The legend of Queen Arthur … and her nights at the Round Table
Sally Arthur — a 30-something single mother of three, server at a local restaurant, and artist in her spare time — could sling hash like nobody’s business. Not that she literally slung hash (which to her sounded like a euphemism for drug dealing), but she certainly had a knack for bringing the people what they wanted when they wanted it, and doing so with a smile. Working at the Round Table since her early twenties (when she first became pregnant) had provided her with a modest income and also a stable destination.
And in some ways it was also like a community, which was especially meaningful to her as a solo parent with children by three different (and absent) fathers. Sally figured she would have learned her lesson after the first time around, but life is more complicated than that, and we all do what we need to do to get by. And that was all Sally ever wanted for herself and her children: to survive. Any notions of doing something special, or of her being some sort of working-class heroine, weren’t even on the table for her.
Funny thing, she didn’t even make the connection between her last name (which was her father’s, since none of the men in her own life had ever stuck around long enough to leave her with theirs) and the name of the establishment she had worked at for nearly a decade. That was, until a traveler passed through and left her a very large tip with the inscription “the legend of Arthur lives on!” scrawled in the margin of the receipt. He was an odd sort, grizzled and hard-edged but also friendly in a parental sort of way. He had bantered with her a bit about innocuous subjects, told her about his plans for setting up some sort of intentional community on a plot of land, and ordered a whole roasted chicken for dinner.
“Mervin,” he had introduced himself, “Mervin Little. I know, it sounds made up, but that’s really my name. Hey, if it was good enough for Malcolm, it’s good enough for me! Oh wait, he rejected it — well, anyway…” Sally had no idea what he was talking about, but that was par for the course with most customers. She simply offered her usual sideways smile and replied, “Can I top that coffee off for you?” Mervin grinned back at her, and puzzlingly said: “Ever the servant, never the leader, always the muse.”
Sally giggled nervously a bit, but let it pass. Colorful characters were a regular feature at the Round Table, especially during the night shift when she worked. With three children, she was only able to get childcare during the evenings when the kids were asleep — and even this was just a high school girl who lived across the hall and would sleep on Sally’s sofa (when she wasn’t otherwise glued to her phone). But at least the sitter was competent and safe, and could work through the night at a reasonable cost.
So Sally bounced the kids and household chores all day, and then served food all night, day after day. Yet somehow she was never bitter and didn’t lose faith that there was some purpose to all of it in the end. She wasn’t really religious, or even spiritual, but merely good-natured and figured that the world was based on a similar quality despite what it often looked like in the news. Most of the people she had met in her life were actually decent — if a bit quirky — including even those who had wronged her in some way. She understood that they were all just trying to do their best to survive in a harsh world. Like her.
“Hey, did you ever hear the story of King Arthur?” she asked her fellow server, Gwen. “I remember hearing something like it in high school but never paid any attention to anything back then. But I looked into it the other day when I was at the library with my youngest for a free class, and it’s kind of neat. It’s about these valiant knights and epic adventures and love triangles and stuff. Almost like a soap opera!”
“Um, hello Sally! Everyone knows the story of King Arthur — it’s part of like zillions of movies, plays, stories, and everything. I guess I just figured you saw the humor in someone named Arthur working at a diner called the Round Table, but it was such an obvious joke that it wasn’t even worth telling it. You know, kind of like that dude named Trump owning a bunch of casinos — you can’t make that stuff up!”
Overhearing the conversation, the cook — a well-meaning but naïve little ex-sailor named Lance — chimed in: “Fair maidens, I beseech you upon all that is sacred in the kingdom, in the immortal words of the legendary king who gave to the poor, shot arrows through apples, or something like that: Order up!”
The ladies chuckled. Gwen always kind of liked Lance, but she sensed that Sally did as well so kept her distance. (In actuality, though, Sally had sworn off men after her third kid, and instead languished in an unrequited Sapphic limbo that had rekindled from her “experimental” years — and Gwen was actually her fancy.) Sally sighed. “I feel a bit silly, guys. I guess my knowledge of basic things is a little bit lacking. Oh well, it’s not like any of that matters now. My life is what it is and this is all it will ever be, and I’m okay with that. It would be nice to live in a magical place with peace and equality, but that’s not — ”
A massive exploding sound crackled through the air at just that moment. Everything swayed, shook, buckled, and twisted in every direction Sally looked. Swirling lights flashed and bubbled overhead, and the floor rose up toward her — or did she crumble down toward it? In the blink of an eye, everything around her had gone from solid to liquid, from straight lines to wavy ones, from familiar to exotic. Sally thought she could hear muffled cries for help but wondered if those might actually be her own. Was this some sort of accident? A war or sudden disaster? An illness or something happening all in her head?
When the clouds lifted, she was alone in a green pasture. As her eyes refocused, she thought she could make out the fuzzy image of a castle-like structure on the horizon. “I’m not in Kansas anymore,” she thought to herself, whimsically (she was actually from Tennessee, but this place was far away no matter how you sliced it). Obviously, her thoughts continued, she had incurred some sort of head injury, or maybe an accident of some kind, which altered her perceptions and sent her spiraling into this domain.
Yet this didn’t feel like a dream, a hallucination, or an illness at all. She’d had all of those before and they lacked the colors, smells, and details of this place. There was a vividness about the landscape and a nagging sense that she had been here before — which drew her toward the conclusion that this was real — somehow, beyond explanation, and without any idea where. Real, perhaps, but not quite right at all. Without more information, all she could do was take wild guesses that went nowhere. So she walked.
And walked, and walked some more, and walked to the point of near exhaustion. The castle had looked pretty close when she started, but hours of walking seemed to barely bring her any closer to it. As a modern urbanite she didn’t really walk very much, and so even a few miles felt like a major trek. Each step became a labor, but as she felt like she couldn’t go on, a second wind overtook her and lifted her more buoyantly toward the castle. She felt lightheaded and her heart was pumping hard as she arrived.
“Hello? Hello?” she offered at the edge of the massive brick structure. “Don’t they have a doorbell?” she muttered. “Or even a yard dog or something?” But all was quiet in response, so she gently pushed on the massive stone slab that was, she guessed, supposed to function like a door. Despite its size, the “door” gave way quickly, and in the blink of an eye Sally found herself inside the wondrous structure…
The weeks she spent in that magical land (which Sally later dubbed, quite cleverly, “Camelittle”) were nearly indescribable in the sense that the experiences there were so utterly outside her frame of reference that Sally really didn’t have adequate words or even concepts with which to describe them. If she told you that magic was real, that legends were true, that bravery and heroism were everywhere, that love was tangible and enduring, that chivalry was indeed not dead — well, you would have laughed at her and blamed the whole affair on her purported “seizure” that the doctors decided had occurred.
But Sally knew better, even as she also knew well enough to keep it to herself. Her experiences there have never since been recorded nor even spoken aloud; and despite the temptation to pry into Sally’s innermost thoughts to retrieve the epic tale, it is clear that some things are best left to the imagination. What can be said, and perhaps all that needs to be, is that there is more to this world than meets the eye. The dominance of “reality” as an entertainment motif is no more real than the workaday rhythms of life, the drudgery and alienation, the boredom and numbness, or even the titillation and revelry. Time, place, yesterday, today, here, there — all merely subjective orientations mistaken for signposts.
“Order up!” shouted Lance, snapping her out of the mini-tailspin of thought that had become part of her “new normal” in the two months since she’d been cleared to get back to work at the Round Table. “Geez, dude,” chimed Gwen, “can’t you dial it down a bit? She’s been through enough already without you making it sound like a plate of slung hash is the most important thing on two shingles this side of Eden.” She smiled at him and faintly giggled, and he imperceptibly winked in return while patting the counter bell with his spatula. “Whatever, but time is money and this fine cuisine won’t serve itself!”
And so it went. Day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime. The kids grew up, and Sally grew old. Unencumbered by this life, she knew that others awaited somewhere for her, and for all of us. She had glimpsed this all those years ago, and still was certain of it, even as the images and memories of that time had begun to fade a bit in her mind. Until, that is, on a quiet Tuesday evening in the late autumn, when a scraggly, grizzled old stranger appeared in the back booth, smiling wryly, and offering his hand.
Lemar Starland, hither and yon