West Alabama is alive. The wide fields are painted in goldenrods. Green live oaks everywhere. A cow chews cud, watching cars on the highway. It’s a perfect day.
I should be happy.
But I haven’t been myself since my floppy-eared dog went to the Great Beyond. Ellie Mae has been gone a few days; my passenger seat never looked so vacant. I haven’t felt like talking. I haven’t even been hungry.
A road sign ahead.
“Jefferson Country Store,” it reads.
I’m in no mood to stop.
But then, I’m a sucker for country stores. The building is clapboards and tin. Rusted Royal Crown Cola signs and old posters for Nehi, Grapico, and MoonPies. A United States Postal Service sign out front. An American flag.
I pull over.
The front door is propped open. An attic fan is going. A hand painted sign advertises hoop cheese, hog head souse, and cut meats. Tony is behind the counter, taking it easy.
He recognizes me.
“Hey Sean,” he says.
The last thing I expected to be recognized in the sticks of Jefferson.
He shakes my hand. His wife, Betsy, hugs me. And even though I’m a stranger, they treat me like it’s homecoming. Tony offers me a burger.
“No thanks,” I say. After all, I’m not in the mood, I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself today.
Tony isn’t about to let me go hungry. In this part of the world, that’s a sin. In seconds, the grill sizzles and this place is alive.
I’m looking at this country store. My entire childhood is on these shelves. MoonPies, Star Crunches, PayDays, pickled pig feet, quail eggs, Golden Eagle syrup, ribbon cane syrup, rag bologna, and of course, red rind hoop cheese.
As a boy, my mother would carry me to a country gas station to buy me hoop cheese and a bottled Coke. For dessert, she’d give me candy cigarettes.
Today, a mother could get twenty to life for giving a child candy cigarettes.
My burger is ready. Tony has made a fat patty topped with dollops of pimento cheese. This isn’t the pimento-colored blasphemy from Winn-Dixie. This is homemade stuff.
I sit at a red-and-white checkered table. I fold my hands and say grace. And I ask that whoever hears me Up There tells Ellie Mae that she’s missing a good day.
While I eat, I’m feeling something. The clouds break. I’m smiling. Maybe it’s the food. Maybe it’s the photograph of Hank Aaron on the wall.
Maybe it’s the sacks of Domino Sugar, the MoonPies, the bottled Coke, or the Nehi. I’m a kid again. A happy child in a rural mercantile.
This is a happy place. This is a happy burger. Tony and Betsy are happy people.
They are salt-of-the-earth folks who deliver tobacco to old men who can’t leave the house. Folks who volunteer for community barbecues, raising money for the fire department. They give up weekends to paint the community center.
This is a real town. And these are real folks.
Folks who still leave casseroles on front porches for newlyweds, grieving families, or anyone with the flu.
Tony has parting gifts to send with me. He hands me a fifty-pound Styrofoam cooler. Inside is sausage, chicken salad, bologna, hoop cheese, pulled pork, honey buns, hog head cheese, and pork cracklins.
And candy cigarettes.
It’s too much. He’s being too generous. I tell him there’s no need. But Tony won’t have it. He smiles and says: “We both love you, thanks for visiting our country store.”
But I’m the one who should be doing all the thanking today. My day started sad, but Tony and Betsy changed that.
So right now I’m driving, eating hoop cheese. The sun is shining. My passenger seat has a ghost with floppy ears sitting in it. She’s pretty as a song.
She left me better than she found me.
That was the best burger I’ve had in years.