We got off I-75 at Corbin, Kentucky, and right there is David's Steakhouse and Buffet. Neon "choice steaks," a long brick ranch-style, a comfort. As soon as you go in, they say howdy and it's not forced. It feels like they really want you to be there, like church except less creepy because it's not church. And you get your tray and they ask you what drink you want, and that smell of steakhouse-buffet, pleasant mix of dishroom bleach-water cutting through gravy vapors, fried-food phantom exhaust and spice-cake lit with 100-watt bulbs. It's dark and homey in here, back-window glimmer and fluorescence combining into nursing-home kindness. The buffet spans out like the control-panel in a great big spaceship except overflowing with country food, and protected by multiple sneeze-shields. It's heartening. It does not hurt to be here. Everyone is like me, except they wear a lot of camouflage and say grace before they eat. A gentleman-manager asks what drinks we'd like. I say Diet Pepsi, and he offers up, "We have Diet Mountain Dew now too. Just wanted you to know."
We pay the teenaged boy running the register.
We find out seats in the back area, with a big wall-installed TV showing a football game. Kiwanis and Little League plagues all over the walls. Paneling and beat-down carpet and chunky wooden tables with steak-sauce bottles and napkins. A couple waitresses over on the other side of the room rolling silverware and talking about the snow.
I go and get what I want:
- Meatloaf covered in catsup and tasting like what I used to eat back when food was like this, totally simple and tasting like food, so stupid and simple it makes you want to cry, like you are eating a part of a couch from your childhood, like you are eating a day in your own past life, like you are finding a way to remember something that doesn't need to be remembered and yet comes through so loud and clear it makes you want to cry.
- Baked chicken with the skin still on, soggy, just the kind of soggy necessary to make you feel alone with it. Baked chicken sort of greasy but clean tasting, fleshy and stringy and hot, and there's a non-sauce to it, what has baked off in the pan, that tastes like Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup, that smell of being sick and eating even though you are sick, total comfort in the face of all that's wrong, and you not knowing where you are going to be or go.
- Fried okra from a deep-fryer, that taste of dirty grease somehow a delicacy now, here, but still reminiscent of restaurant work in the South, what's left on a buffet when you close. Slimy sort of once you get past the breading, but still a taste of summer in there, bland and green and boring and yet again here I am enjoying it beyond enjoyment, close to those tears. Nobody is sitting near us. We eat like a little ceremony, like we've rehearsed eating this way. Plate after plate, beautiful robot-hillbillies.
- Greens cooked to the point of not being green, splashed with vinegar: that's what I wanted right away, this. Mossy, gamy, gorgeous green, watery, vinegary, like mown grass transformed into a taste you always taste when you feel homesick, or at least when you feel like you need a place to hide.
- Cooked carrots, boiled to their banal essence, cooked into contentment. They taste like you're eating a sentence you said in 1979, when you wanted not to talk but somebody made you. Orange, grainy, disappearing across your tongue.
- Banana pudding. Like a prayer in a Baptist church. Like amnesia with banana flavoring. Vanilla wafers are so lovely, symbols of loneliness in a small town,
That's all I got.