On our way home from visiting my mother in Ocala, Florida we took a detour to visit a salvage store in Brooksville, Florida. It was the perfect thing to do on a sad, drizzly Sunday, the last time we’d see family for a while, an especially bittersweet departure as I have cancer. My husband and I were also hoping to find a tiny Cuban restaurant we stumbled over a couple of years ago when we’d driven to Crystal River to get a Christmas gift for a child for whom I’d been assigned to shop. It was part of my employer’s Secret Santa program for the USO.
On the list was a teenager who wanted two things: A shirt from fishing gear store and one of those boutique shop tee-shirts sporting sassy expressions about Southern women and their tendency to insult you with “Bless yo’ heart.” The only way to buy the shirt was to go to the store directly, a place in Crystal River. I had $100 to spend on her and she had no backup requests. A teenager wants only two things that don’t even amount to $100? I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. We trekked to Crystal River from Tampa. It was a lovely drive on one of those blue-sky-fluffy-white-cloud days for which Florida is well known.
On the way home, we drove an old state route, one of those roads dotted with the sun-weathered remains of tourist traps that, before the Interstate Highway system was built, once did a hopping business selling boiled peanuts, oranges, flamingo art, and a chance to pet baby alligators or stingrays. This place was wild and colorful, a wacky looking — and tiny — restaurant right next to an advertising-drenched shack you find anywhere there is boating and fishing.
The Cuban restaurant, known as the Roadside Cuban Café, was empty — save for the owners and two sullen teens sitting at different booths, their noses buried in their phones. Turns out they were the children of the couple running the place, and they had to be goaded into doing any work. Mom and Dad manned the kitchen. My husband did the usual routine: made sure he was getting what he insists is an authentic Cuban sandwich. It must have pork roast and ham – no salami, which is a Miami-style Cuban sandwich. For my husband, the salami is sacrilegious. “If you’re going to add a meat, then add bacon. You do not add salami!” He does this damn routine every time we go to a place serving Cuban sandwiches. I roll my eyes, having had to listen to the routine for the nth time. Of course, these days he does it becauseI roll my eyes. This is true love.
We had a great time talking with the owners, learning about how they emigrated here, how then ended up in a small town rather than in one of Florida’s larger cities. We bonded the way all non-Floridians do: trading stories about living in Florida. The husband made me a fantastic Café Cubano, on the stove even, and not some hash job with coffee from a drip machine, or worse, some freeze-dried nonsense. Milk was from the can, of course! Reese was in love with the sandwich. So that cinched it. We’d have to come back and I’d write up a restaurant review, something I like to do to help struggling local businesses.
But with the past year of surgery and chemotherapy treatments, we forgot how we stumbled over their store. Where’d we been? Which visit to some godforsaken backwoods town on some state route in Florida, all of which start looking alike after a while?
Fortunately, since I navigated that day and am an inveterate observer of landmarks to help me remember my way around, not long after we exited the Interstate, I knew that we were, indeed, on the same road we’d traveled before. I could see the telltale curve in the road ahead, it was just past a stand of trees. I knew that just around that bend, I would spy the crazy-tall cans of soda. I am not sure what they are. They look like wrongly-proportioned oil tanks, like I used to see in Syracuse, New York when we ventured beyond my hometown of Homer, New York. Given the heavy use of advertising everywhere else at the adjacent country store and gas station, the tanks have obviously been painted to look like Coca-Cola brand products. I wondered who’d proposed the advertising deal: the store owner or the vendor?
The restaurant was closed so I wanted to go poke around in the store. Who knows what crazy you will find in these places? Corner stores in rural areas often have the wildest grab bag of stock on the shelves. They are always full of jerry-rigged ephemera: things stapled, duct-taped, and corded together to make do for a time — which always turns into forever.
The exterior of the store is covered in advertising signs hawking cigarettes, gum, soda, beer, soap, fishing poles, guns, you name it. There are some dilapidated seats under an overhang protected from the drizzle. No pretenses here: a well-worn green pleather office chair, a rickety and rusted out aluminum chair, and a wooden rocker that looked like it didn’t have one more “sit for a spell” left in it.
I press on the left door. The place seems deserted but seeing that two women had just walked out and noting the sign that said, “always open” I figured it must be open. Nevertheless, the door is locked.
Huh. That seems odd.
I press on the right door. It’s open.
But my actions have apparently triggered the unholy clanging of an alarm. I don’t cross the threshold, terrified that someone might come out with a shotgun pointed at me. Why not crossing the threshold would matter, I dunno. I’m frozen there, wondering what to do. Reese brings up the rear, so I press the door open slightly to see if anyone responds. Nope. But the damn alarm is still going.
What the heck? Who can stand it in there?
If it’s open, then the owner or an employee must be right inside, having just sold cigarettes to the previous patrons. I decide to go ahead and enter, shotguns in the hands of paranoid store owners be damned!
Inside, the place is a typical of what’s left of country stores these days: a place to sell bait, boiled peanuts, cracklins, chips, candy, beer, ice, and soft drinks. The interior is covered in advertising tins and posters. Not just on the walls, either. The entirety of the low-slung ceiling is plastered with them.
From a small office just behind the cashier’s desk, a rail-thin and bespectacled man emerges, yelling: “Serves ya right to have to listen to that racket after pushing on the door twice.” I’m completely befuddled as to what sin I’d just committed. I try to quiz him as to why he’s upset, but the racket means I can’t hear. He’s leaving the alarm on to annoy us, even if it is also annoying him.
He’s got on suspenders, has the same bald hairline and hair color as my Grandpa, and — I swear — has on the same style shirts Grandpa wore: pocketed workmen-style shirts, short sleeved, with a slight sheen. I swear to god it was the same light tan color my Gramps sometimes wore. The shirt triggers a visceral memory of the soft, smoothness of it, the slippery sheen and he, stooped over from arthritis, showing me his jackknife. I still have it somewhere.
This guy was a grumpy old cuss. So was Gramps, come to think of it. I don’t remember everything he said to us, but it was basically a stream of complaints and snide remarks highlighting our apparent lack of intelligence and a general hostility to ignorant tourists.
I did my best to disarm him, but nothing doing. It was a running stream of crank.
As we left, I said, “Have a good day,“ hollering out to him as i pushed open the correct door. He was hidden behind a rack of gum, serving the customers behind us. After that barrage, I really did not want to be nice. In fact, I expected a grunt from the sourpuss.
Instead, what I heard was a low cackling and then he called out: “You youngins have a good day, now.”