Alice Isn’t Dead-Part 2, Chapter 4, “Chain”


In this episode, Alice and Sylvia come across an odd restaurant chain, and help out with a personal problem.

Our first scene is set in New Jersey, in a strip mall off the turnpike. Keisha and Sylvia are looking for something to eat, and Keisha has a few thoughts about chain stores:

We must have decided this, right, at some point? That we wanted it all to look the same. And I can understand that decision. We all like to feel somewhere familiar. Now we can have that feeling wherever we are. No matter the climate or geography, you come inside the chain and you are exactly where you were before, like there was a magic door to the city you feel most comfortable in. It’s a positive that can’t be denied. But we have paid a price for this.

Sylvia interrupts this chain of thought by tugging on her companion’s arm, saying, “I know…you’re thinkin’ your big thoughts so you can have something profound to say on the radio but I’m starvin’.” Keisha, with more than a little amusement, responds, “Can’t a lady have thoughts in peace occaisionally?” Sylvia shoots back, “A lady spends all her time on her ass thinkin’ and right now it’s lunchtime” before spotting a burger joint.

The restaurant in questions makes Keisha uneasy in a way she can’t really explain, so, of course, this is where Sylvia suggests that they eat and starts walking towards it. Keisha describes the place as looking much like the rest of the shops in the strip mall, but with a burger-shaped sign that has the word “Praxis” written on it, a rather important detail that is discussed further later on. She goes on to describe the entire of the restaurant, which is a little odd:

The inside was a simple counter and a couple tables with plastic chairs. The wall was papered in comic book covers, although I didn’t recognize any of the characters. “Tiptoe Woman,” one was called. Another called “The Incredible Man Who Cries.”

Sylvia interjects again, saying that she thinks she might get a chicken sandwich, following this thought up by asking if it’s weird to order chicken at a burger joint. Personally, I would say no, since I do that all the time.

Keisha muses for a bit that she didn’t know how alone she was until Sylvia came along, and that she feels a bit guilty since Sylvia should be living a normal teenage life, not driving around the country with her. “But I’m not the one who killed her mother and left her with the same obsession that I have,” she says. She continues, saying that while Sylvia did come for a specific reason, she still has routes to run, though Sylvia is content to run them with her for the time being. Apparently she’d also been neglecting some of those routes, and while she doesn’t think that Bay & Creek will fire her for it, she still needs “to actually drive a truck for work occasionally.”

Inside the restaurant, they are greeted at the counter by a man with thinning hair and a paper cap, who asks them what they’ll have. Keisha asks him what’s good, and the man responds, “Burger’s OK.” Keisha orders a burger, and after some deliberation, Sylvia decides to order one as well. The man at the counter hands off their order to the woman at the grill without even looking at her. She acknowledges this with “Two burgers coming up,” to which the man doesn’t respond.

Sylvia, making conversation, asks him for his name, which he gives as Ramon. The woman at the grill pipes up, saying that her name is Donna and that Ramon never introduces her to anyone, or will even speak with her. Keisha asks why this is, and Ramon responds by saying that their food will be up in a moment. Donna adds that they’ve been running this restaurant for over five years, and he hasn’t spoken to her for that entire time.

Sylvia asks Ramon if this is true, and he just scowls at her and starts cleaning the counter. Donna explains that their parents had passed away and that she’d ended up selling their house without consulting Ramon about it. At this point, their food is ready and Ramon brings it to them.

Keisha asks Ramon if it’s OK for her to give him some advice. He says that he doubts he can stop her, so she continues:

“Someone hurt me,” I said. “Betrayed me. And that has defined what my life has been for every second of every day after. And it has sucked. If I had any other choice, I’d take it. If you have any other choice, choice besides being defined by a feeling of betrayal, you should jump for it. Jump for it like dry land to the drowned.”

Ramon softens a bit at this, and Sylvia adds that he’ll have to forgive his sister sometime before complimenting the burger. He heads back to the counter, and Sylvia starts drawing a caricature of him on a napkin. She gives it to him as they leave, which actually gets a smile out of him, though it disappears when Donna says goodbye to the two.

After they’ve been back on the road for about an hour, Keisha slams on the steering wheel loud enough to wake Sylvia up. Startled, she asks Keisha if they’re in any danger, and Keisha explains that she’d left her scarf at the restaurant. Sighing, she adds that it apparently belongs to them now.

Keisha then gives some more thoughts on chains, and how they tend to make everything look the same:

It’s hard to tell regions apart just by looking at the buildings now. A CVS is a CVS, a Starbucks is a Starbucks. I’m not here to moralize, I’m just telling you what it is to be a traveler now.

Every place is built like every place, and so the only thing that tells you that you’re moving is the nature that’s been allowed to stay. As you head north, the trees shift from broad, leafy canopies to the narrow spurs of conifers. And the mountains turn from big hills to great structures of rock, topped with vast slopes of untouched snow. Or on another drive, the hills dot themselves away to nothing, and you realize you haven’t seen elevation in hours, nor many trees, just a lot of grass and a lot of road. Or you leave behind a wetter, greener climate, and you see the world around you fade from grass to kindling, to dirt and rocks and then, like a sign marking a border you didn’t know you were crossing, the first great cactus, harbinger of the waiting desert.

It’s up to nature to tell us we’re moving. Otherwise each KMart sign looks like each KMart sign. Every Subway sandwich tastes the same.

The story then skips ahead a few days and our heroines are now in Wisconsin, just north of Madison. Keisha describes seeing a bunch of hotels with indoor water parks, “for when the Wisconsin weather doesn’t cooperate with the Wisconsin vacation.” She also notices a number of shopping centers and movie theaters in the area as the two of them are looking for lunch. Sylvia then spots a familiar burger-shaped sign, and says that it looks like they’re a chain. She says that the last time was good, and suggests that they eat there. The sight of it still makes Keisha uneasy, but she manages to quash that part down and the two of them enter the restaurant.

To find Ramon and Donna there.

Ramon tells Keisha that she forgot her scarf last time, and Donna waves at them as he goes to grab it. She points out a table in the corner for them. Keisha, understandably taken aback, asks what they’re doing there. Donna replies that they hardly ever leave the place, and Ramon adds that they have a lot to do before asking them if they’ll have the same as last time.

Sylvia says sure, then somewhat hesitantly, ask “Weren’t y’all in New Jersey the last time?” Donna just shrugs, and Ramon says that they don’t get out much. Donna hands Ramon the two burgers, and Ramon thanks her before going to deliver them. Surprised, Donna asks if he actually just spoke to her, and Ramon tells her that he has to forgive her sometime.

Donna does not take this well:

“Forgive?” Donna started laughing. “Oh ho ho honey, OK, I’m glad we’re talking now because we have some shit needs talking about.”
We sat at the table not knowing what to do, caught between the mundanely awkward and the existentially impossible.
“When they died, you just gave up!” Donna said. “You refused to talk through the choices we needed to make. So all that was left up to me. I was on my own, and I was scared, but scared isn’t any kind of excuse so I did what needed to be done. I settled the estate, I sold the house to pay the bills, because there were bills, you know. Medical bills, cemetery bills and all of the debt. And then once all of those choices were made, there you were to tell me I had done them wrong. And you just stopped talking to me, punishing me for the choices that you couldn’t make! And now, excuse me, now you fucking forgive me?!”
Or something to that effect.

Ramon shoots back that he was the one who planned the funeral and Donna scoffs, “Of course, forget all the bills, you planned an evening!”

Keisha and Sylvia decide that now would probably be a good time to leave, and so they head out without eating as Donna and Ramon continue screaming at each other. As they start heading out, Keisha notes that the drawing Sylvia gave to Ramon is still hanging by the cash register.

The two of them end up going to a Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru for their lunch:

And, visible to the customers, there was a huge screen tracking the percentage the employees were hitting of their, quote, “productivity target.” It was sixty-seven per cent. This person is sixty-seven per cent of what they’re supposed to be. We are thirty-three per cent disappointed.

It’s terrifying what we’ve allowed them to do to us, so we can get coffee a few seconds faster. It’s a trade we all made, but we were never given time to think through the ramifications.

Later, the two are on the highway between Houston and New Orleans, “a stretch of bayou and nothing else.” They pull off to get gas and decide that it’s lunchtime. So, of course, they come across the Praxis restaurant near an empty storefront and a nail salon.

They enter, and Ramon and Donna greet them with “Hey,” and “Hi there, honeys,” respectively. Sylvia comments that the two of them seem happier than they did the last time that they saw them, and Donna says that they worked it out. Ramon adds, “Maybe we both needed to forgive and be forgiven,” before adding that Keisha and Sylvia will be some of their last customers.

Keisha awkwardly asks if they’re closing down the restaurant, and Donna responds that running the same place that their parents did is holding them back, before thanking them for stopping by. Keisha then decides to confront the weirdness head-on, and points out that this place has been in a different city each time that they’ve visited. Ramon just shrugs, and says, “These things happen.” Sylvia, justifiably skeptical, responds, “Do they, though?”

Keisha asks them what Praxis is, and Donna cryptically responds, “Oh, honey, if you don’t know that yet, don’t worry. You’ll find out when it’s time.” Ramon gets them their food, and Donna thanks them again for their business. Keisha notes that the drawing is still by the register, though the edges have gone yellow and brittle.

Later, Keisha is at a Bay & Creek facility near Buffalo, talking with her shift supervisor. She asks her about a delivery that she made the year before to a factory in Florida, which also carried the name “Praxis.” The shift supervisor has an odd reaction to her questions:

“What is Praxis?” I asked.
The shift supervisor, who had been looking over her papers (and the days at) tedium, went stiff.
“Where did you hear that name?” she said.
“You assigned me a route for them last year.”
“We certainly did not. You need to tell me everything, but hold on.” She got up, reached for a phone. “Not me, I don’t want to hear a word of this. I’ll call someone in here, and you are going to tell them everything you know about Praxis.”
She started dialing and I got up and walked away. She shouted at me to wait, but I was most certainly not going to do that.

Keisha wonders what Praxis is, and about the shift supervisor’s reaction, but decides that these are questions for another day. Right now, she needs to focus on what Sylvia came to her for.

A while later, Keisha has now swapped out her truck for a rental car, and Sylvia is asleep in the backseat. Keisha comments on Sylvia’s ability to sleep in any situation, adding, “Me, I have trouble sleeping in the best of situations. And I haven’t been in the best of situations in… well, years now probably.”

They drive through New York, eventually teaching the Hudson River. Keisha talks about the strip malls and chain restaurants in Kingston, and how “it looks like they kept the rest of the area picturesque by jamming all of that into a couple of square miles.”

They keep going until the come across an empty storefront with the outline of the word “Praxis” still visible in the window. Sylvia comments that they really did move on, and Keisha asks how all this is possible. Sylvia gives her some words of wisdom:

“We of all people are not in the position to go round asking those questions,” she said. “We start thinking about that, we’re liable to go off the deep end. Good Lord!”

They go back into the car and keep driving, eventually coming to the Taconic Parkway and a gas station near the end of Duchess County. Keisha wakes Sylvia up, and Sylvia says that this was where her mother was murdered. Keisha asks, “What now?” Sylvia responds, “Now…we’re going to find out who really murdered her.”

This episode was one of those that wasn’t particularly scary, but it was certainly odd. I liked the way that it called back to the episode “The Factory By The Sea,” with Praxis and that fact that, like the factory, the restaurant seems to have some kind of weird space/time phenomenon going on.

It also looks like it’s setting up Praxis as the big mystery for this season, much like the Thistle Men were for the last season. I’m thinking that it may have something to do with Sylvia’s mother as well, though I supposed we’ll have to listen to the next episodes to find out.

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