The calendar on the wall near the front door said it was late May. The kudzu on the mountain behind the café was as thick and as luxurious as could be found anywhere in the middle Appalachians. It covered the trees, bushes, utility poles, the wires, and even the open rocky slopes. The green leafy vines seemed to grow right out of the rocks that were only seen in winter when the pillow-like growth of summer became a flat sheet of grey-green in late fall.
In the June high tide, waves of green would come crashing down the mountain as summer poured into the deepest hollows of the Clinch Mountains. During this yearly ebb and flow, a flotsam and jetsam of refugees move in and out of the Kudzu Café: an exotic island in a kudzu sea.
"Kudzu Café. This is Cricket."
"Cricket, I need to make me a lunch order to pick up. You got any meatloaf today?"
"Ernie you know we always have meat loaf. You have asked me that every day for twenty some years. Have you ever ordered anything else here?" Cricket retrieved the pencil stuck in her red hair to write down whatever Ernie decided to order with his meatloaf sandwich. He did not change up the available side dish very often but she was willing to give him the chance.
"Well, sure I have. I ate your sketti here just last week. It was yummy good. Had some meatloaf in it I think."
Cricket rolled her eyes and waited patiently. Forty plus in age, 5' 2" if tip-toeing, and south of 140 in weight: she was well liked by the Kudzu Café customers and mostly for the brash way she treated every customer. She played no favorites. The male customers especially enjoyed watching their friends get a side of Cricket-attitude with every order. Burl Deel, the café owner and day cook, would rush out of the kitchen to take care of any new customers so as not to have her run them off and never come back.
Burl knew Cricket was the draw for many of his customers; kinda like dinner theater. And, she was the love of his life. Everyone knew they spent every Saturday night together at his place behind the café. No one mentioned it and especially after Cricket banned one of the church ladies from the café when said church lady suggested to Burl that he should propose to Cricket. Cricket overheard this and she used a full basket of cornbread muffins to drive the busy body out into the road and into her car. The last one sailed through the passenger side car window and out the other side nailing Brother Willis in the crotch. He dropped like a rock before rising, and, doubled over, hobbled quickly back to his vehicle not knowing if he was the intended target. He never asked but did come back often as the Kudzu Café was the only eating place within fifteen miles, and, the food was delicious. He was there today and, as usual, kept a guarded watchful eye on the cornbread muffin basket.
Cricket could hear Ernie mumbling something on his end and guessed correctly he was taking orders for someone else.
"Ernie, why don't you take care of putting this order together before you call me? I got better things to do here besides hold on the phone while you piddle away my time. If you was my husband I would train you better."
"Cricket, if I was your husband I'd be sitting there now watching you work. You could spoon feed me some of that butterscotch pudding ever hour or so."
Cricket did not answer his direct suggestion but she was picturing in her mind what else she could do with that spoon.
She answered. "Okay, one order of meatloaf and a side of butterscotch pudding. What else and be quick about it?"
Ernie recognized he was being played but decided not to push it.
"Make that two of those with sweet tea to go. Skeeter and me is going fishing. We will be by there in about fifteen minutes."
"Tell Skeeter not to come in here with his snuff and spittin' in my coffee cups. I got enough riff raff in here today." She slammed down the phone and looked sharply to her right.
The four men sitting at a nearby booth all pointed at someone else in the booth and snickered and giggled until Cricket stared them down.
"You boys git a grip on yourselves. Act more like the preacher here."
At her 'riff-raff in the room' comment, Brother Willis had made himself as small as possible on his end-of-the-counter stool but her latest words caused him to sit up straight and smile at his image in the mirror behind the rows of glasses along the back wall. He might actually be able to finish his meal and be gone before Cricket found a way to also bag him as a part of her limit for the day. He moved slightly on the stool so it turned away him from her. No need to make eye contact and become an easy target.
Burl rang the bell in the pass-through window and yelled 'eggs' at Cricket's back. Nine out of ten times that is what he yelled no matter what else was on the plate. Breakfast was served 24 hours a day at the Kudzu. This time, the plate had toast and apple butter, two strips of thick bacon, and a healthy spoon of grits. Cricket swung around and grabbed the plate. When she had completed the turn she paused briefly in front of Brother Willis.
It was like watching ballet when Cricket worked. No extra steps or motions. The plates never dropped down on your table. They kinda floated in, like a leaf in the stream, and slid to stop at just the right place. This time, however, a piece of toast slid off the plate and Brother Willis caught it on the edge of the counter as it teetered on the edge of falling into his lap. Cricket was already gone and the preacher was glad for that. He was sure she would have found a way to blame him for the near catastrophe.
From the table of men already labeled as riff raff, a low rumble of cursing rose and hung in the air like a dark cloud over the group. The four men immediately lowered their heads and studied their already empty plates.
The dining room grew quiet and the sizzle of bacon could be heard from the kitchen along with a slight clinking of glasses being stacking near the cash register. Cricket had not heard the transgression. If she had, an immediate court would be called in session and the innocent could and would be declared guilty unless they gave up the actual wrongdoer. The Cuss Jar was never as full as it used to be, but was hardly ever empty.
The four men slowly raised their heads and one whispered 'All Clear", and the conversation volume eased back up to normal.
They each gave a startled reaction when Cricket suddenly appeared at their table.
"George did it!" Sid blurted out. George, sitting on the inside, gave Sid an elbow that nearly caused him to fall out of the booth.
Cricket gave them all her death stare.
"You are all guilty of something. Guilty as sin."
Suitably amused, she waited and watched while they ducked and squirmed.
"Dessert!" This time it was a command.
They all ordered pie.
The Kudzu Café stood in a long sweeping curve about halfway up the mountain between the river and the top of Keen Mountain. The highway outside was now a four lane but only allowed a maximum safe speed of 50 miles per hour due to the curves. That speed was still twice what it had been when it was a twisting two-lane filled with stomach churning switch backs.
The only house nearby was that of the café owner, Burl Deel. His family had lived there since 1947 when Burl Sr. won the place in a poker game. Burl had worked in and around the café since he was ten: learning the business from the ground up by bussing tables, cleaning up and working in the kitchen. As a youngster, one of his main tasks was to beat back the kudzu from covering the house from the back. By twelve, he had discovered from friends that a garden sprayer full of gasoline would do the trick for a month or more if it did not rain too much. This method left an ugly brown skirt at the bottom of the 500 acre kudzu blanket. This assaulted Burt's sensibilities and he spent more time removing the dead leaves and vines than if he had just cut them back. He actually loved looking at the green cloud mountain. The kudzu appeared to fall down in waves; rolling over trees and rocks and covering anything ugly in its path: an old coal tipple up the hollow behind the house; dead car bodies abandoned long ago, and even an adjoining gas station that had lost the war to cars and trucks that could now easily make the over-the-mountain trip on half the gas.
Burl used the abandoned cinderblock building as storage for restaurant furniture, displays, and the occasional boat that some one wanted stored. He kept the kudzu off the front of the old station and today it looked very much like a home for wayward gnomes. There was actually a nice one room apartment at the very back of the building but the power and water had not been turned on in several years..
Burl learned his short order cooking skills as a cook for the Army. After the Vietnam War had taken his right eye, he returned to the café and began taking over more and more ownership of the business. Most of the time, while he cooked, he wore an eye patch. He only brought out the glass eye for Sundays and funerals.
The café survived because even though you could see very few homes along the road, every hollow had five to forty families living along the narrow one-lane tracks leading off into holes in the kudzu. Each hollow had one or more of the local industries. Logging, small coal operations, furniture making, car repair and crafters of all kinds were plentiful. Bootlegging flourished mostly where families had established a long history of running moonshine stills. The moonshine operations were likely to be well hidden up in the side hollows or even off foot trails across the mountain. Creeks and springs were necessary and all of the inhabitants knew where the no-go boundaries were if not the actual still locations.
Patrons to the café included these mountain people but also the many travelers going back and forth between the small towns. It was a meeting place for hunters, fishermen, kids sharing rides to local community colleges, and tourists traveling the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail.
The Kudzu Café grew on you. The food was good, plentiful, and cheap considering its monopoly of location.
The Kudzu Cafe was a diner exactly where you needed a diner.
It was a place to meet between the county seats, golf courses, lakes, and schools of the region. It was ideally situated for pre-game and post game crowds coming and going. And, except for that two hour period each mid-summer day when the sun shone directly down onto that piece of the mountain side, the Kudzu Café was a cool and shady place to escape the heat. The uncovered part of the wide front porch was a good place to bring your meal outside. At least one of these tables was always in the shade no matter what time of day it was.
The covered entry porch had a green steel roof and at least fifty ball caps hanging from the rafters beneath. Any team, club, business, truck driver, hobby, vacation spot or quirky saying likely had its hat represented there. Burl had been adding hats there for 20 years and made sure they remained fresh by adding a date to the inside of the bills. There was a one-year limit and that was if the wind did not take it first. The hats would sway in the breeze on twelve inch leashes; a silent wind-chime of color.
Once inside, you felt like you had been beamed back into the sixties. The twelve red leather booths on the left provided more comfort than the six picnic tables on the right. And, twelve red leather bar stools marching in front of the chrome trimmed lunch counter were a draw to old and young alike. The original large brass cash register had been recently gutted to hide the newer electronic cash drawer and scanners. The old soda fountain area was still there but now dispensed two local favorite draft beers, water, and Cricket's sweet tea. Other varieties of beer could be lifted from the converted wet Coca Cola box under the counter. The box was visible from the front through a glass display window. The box also contained bottles of Coke, Orange Crush, and Root Beer. Sorry, no diet. Burl did not believe diet soda was worth the money.
The wall and counter behind the front counter had a cold sandwich prep area, the original display cases for cakes and pies, and an area where Burl displayed old menus, glassware from back in the day, and pictures of his father with various dignitaries and celebrities. One included Burl Sr. with a former governor and his chauffeur. Burl's dad had insisted the driver be in the picture because he liked the hat he was wearing. The governor looked peeved for some reason. Another photograph was of Burl Sr. and a former Green Bay Packer who lived over in Wise County. Burl Jr. added a Cheese Head hat to the collection on the porch outside which he felt somehow helped build the significance of the photo inside.
Only one picture included Burl Jr. He was sitting on the black and white tile floor with his legs crossed and appeared to be listening to a 1949 Wurlitzer jukebox. The same jukebox still stood near the front door but it had now been converted to play digital music.
As if by magic, the girl in the faded blue dress appeared on the stool nearest the cash register. Cricket gave a start when she realized someone had entered the café without her hearing the bell on the door.
"Lordy, girl. How did you get in here?"
The blue dress turned her head to the door and back again to be sure she was the one being addressed.
"Are you closed?" She looked bewildered and now even a bit scared.
Cricket slid a glass of water to the girl before answering.
"No sweetie. We are open. I just did not hear you come in. I must be losing my hearing. I don't see how I missed it. It has been quiet as Monday church in here today."
Cricket walked down to the end of the counter to get a menu that she could have reached from where she originally stood. As she made the trip down, she looked outside to see if there was a vehicle parked in front. There was none to be seen. On the trip back to the center of the café, Cricket checked out the girl. Blue dress. No purse. No Ring, No jewelry of any kind. Cricket slowed as she neared the coke box where she could see through the display glass. The girl had no socks and a ragged pair of blue plaid tennis shoes on her feet. They were covered in dust as were the girl's ankles. She had obviously walked up or down the mountain road to reach the café. The four-lane did not have much walking room on either side so Cricket felt the girl could not have been walking too long or too far. That was odd.
Cricket pushed the menu toward the girl and watched her face as she looked it over wistfully before moving it aside.
"The water will do just fine. I am, uh, waiting on a ride. Should be here soon. And, umm, I'll order then."
Cricket nodded and moved away: turning to see Burl in the pass-through window with a question on his face. She gave him a quick head shake and he understood it to be 'see me at the door'. They met there briefly and she placed her hand on his arm and spoke a few whispered words. When she returned to her place at the counter, she noticed the girl was staring into the water glass as if it were her crystal ball. She took another gulp and the glass as empty.
Cricket filled the glass again without looking up and then moved down to the four bar spigots and poured a large sweet tea into a cup filled with ice. She put a lid on the cup and placed the container on the to-go area of the sandwich making counter. Burl passed by the window, nodded, and moved out of sight.
As Cricket waited, she scribbled on a ticket pad, and watched the girl slow-sip the water. It seemed she was mouthing words as if practicing something important she needed to say. But no words got past her lips.
The phone rang breaking the silence. The girl jumped and almost knocked over the glass.
Cricket turned around and answered the phone, "Kudzu Café, This is Cricket".
Burl, on his cell phone on the other side of the wall, said, "Sherlock, your order is ready."
"Well, George, I have your order in my hand. I can hold it if you can pick it up later." Cricket turned to be sure Blue Dress was taking this all in.
Burt said into his phone. " George? Is that my competition?"
Cricket ignored him and said instead.
"George, honey, I hope you get the truck fixed without too much trouble. Don't worry about the order."
As she hung up the phone, Burl yelled "Eggs" from the window and pushed a big brown bag through.
Cricket took the bag, added the cup with the sweet tea and looked around the café knowing only one other person was present. She carried the bag over to the girl.
"Sweetie, I need your help. If you do not eat this I will have to throw it into the trash. It just came off the grill. Be a shame to let it go to waste.
The girl paused and seemed to almost faint when the smell of the hamburger and fries rolled across the counter.
"Did I mention it is free? George already paid for it with his card. He is a good man and he would want you to have it."
Cricket did not wait for an answer and slid a plate toward the girl, pulled out the burger and fries, swapped tea for the water, and strode away before the girl could say anything.
Cricket grabbed the broom and came from behind the counter to sweep furiously at the doorway to the porch. A quick peek out the door told Cricket what she needed to know. No back pack or suitcase was anywhere to be seen.
She came back inside and kept sweeping; watching the mirror on the back wall with one eye. The girl started slowly on the fries and the food was all gone in two minutes. As she took the last bite, Cricket floated a plate across the counter and up to the girl's left elbow. A big piece of German Chocolate Cake covered the plate.
"Almost forgot. George ordered dessert too. And that tea needs a refill unless you had rather have milk with the cake."
The girl's eyes widened. "Milk would be good. Oh, I haven't even thanked you for the food. I could do some work if you need anything done. I. I can't even leave a tip.
Cricket, seeing the girl was about to cry, turned her back to get the glass of milk and chatted away to break the tension.
"Honey, you don't owe me anything. Life is slow here and just having your company is enough for me. Maybe we can talk a little. I like to talk. Now, the cook back there seems to only know a few words. How about you?"
When she turned back, the girl had composed herself and was cleaning up around her plate and had put the to-go wrappings into the brown bag.
"I can talk. Too much maybe."
Cricket saw the opening and dove through. Well, let's start slow and see where it goes." She extended her hand. "I am Cricket. That is Burl behind me peering through the window."
Burt nodded sheepishly and ducked out of sight.
The girl shook Cricket's hand.
"Hi, Cricket. My name is Alice. Alice McClure."
"Alice is a real nice name. McClure? Are you from the Dixon County McClure's?"
"No. Well, not close kin. Some third cousins maybe. My family is from further east."
Alice did not elaborate and after a pause, Cricket continued.
"I don't see a car out front. Are you walking up or down the mountain? Sorry, that may be none of my business?"
The girl laughed for the first time.
"Cricket, you do not miss much. I walked down the mountain. Going home. Or, at least going in that direction. I, uh. I have a ride coming."
Cricket was drying glasses that had been dry for days. She was trying not to look into the girl's eyes for too long at a time. They were dark, almost black and they closely matched her shoulder length hair. This was a pretty girl with a nice figure and not one likely to just walk into the Kudzu Café from the top of the mountain. Many of the twenty-something girls who lived and worked nearby, were either too heavy or too scrawny depending on their drug of choice: fast food or meth. And, many who looked like Alice, escaped into other worlds east or west, or were in college, or were married to someone with a job..
"That was it!" Cricket thought to herself. Alice was making a break for it before she too became entangled in the kudzu. How had she gotten here and how long had she been here?
"Alice, are you in still in school somewhere?"
"No. I should be a freshman at Appalachian State in Boone next Fall but I thought I knew what was better for me than my folks."
The girl was working though her answers carefully. She had reached a place where she would open up or would continue building on the 'waiting for a ride' story.
Cricket rattled on about her own life and how she could have left years ago and lived in Virginia Beach with her oldest sister while she got on her own two feet.
"It is a common way out of the mountains. If you want to go, that is. Someone on the outside throws you a line and you grab for it. Sometimes you try and miss. Sometimes they don't make the throw. Sometimes you don't make a try."
Alice nodded and said slowly, "What happens if you grow up outside and you get pulled in?"
Cricket now looked deep into Alice's black eyes and narrowed her own. She began to pick her own words carefully.
"The mountains are beautiful; mesmerizing. The people are mostly good and strong. Life is simple in many ways and if you did not grow up here, the simplicity may stifle you in ways you can't explain. If you are used to being entertained, you may not understand how to entertain yourself, or how to be an entertainer."
Cricket paused to see if Alice had a question or comment. The girl leaned in toward Cricket and appeared to be listening intently.
"Little things may drive you crazy. Eating cornbread and beans every night for a week may be a necessity or it might be a planned five day feast. Generally, it's not something that nags at you. You accept it as normal and you learn to make cornbread and beans into five different meals. Add a little fatback to the beans. Add relish, or onions, or butter, or put the cornbread into a glass of buttermilk. And, when the beans get scarce in the pot, spice up the soup and add tomatoes or cabbage."
Alice listened to this and smiled knowing that her own beans and cornbread had been just beans and cornbread. "I never thought that beans and cornbread were a gateway combination to so many meals."
"It is likely you never had to think they would be just as I might have a difficult time planning three different meals everyday for a week. Your question: Is it easier going out of the mountains to live your life than coming in? I think it is human nature to want more. If you are leaving the mountains, you will have more opportunities to have more. If you are coming in, you will have less opportunity to have more but will grow to love and appreciate what you do have."
This time when Cricket paused, Alice spoke.
"That sounds right but complicated by whether more is better."
Alice was getting into it now.
"I was sure when I came here what I wanted was more. More adventure. More love. I should have come also expecting simplicity: a quality of life without material things; a slower pace but with stronger bonds. Am I making sense?"
"Alice, that makes a lot of sense to me. Does any of this help you with your decision? That is the bigger question?"
"Yes and no. Yes in that I have a better understanding of what I need to say to Jeff, my friend who lives over the mountain and down near the river. And no because I still feel unprepared to make the allure of beans and cornbread last five days.
Alice had another thought.
"Maybe love is like that too. Maybe I am just not prepared."
Three months later the post card came. It was addressed to...
Cricket at the Kudzu Café
East Side of Keen Mtn, Va
On the front of the card was a scene of the green summer campus at Appalachia State University. On the back was written...
Cricket: Thanks for being there when I was lost. I
took your lead and I am at APSU now and majoring
in beans and cornbread. Hope to see you in four years.
Cricket read the card twice more before passing it to Burl through the order window. He slowly came out of the kitchen and hugged her tightly for a long time before placing the postcard on his special shelf and just in front of the picture of the governor and his driver.
Cricket, sustained and soothed, went back to drying glasses.