The Roadside Burger Joint
I sit along the county road that was once a major crossroad to the west. Before the interstate lured the truck drivers onto asphalt ribbons that loomed for hundreds of miles with nothing but toll gates and insipid rest-stops. Before station wagons full of baby- boomer children were replaced with politically correct middle-aged mothers driving hybrid SUV’s.
If buildings could talk, I would tell stories of happier days; meals with a side of laughter, days filled with compassion and hope. I would say something like this.
I watched him climb down from the cab of the eighteen wheeler. His shoulders slumped, as he dragged one foot slowly in front of the other. I could see he was exhausted. “Where’re you headed?” I asked.
“Got to make Wichata by daybreak. Man, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I’m famished.” He eyed the basket of tomatos on my counter. “Are those fresh? Do you think you can put two slices on my burger?”
We put two slices on his sandwich and a whole tomato in a bag for his ride.
She pulled up close to the window. A baby slept curled on a blanket in the way-back of the old Woodie station wagon. Three little blond heads leaned out the open window. She pulled the head-scarf across her left cheek, but not before I saw the nasty bruise.
She stared at the hand-written promotions taped to the window. “May I have three grilled cheese, three cartons of milk and a small coffee, please? How much is that?
She counted out rumbled single bills from her pocket book. She glanced back at the children waiting in the car. “Um, can you make that only one milk and no coffee?”
“That will be $5.00.” We handed her the bag.
She headed toward the car, and then abruptly turned around, shaking her head. “There must be a mistake. This is my original order, plus four cookies.”
“No mistake ma’am. Have a safe trip.”
The cold front stayed off most of our regular customers. The couple didn’t speak English, nor could they read the signs. We struggled through our own comical version of Charades, their eyes pinched shut with laughter. She had chili, her small hands wrapped around the cardboard bowl, warming her inside and out. He ordered our super burger and deep-fried onion rings, once he was convinced that there wasn’t a grain of rice in the house.
Famous people rested their weary bones on my picnic tables too. They always received a solid meal for a solid dollar, just like everyone else.
I watched the dark-skinned woman exit slowly from the long Chrysler Imperial. I loved those cars with tail fins so large it’s a wonder the car didn’t fly. She carried herself as if she was tall, even though she wasn’t. A proud, regal woman. She asked for pecan pie. We both regretted I had none. Her face was in the paper a short while later. They arrested that nice lady just because she wouldn’t give up her seat on a city bus in Alabama.
The boy didn’t look more than sixteen. He had a guitar case almost as big as himself slung on one shoulder and a knap-sack hitched on the other. “Where’re you headed?”
He grinned, a big toothy smile that lit up the night “Nashville.” He held up his thumb. “As long as my ride doesn’t give out.” He looked around at the full tables of patrons enjoying a meal. “Don’t have much money, but I can sing for my supper.”
“Okay. Whatcha got?”
“How ‘bout something I just wrote?” He opened his case and pulled out a beautiful Gibson. He probably sang in a lot of honky-tonks to buy that. “Here’s a little one I like. I call it ‘Trying to get over you.’ Hope you enjoy it.”
Our customers were on their feet in applause “Wow! That was awesome. You earned your meal, son. Anything you want, it’s on the house. What’s your name?
“Gill, Vince Gill. Thank you kindly.”
A decade later, a young woman drove up shortly before closing time. She sat quietly on the picnic bench sipping coffee. Sometimes I wish I had arms to wrap around people. She looked like she needed a hug. A few years later I saw her picture on the back of a book someone had left on the table. Something about eating, praying and loving. I guess she’s not sad anymore.
Now my picnic tables are empty and warped from the rain. I am silent on a long, forgotten road. A metal soffit, dented and rusted, covers my name. No one bothered to remove the curling, yellow signs from my window. Four decades of stories whisper in the wind. When the bull-dozer arrives on Tuesday, perhaps it will silence them. Or not. I wonder why my owners gave up on me. Everyone loved this burger joint.
Sensory overload. That is how I remember it. The barker on the right taunted me to knock over the milk bottles. It was a scam, my Dad told me after I spent two weeks from of my allowance trying to win “Tigger.” To my left, the cotton candy vendor was already swirling those sweet pink confections and wrapping them in clear plastic. My taste buds began to water, but I didn’t have any money left anyhow. I sprinted for the big white equestrian tent as the morning sun warmed my face.
The 4H stalls were already clean, with fresh straw on the floor and wheat-colored oats in the troughs. I passed the 4H kids, seated together in one stall crammed with army cots. One waved a hand while stuffing his mouth with a huge soft pretzel.
The next stalls were still dirty, and the scent of manure replaced all previous aroma. The farmers had not arrived to tend to their animals yet. At the last stall, a crowd was gathering. I pushed my way past blue jeans and polyester pants to reach the front.
Star was laying on her side, breathing heavy, her black coat lathered with sweat. One man with a handlebar mustache held a huge stethoscope on her breast. I assumed he was the vet’s assistant.
The veterinarian, Doc Thomas, was kneeling behind her hindquarters. He leaned back on his legs. “He’s coming,” he hollered and the crowd hushed. A gush of liquid poured from between her legs. It snaked through the fresh straw and wet my new pink Keds. Soon I saw milky sack, one hoof, then another. I held my breath. He tugged some more, putting all his muscle into it. Sweat dripped off his brow. The foul did not budge. Her wide girth heaved.
“We’re losing her.” The assistant shouted, his ears still plugged with the stethoscope.
Doc let go of the foul’s legs and pulled on long yellow gloves that went clear to his elbow. “I think the back leg is wedged under her rib cage. I’ll have to go in.” I looked at Star. Her big brown eyes stared right into mine, wide with fear. I crawled through the wooden slats and ran my hands over her head, from the erratic warm breath from her nostrils over the perfect white star to her bangs hanging between her ears. “You can do it Star. Please don’t die.” Tears dripped on to her black muzzle.
“Hey kid. You can’t be in here.” The assistant shouted at me.
The vet looked around Star’s wide girth. “It’s okay. Joanie and Star are friends. Keep her calm Joanie.”
I leaned closer and whispered into her soft ears. “Come on, you’re going to be a Momma. You can’t die on your baby.”
Her eyes blinked. She understood. I was sure of it.
Doc disappeared from view when his arm descended into her. As he twisted and turned his arm, trying to dislodge the leg, Star’s eyes got wider and she whinnied a low, guttural sound I would never forget. She raised her long slender neck and swung it to the side, trying to see what was happening to her.
“I see a nose. Look ahead.” Someone shouted from the crowd.
“Got it,” Doc shouted. Finally the foul moved through the birth canal. I couldn’t see from my vantage point, but the crowd cheered as it slipped on to the soft straw. Doc pulled away the white sack. “It’s a filly.”
“I knew you could do it. I knew it.” I kissed her silky jaw.
Within minutes, the chocolate foul was on her feet, wobbly, but standing. It nuzzled Star’s belly, already looking for nourishment. I looked over at Doc. “Shouldn’t she be getting up too?”
He nodded, but I saw the assistant shake his head.
“No, no. She can’t die.” By then I was near hysteria.
“Maybe you should go Joanie,” Doc said.
I shook my head, “No, no. Come on Star. Get up. Get up.” I heard the white noise of bystanders murmuring.
She looked at me. Then she raised her head, pulling with all her strength, she made it up on her front quarters.
“You can do it Star. Up you go.”
She lurched forward and pulled her hindquarters up. “She did it, she did it.” I jumped up and down with joy. The filly found a nipple on her soft belly and latched on. Star stood sixteen hands, her back now towering over me. But she pressed her face into my chest. I think she was saying “Thanks.”
Please enjoy a few of my short stories.
Island of Angels, a short story
The young girl hunched down in the backseat of the car. Her nose almost touched the screen of the I-pad she balanced on her lap. Bright pink ear buds blocked out the other sounds in the car. As the car approached the crest of the Judge Jolley Bridge, her mother hollered to her above the music pounding in her ears. “Liza, look, an osprey.”
Liza lifted her head just as the bird spread its wings and took flight above the sparkling blue water. She watched as it flapped twice, and then glided on the wind. It headed across the island into the setting amber sun where the high-rises in the distance appeared to dance on the water's edge. “Nice,” she said somewhat sarcastically and buried her red-capped head back in her lap.
This was not Liza’s idea for a Christmas vacation. Who ever heard of Christmas without snow, or friends or blazing fireplaces? If they had to go to Florida, couldn’t it be Disney World? No, Mom and Dad said it had to be Marco Island. Liza knew what this was really about. It was about saying good-bye. They thought she didn’t know, but she wasn’t a baby. She had looked it up on Google. Lymphoma. The chemo had only made it worse. She threw up all the time and her long blonde hair fell out in clumps until she just shaved it all off and stuck a cap on her head.
Gram’s house was cool and it had a big pool right off the back door inside a huge cage. Liza could push back the huge sliding doors and walk straight into the water, if she only had the strength. But even with a big artificial tree, and lots of lights on the house, things still did not feel like Christmas.
On the second night, Gram announced that she was taking Liza out to see the town. Big deal, Liza thought. This town sucks. She'd rather be back in New York with her friends.
As they rode down Collier Blvd, Liza noticed the angels. Beautiful silhouettes of praying angels lined the street in front of building after building of condominiums. They turned down Barfield, and then San Marco, then Bald Eagle. Hundreds of angels graced the lawns of pretty homes and businesses. “What is this Gram? What’s with the angels?” Liza heart began to soften and a lump formed in her throat.
Her grandmother smiled at her. “This is the Island of Angels, don’t you know that?” She pulled the car up the steep drive to the Marriott Hotel and handed the keys to the valet. “Come, my dear. I want to show you something.”
Liza and her grandmother entered the lobby of the hotel. The most beautiful tree Liza had ever seen filled the room, surrounded by dozens of red poinsettias. They descended the stairs and exited the double doors into the courtyard. A wedding reception was taking place and Liza smiled at the bride and groom surrounded by their friends and families seated at white linen tables in the soft moonlight. Passed the party, passed the pool, passed the restaurant on the beach, Liza walked arm-in-arm with her grandmother toward the shoreline. Those who observed them would not have known who was supporting whom. They kicked their shoes off as they reached the soft sand. The salt air tickled Liza’s nose. When the only sound they heard was the surf lapping on the beach in its own rhythmic beat, Gram spread a blanket and they sat down, shoulder to shoulder. The breeze from the Gulf was cool and Gram lifted the edge of the blanket to wrap them together in a cocoon.
Thousands of stars lit the sky and the moon’s reflection pirouetted over the water. Liza leaned her head on to her grandmother’s shoulder. “This is beautiful. Thank you for bringing me here. Tell me, Gram, why do they call this the Island of Angels?”
“Because it is.” Her grandmother stated rather matter-of-factly. “Hundreds of years ago, the Calusa Indians knew this, and that is why they settled here. Angels look over this island and keep it safe. When big hurricanes like Wilma and Charlie, or Katrina blow toward this island, the angels all get together and flap their wings at the same time and blow the worst of the storms away.”
Liza snuggled a little closer. “Do you think angels are people that have died?”
Her grandmother thought for a moment. “No, I believe they were created to always be angels, that they are immortal, with no beginning and no end. They just are. But there is something else they do, Liza. They also blow away fear.”
Liza lifted her head from her grandmother’s shoulder and looked into her eyes in the moonlight. “How do they do that, Gram?”
“If you are afraid, just sit very still and quiet. Listen for them and they will come. When you hear the flapping of their wings, you will know that they are lifting your fear and taking it away.”
Christmas morning, Liza was too weak to open her gifts, but a special gift hung by a silver chain on the tree; a Marco Angel bowing with a candle in hand. Her grandmother hooked the clasp of the chain around her granddaughter’s neck. Liza looked up at her and pressed the angel to her chest. “I can hear them, Gram. I hear their wings. I am not afraid.”
©December 2012 Joanne Simon Tailele
I also have stories in each of the Marco Island Writer's anthologies. Click on the book cover
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My Gal Ginger
I fell in love with Ginger in 2002. I didn’t mean to be disloyal to Edna but Ginger swam right by me in Gordon Pass in Naples. She teased me, the white exclamation point on her slender shoulder emphasizing her allusiveness as she made a graceful dive. She was playing me and I knew it. Sometimes it took me all year to find her. Ginger traveled north every winter and hung out with her friends in Tampa Bay but I could usually find her back around Marco by May.
It was going to be another hot June day when I grabbed my fishing pole and some bait and powered down the lift. I was headed toward Keewaydin Island to do a little fishing. The party boats wouldn’t show up on the island with their loud music, beer and burgers until noon or later. Ginger liked to swim alone and it had been almost six months since I’d last seen her. Today was the day. I knew it. In my mind’s eye, she glided silently through the water, graceful as the osprey that floated on a breeze above me.
I almost made it out of the lift when my grandson, Curtis, shouted to me from the screened lanai.
“Grandpa, Grandpa. Take me with you!”
Curtis was six years old and a bundle of energy. I knew that any quiet hours of fishing were impossible with him tagging along. My plans to look for Ginger dissolved in his sparkling blue eyes.
“Mama and Gram are going SHOPPING. Yuck! Please, can’t I go fishing with you?”
Even I couldn’t argue with that logic. What six year old boy wanted to go shopping? I reversed the direction of the lift and raised the boat even with the dock. “Does your mother know you’re going with me? CLARA, I’m taking Curtis with me!”
Clara poked her head out from the back door and waved. “Hi Pop. Yea, that’s fine. Make sure he puts on his life jacket.” Her long blond hair cascaded over her shoulder and she shot me a beautiful smile. God, she is beautiful! When did my little girl get so grown up, and so gorgeous? Seemed like yesterday she was Curtis’ age.
Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I reached over the bow and grabbed Curtis’ hand. Up close I noticed smudges of peanut butter and jelly around his mouth. “Did you use the bathroom, son? You know I don’t have a head aboard.”
“I did. Gram reminded me. Where we going? Can I catch a shark?” His enthusiasm was only matched by his imagination.
“Maybe, but let’s shoot for some snook or a grouper. Your life jacket is in under the seat. Here, put it on before we head out.”
The ride out through Roberts Bay would have been peaceful save for the constant chatter of a six year old boy. We were on the only boat on the water until we reached Caxambas Pass where other fishermen were gassing up at the docks. We cruised passed the marina and headed toward the Gulf.
The high rise condominiums cast long shadows onto the beach as the sun rose behind them. It didn’t seem that long ago that the beach was an uninhabited sanctuary, but the Deltona Corporation had big plans for the island in the mid ‘70s. The modest low rises arrived first, and then the gleaming high rises sprung up where the sea grass once danced in the wind. I was born and raised here and remember when I could walk the entire three and half mile crescent beach without seeing a single human soul. Only the little white terns scurried in and out with the waves and the only footprints besides my own were the zig-zag pattern of the loggerhead turtles or the cross hatches of sea birds.
We entered the pass across from Isle of Capri and the water turned brackish from the tangle of mangroves that graced either side of the water. A few dolphins joined us and they played in the wake of the outboard of my eighteen foot Hurricane.
As we made the turn into Hurricane Pass, I geared back into trolling mode. I was disappointed to see there were already a half a dozen party boats anchored up to the shore. I’d take mine to the other side of the pass and anchor it by the mangroves. There are hundreds of places to fish in the Ten Thousand Islands, but I knew that my best chance to see Ginger was here, in the warm current of Keewaydin.
Revelers had already tied their inner tubes together and stuffed their beer coolers in the center, ready to ride the warm current from the far north point of the island to the sandy shallow shelf to the south that separates the pass from the Gulf of Mexico.
We reached the far side of the pass, cut the motor and tossed the anchor over the side.
“Can’t we ride the inner tube down the current, Grandpa?” Curtis watched the partiers across the water. I knew he was wishing he was with them instead of me.
“I thought we came here to fish? Here, let me help you bait your pole.” I threw him a smile. “Maybe there’s a shark in there you can catch.”
“Naw, there’s no shark, or those people wouldn’t be in the water.”
Just as he said that a thirty foot center-console Chris Craft turned into the pass going full speed, probably thirty knots. I pumped my hands at him, the sign to slow down. This was a no-wake zone. His wake hit our boat directly on the starboard side. Things appeared to happen in slow motion as I grabbed for Curtis. He was out of my grasp and I watched in horror as he propelled out of the boat. I went into the water next and frantically reached for him. Nothing! When I came up for air, I saw his life jacket being carried away by the strong current. Oh no! I hadn’t checked his jacket. If he hadn’t latched it, he could have slipped out of it when the boat overturned. “Curtis!” I shouted into the dark water.
Suddenly, I felt something thick and spongy bounce against my shoulder. I spun around treading water and saw a flash of white disappear back into the water. I called out Curtis’ name again and couldn’t believe my eyes. His little body was clinging to huge grey manatee. She raised her head and I looked right into her big brown eyes. It was Ginger, with Curtis sprawled on her back. I managed to right the boat and clung to the side. Ginger looked like she was submerging and I was afraid Curtis would drown. But she flipped her tail and tossed him off her back and into the hull of the boat. She turned and for a moment, our eyes registered the love we shared. She turned and headed north up the pass. I watched the white exclamation point on her shoulder surface one more time. Then she was gone.