Southern Legitimacy Statement: I live just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, across the creek from where I grew up. Despite spending eighteen years yelling “War Eagle” like my uncle and grandfather, I ended up at the University of Alabama. While attending the University, I learned to play harmonica & guitar. I got so good at the guitar that now people only pay me to play harmonica. My go-to Waffle House order is an All-Star Special with hash browns, smothered & covered, over easy eggs, a pecan waffle, toast, bacon, and a cup of coffee. I save the toast and grape jelly until the end as a dessert.
Barbecue sandwich plate. Baked beans. French fries. This is what I get every other day for dinner at the Green Top Cafe. It happens on a two week rotating schedule.
Becky tries to correct me when I say “Whensdee.” She thinks she’s better than me because her sister is an English teacher at the grammar school. Who is she, the queen of Sheeva or just some waitress slinging barbecue and beers? That’s what I thought.
I might not have a job tonight, but when I go back to the chicken plant tomorrow, I’ll have two things: a hangover and a job for another eighty-five to eighty-nine days. I won’t have insurance, but Budweiser and Jack Daniel’s seem to be pretty good preservatives. They took my daddy all the way to seventy years, and I feel like I got at least another twenty in me. Some nights I raise my beer glass toward the sky to thank him. I’m still trying to make that ol’ boy proud of me.
I don’t mess with ordering inside chopped or sliced on my sandwich. If somebody’s that specific about their barbecue they probably don’t like barbecue to begin with. Don’t give me any of that “Alabama” white sauce either. Just because one joint in the state decided to start making it doesn’t mean it is a statewide delicacy. They can keep that shit in Decatur.
I sit near the register, but I don’t like messing with the waitresses. They get pissed when they’re trying to tally up all my beers, and I start telling them about the time I single handedly almost won this whole restaurant on a bet. Clarence the owner said I couldn’t tell him how much money he cleared on an average day the week of Monday, March 26th to Sunday, April 1st 1990. I’ll tell y’all right now that I’m no math major. I understand money, and I understand people, and don’t you know I came up with a figure that was just ten dollars shy of what his profit was that week? That S.O.B. didn’t even consider that bet being won. He told me if I really knew numbers, I’d have it within just a few cents. Meanwhile I don’t get change when I hand Susie a three dollar bill for my first Budweiser that costs $2.75. How’s that for customer appreciation?
Most days Dale sits with me. He wasn’t named after NASCAR’s number three but he wouldn’t have minded if he was. He sits on that second stool at the bar, one more away from the cash register as me. We can see into the kitchen through the little food pass window. If we sit up just right, we can see straight through to the preacher door. It’s a pick-up counter in the back that the church-going folks can come to without worrying about their pastor or mother-in-law or grown kids seeing them in a roadhouse that sells beer. Even their car is shielded from the highway by the store itself. I’ll tell you, ol’ Clarence has set up a fine operation here. He uses that county line and barbecue to his own advantage. Hell, who knows how much money he’s made me part ways with over the years?
Me and Dale shoot the breeze about nothing at all most days. I don’t think I’ve ever told him about that time I started a cult by accident, but he swears he’s heard it before. It’s a damn fine story, one of my best. And it’s one hundred and one percent true, believe it or not. Sometimes, after about five beers, it’s closer to ninety-eight percent but the heart of the story is still true, and that’s all anybody cares about anyways.
What’s also true is the time I saved this place from a robber. It wasn’t but two weeks ago when a guy wearing a Salt Life hat and a pair of Costas walked in the back door. Nobody was watching that back register ‘cause there were too many people inside and not enough call-in orders. I saw him and raised my glass to him, but he didn’t pay me any attention. He was looking nervous, so I asked him, “You gotta call-in order?” He didn’t flinch but started walking through the kitchen and up to the front register by me. “Becky’ll be here in a minute, kid.” Then that boy set his gun up on the counter and just said, “I can wait.” Well, you know I ain’t having none of that.
Now I didn’t try to be a hero, but I knew if I had to I would. Dale had gone downstairs to the bathroom so we couldn’t gang up on him. I just had to talk to the kid.
“Son. What’re you trying to do?”
“Trying to get even.”
“Did you get a bad batch of barbecue or something?”
Then he tried to give me some sob story I couldn’t quite follow about Clarence’s granddaughter and getting broke up with.
“Every woman I’ve ever been involved with left me, and you know what I still do every day?” I didn’t wait for his answer. “I come here for booze and barbecue, and they both treat me better than any human I know, so let’s just stop this charade and pretend like it didn’t happen.”
About that time Dale was walking up the stairs from the bathroom. When I saw him out of my peripheral vision, I grabbed the gun and threw it to Dale. Before that boy knew what had happened, Dale laid the gun out in front of him in its constituent pieces in less than a minute. All the parts were organized so it looked like an exploded view of the machine from a piece of technical paperwork.
That boy was so embarrassed and determined to get something out of Clarence for whatever his granddaughter did to him that he swiped a full-sized bag of Golden Flake Sweet Heat chips and ran out the back door. Of course, when Clarance came in at the end of the night to close up, me and Dale were the bad guys for having all sorts of gun pieces set out in front of us amid barbecue plates and beer glasses.
“This ain’t no gun range boys; this is a barbecue joint. Y’all better get this shit cleaned up and then get out.”
I explained what happened to Clarence, but he wasn’t having it.
“This is my place. Y’all just eat here. Now get all this cleaned up or I’ll throw you both out.”
We can obviously take a hint, so I put the gun back together and slid it down the bar that Becky had just cleared. It slid all the way to where Clarence was counting money for the night. I put an extra nice tip on the bar, mostly because I didn’t want to ask somebody to break a five for me.
When me and Dale were about to walk out the front door, we heard a bell ring from the other door in the back. I looked and saw that same boy who claimed he was the boyfriend of Clarence’s granddaughter, along with about four of his friends who looked like they didn’t get good grades in school. My ninja-like skills came back into action like I haven’t seen since I was in the service. I ran out the front door and around to the back. I motioned for Dale to go the opposite direction.
I heard a gunshot and felt my neck, chest, arms, and legs to be sure I wasn’t bleeding. I wasn’t, but I got worried about Dale. When I got to the back door, I saw four of the boys file out of the restaurant, but it didn’t take long for one of them to hit the ground. Ol’ Dale grabbed a piece of hickory they used for the fire and made it into a battering ram and knocked the wind out of him. When the other three tried to jump in their car, I opened the door on the opposite side and pulled one in the back seat out into the parking lot. It sounded like he was spitting gravel out of his mouth, but we couldn’t see much of anything going on because it was pitch dark.
Two of the boys were down on the ground and the other two sped away in somebody’s mom’s Buick. I asked Dale, “Can you believe they left their boys on the ground like this?” Dale just shook his head as he restacked the piece of wood he grabbed from the hickory pile earlier. Soon that weapon would be burned which made me think it could be a perfect murder weapon for the Southern Gothic screenplay I’ve been developing, but don’t you dare steal that idea from me.
Clarence came outside and told those other boys to leave then scolded me and Dale for not leaving like he told us. I asked him about the gunshot.
“That wasn’t a gunshot, you dummy,” he told me. “That was my granddaughter’s ex-boyfriend getting beat up with a broom handle. I missed the first few times and hit the cinderblock wall. You know I can’t shoot a gun in a place this small and not expect to hit one of my workers or patrons. If I’d accidentally shot you, it’d cost me a lot more than just your funeral.” I reminded Clarence that I almost won his place in a bet once, but he always ribs me and says he doesn’t remember anything about it. Clarence is a big jokester.
Now don’t ask Dale what happened. He’s mostly quiet and doesn’t like to take credit for anything, especially when you try to tell him he’s a hero.
The next time I was there was Wednesday evening. I asked Becky if they had any yahoos come in and try to start anything again like they did Monday, and she acted like she didn’t have time for me. It’s fine. I’m still the customer so I’m always right. I nudged Dale and asked him if I’d ever told him about my great-great-grandfather’s map. He told me I had, but I know you ain’t heard it.
My grandfather told me about his grandfather’s map. Most maps were small and had small ratios for the scale. Well his grandfather’s map was huge, bigger than any other map anybody had seen. See instead of being a 1:1000 scale, his was a 2:1 scale. This map of Horse Creek was twice as big as the actual town it represented. He’d unroll it a little at a time at night so nobody could see it all at once. It was his masterpiece. He’d carry lamps all over it and walk the roads he had laid out, then draw the new houses as they went up. He even added the Green Top to it before the whole map went up in smoke, taking the family barn with it.
I ain’t no map artist. Hell, I ain’t really good at anything. I’m like that Jason Isbell song talking about two things he hates: cooking and dating. It also talks about prescription narcotics that live in some cough syrups. I try to stay away from all that stuff.
I’m just trying to keep this restaurant afloat for another twenty or so years. Clarence ain’t got a chance in hell of living that long, especially with boys less than half his age trying to come in and kill him for no damn good reason. I’m assuming Dale’ll live that long, but only God knows. I’m going to sit back, relax, and enjoy my barbecue plates in peace. Only place I found that cooks better than my grandmother is Cracker Barrel and this place, and Cracker Barrel ain’t got barbecue on their menu.