The sign on the door said ‘open’, so I pulled the knob and walked in. I was looking for a place to get out of the rain when I’d seen the hand painted sign, ‘Hot Coffee Ten Cents’. I was sure it was just a vintage prop, but if they had hot coffee, I was prepared to pay almost any price. My car had broken down less than a mile away and my cell phone had died, so I was walking to the nearest garage in the hope of getting a tow.
It was an odd spot, under a railway bridge, just a few yards off the busy highway. I’d driven this way plenty of times, but I didn’t recall it being there. There were several cars out front and lights in the wooden windows of what looked like had once been a home. It was a small, frame structure, with weathered, whitewashed siding. Inside, I was greeted by the smell of fried foods and hot coffee from behind a gleaming marble counter, with chrome trim.
A line of chrome stools lined the counter and four booths were evenly spread along the front wall, under the windows. The house had been gutted, to create one central room, with a large, rough beam running across it at the peak of the roof, which was exposed on the underside, rows of white lumber decking over the bare painted rafters.
Behind the counter stood a living stereotype. The man was big and beefy, with a crew cut under his paper hat and a cigarette, illegally, hanging out of one corner of his mouth. He had the look of a man that had seen his share of danger and a tattoo on his left forearm, that looked a lot like a more faded version my granddad had worn from his World War days.
“What’ll it be, friend?” The man said, his lips hardly moving, remained gripped around the cigarette.
“Coffee, please,” I said and a pert blonde slid a white china cup, filled to the brim with black, steaming liquid, expertly over the counter, where it stopped, at the side of an upside down plate and flatware. I took the stool behind the mug and removed my wet jacket. The waitress came around the counter and took it from me, hanging it neatly on a coat tree I’d passed on the way in. “Sugar’s on the counter, honey,” she said with a smile.
The man settled back on a stool behind the counter, which was backed with an open kitchen, consisting of a huge griddle, a giant oven at one end, and what looked like an ice box the waitress was pulling milk in a glass quart bottle from at the far end.
I checked my watch, the calendar block still read April 26, 2016, but somehow, it seemed no one here minded that much. Every detail, down to the shoes the waitress and cook were wearing looked ripped from a movie with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. I half expected a musical number to start at any moment.
“So, where you headed, friend?” the man asked, chewing the cigarette, which I now realized was unlit, he noticed me noticing. “Trying to quit, but the habit, of having something hanging there is the tough part.”
“I’m uh, just on my way home, had car trouble just a few hundred feet up from the bridge. Got hit by lightning, I think, and just shut down,” I replied, “Do you happen to have phone book, and a phone, mines’ dead,” I held the device up apologetically.
“Sure,” he slid a phone book onto to the table, slid a dime next to it and pointed to an ancient pay phone against one wall. They were really committed to this vintage vibe.
I took the phone book and flipped it open. Before I could turn any pages, the man flipped a card on top of the phone book, next to a logo featuring a smiling mechanic, it said, “Pete’s Car Repair, All makes, all models,”. The address was less than a half mile from here. “Perfect,” I said, and picked up the dime, which was a vintage Mercury Dime, of course.
I put the dime in the phone and dialed the number with the rotary dial. My great grandmother had one in her house when I was a kid, that was the last time I’d used one that I remembered. I paused, “Hey, this number doesn’t look right, should be seven digits.”
The cook and waitress exchanged a glance, “It’s a local exchange, should ring straight through,” she said.
Weird, maybe the whole town was in on this whole vintage experience.
The phone rang and after a brief conversation, a mechanic was dispatched to my car and I was promised a call back to the diner when they knew something. A minute later, a young man in coveralls came in out of the rain to get my keys.
“So, you ready for something more substantial than coffee?” the man smiled.
“Sure, what’s good?” I asked.
He laughed, “It’s all terrible, but I get the least complaints about the cheeseburger.”
I ordered the cheeseburger, prepared for the worst. It was delicious. At some point, another customer put money in the jukebox and more another layer of the vintage ambiance was revealed. A playlist of big band classics trailed off after the third song. I finished the last bite of my cheeseburger, and wandered over to the jukebox. I scanned the titles and a few I recognized, Tommy Dorsey, Perry Como, but most I hadn’t heard of.
“Is there any Elvis in here?” I asked the waitress.
“Who?” she asked, with a funny look.
“Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll,” I said.
“Never heard of him, the king of what?” she said, with the most convincing deadpan. They were dedicated to their time period, that was for sure.
I was game, so I chose a few numbers that I thought I recognized and sat back down to drink another cup of the best coffee I’d had in a long time. The waitress took my burger plate and replaced with a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
“I didn’t order pie,” I said.
“Comes with it, she said,” pointing to a sign that said ‘Free Pie With Every Meal’.
I wondered how much this meal was going to cost. I finished the last bite of the pie just as the bell over the door rang. The young man came back in with my keys.
“It’s all good to go, just the battery, I guess.” He said.
“Okay, let me settle up here and I’ll stop by and pay you. How much do I owe?” I asked the mechanic.
“Shoot it only took forty-five minutes, so, I don’t know, a dollar?” he said, shrugging.
I laughed, “A dollar?”
“Sorry, is that too much, I had to charge it for a good thirty minutes,” he said.
“No, it’s not too much, a dollar is fine, here, keep the change,” I said, handing him a $20.
“I couldn’t. That’s two day’s pay!” the young man look terrified, “my boss would kill me for accepting that much for something so simple.”
I looked at him, he seemed serious. Rather than argue, I took back the $20 and handed him a $10, “I’m afraid I must insist on at least this much. You saved me a huge hassle.”
“Thank you sir, that’s more than generous, nice car you got there, by the way,” the young man went out the door and climbed into a waiting wrecker.
“How much for the burger?” I asked.
“Dollar with coffee,” the man said, “don’t be a stranger, friend, we’re here everyday. I left a five on the counter and headed out to my car.
The rain had stopped and the sun was out. I checked my watch, still enough time to finish my little side trip to my wife’s favorite bakery, where a small replica of our wedding cake would be waiting. It was our tenth anniversary and we had reservations at Che Louie, for dinner. I had just enough time to drop the cake by the restaurant before heading home to wash off the wet dog smell that was developing as I dried.
About half a mile from the diner, I knew something was wrong. At an intersection that had been a stoplight I found a stop sign instead, and the convenience store that had been on the corner had been replaced by a cornfield. I checked the street signs, which looked odd, but had the right names on them. Then, I started to notice the huge number of vintage automobiles that I’d been passing, all of the cars at the diner, the tow truck, now a farm truck and and a moving van in front of me. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything remotely 21st century on the road since the lightning strike.
While the general layout and a few older landmarks looked right, nothing else made sense when I pulled into what should have been a bustling suburb about twenty-five minutes from home, a place I knew all too well. The road that the bakery was on, did not even seem to exist and my chest was starting to tighten. I loosened my tie. I tapped my phone to life in its dashboard holder, where it was charging and thumbed over to Nav Plus GPS.
The map sprang up with all the familiar streets, locating me exactly where I should have been, but none of it was visible. I was starting to wonder if I had hit my head. This simply wasn’t possible. You didn’t just get struck by lightning and drop back in time seventy years, did you?
The phone rang, it was my wife. “Hello?”
“Hi, where are you? You didn’t forget, did you?” She said, I could hear her fighting the disappointment out of her voice.
“No. Nothing like that,” I decided not to tell her what I was going through, not just yet, not until I could figure out what it actually was. “I had a little car trouble and had to get it fixed, now I’m picking up a surprise for tonight and then I will be right home.”
“Yay! I’m so excited. I can’t wait for you to see my new dress, you’re going to love it,” she said, her voice relaxed and happy.
I smiled, “I am sure I will. I’ll be there soon.”
“Okay, hurry up!”
“Baby? You know I love you more than breathing, right?”
“Of course, don’t say that, now you’re making me worry! Is everything all right?”
My throat tightened, I hated lying to her, but for all I knew it was, I was just experiencing some sort of hallucination. After all, my phone was working, would that be true if I was time travelling? “It’s fine, I’ll see you soon.”
Now, I had to figure out how to make that true.
I sat back in the car, looking around me, hardly anything was familiar and people were beginning to stare. I grabbed a small notebook I carry in case my wife calls for milk from the grocery, or my boss needs an errand run. I jotted a little list.
“Possible Reasons I am experiencing what seems like time travel”
1. I am dreaming
2. I am dead from the lightning strike and this is the afterlife
3. I am hallucinating
4. I am actually time travelling
Then, I began to consider each possibility. The first was unlikely, because one way to know the difference between a lucid dream and reality was your ability to a) tell time and b) read and write, all of which seemed to be possible in this experience. The second was more possible, however, I needed to pee at the moment, had eaten cheeseburger, still smelled like wet dog and had all of the sensations of being in actual living body. The third was beginning to seem like the most reasonable, but it had been an awfully long, detailed and coherent hallucination. That just left one possibility.
Since the bakery was out of the question, I decided I would just drive home. Everything had been fine before I passed the railroad bridge following the lightning strike. Maybe this phenomenon, whatever it was, was localized and I could escape it and get back home?
The car started fine and as I drove, I became more convinced by the second that I would be able to return to my life in short order. My wife would be disappointed about the cake, but I could save the idea for another year. I was really looking forward to taking a hot shower.
As I approached the bridge, my heart beat faster, would it work? Could I simply drive out of a “time warp” ? The diner sat right where I’d left it, with three cars out front, as I cleared the bridge, I could see the exact spot I’d broken down. It was directly underneath an old oak tree, that now looked as if it had taken the brunt of the lightning strike. The trunk was split and charred, and light tendrils of smoke still came from its branches.
As I drove toward the spot, I had an almost uncontrollable urge to go faster. As the car sped up, a surge of energy seemed to roll through it, just as I passed the oak, my radio burst to life, on my favorite station. The windshield wipers came on and every indicator on my dashboard flashed wildly. Then, a few feet past the tree, everything went back to normal. As I crested a hill, just past the oak, I heard the sound of a train whistle, but not like a diesel horn. It was more shrill and louder, I looked up in my rearview mirror and there, running over the bridge, with the diner just below, was a steam locomotive.
I turned around to catch a glimpse, but the train was gone, as was the diner. I looked back in the mirror, train, but each time I looked back over my shoulder, I saw things as I always had. As I turned to look back into the mirror, the tall chrome grille of an eighteen wheeler was baring down on me, horn blaring, lights flashing, I pulled hard left and skidded to a stop on the side of the road.
My heart thudded loudly as I opened the door and climbed out shakily, leaning on the hood to catch my breath. I shoved my hand in my pocket to find my inhaler, and my fingers brushed a card. I pulled it out, and there, broad daylight, was the card, complete with vintage phone number, it’s corners frayed, now, the paper yellowed, not as it had been in the diner.
I looked back down the hill, no train, no diner. My phone rang.
“Hell-oo-oo, is that surprise going to take all day?” my wife asked. I checked the time, I was cutting it close.
“No, dear, I’m on the way now. I couldn’t get the surprise ready in time, but, I’ll save it for next year,” I said.
“Okay, hurry up, because if you don’t show soon, I’m just going to hop in the car with the first hot guy I see, this dress is going to waste over here!” she laughed.
The rest of the ride home was uneventful, the dress was everything it was advertised to be. Che Louie was wonderful as always, but not everything went as expected, quite.
“Can I see a dessert menu?” my wife asked the waiter.
“Certainly, Madame, but the kitchen has something a little special for you on your big night, if I may?” the waiter said.
My wife looked at me and smiled, “Is this your surprise?”
I smiled back and shrugged, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Two minutes later, a trolley arrived at our table bearing the perfect reproduction of the top layer of our wedding cake, same raspberry cake with chocolate gnosh filling, same frosting. My wife cried. I couldn’t believe it. I was the hero I had intended to be after all.
After dinner and a little dancing, we went home to an empty house. My wife had arranged for the kids to stay and grandma’s for the night and while she “slipped into something”, I made a quick phone call to the bakery.
“Hello, Mr. Snyder, did everything go well with the cake?”
“Yes, no problem, but, I’m not sure how it got there,” I replied.
“You picked the cake up yourself, just this afternoon, as planned.”
“But that can’t be, I couldn’t find the bakery, there was this cornfield, and…” I must have been hallucinating, I thought. “Never mind, it was lovely.”
“Baby, are you coming to bed?” my wife called from the other room and the rest of that story is classified.
Two weeks later, I had all but forgotten the incident when my car refused to start one morning. I called my garage and had it towed, then took an Uber to the office. That afternoon when I went to pick up the car, the mechanic had a strange expression on his face.
“Have you been letting someone else work on your car?” he said, accusingly.
I lied, because explaining time warp auto repair seemed like a bad idea, “No, why?”
“Well, first, it looks like your car got hit by lightning. I had to replace a mother board, but it was under warranty, but that’s not why I asked,” he reached under the hood and came out with a small, metal object with a magnet underneath.
“What is it?” I asked
“It looks to me like one of those openers they used to use when oil came in cans, instead of plastic bottles,” he handed it to me, and there, next to a logo of a smiling mechanic were the words, “Pete’s Auto Repair, All Makes, All Models”
LIKE THE STORY? Check out the rest! #21Storiesin21days