An excerpt from my forthcoming book, We Found the Vacuum Cleaner.There’s a sign out on the four-lane that advertises Bertie’s Pie and Coffee Shoppe. It says, “Fresh Homemade Pies Every Day. Finest Coffee in Waddle County. Breakfast – Lunch – Dinner. 3 mi East. Next Exit. Come set a spell. Busses Welcome.”
Bertie’s is one of the best places in all of Pancakes Flats, the only place left that serves up breakfast. On Tuesday morning, three or four of us meet for a Bible Study. The rest of the week sixteen or eighteen of us men get together for general cussing and discussing. It’s quite a lively place. Most everybody wears a gimme cap and coveralls.
Some of the things we’ve figured out in Bertie’s Pie Shoppe is how to get diesel fuel back down to 29¢ a gallon. How to get the price of wheat up over four dollars a bushel and keep it there. What you can do with all those liberal media folks. What’s wrong with our local football team, the Pasture High School Lambs. How to get the state to re-route the four-lane closer to Pancake Flats. Which one of us needs to lose the most weight. What we’re going to tell the governor the next time he/she comes politicking around here. How it’s so hard to have one kid in KU and the other in K-State. Stuff like that.
These men are my friends; honest men from the Heart of America who let me live among them. Men who get rich together and who go broke together; it all depends on the weather. These are hardened, gentle men who can twist the tracks off a Sherman Tank barehanded and then hold a baby as tenderly as they hold their home-grown tomatoes. They send their sons to football classes every autumn to help them learn self-discipline and teamwork. Sometimes their sons and daughters go away to The Big City and never come back. When that happens you can see a part of the man’s spirit fall right off him. Pancake Flats sags a little then and Bertie’s is kind of quiet and moody for a few days.
Bertie is a real, live woman, and she’s one tough sweetheart. She lets everybody sign a chit. We just write things like “Coffee & #6. 4 slices” (meaning Coffee, 2 eggs, Ham, Grits, 4 slices of pie). If we pay up on the first of the month she lets us come back.
For a woman who makes dozens of pies every week, she has a remarkably narrow waist. “Skinny as a rail,” is what most of us say about her. Her husband’s name is Curtis. He has a noisy, irritating voice and weighs over 300 pounds. He gets on our nerves, but we don’t say anything about him for fear Bertie will hear of it. Bertie has a way of keeping all of us in line. First, she has a diesel-powered voice that will stretch a wooden shelf three more feet. Then she has one of those school teacher’s squinty-eyed glares that will knock down a row of fence posts. Curtis, uh, respects her.
Every second week of October, Bertie closes down the Pie and Coffee Shoppe and opens up at the county fair over in Waddle, Kansas. While the Pie Shoppe is closed down, a cleaning crew from The Big City comes in and hoses the nicotine off everything.
Now, just last week, I was in Bertie’s Pie Shoppe with the boys and I brought up the idea that to lose some weight, we should walk 10,000 steps every day. My First Wife Chancie said she heard it on the Oprah show. "It's one way to lose weight," I suggested. "Get rid of this!" I patted my front end.
“That’s ridiculous,” Curtis thundered.
“You ought listen to this, Curtis,” someone said. “What with you being the population of the whole town all by yourself.”
“Whatta you mean?” Curtis snarled.
“Three hundred seventeen!”
I explained to them that while My First Wife Chancie and I were in the BigMart over in Wheatgerm, Kansas, we got a couple of pedometers, a red one for me; a yellow one for her.
“Ped-ohm-met-her,” I said slowly. It’s been quite awhile since we had such a long word in Bertie’s. “It’s a little gadget that counts your steps during the day,” I explained.
“That’s impossible,” Curtis snapped.
“Well, no, Curtis, it really works,” I said. “It counts every step you take.”
Curtis considered that for a bit, then asked, “Suppose you get up in the middle of the night. Does it know how many steps you take to go to the john?”
“He’s got you there,” somebody said.
After I explained that the little gizmo simply attaches to my belt and reacts to the impact of each step, everyone understood a little better. I showed it to them; they passed it all around trying to figure out what makes it work until they finally broke it.
“Well, sir,” Curtis said after finishing his pie, “We think that little counter there—what’d you call it?—is just the thing you need.” There was a round of laughter. “The rest of us got wheat and milo to bring in. And that, sir, is all the exercising I need.”
I needed to go to The Big City that day. I signed my chit, left the comfort of Bertie’s and headed out of town toward the four-lane, thankful for air conditioned pickups. Just as I got to the stop sign under Bertie’s billboard, my radiator hose split. Steam shot every direction. I was in a fix, indeed. Only two people ever drive down this road. Me, and whoever is leaving Pancake Flats for good.
I had no choice but to walk back to Bertie’s Pie Shoppe and ask for help. That sun was awfully menacing. But this was a great opportunity to try out Chancie’s yellow pedometer. I attached it to my belt, put on my hat and headed back toward town under the bright, late morning sun.
“Well, look who’s back already,” Bertie said when I tumbled back in. “You look all whipped and sunburnt. What are you sweating about, honey?” She called all of us honey. “Are you all right?”
Huffing and puffing, trying desperately to balance myself, I could only say, “Hose…broke.” I was just about to hurl all over her counter. “Walked…back.”
“How far? Where was you?”
I didn’t know how far it was, but I happened to remember Chancie’s yellow pedometer. I wrested it off my belt and handed it to Curtis. Sweat droplets slid off the end of my nose.
“Ten thousand!” he whooped. “Lookee here! It says ten thousand right here! Does that mean you took ten thousand steps from your truck?” I leaned on a counter stool and let my head bounce up and down. “Where was you?” he asked.
“Under…Bertie’s sign.” My knees were shaking fiercely. Bertie, bless her heart, gave me a glass of cool water. She put a damp wiping cloth on my collar. It smelled like bleach, but sure felt good.
“Well, isn’t that sweet?” Bertie said. “It’s ten thousands steps from Bertie’s to Bertie’s. Get it?”
“Did you lose any weight?” Curtis wanted to know. Suddenly everyone started asking questions. “How much did you lose?” “Didn’t you see nobody out on the road?”
“Hush up, everybody! Listen to me right now,” Bertie boomed. “I’ll fix up a free piece of pie ala mode to whoever gets out to my sign and fixes this man’s pickup.” Twelve men got up and headed out the door.
Bertie leaned out after them and hollered, “And somebody climb up there and change my sign so it says ‘Only 10,000 Steps East.’”
Curtis is a fine man. He replaced my radiator hose and brought my pickup back to me. He kept that yellow pedometer, which was okay, because My First Wife doesn’t need it anyway—she being so thin and everything.Bertie gave all of us a free piece of pie ala mode.