I followed the sound of a jukebox coming from a levee
All of a sudden I could hear somebody whistling from right behind me.
I turned around and she said,
"Why do you always end up down at Nick's Cafe?"
I said "I don't know, the wind just kind of pushed me this way."
She said "Hang the rich."
It was 4:30 in the afternoon on a fairly warm spring day. Cobble and I had wound up at Nick's again, drinking beer out of tall bottles which were suffering the disgrace of having their red and white labels slowly peeled off as they sat patiently warming atop a red and white checked tablecloth. The sun struggled in through the dusty slices of Venetian blinds all around the room. Neither of us were rich, but Cobble had a much better situation than me. He had a full-time job at the Bureau of Mines, in a building on the University campus, where they were developing new ways of making bricks. He told me that glass was involved, but I was just half listening. The only glass I was interested in at the time was the amber vessel holding my legal escape as it was getting almost too warm to drink.
Cobble had just purchased a new car. The shiny orange Datsun 240Z was sitting outside. It was the first one anyone in this town has owned. He paid just over $5,000 for it, brand new off the lot. Later in the fall of that same year, we'd drive it to Vanderbilt and see the Grateful Dead play all afternoon. I'd fall in love for a week or two that day, even though my ass would be sore from the ride. The original Datsun 240Z was a lot like the old Mustang and several girls I knew at the time; they looked damn cool but were hard on your bottom line.
I'd fall in love every six months or so, and Cobble would stay the same hopelessly lovelifeless short person he was born. Behind his back, we would call that orange car his "penis extender." When I'd say, "Let's take the P.E. out to Nick's and have some beers," he'd just say, "Sounds good." Funny how a nickname sticks without some folks knowing what it means. It's like a reputation. It's like an obituary.
As we sat at Nick's that evening, what we didn't know was that while we were discussing John Barth's latest, a skink almost the same orange color as his penis extender was out in the parking lot , slowly walking around the rear passenger tire. The skink was looking quizzically at the tire, then up at the color of the small automobile, his neck darting quickly as lizards are wont to do. Then he lowered his neck to see an orange moon rise just underneath the undercarriage and above the highway to Eutaw, Alabama. At that very moment when the orange of the moon melded with the orange of Cobble's 240Z, the skink thought of his mother for a fleeting second that he didn't understand. It made him quiver and he turned around and returned to the shrubbery, but he never was quite the same again.
Cobble lived in a house his mother left him when she moved up to better digs. I guess that's one reason he seemed so much more well-off than some of the rest of us. That and the steady job. Any job you have with an outfit that says "Bureau" in its title is probably going to pay you more than anything we were doing during what, if any, could be called our working hours. How many of us can count the hours of wasted time we've had in this life? Grownups do not waste hours like a young adult does. I can tell you this from a tally of tens of thousands back in the days of Nick's Cafe and Cobble's 240Z car. Now, however, I cannot remember the last time I was bored. The closer you get to death, the less understanding you have of the entire concept of boredom.
As with many Nicks in America, Nick, who had opened the cafe years earlier, was a Greek. He was also a short man. Maybe that's why Cobble loved this place so much. Nick would come around from behind the bar and chat us up some days. Cobble would get him to tell us stories about when he opened this place in Cobble's home town and my college drive-thru locale. When Cobble would get up to shake his hand as he left to get back to work, it looked for just a moment as if they were about to commence an evening of midget wrestling right there in the restaurant.
We sat there drinking one Budweiser after another until it got dark. Then we ordered Nick's special. It was a small filet wrapped in bacon and a baked potato preceded by a salad consisting of some cut up iceberg lettuce and a couple of slices of tomato. The only thing that distinguished the salad was the blue cheese dressing. I had often accused Nick of letting it sit out in the parking lot to get good and funky. All that distinguished the filet was the price. I think it was around five bucks for the meal, plus fifty cents apiece for the beers. It was a simpler time.
Cobble's was a modest house of around 1200 square feet. He kept the yard trimmed and waved to the neighbors. None of them seemed to mind if we sat out back and drank outrageous amounts of beer on any given afternoon.
A couple of days after that dinner at Nick's, we were doing just that in just that back yard. As we usually did on nice days, the Frisbee was brought out around dusk. Cobble was on the west side of his lawn; I was on the east. There was a tree line behind him in the neighbor's yard which provided shade for his side and hid the sun going down from being in my eyes. At one point, however, his toss of the orange Frisbee sailed just over the top edge of the top third of the setting orange sun jutting out under a tall pine and just above a small oak. As the Frisbee seemed to hang there suspended, touching the top of the setting sun and almost melding with it, I shuddered and had a vivid memory of getting lost as a toddler.
I walked down the long gravel driveway leading to the dirt road that ran in front of the farmhouse where I grew up. Normally, I would not cross the dirt road, but I did that day. My dog, a collie without the long nose which we called just a shepherd back in those days, tried to nudge me back toward the house, but I was feeling adventuresome.
I crossed the dirt road and crawled under the barbed wire fence surrounding the huge pasture on the other side of the dirt road. I walked for a long time and was eventually out of sight of both the road and my house when I looked back. I wound up at a pond and I was squatting down, with my dog right beside me, looking at the water to see the tadpoles and little minnows swimming around when a farmer on a tractor saw me. He stopped his tractor and jumped down and ran towards me. I didn't know him but he seemed to know me. He put me on his lap on the tractor and drove back to the fence and then carried me back to my house. My dog ran alongside. Apparently I had been gone for quite some time; long enough for my mom to both notice as well as worry herself half to death. When I reappeared, she was insane with the desire to beat the ever-loving crap out of me as well as hug me until she could make sure I was home in one piece. She only managed to complete the latter.
Cobble's Frisbee toss appeared out of the blur of the setting sun and almost hit me in the head before my hand shot up to stop it. I felt a second shiver go up and down my spine as the disc fell to the ground. I had an epiphany of how much my parents loved me as a child and how much I'd love any children I would ever have. I knew I'd never be quite the same again.
"There's one thing you've got to learn
Is not to be afraid of it."
I said "No, I like it, I like it, it's good."
She said, "You like it now
But you'll learn to love it later."
Lyrics from Robbie Robertson's
"Somewhere Down the Crazy River" - 1987
Nick's Original Filet House
Now known as "Nick's in the Sticks"
4018 Eutaw Highway
Local: (205) 758-9316
I called to make sure it was the same place.
They told me Nick died in 2003.