Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Schwartz' Tap

The sun had just dipped below the barren hills out my passenger-side window as I coasted into Pilot Grove, Iowa. A handful of houses dotted the roadside. I passed a hard worn machine shop, an oversize bank, an impressive machinery implement, and pulled in beside the now defunct rail station that sat across the dusty gravel lot from Schwartz' Tavern. I was meeting my grandfather for supper.

The Old Pilot Grove Depot

The building was low and long, a dusty white building with small windows that advertised Busch Racing and Pabst on tap. The neon gases flickered and shone as I approached, and the screen door bore a handmade sign that read,

“Will be serving turtle tonight.”

I walked into the dimly lit building and was greeted by the low din of old friends chatting at linoleum tables. The walls displayed a border of deer antlers, with mirrors and hunting images that all reminded us that,

“Pabst Blue Ribbon is proudly served here”.

The ceiling was almost completely covered in the empty shells of snapping turtles. The implied source of the dinner special, these empty amphibious husks were an all-too-real reminder of what was in the soup so, after finding my grandfather, I ordered the catfish, along with a draft pint of Blue Ribbon beer.

While waiting for the meal, I ventured a visit to the washroom. Inside I was met with the quintessential filthy bar/filling station bathroom. The space was not more than six feet across and four feet deep. Behind the toilet sat a coffee can to avoid overflow, although the cracked and soggy tiles on the floor implied that the can had failed its duties as of late. The warm water handle was broken on the sink, and the soap dispenser looked as though it was bought new in 1978.

The walls of the bathroom were mottled blue and gray panels that also harkened back to a decade before I was born. Devoid of the graffiti you'd normally find in a toilet of this ilk, the only degradation these walls showed was that of age. They'd obviously faded from their original vibrancy and were starting to disintegrate at the seams.

The washroom also had a tiny window at the top of one of the short walls. It was the type of window that would be ideal for a man to escape from, if he needed to make a quick, yet inconspicuous getaway. The pane, once unlatched, swung down on two rusty hinges, and allowed just enough room for an agile pair of shoulders to pass through. As I relieved myself, I imagined a scenario in which the window might require such a use.

A man, on the lam for a crime he may or may not have committed, or maybe just for being who he was, stops into a back woods tavern in a one horse town for something warm to eat and cool to drink.

He walks into the bar with a wary eye and a tired gait. He approaches a stool at the far end of the bar and asks for a glass of bourbon, neat, and whatever is on special. As he sips from the glass he surveys the room. Dead animals hang from the walls and ceilings like a taxidermists gallery. The dim light from bare bulbs gleams from the glassy eyes of stuffed deer and off the shellacked backs of turtles long since departed. A handful of old men sit at a table across the room drinking cheap beer and chewing catfish as they argue agricultural. The waitress brings the special.

A faintly gray bowl of soup slides in front of his hunched, tired shoulders. What the whiskey had done to ease his nerves, the pungent odor of this nondescript liquid reverses in a heartbeat.
“What is this?” the haggard man chokes as he picks at the rubbery meat in the stew.

The waitress chomps her gum as she replies, unfazed by his reaction “Turtle soup. You ordered the special, right?” She pulls a dingy spoon from her apron and tosses it on the bar beside the mans rough-hewn hand.

He grumbles an inaudible reply and turns to his dinner. As he spoons down the slop, he hears the squeak of the screen door behind him. Fighting every urge to spin around and identify the new-comer, the man slowly lifts his head from his soup to see the reflection of three uniformed men in the mirror behind the bar. He calmly takes in the last of his bourbon, slides of the stool, and makes his way to the bathroom. As the men approach the bar, he ducks into the door and slides the lock home. He can vaguely hear his name through the thin door as he searches for his next move. He spots a little window above the toilet.

He breaks the seal on the fenestration with little trouble, and within minutes is able to see out the window and into the inky night. No one in sight, he hauls his tired body up into the frame and, with a final heave, slides through the portal. Landing on his back with a soft thud on the dusty gravel lot, he lays there a moment until he regains orientation. Through the window above him, the sound of knocking echoes off dirty walls.

He picks himself up, moves to the corner of the building, only to find two more men in similar uniforms standing out front. He turns back and darts across the lot, into the field of tasseling corn. He turns back only at the sound of splintering wood from the small window, then redoubles his efforts, not stopping until he is through the field, its stoic stalks standing silently in the sultry night air.

And he begins walking north, destination unknown.

I zipped up, washed my hands, and made my way back through the dingy tables to my table. After a while, a waitress who was likely too young to be serving us food brought out our meals. The fish was greasy and tender, just as it ought to be. The beer was cold and sweet, just as it ought to be. The conversation was mundane and agrarian, just as it out to be.

As we left Schwartz' that night, I felt myself fulfilled. Not only had my physical appetite been sated, but so too had my spiritual appetite. I felt comfortable in that tavern, shooting the proverbial shit with my grandfather and drinking good beer.

I felt the comfort of home in that ramshackle tavern. It's a feeling that I find myself missing sometimes, living in the city. But in the end, I know I'd never survive that lifestyle, so instead I'll settle for a little turtle now and again.

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