The Comfort Food Café, stood in blistering sun, in need of a paint job and a new sign. But inside, oh my, what delights awaited the weary traveler who wandered off the interstate in search of sustenance. Like me.
It was the hottest day of the year and the blacktop on the interstate gave off wavy steam, as I imagined my tires melting and becoming one with it. The old chevy’s air conditioning crapped out years before and I never thought to fix it until days like today. Of course that took money—a commodity I rarely possessed for any length of time. In fact, I and my humble belongings were moving to Florida, lured by the offer of a lucrative job.
My goofy mutt Beau stood on his hind legs and leaned over the seat, panting in my ear. “Yes Beau, you’re thirsty. I hear you.” Beau barked once and wagged the stub of his tail. “I’ll bet you could use a Big Mac too, eh?” Which set him off to hopping around the back seat and giving his chewie what for.
The standard highway sign read ‘food and gas’ and we took the exit that would lead us, I hoped to some version of civilization. Coming to a stop at the bottom of the ramp I instantly knew that Beau was out of luck. Apparently Comfort, Texas had yet to be invaded by the fast food giant. I eyed my pooch in the rear-view mirror. “Maybe we should drive a little further?” But Beau already had his head out the rear window, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, the stub signaling his vast approval of Comfort.
I had nothing to lose and I was pretty certain I could at least find an iced tea and a hot dog at the gas station. We drove through open country, occasionally passing an abandoned factory or feed store, but the signs pointed us forward, assuring us that we should keep going. Eventually, I began to see small houses, mom and pop businesses on either side of the road and finally a gas station—although it was an unknown brand. When I pulled the chevy under the canopy an old fashioned clangy bell sounded and I could swear Gomer Pyle loped out to greet me.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said real slow and started to clean my windshield. “Fillerup?”
“Sure,” I said and looked around. “You have anything to eat around here?”
“We got a soda pop machine and a chip rack,” he said now moving to the rear windshield.
“Anyplace nearby I could get some lunch?” I asked, fascinated by his efficiency with a squeegie.
He looked up and grinned, exposing crooked but very white teeth. “Sure over to the Comfort Food Café.” He even pointed—a little startling since the place was right next door. It’s dull brown exterior seemed to make it appear and disappear at will.
“Ah,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it—we’ll settle up after you eat.” Gomer was smiling at Beau and my pooch acted like he knew Gomer all his life. “Nice dawg. Whacha call ‘em?”
“Beau,” I said mystified by their sudden love affair.
“Well, you can take ol’ Beau in the café with you. Marly don’t mind.”
And so off we went to an old diner in the middle of nowhere to eat God knows what.
Unlike the exterior, inside the café everything was lively. Country music wailed from the jukebox, waitresses shuffled between customers, and fry cooks moved to syncopated sizzle of cooking food. Nothing had smelled better to me in my life.
“Have a seat, hon,” a young waitress said and swooped by with arms loaded with plates.
Beau and I took a load off in a booth in the back and in a nanosecond, Marge appeared, pad and pencil at the ready. “What’ll you have, hon?”
I looked for a menu but there was none. “What have you got?”
“Whatever you want, hon. You like comfort food?” she asked.
“Sure, who doesn’t?”
“That whatever comfort food you like we’ve got,” she wasn’t kidding.
“Well…ah…” I had no experience with so much choice in a diner.
“Okay,” Marge said, “I’ll make it easy for you. We’ve got pie, cookies, cake, ice cream, pudding, grilled cheese, tuna melts, mac’n’cheese, hotdogs, hamburgers, chili fries, pizza, peanut butter ‘n’ jelly, tomato soup, chips, popcorn, rice crispie treats, mashed potatoes and gravy, baloney sandwiches, fudge, milkshakes, coke, sweet tea, waffles and white toast. We ain’t got no salads, no lean meats, no diet plates, no veggies other than the taters, no milk, no juice and nothing healthy.”
I got the idea that Marge had given that spiel many times to many a tourist much to their surprise, shock and delight. A free pass to eating bad. I ordered before she changed her mind or I woke up.
Soon my table was knee-deep in grilled cheese, chili fries, chips, homemade pudding, a chili dog and several types of cookies – oh and fudge. And Beau and I ate til we were ready to bust. Whatever we couldn’t eat, Marge wrapped up for the road. “I have to say Marge that was the best meal I ever had.”
“Well good hon, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I suspect you needed it, huh?”
Suddenly Marge looked a lot like Mother Theresa to me—wise and with eyes that could see through to your soul. I nodded. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
She patted me on the back and leaned down. “It’ll pass, hon. You wait and see. It’ll pass.”
I felt tears rising and turned my head. “Sure,” I said staring at the old cigar store indian standing in the corner, “things always do.” I dug for money in my jeans pockets.
Marge shook her head. “Keep it, hon, your bill’s been paid.”
“What?” I stood up as though that would help me identify my benefactor.
Marge pushed my doggie bag into my hands. “You have a safe trip now, you hear? I come back and see us if you’re ever back this way.” And I’m not sure how but Beau and I were outside and walking back to the chevy.
Gomer was nowhere to be found and I owed him for a tank of gas. I left a twenty on the counter inside and we climbed back into the chevy. Suddenly Gomer was at my window handing me a twenty. “You have a good trip you hear?”
“But what about the gas?” I asked.
“My pleasure ma’am. You and Beau take care, you hear?” And again Gomer went to the paralell uinverse from whence he came.
Beau and I went off to Florida but it didn’t work out and we headed back to California. But try as I might, I never again could find the Comfort Food Café and the magical people who lived there.