The South is lush, beautiful, but driving its length wearies a man, even in a well-appointed vehicle. I’ve been driving too long. My eyes are gritty and dry from fighting the glare off the SUV’s hood.
It’s time to get off, right over … there … for gas and maybe a soda. Hand on pump, looking around, a small, hand-lettered sign announces, “Fresh Fruit Pies 1/4 mile.” Simplead, effective, just the right amount of allure. So, I head away from the highway in search of pie.
Exactly a quarter-mile down a flat, two-lane, tree-lined road, I see it. A small, brick building with the same hand-lettered sign in front of the parking lot. There’s a smoker on the far side of the building being tended by a man who knows his business.
He’s painfully thin, wiry, with arms and neck muscles like steel cords. He splits wood with a practiced swing and economy of movement that declares many years asa pit master. Noticing me, he turns his focus from the smoker’s thermometer and breaks into a smile.
“Pig or pie? We got a special if you have both.”
The intoxicating aroma of roasting pig engulfs me. The sun casts its long shadows of late afternoon. I smile. This is my reward for all the sales calls of the day – maybe for the whole month.
“Both. Both, please.”
Visceral sales are easy, honest. We walk to the door, passing a 1970-something “EasyRider” Harley chopper on the way. A beauty. Not pristine, not nouveau restored, but an original with many miles and dedicated care.
Inside,I find a place that had once been a garage or maybe a small post office.Square, concrete block. Efficient angles, roof weight carried easily on bearing walls with purpose and economy. But it looks like the owner wanted light, so he knocked holes in the walls and installed big, reclaimed warehouse windows that tilted out to let the air circulate. A large portion of one wall is an industrial garage door that’s up, letting the late-day light flood in, along with the sounds of birds and wind in the trees.
ThePit Boss looks across the room and says, “Special!” to a middle-aged woman in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. She holds up three fingers and smiles.
“Table3 has a good view out back. She must like you.”
“I’m from Ohio,” I say. “Everybody likes me.”
He laughs and extends a well-calloused hand. “Ohio, I’m Earl, that’s Evangeline, the owner, chef and my daughter. I do the pig, she does the rest.”
Is it down and a teenage girl – a mini-Evangeline – sets out silverware, a bowl of rolls and a small pitcher of ice water that’s sweating as much as I am.
“MayI ask what the specials are?”
“Yep.Whatever Earl makes and Mom makes are usually very special. You’ll be happy.”
Instant trust. That’s all I need to know.
I pour a glass of ice water and drink deeply, the cold reviving my brain and the water nourishing my parched body. I place my wallet next to my keys, the hot square on my right hip grateful for the relief. I inspect the mismatched, heavy silverware and move the coffee and sweetener packets to clear a little room.Just fussing, like a cat circling before his rest.
My eyes adjust to the interior light. I pour a second glass of water, drink more slowly and take in the room. A couple of men at a table near the deeply shaded counter work through a pile of ribs. An older couple sits in the fading sunlight, talking quietly.
The man wears old-guy denim, Etonic sneakers and a three-button golf shirt. She has a conservative, older-lady look. Comfy, except for the floral-patterned scarf around her head. Stylish, but with purpose. Her hair is gone.
I settle in. The breeze freshens, the treetops swish, the edges of my napkin billow and return. My breathing slows and bird songs become clearer. So does the soft laughter.
It’s from the couple. The man, in his mid-60s, elbows on the table, leans in to listen to everything his wife says. His smile, hidden by a great walrus mustache, peeks out at the upturned corners of his mouth. His eyes are bright, focused, engaged.She leans in, delivers the punch line. A doozy. They crack up.
The laughter eases and they turn as one to the low sun on the back lot. The birdsongs return. The couple take two forks to a shared piece of pie.
Their movements, like Earl’s, are so natural, so practiced, so dependable that they produce an intimacy without hurry or doubt. Or fear.
Mini-Evangeline arrives with a large platter heavy with a rack of ribs, a portion of smoked sausage, a pork chop, coleslaw and Pigeon Peas and rice.
“Special,”she says with a smile and pat on my shoulder. “Told jah.”
The meat creates a new memory. Great smoke crust, tender and juicy inside, flavorful sauces. The Pigeon Peas and rice are made with love.
AsI finish, Mini reappears. Perfect timing. “Ready for pie?”
“DoI have a choice of what kind,” I say, wryly, “or is it ‘Special?’ ”
“You’re catching on,” she winks. “You’ll be happy.”
She’s right. I am delighted. I had heard of elderberry pie but never had it before.And now I may spend my life looking for one as good. The perfect ratio of elder berries to goopy elderberry stuff to the best pie crust I’ve ever had.
Trying to make the pie last, I look at the couple again and am struck by their love.She looks like she was ill but is on the other side of it. Her color’s returning and it’s magnified by the setting sun, the laughter and fresh pie.His hand is on the table, hers on top of it. No words to clutter the moment.
They stand to leave, straighten clothing and check pockets. He steps back to let her go first – good manners – and as she passes, she reaches down and grabs his butt, firmly.
“Looking good, Stan.”
The men eating ribs, Mini, Stan and I all smile, laugh as one. “Hey, I’ll have whatever he had,” says one of the men. It’s the old, overused “Harry Met Sally”line, but his timing is perfect. More shared laughs among strangers.
Lost in the moment, reality returns when Mini gives me the check. I don’t want this to end. But my stomach is full, my gas tank’s topped off and there are many miles ahead of me.
At the register I ask, “What makes that pie crust so good?”
Mini smiles. “It’s the lard. High quality, cold lard.”
I take to the highway in the fading light. Soon, a motorcycle appears, coming up to pass. It takes a moment to recognize, but it’s the chopper from the restaurant.
Stan’s driving, sunglasses in place, walrus mustache pressed flat against his cheeks by the wind. His wife, the sly butt-grabber, is on the back. She’s a picture of serenity with her back resting against the sissy bar, eyes closed. Her beautiful scarf forms a colorful, waving contrail behind her.
As they pass and move into the distance, I replay the day. Slowly, the aha! I’ve figured-out an unassailable and timeless truth.
Happiness is hot buns and cold lard.