I had a day off, so I went up the highway a bit. You may remember previous visits I took to Bubba-Doo’s in this column. It’s an old mom-pop gas station with a store that boasts the world’s best hamburger. I stop in now and then, even though I don’t really live there. I’ve come to know some of the regulars, and they mostly trust me even though I’m not one of them.
On that day, the famous hamburger was on special. At least that’s what the store was advertising. The joke was on those who hadn’t yet done the math: You could get two of them for only double the price of one. Also on special was a new product the grill cook was trying out. They were serving for the very first time a vegetarian burger patty. Not surprisingly, they had had very few takers so far.
This may be for at least two reasons. First, folks there were pretty suspicious of the “fake burger.” That’s the nickname that had evolved already in its initial hours of existence. Second, there was a more vicious rumor that if you actually ordered the vegetarian patty you were declaring which political party you voted for and someone would follow you home to spy on you. No one was in a hurry for either of those possibilities.
Marlene is one of the servers at Bubba-Doo’s. She’s a huge part of the personality the place has. Everyone loves her, and she’s good at what she does. Possessed of a beautiful singing voice, she might suddenly burst into song from behind the counter at any time.
Her repartee is sunny and sometimes loud. She said to me, “These burgers aren’t going to eat themselves. What are you going to order today, Sweetie?”
If you aren’t from the Deep South, you might not be used to such an exchange. For me, it’s part of the draw. “Ah … you know what? I’m going to have one of the new special burgers. May as well give that a try.”
“OK, you asked for it,” Marlene said. “Don’t blame me when you don’t feel well tonight.”
Then she called out to the kitchen, “Hey, Danny! One California Special please!” I’m still not sure whether they were working out a new order system, or if she did that so everyone in the place would know I was daring to try the new burger.
Anywho, a regular there named Stumpy came over to me. “Hey there, how’re you doin’, Preacher?” He knows that I actually dislike it when anyone refers to me that way, so he does it just to goad me.
“You’d need to know that Stumpy is the most cantankerous of the folks who hang out at Bubba-Doo’s.”
You’d need to know that Stumpy is the most cantankerous of the folks who hang out at Bubba-Doo’s. OK, he’s downright mean and everyone knows it. So his rare attempts at humor bring a fair amount of pain with them. They usually arrive in the form of back-handed compliments or as off-colored assaults on something real in your life.
“I’m good, Stumpy. How’re you doing?” I replied.
“Well, not too good. This ice storm is about to hit the whole coast. That’s gonna be rough. That damn president’s got us doin’ everyone wrong overseas. The price of gas is still up, no one wants to work, and kids these days just don’t live right. Liberals are ruining this country, and you just appear to be as happy as ever. If you preachers would do your jobs better, we might not be in this fix.”
“So, what you’re saying is that you’re doing about as well as ever,” I said. Because everyone tells me the best thing to do is to not sweat Stumpy. If he gets under your skin, he’s got you where he wants you.
“Preacher, I’m serious. Why don’t you take this stuff more seriously?” he asked.
I said, “Well, Stumpy, I’m sorry I’m just not as miserable as you seem to stay. I’m sorry that I haven’t lost sight yet of the good that life throws in with the bad.”
Then, I sat back to see how he would react. Someone who Stumpy actually respects told me one time, “That old man is going to die one of these days. When he does, he’ll go to the grave angry at the world.” That’s coming from someone Stumpy actually likes.
The person also explained to me that really, Stumpy has a close family member who is living in ways that he just doesn’t approve of. He believes they’re living in sin.
“A writer once wisely observed of life, ‘I sat with my anger long enough that she finally told me her real name was grief.’”
A writer once wisely observed of life, “I sat with my anger long enough that she finally told me her real name was grief.” Stumpy is stuck in clinical grief and is the only one who doesn’t realize it. His grief and anger go unprocessed and untreated. That makes every headline and every person his new potential target.
He said, “So you’re OK with the way things are? Why don’t you call sin a sin? Why do you think God’s all right with the way everyone’s living these days?”
I replied, “No, of course I’m not. But I wish I had an ounce of the power that you blaming me assumes that I have. I wish I thought that calling everyone a sinner would fix things. I might consider doing it. But it just won’t, Stumpy. Besides, I’m not always sure that your list of sins and God’s list of what’s a sin might always match up.”
“So, you don’t believe there are sins?” he asked.
“Sure I do,” I said. “I just don’t think insulting everyone in Jesus’ name is probably all that effective these days. Tell you what, if you want to brush up on what God actually gets bent out of shape about, read the prophets. Actually listen to Jesus in the Gospels, too,” I said.
Something inside me prompted these words: “Stumpy, if I can help you to get help I sure would be happy to. Have you ever thought about talking with someone about your pain?”
Right then is when a thing happened that will surely never happen again. Stumpy looked at me. He dabbed at a tear in his eye and whispered, “You’re probably right.”
I stammered out, “What did you say?”
He whispered, “I said you’re probably right. But if you say I said that, I’ll say you’re a liar.” As he stood up he said softly, “Thanks for being my honest friend.” Then he walked out.
I just sat there shocked, quietly staring at my vegetarian burger until I collected enough fortitude to actually eat it. Marlene finally walked by me and drummed her fingernails on my shoulder. “I don’t know what happened just then. But it sure looked good from over there!”
Then she added, “The California Special’s on the house. I got a feeling you just took one for the team.”
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.