As I turned into the gravel parking area, an emu looked at me quizzically, its small head twisting above a stalk-like neck. Confined to a pen next to the low shingled building, its presence in this remote corner of Pennsylvania was as quizzical to me as I was to it.
The smell of stale tobacco smoke, lack of hope and hamburger grease greeted me as I opened the weathered wood door, its original paint only faintly evident in the cracks and splinters. I was hungry and this was the only place to satiate it on this long, remote ribbon of back road. An OPEN flag fluttered on a flag pole outside. I’d passed a few places but it was November and they were all closed for the season. Thanks for a great season! See you next April! had replaced Welcome! on signs at small cafes, tourist cabins, RV campgrounds, ice cream stands, and Family Funland parks where parents could let their children run off pent up energy in go carts while they sat at picnic tables drinking beer and eating hot dogs.
The squeaking hinges and narrow shaft of afternoon light announced my entrance. “Well, hello,” one of the men tossed my way as I entered the dimly lit interior. “Hello,” I replied, trying to be the right amount of friendly but not wanting to be subjected to questions or conversation.
A long bar curved around the narrow room. Seven men and one woman sat along its expanse, beer bottles within easy reach. At slow intervals, the bottles were absentmindedly fingered and raised to lips, heads tilting back just enough for the next swig to enter past eager lips with a brief swish before swallowing.
A room lined with video games and pool tables took shape in the darkness through a large archway. A tall, sturdy woman of about 50 with bleached blonde curls framing a square jaw and red lips was behind the bar. Nine pairs of eyes followed me, some turning to look directly at me, others looking sideways. The less effort the better. Approaching the far end of the bar where she stood near the door leading to the kitchen and next to the cash register, I asked, “Do you serve food?” She produced a menu and handed it to me, looking closely at me to perhaps determine if I looked familiar but more likely curious about why I had stopped at this place, a place for locals that only sees strangers in the summer months. Even the hunters who arrive in the fall are familiar and make this their weekend hangout in between treks into the forest. Who you’re related to is important in a place like this where people are born, schooled, married, work and die without ever going more than 50 miles in any one direction.
I took off my coat and sat down to scan the menu. “Do you have any wine?” I asked, expecting the answer to be “just beer.”
“Mmmm…well…I think I have some zinfandel…and some of that Niagara,” she replied.
“No pinot grigio or chardonnay?” I asked, catching myself only after the question was aired.
“No,” she shook her head, the wary look in her eyes similar to the emu’s startled curiosity.
I settled on the zinfandel with little expectation that it would be anything more than poured from a box with a spigot that was near or past its expiration date. I also asked for a plain hamburger “on our own bun” as the menu proudly promised, and a small side salad. Everything else was battered and fried. I had come to understand that “salad” in this part of the world meant roughly chopped iceberg lettuce, a few dime-size carrot rounds, thin slices of onion, a few tomato cubes so pale they could easily hide in the lettuce with no discernible taste difference, and a sprinkling of grated American cheese for color. My wine and salad expectations were not disappointed.
As the bar sitters became more accustomed to my presence, idle comments and local gossip were again traded, punctuated now and then with a burst of loud horselaughs followed by gaps of silence. A young woman of perhaps 35 exited the kitchen and walked toward the door that I had recently entered. “Bye, Roger,” she called to one of the men. “See you,” she called to the others.
“How many kids you got?” one of the men asked as she passed by his stool, his denim-clad rump overflowing the cushioned plastic seat.
“Three,” she replied.
“How old are they?” he asked.
“Nearly 18, 15 and nine,” she answered.
“Well, then, you better get home,” he said with a low chortle, the others joining in with grunts.
As the door closed behind her, someone commented that she had her hands full and indicated she wasn’t one to fool with. Louder chuckling grunts followed the comment. Everyone knew what the speaker meant.
Turning back to the bar and their beers, the room went quiet again save for the sound of bottles pulled closer, lifted and tilted into mouths.
Listening to the intermediate volleys of good-natured ribbing, it became apparent that several of the men were unmarried. One confessed to still living with his sister. Their trucks in the parking lot were a giveaway to their whereabouts but inside they could be removed from judgmental neighbors and angry ex-wives, abusive ex-husbands, disappointed grown children and long-suffering elderly mothers. They preferred the darkness of the bar and regular drinking companions who never judged their love of beer to going to their trailer homes and cabins. Set back from the two-lane road in tangles of undergrowth and tall pine trees, a dirt road was often the only indication of habitation, the property littered with rusting car parts and machinery ensnared in dead vines, an old washing machine and a broken down sofa on the sagging front porch. Social security checks and any income from odd jobs went toward beer, gas to get to the beer, beef jerky and ammunition. Food stamps bought potatoes and boxed meals you could heat up on the gas stove, crusted with food and rust.
Listlessness became more evident as my senses adjusted to the darkness and the smells of body heat, shapeless, unwashed work clothes, beards, cigarettes and stale beer. I studied the patrons more closely, attempting to be discrete in my interest. Lives spent in day labor had taken their toll. Shoulders hunched toward the bar, timeworn faces and rough hands, some with a missing finger or two chopped off in a sawmill or mangled in a wood chipper, made them look older than they were.
“I worked for him one time up ta his sawmill,” one of the men abruptly said to his companion two stools away. “He had a big operation up there.” The other man nodded. “I live up in Leeper now,” he continued. “She’s living in Ohio. Married my cousin.” Conversation was like loose threads picked at until they come free. Some of the threads were familiar to everyone, some not, but there was a shared place and time and community among them that didn’t require explanation, just a phrase or two that indicated what the speaker was remembering at that moment. I thought of the emu, penned up outside and pecking the ground with no more interest or thought about the world than what was happening at that moment.
The well-done hamburger arrived on a bun much larger than the burger itself. A tossing of potato chips lay beside it. A wine glass had been found and pale pink zinfandel poured in. As I ate the meager fare, the blonde woman came out from the behind the bar and asked if I was enjoying my hamburger. “Yes,” I said, not untruthfully since the meal was now not about the food but about the observation of her world.
The woman sitting at the end of the bar was silent, occasionally looking my way. I was a foreigner. Someone to be curious about but not to ask questions of. Bent elbows splayed outward on the bar, she leaned toward a man two stools away, holding her beer loosely, fingers caressing the bottle. She spoke to him, her speech muffled by vacant gums and lips that wetly formed words, the tongue unable to find traction.
Finishing my hamburger, I stood up, pulled on my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck and walked to the cash register. “Do you take plastic? “ I asked, knowing what the answer would be but hoping otherwise since I had given most of my cash to the service station attendant a few miles back. “No,” the blonde woman replied, “that’s why we have the ATM over there.” She nodded toward the machine situated nearby. Fumbling with my debit card, the instructions on the front of the machine faint from use, I spent several minutes trying to insert the card. The room was quiet as as I struggled to complete the transaction. I began to get concerned. What if the machine didn’t work and I had to find cash? Would she trust me to return with it? Relieved when I finally found the magic combination, I turned to pay with the $20 bill.
Walking the length of the bar past the beer drinkers nursing their bottles, the air that greeted me as I opened the door was cool and smelled of pine sap and wood smoke. The emu looked up from its scratching, turning its head to the side to get a better look at the stranger. As I pulled out of the parking lot, the blinker indicating a right turn onto the deserted road, the bird went back to its mindless pecking among the dirt, dried leaves and old pine needles of its pen.