I am in the sticks. Rural west Alabama. A land of hayfields, cattle pastures, automotive graveyards and shotgun houses with porch sofas.
You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a nap on a porch sofa.
My vehicle rolls along an uneven two-lane, bucking and jumping over each bump. A blind dog named Marigold is in the passenger seat beside me.
I wave at people napping on their porch sofas. Sometimes people wave back. Other times they just watch me go by and scratch themselves in a deeply personal region.
I arrive in the town of Jefferson. Although calling this a “town” is a stretch. It’s just a wide spot on Highway 28.
Jefferson, Alabama is the epitome of small. The population here isn’t big enough to form a decent baseball team. There is a volunteer fire department. Two churches—one Baptist and the other kind. And the Jefferson Country Store.
The mercantile is slammed today. There are muddy trucks, bicycles and ATVs parked around the clapboard store like cattle at a feed trough.
I open the creaky door and walk inside. George and Tammy are singing overhead about golden rings. The whole place smells like hickory- and pecan-smoked meat. Marigold is going crazy.
Tony and his wife Betsy, the owners, are slinging food in an open kitchen. It’s lunch rush. It’s a weekend. The place is elbow to elbow.
The Jefferson Country Store has been open since 1957. It used to be the only depot around for fifty thousand miles. It was also the only United States Post Office. Everyone in Jefferson used to visit this place to get their bank statements and Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs.
“People still mail letters here,” says Tony. “But we don’t do money orders no more.”
The innards of the store are a throwback to another era. The walls are adorned with antique tin signs. Red Man Chew. Ford Motor Co. Buy Coca-Cola Here. Nothing runs like a Deere. Camel Cigarettes—More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.
Buck heads are mounted on the walls. Mounted trout. This place is so nostalgic it makes my chest hurt.
There are floor coolers full of Milo’s. Moonpies and RC Cola. Supreme Coconut Bars. Candy cigarettes. Bit O’Honeys. You can still buy hoop cheese here.
The customers at the tables are of the small-town variety. The whole room is entirely camo and denim. A few neon-orange caps.
There is a man in a rocking chair, perched in the corner. He is old. His hair is disheveled. He is snoring. His eyes are closed and a thin strand of drool strings from his mouth. This man is sleeping.
“That’s Mister Douglas,” says Tony, as though this explains everything.
And I haven’t even talked about the food yet. The food here is nothing short of Marengo County legend.
I ask those waiting in line for menu recommendations. The emotional reactions here are the same kinds of reactions you’d get if you asked Pentecostals to teach you how to speak in tongues.
“Get the baked beans,” says one woman. “Tony’s beans are ridiculous.”
“Do the pulled pork,” says another. “It will blow your freaking mind.”
“The ribs,” says one man. “Those things are an out-of-body experience.”
Which turns out to be an understatement. The ribs are fall-off-the-bone good. I don’t like to speak in generalizations, but the sauce on ribs is the greatest sauce on Planet Earth. Tony sells his sauce to anyone who calls the store.
“We’ve shipped it out to California, Texas, Alaska, you name it. Wherever anyone wants.”
The old man next to me is plowing through a half rack. His face is stained with sauce. He wears a Massey Ferguson cap and muddy boots.
I ask how he likes the food. He answers with a guttural noise that sounds exactly like a dog licking itself.
When I finish eating, I am sick from too much food. Tony sends me home with extra barbecue for the road. I tell him no thanks, I’m stuffed. But Tony assures me that I will find room.
Before I leave the store, I am given a round of hugs from Betsy and Tony. Real hugs. The kinds with back-slaps. And I get the impression that Tony and Betsy are the kinds of people who probably hug everyone who visits their doorstep. Even door-to-door evangelists and Amway representatives.
Later, while I am driving through the countryside on a serene summer day, listening to the radio, I find myself wishing the America from my childhood still existed.
I wish we still had country stores. I wish we still had Bit O’Honeys and Moonpies at old filling stations. I wish we still had old men in rockers with chaws in their lower lips. I wish we still had NEHI orange sodas, rag bologna, “Boys Life” magazines, Mary Jane taffy, and hoop cheese.
But right now what I wish most of all, is that Marigold and I had a porch sofa.
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