TruckersU Blog

Diner of the Damned

TruckSuds : a truckin’ soap opera

Hey, everbody, Miles here. I’m gonna let T-Dawg ramble with one of his stories while the rest of us try to figure out just what-all to tell you ‘bout the last few months here at Mamie’s. Been a hell of a ride, all I can say for now. Anyways, read an’ enjoy.

“T- Dawg here, watching life and truckers from my perch on the third stool from the door at Mamie’s Gas-Up Café.

I reckon everybody that bothers to read my ramblings knows how I feel about Mamie’s, and not just the food but the conviviality. Fact is, I feel that way about a lot of roadside diners: good food, dependable companionship. If it’s on either side of a highway, I’ve probably been to it.

There are a few, though, where I ain’t going back. And one in particular where I’ve never even stepped inside and wouldn’t at gunpoint. And if that sounds like a story, well, park yourself on a stool, because it is.

This happened to me a few years ago on a night full of wind and water. It was late, past midnight. I’d dropped off my load and was heading home in my tractor, hauling nothing but my tired behind. The route I usually took was barricaded for high water, so I doubled back and took another way home, a state road that connected to a farm-to-market. Before long I found myself on a stretch of road that I used to know well. Too well!

Most of you probably know ol’ T as the parson of the interstate, always enjoining errant truckers to avoid the low ways of the highway: body, mind and especially spirit. Fact is, I know about those low ways from personal experience. I ain’t always been a pillar, if you get what I mean.

On this particular stretch, there were several places where a man could get pretty much whatever he wanted in the way of a good time. I’d had a whole bunch of good times in a few of ‘em and the memories made me smile. The more I remembered, the bigger the smile got, and pretty soon I was thinking, what’s the harm in dropping in for a quick visit?

About then I saw a hitcher in the headlights; just a dark figure near a crossroads, thumb out like the sun was beaming down. I couldn’t believe someone was out in this weather and I was tempted to blow on by, but my kinder instincts got the better of me and I pulled to the side. A few moments later, the door swung open and a stranger climbed inside. And I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a stranger stranger.

First of all, he wasn’t wet! He was wearing a poncho with a hood over his head but there wasn’t a drop of water on it. I didn’t say anything, figured it was probably some kind of new water-shedding material. Amazing things get invented all the time these days.

“Thanks, T,” he said in a voice that sounded like it came from a deep well. Now, it’s not uncommon to meet someone who knows me in an unexpected way, but how he knew me in the dark, before I’d said a word, was a mystery. Did I know him? I didn’t recognize the voice. I took my eyes off the road for a second to get a look, but I couldn’t see a face inside that hood, which he didn’t take off. The only thing visible were his teeth, which were white and gleaming. He had one shiny set of choppers.

He was a skinny fellow, downright bony, and he was carrying a guitar case. He opened it and pulled out a battered Gibson that looked like it had seen better days. He strummed a few chords.

“How old’s that thing?” I asked.

“Pretty old,” he replied in that bottom-of-the-well voice. “Used to belong to Robert Johnson, the singer. Ever heard of him?”

“Sang the blues, didn’t he?”

“That’s the one. How ‘bout some music? My way of paying for the ride.”

“You’ve got a deal,” I said. “How far you going?”

“Well, we don’t have a deal yet, but we just might later. Me, I’m going to a place just down the road.” He hit the guitar and started to sing.

Down the road is a café,

Never known to close.

Just follow the bouquet

Of sulfur in your nose!

He had the kind of harsh voice that came from too many cigarettes or maybe gargling with razor blades, but it also drew you in, commanding in a way. He went on.

Exit Six-Sixty-Six,

Sign flickers out a greeting,

“Welcome, friend, to Nick’s.

“Where time is never fleeting!”

I’d never heard the song, figured it was one of his own. He sang with a lot of energy, bony fingers moving like lightning on the guitar, making it wail and howl. He went into the chorus.

The food is always cold.

The coffee’s always old.

The apple pie is sour.

Every minute lasts an hour.

Every hour lasts a year. Spend the rest of your career

At the Roadside Diner of the Damned!

Jokey song, right? Except it didn’t sound funny to me. Made me a little uneasy somehow. The queer thing was that I heard other voices joining in the chorus. He flashed me a shiny grin from the recesses of his hood and went on.

We’ve saved a counter stool for you.

The waitress is a fool for you.

Her skin is ash. Her eyes are holes.

Her breath is hot as burning coals.

She calls you “Hon.” Give her your order.

Give the jukebox some more quarters.

Listen to its lonely dirge. Suddenly you feel an urge

To make a mad run for the border!

I was starting to feel a little strange. I might have made a run for the border myself except I couldn’t think of a way of getting the hitcher out of my truck. He was small and skinny; no more than half my weight, but it was like I was afraid of him. He and his invisible back-ups went into the chorus.

The cook gets by without his head.

The cashier is the living dead.

The busboy growls and glowers.

Every minute lasts an hour.

Every hour lasts a year. Spend the rest of your career

At the Roadside Diner of the Damned!

He went into the instrumental then. The playing got faster and faster. I began to smell something burning and when I glanced over, I could see wisps of smoke rising from the guitar. Just then he slowed a little to go into the next verse.

The owner goes around the crowd,

His eyes are merry, laughter loud.

He greets the regulars by name.

Knows their secrets and their shame.

“Don’t go just yet,” he grins and warns.

His smile is cold beneath his horns.

The waitress brings you lukewarm tea.

You’re here for all eternity!

That was it for me. I figured if I couldn’t get him out of the truck, I’d go myself. I stepped on the brake, hand on the door. I wasn’t even going to wait for a full stop, just get into the low twenties and leap.

But the truck didn’t slow. In fact, it got faster! We went barreling down the blacktop and I decided to jump before we left the road. I might break my neck but that was no worse than ending up wrapped around a tree.

The door wouldn’t open! I was trapped behind the wheel of a truck I couldn’t control with a madman and his flaming guitar. And yes, I said, “flaming,” because by now it was on fire, crackling merrily and filling the cabin with smoke while he and his ghostly buddies roared out the last chorus.

The customers have lost their souls.

The staff is ghouls and ghosts and trolls.

The smoke is thick, the mood is sour.

Every minute lasts an hour.

Every hour lasts a year. Spend the rest of your career

At the Roadside Diner of the Damned!

And just then the truck stopped.

He opened the door and hopped out. The fire was gone and the cabin smoke poured out after him. Beyond him, I could see through the open door a small dingy café with flashing red neon, music rumbling out.

He grinned. “Come on inside and I’ll buy you one, T – Dawg. You’ll like it. It’s a … heck of a place!”

My throat was dry but somehow I managed to croak out, “Gotta … get home.”

He shook his head slowly, like I was making a big mistake. “Suit yourself. Thanks for the ride.”

He slammed the door and I pulled out. The storm had lifted and the moon was out from the clouds, white light on puddles and sparkling treetops. I went just a short distance and stopped briefly while I used my phone to Google “Robert Johnson.”

Seems he was the first and greatest of blues guitarists. Total unknown, came out of nowhere. Played his guitar like it was on fire. Said he got it from a man he met at a crossroads.

I closed the phone and put both hands on the wheel for the next hour. Kept to the blacktop; no turn-offs ‘til I saw a familiar grove of trees and a twinkly porch light a little beyond. Home. I had to get up early, but I planned on being back from work by sundown the next day, since Barb and I always got a kick from the ghosts and ghouls and trolls that showed up demanding treats.

Happy Halloween.”