Neither here nor there

Buffy Holt writes of a childhood memory:

Iaeger, West Virginia. Nineteen seventy nine. The old bus terminal that use to sit somewhere along the river bank. Maybe next to Sears & Roebuck? Maybe not. Maybe Sears & Roebuck came after it was already gone? I can’t remember. But I do remember the terminal; the diner it held. And it’s a memory from this diner that’s running away from me.

I keep trying to get my head around it. To see all the things I can already hear and smell and taste. But all I see is a plate. White. With a blue racing stripe around its edge.

The room smells of beef. The real kind. And of lettuce. It sounds like my grandfather. Loud and laughing. He’s sitting beside me. Telling a story. To men or to the air. I can’t see him; all I see is the plate. But he’s there. Just like the sun. Breaking through the windows, fracturing over hands and faces, lighting up the room.

It takes me back. Another bus terminal, another restaurant. Another childhood, mine. The summer after second grade, so what is that — 1966? My family and my mother’s parents live in Indianapolis, but my grandfather, Pawpaw, has taken me on a road trip, just the two of us, back to his hometown — Cuba, Missouri. It’s a sunny morning and we are sitting in the most exotic place I have ever been in in my whole life: The Midway.

The Midway is a restaurant, bar, hotel and the bus terminal for Crawford County, right smack in the middle of town. Route 66 runs east and west just outside the door, while Highway 19 intersects the Mother Road going north and south. The interstate is just a couple of miles away. People pass through here on their way to St. Louis or Chicago or to exotic ports of call such as Springfield, Little Rock or Tulsa. They stop here to change buses, get a bite to eat, maybe take a room and sleep. Pawpaw and I are sitting at a table in the middle of the large, green dining room with a group of men, including his brother. It’s just us men in there. They are talking and smoking (L&M’s for Pawpaw). I’m playing with the paper wrapper from a straw, folding it up like an accordion, then using the straw to drip a drop of water on it so I can watch the wrapper expand. The guys are talking about a bunch of people I don’t know.

Some of the tables around us still have upside-down chairs set on top of them. Over on the counter by the cash register several pies are under a glass case. I am intoxicated by the thought that you can go over there and look at each pie, point at the one you like and the woman in the white uniform behind the counter will cut you a slice then and there. It’s not just one kind of pie, take it or leave it, but cherry, apple, strawberry and lemon meringue. And you get to choose!

Along the far wall there are several pinball machines. I wander over, cautiously. There is a forbidden aura about them. I look over at the table, and no one is paying any attention to me. Cigarette smoke and dust motes hang in the bright sunlight as they tell their stories. One of the games looks like a baseball stadium. 5¢ is painted on the glass. I oh-so-casually take a nickel out of my pocket, from the handful of change Pawpaw had given me earlier in the day, and stand in front of the machine and push the little silver button. A trap door opens at the pitcher’s mound and burps out a pinball. Pushing the big silver button causes an oversized bat to swing at the pinball, redirecting it through the infield toward targets that say “single”, “double, “triple” or “out”. If you’re good enough or lucky enough you can send the ball up a little ramp to a target that says “homerun”. If you get a hit, little metal base-runners pop up in the infield and follow a circular track around the bases. I make a lot of outs, but somehow cause a runner to make it all the way around to home plate. The bells on the machine literally ring up a run on the scoreboard, and it’s loud. Pawpaw looks over at me and gives me a crooked smile and goes back to the conversation.

I finish the game and cross to the other side of the room to where racks of postcards are for sale. The first stand are all pictures of the Ozarks, or the St. Louis Arch. I move a little deeper in and find brightly colored cartoon cards. On one card a voluptuous women is standing waist-deep in water, wearing a bright yellow, polka-dot bikini top. She has a shocked look on her face. Beside her a hairy, fat man with a dumb look on his face is holding up a piece of bright yellow, polka-dot material and asking, “Did someone lose a hanky?” Oh man, this is hot stuff, and much more entertaining than dropping water on a straw wrapper! I read every card on every rack, laughing at the jokes that I get, trying to act as if I get it on the ones where I don’t. Most of the humor is not that sophisticated. One card makes me laugh and I decide to buy it and mail it to my uncle back in Indianapolis. It’s a cartoon of a hound-dog lifting his leg on some tobacco plants, with the caption, “Do you cigarettes taste funny lately?” I don’t even know if my uncle smokes.

I am a boy in a man’s world, trying to guess at context. Cigarette smoke, racy cards, pinball games, pie. It looks to me as if everything one needs is right here, but people are passing through. It’s the Midway — they’re between where they started and where they’re going, neither here nor there yet, just going in stops and starts on their tracks like little metal men in a game. At the table someone tells a joke that I don’t hear and everyone laughs.

2 thoughts on “Neither here nor there

  1. Even though I visited the Midway regularly a bit before you, the memories are about the same. My grandmother was the cashier at The Midway and I was a regular there in the summers when my family would come up from Memphis to visit. The overwhelming pie selection, the “naughty” postcards, playing the pinball machines, shooting the bear in the hunting game with my uncles was my experiences too, as the boy in a man’s world. As Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories”, I re-live them in your words!

  2. Thanks, Alan! Some say memories are what you make of them, but I think they make us as well. It’s nice to have good ones to look back on!

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