Dining with the Colonel – No. 39

Charles Cottle —

Snow was falling and I was tired. I was returning home to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin after a day of teaching at the university. It was 5:30 in the afternoon in the middle of winter, so it had already been dark for about an hour. As I pulled into town, I started thinking about food. I was in no mood to start cooking something, but Fort Atkinson, a town of nine thousand, is not known for its large number of eating establishments. There was the Mexican restaurant that served food hard to find in Mexico, an Italian restaurant that served mostly pasta and pizza, a sports bar that served large portions of fried food with side salads of iceberg lettuce, and a Cantonese Chinese restaurant where every dish was covered in some kind of brown sauce that made every item on the menu taste pretty much the same.

As I approached the curve on which sat the Methodist Church, I spotted the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. It was about  half a block to the left of the Methodist Church, almost out of view because of the large trees that blocked the view and the snow that was starting to fall harder. I had forgotten about Kentucky Fried Chicken as one of my options. The thought of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, and biscuits with gravy suddenly appealed to me. I grew up in the south. And the image of this meal satisfied the nostalgia I was feeling. Fried chicken fit my mood.

I pulled into the small parking lot of the modest white restaurant building with a slanted roof and a cupola on top. I’m guessing that earlier in its life the restaurant had been something else, perhaps a hamburger joint or even a small store. Through the heavy snow I could easily make out the image of Colonel Sanders and the words, “Kentucky Fried Chicken” on the sign. This was before the corporate change in which Kentucky Fried Chicken became simply KFC. And the image of Colonel Sanders was proudly displayed on the sign. As I went inside I noticed there were only a couple cars in the parking lot.

The interior of the restaurant was plain, decorated in black and white. There was no sign of the bright colors and plastic decor of the KFC’s one finds nowadays. The dining area was populated by small tables with black chairs placed around three walls, two of which had old-fashioned windows, the kind that were popular before plate glass became the norm. There were also a few tables and chairs spread throughout the middle of the floor. The fourth wall was dedicated to the customer service counter and a kitchen which was a really just a galley with refrigeration units, stoves, and other restaurant food preparation necessities.

As I entered the restaurant I saw that in addition to myself, there was only one other customer. He sat on the far wall, opposite the customer service counter, next to a window, eating his meal. Likewise, there was only one employee present. She was a young woman wearing a black skirt, white blouse, and sneakers. On her blouse she wore a name tag, but I couldn’t read it and I thought that looking too closely would be impolite. She also wore rather unattractive black horn rimmed glasses. Shortly after I reached the counter, she emerged from the kitchen. I greeted her, but before I could say anything else, she asked,

“Did you take a number?”
Surprised, I asked, “A number?”
“Yes, a number,” she responded.

“Where are they?”

And without replying she pointed above the cash register to a slender metal rod, which indeed, contained a rack of numbers printed on plastic cards designed to fit on the steel rod. I reached up and removed the next printed card from the rack and handed it to her. I then placed my order for two pieces of fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit. I ordered coffee to drink.

She handed the plastic card back to me and I glanced down to read it. On the card were written the following words in a vertical format, “No. 39.”

The attendant retreated to the food galley to prepare my order and I moved about ten feet away from the counter. While I stood waiting, the customer who was there when I arrived finished his food, stood up, and dutifully emptied his tray of trash into the waste bin provided. He then left. Except for me and the attendant the restaurant was empty. I was the only customer.

About five minutes later the attendant emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray of food. She adjusted her glasses on her nose, read the slip, and said in a loud voice, “Number 39.”

I glanced around the room to make sure no one else was there, and rather meekly I raised my right hand and replied, “Over here. I’m over here.”

I approached the counter, took my food, and thanked the attendant. I moved to a table on the north wall of the restaurant. It was by a window that looked into blackness. I ate my food and drank my coffee with my back to the service counter. While I was eating, no one else entered the restaurant. In about fifteen minutes I finished, stood up, and like the customer before me, emptied the trash on my tray into the waste bin thoughtfully provided by Colonel Sanders.

I zipped up my jacket, put on my gloves, and left the restaurant. The attendant was in the galley reading a magazine. Once outside, I noticed that the snow had stopped and the sky was clearing. Stars were starting to peek through the disappearing clouds. I knew it was going to be a cold night.

About Charles Cottle (14 Articles)
I'm retired after teaching political theory and social science research methods for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I'm interested in lots of things - mainly social issues, photography, and politics.

4 Comments on Dining with the Colonel – No. 39

  1. DeWitt Clinton // August 26, 2016 at 6:24 pm // Reply

    Charles….I’m glad you liked the category “creative non fiction” as one of the areas for discussion on wiseguys. This piece is really quite wonderful, as I’ve also looked for a late evening meal in Whitewater after teaching a World of Ideas class on Monday evenings. Sometimes these places were quite empty….I remember showing up hungry at one, only to find that the story had already closed. But I’ve often eaten alone as you did when pullling an overnight in Whitewater. Perhaps it’s my own connection to these experiences that I enjoyed your essay quite a bit. Even though “nothing seems to happen, I enjoyed all of the characterization, scene setting, low pitched, way low drama, and the sense of what it’s like to order food in a chain restaurant, and be the only customer. Fine work, Charles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dewitt, thank you for your kind words. I don’t have much experience with this kind of writing, and your response is encouraging. Regarding this experience, as you mentioned, “nothing seems to happen,” but from a subjective perspective, quite a bit happens. As I reflect back over the years, it was one of my more memorable experiences. Thanks again.

      Like

  2. Dave Gillespie // August 27, 2016 at 8:06 am // Reply

    There is an important moral to this story: Always remember to take and have a number! LOL. What a wonderful story. And, if I may say so, what a remarkably excellent writer you are, Charles.

    Liked by 1 person

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