The Newspaper Reporter
I would not say it was hotter than hell but the heat was certainly intense – hot enough to melt coins into my car’s plastic cup holder and cause the very air above the road to distort and ripple. In Barstow in the middle of the High Desert, there is plenty of sun and sand, just not much water for hundreds of miles around. I don’t think there is browner place on earth. The mountains are brown; the hills are brown and even the plants and animals are brown. The heat even forced nature to take cover. The creatures – like the rest of the town – hibernated during the day to escape the blistering sun that baked the brown earth of that sleepy little town. The Mojave River flows underground, its subterranean waters hiding from the sun beneath the dry beige terrain.
After the hour-long job interview, I drove down Main Street, a narrow two-way, two-lane highway that split the center of the old railroad town, looking for a place to eat before heading home. I bought a copy of the newspaper The Barstow Citizen at a distribution box outside an old rundown restaurant-inn call the El Capitan Hotel. Underneath the masthead of the paper it said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Spicy Mexican food is just what I needed to fight the oppressive heat that seemed to almost physically press down from above. But to my surprise, El Capitan was not a Mexican restaurant at all but served Chinese food. When I walked in the restaurant, it was almost cold. A laughing wood Buddha greeted me at the entrance. Although it was 6 p.m., the restaurant was nearly empty.
A blue-eyed, blond waitress dressed in blue with a Doris Day hairdo approached my table, pen and notebook in hand. “What will y’all have today, Sweetie?” she drawled.
“Combo fried rice,” I said, handing her the menu. I looked at the metal fork and knife. “Could I have chopsticks, please?”
“Chopsticks,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was under the mistaken impression that I was in a Chinese restaurant.”
I folded the newspaper into quarter and read the front page stories: the city council approved its budget, a family died in a wreck on Interstate 40. The cheap paper felt slippery, staining my hand. I went to the restroom to wash the ink off my hands in the white porcelain sink that seemed to be of a vintage Calvin Coolidge-era model.
The waitress returned with a glass of water frothing with white bubbles. Dark pieces of dried gum were embedded the dark crimson carpet. “Is this safe to drink?” I asked, lifting the frothy glass of water to the light.
She laughed again. I ordered a coke. A Pulitzer Prize winning story is waiting to be written about this town.
Mark Kodama is a trial attorney and former newspaper reporter who lives in Washington, D.C. His short stories and poems have been published in Clarendon Publishing House anthologies, Tuck Magazine, Dastaan World Magazine, the World of Myths Magazine and Literary Yard, Commuter Lit and Spillwords.