Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins
There is little that will spirit my husband away from the television on a football Saturday, but this one particular Saturday, being a slow one in terms of great gridiron challenges, we decide to venture out into the day. We are driven by hunger pangs and a deep hollow feeling that can only be filled by one thing – swine flesh. Not just any old piece of baloney on a cracker can fill a void like that. The only cure is barbecue, preferably pulled with chunks of charred bark and a sauce that makes your mouth fill up with more spit than is ladylike just from the thought of it. There must be dill pickle slices and a white bread bun that goes to mush as it becomes one with the grease. There must be white Styrofoam and a roll of paper towels.
We go to the gittin’ place, which today was Saw’s Soul Kitchen. I make a U-turn to score a parking place right across the street. While many of Saw’s neighbors have slicked up the old buildings with chrome, wood, and bright paint, Saw’s has done little to improve the outside of its building, and even less on the inside. I like it that way. We approach the building as the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds and a humid breeze with just a scant tease of fall spreads the smoky goodwill of ‘cue throughout the neighborhood. A man washes the front window with something that looks like watery Yoo-hoo. Squeeeee-geeee. Squeeee-geeee. He wipes it clean with his onomatopoetic tool.
We duck past him under the dingy, once-white metal awning. There is a sign on the entry. “Please close door. AC on.” We enter. We shut the door behind us. We are in a place now that can only be described as close. There are about seven tables with mismatched chairs. A couple of them are occupied, one by the front window and one by the wall. A television hangs above the corner table. Most eyes in the place are on it. The University of Alabama is playing. The announcers’ voices are muffled, but you can tell when something is happening, even if you aren’t watching. The room gets a little quiet, the announcers speak a little faster, a little louder. A man in a white apron hollers, “Go, baby, go!” from the kitchen. One lady answers his call with the only appropriate response there is: “Roll Tide!” There is cheering, both on the television and in the restaurant. Then a commercial.
The back wall is the menu, chalked main items and sides. Smoked Chicken. Pork. Catfish. All the usual things one expects when one ventures into this sort of establishment. They have banana pudding. The bathroom is to the right of the menu. You order to the left. There is a young woman who is standing near the cash register talking on a cell phone. She’s staring at the menu, but engrossed in her conversation. She’s close enough to the counter that we think she’s in line. We hang back, giving her an appropriate amount of space even though we are all in a very small one. I catch her eye. She motions us to go ahead. She keeps talking. And staring. We go ahead.
There is no one at the register. The man in the white apron stands at a prep station with a row of white Styrofoam in front of him. With his right hand, he scoops up a big spoonful of greens, and with two quick jerks of his wrist, sends the potlikker back into the pot before the greens get sent to the go-box. His left hand grabs several buns that get set out . . . one, two, three . . . down the line, waiting for their pickles, which are soon to come. His eyes still on the television, his hands and arms seem to have a mind of their own, filling the orders while he follows the game. A harried woman comes to the register. She has a tattoo on her neck. It is in all fancy script, part black, part bright red. I have to resist the urge to lean across the counter to read it. Her eyebrows have been plucked razor thin. Black eyeliner, smeared from a day in the sweaty kitchen, settles into lines that could be called laugh, but probably aren’t. She looks at the television.
“Hep ya, baby?” For those of you not familiar with the vernacular of the South, she means “May I please take your order?” We order and get a ticket and two Styrofoam cups. Our number is 166. Drinks are on the same counter. We opt for tea, unsweet with a splash of sweet. Now there is sweet tea, and there is sweet tea. The latter seems to run from the spigot a little slower. It will make your teeth ache. You might have to wash it down with a glass of water because sugar syrup will make you feel good, but it won’t quench a thirst. I know this sweet tea is that sweet tea from the few drops I mixed with the dastardly unsweet. The combination is perfect.
We sit at a table by the window. “Roll Tide” is behind my husband. She’s licking her fingers. The door is behind me. I know the sign works because everyone who comes in slams the door. Not in a rude way. In the way you have to slam a door swollen by humidity. We sit and wait. Wait for 166. The referee’s whistle is shrill. “Pork up!” “Drop some catfish?” “Roll Tide!” The window washer is now taking out the trash, a big sackful of greasy napkins, melted ice, Styrofoam. The smell of garbage mixes with the other scents in these cramped quarters – vinegar, smoke, Clorox. He maneuvers through the tables, past the line, which now snakes almost to the door.
There is a man in camel-colored wingtips. He is tall and slim. The creases in his pants could cut you. His shirt is starched with heavy starch. Niagara. He is alone. His eyes are on the television. There is another couple who are approaching middle age. They order and sit by the drink fountain. She stares one way, he another. They don’t speak. They don’t smile. They don’t look at one another or at anyone else. They don’t even look at the television. The girl on the cell phone has ordered and is waiting near me. She’s still talking. “I told her he was sorry, but she wouldn’t listen.” She seems filled with righteous indignation, exasperated. I understand. Some people are just sorry. Some people never listen.
A young woman with two little children sits at the next table down. The little girl is probably three, the little boy not quite a year. She lays the little boy across her lap and starts to take his pants off. I’m a mother. I know what’s coming. She shimmies his little pants off, glances around the room, and gives them a quick sniff. Unsatisfied, she puts them on the table. She takes him by the ankle and holds one leg up and takes a tentative peek into the diaper. She looks momentarily relieved, until the little boy reaches out and grabs a handful of his sister’s hair. The little girl shrieks. The little boy hangs on. The mother tries to pry his fingers loose. Babies are stronger than you think. She looks tired.
I look at my husband. He’s watching the game too. Engrossed like most everyone else. The referee’s whistle shrills in short staccatos. “Order up!” says the man in the apron. “One sixty-six, one sixty-six!” sings the lady from behind the counter. “One sixty-six to go!”
My husband holds our cups while I claim our white plastic sack filled with white Styrofoam containers. We pick our way back through the tables, through the line, and out the door. We close it firmly behind us. As we walk across the street, I can still hear the whistles, the cheering. I hear a train in the distance. And I know for sure that it’s finally fall in the deep South.