by James Penha
“Somebody loves us all.”
— Elizabeth Bishop, “Filling Station”
“Dunky, darling, there’s a Shell sign. This must be it. Turn in here.”
“Yeah, but where’s the restaurant? I don’t see any restaurant.”
“Pull up to the pump, and we’ll ask. We’re pretty low on gasoline anyway. You can tell them to fill it up, and then ask about the restaurant.”
“I prefer Standard Oil. We just passed a Standard Oil. I hate Shell. It’s Dutch.” Duncan was nothing if not a true-blue American. “There’s a depression, dammit, Flo, and we should be buying American, not sending dollars to tulip farmers in the Netherlands.” Duncan emphasized the first two syllables of “Netherlands” as if to represent its status as a hellish underworld.
“I don’t think FDR will blame us just this once,” I said. “He’s too busy running for re-election. Besides, for a filling station, this one is remarkably clean. I like that.”
A short, stocky fellow in a Shell-yellow monkey suit that cut him under the arms took a squeegee from a pail and wiped away the accidental collection of Kentucky entomology from the windshield as soon as Duncan stopped the car. I rolled down my window, and waited for the gentleman — odd, I know, to call such a laborer a gentleman, but he had, somehow, an elegant bearing — to finish his chore.
He returned the squeegee to the pail, wiped his hand on a towel, and came to my side.
“Fill the tank, please,” I said.
“Certainly, ma’am.” He called, “Roscoe,” to another, much younger, yellow-clad figure coming out of the screen door of the white bungalow situated a short distance from the pumps. The little building looked rather homey, although attached to it was an oil room with neat pyramids of Shell oil cans visible through the windows. “Fill up this here beautiful new Plymouth for these folks, Roscoe.”
Roscoe’s overalls fit him as perfectly as Errol Flynn’s pirate costume in Captain Blood. And his hair flopped over his right eye much as did Flynn’s in the movie.
Suddenly, Duncan was out of the car, showing Roscoe where to find the fuel cap.
“Is Roscoe your son?” I asked. My “gentleman” looked a decade or so younger than Duncan, certainly old enough to have a son of Roscoe’s age.
“Oh, no, ma’am. Well, not yet, anyway. He’s a bit sweet on my daughter Mildred, so you never know.” He pointed to his name tag, embroidered in red onto his overalls. “I’m Harland. Harland Sanders. Care to rest in the shade on our porch while Roscoe’s working?”
“Don’t mind if I do, Mr. Sanders.” He opened the car door and helped me out.
“Please take my arm and let me escort you. I don’t want you tripping on a hose, don’t you know, or stepping in a puddle. You’re much too handsomely dressed for a little country service station like this.”
He was right. I thanked him and sat in a wicker rocker on the porch. Its cushion cover was freshly laundered, and I told Harland how much I appreciated such touches. “Your whole station is notably neat and clean.”
“Well, we only pump gas and sell oil. No repairs. No reason for filth, don’t you know. And Roscoe, there, wipes down the pumps after every sale.”
“He may have some help from my husband today.” Duncan was playing puppy to a brand new bone.
Harland continued, “We keep the place spic and span because we also serve food in the house here, and who would want to have lunch in an oil-soaked dining room. I don’t know much about running a restaurant, but I ain’t a fool, don’t you know.”
“So you do serve food. That’s what we were told in Corbin. That’s why Duncan and I... Oh, I am so sorry. How rude. I’m Florence Hines. I’m originally from Wyoming — Cheyenne — but Duncan is a Kentucky boy, from Bowling Green originally. We travel a lot. A lot! But Duncan is never happier than when we find hospitality in his home state. So when we passed through Corbin, we asked a sheriff for a special place to eat, and he directed us here.”
“Rufus Smalling. The Sheriff of Corbin. He often eats here. Brings his whole family usually. Good folks.” Harland held out his hand. It was clean. “I am honored to meet you, Mrs. Hines.” I had on white gloves; they looked striking with my pink suit. We shook. “Would you care to sample our humble fare?” Harland held open the screen door of the bungalow for me.
“Why, this is a home, Mr. Sanders!”
“It is, Mrs. Hines. Welcome to our little home. Please be seated.”
Since there was only one table in the dining room, I had only to decide in which of the six chairs I would take my place. I sat with my back to the screen door to enjoy the midday breeze and to avoid having to watch Duncan.
“If you’ll excuse me a moment, Mrs. Hines, I need to get my boy Harland Junior to replace me at the pumps while I fire up the kitchen.”
“Of course,” I replied. The table was covered with an immaculately white and ironed tablecloth. I bent my head and smelled the linen. Ivory Snow, I thought. How wonderful! I rose and studied the framed still life on one wall. Amateurish, but somehow appropriate. Probably the work of one of the children. Mildred.
There were two oak doors in the back of the room. They likely opened onto the bedrooms, one for Father and Mother. And one for Mildred and Junior. Awkward. But this was Kentucky. The door on the right was slightly ajar, and I poked it open a bit more. I could always say I was looking for a powder room. Twin beds. Floral spread and matching drapes. Lovely. Where was the powder room anyway? I found it in the corner of the bedroom. It was a full bathroom, and I took the opportunity to remove my gloves and wash my hands. Cashmere Bouquet. Small guest towels. Lovely.
Back in the dining room, between the two bedroom doors, I paused to read a certificate signed by Governor Ruby Lafoon in July of 1935 bestowing the title of Kentucky Colonel on Harland Sanders. I groaned to think how envious Duncan would be if he discovered that young Harland Sanders was already a Kentucky Colonel.
Against the wall with the kitchen door into which the new Colonel had disappeared some time ago was a sideboard draped with a fine lace doily on which stood a pot with a rather hirsute begonia. Who chose such a flower? I wondered, and who set it upon this delicate doily? Where was Mrs. Colonel anyway?
A young woman entered from the kitchen with a tray holding a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. “Where would you like this, Mrs. Hines?”
“Oh, thank you... Mildred?”
“I’m Margaret. Mildred is my younger sister.”
“Ah. Well, I’m sitting by the screen door. And let’s put my husband, should he ever make it to lunch, at my left.”
Margaret set down the lemonade and glasses. “Shall I pour?”
“Mine, yes, thanks. May I see a menu?”
“Oh, we have no menu. Each day, my father prepares our family’s meal, but more than we could ever eat. If diners arrive, we serve them until we run out.”
“And if you run out, what does the family eat?”
“Leftovers from the days before.” She smiled. “Good thing this place isn’t really popular; we’d starve.”
I laughed, almost dribbling out the lemonade still in my mouth. That would have been a disaster.
After swallowing and patting my lips with one of the linen napkins that Margaret had also delivered, I asked, “So what will you be serving today?”
“Steak was yesterday. Ham tomorrow. Today is fried chicken in a basket with corn on the cob and hot biscuits.”
“Sounds divine. But could you cut the corn off the cob and put it in a dish with the chicken. I never eat with my hands.”
“Not even the biscuits?” Margaret was amazed. “Not even the chicken?”
“That’s why God gave us knives and forks.”
“And you don’t want the basket?”
“I prefer a nice clean plate.”
“We can do that.”
“I am hoping so.”
Margaret took the tray and turned toward the kitchen.
“Oh, Margaret,” I called.
“Mr. Hines, I’m sure, would prefer the corn ON the cob and the basket instead of a plate.”
“Duncan likes to get his hands dirty,” I muttered as Margaret left me alone once more. I turned to look out the screen door. The Plymouth was parked under a tree. A stocky young man — Junior, I presumed — was wiping down the pumps. I could not see where Roscoe had led Duncan... or vice versa.
Margaret interrupted my search. She lay silverware in their proper positions in front of me and likewise for Duncan. “Your meals are ready,” she said. “Shall we keep them warm until your husband joins you?”
“Dear, no. I am famished. Please serve.”
Margaret returned to the kitchen, but it was Mr. Sanders — the Colonel — who carried high on the fingertips of his right hand a lovely china plate. He set it before me. Two steaming corn muffins were cracked just enough to let dabs of butter ooze into their calderas. To their right stood a hill of fresh niblets, absolutely free of silk. On the southern hemisphere of the plate, golden pieces of batter-fried chicken sizzled, filling the room with the scent of herbs and spices.
“Oh, my!” I could not help exclaiming. “I recognize some of those flavors... but only some.”
“There is nothing in my chicken you would not have in your own pantry, Mrs. Hines. But, I will admit, I have been tinkering with the proportions for years.” Mr. Sanders had changed out of his overalls. He wore a shirt and trousers as white as the tablecloth. A black string tie matched the color of his spectacles.
“My, you do resemble a Kentucky Colonel, now, Mr. Sanders.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant to be.” I raised knife and fork to try the chicken.
Copyright © 2020 by James Penha