The 9:08 freight train clatters past the Kwik Way. I’m old enough to expect smoke when I see this much train. I park out front between two Ford pick-ups — one with a dog box, the other running tractor tires. Outside, the Chill & Grill propane tank sits on concrete, and in the newsbox, The State announces, above the masthead, that the Gamecock girls’ team lost to Stanford.
I’m here to buy my small (17-oz) cup of decaf with a squirt of sweet hazelnut creamer. For sale inside, also, are Bik lighters in yellow and red plastic, packets of single-dip snuff, Lays potato chips, and any kind of Barefoot wine you want. Vinyl-topped booths and tables are laid with fresh paper napkins, silverware, and glasses turned upside down. Ready for drop-ins. The place smells of fried sausage, fried eggs, and fried hash browns. I think about a smoky sausage biscuit with hot mustard, and only in this place. Here, old wants crash into newer habits — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.
Old wants crash into new habits here — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.
“Good morning,” everyone in the place says to me. I don’t know these people, but this doesn’t matter to them. This is White Rock, South Carolina, and if you don’t know everybody, you should. I’ve been here only a week and the red-aproned woman behind the Henny Penny fryer knows to ring me up for $2.30. Even numbers — for customer convenience, she tells me. You do the math. That’s 13.5 cents an ounce. Down here, Starbucks is viewed as a rip-off. And I’m feeling more conservative myself just being here.
I’m dressed. When I say dressed, I mean nice slacks (that means no jeans), a nice blouse, a nice sweater, nice shoes, and nice jewelry, not too matchy-matchy, but stuff I never wear in New England. The azalea, Bradford pear, and dogwood bring out the nice in everyone. I wonder if I should be making arrangements to live here full time myself. The air itself smells flowery, leafy. Nice.
I pay for my coffee, agree to “have a good one,” and head back to my car, a 1999 Honda Accord on loan from my nephew’s wife who’s said she won’t hear of me renting a car for ten days. Three big, friendly men stand on the sidewalk in short-sleeved shirts, smoking. They’re talking about how good the fishing on Lake Murray might have been at dawn — stripers, they’re guessing — after that cats-and-dogs thunda-busta we had yesterday. The air is clear of pollen, washed off cars and running yellow into gutters, and warm with just a touch of morning chill.
“Good morning,” they all say, and pull their cigarettes out of my way, as if in apology. Cigarette smoke reminds me of home, and I don’t mind it here. In New England, I’d have a few snippy words for people who smoke on the street, huddled against their gray office buildings in their black coats and boots. Memory is tricky. There’s wispy emotion in it, curling up and around, like what’s left when a flame’s gone out and the hot, red wick remains for a second or two, and we can’t look away.
Today’s Sunday, and just across the street, the parking lot of Bethel Lutheran Church is half full. Early services on the Fourth Sunday after Lent. Purple cloth drapes from a cross near the street. This is church country, and the big-congregation Baptists and Methodists know that Easter’s coming. Choirs are assembling, and candles smoke on altars up and down Old Lexington Highway. The vegetable stand kitty-cornered to the church — Jonah Stukes Fresh Vegetables, a sign says — seems abandoned. On Wednesday, he had early tomatoes and peanuts boiling on a smoker. Later in the summer, he’ll have native corn and pole beans and peaches (the sign will say PEACH’S), and he’ll hold his daughter, diapered, barefooted and snarly haired, by her feet and lower her, upside down, into the nearby Goodwill bin, and she’ll come up with something to wear, and then she’ll play so close to the red signal light at the intersection that my back will ache. Another sign says We Buy Old Cars.
The train has rattled on up the single track. In daylight the Southern Coastal Railroad races through these parts, stopping traffic in all directions, rushing from Columbia, moving on up the line to Chapin, to Greenville, northwest of here, sometimes with three engines pulling sixty cars. There’s nothing old about these cars, red and yellow and green, and somebody’s protected them from grafitti. There is none. I counted the cars last summer as we drove alongside on the way to Fat Buddy’s for fried chicken, cole slaw, and fried mushrooms. Jeans are OK at Fat Buddy’s, and a blue T-shirt I bought last year says I’ve been there and that I like the place well enough to advertise. ”What’s Fat Buddy’s?” folks in New England ask, and I remember waiting for chicken, fried to order while we drank a pitcher of Corona. Thirty minutes. Nobody’s in a hurry.
The trains that split White Rock in half three times a day are all about business and what counts for bustle in these parts. Shock absorbing buffers cushion the cars, holding each undamaged by another along a rough track. The whistle is heard as a warning; the flashing red light and the black-and-white poles put a hold on the present moment, a temporary wait on moving too fast into tomorrow. At night when I’m awake in the dark, I hear the mournful whistle of the 3:15 to Simpsonville and Greenville. There’s regret in it, and a call, and imagined smoke, trailing.
photo credit: PhillWatson