I promised, and I must now deliver.
The tale you are about to hear is true, and the truth, perhaps, is not stranger than fiction– but it certainly serves as vivid inspiration.
Thus brings me to the tale of Lula Belle’s.
It was a sunny, windy as heck day in a small town in northern Wyoming. As I often do, I headed that morning into the main part of town to check out what antique treasures or hidden-gem coffee shops I could find.
I parked on a random block in town and quickly googled to see what was around. Since it was so windy, I was about to drive to my next destination. I turned the key and… My car wouldn’t start.
Dead battery. I knew it. The battery had been dying slowly since a month before. I have roadside assistance, but since I was in the middle of nowhere, I thought I should ask around for a jump before I called and had to wait hours for the pros to show up.
I got out and walked up to the store I was parked in front of, a “farmer’s market” store selling jam, honey, and baked goods. Inside, a woman wearing a flannel asked what I needed. “Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. “Or know anyone who does? My battery’s dead.”
“Oh, I left my cables in the Jeep and my husband drove it today. Did you already try Lula Belle’s?”
I gave her what I’m sure was a blank stare, because she started to explain.
“Lula Belle’s, it’s down at the end of the street. There’s always, you know, mechanic type guys in there. Old guys with all kinds of tools in their trucks. Someone will definitely have cables. They’d love to help you out.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Where is it?”
She led me outside and pointed down the street. “It’s a diner, last building at the end of the street there.”
I thanked her and went on my way. The wind was blasting but I was going to find a nice old mechanic guy to jump my car, and maybe this diner would have a great breakfast-for-lunch and endless coffee refills. As I walked, though, I passed a boarded-up building, plastic covers on the upper windows flapping in the wind. The train tracks ahead of me held empty cars, standing still. There wasn’t much at this end of the street.
Then I saw Lula Belle’s.
It was a tiny building at the end of the street, on a miniature block all its own, right next to the train tracks. I stepped up to its front entry and got a whiff of nicotine. I stepped into the entryway, which was a glass enclosure just big enough for me, a dry-looking plant, and a bucket full of gravel that I presumed, from the smell, was for putting out cigarette butts.
I pushed open the front door and immediately every eye was on me.
I stood in front of a tiny, wood-paneled room crowded with people sitting at little square tables. Almost everyone in the place was old, and smoking. The air was thick, to say the least. An old woman squinted at me suspiciously and exhaled a gray stream in my general direction.
I walked up to the formica counter. A girl stood behind it, and I hoped that she worked there as we both made hesitant eye contact.
“Hey,” I said. “Um, my car battery died, and I was just wondering if you knew anyone with jumper cables who could help me out?”
The girl said, “Hmm,” and I watched her peel back the plastic wrap on a tray of buns that were so coated in whatever sticky brown substance (don’t think of lung tar don’t think of lung tar) that she had to pry them apart with a spatula. “I’ll go in back and ask. Maybe the owner has some.” She went into the kitchen and left me standing in front of the counter, trying not to look directly at anyone. I stared instead at the murky cowboy pictures and cracked mirror on the wall.
Had I stepped back in time? It felt like it. Smoking indoors was banned in Ohio before I was even a teen. Even in Denver, where smoking in general is more common, it’s always relegated to sidewalks and patios. And at one table, a woman peered over her coffee at a map, an actual paper map, that she had unfolded and spread out.
And then there were the old people.
Here’s the thing: I like old people. Old people like me. I’ve enjoyed the company of my much-elders since I was a kid befriending ladies in church. Old people have taught me how to play chess, paint with watercolors, and tell the weirdest jokes. Most of the old people I know, honestly, are the inspiration for many of my life goals. So it never made sense to me when I would see people dress as “old” for Halloween. I always thought, what, is it like a fear of mortality? A fear of the fact that one day you’ll be wrinkly and probably need a cane? So what? What’s so scary about old people?
Well. Suddenly I understood. These old people were scary. None of them spoke. They ate silently, sitting across from each other, forks in bricks of scrambled eggs. Or else they just drank coffee and smoked, staring straight ahead, glancing at me. And they looked quite… gray.
Maybe I hadn’t stepped back in time, but into a parallel world, or a movie set. But this was no Little House on the Prairie or even Fistful of Dollars. This was No Country For Old Men vibes, noir, ominous, creepy sunlight slanting into the frame, the stranger comes to town and it turns out everyone is the living dead… That kind of movie.
A few people came out of the kitchen: first the counter girl, then the scrawny dishwasher guy, then the owner woman and lastly, her husband, frowning. “Where’s your car at?” he asked me.
“Oh, thank you,” I said. He walked to the door and I followed. “It’s right down the street.”
We went outside and he looked down the street as I pointed. “Yeah, see, it’s the blue one down there. It just needs a jump.”
“I don’t have cables. Loaned ’em to my cousin and he never gave ’em back. Nobody else has any, either. Checked my truck.”
“Oh… Well… Thanks so much for checking,” I said, as I inched away from the building.
“You could ask across the street.” He pointed to a crew of people who seemed to be disassembling an abandoned building. “I don’t know those guys, but maybe they got something.”
“Okay. Yeah maybe I’ll do that. Thanks!”
There was no way I was asking anyone else. I fast-walked back to my car and called roadside assistance. They got there in half an hour.
Turns out I could have called first and probably saved myself some time and trouble. But I would have missed out on quite the experience.