On the Road—Ribs

Brian J. Sullivan

I know my vehicle and my vehicle knows me. We have spent over 100,000 miles getting to know each other. It was not love at first sight, but a more gradual cautious coming to terms with each other. If I promised to do regular maintenance, she promised to give dependable service. If I promised not to overload her, she would allow alterations to her body to accommodate compartments for art fair panels, tent parts, and art work. I would even occasionally wash her, though I must admit I rarely waxed her.

This last trip through the Appalachian Mountains proved quite taxing, yet a testament to the strong bond we had developed. Others were not so fortunate. On the steep ascent, several vehicles were along the road side, hoods up and steam coming from out of their radiators; overloaded and overheated, they rebelled. By choice, I stopped at a scenic rest stop and took in the breathtaking view spanning hundreds of miles of undeveloped land. It was near dusk. Long shadows created rich patterns of lights and darks among the vegetation. The smell of pine trees filled the air.

Once over the top and making the descent also proved to be challenging. Those with no clutch and gears to down shift to let the engine help with the braking had to rely on the vehicle brakes, but with the vehicle's weight and steep grade, it proved too much for many, and the pungent acrid smell of brake shoes burning filled the air. Deep grooves in the sand of the emergency side ramps were evidence of past failures.

We seemed to make it fine but were now getting near empty, indicated by the gas gage warning light. I got off at the next exit I saw, and not knowing where I was, I went in a less than desirable direction. The area looked like a war zone with burned out cars littering the street. Buildings with boarded up windows showed no sign of life. Gas stations with plate glass windows broken and pumps gone did not give me confidence in my choice of direction. I turned around in a parking lot littered with garbage and broken glass. The opposite direction was none too promising either.

I pulled into a gas station with two squad cars idling, each facing in the opposite direction and sitting side by side as the two officers talked through the driver's side window. I was soon to learn what redneck truly meant.

At the pump next to me were two males in their mid-forties. They eyed me suspiciously as I climbed out of my van in blue jeans and an art fair T-shirt. I was definitely over dressed. Their garbs consisted of some dark oily covered pants which probably had not been washed in many months evidenced by the multitude of stains that covered them. One of them had on what once was a white T-shirt with a California chopper emblem but now was so covered with blackish dirt and grunge that it appeared more dark grey. The other one had on a dark colored shirt so filled with holes that any more grease or dirt would also become part of his skin. Both were rather skinny with dark leathery skin and deep wrinkles in their faces from years of being in the sun. Patchy and scraggly facial hair covered their faces in an attempt to grow a beard and mustache that never filled out. Their yellow stained teeth showed evidence of early tooth decay as several front teeth were missing, either from rot, a fight, or both. Their eyes, black as coal, had no life in them. Every square inch of their arms and neck were covered in what looked like so many layers of tattoos that now none was clearly visible, only adding to their unbathed look. Long black hair hung in greasy strands over one side of their faces and had no particular style. I was not sure if they were brothers, cousins, friends, or lovers. Nor did I want to know.

One of the men was pumping gas into their 1980s style Ford pickup, sprayed with brown primer in patchy areas to help stave off the rusting which had almost completely consumed each area around the wheels. The truck had large knobby tires and the truck bed was jacked off the frame so that it was almost a five foot step up to the door. The other man was rummaging around high up inside the truck bed, talking back and forth about how they were going to get money to pay for the gas. Every so often I caught the one in the truck bed looking down at me, as a vulture eyes its next meal. I avoided any direct eye contact.

An elderly African-American woman was trying desperately to get the attention of one of the two policemen by flailing her arms wildly in the air, but to no avail. I locked my truck and went into the gas station to pay but instead went into the bathroom and locked the door hoping I would not be a witness to an armed robbery. Through the grey steel door I could hear voices.

When I emerged, others had entered the gas station. It gave me little comfort. I paid for my gas. The pickup truck of the locals was gone. I was hungry and headed toward town in search of something to eat. It was now dark out.

In my quest to support the small Ma and Pa entrepreneur, I actively search out the local diners and avoid the large chain restaurants at all cost. As I drove further away from the expressway, it somehow felt more familiar. Businesses along the road had long been closed up, by evidence of the tall grass which grew between the cracks in their parking lots. Many were boarded up with faded For Sale signs, telephone numbers barely legible. Down a darkened side street I caught a glimpse of a small hand painted sign. As I got closer it read "B's." Not "Bea's" or "Bea's Restaurant," but simply "B's" and no other description followed. I turned into the deserted lot except for two cars, one on concrete blocks which had its wheels removed and its hood up. It was parked on the far end of the lot and covered in layers of dried pine needles. The other, an older 1970s model of faded cream color was parked near the door. The asphalt lot was full of pot holes and was lit only by what moonlight shone through the overhanging trees. Rusted parking lot lights on tall poles lined the perimeter but did not work.

Could this be it, a place I had not been to in over 21 years? A place I had discovered on one of my trips back home from a mountain school I attended deep in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. I pensively grabbed the rusted door handle; it was a long time ago. I went in and called out, "Are you open?" to a dimly room lit room. Several Formica top pedestal tables were scattered about with three or four mismatched wooded chairs around them. The multi-colored linoleum floor tile had long ago lost its sheen. "I'll be right out," called a voice from somewhere behind the swinging doors leading to the kitchen.

A thin and frail looking elderly black woman with bluish-grey hair appeared from behind the kitchen doors. She had on a knee length floral print dress and a clean white apron. In her sweet southern drawl she said, "May I help yhee?" She smiled, revealing a gold front tooth. She wore slipper-like shoes and slid her feet across the floor rather than picking them up. Each chair she came to helped steady her movement. She slowly led me to a table and handed me a menu. On the outside of its hand lettered cover it read: "B's the best BBQ." Its well worn edges and yellow colored paper appeared not to have been printed any time recently. Inside, the choices and prices were handwritten. Each price change was made by simply crossing out the old and writing a new one in any available space. The margins were filled with many such changes. My heart began to speed up. Was this the place I had so long ago loved but forgotten?

I explained to the woman that I used to come to this great little BBQ place somewhere in the mountains when I went to school down here but could not remember where it was. I told her that they had the best ribs I had ever had and that upon leaving each time to head back home the owner would bring me a cottage cheese container filled with the BBQ sauce to take with me. I told her that I had not been down this way in quite a while and had all but lost touch with the owner.

She took my order and disappeared into the kitchen. I was all alone in the restaurant. She was all alone in the kitchen.

 There were no windows to look out of. On the walls precariously hung were old beer posters secured at one time by clear cellophane tape. My mind wandered. Could this be the place? My memory had failed me. From the kitchen I could hear the noise of pots and pans.

After what seemed like a long time, she emerged with a plate of ribs stacked high on an oval plate. On the side were collard greens and a fresh baked roll. Honey, butter, and a wet napkin and bowl were also brought out. She set the plate down before me, asked if I wanted anything else, and then disappeared back into the sanctity of the kitchen.

The ribs, moist and tender, melted in my mouth. Tangy sauce covered my face and fingers. Occasionally I would use the moist napkin to wipe off the excess. The collard greens had just the right amount of vinegar and ham hocks. The steaming roll had a sweet taste to it. Try as I may, there was no way I could finish all of the food. When she came back, I told her how delicious the meal was and apologized for not being able to eat it all. She took my plate and said she would wrap up the rest to go.

When she again emerged from the kitchen she handed me two bags and the check. I thanked her profusely for the incredible meal and paid my bill. I said goodbye.

I set the two bags on the passenger seat and headed for the highway. I still had five more hours of driving to reach the art fair. All gassed up and well nourished, I was ready for the night drive.

Three hours into my drive the smell of sweet ribs still filled my van. Its temptation proved to be too great. I could not resist. I opened one of the bags and pulled out a small piece of rib to chew on. Curious why there were two bags, I opened the other bag to see what was in it. There sat an old cottage cheese container with a handwritten note: "Have a safe trip." I did not have to open the container. I knew exactly what it contained. I had found the place and my memory I had lost twenty years ago.