…in which Mr. Wood places a hot special barbecue order.
Mr. Wood switched off his white Chevy pickup.
Hank Williams Jr. died with the engine.
The truck cooled down in front of a wooden shack not much bigger than an outhouse. Orange coals glowed in the dark interior of the splintery structure, and gray smoke puffed from a small tin chimney.
Only one plank on the little wooden building had ever seen a coat of paint: A whitewashed board over a service window without a screen displayed nine faded red letters, drizzled on in what could have been barbecue sauce:
Neville Champion, one elbow propping his chin, stared from the window where by day he pushed out his famous pork barbecue plates. The big Cajun looked a lot like he’d rather be somewhere else at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Still, Mr. Wood had sent word. When Mr. Wood sent word, a man stayed late.
A bluff figure in a fringed white jacket and a white cowboy hat left the truck and approached the shack. He lugged a big blue cooler, very heavy if the way it made him walk astraddle was any indication.
Mr. Wood grunted as he set down the load. A patch of unmelted snow remained on the side of the barbecue shack the sun hadn’t touched all day. It looked like dirty cotton.
Mr. Wood nodded his head, his hat brim tipping slightly.
Why does the man wear a hat at night? Champion wondered to himself. The top of that head must be real ugly.
The smell of roasting pork and hickory fire made the night dreamy.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Wood. Hope Santa Claus gonna be real good to you.”
Champion’s voice didn’t match his big body, the pipefitter forearms, and the bulging belly. He fluted when he spoke, a surprising tenor that got him teased during his school days. The teasing stopped quickly after he beat the living daylights out of a couple of boys.
“Santa’s gonna be good to you too, Champion. Here you go.”
Like a magic trick, Mr. Wood produced three $100 bills from his fringed sleeve. He placed them face up along the gray window ledge, three Ben Franklins with three Mona Lisa mystery smiles.
Champion had a lantern burning, hung on a nail outside.
“Thank you, Mr. Wood. Santa Claus work in mysterious ways.”
Mr. Wood actually smiled at that. It looked like it hurt his face a little.
“So, here’s what I need.”
Mr. Wood thrust out one arm, the white fringe of his jacket shivering.
“I got some meat in that cooler,” he said. “Six rib slabs and two butts and four different legs. A hog leg. A beef leg. A deer leg. And a goat leg.”
Champion gave a stage whistle.
“That was one curious animal, Mr. Wood. I believe you might could get on TV if you catch another one of those things.”
Mr. Wood looked serious, like he might say something businesslike. Then, he clearly changed his mind.
“I want to you to grill up all that meat, and I want it ready to eat, first thing in the morning,” he said instead. “Can you have all of it ready at seven o’clock?”
“Yes, sir. If I start right now, it’ll be ready at four o’clock. Before the sun comes up on Christmas morning.”
Neville Champion didn’t see $300 most full months. He would damn sure stay up cooking all Christmas Eve night for that kind of money. Merry Christmas!
“I know you wasn’t expecting to spend your Christmas roasting meat,” Mr. Wood explained. “But something come up. I need to see what you can do with this meat when I’ve got a … a … special occasion.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get it goin’.”
“You got all your vinegars and sauces and peppers?”
“Yes, sir. I went and bought some new stock when your man Wragg came by this afternoon. He explained about a special order. I’m set up.”
The soft voice almost sounded like singing. Mr. Wood had never met Champion before, just knew him by reputation as the best barbecue cook anywhere near Lafayette. The man even smelled like barbecue. But did constantly breathing the hot smoke from roasting meat made a man’s voice sound that way?
“I want you to surprise me, Champion.”
The grill man blinked under the lantern light. Champion looked tired after his long day over the coals. The whites of his eyes showed streaks of red, like the hand-lettered sign over his service window. Now, those eyes would see a long night.
But the price was right.
“Exactly what kind of surprise, Mr. Wood?”
The big white figure shifted outside the crude wooden window.
Mr. Wood had clearly put some thought into it.
“I want to see all the different ways you can make the meats taste. How many different flavors you can give to each one of those cuts.”
“Yes sir. I can do some tricks, Mr. Wood.”
“Tricks? What kind of tricks?”
Now, Neville Champion smiled for the first time. His pride-and-joy gold front tooth flashed lantern light.
“Well, Mr. Wood, if I go and tell you my tricks,” Champion said, “then it won’t be no surprise, will it?”
Mr. Wood didn’t answer … or smile back.
“I’m a curious man, Champion. I’m interested in the way things work. How tricks work.”
Somewhere out in the cold darkness a whippoorwill went off. Champion thought how weird it sounded, like some kind of toy bird.
“I do things with the vinegar to make it taste different on the different meats. I blend up the peppers different ways, to make the sauces mild or midway or hot. I can …”
Mr. Wood suddenly made eye contact. The intensity of his dark stare surprised Champion. His wide pupils looked like black buttons.
“Hot enough to make a grown man cry for his mama, Mr. Wood.”
“Okay. Let’s do that. You make some of it that hot.”
Now, Mr. Wood smiled. Again. It looked like it hurt him again.
“What happens if you get a little of that hot stuff on your pecker?”
Mr. Wood laughed at his own joke, but Champion didn’t. The Cajun had indeed once gotten special-blend hot sauce on his penis by accident. It wasn’t a thing to laugh about. He swelled shut for two days.
Champion glanced back over his shoulder at a wooden shelf nailed over the grill. Yes, he kept magic potions there. The canisters and bags carried no markings. Only Champion knew what each one held, and only Champion knew the mystery blends that had made his shack a favorite in Lafayette.
When Champion glanced back, Mr. Wood was halfway to his truck, still chuckling.
“Seven o’clock, Champion,” he called, without turning his head. “I want to see what you can do on short notice.”
“Seven o’clock, Mr. Wood. Earlier if you need it.”
Then, a thought occurred to Champion.
“Mr. Wood, you want me to deliver it?”
The words stopped the white-suited man in his tracks. Unexpectedly, he turned completely around and pointed a warning finger.
“No, sir. I’ll be right here at 7 a.m. Don’t you or nobody else show up at my place. This is a secret between just the two of us. Tonight. And forever.”
The pickup truck and its owner disappeared in a white flash.