Smoke Signals


“What I must do is to take life on its lowest level, gather my soul together, and stand what fate sends.”

— John Cowper Powys, “Maiden Castle”


Part I: Head-bangers’ ball at Applebee’s


It is a question I almost always pose to motel clerks after a long day on the road, when, because of expediency rather than preference, I find myself moored for the night in the midst of yet another chain-store, big-box, franchised purgatory of the type that now defines the retail landscape of so many faceless places in the U.S., especially those located adjacent exits off the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. “Is there anywhere nearby where I can get a beer?” This young lady, with a south Georgia accent so thick you could spread it on toast, answered, “There’s a Walmart across the highway. They sell beer.” “No, no,” I responded, while making the sign of the cross and smearing garlic behind my ears. “I mean, like a pub. Someplace downtown maybe.” “We don’t really have a downtown anymore,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then her face brightened and she said effusively enough that I actually made the mistake of becoming hopeful: “Oh, yes! We have an Applebee’s.”

For the millionth time, I lamented living in a world where blasé cultural black holes like Applebee’s (ditto Chili’s, Bennigan’s, TGIF and K-Bob’s et al) have displaced colorful local taverns. It’s gotten so bad I even miss the shitty, mean, dirty, redneck local bars once found in almost every town in the country, places where one wrong word or one wrong glance could result in physical contretemps and one right word or right glance could result in making friends for life. But, with apparent little choice on the thirst-slaking front, I blurred by the ubiquitous heart of 21st century American commerce: past the aforementioned Walmart, past the McDonalds, past the Wendy’s the Taco Bell the Burger King the Comfort Inn the Dunkin’ Donuts the Holiday Inn Express the Jiffy Lube the Lowe’s the Home Depot the Church’sFriedChickenKentuckyFriedChickenDenny’sIHOPWaffleHousePopeye’s etc. etc. ad nauseum and crash-landed dejectedly, but parched past the point of any reasonable discretion, in the Applebee’s parking lot, which was right next to a Pizza Hut, which was right next to a Long John Silver’s, which was right next to an Olive Garden. The smell of burned grease permeated the atmosphere so intensely, I could taste the repugnant smell and feel it oozing into my skin pores like mustard gas.

A bubbly barely post-pubescent brunette greeted me at the host station with cheerfulness that seemed sincere enough. I told her I’d sit in the bar and she winced a bit, like she felt there were two types of people in the world, and I clearly was a member of the bad half.

A handful of folks were sitting scattered around the horseshoe-shaped bar. The bartender was an affable 20-something gent wearing the kinds of earrings that turn your lobes into holes large enough to slip a gaff through. I ordered a pint of Sam Adams Oktoberfest (much as I detest the entire Applebee’s chain, I concede that it almost always offers a decent selection of beer) and, while I waited for my frothy brew to arrive, I surveyed a scene that really does not need surveying. I am embarrassed by how many Applebee’s I have visited over my many years of road tripping through and into places not civilized enough to have nearby swaths of public land where I can camp and sit on the tailgate of my 4Runner sipping a cold one as the sun sets.

They are not all exactly the same, but they are all pretty much the same: aggressively uninspired and sterile, as though the entire chain was designed by a focus group consisting only of Rotary Club members from small-town Ohio. No Applebee’s that I have ever visited felt like a place where long-and-winding stories have been told, where sozzled women have lifted their shirts and exposed their breasts after losing an ill-advised bet, where long-parted amigos get together every couple years to relive old times they sometimes miss and sometimes don’t. There are never any boot scuffs or carved initials on the bar, and there’s never any graffiti — witty or otherwise — on the men’s room wall. There is no wonderful stale smell. There is never any blood.

Though every component of the generic interior-decorating scheme that defines every Applebee’s that has ever cursed the planet with its very presence was immediately evident, one thing was definitely different: Generally, the music played at Applebee’s is as bland as its food. Heart, Blondie and the Stray Cats. Unfunky faux hipness, at least 20 years behind ordinary faux hipness. But this particular Applebee’s was blaring, of all incongruous things, head-banger/heavy-metal music. Though not my personal cup of tea, the tunes did lend an amusingly surreal aspect to an otherwise depressingly insipid environment.

It did not take long to ascertain the root cause of this perplexing auditory discordance: On the other side of the bar sat a well-worn, though pretty enough, lady, sporting a bleached-blonde bouffant that stood 12 feet tall, who was, to put it mildly, impressively intoxicated. She had somehow managed to hack into the sound system with her iPhone. This she was apparently doing with the full complicity of the bartender, who, apparently being interested in this particular lady in ways that transcended attentive customer service, seemed to care not one whit if she was a devotee of Wagnerian opera or Don Ho’s greatest ukulele hits. It just happened to be head-banger/heavy-metal.

I started scrutinizing the other patrons. To my left sat a boisterous and jovial, heavily tattooed, skinhead-looking man of about 30 who was dressed stem to stern in black and who, in the short time I had been on the scene, had quaffed four snifters of brandy, chased gulp-style by four double Jack-and-cokes. This was a man clearly headed somewhere hazy very fast. To my right sat a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike who, while drinking at a more measured pace, emanated an unambiguous don’t-fuck-with-me vibe. He stared straight ahead and scowled at something obviously located between his ears. At the head of the horseshoe bar sat a good-natured, 60-ish, turquoise-jewelry-adorned country/western-looking couple, likewise in their cups, both members of which seemed perfectly willing to go downriver with whatever current may come their way.

Populating the periphery of the restaurant, out in the proper-dining provinces, were more typical Applebee’s customers, most of whom looked as though there must be a Ward and June Cleaver cloning facility nearby and tonight, of all nights, was when the new clones were let out for the very first time to interact with the world-at-large. The genetic engineers who brought these clones into existence — whose sole goal is likely to populate the planet with the kinds of folks who willingly eat at chain restaurants — must have been operating on the not-unreasonable assumption that, if there is one place fit for unthreatening initial social congress between recently grown clones and the rest of humanity, it would be the local Applebee’s.


The heavily tattooed man to my left and the inebriated vixen who was gleefully in control of the sound system had been engaged in a spirited, though good-natured, verbal tête-à-tête regarding who had seen which head-banger/heavy-metal band in concert the most times. No matter which band the woman mentioned, the heavily tattooed man either rolled up a sleeve or pulled up the front of his shirt, or, in one case, actually took his shirt all the way off, to reveal a tattoo not only dedicated to the band-in-question, but of a specific member of that band. It was only then that I realized all the man’s tattoos were of people’s visages. If the lady shouted above the din she herself was creating that she had seen The Deviants in Denver, the man to my left would proudly unveil an ink-based homage to the late-Mick Farrell on his biceps. If she boasted about seeing the original lineup of AC/DC in Austin, he would display Axl Rose immortalized on his breast. The fact that all of the images this man sported looked pretty much the same aided and abetted his attempts at argumentative one-upmanship. I suspect that, had the discussion improbably turned to presidential history, the man could have contended in the dim light that he sported tattoos of Warren Harding and Jimmy Carter.

After this who-saw-which-band-where intellectual discourse finally and thankfully dissipated, the drunk woman, apparently unable to sit contemplatively for more than point-two seconds, focused her attention on the only un-tattooed and heretofore silent person within earshot: yours truly. She slurred across the bar at 600 decibels whether I would prefer to hear something by Slayer or Poison. Given the fact that we were in Applebee’s, I suggested Poison, despite the fact that I am, to say the least, absolutely unfamiliar with the group’s discography. I am delighted she did not ask me to request a specific song.

By that time, the man to my left was calling all his amigos to come down to Applebee’s as fast as their stolen cars could carry them because the evening was fast degenerating to recreational levels acceptable to those inclined have headshots of heavy-metal band members tattooed onto their stomachs. I had just spent 10-plus hours on the road and I was winding down fast. Besides, this was not my music, and these were not my people. Much as I was curious to see how things further devolved, I determined it was time to move along, though there was no place to move along to.

That I knew of.

On the way out, I made eye contact with several of the Cleaver clones, as they sat dutifully masticating their blasé chicken-fried steaks and meatloaf while casting uneasy glances toward the increasingly raucous bar area where, at that moment, Anthrax was regaling the crowd with a particularly jolting number. The cute hostess thanked me for coming in. She sounded nervous.

Just as I was getting into my vehicle, a rusted-out junker of a van blaring death metal pulled in and disgorged like a clown car of certain doom a cadre of young men with shaved pates who all looked like they could have been college linebackers had they not been sent off to prison at age 11. As I pulled out of the parking lot, a grand total of 13 motorcycles pulled in, six from the direction of the Pizza Hut and seven from the direction of the Long John Silver’s.

The smell of burned grease seemed to have grown even more pungent and even more ominous.


Part II: Forte fortissimo

I retired wearily to a motel room that could best be described as singularly unmemorable. I cannot recall a single detail regarding its layout or décor. I talked with my wife on the phone for a few minutes and prepared to spend the next hour or so desultorily surfing through the 128 channels advertised on the card conveniently placed beneath the remote control. My attention was however diverted by a noise emanating from outside. It sounded like some asshole was playing a car radio. I pried open the hermetically sealed window and oriented my auditory senses to the cacophony of a universe I comprehend less and less each day. The noise was clearly musical in nature, but it was more distant than I had at first suspected. It seemed to be coming from the woods behind the motel, and, though its lyrics were far from clear, I thought I heard snippets of the lingua franca of my home turf: Español.

This demanded further investigation, so I put my shoes back on and ventured forth into the muggy darkness. I followed what appeared to be a driveway, rounded a bend and, before my startled eyes appeared a poorly lit Mexican restaurant/cantina. This time of night, the emphasis seemed to be decidedly on the “cantina” side of the operation.

I cracked the front door open in hopes of surreptitiously sizing up the scene before committing to a full-fledged entrance. But the hinges squeaked so loudly that the attention of 30 or so patrons immediately focused intently upon the hirsute, Bigfoot-looking noggin appearing mysteriously from the depths of the night. “Buenas noches,” I said tentatively. “Esta abierta?”

Sixty orbs widened noticeably, simultaneously bespeaking befuddlement that such a taxonomically suspect creature knew their language!

All it generally takes with Spanish speakers is a couple of tenuous syllables in their native tongue to open up the floodgates of uninhibited hospitality. I was greeted with a chorus of cordial “de pues” (of course) and “pasale” (pass).

“Y tomar?” queried the bartender, by way of an obvious simple linguistic test.

“Hay Bohemia?”


Praise be!

I was offered a barstool, upon which I planted myself, while wondering why the motel clerk had not told me about this place. Perhaps she was unfamiliar with it, which seems highly unlikely, given its proximity to the very business where she worked. Perhaps she thought I would feel uncomfortable imbibing in a roomful of Hispanics. Little could she possibly have guessed …

No matter … here I sat, eyeballing my surroundings the exact same way I had recently done at Applebee’s. First off, mine were the only blue eyes in the room. The ages of my fellow patrons covered a wide gamut, from toddler to probably 70. I was clearly in the midst of an extended family gathering that had at its core the ownership and employees of the restaurant/cantina in which I was sitting. The tables and the bar were littered with far more beer cans and bottles than there were people in the room. Numerous folks had before them what looked to be margaritas served in vessels the size of aquariums. Bottles of tequila were being passed around.

“This just a regular night?” I asked the bartender as I felt my second wind rising.“ Or is there something special going on?”

“Monday Night Football,” he responded.

Above the back bar was a big-screen TV displaying what turned out to be a tape-delayed soccer match from Mexico.

“Didn’t say what kind of football,” the bartender grinned when he saw my face scrunch up.

There were also numerous musical instruments — mostly guitars, with a couple of accordions and concertinas, as well as a fiddle and a guitarron — being manhandled by well-lubricated, arrhythmic, tone-deaf hombres whose only familiarity with musical notation consisted solely of forte fortissimo and whose playlist apparently consisted of two songs and two songs only: “Paloma” and “Chihuahua,” which I have heard 500,000 times in my many forays south of the border.

To the inebriated gringo ear, the lyrics to the former consist entirely of: “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurPALOMA!!!!

And the lyrics to the latter have always seemed to me to consist entirely of: “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurCHIHUAHUA!!!!

It is impossible for me to accurately transcribe the ferocity with which those last words are, well, “sung” is not the correct term. “Bellowed” might be more accurate. My old buddy Rafael Morquecho (RIP), a professional musician with an extremely dubious past, used to dislodge boulders from the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon and send them crashing into the Urique River thousands of feet below whenever he sang “Paloma” or “Chihuahua,” which was often. Too often, actually. Each song has a distinct melody, of course, but it has been my considerable experience that, the more tequila that is consumed, the less distinct those melodies become.

Nonetheless, in short order, I found myself becoming an active member of the rowdy tumult. I have a voice that sounds like a fat cat getting run over by a tractor on a gravel road. But, there I was, howling “BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurPALOMA!!!!” and“BlahblahblahblahblahslurslurslurslurCHIHUAHUA!!!!” with the best of them. Or the worst. By that time, almost everyone — the teenagers, the old people, the dishwashers, and the wait staff — was dancing unabashedly. It was a great scene. Definitely trumped heavy-metal night at Appleby’s. But over in one corner sat a young man by himself. He had only a glass of water on the table in front of him. And he had tears running down the side of his face.

I went over and sat with him.

His name was Luis.

He knew nary a syllable of English.

Over the ruckus, clear up until the time that the cocktail waitresses started dancing on a bar that assuredly sported beaucoup boot scuffs, I learned that he was a documents-challenged newcomer to the Land of the Free. It is well known, if not openly acknowledged, that Mexican restaurants often serve as underground railroad stations for those who have braved the crossing into El Norte. But, with anti-illegal-immigration mania dominating the landscape these days, restaurant owners have to be more careful than ever, lest they get accused of committing what amounts to a political crime. They usually will put a paperless passerby up for a night and give him or her a meal or two. After that, though, it’s usually hasta luego and buena suerte.

Turns out Luis hailed from Tabasco, one of Mexico’s poorest states. He had employed the services of a coyote to cross the Rio Grande between Laredo and Zapata, just upriver from the infamous Falcon Reservoir. His route took him through one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico, a risk he was willing to take because it also provided the most direct route from the squalor of his home to a country where the streets are purportedly paved with gold. He had made his way to this restaurant/cantina via a pre-arranged ride in the sleeping area of an 18-wheeler. He was supposed to be transferred to another pre-arranged big rig at a truck stop outside town. The second ride did not materialize. He waited for eight hours behind a dumpster. A dishwasher, a Honduran national, emptying trash, saw Luis and drove him to the cantina in which we now sat. He had already been on the road for 17 days, the last four of which were on this side of the border. After all that, he was stranded in big-box, chain-store retail hell.

“Where are you headed?”

My heart sunk when he told me. His destination — the reason he left his family and ventured forth at great personal risk into the great unknown — was some map-dot shithole in rural North Carolina, where he expected to find work in the fields. I had driven through several hundred miles of the most-backwoods parts of the Tarheel State the previous year and, while do doing, had stopped to check out some of the squalid encampments that serve as home-sweet-home for off-the-books seasonal employees, the kinds of below-minimum-wage workers without whom America’s massive agricultural industry would grind to a screeching halt. And I recoiled at the thought of this nice kid coming all the way to America and living in the exact kind of circumstances he left behind: a shack without electricity, running water or basic sanitation facilities. He would be charged exorbitant fees for inadequate food. He would work from sunup to sundown. And, at the end of the harvest, there’s a good chance he would not be paid in full, and, if he complained, he would be probably be turned over to la migra and deported, but not until he had been incarcerated in an INS gulag — the most-fiscally-profitable private-sector kind of prison in our prison-crazy nation — for an indeterminate period of time. I have one friend who was held for eight months before he was sent back to Mexico. Eight fucking months … for doing work few Americans would do for less money than high school students are paid to flip burgers at McDonald’s.

But, then again, I have also visited the most-backwoods parts of Tabasco, where children with bloated bellies walk barefoot through streets through which raw sewage flows unimpeded.

Sigh …

“How will you get to North Carolina?”

“No se,” he whispered, his voice trembling. “I don’t know.”

I pointed to my motel, which was barely visible through the front window. I told him that, at about 8, I would be taking full advantage of the free breakfast buffet. I told him he was welcome to join me for a feed before he began the next leg of his journey.

The cantina owner made last call, so I drank up and wobbled my way toward my warm and dry bed. Luis disappeared into the shadows behind me. I assume he slept on a table or on the floor. I assume he slept fitfully, if at all.

As I drifted off, I heard police sirens, headed in the general direction of Appleby’s.

Part III: The American Dreamscape

I wish I could report that, when the birds started chirping — seemingly 15 seconds after I lay me down to sleep — I arose feeling chipper. This I cannot do. I had a long way to drive that day, so, despite the fact that it was a perfect morning for sleeping in — rainy, windy, chilly and gray — arose I did. By the time I made my bleary-eyed way to the diminutive breakfast room, it was 8:30. I had totally forgotten about Luis. As tepid coffee was flowing slowly into my Styrofoam cup, I looked outside and, standing there in the rain, wearing only a thin red windbreaker adorned with a San Francisco 49ers logo, was my new amigo. He peered forlornly back at me.

I went out and we stood for a moment under the front-door awning. Though he looked half-Mayan, half-Tarahumara, and I look like spawn of the North Sea country, I suggested that we pretend he was my son. I said he should alternate between nodding and shaking his head whenever I spoke. I also taught him a quick line that might make our ruse seem less absurdly unrealistic: “You’re very smart, daddy.”

It took him a couple tries to get it down, but, get it down he did, which impressed me, because it’s really really difficult for native Spanish speakers to pronounce words that begin with an “s” followed by a consonant. I teach an English class that focuses on pronunciation in a Chihuahua border town twice a month and this is one of my biggest challenges. Native Spanish speakers want to place a long “e” in front of such words (e.g.: “special” comes out as “es-pecial”). I’ve had students who have had to throw in the towel on this, as their lips will simply not cooperate, the same way my tongue is unable to trill double-“r”s, no matter how hard I try. But Luis was able to feign accurate elocution almost immediately.

When we entered the sparsely populated breakfast room, no one paid the slightest heed to our presence. I could have arrived with a van full of death-metal linebackers and not one pupil would have pointed our way. Luis was almost salivating in anticipation. Having skipped dinner in favor of drinking the previous night, I, too, was looking forward to solid sustenance. While it’s not like I often hold out high culinary hopes for motel breakfast offerings, this was one lean spread. Since there were only a few cars in the lot the previous night, it’s not as though the starving masses had descended before our arrival upon what, on its best day, looked like it would be slim pickin’s. There were a few slices of white bread, some bruised bananas and some mostly empty plastic vats of brightly colored cereal that was more pulverized powder than solid nuggets of sugar mixed liberally with artificial color and flavor. The waffle-batter dispenser, which looked like it could use a thorough cleaning, was empty. The orange juice pitcher offered nothing more than an inch of pulp sludge. The countertops and tables were filthy. The napkin dispenser lacked napkins.

There were a half-dozen bagel-ish-looking items, which contained raisin bits that looked like house flies had got mixed into the batter, and in a cooler were what looked to be microwaveable mini-omelets wrapped in cellophane.

This likely marked Luis’ first direct interaction with his image of the Land of Plenty. Thus far, with the exception of a couple bologna sandwiches eaten in the back of a semi cab, his only meals in America had been in the Mexican restaurant/cantina where we met, and that must have seemed more or less like home. The motel itself, which was, upon closer inspection, fairly rundown, likely appeared to a native of Bumfuck, Tabasco, to be a fairly high-class operation. Yet, here we had something that looked like what you would expect from a lodging facility in Moscow, pre-glasnost.

Luis, who at this juncture sported a look of profound disappointment, sheepishly took two slices of white bread.

“Son, a young man needs a hearty breakfast,” I said. Luis shook his head as I added a couple limp bananas to his plate.

I pulled out 10 of the mini-omelets, placing two in the microwave and the other eight in the right pocket of his windbreaker. “You don’t want to be hungry later, do you?” He nodded.

I likewise cleaned out the stack of the bagel-ish-looking items, putting two in the toaster and four in his left pocket.

“You’re very smart, daddy,” he said.

As we sat at the table sporting the least number of visible pathogens, it occurred to me that, right then, I was guilty — yet again — of being on the wrong wide of federal law. As everyone who dwells in the deep Southwest knows, it is a High Crime — tantamount to treason in the minds of many — to render direct material aid to an illegal immigrant. Well: Fuck the feds. This does not even rise to the level of an ethical conundrum. Across the table from me sat a man, alone and in need, a stranger in a strange land. I am certainly not religious, but I believe every manifestation of theology and mythology speaks unambiguously about such situations. And Luis seemed like a good and sincere person to boot. I’ll take kindness and  generosity over legality and xenophobia any day of the week.

I told Luis, in Spanish, in a hushed tone, that it was time for me to head out. I told him that, were I headed to North Carolina, I’d be only too happy to deliver him to his place of imminent indenture. But I was headed in the one direction he damned sure did not want to go: West, to New Mexico, down near the border he just risked life and limb crossing.

“You’re very smart, daddy,” he replied sullenly.

I pulled out $20 and handed it to him. Mexicans are a proud people who are generally loathe to take charity. He pushed my hand away, but I insisted. We hugged, abrazo style, and he walked dejectedly out into the chilly rain.

As I was checking out, the man behind the counter, a cheery middle-aged African-American, queried robotically if everything had been to my liking.

“Well, actually,” I replied, “I had about two squares of toilet paper in my room and, though there was coffee, there were no condiments. And the breakfast spread was laughable.”

He shook his head solemnly and said: “Sir, I am so sorry, but we’ve had four employees not show up the last two days. They didn’t call. They just didn’t show up. We are having a terrible time getting reliable employees. We’ve even converted two of our rooms to employee apartments in hopes that we can attract workers. I am the only employee on duty. I have to handle the front desk, maintain the breakfast room and probably clean rooms later on. We can’t figure out what to do about the situation.”

What I wanted to say was: “If your company paid a living wage and offered full benefits and health insurance and went in with the other businesses in the shithole strip of chain stores and franchises clinging like pilot fish to this section of highway to build some real employee housing, then maybe you could lure dependable workers. But I did not say that. What I did say was, “Well, I may know someone …” I proceeded to tell him about Luis.

As I drove away, I could see Luis standing out on the sidewalk, shifting from foot to foot, hands in his pockets, which were filled with microwaveable egg products and fake bagels, as he stared across the blacktop toward the Walmart, the Wendy’s, the Jiffy Lube and, farther down the hill, the Applebee’s, which, with any luck, was burned to the ground last night by a cadre of rowdy head-bangers.

In my rearview mirror, I maybe saw a man walking out of the motel toward him. It was probably nothing more than the diffused light of a rainy day playing tricks with my visual trajectory. Such confusing images are common these days on the tattered edges and darkest recesses of what used to be the American Dream.














Smoke Signals

Linguistic contractions

It was the kind of country store that used to dot America’s rural landscape back in the days before automobile mania became so epidemic that people started driving all the way to town just for a quart of milk or a pack of smokes. These dusty, musty and creaky-floored emporiums of the sometimes absurd purveyed a stunningly vast array of products: hyper-practical footwear — mainly the type of heavy work boots now favored by skinheads — the type of clothing — flannel shirts, stiff khaki pants, wool socks — that had been successfully and simultaneously in and out of fashion since back before your grandparents’ days, and enough in the way of miscellaneous and sometimes inexplicable hardware that a resourceful person could build a time machine or an interstellar spacecraft if he or she could be convinced that such contraptions could be used to harvest corn or herd cattle.

They often sold gas. Two types: regular and premium. The pumps sported decidedly analog spinning gauges that were almost impossible to get stopped right exactly on the amount you were fastidiously aiming for because that’s all the money you had in the world.

They often served as the local post office, where “General Delivery” was the norm rather than the exception. So, you could receive hand-written letters triple-folded in envelopes likewise hand addressed with only two lines, such as:

John Fayhee

Bellamy, Virginia 23017

And not only would that letter get to you, the store owner/postmaster (or his wife, parent, child) would call you let you know you had mail, and, when you came to get it, you’d be asked in great detail about its origin and contents and, as that nosy interrogative was being unabashedly posed, everyone within earshot would shamelessly listen in.

These rural stores often boasted butcher shops that, in these tort-filled times, would likely not pass regulatory muster, given the circling flies and the cigarette dangling from the lower lip of the man maniacally wielding the well-used implements of slaughter.

They peddled basic groceries, mainly of the canned variety, because, since most everyone in the communities serviced by these types of stores had their own kitchen garden, fresh produce would likely have spoiled before it was ever sold.

The best thing these stores offered was not for sale: They provided a venue for gossip and company. They served as the slow-beating heart of hamlets that had for centuries been separated by distance and disposition from a cultural mainstream that was still decades away from devolving into one mammoth, pervasive common denominator.

This particular store, which was way way back on a windy road in lush central Georgia, fell well into this fast-dying retail sub-species: a breed going moldy because of its own conceptual obsolescence and the plague-like spread of shiny-new convenience stores into once-pristine (some would say inbred) social ecosystems. There were a couple well-worn benches on its front porch, but they were suffering from structural rot. It looked like no one had parked upon those benches to shoot the breeze since well before satellite dishes began lighting like vultures on isolated rooftops and well before oxycontin became a household word in places accessed only via meandering blacktop too narrow to accommodate center stripes.

I happened across this country store because I was looking for a certain state park at the same time that I had let my car-camping larder run perilously low. I did not need to provision myself for the upcoming winter; I only needed enough chow for supper, as I planned to continue my circuitous journey to points far far West early the next morning.

Judging from the expression on the face of the lone employee — a corpulent lady of about 50 who looked as though she once may have been the local homecoming queen — it was not often that a non-forever local passed through her front door. She actually looked borderline panicky. As she asked nervously if she could help me, her eyes darted down below the ancient cash register, where I’m sure could be found a loaded weapon. Probably several.

I asked some basic directions — always a good conversational entrée — and told her I needed some basic sustenance to see me through the night. After sizing me up for a couple seconds, she relaxed and said, “Y’all look like someone who wants health food.” I cannot for the life of me get used to hearing the linguistically bruised contraction “y’all” being used to address a singular entity such as, as but one random example, yours truly. It’s like Southerners all suffer from an ocular malady that causes double vision. That, or they always see a ghost or an alter ego standing at my side that I am unable to perceive.

(Look, I fully understand that the plural of “y’all” is “all y’all,” which, translated to English, is: “all you all.” Which makes about as much sense as “y’all” — which means “you all” (emphasis added) — being considered a singular “word.” This is especially perplexing from an etymological perspective, since, in English, we have one handy-dandy little pronoun, “you,” which is perfectly capable of covering both singular and plural grammatical turf. But I digress …)

I tried to surreptitiously eyeball the proximate shelves. I did not see anything within the narrow scope of my peripheral vision even remotely approximating “health food.” I did observe cans of Vienna sausages (three different varieties!), cans of SPAM and its lower-tiered cousin, TREET, cans of sardines, cans of Campbell’s soup and boxes of desiccated macaroni. I saw packages of Twinkies, which I thought went extinct. I saw Little Debbie snack cakes and Moon Pies. I saw pouches of Redman chewing tobacco. I saw boxes of 12-gauge shotgun shells.

The lady led me to the next aisle, where she proudly pointed down toward the bottom shelf, which appeared forlorn and little visited. “Look, that one has a picture of some carrots on the label,” the woman proclaimed while drawing my attention to a lonely can of Dinty Moore beef stew. “And that one has a picture of some beans,” she added, aiming her pudgy digit directly at an equally lonely looking can of Wolf Brand chili. She stood by, apparently awaiting my holistic decision with bated breath. The contemporary me resisted the temptation to recoil and flee and, while so doing, deciding to begin a juice-based cleanse diet right then and there. But the part of me that remembers shopping at old country stores on a regular basis stood transfixed.

Gloucester County, Virginia, was chock-full of old country stores that have long since been shuttered. During my early 20s, when I worked as a land surveyor’s sub-minimum-wage gofer, we often took our lunch breaks at whichever country store was closest, where we would sit out on the porch in the summer or inside around a smoky woodstove in the winter, eating Vienna sausages smeared on stale off-brand saltines, while the old-timers talked with a degree of embellishment that might well be classified as overt fiction about events that may or may not have transpired back in days of yore. Though they recoiled somewhat at our hippie-ish appearance, they always seemed glad to have an audience that had not heard those same stories 200 times before. It mattered not what those stories were about. I always took note of the inflection and flourishes and the vocal cadence and the creative use of tangents that eventually reconnected to the narrative thread and how some people utilized a lean vocabulary, while others brought the full power of Roget to bear upon their tales. And I always appreciated the value of an oral tradition that has all but perished in a contemporary communications wasteland defined by text messages.

(You don’t see many worn benches placed in front of 7-Eleven or Kum & Go or In & Out or Loaf’n’Jug or Snappy Mart stores to encourage social intercourse.)

Way back when, I regularly consumed both Dinty Moore beef stew and Wolf Brand chili. Not because I had no choice, though, given some of the boondocks locales I called home in those halcyon days, I likely had little choice, since I was, out of necessity as much as habit, a frequent customer of old country stores. But mainly because I liked both products and did not know, or care, that I was essentially contaminating my digestive system by eating them. Both then looked more or less like what your mom would make were she preparing beef stew or chili from scratch in the family kitchen. They at least took on the appearance of real food.

I did not stop buying Dinty Moore beef stew or Wolf Brand chili because of any nutritional epiphany. Rather, I stopped because I moved to a town in New Mexico that had a food co-op at the same time that the quality of the products began to diminish. Whereas Dinty Moore beef stew once provided a substantial enough meal that it fueled me on many a week-long canoe trip, it devolved to the point that it began to resemble slop that would have been served to Soviet gulag residents under Stalin.

Likewise, I enthusiastically devoured many a can of Wolf Brand chili on the winter camping trips of my long-ago youth, back when I would willingly carry heavy canned victuals with me into the backcountry. These days, sadly, Wolf Brand chili looks like unidentifiable road kill that had gorged upon effluent shortly before vehicular impact.

I was having trouble picking my poison, going back and forth between Stalin stew and road-kill chili, and between staying and running like the wind toward the front door, which was warped and had loose chunks of screen flapping in the warm breeze. The clerk’s foot began impatiently tapping. I extricated myself by impulsively buying both cans. “Good choice,” she said. “Y’all’ll be eatin’ good tonight.” I could not tell if, deep down, she was grinning. Maybe she would tell the story of the gullible visitor from god-knows-where for years to come. What few old-timers who yet remain would guffaw at my expense till the cows come home. And that’s just fine by me. May they use many colorful adjectives and many meandering tangents in the telling.

Shortly after egressing the dusty, musty, creaky-floored store, with my stomach already preemptively gurgling with apprehension regarding the foul anti-nutrition that would soon be coming its way, I rounded a bend and came across an organic roadside stand selling honey, home-baked bread, apple butter, eggs, jerky and freshly harvested veggies and fruit. I locked my brakes and did a tire-screeching bat turn. After loading up on more food than I could possibly consume in a week, I jokingly asked if I could trade one can of Wolf Brand chili and one can of Dinty Moore beef stew to offset what turned out to be a surprisingly hefty bill. This clerk was a pretty, svelte young lady, attired in a captivatingly clingy cotton dress. She looked so cherubic and wholesome that she could have been a cover model for the Mother Earth News. She shook her head. “I’d eat dirt before I’d eat that stuff,” she grimaced while feigning what I’m certain would be the most pure spit this side of the Vatican. “I’m surprised y’all would even have stuff like that in y’all’s possession,” she drawled. “Y’all musta been desperate!”

I turned quickly, to see if there was a ghost or an alter ego anywhere near the bruised linguistic contraction I apparently have become in the twilight of my life. And there was! But he was hightailing it so fast in the other direction, I could not make out his features before he disappeared into the thick hardwood forests that have blanketed the South since the beginning of time.