Have you ever walked into a place, read the room and known instantly that something was off? A stop by my favorite old country store the other day was one of those times. I stepped through the door and could feel a troubled vibe permeating the entire place. Nearly everyone I saw looked down in the dumps. One or two basically looked mad. The room told me something bad had happened.
I hoped no one had died. It didn’t take me long to find out what was going on. Aaron asked if I’d heard yet. “Heard what?” I asked. “That we’ve got a thief among us,” he said.
A convenience store, especially a large and full-service one like Bubba-Doo’s, offers an array of things one might consider stealing. Ever since the old store added licenses to sell packaged alcohol and to pour drinks in the restaurant, that only added to what might cause a crook to target them.
There are cartons of cigarettes one could resell for a pretty penny. There are six-packs and cubes of beer for the taking if one only broke in at night. There is motor oil and a little hardware. If one were brazen enough to actually commit a daytime robbery, the cash drawer might be of value before a deposit is made. But exactly none of these things seemed to be what had been taken.
“Right off the wall. The nail’s still stick’n out of the brick wall. Just look at it,” Aaron said as he pointed.
I walked over to see an empty spot where dust, sun and a little kitchen grease had left the previously unexposed brick a slightly different hue. I had to think in order to recall what had been there in that exact spot and was now missing. There were mostly framed photos still hanging all around it.
Photos of regulars enjoying themselves at the little cafe adorn the old wall that has to be at least 120 years old. Some family pictures of the owners and staff show vacations, weddings, graduations and other life moments. There is a fork mounted on a small plaque right in the middle of the pictures. I still don’t know the story behind that one.
It reminds me that in the men’s restroom, there is a wooden shadow box that holds a 5/16ths wrench. For a time, when there was not a replacement handle available, the wrench had been how the water turned on and off in the men’s room. That stop-gap repair of sorts wound up being used for nearly two decades.
Turn the wrench one direction for on. Turn the wrench another for off. It had become a part of the scenery, and guys got the practical nature of it all.
“They snatched it and evidently walked right out the door. Who would steal a Billy Big-Mouth Bass?”
“Billy Big-Mouth,” Ralph mumbled as he walked by. They snatched it and evidently walked right out the door. Who would steal a Billy Big-Mouth Bass?”
Oh yeah. That’s what used to hang in the now empty spot. Come to think of it, who would steal a Billy Big-Mouth?
You may remember the gift that was extremely popular for about five minutes back in the late 1990s. A battery-operated and fairly lifelike plastic fish, these things had tiny speakers and a microchip that allowed the fish to open its mouth and sing a song or two. The deluxe ones were motion activated. If the sensor tripped, the fish flapped its tail and belted out a song.
So who would steal one now? I could wonder about that on a number of levels. But fact is, that fish had hung on the wall right there at Bubba-Doo’s for at least a couple of decades if not more. Most traditions, if you think about it, happen accidentally. Subtle though it may be, the toy fish had long ago taken its place on this little wall of fame. It belonged there, and indeed the expanse looked off somehow without it.
Winston is the quiet store owner. I told him I was sorry to hear about the theft and asked him if he had any ideas when or how it happened. Suddenly red-faced, he said: “Nothing. I don’t know a thing. I wish I did.”
Back in his day, Winston had looked like a walking fireplug. About 5’7” and laden with muscle at 230 pounds, the story is that he won a company weight-lifting competition back in the 1970s over at the bomber plant. Now approaching his senior adult years, some of that weight has settled. But he’s still solidly built and now was agitated that someone would violate the unspoken sanctity of Bubba-Doo’s adornments.
“I’m pretty sure if Winston knew who did it, he’d think about sinking one of those meat-hooks he calls a hand into ’em,” Mickey observed. “I don’t know what this world is coming to. Next thing you know, someone’ll steal his lucky toilet plunger. Good gosh.”
Actually, the toilet plunger might be more valuable than the Billy Big-Mouth. Word in the store was that the plunger was undefeated for about 20 years now. This might be a tall tale, but legend is that a bus once stopped by with a girls’ volleyball team. They gave it a run for its money with two clogged toilets and a backed-up sink. Somehow, though, Winston got the restroom working again.
As I waited for Stephanie to bring over my vegetarian burger, I gave all this some thought. Yes, it was “only” a toy fish. A prank gift? But how many laughs had that fish generated in its heyday? Then, once the joke had worn thin, how long had it been part of the look and personality of the wall? A quirky, funny inclusion among a bunch of meaningful keepsakes.
Maybe someone miscalculated the humor and soon would bring it back. Maybe someone got over-served and will realize in their more sober moments they had absconded with an icon. Maybe someone knew full well what they were doing. Hopefully, their conscience will kick in and they’ll return it soon.
“Winston won’t admit it, but I think he’s so mad about it because he feels a little violated. He ain’t used to being a victim.” I overheard one regular say.
Another offered an encouraging and neighborly word. “Carl, the fellow who makes false teeth? He’s offered a $100 reward for the return of the fish, no questions asked. Maybe that’ll jar something loose.”
“Yep, I think Carl just hates to see his buddy looking so down. Come to think of it, why do you think this has hit Winston so hard? I mean, it’s just a toy fish.” Mickey wondered.
“Pastor, what do you think? Stealing something — anything — from somebody is a violation of one of the Big 10. Right?” another said.
“Oh, I probably think a lot of the same things you all are thinking right now,” I replied.
“Most of all, I hate to see Winston so upset. It’s his place. It’s his stuff. A thing like that fish that’s been with you for so long, you hate to have someone decide it’s not going to travel on with you the rest of the way.”
Truth is, something like this would make you hope it was a complete stranger who took the toy. What’s disconcerting is the minute possibility that it was someone who stopped by more often.
“I thought you pastors were always telling us that stuff doesn’t matter,” Andrew said. Because Andrew loves being the contrarian in any conversation no matter how annoying that may be.
“Say, does anyone know what the deal is with the fish?”
“We do occasionally, I guess. But that doesn’t make it right for someone to relieve you of your things. Nor does it make it funny for someone to decide to prank you by removing something that’s not theirs,” I said. “Depending on the story behind it, that fish may have been one of the most meaningful things in this whole store.”
Then I added: “Say, does anyone know what the deal is with the fish?”
Ralph said, “Oh, yeah. I remember it like yesterday.” Ralph sort of came with the keys the day Winston bought the store decades ago. He has worked part time there since before the change of hands. Among the long-timers, Ralph is the institutional historian of Bubba-Doo’s.
“That kid from the school down the road used to stop in here every day. Special-needs boy. He’d come in here after school, and no matter what was happening, he’d make you feel better. One year, word got around that Winston was having a big birthday. That boy walked in here and handed him a fancy, wrapped-up present. He was so proud of himself, but he was also shy about it. He handed Winston the package and ran out the door.”
“So, the fish was the present?”
“Yep. He’d put a fresh battery in there for him and everything. Winston used to love to see people walk by that thing, not knowing that their motion would set it off. He’d laugh and laugh when they jumped. It’s hung there ever since.”
“Boy died about three years ago,” Ralph added.
Then, I knew it. Now, the fish wasn’t just a silly toy. It was a lasting connection with a young man who had brightened the place almost every single day for years.
“Then, I knew it. Now, the fish wasn’t just a silly toy.”
Maybe a week would go by and Winston might not particularly notice it there. But when he did, he saw more than a fish. He saw the face of a special young man who once was important to him.
That’s because Bubba-Doo’s is more than a store. It is more than an old business with a little restaurant and bar inside. It’s the heartbeat of a community. A crossroads of people who impact each other time after time.
We’ll be watching to see if the reward smokes out someone with information. Or if it awakens the conscience of someone who may think better over time about what they’ve done. Meanwhile, all that makes me really want to know now is why a fork is mounted on a plaque and hanging there on the wall.
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: