South of Fort Madison, Iowa – October 27, 2012
I didn’t intend to eat anything in Fort Madison, Iowa. I only wanted to walk down the main street to get a sense for the place, but then I read the awning on the Fort Diner.
“No way,” I said, reading it again. “It can’t be.”
A glowing neon sign confirmed the awning and I walked inside.
The Fort Diner is an old grease joint. It looks like a converted train car or a carnival cart with the wheels taken off. A counter and stools divide the single room in half. Small tables crowd against windows. A grill takes up the back corner next to a pair of friers and a cash register.
The menu is a glowing marquee on the back wall, not that anyone there needs it. Everyone in the place knew the menu by heart except for me. It said the same thing the awning and neon sign did, but didn’t elaborate.
“May I help you?” the waitress asked.
I asked her for an explanation.
“It’s a pound of hamburger and four slices of cheese,” she said.
“Too perfect,” I thought as the man next to me at the counter laughed, almost daring me to order it.
“May I have one?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, then automatically asked if I wanted fries with it.
I hesitated, checked my gut, then went for it.
“Yes, please,” I said.
The man next to me snorted a bit, but the waitress wrote it down anyway. She handed the slip to the cook and he slapped a giant handful of beef on the grill. It looked like a mountain sizzling next to the regular burgers.
I stared at it with giant eyes until the waitress slid it across the counter ten minutes later.
“One Wally Burger,” she said, “with fries.”
The man didn’t snort again.