‘I quit,’ says April Stanton, leaning on the countertop. She stares vacantly through the window of the truck stop at the heat rippling on the old highway. Her lips smack as she chews a wad of pink bubblegum. ‘This truck stop is as dead as a doornail.’
Andrew Stanton, April’s father, looks at the dilapidated diner directly next to the truck stop. The desert has its own plans if Andrew doesn’t fix up the building soon. ‘The truck stop is not dead, April. It’s just in torpor.’
And what about the diner? April thinks, folding a fresh stick of strawberry satisfaction in half with her tongue and chewing loudly.
‘If you quit, where else are you going to get a job?’ Andrew asks.
April’s mouth curls at the edges. ‘Oh, I can get work.’
‘If you’re referring to what I think you are, internet whoring, or being a cam-girl, is not real work. It’s the farthest thing from it.’
‘I beg to disagree. Mary Magdalen’s epitaph says: Friend of Jesus, Proud sex worker. I’m not too proud to join her ranks.’
‘Can anyone be a proud sex worker? I mean, truly?’ Andrew asks.
Other than setting tumble weeds alight and watching fireballs roll across the desert by night, provoking her father is April’s only regular source of entertainment. She traces her hips with her hands. ‘Uh, yeah. These curves are monetisable. I just never realised it until now.’
The bell above the shop door rings. Pastor Richards tips his stetson hat in greeting. He walks to the back of the store to pick out a soda. ‘Morning, folks,’ he says, placing his drink on the counter. ‘Dust storm on the way. Hot as hell. What’s the news here?’
April stretches the gum from her mouth and plucks it like a banjo string.
‘Well, Pastor,’ Andrew says, ‘April is considering turning to the oldest profession—by way of the internet—if you catch my meaning. Now, I’m half-sure that this ironic teenage posturing will come to an end soon, but she shouldn't be entertaining the notion in the first place.’
April twirls her gum with her finger and bats her lashes at the pastor.
‘Young lady,’ Pastor Richards says, ‘boredom is not a reason to commit carnal capers on the internet. Don’t let temporary teenage disaffection lead you astray. If you slide into a world of smut that you can’t crawl back out of, and pick up a drug habit, you can say goodbye to redemption.’
April sniggers. ‘What do you suggest I do, then? There’s nothing to keep my idle thumbs busy around here.’
‘You have to make something of yourself. It’s no good just lying around like it's all gonna happen to you. Do something other than bothering your poor father.’
‘Yeah? like what?’
‘Well, think about it. What is this town lacking?’
‘Ever see those roadside attractions? How’s about killing two birds with one stone and building a landmark? That’ll keep you busy and get people patronising this place again.'
‘Yeah,’ Andrew says, ‘I’ve seen ‘em—Gigantic Lumberjacks and Large Ears of Corn. But what could ours could be?’
April taps her fingers on her chin. ‘Uh, the biggest wad of bubblegum, obviously. Like a big sculpture. A big pile of the stuff.’
That sound, dear reader, is the clunk of calcified apathy dislodging from April’s brain. For the first time in her life, she is about to follow an original train of thought instinctively. She starts by going to the storeroom in the back and searching for boxes of bubblegum. As she does, she ponders how different brands, colours, flavours, and malleabilities will have an effect on the resulting sculpture. She decides that a magenta monolith made of her preferred brand of bubblegum—Strawberry Satisfaction—will pique people's ocular curiosity.
Yes, the rude, reddish tone of Strawberry Satisfaction will stand out royally against the golden sands of the desert. And if the community contributes their own used pieces of gum bought here at the truck stop, we’ll have a proud wad in no time!
Julie surveys the patch of desert that surrounds the diner. She lays down and presses her ear to the ground, intuiting the Earth’s energy field in the form of ley lines. A scorpion scuttles over her shawl. ‘Every business that ever prospered did so because of its location on a ley line,’ she says. ‘A building’s surrounding energy fields are very important.’
Andrew stands with his arms folded. More mystic mumbo-jumbo, he thinks. I’m lucky to have an ex-wife who offers such a valuable service.
‘There’s a line with a high bandwidth of positivity running right under the diner. There are a few obstacles obstructing the flow of the truck stop tributaries, but it's nothing I can’t unblock.’
‘And how much does a mystic plumber charge for unblocking these days?’ Andrew asks.
Julie shakes her head knowingly. ‘Please. I’m an Energy Specialist. And I would never charge my family.’ She turns to her daughter. ‘Let me know when you’d like me to start work, April. I'll see you soon, my darling.'
Julie’s dress trails across the sand as she floats over to her Chevy pick-up truck. She traps the hem of her dress in the door of the vehicle, and it flutters in the draft as she drives away. The motor of the pick up backfires, and Andrew jumps. ‘Your mother didn’t even notice I’ve repainted the front of the diner, did she?’ And by the way, April, when are you going to help?’
‘I’m a big picture kind of gal. I don’t dabble in donkey work.’
Andrew places his hands on his hips. ‘Oh yeah? Is that right?’
‘If you let me run this place for a day, it wouldn’t be such a dilapidated dump!’
‘Alright, if you think you can do better, then have at it!’
April thrusts her chin forward mockingly. 'Maybe I will.’
Andrew and Pastor Richards are seated in one of the diner’s shaggy old window booths sipping coffee.
‘Oh, man. It’s nice to take a break. It’s hard work doing everything by yourself,' Andrew says.
‘I’ll bet,’ Pastor Richards says. ‘It’s looking like things are progressing, though.’
‘All the chrome’s polishing up well,’ Andrew says. ‘As you can see, the seats need reupholstering.’
‘Is April chipping in at all?’
‘A little. She’s using her brain now. She’s taken to the food side of things and is coming up with ideas for the menu.’
In the kitchen, April has a eureka moment whilst brainstorming dishes for the diner and eagerly broadcasts it through the service hatch of the kitchen. ’I’ve got it! I’ve got our signature dish.’
‘Let me guess,’ Pastor Richards says. ‘Bubblegum pie?’
April skips over to her father and the Pastor. ‘How did you know?’
‘There seems to be a theme emerging here,’ he says.
‘It’s going to be filled with melted pink marshmallows.’ April cups two giant, imaginary marshmallows in her hands.
Pastor Richards rubs his nose. ‘And how’s the sculpture coming on?’
Andrew gestures to a concrete pad outside. ‘Well, so far, I’ve built a plinth for it.’
‘Now all we need is more people to chew gum,’ April says.
‘That’s a heck of a lot of chewing,’ The Pastor says. And he's right.
Magenta Diner is brimming with customers on opening afternoon. Bubble Gum pies are flying off the racks. Ramekins filled with sticks of Strawberry Satisfaction bubblegum adorn each table. As do napkins printed with the message, ‘Please don’t spit your gum here. Add it to The Wad!’. A group of elderly diners, who have failed to wrap their head around the concept of the sculpture, are asking Josh—the newly hired, acne-ridden busboy—to explain it.
‘If you’d care to participate in the interactive sculpture, all you have to do is place your used gum on the plinth in a fashion you see fit. We’re aiming for the largest wad in the states!’
He gestures to the plinth, upon which the humble beginnings of the magenta monolith can be seen. There are around two hundred pieces, mostly chewed by April and her father.
‘It’s current dimensions are a small fraction of what they’ll become,’ Josh says.
The elderly diners are impressed with Josh’s enthusiasm. ‘Well, isn’t that fun? Sure, we’ll do our part.’
‘Great! Happy chewing,’ he says. ‘Anything else I can get ya from the menu, though?’
One month after opening, The Great Wad has grown to around the size of Julie’s Chevy pick-up truck.
April slides into the faux leather booth next to her father. ‘Want to hear the latest review of the diner?’
‘Sure,’ he says. ‘But make it quick. I’ve got to empty the grease trap.’
‘Okay.’ April clears her throat. ‘ “Bubblegum Pie is a diner in the desert where you can dine on dessert. And if your culinary curiosity is not peaked by the eponymous (and delicious) Bubblegum Pie, perhaps you will appreciate the diner’s subversive roadside attraction: a large wad of bubblegum perched on a plinth yards from the establishment. This kind of enterprising attitude could save any backwater establishment from a slow death. While modern life becomes increasingly streamlined by new highways, shopping malls, multiplexes, and chain restaurants, Magenta Diner sends its quaint tractor beam across the desert, engages those hungry for uniqueness, and pulls them toward its epicentre of desert quirk with a gentle, but firm, gravity. Oh, to exude a refreshingly human spirit in an age of machines, and a quintessentially American one at that! Viva Magenta Diner!” ’
April puts down the newspaper.
‘Geez,’ Andrew says.
April beams at her father. ‘Not bad, eh?’
‘Couldn’t have put it better myself.’ Andrew says. ‘I’m glad we’re fully onboard with this thing together.’
Ten months on, and The Great Wad has reached a sizeable stature; precisely four Chevy pick-up trucks, stacked two by two. Not only that—but it has begun to glow.
According to Julie, an intensification of lay line energy has gifted The Great Wad with bioluminescence.
According to Pastor Richards, it’s simply a miracle.
According to Andrew—who now openly poo-poos Julie’s mystic interpretations—the Stantons ought to be consulting a man of science who can offer his opinion on the gum’s bioluminescent properties.
According to April—well, she can’t make up her mind on who to side with.
Andrew polishes the chrome countertop. He’s been catching snippets of the conversation regarding the glowing gum between the holy man and the mystic, who sit in the reupholstered window booth.
‘It’s clearly a sign from God,’ Pastor Richards says. ‘Now, I don’t want to take credit for it, but I did roll the snowball from the top of the mountain and spark April's idea, didn’t I? Of course, He has been watching all along and has seen fit to give us a sign that He approves of our activities.’
Julie’s bangles rattle as she clasps her satin-scarfed head in exasperation. ‘Let me assure you, Pastor—this transmission is not divine in origin. There are no deities, Christian or otherwise, who have a monopoly on Earth’s energy fields. This is an act of nature beyond metaphysical comprehension.’
‘I agree that it is an act of nature,’ Pastor Richards says, ‘in a miraculous sense.’
‘Let’s leave it at that then, shall we?’ Julie says.
Andrew sidles up to the booth with a steaming pot of coffee.
‘Oh, yes please,’ the Pastor says.
Andrew refrains from pouring the coffee for a moment. ‘I’ve sent a sample of The Great Wad to Professor Bubblegum of ChewCorp to analyse its polymers. So we may have a scientific explanation soon enough. But I hope you both know, that the cause of all of this, is that busy little brain in there.’ He points through the service hatch to April who is happily preparing pies.
‘I prefer to be addressed as Professor Bubblegum,’ the man in the perfect white lab coat says.
‘That’s your real name?’ Andrew asks.
The Professor pinches the knot of his bowtie and nods.
‘What did your analysis reveal?’ April asks.
‘Something that I’ve been suspecting for a long time.’ Professor Bubblegum clears his throat. ‘ChewCorp gum—in large enough masses—is highly absorptive of solar radiation. So, at night, cooler desert temperatures alter its chemical composition, and it releases pent-up solar radiation. I never thought that when I hybridised agar gum polymers in an osmotic chamber with—’
‘Lab-coat hogwash.’ Pastor Richards interrupts. ‘Have you not a theological bone in your body, professor?’
‘Actually, I studied theology at—’
‘All mass vibrates with energy,’ says Julie. ‘The Wad is just buzzing with good feelings from the Earth, that’s all.’
‘Well, it’s not exactly—’
‘Didn’t you hear the man?’ Andrew asks. ‘It’s solar radiation!’
‘Anyhow—regardless of the science behind your unique attraction,’ Professor Bubblegum says, 'I’d like to extend a friendly hand from ChewCorp. We’d like to sponsor Magenta Diner and provide you with an unlimited supply of Strawberry Satisfaction, or any flavour of your choosing.’
‘You’re not going to plaster this quaint little diner with corporate logos, are you?’ Julie asks.
‘We don’t want a big billboard outside with your name on it,’ Pastor Richards says.
Andrew scratches his greying stubble. ‘I appreciate your offer, Professor, but I’m going to have to talk it over with my co-pilot, April.’
Professor Bubblegum scatters several of his polka-dotted-multi-coloured business cards on the table. Then deadly serious, he says, 'Give me a call when you decide.’
Whatever celestial body is responsible for The Great Wad's radiance—whether the Sun or the Earth—does not approve of ChewCorp and its dubious environmental policies, and has withdrawn its services from Magenta Diner. The gum no longer glows.
Julie’s quest to get to the bottom of things begins with consulting her astrology charts, tarot cards, and dowsing with crystals. Checking the lay lines again confirms that the flow of energy has been cut off altogether. Everything points to ChewCorp.
April and Andrew discuss the contract and decide (before Julie comes flapping her wings and preaching not to sign) that they won’t be jumping onboard with the gum giant.
A great rain is falling in the desert. The Great Wad is sodden. The Great Wad is wilting.
Thrashing rain agitates the sculpture’s structure, leaving it vulnerable to a subsequent sandstorm, which pummels billions of grains into the pink pile of goo. These grains coat the exterior, giving the appearance of breaded tofu. Curious reptiles, arachnids, and avians peck, pinch, and sniff at the sorry pile of confectionary, whose sweet, strawberry petrichor, whose wet effluvium, is momentarily attractive. But then they become embedded in its sticky mass. Glued to its rosy flypaper. Helpless to escape.
April and Andrew are spending the morning plucking vultures and their beaks from a smoothed out, sloppy Great Wad. Presumably, the birds became stuck when they sought the juicy tarantulas therein—because, understandably, from a vulture’s perspective, the pile of gum must have looked like one big spider omelette. April and Andrew decide to leave The Great Wad alone—bereft of its former luminescent glory—until they decide what to do with it.
Pastor Richards stops by for his usual coffee, sees the plague of spiders, mistakes them for Biblical horrors, and believes that the sculpture ought to be cleansed. He concocts a rather extreme plan to deal with the devilry. It involves a large container of kerosene and a book of matches.
April, draped in a thin bedsheet, dreams of the exact moment she refused the sponsorship offer. In the dream, she calls Professor Bubblegum on the diner’s rotary telephone, explains that she isn’t willing to engage in ChewCorp’s capitalistic pageantry, then high fives her mother, father, and Pastor Richards. Then, an overwhelming feeling of dread encompasses everything, which has less to do with regret than the fact that her bedroom in her father’s trailer is becoming unbearably hot. She sits up in a sweat after a roar outside wakes her. She flings the curtains open and sees a mass of black smoke spiralling up from a dome of orange flames.
‘The Great Wad!’ She cries.
The wind is flicking flames at the trailer, whose white paint is turning golden brown like a marshmallow before a campfire. As the paint singes, fizzes, bubbles, and melts, the trailer’s metal frame wilts and buckles. April runs to her father’s room to shake him awake.
At a safe distance from the fire, father and daughter (in between coughing fits) ponder the motives of the arsonist.
‘Is this the work of the ChewCorp mafia?’ Andrew asks. ‘Did we refuse an offer that we shouldn’t have?’
‘I don’t know, but I wish we would have insured The Great Wad,’ April says.
‘Even if we had, they’d probably just think the fire was fraudulent, or some kind of publicity stunt,’ Andrew says. ‘You know what your mother is going to say, don’t you?’
‘Something like “It’s a symbolic immolation. It’s a new start. . .”
‘What do we do now?’ Andrew asks.
‘Eh, let it burn, I guess. Thank God the diner is still intact,' April says.
‘So I guess we just pick another brand of bubblegum, start again, and build another Great Wad.’
‘You guess right,’ says April. ‘But which flavour this time?’
And that, dear reader, is the moment we leave April and Andrew to make their important decision. As they stand by the smouldering corpse of The Great Wad, recalling its former brain-like structure, they contemplate the transcendental effervescence it channelled through its soft and varied crenelations. With a little input from April’s tumultuous teenage mind, The Great Wad symbiotically exuded healing and transformational properties that turned a dilapidated diner into a hub of joviality. And these, dear reader, are all the qualities that April hopes to recapture in her next Bubblegum adventure.