Best In The County

I hate barbecue. There’s something about the stench of burning meat slathered in a questionable sweet sauce that makes me want to hurl. And no, it’s not because I’m a vegetarian, it’s because it’s disgusting.

You may be wondering why a vegetarian would work at a BBQ restaurant. I wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, I practically lived on hot dogs. You know that old movie about the guy who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield? There’s a famous line…what is it again? Oh yeah, if you build it they will come. There’s a scene at the end where a little girl falls from the bleachers and almost chokes to death on a piece of hot dog. For years, mom steered clear of baseball fields because she was afraid that would happen to me. Good thing football is the preferred sport of the Lone Star State. 

Though, not even that fear could stop her from feeding me hot dogs. Not when her brother, my Uncle Earl, owned a barbecue restaurant and not when neither of them would know a leafy green vegetable if Kale showed up and banged on the front door.

I’m sixteen now. Old enough to choose what I want to eat but, apparently, not old enough to choose my own summer job. 

“Uncle Earl needs some help at the restaurant,” mom said, as soon as I walked in the door on the last day of school. “I told him you’d be there at noon tomorrow.”

I stood there, waiting for the punchline. When it didn’t come, I told her she had a moral obligation to support my life choices.

She waved a hand. “You don’t have to eat there, Jessica.” 

“So, I’ll just starve then?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There are plenty of vegetables on the menu.”

I didn’t point out that the vegetables mom referred to consisted of industrial sized bags of celery and carrot sticks that Uncle Earl served alongside his meals as garnish. Instead, I turned my back on her and walked to my room, ducking under the stuffed deer head hanging on the wall in the hallway.

And so here I am, leaning against the side door at the front of Uncle Earl’s restaurant, scrolling through my phone as he rings up a customer. I think we might all be a little generous in calling this place a restaurant. It’s actually more of a pit stop. It’s sorta like the McDonald’s of barbecue restaurants, except here, people actually come for more than just to use the bathroom. At Uncle Earl’s, they like their heart attack grub served with a side of small talk.

“Hey there, Bobby,” my uncle says, punching at the register. “How was the brisket today?”

Bobby proudly displays a toothless grin. “Best in the county. When are you going to tell me what’s in your famous sauce?”

“When the pig unsticks itself from my spit and flies away,” Uncle Earl says, wiping his hands on his greasy apron before taking Bobby’s money.

Bobby just laughs and makes his way to the door, his cane in one hand and leaky leftovers in the other. 

“Well, howdy Annabelle,” Uncle Earl greets the next customer. “Clive,” he says, over his shoulder, “you have Annabelle’s pulled pork ready yet?”

“I can’t wait.” Annabelle smacks her lips together. Her particular shade of red lipstick isn’t one you see often at three o’clock in the afternoon on a weekday. “It’s the best in the county,” she says, echoing Bobby’s earlier sentiment. “I just can’t get enough.”

I roll my eyes. If anyone consumed pulled pork in the quantities that Annabelle Jones claimed to, they’d be dead. I’ve been on the job only a week and I knew after the first of four visits that Annabelle came for more than just the pork. 

Gross.

“Clive!” Uncle Earl calls again, and I jump, my phone flying out of my hands and onto the ground. I reach for it and turn it over to find a crack running diagonally across the screen. 

I really hate barbecue.

The door to the meat freezer bangs open and Clive emerges, red faced. He hitches his jeans up from his belt loops. “Coming right up!” 

Uncle Earl laughs good-naturedly and turns back to Annabelle, while I continue to stare at the freezer.

One, two…

By the time I hit three, the door opens again and Julie, Uncle Earl’s only waitress strolls out flushed and mussed, the top of her apron undone, and her skirt askew. She tugs at it, completely oblivious to the fact that every customer and employee in the place is watching her as she oh-so-casually steps outside for her fiftieth cigarette break today.

Everyone, that is, except for Uncle Earl who hands over Annabelle’s pulled pork with a smile and a wave, before ducking under the counter for a roll of quarters to refill the register. Annabelle frowns, but I smile.

At around 5pm, I take my place in front of the register. It’s my turn because it’s the slowest time – after the lunch hour and after-school activities, and right before the dinner rush. I rest my elbows on the counter with my chin in my hands, watch the clock and try not to smell myself. The only thing worse than barbecued meat is smelling like barbecued meat. The bell over the door jingles and I lazily glance at the entrance, perking up when I see a boy I’ve never seen before, walk in. He’s about my age with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. As he walks to the counter, my gaze travels down to his t-shirt, with the words, “I’d Smoke That,” printed over an image of a pig. 

I blink.

He smiles.

“How are the ribs here?” He asks.

“The best in the county,” I say.

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