Just into West Virginia, a small hand dips and turns in the wind, moving in all directions, before regaining control. The little hand juts in and out again from the window of the brown and white station wagon, as if mustering up courage to try once more. Palm down, the little fingers close together, curling under and up, waving hello and goodbye to the trees. The skin has turned a pinkish-brown, speckled with freckles. I let my car keep pace with the wagon and see that the arm belongs to a little girl, probably no more than six or seven years old, with red hair pulled back into a braid, and a quiet look on her face. I wave at the hand, it waves back. We exchange grins. Hers has a gap in the front, with a new tooth making its way from the root.
Alongside the road is a barbecue joint, called The Craw Shack. It’s about as rusty and old as a place like this gets. Like a worn penny. Chalkboard for a menu, wooden tables, red-plastic covered chairs, and bright lights greet its customers. Sauce fills the air. The shaggiest of men stands behind the counter. He looks like a leathery version of Billy Gibbons. He’s the sort of proprietor, he tells me, with a drawl, who likes to shake his customers’ hands when they sit down.
“Liketa look them in the eye, size them up, see how they are,” he tells me.
I shake his hand in return and cross my eyes. He chuckles and says “Sit over there,” gesturing to a wooden booth. Names and initials and hearts are etched into the benches and tables. I trace my fingers over the letters while I wait. Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and The Beatles are plastered across the walls. Unrecognizable blues is blasting from the Boombox next to the register. He comes back and gives me a drink. “The best Shirley Temple this side of the river,” he announces, and waits for me take a sip. I’m not sure which river he’s talking about, but I agree with him. His name is Tom. I order up what he says are the best ribs this side of the river too and Tom starts to tell me his story. He likes to entertain. Tom grew up down the street from the Shack, when it was a fish-fry station. Tom hates fish-fry stations.
“I hate ’em,” he grunts and nods his head before adding, “Damn things stink.”
I nod sagely and try to look like I know.
Tom rests his bear-paw hands on the top of the booth facing me and shifts his weight. I settle in for a story.
“I went the Army route, did ‘Nam, did my share of stupid shit after it, and when I cleaned myself up, started to manage the fish-fry station.” Tom speaks in no real hurry, while he tapped his fingers against the booth to the music.
“That place was shit,” he continues, “woke up, went to work and stunk like fish. Went home, showered, went fishin’ and stunk like fish. Went home, showered, passed out, woke up. Rinse an’ repeat, rinse an’ repeat. Man, that place was shit.”
He scratches his beard and waves at a passerby.
“Eventually the old woman who owned the place wanted to move to Florida, along with the rest of the other old farts. Bought the place from her, at a good price,” Tom says, nodding in agreement with what he told me.
“I was fair to her,” he continues, nodding a second time and continued, “I gutted the place with my family. Related to, or grew up with ’bout the whole town here, got ’em all involved in it. Turned it around, opened up The Craw Shack, an’ now, shit, in a few years, I’ll be an old fart and sell it off to some punk who’ll try an’ open up a ‘spresso cafe, or a wine bar, or something they think is better than what I got. And then I’ll move to Florida too.”
Tom looks at his bear-paw hands and laughs, adding the one thought that sums it up, “Damn.”
Tom shakes his head out of bemusement or amusement. I’m not sure which one. The bell rings behind Tom’s head, and he turns around to snag my plate from the kitchen counter. Setting the plate down in front of me, he watches me. I smile appreciatively, and dig into the ribs, biting down carefully. I like to savor the first bite of any meal. It’s a careful appreciation that I practice, a reverence for the art that went into the creation of what’s put in front of me. Tom is right. I tell him so. He grins and moves on to greet a couple that walks in – Sam and Diane. Tom asks me where I’m headed.
“Canada” I say, in between bites “P.E. Island.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“To explore.” I wipe away sauce from my chin with the paper napkin and lick my lips.
Tom nods. “I get that. I’ve done that. You should do that everyday. You should notice something new everyday. That’s good to do. Good for the soul – like my ribs.” He guffaws at his own joke. I chuckle in return.
“Where you stopping tonight?” He asks, and waits for me to swallow before I reply.
“Elkins. I rented a place for the night.”
“A house?” I nod. “You use that VRBO site?” I nod again. “Has it got a stove? A microwave?”
“The site says it does.”
Tom yells something into the kitchen about a number five. A woman yells back.
“You keep eating those ribs. You like chicken?”
I nod again, feeling like a bobblehead doll.
Sam and Diane, who have overheard our conversation, fill me with bits and pieces of advice on what to do tonight, where to grab a drink, which stations to gas up at, and how to get past the D.C. traffic on route 66. I tap my feet to the beat of Bob Dylan singing in my head, while I nod and smile at their instructions, and take notes on my fifth clean napkin, the used ones now crumpled neatly into a pile in front of me. I try not to make a Cheers joke at their expense. They’ll have heard them all by now anyways.
Tom comes back with my check and hands me a large paper-bag, doubled, full of goodies. He tells me to enjoy dinner on him and his wife, who I discover is the woman sweating away in the kitchen. I try to tip him, but he just guides me out the door, pats me on the back, and shakes my hand. His overlaps mine, almost wraps around my hand twice. His face is red and in a happy, sweaty bear hug, he envelopes me and quickly lets me go. “You stop by here on your way back home, now. Drive safe, and watch for the rain.”
I feel like a child being hugged goodbye by her parent. It gives me a warm glow the rest of the ride to Elkins, as I happily burp my way down the road.
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