Just the Other Day: Keith’s Café

It was close to 7:00 p.m. when I snuck into the radio station, the same way a teenager sneaks into the house at 2 or 3 in the morning when they were supposed to be home by 11. I was hoping and praying not to get caught, which would give me until the next morning to come up with an alibi. I knew I would have some explaining to do.


Dad’s office was the first inside the front door and his lights were off – that was a good sign. My office was all the way down the hall, in the back of the building next to the production room.  Since Dad’s lights were off, it seemed the coast was clear.  I breathed a sigh of relief and walked freely to my office, placing the key in the door.  Dad stepped out of the production room.  Wearing his long beige dress coat with the belt tied around the waist and plaid Stetson hat, he didn’t look nor sound happy. “Where have you been all day?” He demanded.


I always liked that Stetson hat on Dad, but strongly suspected, this was not the time to offer flattering comments on his apparel. Not having the luxury of waiting until the next morning, I had to think on my feet and fast. “Well…Dad…” I cleared my throat and stammered, “I was seeing a new potential client.  I think they might be spending a lot of money advertising with us in the future.”  His arms were folded across his chest. He looked at me with strong skepticism, waiting a full explanation.


The truth is, I was out selling advertising, as I was supposed to be.  It was a nice day in the early spring and I was riding my motorcycle to my sales calls.  It was a brand new, dark blue 1981 Kawasaki, KZ1100 with red and gold pin-stripes. She was fully dressed with a matching fairing and windshield; saddle bags and a trunk, not to mention a cool sounding stereo system complete with a cassette tape player.  My dog was with me. I taught Harry to ride on the motorcycle and he was with me most of the time – even when I went to work.


We stopped at a gas station around noon to fill the tank, where we ran into a couple of friends, Gary and Donna. They were fueling their bike as well.  “Beautiful day for a bike ride, isn’t it?” I said to them.  Donna was sitting on the back seat of the bike leaning on its kickstand. She agreed “It sure is.” Gary added, “It’s a great day for riding the bike.” “You guys just cruising around town?” I queried.  “Nope,” Gary answered, “We’re going to ride to Keith’s Café for a lunch. Have you ever been there?” “I’ve never heard of it. Where is Keith’s?” I asked. “Memphis, Missouri.” Gary said, “About an hour or so from here. They’ve got the best steaks in the whole Midwest.”  “That sounds like fun.” I said.


The thought of going with them was enticing, but I had a lot of work to do.  I had clients to see, commercials to write and record and I was way behind on paperwork. Besides, I wasn’t invited and asking to tag along just seemed weird.


Gary offered, “Were going down with a few other couples, you’re welcome to ride along.” Being 21-years-old at the time, I didn’t always make the wisest decisions. “I really don’t have much to do today,” I said, “we’d love to go along with you.”  I nodded toward my dog who was sitting patiently on the seat, “Is it okay if Harry goes along as my date?”  Gary laughed. “Sure, why not? He’s a lot better looking than you, Palen.” We shared a good laugh over that, then planned to meet at their house where the other couples were waiting.


They pulled away from the pumps and rode off.  With a scornful eye, Harry warned, “You’re going to get in trouble for this, you know.” “You worry too much, Harry. Sometimes you just gotta live a little. Besides, we’re going to be back in three hours.  No one will even know we were gone.”  Harry and I rushed home to change clothes.


I took off my suite and tie, and put on a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt with the radio station logo, “K-98” across the front.  Harry groomed himself a bit, then asked me, “Does this red bandana look okay? Or, should I wear the blue one.” “You look smashing in red, my friend.”  Harry blushed a bit and I gave him a rub on the head, saying, “Come on, let’s go. They’re waiting.”


When I got to Gary’s house, four bikes were parked, backed up to the curb side by side. A group of people were in the yard talking.  I knew most of them and met a couple new people, too.  “Are you guys about ready?” I asked in gest, “I’m tired of waiting.”  We all shared a good laugh about that, mounted our bikes and headed down the road.


We weren’t in a hurry, so we took the county roads and less traveled highways – all paved of course.  Since they knew the way, Gary and Donna led the group; I brought up the rear. Harry was fairly new at riding and in the event, he should fall off the bike, I didn’t want anyone to run over him.


The Iowa country side was pretty. It was just starting to turn green and the air was so fresh.  The further south we drove toward Missouri, the greener the landscape became.  It was a warm, sunny day, and the wind felt good rushing around the sides of the windshield.  Harry sat behind me with his rump on the seat and his front paws on the saddled bag; his neck stretched out to see around me and look down the road.  “Do you want to come up front for a better view?” I asked him.  Still holding the throttle, I raised my right elbow high in the air.  That was my signal to let Harry know he could sit up front.  I had a special cover made for the gas tank so that he could sit on it without sliding or scratching the paint.


While moving down the road, Harry walked around me, stepping onto my right thigh, then in front of me.  He sat upright between my legs on the gas tank, looking curiously through the windshield almost as if he was the driver. Taking in all the scenery, he watched cows in the fields, farmer’s on tractors planting their crops, people out working in their yards and more.  His ears flapped in the wind, occasionally brushing my face and tickling my cheeks. “You’re a good boy, Harry Palen.”  I said, then turned up the stereo when an old Waylon and Willie song came on the radio.


Watching the bikes in front of me, I saw something that didn’t look right. I raised my arm again, “Go back, Harry.” I said.  He promptly crossed over my leg the same way as before, taking his seat behind me. Leaning against my back, as if bracing himself for trouble, Harry was looking over my left shoulder to see what was going on.  Doug, a new guy I met that day, on the bike ahead of me was slowing down.  His motorcycle was wobbling from side to side; he had a flat tire.  I turned on my flashers and backed off even more not knowing if he was going to hang on, or lay it down on the pavement.  As he continued to slow down his bike jumped as the rim rolled across from one side of the flat tire to the other.  When he had slowed down enough, Doug pulled off the highway onto the gravel shoulder, walking along straddling the seat with both feet on the ground to steady the bike.  His wife climbed off first, then Doug got off and put the bike up on the center stand.


The other riders noticed he was having trouble and turned around to came back.  Harry and I pulled off the highway behind Doug.  He looked a little pale and shaken; who wouldn’t be? Anyone who has every had a flat tire on a motorcycle at highway speed, knows the gut wrenching feeling and anxiety you experience while trying to stop the bike and stay upright without biffing it.  “Nice job keeping it up.” I said. Doug nodded, “Thanks.”  Doug was able to remove the back wheel.  I don’t remember if someone ran him into town with his flat or what, but the tire was repaired and we continued down the road toward Memphis.


In Memphis, we arrived at Keith’s Café, a small building with white siding, on the corner of Market Street and US Highway 136. We pulled into the gravel parking lot.  Uniformly, one bike at a time pulled up to the building until we were all in a row.  We shut down the engines, put down our kick stands and climbed off our bikes.  After ceremoniously stretching and bending, we all stood upright.  “So, this is Keith’s Café?” I said. Two or three people answered at the same time, “Best steaks in the Midwest.”


They all started to walk in. “I’ll be in in a minute.” I said.  Harry looked at me and asked, “Do I get to come in this time.”  “Sorry, bud. I need you to stay out here and guard the bikes.” I said.  I got his water bowl and a bottle of water from the side compartment.  Filling his dish, I said, “There’s shade next to the building for you.” I gave him a rub on the head and said, “I’ll be back in a bit and I’ll bring you something to eat.” I didn’t put Harry on a leash; it wasn’t necessary. Harry knew to stay close to the bike until I came back.


Walking inside the restaurant was like taking a step back in time.  The tables were mostly old kitchen tables with chrome legs and Formica tops and a chrome band around the edges. A hodge-podge of mismatched chrome chairs, with shiny red, green, blue, yellow and turquoise seats tops, sat around each table.  There was a counter with chairs and stools, the flooring was square vinyl tile that made a checker-board pattern of sorts.  Coffee mugs hanging on the wall had red Dyno-Label Maker tags, marking each hook for the mug’s owner. The feel indicated this was a favorite spot for the locals of Memphis, Missouri.  The décor, atmosphere and friendly staff made tourist, such as us, feel right at home too, it was like sitting around the table at your uncle’s house with family and friends. The ambiance of Keith’s Café was indeed welcoming – but the food? Oh my!


I ordered a big T-bone steak, medium rare, a baked potato with butter and sour crème and a side of green beans.  I substituted the side salad, for cottage cheese and a warm dinner roll came with the meal.  The steak was tender, juicy and cooked to perfection.  The baked potato was just right.  Everything was delicious.  I was very full, still, against my better judgement I ordered a slice of homemade apple pie…a la mode.  My friends didn’t steer me wrong – it was quite possibly the best steak in the whole Midwest; it certainly was the best steak I’d ever had.


We enjoyed good conversation and plenty of laughter both during and after dinner.  The waitress came by with our checks asking, “Do you all need anything else?” “Can I get a doggie bag, please.” I asked when she set my ticket next to my empty plate.  She looked at my dishes. Somewhat perplexed she smiled and said, “There’s nothing left to take.”  “Actually, I want the bone for my dog. He’s been waiting patiently outside.”  “Oh,” she said a bit excited, “Are you the one that has the dog outside by the motorcycles?” I smiled and nodded. The waitress added, “That sure is a good-looking dog and so well behaved to sit out there without a leash or anything.”   “Thanks.” I said. “I’ll go get you a doggie bag.” She said, turning away.  Gary seized the moment to remind me, “I told you Harry was better looking than you, Palen.” “Hmfph.” I grunted while everyone else laughed.


We enjoyed a leisurely ride back home, taking in all the beauty Missouri and Iowa’s country roads had to offer. When we got to the edge of Ottumwa, we said our farewells, and Harry and I rushed home to change clothes.  I put my suit back on just in case Dad was at the radio station when I got there. Which of course he was.


Dad stood in the hallway outside the production room, in his long beige dress coat with the belt tied around the waist and plaid Stetson hat. He wasn’t happy. His arms were folded across his chest the entire time I told my story.  When I was done, the lecture began. “Son, you have to start using better judgement.  You can’t go to Missouri to make just one sales call. You have to make better use of your time.  Plan to spend the whole day there and see several clients. And, you need to let me know when you’re working out of town for the day, otherwise the rest of the staff will think you were just out joy-riding on your motorcycle.”  “I will, Dad.” I promised.


I immediately started thinking of additional clients I could call on next Friday.  The Coho salmon season on Lake Michigan was starting to peak and I was just sure I could sell some advertising to Shiller Sporting Goods, in Port Washington, Wisconsin.