The dairy bar is getting harder and harder to find these days.
You know the place. You can’t get Sweet n’ Low, but you can get a chocolate malt in a waxpaper cup big enough to wear as a hat. You can get an artfully spiraled, foot-tall soft-serve cone there, but talk of whole wheat might get you put off the premises.
The true dairy bar is a study in simplicity, something like a Zen garden. No inside seating. Splintery picnic tables. June bugs making lazy turns around a bug zapper. Tiny sliding window where you order, lined with screen, always so low to the counter that both you and the girl taking your order have to stoop down like penitents to make yourself heard. The smell of French fries and some wordy pop song wafting out while you study the hand-lettered sign, the curled paper menu, the ancient pegboard. White Formica counter, giant pumper keg of mustard, buzzing neon or fluorescent tube lights, painted bright colors. Gravel lot. Home of the Mammoth Burger! The Wonder Burger! The Big Mike! Home of the Monster Dog! Home of the Turbo Taco Salad, the Chocolate/Cherry Swirl Shake, the Chili Burger Supreme, and the Super Spud.
Here’s the truth: I learned pretty much everything I needed to know at the dairy bar.
1. Rejection is a lot better than regret.
I wasted half the summer I was 15 at Bearburger, a tiny cinderblock and neon drive-in about 10 miles from the house where I grew up. I was sweet on the girl who worked inside, ponying for my older brother’s gas and milkshakes to ferry me there in his rattling, Korean War-era pickup so I and a friend or two — just enough to camouflage my interest in her — could lean on the counter and chat and watch her chew her gum.
She was 16. I know now that she was not beautiful, except in that way that all 16-year-old girls are to teenage boys. Friendly conversation was as far as it ever went. I was too smart for my own good; a cumbersome, wide kid in a school with only a basketball team, which meant that most of the time I felt about as awkward and useless as tits on a boar hog.
After awhile, I figured out her schedule, and once or twice, I just so happened to show up in time to sit outside with her on a picnic table while she took her breaks. She drank cherry Cokes, and was the first person I ever saw who could tie the stem in a knot using only her tongue. The sight of the bright red knot on her pink tongue filled me up with a dumb kind of wonder, half amazement and half Something Else.
2. Don’t quit.
Though you might luck up on a dairy bar these days in some of the far-flung little towns, they’re getting to be a rarity in the Little Rock area. One of the few we could run down is Dairyland Drive In, on Highway 161. It’s the classic dairy bar, a low pillbox ringed in colored lights. The red trashcan out front trumpets the place as the Home of the Big Mike, a $6.50, three-quarter-pound cheeseburger. The lighted sign overhead features Elsie the Cow. (The sight of Elsie made me remember something weird from childhood: When I was a kid, I thought the bright yellow daisy behind Elsie’s head was some kind of collar, maybe one of those big, frou-frou jobs like I had seen in pictures of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I.)
Dairyland is very literally sandwiched between a Sonic franchise on the south, and a McDonald’s on the north, both so close you could probably throw a rock from the Dairyland parking lot and hit either one. Up the street, within sight, is a Waffle House and a Burger King. The place has been there since 1958, since long before the interlopers.
Monette Lemoine was in the window on the Thursday night when I visited. Lemoine’s grandmother bought the place in 1963. “When these fast food places down here moved in years and years ago,” she said, “we thought it was going to kill us. But no, you can’t beat our food.”
Lemoine said they sell about 20 pounds of Big Mike burgers a day. One woman, she said, comes from Cabot every Thursday night for their baked potato special.
“We’ve got customers who’ve been coming here since they were little bitty,” Lemoine said. Soon, though not as quick as I could have gotten it at the Sonic down the street, she slid open the little window and handed me my pineapple milkshake. It was thick and sweet, the chunks of pineapple whipped fine so they wouldn’t clog the straw. It tasted like heaven.
3. There ain’t a damned thing wrong with living in a small town.
In Sheridan, at the Daisy Queen Drive In, the cost of a burger gets you a front row seat for some of the best people watching around. Cars roll by, wary of the local cops. In the dusk, empty log trucks growl around the corner from 270 onto 167, headed home for the day, driver ratcheting up through the big truck’s endless pattern of gears. Behind the fishbowl front window of the Daisy Queen, the girls in ponytails and country heartthrob t-shirts bustle around, finishing up orders, second wind brought on by the thought of quitting time.
One Friday night in the spring, pickups lined the gravel lot. Between log trucks, you could hear kids chattering happily with their parents between laps at ice-cream cones. While waiting for his food, a man strolled across the lot, clasped hands briefly with a man sitting behind the wheel of a Ford.
“Hey Dan, how’re you?”
“We’re doing all right. How’s Christie?”
“She’s fine. Dang. That yours?”
“Yep, that’s her. Growing like a weed, ain’t she?”
“Same as mine, same as mine.”
They went on about their wives and kids and jobs, but their conversation slowly blended into the sound of the town settling in for the night. Birds got in a last few trills. Cars burbled at the stoplight. A block west, the bell in the tower of the courthouse began to toll. Inside the drive-in, one of the girls reached up with a smile, looking like the happiest girl in the world, and the “OPEN” sign went dark.
4. Thou shalt not steal.
This is why I stopped going to Bearburger. It’s too stupid to make up.
On the front of the building was a sign, ringed in flashing red light bulbs, which announced it as the Home of the Jumbo Bear-burger! One night, with several friends in tow, one of us got it into his head that we had to have one of those red light bulbs. It might well have been me. While I distracted, someone else filched. We drove home, screwed the bulb into my brother’s ceiling fan, then stared at it while listening to bad heavy metal music.
It was my mother, of course, who figured us out. Two minutes after she came into my brother’s room and first stared into the red light, she had the whole story. Forget cops slamming desk drawers on suspects’ fingers and whacking them over the head with the phone book. One question to my older brother, who was always a horrendous liar, and he cracked. Because he had ’fessed up first, I was the one who had to return the goddamned light bulb with an apology.
At Bearburger, pinned in the headlights of my mother’s minivan, I handed the light bulb back to the owner and explained. He was short, with a bushy mustache and a canvas apron. He held the bulb in three fingers while I confessed, looking down at it like there might be something inside that he was supposed to see. The girl was in the back, looking busy, but listening and listening.
I never went back.
5. No matter what the Buddhists say, this is probably the only life you get. Try not to blow it.
There was an old man who lived across the street from Bearburger, and that summer — before I became a self-exile — he always seemed to be mowing his lawn, watering his lawn, staring at his lawn with his hands on his hips, pacing back and forth with a fertilizer spreader, or scowling down at some weed that had marred the perfect, pool table green of it. I know how he feels. I fell asleep sometime around 1993 and woke up mortgaged, with a burning desire to improve my lawn.
This is what I remember. It’s the best thing that can be had at any dairy bar I visit these days, though it’s never on the menu.
She watched the lawn watcher, and I watched her. She kept her hair back in a ponytail and her neck was as pale as a vanilla twist. She had a small mole on her right hand, and sometimes when the customers were few and far between, she sat on a stool and leaned on the counter with her arms crossed, looking bored — looking, I think now, like maybe she was worried that her life was slipping by while she sat there. (Though that has to be wrong, because 16-year-olds don’t worry about time. They drown in it. They have it everywhere, stuffed under mattresses and in the bottom of their closets, great handfuls of time in their pockets and tucked down the tops of their socks. So much time that they come to hate it for taking so long to pass.)
Sometimes, she smelled like sweet onions. Sometimes, she wore a hat with her ponytail shoved through the back, and she made the best strawberry milkshake in the known world.
The plan, formulated months ago, was this: Ellen and I were going to go to Washington for inauguration festivities, then fly out the morning after the balls for Panama City and a long planned cruise to begin with a Panama Canal passage.
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