Lee’s Corner, population 3, marked on all car-trip-sized South Dakota maps at the corner of Highways 34 and 50. The farm lies a few miles straight north along the old Star Route road.
In rural areas, a lot of the time the post office used to be a farmer’s wife in a station wagon driving from farm to farm, parking on the wrong side of the road as she went. Not when you live just off the rez and the snow sometimes buries full-sized tractors and vans: then you get a mail drop.
The mail. Meh. It was never for me anyway.
But Lee’s Corner had bait tanks. Two white-enamelled tanks with silver tubs in them, just big enough to crawl into although you’d never be able to stretch out, filled with gloriously mucky minnows. I believe you could also buy earthworms, but you could get better earthworms at home, you could stick a spade into the ground in the garden and pull them out by the enormous mulchy handful, a foot or two long if you got lucky. Minnows, though. Minnows were cool. Packed in like sardines, brown and mysterious and intertwined, muddily shimmering in the mossy water. Minnows with gaping mouths pockmarking the surface. Minnows that clearly came from Minnow-sota. When you fished you had to stab them right through the jaw. For some reason I didn’t mind chicken-butchering, but using fish as bait to go fishing? Cannibalism!
They might eat you–surely they couldn’t–Lee would promise to give you a quarter if you stuck your hand in the tank, or he’d growl at you for getting too close, you’d never know. The back room always seemed to be lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Even now if I see a horror movie with the right kind of lighting (especially if bare cement and dirt are involved), I can still smell the bait tanks.
White-painted plywood shelves filled the store, even though some of the canned goods (the deviled ham, for instance) were sticky with dust. The plywood mail slots hung next to the counter, open wood boxes big enough for a normal-sized envelope. Anything bigger ended up behind the counter or on the floor.
And the pop machine.
It was practically the only way my brother Matt and I ever got cold soda. It came in shiny bottles scratched dull in two rings, around the butt end and just below the neck, from rolling down the chutes in the machine so often. I usually had orange Crush. You couldn’t take the bottle with you; you had to drink it in the store and slide it into a crate divided with wooden slats for the pop man to pick up.
If Mom went by herself–and she often did; if things were busy, she cleaned the row of motel rooms off to the side of the store–she would have to stay at the counter for a long time, talking to Lee while Matt and I drank sodas or wandered the shelves, picking things up and putting them down again, or played on the floor with bugs or dust, or found some other way to erase the time.
One of the women in the area would keep track of the news–mostly who visited whom–over the course of the week and call it in to the local paper; various comings and goings would show up every week, two inches’ worth, maybe.
The real news was passed around through backhand channels, of which Lee was one.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with gossip: people call it nasty stuff, but compared to what got printed in the paper it was juicy, juicy truth.
I missed most of it. That was fine by me: Lee was a large, jovial man with a face like an advertisement for antiacids and a laugh that was glad of other people’s misfortunes. Jovial. Another complicated word. It comes from Jove, the Roman god of being loud and patronizing to little kids. Every once in a while Mom would send us out to the car to wait for her, so he could tell her a dirty joke. She’d come out with her face red and bulging and she’d be in a bad mood all the way home.
In the winter, straw bales were stacked along parts of the house and the motel to help keep the wind from stripping all the heat away, and they’d bold a tin-and-plywood frame to the door of the store, to block the wind and keep it from ripping the screen door open.
At the other end of Star Route road was Stephan and the Indian School and Mac’s Corner, which served the same function as Lee’s–mail drop, gas station, odds-and-ends, bait for fishermen headed out to the river. There were two systems for everything: one for farmers and tourists, one for Indians. Mac’s and Lee’s kept people from having to drive onto the rez to get gas, even though it was often cheaper and they had rental VCRs (back in the day when movies were $100 a pop) and hot pizza (for which my father would have overcome far larger hurdles than mere race).
I heard Lee’s Corner turned into a brothel for a while, presumably after Lee passed on, but that it’s back to being a mail drop now.
Update: His name wasn’t Lee, it was BUD WELLNER! I found an obit here.