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THE SUGAR SHACK
On the outskirts of town, it sat there like the last hurrah on the way to somewhere else. Cocoa colored, paint covered the modest post-war frame. The illuminated sign lit up the sky: "Sugar Shack" screamed at passersby in the night. The small local eatery stood like a sentry with its gravel parking lot stretching along the side. Inside sat the semi-fast food king with shirt sleeves rolled up like James Dean. Uncle Tim Wilst, TW for short. He made his living crafting cheeseburgers oozing with flavorful fresh onions, french fries done just right and steak fingers with their own legendary batter. Uncle Tim could also make a mean cherry chocolate coke or cherry limeade, and that was just for starters. He also concocted vanilla cokes, and basically any combination that a thirsty kid could come up with. He was an architect of many flavors. In a time when colas were king in the soft drink industry, and we couldn't get enough of them, Uncle Tim ran a colorful faucet. The Sugar Shack was a veritable carbonated waterfall on the edge of Milwood when it was a town and before Uncle Tim became a hero of sorts.
I would go to the Sugar Shack to get a cola and see Uncle TW who would give me a drink and sometimes a dollar which he always managed to take back. I got to help in the kitchen until I became tired. I guess he was preparing me to work there when I became a teenager. I liked the jukebox even when I was little, and I migrated from Johnny Cash to Sweet amid the 70s foosball craze.
Uncle T.W. did well as the Restaurant King then, he even started another burger joint, the Dairy Dixie on the opposite end of town. He managed to comb his fifties pompadour hair and embellish both eateries with his country teasing, down-home taste and drafting the most creative flavored colas for the townspeople.
I was a sophomore in high school, practicing my parallel parking in order to pass driver's education and working at the Sugar Shack after school while making sure T.W. wasn't shortening my paychecks. Life was humdrum glorious in Milwood until Dexter Albert came to town looking for an opportunity.
Dexter showed up one day in a Cadillac wearing a sports jacket. It seemed he had a calling. That calling was to feed the masses of tractor drivers, cowboys, churchgoers, and the Honky Tonk coffee drinkers. I don't know why he thought he was qualified to come to Milwood and join the cola/burger wars, but he did.
I remember when Uncle T.W. first met him. Mr. Albert came driving up to the Sugar Shack and when he stepped out, he was looking around like a true rural entrepreneur. Only trouble was, Uncle T.W. had already done that.
"Howdy," he said, opening the Sugar Shack door and coming inside.
Everyone looked up from their bargain coffee. Uncle T.W. stopped counting the paper cups. The stranger smiled and waved.
"Good mornin, how can I help you?"
"Well, I'll have a cup of coffee, black please, and lemee' have one of them donuts too," said Mr. Albert. "I'm Dexter Albert, by the way."
"Good to meet you," said Uncle T.W. What brings you to our fair town?"
"Well, I was coming out this way, getting away from the city, you know."
"And what city would that be?" asked Uncle T.W.
"Ft. Worth, Cow Town, you know? I was actually thinking about settlin' in a little town," answered Mr. Albert.
Uncle T.W. shook his head. "Is that right? We don't have too many people moving into this town without having any family here."
"Well, I lost my wife a couple years back, one son but he lives in Florida."
Uncle T.W. nodded again.
"So how long you been in the food business?
"Oh, for a little while, I guess," answered Uncle T.W. He really didn't care for the talkative stranger, I could tell.
"People like eatin' out, do they?"
"Yeah, good enough, but this place already has two eating establishments, and I own both of them."
"Good donut here, homemade?" asked Dexter as he munched appreciatively.
"Not all the time," answered Uncle T.W. He was ready to ditch this stranger and get back to teasing the housewives in the corner.
"Maybe I could set up an appointment with you, talk some business?"
Uncle T.W. frowned. "Why? Nearest I can figure, we don't have no business."
"Well I have a proposal for you," answered Dexter. "A profitable one."
"Not much profit to be had in this town, but I'm always here for anyone who is lookin' for me," said Uncle T.W. who was looking quite perturbed.
So Dexter Albert went around town, getting his hair cut, shopping at the hardware store, getting his sandwich meat sliced by the butcher all the while camping out at the Cactus Motel in a room with its own kitchenette.
Mr. Albert came back to the Sugar Shack in a couple weeks when I was perusing the new jukebox offerings.
"Howdy," he said.
I looked up with all the scorn my teenage blonde self could manage. About that time, Uncle T.W. rounded the corner with a large, crushed ice cherry chocolate coke.
"Mr. Albert," he sort of half-sighed.
"Mr. Grunwold," Albert replied. "I'd like to make you a prop-O-sition."
"You sell plastic forks, do ya?"
"No, I'd like to buy your business. Lock, stock and barrel. Both of 'em. This one and the Treat over at the other side of town."
"Mr. Albert. I think we have covered this before. The businesses ain't for sale. Not this one or that one over there. That's how I make my livin'. I think I'd done told you that."
"Well hold on now, I'm prepared to make you a good offer. Maybe it's time you retired."
Dexter offered. Uncle T.W. refused.
"You know, you might wanna look around and decide how lucky you are. What if the eatin' business took a real downturn? Lots of things could happen. Accidents, even." With that, Mr. Albert stormed out puffed up like a bullfrog, red-faced and all.
Next day, Ed Sommers came in. "T.W., you know that fella in town, that Dexter Albert guy?"
"Yeah," that's a strange one. Wants to buy the Shack."
"That right? Well, he's trying to buy the old Kaspar lot. Said he wants to build a cafe."
"Ain't enough people in this town for two burger places, much less anything else." Uncle T.W. frowned as he wiped down the counter top.
I was cleaning windows of the Shack when Dexter Albert pulled into the parking lot and did a doughnut in his Caddy, then sped away. I went inside, my uncle was already on the phone.
"He's crazy, I tell you!"
I headed to the back to throw a couple of burger patties on the griddle right before the dinner rush began. That's where the everyday dullness stopped in our little place and the real trouble began.
Uncle. T.W. worked late that night on a piece of sheetrock that needed replacing. There was a loud explosion across the street. He tossed his hammer aside and went to look. A flame was shooting from the cotton gin. The wail of fire truck sirens hit the air. Smoke clouds loomed heavy like dark bullies.
T.W. looked up and saw the flames, a firewall of dread was spreading like madness. He jumped in his car not even bother to lock the front door. Nobody slept that night as the fire spread and even with the best efforts of the firefighters finally engulfed the Sugar Shack too.
Next day, police chief Conners examined the buildings. "It's arson, I believe for sure. Found some chemical residue. Will have a final ruling in a few days from the Fire Marshal.
Uncle. T.W. was busy looking through insurance papers when Aunt Gail came in. "Wonder if that Dexter fellow would want to buy it now?" she asked sarcastically. There was no sign of Mr. Albert. He had apparently left town as suddenly as he blew in.
* Image - Courtesy of Pixabay
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