Two for the Road: Part 1 Sterling, Muhzzurah -3- BBQ

It's not a date, it's BBQ!

Two for the Road: Part 1

Sterling, Muhzzurah -3- BBQ

Erin Halfelven

Ken did not take no for an answer and we all ended up in his spanking new Ford F-250 crew cab with the white-over-green paint job. Somehow, I was in front with Ken and Dolly in back with Otis.

“Where you girls from?” Ken asked. “You don’t sound like you’re from around here local.”

“Uh, well, I’m from St. Joe, originally. Everyone in St. Louis thought I sounded like Nebraska,” I admitted, then wanted to kick myself for telling the truth.

“I’m from everywhere,” Dolly said. “Military brat.”

“Oh, me, too,” said Otis. “Do you speak German?”

Dolly shook her head. “I can get by in Okinawan and a little Japanese. My mom is from the Philippines so I can gossip in Filipino and Spanish, too.”

“Whoa!” Otis shook his hand like he’d burned it. “I thought I was hotshit with my German and bad French.” We all laughed.

“I’m from right cheer,” said Ken, twanging like an Ozark hillbilly. We laughed again but when I glanced at Ken he was looking back at me and I felt my own skin turn hot. Damn, I thought, knowing that I get red all over when I blush.

Ken pulled into a grassy field and parked the big pickup amid a fleet of lesser trucks, many of them primer gray or just rust-colored up to their door handles. The sparkly new vehicle looked almost like royalty visiting the peasants. The boys both popped out and opened doors for us but Otis didn’t offer a hand to help me down from the tall seat. He might be friends with the local rich kid but he knew he was still black and this was the South, even if not Alabama or Mississippi.

I didn’t know for sure how I should act. Around Blueberry Hill, no one gave much notice to race, everyone there had other problems. The show had black and white and mixed acts, drag was a great leveler. I hadn’t been a performer but I did dress out most days to work in the office; after being exiled for crossdressing I felt I had a license to do it as often as I wanted.

But now I was trying to pass, not to give a show and as a white girl I wasn’t sure how to act with a polite but very handsome black man. I didn’t want to cause trouble for him but I didn’t want to seem like I was snubbing him either. Even smiling at him could be the wrong thing to do. Yikes.

Ken came around the front of the truck quickly and took my arm, and for a moment there I really wanted to kiss him for saving me from awkwardness. And then I felt bad about my relief, it surely wasn’t Otis’s fault that I didn’t know how to act. And at the same time I felt myself turning red again. Maybe this whole idea of posing as a girl while crossing the continent was too crazy.

“Chicken or pork?” Ken asked and somehow the suggestiveness of the question seemed almost obscene.

“Ch-chicken,” I stammered.

“Light or dark meat?” he asked, standing so very close and breathing. Yes, of course he was breathing; why the heck was it such a problem to be so near him?

And I knew he was going to ask the question about meat color, why hadn’t I said pork?

“Pork meat,” I nodded. I squeezed my eyes shut, maybe it would help not to look at him. He had both of my hands in his, so it didn’t really help at all.

“Did you say ‘pork’ or ‘dark’?” he asked.

“Park?” I answered, completely helpless.

He laughed and pulled me closer, putting an arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get you a plate and some pulled pork so you don’t end up biting your fingers trying to eat chicken.” He hugged me up and kissed me on the eyebrow. I didn’t bite him so I guess I must have liked it.

I tried to distract myself by looking around. We were on the edge of a small forest with cornfields stretching one direction and some other sort of grain another. Under the trees amid the dappled sunlight sat several structures, some wood, some brick, some metal and one enormous centerpiece made of canvas.

The Barbecue Tent was a huge, apparently semi-permanent installation as big as something a small circus might use. A dull tan color, it rested on two enormous telephone-pole-size center supports with twenty or so smaller supports holding up the skirts all around. The openings into the tent measured at least seven-feet high. Inside trestle-type tables with all manner of benches and chairs around them took up most of the room. On two sides, more tables held food items, like white loaf bread in stacks, sweet potatoes, macaroni salad, cornbread, pickles, sliced tomatoes in trays and in big, sweaty metal cans with spigots, lemonade and iced tea, Southern-style. Tubs and coolers of various kinds, most sitting right on the ground, held iced beer and pop in bottles and cans.

Smiling women, most of them black, helped people fill their plates using ladles and tongs in exchange for multi-colored paper tickets. Frowning men, also mostly black, wearing the sort of belt change machines I associated with ice cream trucks and bus conductors, stalked around trading tickets for coins and bills. It looked and sounded chaotic with everyone gesturing and talking at once, shouting really over the live music.

A brick arbor half covered in vines served as a bandstand with an accordion, two banjos, two trumpets, a guitar and a saxophone doing murder to a ragtime tune. Not good but certainly loud. Perhaps the heat had detuned their instruments.

Some of the heat came from the summer sun but a lot of it spilled out of the metal-topped building where several brick-lined pits were tended by shirtless men and boys of all available colors. Heat and the most amazing smells came from the barbecue; the world seemed to reek of smoke, hot meat and sweet and spicy sauces. A line of sweating patrons with plates and grubby tickets clutched in their hands waited for attention from the cooks, one of whom seemed entirely occupied with piling up and disassembling mounds of chicken, ribs, catfish and corn on the cob.

People have killed and been killed for idols, treasures, and delusions not half as worthy of passion as that smell. I almost swooned and Ken held me upright, laughing. “When do we eat?” I moaned.

Still laughing and joined by Dolly and Otis, we crowded into the tent. Ken stopped to buy wads of tickets, five cents each for yellows, twenty-five for reds and one dollar for blues. A plate and plastic flatware wrapped in napkins cost a yellow and a cup with ice cost two. Beer and pop were reds and filling a plate with meat and two sides was a blue. Other extras were priced accordingly. Change was given only in tickets.

Past the line of servers on the far side of the big tent I saw two cinderblock buildings, one evidently an ice house and the other a double ended latrine, the ladies’ half sporting the only other line in evidence. At least, I thought, they didn’t seem to be collecting tickets to use the facilities.

The servers, cooks and ticket takers kept some order in the chaos and I noticed a couple of big, black guys, one in a sheriff’s deputy uniform just standing around watching. Security, I wondered? They were shortly joined by a white deputy of similar size who also watched the crowd with a benevolent expression while sipping from a cup of what looked like iced tea.

“There are more people here than in the town. Is it always like this?” I asked Ken.

He laughed. “Summer weekends and holidays yeah. People come from thirty, forty miles away for the food.”

“I believe that,” I said, trying not to drool as the servers piled the goodies on my plate.

With plates covered in pulled pork (you didn’t have to wait in line at the barbecue pit for that), sweets and savories and a wedge of cornbread, we found a table with four empty seats and sat down. The boys hopped back up immediately to fetch drinks, beer for them, Dr. Pepper for Dolly and lemonade for me.

We tried not to nibble while waiting for them to return but I couldn’t resist. If barbecue were announced as the new religion I would have converted instantly. A bite of pork, one of sweet potato and another of crunchy pickle and Heaven was in reach.

Dolly shouted something at me across the table. I shrugged. She reached across and pulled my head closer to hers. “Nice, huh?” she screamed. “You going to suck his dick?”

I boggled at her, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, probably displaying half-chewed sweet potato. She broke up laughing and pointing at me. What a friend!

“Why do you think they’re being nice to us?” she screamed over the noise.

I sat back, chewed and swallowed. I guess I was stupid but I had not really considered it. They seemed nice boys and… and…? Well, I wasn’t completely naïve; a lot went on back at Uncle T’s bar and some of it probably involved actions that might have been considered illegal. Of course, homosexual behavior was illegal in most states just for starters and even heterosexual sex had legal restrictions. Missouri outlawed almost everything.

Did the boys know we weren’t… well, weren’t anatomically correct girls? I leaned forward and screamed back at her. “We could get in a lot of trouble!”

She grinned, nodding. “Or have a lot of fun!”

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