The assignment: Pay attention to signs! Great inspiration can be found in signs, especially if part of the sign isn’t working. Among our favorite are “Roadlooms” (formerly Broadlooms) and “Lines ‘N Things” (formerly Linens ‘N Things). When you spot a sign you like, build a story around it!
My sign was Big Bowl (the restaurant), that was missing a couple letters. It became Big B–L. Enjoy this short story…
The digital red gas pump was screaming on my dashboard, bing-bing-bing! It had now begun its anxious blinking dance, an urgent reminder that there was only a miniscule amount of gas in the tank of my overused car.
“No, No, No!” I wailed at the gauge, futilely tapping it as if that would replenish the tank. Damn, one more thing to go wrong in my week.
This highway stretch between Chicago and Iowa and beyond is flat and uninspiring in my mind, miles of monotony except for darkened barns and swaying corn tops, invisible towns, but seemingly no gas stations since I had noticed my tank running low. Busy in my own mind, I did not pay attention to the dash lights in my view.
Swallowing my panic, I glanced up to see a turnoff on the road where a tiny cluster of buildings rose from the blackness, beckoning. There were only two other cars waiting at the stoplight, when I turned to reach that tiny outpost of civilization.
Welcome to Willingham, pop 376, est. 1847 read the sign approaching the string of stores. Buildings that looked as if they were built during the formation of this town formed a line of brick and mortar about two blocks long. Even through the unlit windows, I could see from the signs that the town was working overtime to re-establish itself as some type of artsy destination.
Cruising slowly up the empty street I saw a vintage shop, candle and local artist shop, sundry store, cheese and wine store, two dining establishments, and a music shop in between buildings for rent or papered over or “Coming Soon!” in hopeful print on the dusty windows. No gas station. No motel in sight.
“Great choice,” I groaned.
The lone business open was on a corner, a forlorn neon sign—though a more welcoming red than my gas tank—in old-fashioned script reading “Big Burl” with an old-school martini glass under the name.
Did I dare go in? Did I have a choice? My gas tank was empty, my stomach was churning, I was seeing double from driving for hours, and my bladder and legs were both begging to be relieved.
After coasting into the spot out front and extricating myself from the driver’s seat, I approached the door of Big Burls. From the outside, it looked like a bar from anywhere with its red brick façade, white paint on the trim, a few faded signs on the building for old stage shows and a missing cat fluttering in the breeze.
“I think I have been here, in another town, another state,” I mumbled to myself as I pulled open the heavy door.
Wow, the outside was deceivingly different from the inside of the bar, with swanky red booths, a glistening wooden bar with chrome bar stools, martini shakers lined atop glass shelving, music pulsing in the background. Small groups of people chatted with each other, but I felt them glance at me, the stranger.
After finding the restroom, I settled on a bar stool, an empty chair on either side of me.
“What’ll you have?” came the usual bartender greeting, from a blond girl likely only several years older than me.
“A glass of draft beer and a shot of whiskey,” I replied. “Do you serve food here too?”
She pointed to a cooler window at the other end of the bar. “We don’t have a kitchen here. You can get sandwiches and salads from there, made by the restaurant next door.”
After opening a mini sub sandwich and bag of chips, I voraciously began to eat. I sipped my shot and beer, tension ebbing from my shoulders.
“What brings you through Willingham?” the bartender asked me.
“How did you know I wasn’t from here,” I asked her.
“We don’t get too many strangers coming through this late at night.” She smiled.
“Well,” I stumbled, “I was headed west and ran low on gas. This was the first town I came to. Is there a gas station nearby?”
“Not open this late, I’m afraid. There is one about 10 miles up the road that is open all night,” she replied.
“My car couldn’t make it that far. Is there a motel here?” I asked.
“Sorry, you’re out of luck on that front too,” she said, shaking her head.
I sighed. I could handle one night sleeping in the car. This was my own stupid fault. What were my options? I wondered, while the blond, trim bartender poured some drinks for others.
“Who is Burl?” I asked her when she came back over to me. “Sorry, but you don’t look like a Burl.”
“Nope, I’m Sheila,” she replied. “Burl was my great grandmother. She ran a speakeasy in the back of this building in the 1920’s, during Prohibition.”
“Really?” I was intrigued. “A woman? Here?”
“Yep,” she smiled.” It was a family affair, since she was a widow. There was a huge vat in the back where they made the beer. Burl had her kids help, breaking the yeast cakes into the vat, then scraping the foam off the top of it when the beer was processing. The kids also helped use a machine with a lever to bottle the beer. They then sold beer and whiskey to the locals. That’s how they were able to pay their bills and put food on the table.”
“Did she open this bar after Prohibition was over?” I asked.
“Yes, she had a bar here, but it didn’t look like this,” she replied. “It fell into disrepair when my uncles ran it and closed. My dad and I re-opened it about three years ago. We re-modeled but kept the original name. There are some pictures of Burl on the wall over there.”
I carried my beer over to look at the pictures. A small, compact woman with weathered face stared back at me, arms protectively around three teen-aged children. Another photo showed the same woman standing behind the bar, pouring beer from a draft.
I walked back to the bar and commented “Burl must not have been 5’2’” tall. Why is the bar called Big Burl?”
Sheila smiled again. “She was a tough lady who had to raise her kids with no husband, while selling liquor illegally, keeping away demanding men and the police. How many woman could have done that during that time?”
“True. Did you ever know her?”
“Only as a small child. I don’t really remember her. But I have heard stories about her for years. I’m glad we could re-open this bar in her memory. She had a lot to do with the initial success of this town, and now it’s rebuilding.”
I pushed my glass away. ”I guess I better be going. It’s getting late. Mind if I freshen up in the restroom before I head to bed in my comfy car?”
“You’re going to sleep in your car?” Sheila asked.
“Yup. It looks like I have to wait until morning to get gas for the car. It’s empty, silly me,” I blushed, embarrassed.
“I sleep in the apartment upstairs. You can sleep on my couch, if you want,” Sheila said.
“Oh! I can’t impose on you like that,” I replied.
“It’s just me and my cat. The company will be fun,” Sheila stated.
“You don’t even know me!” I exclaimed.
“There is another reason that Burl was known as Big Burl. She had the biggest heart around. She helped anyone in need—food, bed, a few comforting words, but no drinks for free—so I would be doing one more thing in her memory. She would be furious if she ever knew I let a girl in need sleep alone in her car,” she insisted.
“Oh, okay,” I replied and held out my hand. “My name is Gia. This is a little weird, but that sounds like a better offer than my car.”
Sheila shook my hand, then poured us another shot and a beer that we drank together. The bar closed a short while later, and I helped her wipe down all the tables, clean the floor, and clean up the bottle and glasses. We then headed upstairs to her tiny but funky decorated apartment, where I fell asleep in minutes.
As I got ready to head out the next morning, Sheila pointed up the road, “Oh, the closest gas station is just a mile up the road. It’s open now.
Where are you headed anyways?”
“I’m going to Nebraska to see my sister. She just had her second daughter. I just quit my job, so I’m going to help her out for a couple weeks.”
“Wow, she will love that. You are doing something that Burl would have approved of, helping your sister out. What will you do when you’re visit is over?” Sheila asked.
I thought for a minute. “I don’t know. Maybe head back to Chicago. I hope to have some time to think about it while I’m gone.”
Sheila replied. “Make sure you swing back through here on your drive home. You can spend the night again, if you want. Burl would expect nothing less.”
I glanced at the shops starting to open, owners washing windows, greeting each other. Everything looked brighter, more welcoming now that the sun was up.
“I promise I will,” I smiled. “Maybe I’ll decide to stay longer. Learn what else Burl’s legacy leaves behind, besides Big Burls. “
“Hope to see you again,” Sheila waved as I started the car.
“Me too,” I replied, a smile on my face as I began the next phase of my journey.