The list sent with me to Bubba-Doo’s was quite specific. Good thing, too. My tipping point on chaos when it comes to a list is three items. To be clear, you can tell me any two things and I will go get them. Add a third, and I might not get any of the three correctly. So, the list my wife texted me was a big help.
Stephanie and Marleen were taking care of cooking two patty-melt baskets to go. Those would be dinner. They came with fries on the side. For a limited time, ordering two items also qualified us to get a free mini-appetizer of fried pickles. The pickle trial deal was so everyone would be assured of at least tasting the new menu item.
So far, the ratings on the fried pickles were pretty good. People were liking them and starting to order them without having to receive them gratis. Of course, one well-known comedian has a routine about things like that. He swears that in the South, we like fried food so much that “if we don’t have anything else laying around, we’ll fry car parts.”
Thankfully, there were no automotive entries on the menu at Bubba-Doo’s. While that order was in over at the restaurant, I rounded up all the rest. Cat litter was all too easy. Check. Window cleaner, check. A quart of buttermilk, check. This would keep us from running a special errand since I already was going to be here. Now, if they had the size of wiper blades I needed we would be in business.
“Say, here’s the pastor! MaryBeth, have you met the pastor over at the Baptist church yet?” Shirley’s familiar, always welcoming voice beckoned. “Pastor, you may not know MaryBeth yet. I taught her in junior Sunday School way back. But she lives in Raleigh these days. She’s home to visit.”
I shook hands with MaryBeth and assured her I was glad to meet her. We visited for a minute, then Shirley whisked her off around the corner.
I had moved on to looking for a 16-inch wiper blade. That led to comparing the merits of Bosch versus Rain X when I heard Stumpy clear his throat. “I see you met the scholar.”
“You may recall that Stumpy is not the most pleasant of the Bubba-Doo regulars.”
Now, you may recall that Stumpy is not the most pleasant of the Bubba-Doo regulars.
In fact, most regulars are glad Stumpy is not among the most frequent of the familiar faces. His occasional stops at the store are plenty for most folks.
“It’s good she deigned to come home and grace us with her presence,” he allowed.
Having heard him refer to MaryBeth as “the scholar” and then say that last sentence, I suspected I knew what was happening. Sadly, though, the way Stumpy said all this was dripping with sarcasm. He may be a tired, angry old man, but when Stumpy wants to throw a verbal pitch at someone, his fastball still has a lot of life to it.
“Well, Stumpy, what’s that all about?” I asked. Although I already knew the answer, it didn’t keep me from wanting to hear him explain himself. “She seemed impressive and perfectly nice to me,” I added.
He snarled, “I bet you think so, with her fancy clothes and purse. She was a little too good to stay home with her mama and daddy. Went off to college and got an education. Then, that wasn’t enough. She went on to get a master’s degree. Met a guy and they got married. Their careers took them to other places and they forgot all about us.”
“The way he said this, you’d think this woman had grown up to become an international jewel thief or something.”
The way he said this, you’d think this woman had grown up to become an international jewel thief or something. Then he added, “Same thing that happened with the writer.”
I was about to ask, when it dawned on me who he was talking about. Mark Scott was a consistent New York Times best-selling author. He wrote popular novels, and I mean a lot of them. Go through any airport in the English-speaking world and Mark’s latest book would be in all the shops. He had grown up not far from here.
In fact, Mark Scott used to ride his bicycle to Bubba-Doo’s when he was a boy. He loved a Chick-o-Stick and a Grape Nehi. His mother played the piano at the Methodist church and lived to quite a nice old age.
Truth is, he used his unique resources to see that she had the best of care. Other family members still lived nearby. He came to town to look in on her as often as he could. Recently, Scott himself had died and it made national news.
Here’s the deal. To some extent in the town where my church is located, and for sure out where Bubba-Doo’s is, there has been a noticeable pattern for generations now. For at least the last 40 years, and maybe more, the area has been growing older. While there used to be more farming and industry, there is increasingly less for which younger folks would stay home.
That much has happened in smaller towns all over the country. Here’s the problem in our area: Despite what is obvious, some of the locals still don’t understand. They expect that good, responsible young folks who were raised here should live here for the rest of their lives. Lost on them is the fact that career options are limited.
To take things one step further, there is the treatment these often successful native sons and daughters get when they do come back to check on the folks. To call it a cold shoulder would be generous.
“There is the treatment these often successful native sons and daughters get when they do come back to check on the folks.”
Let’s take Mark Scott. He traveled the world and did the things a famous celebrity author would do in a lifetime. He lived in New York City and had a productive relationship with a major publishing house for decades. As one of their stars, there are events and obligations. Being in a city like that effectively is your office. It’s where you do your best work within that industry.
Could he have continued to live two miles from Bubba-Doo’s and “looked after his mama like a good son”? Of course. Especially in a computer age, that would have been possible.
It would require missing out on key events and taking a lot of flights for essential things. But it would have been possible. Not likely, though. A rational person could understand that.
An insecure person like Stumpy simply wouldn’t understand. So, returning families often got the treatment in this area. For every Shirley who was proud and loving, there were a couple of others who wrote you off no matter how successful or even relatively famous you were. In their view, these people had shirked a responsibility of some kind.
Once you leave this area, you can become an outsider all too fast. Ironically, the expectation that causes this treatment results in even fewer returns and visits. Because, who’s in a hurry to go where they’re so obviously not wanted?
I said, “Stumpy, what was MaryBeth supposed to do? Not go and find out if her career choice would make a happy life?” Then I added, “Was she supposed to say to this guy that she would only marry him if he were willing to return with her to her hometown? I think that’s kinda asking a lot.”
“Well, what would have been so bad with all that? I’m sure the jewelry store was hiring. Or, she could’ve made a teacher. We always need teachers. Yeah, I think she abandoned us.”
“People like him felt abandoned or maybe shunned by those who dared to move and discover a life outside the area.”
There it was. His true, gut-level feeling. People like him felt abandoned or maybe shunned by those who dared to move and discover a life outside the area. Her moving away had triggered something deep within Stumpy. Maybe a regret or his own missed opportunity. Mark Scott’s fame and global experiences also somehow made Stumpy feel small, evidently.
“Don’t you think that’s a little strong?” I asked. “I mean, were you or even her parents supposed to get to chart her life for her, or was that her business?”
Stumpy turned red-faced. I could tell I was about to catch what was really intended for this poor middle-aged woman who had dared to come home from the city for a visit.
“Might’ve known a liberal preacher like you would have a bleeding heart for a snob like that,” he said.
Stumpy truly was a therapist’s dream. Academic or professional journal papers could have been written about this angry, toxic old man. I think I even noticed him clenching his fist briefly as he said that last part to me.
“Stumpy truly was a therapist’s dream.”
If anyone believes people can change, I do. That’s part of my theological stock and trade. However, I’m skeptical Stumpy ever will. His bias, his prejudice and anger are all so deeply interwoven. As one person of color observed about Stumpy one day, “Just give up on him. He’s old and it’s never going to come out of him. It’s down in there too deep.”
What’s so brutal about Stumpy, though, is that he’s also one of the God-talkingest and church-goingest people you’ll ever meet. He’s belonged to a million churches in the area. There’s always a falling out, and it’s always the pastor’s fault. He drags Christian faith through the mud one foul, nasty conversation at a time.
“Stumpy, let me ask you this.” He looked vacantly at me for a second. Probably, he was already disagreeing with whatever I would say next. “What did you want most for your own kids?”
He thought for a minute. “I wanted them to be healthy and to grow up God-fearing.”
“OK. Those are important things,” I said. “But beyond that, what next did you want for them? You know, as a parent.”
“Well, I wanted them to be successful and to be happy,” he responded.
Now, I just stared at him for a moment. “Mark Scott sure was successful,” I said. “And MaryBeth sure looked happy a minute ago. Tell me, so I’ll understand. What is it that they did wrong again?”
“It’s just that …” and he stammered some more. But he didn’t seem able to form his next thought.
Then I asked, “Tell me about Mark’s mother and father. You knew them, right? Were they proud of him? Did they enjoy telling about every book that came out and every adventure he lived?”
“And, you know MaryBeth’s folks. Are they proud of her? Do they talk about what she’s out and about doing?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Stumpy said.
“Then, I’m missing something. I’m missing where they supposedly went so wrong. If you could enlighten me, maybe I would understand. Seems like a small town would want something outside of it to be proud of. To brag about, even.”
“Figures you’d look at it like that. You done moved off and left your mama, too,” he said.
I caught myself stepping close into Stumpy’s personal space. I felt my eyes narrow. We stared at each other for a split second.
Then, quietly I whispered, “It’s time for you to walk away now. And if there’s a human being in there, Stumpy, try to be a better person.”
“It actually doesn’t take all kinds. We just have all kinds.”
You know, it actually doesn’t take all kinds. We just have all kinds. Bubba-Doo’s provides a crossroads where we intersect in our area. I wish all the encounters went well. They simply don’t, although most do. I wish everyone tried harder to understand their own untended life stuff. Maybe to focus less on others’ business. Some simply won’t.
“Two patty-melts!! Where’s the pastor?” I heard Marleen’s melodic voice call out. I heard her singing as I moved toward the restaurant.
As I reached to grasp the white plastic to-go bag from her, she smiled and my whole world changed in an instant. She rang up my few purchases along with the meals.
“These looked goooood” she dragged out, referring to the sandwiches. “After that workout it looks like you were having with ole Stumpy, you’d better get supper home to that beautiful wife of yours. Tell her I said ‘Hey!’”
“I’ll do that. You have a good rest of the week, OK, Marleen?” I said back.
“I will,” she responded. “Come back soon, and just see us. We’ll be nice to you over here in this part of the store.”
One of the challenges we all face in life is to keep perspective. Not everyone is a contentious or unhealthy presence in our lives. Surely, that must be true. It’s just that the truly rancorous people we encounter can make us feel like the world isn’t a great place.
That may be why sunny people like Marleen and Stephanie are so crucial on this globe. They can reset things with a quick, simple act of kindness. They encourage me. I left knowing I would be back soon, if only to redeem the taint Stumpy could occasionally cast onto Bubba-Doo’s.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: