I’m in a barbecue joint. The kind of place my father would have loved. He appreciated barbecue the same way Presbyterians appreciate “The Doxology.” He was a connoisseur of saturated fat. The man could eat a pound of pork before you finished saying grace.
It was inside a joint like this that I first graduated from a spitting, squirting baby into a man. It happened when I was a kid. There was a barbecue joint on the outskirts of town. There was nothing around for miles except cattle fields and an old filling station.
The joint was the kind of place with pinewood walls and greasy floors. It smelled like a fine blend of pecan smoke and stale beer. You ordered at the counter. Your meal came with a complimentary salad bar.
Salad bars were a new thing back then. My father didn’t care for them. He thought the idea of eating salad with barbecue made about as much sense as drinking 7UP during the World Series. But he soon discovered that he was mistaken. Because included on the salad bar was cheese soup. He loved cheese soup.
So while my mother would be fixing her salad—which was a single sprig of lettuce topped with eight cups of ranch dressing and four pounds of crushed bacon—my father would eat himself sick on soup.
He fell in love with the concept of salad bars, namely, because they were all-you-can-eat. My father was a notorious tightwad. He was so cheap that the guest room in our house had a pay smoke alarm.
Anyway, it was on the drive to this barbecue joint that my family was making happy conversation in the car. There was always an air of giddiness surrounding barbecue. My father was driving along when:
We hit something with the front tires. My mother screamed. My father swerved.
“You hit a possum!” my mother shouted.
Everyone was stunned. My father let out a yelp, so did my mother. Everyone was shaken by this minor vehicular homicide and tensions were running high. I will never forget what happened next.
It just fell out of my mouth. In all the excitement I hollered, “Holy shrimp!”
Only I didn’t say shrimp.
To this day, I don’t know how it happened. It just slipped. I don’t recall using this particular word at that young age. Then again, if you’d gone to fourth grade with Ryan McGee like so many of us did, you’d know that he used this word at least 4,294 times every day on the playground.
The atmosphere in the car became quiet. It was like a nuclear winter in our station wagon.
My father locked eyes with me. “What did you say?”
My mother had to be revived with cold water.
We wheeled into the filling station. The young gas-pump attendant peered into our car and I think he could sense that the Angel of Death was about to visit our family.
My father told the kid to “Fill’er up.”
My mother was deep in prayer, pleading for the Lord not to strike me dead so that she could have the pleasure of doing it herself.
When we got into the restaurant my mother decided what my sentence would be. She was going to wash my mouth with soap. This is what parents did back then. My parents nailed down the final details.
“Do you wanna do it?” my mother asked my father.
“Me? Don’t make ME do it.”
“Well, I can’t take him into the women’s room.”
They were talking about me like I was already dead.
My father reluctantly agreed to exact the punishment. He escorted me into the men’s room. He explained my crime to me. And even though he admitted that he, too, occasionally used this word, he stressed that it was only during moments of agony, life-threatening pain, or important national championships.
Otherwise, this word was a big-time sin. It wasn’t a small sin like siphoning gas or hotwiring cars. This was the major leagues.
So he looked around the bathroom for a bar of soap. But the only soap available was the pink liquid kind from a hand pump. He pumped a few squirts into his hand and sniffed it. I could almost see what he was thinking.
A bar of soap was one thing. But this stuff was chemical strychnine. If I ate this sludge I would never see another birthday.
By now I was crying, perhaps even sucking my thumb.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he whispered. “Promise me you’ll never use that word again, and we’ll PRETEND I washed your mouth out.”
I sniffed. “But wouldn’t that be a lie?”
Now we had a moral dilemma. Not only would I be getting away with murder, but now I was flaunting the Ninth Commandment, too.
Thus, in a moment that can only be called divinely inspired my father said, “Yes, it is a lie. That’s why you have to promise, like a real man, that this’ll be the LAST lie you ever tell in your whole life.”
When we walked out of the bathroom, I reentered society as a grown man. No longer a child, but four foot taller. We ordered barbecue, my father ate cheese soup. And after all these years I never lied or cussed again.
Yes. My father would have loved this barbecue joint. Especially the barbecued shrimp.