Heads turned when we walked through the door, in that certain way heads do when y’aren’t from around here, are you’se?
In the lone cafe in a town of less than 400, the kind of town where the city office closes down once a week for no better reason than that it’s Wednesday, it’s not at all hard to spot the strangers.
It didn’t help, I suppose, that we dropped a stack of files on the table in the checkered-floor fifties-style diner before we even saw the menu. We cranked open a laptop and kept trying to make cell phone calls to schedule appointments where everyone knows that intermittent service really means none at all.
We certainly were not from around here.
But the folks here, sandwiched between Minnesota’s north woods and the Red River Valley, where you can touch Canada if you stick your hand out the window on the left side, they’re friendly enough to be mistaken for South Dakotans.
The gentleman near the counter nodded a greeting in that Minnesota way, releasing the other patrons to go back to their coffee and midday chatter, conversations peppered with you betchas and doncha-knows.
The waitress came to our table, tablet and pen in hand, smiling like she’d known us all along. She reminded us of the Baked Chikin noon special, which we passed. I asked her for a simple BLT, not wanting anything too heavy knowing I still had a long list of sites to inspect that afternoon in the sun and northern humidity.
She offered me a drink.
“Is this a Pepsi or Coke shop?” I asked.
“Well, Pepsi sounds good then.”
As I answered, I spotted the soda cooler across the room. “Wait. Fountain or cans?”
“You’d better make it a Mountain Dew then, please.”
Her brow curled a little as she scratched off my order. She shifted her weight to one side, and her pen hand dropped to her hip as she looked at me over her tablet.
“Yes. I know it sounds sort of silly.”
I strained to find words to explain why Pepsi belongs in a glass bottle — not a can — just like I remember Saturday nights with Dad’s popcorn and Jackie Gleason on black and white television.
Mountain Dew, on the other hand, was made for the cold aluminum can. The soothing sound of the tab pulled back early in the morning when there is no coffee escapes articulation.
It’s the same way that coffee seems so much more at rest in a stay-where-you-are ceramic mug than insulated plastic and stainless steel traveler for jostling down the highway.
But this would be more than she needed to know, the kind waitress who only wanted to carry an order to the cook. She would take a simple explanation and be on her way.
“It’s all about the container,” I managed. “Each is made perfect in the right vessel.”
She smirked and walked away, but came back soon enough with a tall glass of ice and a green and red can, its perspiration glistening down the sides as my own trickled down my back. I thanked her, pulled back the tab to break the seal and felt my lungs slow and fill with better air with the snapping metal sound. I slid the plastic glass out of the way while I waited for my sandwich.
The next day, our appointment schedule brought us near town again at noon, and we pulled in for lunch, not knowing where we might find another place to eat on our remote assignment.
Folks looked up when we came in, but nodded briefly without the scrutiny that greeted strangers just a day before.
We slid into a booth in the back of the cafe, shadowed by the front end of a classic Cadillac sticking out of the wall, and set up our makeshift office on the table again.
The waitress came to the table and as she had the day before, offered to bring a beverage.
The morning’s work left me parched, and I asked if she had a lemonade.
She raised one eyebrow and grinned.
“Only in a can,” she said.
She turned on her heel to retrieve an ice water and I settled a little more comfortably into the sticky plastic seat, sensing that somehow, we were as much as regulars now.
Photo: a downtown diner, somewhere near Canada