretty sure we would be safe as long as Charlene was. I think she might have felt the same way.
Jessie took one of the small apples from the centerpiece and placed it on the side of her plate. Moments later, our host came in to fill water glasses and stared at Jessie. In a deadpan that could only be delivered by a translucent woman who has not quite awakened from a night of tipsy lumberjack sing-alongs, she leaned toward Jessie just a bit and said, “You ruined my centerpiece.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought they were to eat.”
She leans in. “They weren’t.”
It was hard to reconcile the jovial, Jim Croce loving woman we had started to warm to the night before with this new version, the don’t-touch-my-damn-apples lady.
In this age of reality television, it was clear that the experience that The Eerie Little Cottage offered was a few nights with this family more than a relaxing and tasty experience. I may not have thought we got our money’s worth, but it is the first time I’ve wanted to tell people about what happened when I went on vacation in a long time.
I have a sinking feeling that The Tiny Tidy Lumberjack now sings a song about the people who came back to the inn on the night they were all playing characters in a hilarious improv game. The casio, the mullet man, the nodding laughing elf.
I’ll never forget them and am certain we’ll never have quite the same experience again.