A few years after graduating college, with the idea in mind to become a literature professor, I found myself going to graduate school for a degree to teach high school English. Not a terrible idea entirely, but I was entirely unaware of what made it terrible; I was expecting it to be something that it never was- genuine- and this slight misunderstanding would set me back years.
At the time, I really liked getting stoned and going to Wal*Mart- in a way where, if I let my mind wander, I have fond memories of it like people will of past vacations. It was equally surreal and it was comforting- handfuls of snack food and clearance DVDs; the horror of walking through the heart of consumer culture while acknowledging that you’re enjoying it just as much as anyone else. Like how people try to posture that they don’t like fast food- you’re a liar if part of you doesn’t enjoy the spectacle, even if the relationship is complicated.
“Being Johnny Tangle” (2006) was born out of this complicated, love & hate, relationship with nostalgia and consumer culture- and is a spiritual prequel to “In the Bedroom.”
“Being Johnny Tangle”
“But Mom, seriously, you promised,” cried a bewildered Johnny Tangle. Mrs. Tangle gazed into her web of stringbeans, “Not tonight, Johnny, you know better… Tonight is stringbeans and meatloaf night. It has been stringbeans and meatloaf night for weeks now! You should know this, Johnny, really… and when did I ever promise McDonalds?”
His mother’s words shot through Johnny like a spear impaling a lightning bolt. When did she promise McDonalds? He was sure she did, as Dally provided a callous glance from his muted television and MTV. But maybe, possibly, could Johnny Tangle, in a fit of derangement, have imagined that his loving mother of eight (mostly) wonderful years had promised to buy him three happy meals?
Three happy meals were an absolute necessity in this situation, as Mcdonalds had finally began giving away Hot Wheels in their happy meal combination, and there were three variations of the miniaturized model car. Johnny knew there would be three different paint schemes, three different sets of tiny plastic tires, and three different character decals on the hood. How could little Johnny Tangle be expected to choose between Ronald Mcdonald, Grimace, and the eccentric Hamburgerler? It was a choice Johnny knew he wasn’t prepared to make.
And then there was the food, the glorious food. Since the first time his mother took him to Mcdonalds, over the summer for a birthday party, Johnny has craved Ronand’s unique blend of sugar and fat. Johnny sat close to Dally, watching his silenced television with ear-muff headphones on and a cord extending all the way to his room down the hall. Dally would sit watching MTV with the sound turned down for as long as he could while listening to records playing down the hall.
“You know, Dally, your father is gonna break his neck one of these days on this freakin’ cord,” Mrs. Tangle said mostly to herself. She knew Dally couldn’t hear her, and Johnny only cared about Mcdonald’s. She returned, defeated, to her stringbeans.
Dally started collecting dust, as Mrs. Tangle put it, when he asked for and received, his ear-muff headphone cord-extension set for Christmas 1983. With this special item, Dally would be able to sit in front of the television while listening to his record player running in his room. He rarely moved, and if you watched closely, he rarely blinked. Johnny never understood why Dally wanted such a boring gift, as Christmas was a time for action figures and mystery-goo, and when he asked his father, Mr. Tangle offered, “Son, when you grow up you’ll find that a lot of guys want cord extensions.” Mr. Tangle’s explanation, which may have been the result of too many rum-zingers, didn’t serve to clear up Johnny’s bewilderment.
And bewilderment was an emotion that Johnny was becoming too familiar with on that unusually cold September evening. Johnny scanned the television for the time, finding only flashing lights and blinking colors. “We have to act fast, Dally,” Johnny said with unnecessary anxiety, “Mom is almost done with the meatloaf! And then I’m going to have to set the table. And I don’t wanna set the table for meatloaf, which should really be called grossloaf, and I don’t want grossloaf.” Dally seemed unfazed, even by his brother’s accusation of the night’s meal being “gross.”
“Someone is calling my hard work gross,” Mrs. Tangle said hotly. Johnny peered into the kitchen, as his mother slumped down in Mr. Tangle’s seat at the head of the table with her head in her hands. Johnny watched as she sat in silence and plotted his next move. He considered a casual suggestion, to the effect of something like, “say, I wonder if Mcdonald’s would be any good tonight,” or maybe more along the lines of, “I wonder what’s going on at Mcdonald’s?” Johnny figured a question would warrant an answer, and the only way to answer such a question would be to pick up and go to Mcdonalds. Before he could make his move the door slammed and Mr. Tangle entered the kitchen sweaty and smelling like Old-Spice.
“Meatloaf tonight,” said Mr. Tangle said with defeat, “gross.” Mrs. Tangle’s head sank further into her hands, “…you could always come home and make dinner if you don’t like my cooking.” Mr. Tangle laughed, and Johnny wondered if he didn’t get the joke. Now was his chance, and he knew it. He began by straining for indifference, “Guys… we all know the meatloaf’s gross, so why don’t we go to…” Johnny stopped as his mother’s face began turning red. The room fell silent. Johnny could almost hear the KISS solo to a song he didn’t know pumping through his brother’s ear-muff headset.
“Go to your goddamn room, Johnny Tangle. Go to your room and stay there!”
Johnny couldn’t help but wonder what he had done wrong. His own father had even agreed that the grossloaf was really, really gross! Johnny kicked the door to his room closed. Behind the door was his brother’s old KISS poster, which Johnny never took down when he changed rooms on the account of how neat the guys in their superhero costumes and makeup looked.
His eyes fixed on the bunch of “old junk” (Mrs. Tangle’s words) that Dally had left in Johnny’s new closet. As he gazed, Johnny felt his vision come in and out of focus. What a bunch of junk Dally left behind; the closet was filled with outdated toys, partially completed crossword puzzles, and the golden arches. Johnny repeated the last part to himself again, this time slowly: “…and the golden arches.” What were those beautiful, yellow, curvy arches doing in his closet, in his room, where he sat on Bernard Street, blocks and blocks from McDonald’s? With a new hope, Johnny Tangle reached into his closet and pulled out an old dusty box which read, “The McDonalds Brand® Play-Doh Food Factory™.” With reborn awareness, Johnny Tangle had a solution.
As he assembled the old factory, he smiled to himself. This was quite the educational experience- so, this is how they make McDonald’s. They must have tons of these suckers in the back, just pumping out food. Johnny opened up the old canister, shocked that McDonald’s was actually made out of Play-Doh. This was much more interesting than science class ever could be.
For the first time in his life, Johnny felt a sense of control as he put the Play-Doh through the factory. His mother didn’t matter, Dally’s indifference didn’t matter, and the grossloaf certainly didn’t matter. Johnny had a secret weapon buried right in his closet. Whenever he wanted McDonalds he could have it.
The purple french fries didn’t smell like McDonald’s. Johnny feverishly checked over the box. There was Ronald, there were the arches, and even old Grimace was hanging out. It wasn’t hot and greasy like Mcdonald’s either, and Johnny certainly didn’t feel inclined to mindlessly devour it like he would if he were actually at Mcdonald’s. The difference, however, is that this was his creation. Johnny wanted Mcdonald’s and, Johnny found a way to deliver. He held his Play-Doh hamburger carefully in his hand, with the attention a parent would bestow upon a newborn. This was his and it was beautiful.
Although Johnny quickly had produced his Play-Doh food, he felt hesitant to eat it. Down stairs he could hear his parents fighting over something, loud and cursing. It could be dinner, it could be Johnny. What he wanted, more than anything, was to show his parents the food he made. Maybe he could be making dinner every night? No more grossloaf, no more fighting. Johnny gripped his Play-Doh tightly, waiting to see his parents again, as he drifted off to sleep.
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