On Monday, Labor Day, that is, I and my lady friend, P, decided we ought to take a bicycle ride over to Hustler. It was a good day for it. The wind was brisk and a little bit chilly. It was also coming from out of the west, which was important because if it continued like that, it would be at our backs on the way home.
It’s a nice ride over there, especially on the Omaha Trail part, which runs from Elroy to Camp Douglas. It’s far from the main highway, so there’s little traffic noise beyond a few cars on the nearby back road. The deep rock cuts between hills are scenic, and filled with blackberries. There’s an old railroad tunnel, and a little rest area inaccessible by car. So it’s a pretty pleasant and secluded ride. We encountered a few other riders along the way. Some smile and say “Hi,” while others stare straight ahead. There are also pedestrians along the way, and it seems that a lot of them carry music with them, and have ear buds in so they don’t hear when you come up behind them, no matter how you shout. Maybe it’s time to invest in a bell, a loud bell.
Well, we pulled in to Hustler at around 1:00 p.m., and we were hungry! We biked to the downtown, just a half block away. There was a bed and breakfast, but they were closed on Monday, even though it was a holiday. It’s too bad, because their deli menu looked good. I’ll have to go back on a different day.
So the closest place was the Hustle Inn. We decided, what the heck? Let’s get us a couple of burgers! There was a sign outside, meant to be a joke, we were sure, that said, “Lousy service, warm beer,” and something else, I forget. Cold food? We went in anyway.
There was an elderly couple sitting at a table, waiting for something, I think. Godot? Perhaps. And maybe the elderly gal at the bar was too. And the old guy at the end of the bar, all waiting for Godot. Or service.
The phone was ringing as we walked in. It continued ringing as we walked up to the bar and took a seat. It rang and rang while banging and clattering sounds emitted from what seemed to be a kitchen. We sat at the bar and watched as the last half hour of “How the West Was Won” played out in Cinerama ™ on the T.V. George Peppard was getting ready for a shootout with some bad guys on a train steaming across the desert. At the other end of the bar, on the other T.V., some wacky guy was jumping on Sheriff Andy Taylor’s back, and laughing. I’m not sure what that all meant, but I understood gunfights in the old west. And the phone kept on ringing.
A heavyset and frowzy woman finally emerged from the kitchen. She was carrying a couple of bags of styrofoam carryout boxes. She set them on the bar and answered the phone curtly. I don’t know what was said, but she was unhappy. She was unhappy, dour, sour, and sullen. She finished her phone call and distributed the carryouts between the woman at the bar and the couple at their table. She took their money and asked the old couple if they needed help getting out the door. Gus is guessing that she asked out of politeness, not out of a desire to see them gone. I didn’t exactly infer this from her tone, but I’m hoping it’s so. But the man said they were fine. His breathing wasn’t all that good, and he had a plastic tube up his nose, attached to a machine around his belt. But he was moving along fairly well, and said, “I’ve got the door for ya, Ma!” The woman at the bar payed for her food and followed soon after. The woman tending bar walked up and stood in front of us. We said “Hi,” in a really friendly way. She looked at us as if we were teenagers wanting to carry out illegally. Her gaze was uncaring and impersonal, and tinged a little with suspicion. Her manner said that she would just as soon we were not here, in this bar, in this town, in the county, state, country, planetary sphere, perhaps even this celestial plane.
“Trail passes?” she demanded.
“You need trail passes?”
“Food?” I asked hopefully.
“Whattya wanna drink? Anything?” She asked this as if we were wasting her time, and why the hell don’t we hurry up and get out?
“Water,” I said.
“Coke,” said P.
She stalked away, and returned with two glasses of ice, a pitcher of water, and a can of Coke. She sourly took our orders. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger. P ordered a cheeseburger. We decided to split an order of fries. She seemed disgusted about that decision, but decided to let it go. She stalked back into the kitchen. I heard meat being slapped on the griddle, sizzling. Another couple, dressed for bicycling, came in. She came back out.
“What can I get for you two?” asked the bartender. Huh? Uncle Gus and P did a double take and looked at each other. Where’s the suspicion? Where’s the utter indifference? I looked at the couple, obliquely, trying to discern what cause her to be friendly to them and not to us.
They did not appear to be locals. They were wearing fancy biking clothes, but not much fancier than Gus and his friend. They ordered light beers.
And here’s where Gus runs into difficulty, trying to classify these folks. I didn’t get a good look at the woman. She was kind of hidden on the other side of the man. And it doesn’t really do to stare at someone’s significant other, eh? Anyway, the man. Hm. He wasn’t any bigger than Gus. He appeared younger though, in his late thirties. He wore a goatee. Not an artsy goatee, but more of one that a welder might wear. It was an aggressive sort of goatee. He was a blue-collar sort, maybe in construction of some sort, the sort that makes enough money to afford a cabin up north in addition to his regular home. He works hard and plays hard. I imagine he owns a Harley and a Jeep in addition to a bicycle. He said later on that they take a vacation every year in the Dells, which says a lot about a person. So he probably had a motorboat of some sort as well, maybe a jet ski. Possessions that he guarded with a firearm or two.
This is all supposition on Gus’s part. But I’m still trying to understand why this guy got preferential treatment over Gus and P. Is it because he was louder, and more vocal? Was it the goatee? The hair? His attitude in general? I just don’t know.
The bartender brought their beers. The man said, “Boy, I’ve been thinking about pizza all day!” He nodded at a sign that mentioned their “homemade” pizzas. “Ever since we biked through Wonewoc and saw their pizza place. But they weren’t open! I’d sure like some pizza!”
“Sorry,” the bartress said. “We don’t have pizza today.” I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said, “sorry” to us.
“Damn!” said the man. “Oh well, just give me a cheeseburger then.” His friend ordered the same thing. They each got fries with that. The bartender went back to the kitchen and went to work. Up on the T.V. George Peppard was hanging on to a pile of logs for dear life while he swung out over a chasm and a bad guy shot at him over and over. And on the other T.V., the wacky guy was sitting in a classroom, in a desk that was way too small for him. The barmaid brought our food to us. It was in little plastic baskets lined with parchment paper. She set a cardboard six-pack container filled with condiments on the bar.
“I’ll just put these fries between you then,” said the barmaid. It was the first civil sentence she’d said to us. She must have forgotten her manners. We thanked her and she went back to the kitchen. She came back with the food for the other couple. Then she stayed and visited with them.
They all got along fine. The old guy at the other end of the bar joined in. They talked about the F.I.B.s, and the barmaid told the old guy to be careful, you don’t know where they’re from. The goatee guy assured them that he lived in Wisconsin.
“I used to live in Illinois,” he said. “But that was a long time ago. I don’t even root for the Bears!” Nobody was worried about our point of origin. But personally, Gus had his doubts about that guy. He had Chicago Tourist written all over him.
George Peppard finished his gunfight. He won, of course, but it was touch-and-go for a bit there. Then he and his family loaded up the buckboard and rode out of town for somewhere else, and the camera panned out and through time to show all the progress that had been made since the West was Won. There were scenes of huge dams and huge open pit mines and huge fields of amber waves of grain being irrigated from the huge dams, and a voiceover extolling the virtues and greatness of the people of the U.S. of A. On the other T.V., the wacky guy in Mayberry was carrying his diploma and looking proud.
Gus ain’t gonna complain about the food here. The burgers were just fine. The bacon on the bacon-cheese burger was the kind that’s round, like the burger. I don’t know why that should be outstanding to me, but it is. They make a bacon shaped like a burger bun. And it’s a good lean bacon. I like that.
The burgers came with lettuce, onion, tomato (fresh) and a pickle. The fries were fine, the kind with the skins still on some of them so they look fresh-sliced. So everything was just fine.
We ate our food while the guy with the goatee talked about staying in the Dells, at a little hotel where the owner knew them, and they got a place to stay at a really good rate, where they could walk downtown and drink and not have to worry about driving back.
“We went out with my buddies last night,” he said. “And there sure were a lot of ethnics in the bars! I mean, they were packed in there. And I don’t want to say anything bad, (right) but haven’t they ever heard of deodorant? I’m sorry, (sure you are) but some of them were really ripe!”
The old guy at the bar chimed in.
“Well, you know, when they passed that smoking ban, and the first place they did it was Madison, my boy said the first thing he noticed was the smell of people.”
“Yeah, that’s right. But I’m talking about the ethnics, you know? I don’t think deodorant is in their culture.” The others agreed that this might be the case. They went on to discuss vacation homes up north, and going out drinking tonight with buddies. “That beer’s gonna taste good tonight!” he said. Then they went on to talk about the upcoming football season.
An old black and white French film short came on. It was subtitled, but most of the plot was visual. A woman was setting a cozy table for two. Candlelight and wine. The next shot was a guy blocked in his parking spot. He was carrying flowers. The owner of the car blocking him came out of the barber shop to move out of his way. His face was covered in lather, and when he pulled away, he lost his parking space, and was driving around looking for another spot, while all sorts of other things went on with the original guy, and his wife waiting at home for him getting slowly drunk at their cozy table. It was damn funny and clever, whatever it was. Yes, we sat there enjoying a subtitled black-and-white French film while everyone else talked sports.
We finished our food as well as we could. No candle light or wine here. There were still some fries left. I took money out and set it on the bar. The barmaid dragged herself away from the others and came down. She looked disdainfully at the leftover fries. I felt guilty.
“Are you all done here then?”
“Yep. I guess we couldn’t quite eat it all.”
“So it’s okay if I take these away?” She asked us this impatiently, as if we were jerking her around.
“Oh. Yes, sure. Thanks.” She sighed and cleared the baskets away. She took my $20, and brought my change. I guess you don’t make a lot of money unless you sell drinks. Maybe that’s why we were a disappointment to her. I don’t know. We left a tip for her pains. The other couple ordered more beer. The man asked about the motocross track on the edge of town. The barmaid told him proudly that it was an officially sanctioned motocross event that’s held during Hustlerfest. We both picked up our helmets and gloves and stood up. I don’t know why, but I had the urge to say, “‘Bye!” But the barmaid and the old guy were wrapped up with their new best friends. Nobody noticed us leaving.