The sun is setting in Washington County, Alabama. The gnats are out. You can hear crickets downtown. This place is a fleck of ketchup on the map.
It’s something else.
I’m at the Courthouse Drugstore. This is a real soda fountain. Marble counters. Knee-high barstools, vinyl cushions. I’m eating a sandwich that tastes exactly like shaking hands with the Risen Savior. I forget which decade I’m in.
Miss Penny sits beside me. She’s got gray hair. Feisty. She smokes a vaporizing cigarette that smells like butterscotch and Lysol.
“Sixty years ago,” Penny says. “Folks used’a come here to drink Ko-Cola floats, they’d watch people get off at the train depot. It was something else.”
Not much has changed here—except there’s no train anymore. People are rural. Some folks drive seventy-five miles to Mobile for groceries.
“After the drugstore shut down,” says Miss Penny. “Only place to get a milkshake was your own kitchen. It was something else.”
The Courthouse Drugstore reopened last November. The town threw a party. Washington County showed up to christen it.
For nearly four decades, the building sat vacant—complete with overgrown parking lot and plywood windows.
This restoration was no business venture. It was a resurrection.
“Chatom’s in my blood,” says Holly, who restored the drugstore. “My ancestors founded this town, least I can do is try to keep it going for my kids.”
So, she reopened the landmark. Chatom’s soda fountain is a one-of-a-kind, even for the Old South.
Out-of-town visitors have already been coming to see it. Not long ago, tourists from Germany stopped by to experience the authentic American tradition. They ate chicken salad. It was something else.
Tiffany keeps the place running. She says, “I make chicken salad the old-fashioned way. The other day I tore apart seventy-five pounds of chicken by hand. Worked so hard, I strained a muscle in my neck.”
In the short time I visit, the place is buzzing. In the parking lot: trucks with mud on tires. Economy cars, carrying families of four. Old men, young women. High schoolers.
People are here to spend an afternoon in an old-fashioned drugstore. The same room their ancestors once haunted.
They’re rubbing elbows with spirits who built this town out of the pines across the street. That’s something else.
It might not seem like much, but it’s everything. Because this world is a vicious place. Yesterday, I heard about a man who tied a dog to his bumper and dragged it to death. I read about a woman who suffocated her son with a pillow.
Gas prices climb. Hate sells for rock-bottom prices. Another day, another Walmart comes to town.
But today is different. Today, I’m at a small-town soda fountain. I rest my elbows on cold marble. I eat. A woman named Miss Penny hugs my neck.
“Next time you’re passing through,” Miss Penny says. “You’re welcome to stay with us. Got plenty’a room.”
Four others make the same offer before I even finish my sandwich.
It was something else.