… in which Champion’s BBQ gets a strange request.
Sunrise on the winter solstice found Champion’s BBQ shack already smoking like a dragon.
Breakfast sausages from Conecuh County and even a slab or two of ribs went out the window to waiting customers as soon as Neville Champion opened. Tires of cars and pickups crunched the gravel of his tiny parking lot a hundred times before lunch, and Champion’s massive arms ached from tending hot coals and handing out racks of ribs and whole roasted chickens into waiting hands.
He made each sale part of a friendly ritual.
Merry Christmas, y’all! Where you folks from? Butler County? Y’all know any Childresses? I declare. Kinfolks? And they up here for the Jolly Holiday too? Well, ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!
The visitors’ vehicles sported reindeer antlers on top and holly wreaths on the tailgates and tinsel streamers on radio antennae. Some of the cars had frost around the roofs. Bundled children stared out the windows like runaway elves and little fallen angels, many with the suspicious, feral faces of country kids who didn’t get to town so often.
Ho ho ho! Champion brandished a big cooking fork in his workshop and played Santa, his white apron stained in red barbecue sauce
The holiday green collected in his “cash register” – three Fuentes cigar boxes. They overflowed with folding money before Champion’s oldest son, Cleo, his driver’s license brand new, showed up to swap the cash for a pickup flatbed full of meat from Beatty’s farm. Old Ned had killed hogs just yesterday, perfect timing in the first real cold snap in Lafayette. The fresh meat over Champion’s hickory fire smelled like nothing else did.
In the course of the day, Champion fed himself royally. He tore apart two slabs with his teeth, big as tombstones. He cleaned the bones in two bites and tossed them out into the dry blackberry bushes behind his shack. Hundreds of bones, years of them, had collected in those weeds through the years, and on this frosty morning they gleamed like the ivory in an elephants’ graveyard.
Red-eyed, Champion turned from the grill once to take an order and found a surprise – the Sargent triplets, three old, famously eccentric spinsters who lived in the boonies out past Aliceville. They had shown up for Lafayette’s big holiday party in identical dresses – three “Gone With the Wind” gowns, heavy green velour, pinned at their low bodices with gold angel brooches. Fox furs, draped over bony shoulders, kept them warm.
Champion had some fun.
“How do I know which one of you orders what?” he teased loudly, waving a smoking daubing rag. “Y’all all look just alike.”
“Why that’s easy,” said the Sargent in the middle. “I’m Mary. Like the Virgin.”
The Sargent sister to her right gave a hard cackle.
“She’s been a virgin at least 10 times now. Ask them fellers around Gordo.”
Proud Mary lifted her pointed chin and pursed haughty red lips.
“Well, Slut, at least I can remember being virgin.”
Sargent sister three then raised a hand to her heavily rouged face and mouthed something to Champion behind it. A heavy stage whisper.
“Those two are both sluts,” she exhaled. “Their men will fuck anything don’t shit all over their cocks.”
That comment shocked even Champion, who thought himself pretty much shockproof. He’d heard plenty … and seen plenty … through the window of his barbecue shack through the years.
He burst out laughing, deep and hearty. He couldn’t help it. He handed over three grease-stained white cardboard boxes.
“Well, Miss Mary, and you other ladies,” he said. “Y’all enjoy these three French hens. They on the house.”
The sisters drove off in a gold Cadillac of uncertain age, fussing like birds.
Working in his cloud of blue smoke, Champion grinned all afternoon remembering the Sargent sisters.
Through the day, Champion watched tractors and big brawny trucks pull shining holiday floats down the road in front of his shack. The whole world seemed bound for Lafayette. A number of horse trailers rumbled by. Yellow school buses passed too, and Champion once or twice heard tubas and snare drums happily blatting and beating.
As darkness came, so early this day, the traffic waned. Champion couldn’t say he felt sorry. He didn’t remember a day when he had worked so hard.
He knew one thing – the pig and chicken census of Lafayette would be much reduced after the Jolly Holiday. Champion had sold a ton of meat … maybe literally. He felt sure he’d lost 10 pounds sweating over the grill, flipping and seasoning and saucing his dishes. By quitting time, he didn’t have the energy to even pretend he wanted to ease on into town and see all the hoopla. He would be happy hearing the stories from his wife and young’uns.
Champion was scraping the grill clean and packing rubs away when he found the white envelope. It appeared by magic, out of nowhere, on the weathered pine shelf of the serving window.
He knew what it was without looking.
Champion slumped onto a small wooden stool he hadn’t used all day. He fanned himself with the envelope for a long minute. It may have been cold outside, but inside, his shack felt like a boiler room.
Champion looked out at the world.
Past the churned parking-lot gravel and beyond the county road and over the dark serrated skyline of pine trees and bare hickories and water oaks, a full moon rose. It was the color of old bone.
Why is this night so still all of a sudden? Champion wondered. A silent night after all this rigamarole?
This don’t feel natural.
Champion then heard a low rumbling noise, like rolling thunder. It grew louder. And louder.
An airplane suddenly burst into view, flying very low, so close to the tops of trees across the road that they trembled as it passed over. It flew fast as a Blue Angel, straight above Champion’s shack, wheels down like a plane landing, and so loud that every piece of biology in the big cook’s body stopped cold for a second, scared to move, too surprised to duck or shout or run.
Then, the jet disappeared. Just that fast.
Champion thought of a giant yellow jacket, faster than the eye could follow. More of a sleek stinging insect than a jet.
What in the dingdong blue blazes was that?
It only took seconds for the quiet hush to settle back over Champion’s shack again. Nothing remained in the sky but the solemn old moon, now with one bright star to keep it company.
Maybe it’s bringing wise men to Lafayette, Champion thought.
He opened the white envelope.
It held 10 Ben Franklins. One thousand dollars.
He found a paper clip fastened to the bills, with a note.
It was the oddest order Champion could have imagined.
The big cook read it twice, then one more time, to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
Champion stuffed the wad of bills into his right sock. Then, to precisely follow the request in the note’s last line, Champion turned to the glowing, orange lake of fire in the barbecue pit. He was glad now he hadn’t sprinkled water over the coals to tamp it down for the night.
As the letter requested in its last line, Champion fed the corner of the paper and the empty envelope into the coals.
All at once, it burst into terrible, merry flames. Champion picked it up as it burned, admiring the conflagration, holding on with the very tips of his fingers until it fell into ash.
Then, Champion picked up his cleaver and wiped its blade against his stained white apron. He threw new hickory sticks on the low coals.
He got busy preparing a most unexpected solstice order.