There’s an old dairy bar within sight of the place I grew up. It’s down the highway a little ways, across a bridge and the railroad tracks. The bridge runs across Carr Creek, which used to be known as Carr’s Fork when I was growing up. If you stand on the bridge and look down into the water, you can see fish swimming lazily in the deeper pools, and you might even catch sight of a crawdad or two.
The water in the creek was always wider and deeper in the summers after heavy spring flooding, as the strong floods washed away the sediment that built up, clogging the waterway’s path. Every now and then, you’d peer into the depths and see an old appliance or part of a car that had washed downstream from up a ways, and you’d never know whether it was something that had been deliberately tossed aside or if someone had an accident. I always wondered about that, strange girl that I was.
Given that the highway was the main artery connecting Hazard and Whitesburg, traffic was often heavy and fast. You didn’t want to linger too long on the bridge, as the shoulders were narrower there and less safe. But it was always fun to wait for a coal truck—an eighteen-wheeler if you timed things right—to come along and shake and bounce the trusses before rattling across the railroad tracks with such force that you didn’t know how it didn’t shake apart.
Especially in the summer, the grit and hot wind stirred up by the truck’s passing stung your legs and whipped your hair, not something you minded unless you were “prissy” or trying to impress a boy.
I would love to have been in a position to impress a boy. That—the loneliness and isolation—I did mind. But all the boys my age were elsewhere, playing basketball with friends, out running the back roads, having lives that were nowhere near my own. I’d have been happy to be prissy in that event, but instead I was wistful. Since I didn’t have to worry about impressing anyone, I didn’t mind the rush from the trucks. A fair enough trade, perhaps.
I didn’t get to go to the dairy bar often, as we didn’t eat out that much growing up. And I wasn’t allowed to walk down there by myself until I was an adult. It was too dangerous, you see, for a girl like me to be out on her own, walking the road, even though other girls my age did it. “A girl like me” was simply the overprotected grandchild who was to be wrapped in bubbles and kept safe, by the way. Nothing more than that. At least not in my mind. What other people thought was a different story. Of course, all I wanted to do was escape those bubbles and taste the world. I never did escape though, not the way most kids do. My desire not to hurt my grandparents was stronger than my need for freedom.
Maybe that’s why the dairy bar held such fascination for me. There, you could see people of all ages, from every walk of life, all waiting in line for their treats. Milkshakes, hot fudge cake with ice cream and whipped cream, thick-cut French fries, and the best danged hamburgers in the county. Thick ones, hand-formed patties, grilled to perfection and dressed to the nines. Open-faced sandwiches and chili that would make angels weep. And as the people waited, they talked. They flirted. They gossiped. They even argued, though not as often as you might expect. Maybe that was part of the magic of the dairy bar.
People would line up in their cars, parking in rows that were a bit crooked as the lot was small, and there wasn’t room for everyone. They’d make their way to the windows in the front of the small building, place their orders, then go back and sit with their dates or their companions while the food was prepared. Or they’d stand around chatting about what fish were biting where or who was hiring. Then they’d either eat there in their vehicles, or they’d leave with a paper sack full of deep-fried goodies, the quality of which you’d be hard-pressed to find these days.
There were a few tables over to the side on either end of the building. Formica-topped tables and molded benches, a couple of each. Depending on who was running the dairy bar, people might or might not be able to sit there. If the owners weren’t conscientious about keeping the trash up, the yellow jackets were a wild, chaotic entity with only the intent of living up to their reputations. Most of the time, the trash cans were far enough away from the main areas that they didn’t cause problems.
Sometimes, you’d see the women—and it was always women—who worked the kitchen come out for a smoke. They’d sit on the back steps, probably grateful for the breeze that came off the creek that wound behind the building. The kitchen staff always rotated, but sometimes you’d see a familiar face. A lot of single moms and young women in the tail-end of high school or the first part of adulthood put time in at the dairy bar. It was hard work, fast-paced, and probably without a lot of perks. I also suspect it was an excellent proving ground and training for grace under fire.
The dairy bar you’d visit in the day or early evening became a vastly different experience at night. Then, the neon lights and fluorescent tubes, their covers shattered long ago, would flicker on, illuminating the menu that was papered to the inside of the glass beside the windows where you ordered. The lights inside would change the scene, showing the barebones of the restaurant in stark relief. And the people who frequented the windows changed. Late-night loners, guys looking for trouble or romance or both, people working the late shifts in the local mines who were on their way into or home from work.
In those hours, the dairy bar became both a desolate and comforting place to be, a source of mystery and curiosity for a young, overly protected girl with a vivid imagination. I didn’t get to go there very often at all during those times, but once or twice, I saw and I wondered. The lights in front were bright, dimmer toward the back, so that set up against the backdrop of the mountain across the creek, it had an almost ominous, foreboding feel. Once day broke, however, it became just another place, a bit worn and tired, nothing to be afraid of.
Most dairy bars closed during the winter, but not ours. No, it was a popular-enough place and far enough from the towns that business was brisk year round. They opened early in the day for breakfast, closed late in the evening after dinner. Day in and day out…. Until one day, as inevitably as the sun setting and rising, the dairy bar would close. The windows would be shuttered, the parking lot neglected, and the signs taken down. People would gossip about what had happened and why, and word would spread that a new eatery had to be found for the regulars.
Usually within a few weeks, the new signs would go up—there was always a new name to learn and get used to saying. We eventually simply called it the dairy bar and went from there. The windows would be cleaned off, the parking lot tidied, and the aroma of fried food and grills a’sizzlin’ would once again dance on the air. Sometimes the change was good. Sometimes it wasn’t—though the bad changes never lasted long. Even though it was one of the only places for hot food on that stretch of road, it wasn’t the only place. The owners knew that, and acted accordingly to make sure the gravy train kept rolling.
I’m not sure who owns the dairy bar now, who’s running the place. But as summer is starting to fade into fall, I find that little greasy spoon on my mind more and more. I’d love to sit in the parking lot as the sun goes down, sipping on a peanut butter milkshake, waiting for some fries and a burger, and just take it all in. And I still don’t think I’d be prissy if I went back there, even though I have a boy to flirt with now. I think I might just stand on that bridge, waiting for an eighteen-wheeler to go by, and when it did, I’d laugh and embrace the memories.