Or at least, we were very close to being there. At the exact moment this chapter begins, we were still about a half-mile from the city proper. Arthur Dent was in the RV's back bedroom, busily engaged with what he called his "cope method". This method mainly consisted of hiding under the bedcovers while waiting for the Universe to go away and stop bothering him. Ford was also in the back room, helping him. I don't really know what Arthur was trying to cope with, but the rest of us were trying to cope with Alice. She sat hunched over the radio, her face contorted in concentration as she intently searched for a classic rock station. Various loud voices screamed through the surround sound speakers.
"WE ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK ON A THIRTY-MINUTE COMMERCIAL-FREE..." "...fantastic voyage...""...to rendevous with..." "...a giant custard truck in the middle of..." "...the northern area of the Bering Sea..." "...WHERE THE GOOD LORD BEQUEATHED UNTO MOSES..." "...a stairway to heaven..."
"Oh, this is a good one," she murmured at last, sinking back into the front passenger seat. I returned to my search for food, one which I knew would be fruitless. Ever since boarding the RV, I had been rummaging through cabinets and drawers, trying to root out anything vaguely edible. After all, I hadn't eaten since entering my Cry-O-Matic Escape Pod, and thus hadn't had a bite for at least a few thousand years. For the twentieth time, I opened a drawer which I knew to be empty, commencing yet another thorough search of the kitchenette area. During my first attempt, I had discovered a dustbunny, which I discarded. The second time, I found something that looked like a moldy sponge. By that point, I had become desperate enough to devour the sponge in one gulp. Vogons have stomachs of cast iron, so naturally I was surprised to find myself violently urking all over some nice lady's white pickup truck near the Yosemite turnoff. She might have been more honored had she realized my puke was made of animals mostly extinct by now.
As we passed a shop called Paul's Indian Store, a trucker honked at some turlingdrome who had forgotten to use his turn signal. This ear-splitting noise was followed by another: a blood-curdling scream. The door to the back bedroom started to buck and rattle with vehemence. Obviously, somebody wanted out of there, and the sticky door was preventing him, again.
Zaphod sighed. Every time something horn-like made noise within earshot of the RV, Arthur panicked. He refused to say why- he just made some vague reference to "getting religion".
As we entered the downtown area of the city, a stoplight prompted Zaphod to slam the brakes in mid-sigh. A direct result of this sudden stop was the loud thud and crack of Arthur's body slamming into the immobile door. Then the body was no longer on the opposite side of the door, for there was no more door left. The confrontation had ended as most arguments between an unstoppable object and an unmoveable object will. Among the door's splintered remains lay Arthur, obviously injured but less panicked. I retreated to the couch; I had grown tired of watching him flip out at the mere sight of me and hoped the linoleum floor would distract him from my presence.
Arthur got up slowly, acting like Methuselah with rhematism. He shot a deeply resentful glare at the deceased door and muttered darkly as he dragged himself toward the front passenger seat.
He never quite made it. My acute Vogon olfactory system was picking up the scent I had been longing for. "FOOD!" I screamed, lunging for the nearest exit. Unfortunately, Arthur made the grave mistake of getting in my way. I knocked him flat as Kansas (in case you haven't heard, the state of Kansas is actually flatter than a pancake by a flatness gradient of about .5). Ford quit cleaning up the door's remains and shoved me backwards to rescue Arthur. Good thing he did, because hungry as I was, I had every intention of trampling Arthur to death on my way to the door.
I spluttered angrily for a moment. Not because of Ford's defensive tackle, oh no. I was spluttering because Zaphod had just taken the RV to a gas station instead of the Carl's Jr. across the street. He guided it with uncharacteristic care up to a pump.
"This is the cheapest station for miles, so we'd better get a full tank," Alice cautioned Zaphod.
"Yeah, and stock the pantry while you're at it," I snapped. "Meantime... do you see that lovely smiling star over there?"
"I see it."
"If you want me, go there and wait for five hours, because that's how long it's going to take me to finish eating," I ordered, drooling. I had never heard of a fast-food chain before that morning. However, at that moment, I was prepared to find this Carl guy and marry him. Alas, my joy was short-lived. Alice risked her life by stopping me to offer some unwanted advice. "You don't want to charge out there straight away," she warned.
"You are most emphatically mistaken," I retorted, trying to get past her.
Alice would not be deterred so easily. "Have you looked in a mirror lately? I don't know what you've been told about this planet, but most Earthlings are unused to... well, visitors. Especially big, green ones."
Alice had made a valid point, but I was beyond listening. The growling of my stomach deafened my ears to any reasonable arguments. Hunger and Vogons don't mix well, believe me. Well within the next second, I was out of there and making a beeline towards the nearest breakfast burrito I could find.
Without heed to any detail of my environment, I stampeded across the street. My breath came in short, powerful chugs, like the sound a Vogon Ultra-Mega-Super-Destruct-O-Tank makes just before wiping out a small planet. Small wonder, then, that I barely heard the truck barreling down on me until there was absolutely nothing I could think of to do about it.
I heard a little girl scream and realized to my embarrassment that it was my inner child.
Alice pulled me out of the road before the truck could destroy my existence, or vice versa. She briefly but thoroughly explained to me the the concept of crosswalks, and after my expression clearly demonstrated that I had no idea what she was talking about, she volunteered to join me in my quest for a morning meal. "I'm a mite hungry, myself," she admitted.
********************(here comes the good part!)
We entered the restaurant through its only door, attracting almost no attention from the caffeine-starved patrons. If I recall correctly, many had newspapers under thier arms, cellphones glued to thier earlobes, and were in various stages of preparation for work. (One of them was still wearing his bathrobe and had a toothbrush dangling out of his mouth.) About a dozen of these pitiful specimens stood ahead of me, meaning I could look forward to an exchange of ten long minutes for some crude proteins, over-processed carbohydrates, various preservatives with names beyond pronunciation, and a kiddie cup of orange juice. For a moment, it was either seize control of the restaurant, releasing hostages every few hours in exchange for pretzels and Gatorade, or wait civilly in line.
Being short of energy at the time, I took the second alternative. The line inched forward... and forward... and forward. Blank-eyed, Alice and I shuffled forward towards beaming smiles and blue cotton aprons that never tired of asking "Do you want fries with that?" Finally, only one lethargic breakfast-seeker stood between me and the goal. Incidentally, he happened to be the one wearing the bathrobe. I have noticed a potentially hazardous trend among humans- a side effect of wearing bathrobes is the inability to construct a coherent sentence. This handicap I first observed in the afore-mentioned customer. "G'migmubblenishbrun," he muttered in a guttural tone, toothpaste drool oozing out of his mouth.
"Excuse me, sir?" asked the smiling apron. I looked on both Apron and Bathrobe with disdain- had Apron shoved a fried rat under Bathrobe's nose, he probably would have eaten that and pushed off. But no, these smiling apron types are absolutely paranoid about making mistakes. I'll say one thing for that girl, though. She was a true optimist, refusing to give up on the Neanderthal until he'd gurgled gibberish at her three more times. He repeated himself, "E'ickmffinunnoashbron," precariously balanced between standing up and collapsing across the counter.
"Excuse me, sir?" Apron's beaming smile flickered a bit.
"Excuse me, sir?" Her smile seemed just about out of juice.
Apron's smile gave out at last and she called the manager.
I wondered if I should give up on ever getting a decent meal and start gnawing naugahyde from chairs to survive. Alice, still standing patiently beside me, noticed that I was eyeing the booth benches with a ravenous gaze. She restrained me and averted a certain disaster, something she would find impossible to do later.
Obviously endowed with fluency in gibber, the manager came to our rescue by translating the man's primitive grumble into "Egg McMuffin, no hashbrown." Afraid of either Bathrobe's wrath or the prospect of trying to extract money from his stunted understanding, Apron gave him a sandwich free of charge and called for the next customer.
I beamed a grin nearly too wide for my face to hold it (and considering the size of my face, this task was not an easy one). I stepped forward...
...but not quickly enough. Some loudmouth wearing a grey suit, a cowboy hat and a tie that looked like woven vomit cut in front of me. It goes against my character to grin and bear it, but I might have done so had not his seven rowdy friends joined him in line. Alice recognized the evil gleam in my eye and reached forward to hold me back. I turned and snarled at her, conjuring up a very nasty face while I was at it. She fainted dead away, allowing me to assault my prey unimpeded. How very nice of her.
I tapped the Tasteless Cowboy with one meaty finger. He did not turn around, and I did not puch him squarely in the jaw, triggering a Western-saloon-style brawl. I smacked him across the back of the head and sent him flying over the cash register instead. That was when the saloon-style brawl was forthcoming. His seven rowdy friends jumped me all at once, but I was too hungry to worry about the odds of victory. I started hauling my fists towards every point of the hyperspatial compass, even some that mathematicians haven't discovered yet. Two little boys, both dressed in school uniforms, hopped on top of a table and began chanting with glee, "Mortal Kombat! Mortal Kombat! Mortal Kombat!"
I bellowed and hallooed and generally yelled at people, smashing every object and person within my reach. I felt several fists threatening to rearrange my face, but thier plan often backfired: my face rearranged their fists. A few of the wiser warriors went into retreat, but I had no intention of letting them get off so easily. I began inching towards their intended escape route and thus the hullaballo migrated.
I was not really paying attention to anything besides where my fists were going, so I cannot guess with any degree of accuracy who exactly jostled the beady-eyed soccer mom at table five. But when she was jostled, she made sure everyone knew it. In a frenzy that can only be induced by years of carpooling, she joined the fray. Her screeching, banshee-like attack completely disrupted the battle, sending everyone involved to a flight of panic. Many ran screaming for the fire exit, and as they made good their escape, the sprinkler system activated. It only got worse from there, as the horrified Aprons sprang into action. Crying sad little Mary Sue tears, they first pled with us. Of course, we pretended not to hear them over the sound of knuckles meeting flesh. Stamping thier sad little Mary Sue feet, they ordered us to "stop this nonsense". We pretended not to hear them over bones cracking and bodies sliding to the floor. Baring thier sharp little Mary Sue fingernails, they lit into us with all four feet and began hauling us apart like professional bouncers, growling that we had too heard them and it was no use crying for Mommy now because they were sick and tired of asking "Do you want fries with that?" when they couldn't even get decent dental plans from these penny-pinching ***** who were exploiting them so they were already in a mean mood and a bunch of stinkin' ingrates starting up a grudge match in thier restaurant was the proverbial straw that broke the Apron's back. I pretended not to care and yelled back that my intestines were beginning to atrophy from not being used since the Stone Age and that no smart-aleck was gonna cut in line without paying the price.
Sprinklers raining, soccer moms screeching, Aprons howling, rowdy cowboys being rowdy cowboys, naugahyde chairs flying, and me in the middle of the whole mess. In a word, it was one whiz-bang of a brawl.
Unfortunately, Alice chose that moment of prime brawl potential to come around. She rose from the floor and mounted a condiment table, which groaned and disintegrated under her weight. Steaming slightly, she tried again, mounting a very sturdy garbage recepticle, which groaned but stubbornly held its shape. She drew a deep breath and screamed at the top of her lungs.
She waved her arms, threatened, cajoled, coaxed, and at last gave up. She sat down, waiting for the brawl to lose energy, and began whistling Beethoven's Fifth.
The fight stopped immediately.
Don't ask me why whistling the Fifth brought a halt to the chaos when screaming a diminished fifth couldn't do the job. I suspect that the scream was just one more note of violence in the midst of a roiling orchestra. However, the classical masterpice reminded the people that they were supposedly part of a superior, cultured race and shamed them into giving up the conflict. After all, nobody really knew how or why it had started, a fact I consider an immense stroke of luck. Alice hopped off the garbage recepticle, disentangled me from the several fallen cowboys at my feet, and led me out of the rainy restaraunt into the parking lot.
She then wavered a bit, as if about to faint. She did not faint, in case you want to know, but she did punch me in the nose. I roared in reply, but she only blinked and looked dizzy. That was when the unthinkable happened.
Parked just one lot over from the McDonalds was a busload of boys in school uniforms, on thier way to a summer camp by the looks of them. As I later discovered, thier bus driver (who turned out to be the Tasteless Cowboy), the camp counselors (his seven friends), and two campers had gone inside to order breakfast on their way. This ill-fated party was quickly interrupted by a hungry Vogon, who emerged from the Carl's Jr. a few minutes later to be caught in a terrible case of mistaken identity.
It is now incumbent upon me to note that this entire sequence of events occurred in summer 2004. The entire bus of boys had seen Shrek 2 that summer, and they unanimously decided that I was the great green ogre, come to Oakdale for a publicity gig. I had never even heard of Shrek myself, but I soon would, for that was the name they shouted at me as I fled their swarming advance. A few moments earlier, I had taken on a crowd of adults, but something about screaming little people scares the daylights out of me. So, I made a beeline for the RV with Alice in hot pursuit.
I charged through the vehicle's open door, brushing past Ford. He squinted at me as if I had grown a toad out of my ear. He then squinted in like manner at Alice, and then at the crowd of prepubescents following us.
Alice charged in, yanking the door closed behind her. She opened the driver's side window and craned her head out to shout at Zaphod, who was trying to disengage the nozzle from the RV's gas tank. "Get in here now!" she ordered.
Zig/Zag was already inside, carrying a box with holes in it. Straight off, I should have known what that meant, but I was preoccupied with another matter. The little Munchkins had gathered outside the door and were hammering on it with thier tiny little fists.
"Zaphod, now would be a good time!" Alice insisted. He nearly walked around the RV to try fighting his way through the sea of campers, but Alice knew better. She collared him and hauled him upwards. Then her face stretched into a shocked expression. "Hey, er, where's Arthur?" she squeaked. Half-in and half-out of the window, Zaphod waved absently at the mini-mart.
Alice nearly dropped him. I waved her aside and finished pulling Zaphod in. Dropping him into the driver seat, I turned to Alice and completely failed to ask, "Now what?" She had already bailed out of the other window and was racing towards the mini-mart. Ford watched, Zaphod caught his breath, I covered my ears to block out the sound of tiny fists, and Zig/Zag fiddled around in the back room with the box they had found. A moment later, Alice emerged with an unwilling Arthur in tow. She marched forth and frowned mightily as he desperately clutched two boxes of Lipton tea bags to his chest. Upon reaching the driver side window, she turned to Arthur and suggested something to him.
He vigorously shook his head no.
She firmly took hold on his tea boxes.
He huggled them to himself so tight that the boxes almost broke.
She sighed and pried them away from his vise-like grip.
He collapsed and began weeping.
She tossed the boxes through the window, climbed in after them with a little help from Ford, and turned back to Arthur, who was still sobbing on the pavement.
"Come on, you living water fountain," she snapped, "we're getting out of here right now, and I do not mean maybe."
He wailed disconsolately.
Zaphod groaned and blew the horn at top decibels.
Arthur stood bolt upright and shrieked.
I leaned out the window and pulled him in, kicking and screaming. (He was kicking and screaming, that is. Not me.) Zaphod did not enjoy this experience, possibly because I completely disregarded the fact that he was in the driver's seat and used him as leverage. Arthur enjoyed it even less than Zaphod did, because suddenly a Vogon had him under the arms and was trying to pull him into a vehicle which he did not want to enter. As you can imagine, this uncomfortable situation made my job just that much more difficult. In the meantime, Zaphod squirmed out of my way and held a quick conferece with Alice that went something like this.
"Alice, the nozzle."
"The one I used to fill the gas tank with."
"What about it?"
"It's still there."
"In the gas tank?"
"No, on Eroticon Six. Of course in the gas tank!"
Alice considered this. "Sucks to the nozzle," she concluded, and noticing that the driver's seat was free, she planted herself in it. Ford feebly protested. "You aren't old enough to have a driver's license!"
Alice glared at him. She'd had a bad morning to top all bad mornings, and her "patience for trifles" meter sat rock steady at zero. "Name somebody in this vehicle who has a valid driver license, and I'll willingly, at once and with all my heart, surrender the steering wheel to him."
Ford thought that over as she gunned the engine, scattering the startled campers. Police sirens sounded faintly in the distance as she floored the gas pedal.
A second or two later, the gas station was far behind, as was my fleeting hope of breakfast. I sighed and sat down at the kitchenette table, moping.
Zaphod looked out the window and turned back to the rest of us happily. "Well, that's one less problem," he said cheerily.
"What do you mean?" Alice was concentrating on the road.
"The nozzle must have yanked out when we took off, which means our gas isn't pouring all over the road."
"However, this also means that the nozzle is still at the gas station, and still pouring petrol all over the place. Since I saw somebody buying a lighter and a pack of cigarettes there just before I left, the whole premises should blow sky-high right about..."
"Now," he finished calmly, as a mushroom explosion filled the sky behind us.
Zaphod ignored our collective reaction, which was to crane our necks for a better view of the apocalyptic scene only a mile away. He casually sloped over to the fridge and got out a bottle of Stewart's Fine Soda, and casually tripped over something on his way to find the bottle opener. The thing Zaphod tripped over responded by licking his face.
To Be Continued...