I was heading west on Route 20, looking for a dog-wagon to have lunch in. I was alone, which was just as well, because if you travel with a woman you’re bound to have trouble when it comes to picking a restaurant. They usually don’t even like you to call them a name like dog-wagons; “Decent people call them diners,” she’ll say. “And no places run by Greeks. The places you like are always run by Greeks.” Nonsense. Dog-wagon is a good old American expression, like sow-belly. The real pioneers traveled on their sow-bellies and got somewhere, where they founded dog-wagons. And Greeks? You think it was Greeks who crossed this country in the early twentieth century, building the classic American dog-wagons that you still find now and then if you get off the big highways, and that figure so invisibly yet pervasively in the great popular literature and movies of the time? Yeah, sure they did, Greeks. Greeks like good old Connecticut Sam Beardsley. Old Samuel Cabot Winthrop, the Greek dog-wagon man, I mused pointlessly to myself.
I spotted the sign for the repair shop first. As I pulled in two gas jockeys came running out to serve me. “Fill ‘er up,” I said.
“Fill it up. That’s what the man said, fill it up. That’s what the man said,” one of them, the littler guy, rattled off. The bigger guy just chuckled.
Inside the station I picked up a pack of Luckies and some gum. “Is he any good?” I asked, motioning toward the little guy, who was standing chattering away and doing nothing while the other guy checked my oil and laughed heartily at the latest thing the smaller guy had said.
“Him? Oh, I just keep him around to amuse Pete,” the owner said idly.
When they were done I moved the car into the dog wagon's parking lot and went in and sat down at the counter. The waitress poured me a cup of coffee. It tasted pretty much like coffee. Sitting there I smoked a couple of cigarets, read the box scores of the American League games, scrupulously avoided the box scores of National League games, and noted with satisfaction that Joe DiMaggio was still a credit to the Italian people, because he was leading the league in batting.
The waitress gave me a look that said I wasn’t renting the chair for the day, so I put the paper down and looked over the specials. Country fried steak looked promising, but alas, it was tomorrow’s special. Today’s, spaghetti, seemed less exciting. The best-looking thing on the lunch menu was the hamburger, which proudly proclaimed that it was made from fresh beef. Good enough for me, and I ordered it.
As I waited I looked over the crowd at the counter. A heavyset, slickly-dressed fellow seemed out of place in this crowd of farmers and other locals, except for the other fellow dressed the same way right next to him, reading the local paper. They were having breakfast-- the big guy was having eggs over easy and real hash browns cooked just right.
The other fellow was busy ignoring a plate of fluffy biscuits and gravy as white as cotton candy.
“Anything exciting happening in this burg?” I asked the one with the paper.
“They don’t know the Civil War is over in this town,” the fat guy snapped.
I chuckled. “What do people do around here for fun, I wonder?” I asked him.
He glanced up at the signboard. “They eat the dinner,” he snarled as he put down his money and stood up, and the fellow next to him stood up too. “They all come here and eat the big dinner.”
“I’ll tell Swede you were looking for him,” the waitress said helpfully as the two men went out the door. The other man called behind him “You do that,” in a gravelly voice that sounded like he didn’t much care one way or the other.
Another waitress brought me my burger. She wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her. Joking, I said “Where’s the Greek who runs this place?” Her eyes opened wide and she looked at me in a kind of terror, like I was a dick from out of state or something. She set the burger down without a word, and hurriedly disappeared into the kitchen. A moment later I heard a back door slam, and steps.
Thankfully, this was one of those places where they made hamburgers that didn’t taste like something the dog wouldn’t eat. Finally I felt the road jitters start to leave me. That was, until I realized I'd spent the last of my cash on the gas and cigarets. “Say, friend,” I said to the man behind the counter, a good-looking fellow with curly black hair who had, I had noticed, avoided meeting the eyes of the sulky waitress all morning.
“Let me guess. A guy in a Cadillac was going to pick you up, but he didn’t show, and he had all your money.”
I saw there was no point in trying to kid him, so I laid it on him straight. “Something like that, how’d you know?”
“How do you think I got this job?” he shrugged.
“Am I good for it? I know you won’t believe this, and you don’t have to, but there’s a big silver land yacht a few miles back from a big city food website called LTHForum. If I tell ‘em to, they’ll leave you a hundred bucks. Not that you should believe that for a second, but, well, maybe this time you’ll be surprised.”
“I’ll be more than surprised, I’ll be downright electrocharged,” he said, taking my bill away and sticking it in the cash drawer. The old timers at the counter in seed caps smiled appreciatively at my line of bull. “It’ll ruin him if you actually do have a friend with the hundred bucks,” one of them said.
“He’ll give turkey dinners to every slug that comes in and never hit the jackpot again,” he said, and the whole counter laughed.
Allen's Corner Restaurant
44W483 US Highway 20
Hampshire, IL 60140
A Couple of Hamburgers, by James Thurber
The Big Sleep, screenplay by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Ask the Dust, by John Fante
Thieves Like Us, by Edward Anderson
The Killers, screeplay by Anthony Veiller, John Huston and Richard Brooks, from the story by Ernest Hemingway
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
Sullivan’s Travels, screenplay by Preston Sturges