Rex Harlow once owned a run-down gas station and convenience store off I-90, just outside of Garrison, Montana. If you ‘d seen him back then in his baggy overalls and greasy t-shirt, you’d have thought he’d worked there all his life. Truth is, he won the station in a poker game about the time Bush’s boy got elected president. It had belonged to Hastings Clagett. Hastings hated the place because it interfered with his real occupation — town drunk.
The way I saw it, he lost the station intentionally.
“Hoo-whee,” Hastings shouted when Rex showed him one more seven than he had threes. “I’m free.” The next morning he handed Rex a pile of papers and keys, and took off for parts unknown.
And Rex, who had been making do by painting houses and patching roofs, now owned a business. Since he knew nothing about fixing cars, he just pumped gas, changed oil, fixed flats and sold enough beer, frozen burritos and girlie magazines to get by.
He managed by keeping his expectations low.
Rex moved into the office in back of the store. Hastings had fixed it up so he’d have a place to stay whenever his wife kicked him out, which was often. And it suited Rex just fine. He had a roof over his head, cheap eats, and all the girlie magazines he wanted. Rex was so content, pigs in shit envied him.
And he was a good ol’ fella. He’d give anyone the shirt off his back, though few wanted the smelly t-shirt. When work got scarce, Rex let his friends fill up on munchies and gasoline. Never said a word. But they always paid him back, plus some, when the cash started flowing.
But good times, like yesterday, don’t last past the morning hangover. Lonnie Cisco is to blame for that. One day, me and Rex were playing checkers when Lonnie pulled up for gas in his 1988 Cadillac. He began filling Rex’s head with crazy ideas about making real money if he opened a restaurant, being so close to I-90. Lonnie, all gangly and leathery, wearing britches too tight for a grown man, could talk a nun out of her panties during Easter service.
I remember how Rex lifted his cap and ran a dirty hand through his hair. “I don’t know about that. I can’t even keep them hot dogs from sliding off the spit.” We looked at the hot dog machine and, sure enough, half those dogs seemed to be calling out for help.
Lonnie didn’t let up. “But I can cook like a son-of-a-bitch. You know that. Why I fed the ranch hands on the Stedman place so good, half a them swore they’d give up women to marry me.”
Lonnie was looking for work, since he had lost his job as cook and handyman at the Stedman ranch for being too handy with Mrs. Stedman. So he had plenty of time to keep pestering Rex and filling his head with dreams. In time, he wore down ol’ Rex.
And you know what? It happened just like Lonnie said. They built a restaurant and Lonnie cooked grub that stuck to your bones on a snowy winter night, mostly steaks and stews, meat loaf and pot roast. Word got out, and pretty soon he had folks lined up at the take-out window and sitting down to eat, too, especially on Tuesday nights when he roasted a whole pig.
Then some reporter from Missoula claimed Harlow’s Café had some of the best down-home cooking in the state. He bragged on the buffalo stew with flat bread. After that, you could hardly find a familiar face, what with all the tourists that showed up. That gave Rex an idea, and he extended the restaurant and built a souvenir and t-shirt shop.
Before even Rex knew what was happening, he had no time for a friendly game of checkers, especially when some of his so-called friends borrowed money and made no effort to pay it back. And Maggie Culpepper, who acted like she didn’t even know his name back in school, started following him around like an orphaned calf. Hastings even came back to town with a lawyer, claiming Rex had cheated him out of his livelihood.
Rex told me he had money, but he also had bills and worries. He spent his days running from the bank to the courthouse, looking like he was being strangled with his own tie.
He was about the richest son of a bitch in town. And the unhappiest.
So you know what he did? Turned the café over to Lonnie, put Hastings in charge of the beer concession, gave Maggie the souvenir shop, and built himself a little house on land he had bought when the money was good.
It didn’t take long for Lonnie to grow tired of cooking and drive off in his Caddy. Hastings drank the beer profits and Maggie ran off with a preacher from Helena. Harlow’s Café and Souvenir Shop just collects dust now.
Rex paints a house or patches a roof when someone needs him. And he always finds the time for a good game of checkers.
The other day someone asked him if he had any plans to reopen the café.
“Hell, no,” he said.
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.