Forty miles to nowhere

Rick Ryckeley's picture

It was 40 miles to nowhere. The car was running on empty and so was the driver. The detour off the main highway eventually led down a country road with little signage except one announcing a barbecue joint five miles ahead: “Next right: Bud’s Barbecue. We got the best butts and gas in town.”

Amused, the driver turned down the old road. Besides, for what lay ahead, he would need all his strength. With still another hour of traveling, a good meal would go a long way in helping him feel better.

The asphalt road, more potholes than actual road, was in desperate need of repair. Good old Bud must also own a tire store and garage, he thought. After 10 minutes of bumping along, the road finally succumbed to decay, disappearing into the dirt parking lot of Bud’s Barbecue.

A small, dilapidated white clapboard building with a single rusting gas pump out front, Bud’s had indeed seen better days. Peeling paint indicated the now dirt-covered white building once had been painted a pea green.

The color almost matched the murky film on top of the swamp waters just out back, surely the source of the swarming giant mosquitoes now attacking his car. Even the afternoon heat couldn’t scare them away. To be expected, he thought; after all, it’s July in South Georgia.

Once out of his car, a signal must’ve been given because immediately the giant mosquitoes attacked. Quickly he swatted his way past three pickup trucks — each sporting more peeling paint than Bud’s building — and a car rustier than his single gas pump.

Barely surviving being carried off by the swarm, the driver reached for the screened front door. A stiff breeze helped to part the mosquitoes, giving a momentary pause to their assault.

That’s when he smelled it for the first time: a mouthwatering barbecue smoke emanating from an open pit out back near the edge of the swamp.

Smells and tastes are powerful triggers to memories. The sweet barbecue aroma also wafting from inside the restaurant was just such a trigger. It wrapped around his head and tugged at the corners of his mind before pulling the tired, hungry driver inside.

The next hour took him back to a place almost 50 years ago: Uncle Jim’s Pit Barbecue. Out of the cracks of the sidewalk in front of Jim’s grew what he thought to be a weed. Before going inside, his dad reached down, pinched off a few lime green leaves, and then gave them to him.

His dad must’ve seen the expression on his face, because he said, “One’s for you to chew on – other’s for your tea.”

That’s right. He was only 6 years old and his father wanted him to chew on a weed. Except it was much more than a weed.

It was the start of a memory that would last a lifetime.

Uncle Jim’s stood in the shadows of the large downtown buildings of Atlanta. It had been his first and best taste of barbecue. Jim’s barbecue was so tender it fell apart in your hands and had a sauce so sweet and spicy it made you lick your fingers. The tea, served in Mason jars, had so much sugar it guaranteed you wouldn’t run out of energy, especially if your brothers attacked when you got home.

The driver never forgot that day spent with his father eating barbecue, sipping sweet tea out of Mason jars, and chewing on sidewalk weeds. The weed outside happened to be lemon mint, and it just made Jim’s tea that much better.

The phone rang next to him, pulling the driver back to the present. Still licking barbecue sauce off his fingers, he answered. His wife asked, “Have you made it to Florida yet?”

The driver replied, “Nope. Had a 40-mile detour to nowhere and the best barbecue I’ve eaten in almost 50 years. About to get back on the road now.” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone and he added, “I’ll explain all about it later.”

His wife answered, “Your Dad’s waiting. He needs you.”

On the way out the door, the swarm was also waiting. Attacked once more, the driver ducked for cover. Only this time, something else happened. He saw what he hadn’t noticed during his fight with the pesky bloodsuckers on his way inside. Huddled behind the rusty car and growing out of a crack in the concrete next to the building was an old familiar weed.

All of their lives, his parents had been there for him and his siblings in times of need. No questions asked. They’d given their children so many childhood memories that, if all written down, would fill a library. Now alone, at age 85, their father needed help. He didn’t ask. Then again, he would never do such a thing. But it was time for his children to be there for him.

The driver pinched off a few lime green leaves, climbed back into his car, and carefully wrapped the mint in a napkin. Then he placed it in the bag – the bag containing a large order of finger-licking barbecue from Bud’s.

His father would appreciate both. And hopefully remember that day from so long ago when he took his little boy to the best barbecue place in town.

[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is storiesbyrick@gmail.com. His books are available at www.RickRyckeley.com.]

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