Albom Riff handed over the cash for the room at the Robin Hood and took his key. It was a real key, a brass key, attached to a yellow piece of plastic shaped like a diamond and with the room number 9 etched into it. “Thanks,” he said to the woman behind the counter, and to number 9 he went.
He sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window at the cold, gunmetal, western town with its hints of beauty, isolation, mystery, loneliness. Loneliness. He was lonely. But no one knew it. He thought about Hollywood Helen on Wheels at the J-Bob’s restaurant and wondered if he should call her. He dug out the piece of paper with her number and looked at it. Maybe she could help him figure out why his driver’s license claims he’s a resident of Raton, New Mexico. How can that be? he wondered. “I’ve never been here in my whole entire life,” he whispered aloud to himself.
The room phone suddenly rang, and Albom nearly jumped through the ceiling. It was a clanging, obnoxious ring that broke the pure silence catastrophically. He went to pick up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Did you enjoy the salad bar, Mr. Riff?” The voice was deep and slow, like a dangerous cover up.
“Who is this?”
The line went dead. Albom hung the phone back up. He went to the window and peered out. There was a man standing on the edge of the parking lot. He wore a black jacket and sunglasses. He seemed to be staring right at him, Albom felt. He moved to the door and opened it. The mysterious man had disappeared.
The phone rang again. Albom rushed to answer. “Hello!”
It was the man with the deep voice once again. “What was your favorite item on the salad bar, Mr. Riff?… The iceberg lettuce perhaps? Do you know what happens to icebergs, Mr. Riff?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “They fall apart when the heat is on.”
The line went dead once again.
Albom marched back to the J-Bob’s, a haunting howl from the bottom belly of the city followed him there. He found Hollywood Helen on Wheels at the salad bar, and she was just standing there still as stone and staring.
He took hold of her wrist, and she suddenly came out of whatever hypnotic state she was in and turned to him with a look of fear and surprise. “What are you doing?” Albom asked her.
“I was… I was looking at the salad bar.”
“It’s part of my job,” she answered. “I must make sure the items are well stocked and appear fresh. It’s very important work.”
“There’s something weird about this salad bar,” Albom said, and he pulled her over to an empty booth and they sat down. “What the hell is going on around here?”
Hollywood Helen on Wheels stared at him with a blank expression. “You just couldn’t wait to see me again, could you?” Then the stiffness of her face came undone and she smiled. “Do you want more salad bar?”
“No. I want to know if you’re fucking with me!”
Albom retrieved his wallet from his pants and pulled out his driver’s license. He slapped it down on the table before her. “Why does my driver’s license say I live here in this town?”
She picked it up and looked at it. Her eyes shifted to Albom for just a moment and then back to the license. “Wait. You live here? I thought you were from somewhere else. You sure did make it seem like you were from somewhere else.”
“Somewhere else,” he mumbled.
“It’s a song… ‘Everyone I love lives somewhere else.’”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“And someone strange called me at my motel. Twice. And there was a man outside in the parking lot. I think someone’s watching me, following me.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know, but I really believe this all has to do with your god damn salad bar. What else do you know?”
“I don’t know anything. Maybe you’re just crazy. Hollywood Helen on Wheels got up out of the booth. “I have work to do,” she said, and she walked off.
Albom Riff leaned back in the booth for just a moment before his eyes were drawn back to the salad bar in the center of the restaurant. It appeared to glow. He heard Tibetan meditative music in his head. Then a voice repeated the word “Iceberg, iceberg, iceberg…”
Albom quickly got up and rushed over to the salad bar. It glowed delicious before him. He snatched up a white plate and began crazily filling it high with iceberg lettuce from the large clear plastic bowl set in a swamp of crushed ice.
Hollywood Helen on Wheels noticed him from afar and called out to him, “Hey! You have to pay for that.”
He swept an annoyed glance toward her. “Oh, I’ll pay for it. I’ll fucking pay for it!”
Heads turned in the restaurant as joyful cowboy music softly played overhead.
Albom topped his lettuce with croutons, sunflower seeds, bacon bits, some shredded cheese, black olives, pieces of hard-boiled egg. He ladled orange French dressing over the top of his little salad mountain and watched it run down the sides like lava flows down the side of a volcano. He set that plate aside and grabbed a clean one and began to fill that with other salad bar items: Tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, oiled mushrooms, a spiral pasta salad, pickled beets, banana peppers, cottage cheese, cling peaches, gelatin with grapes set inside that looked like monster eyeballs, and finally a clumpy potato salad.
He took both plates back to the empty booth and sat down. He waved a hand in the air to catch the attention of Hollywood Helen on Wheels. “Excuse me miss? Could I get some service over here?”
An exasperated Hollywood Helen on Wheels approached the table with attitude. “Just what the hell is your problem, mister?”
“I don’t have any silverware, or a napkin, or anything to drink.”
She glanced at the two heaping plates of salad bar food. “I sure hope you plan on eating all that. Be a god damn shame to waste all that. That’s enough to feed four people. You should be ashamed of yourself. Pure gluttony.”
Albom pointed at her. “Look, I’m telling you. There’s something about that god damn salad bar that isn’t right… And I’m looking into it. There’s also something not right about this whole town and why I’m here. And I’m looking into that, too.”
Hollywood Helen on Wheels scoffed with a chuckle. “What are you… A salad bar detective?”
Albom Riff laughed out loud. “That’s a good one, baby, but you’re not wrong. Now can I please get some silverware and a Coke.”
TO BE CONTINUED