The assignment was a research paper on any county in Tennessee. Any county besides Shelby. We lived in Memphis then, in Shelby County. I chose Hickman County

A research paper was serious business in my family, even for an eighth-grader. My dad worked for the newspaper, my mom taught college English. Intellectuals, literary types. We were literally on our way to Hickman County before you could say, “footnote.” 

To Centerville, specifically, the center of Hickman County. At the time, the population of Centerville was approximately 3,000, and going by the multitude of road signs we would pass, the lives of those 3,000 citizens were centered on an establishment called Pete’s. 

Pete’s Restaurant, “Serving Centerville since 1947”, “Best Throwed Biscuits in the State”.  

Fine Eatin'. Eat at Pete’s. 

Yes, “throwed” biscuits, it’s a thing, in certain kinds of places in the South. You hold out a basket and they throw hot biscuits at you from the kitchen

No I’m not making that up. They throw biscuits at you. Literally. Hot ones. 

So there we were, driving along, and about 75 miles outside of Centerville we saw the first "Pete's" sign.  “Pete’s Restaurant, Fine Eatin’, Truckers Welcome.” Five more miles, “Eat at Pete’s, Breakfast Served Anytime.” Then every three miles. Every two miles. “Friendly Service”. “Golden Fried Chicken”. 

Clean restrooms. Kids under eight eat free. 

The closer we came to Centerville the more signs we saw about the wonders of you-know-where, and all that money spent on advertising worked. We got to Centerville, checked in to a motel, and headed straight to Pete’s. 

Note to self: ask Pete why “eight”. 

Maybe you’ve never dined in a David Lynch film, but I have. Ok, not literally, I came close that day at Pete’s. For starters, you had to be buzzed in. 

No I’m not making that up. A sign at the door said “Welcome to Pete’s Press Buzzer”. Seriously. 

We pressed the buzzer and instead of Allen Funt, a waitress opened the door. Rhonda said, “Jus’ set any ol’ where.” 

We sat in a booth and looked at laminated menus. Old album covers on the walls. Floyd Cramer. Ferlin Husky. There were some old-timers, guys who looked like they ate tobacco for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A man, sitting by himself, reading The Wall Street Journal

And bird cages. With stuffed birds inside. Why dead, stuffed birds need cages is unclear. 

Rhonda came back to the table and said, “Whut sumpin’ kin I git yew.” 

You want me to translate? Anywhere else in the world that would be, “May I take your order?” Anywhere. Literally. 

I remembered the “Breakfast Served Anytime” sign and said, “I want the Number Two Breakfast, bacon, with biscuits and grits”. Just as I was about to ask for a biscuit-catcher, Rhonda said, “Biscuit guy’s off t’day. Rolls. Corn muffins.” 

Biscuit guy?

My mom shot me a look that said, Don’t

Fine. Whatever. Bring me some of each. Rhonda took my mom’s order, then my dad’s. She was gathering up the menus when I remembered I had a question. With all the bright-eyed exuberance of youth, I asked: 

“Where’s Pete?” 

Crickets. Literally.  A hush fell over the room. Rhonda looked at me like I’d sprouted a Hitler mustache

“Pete’s dead, hon”, she said. 

The Wall Street Journal guy shuffled his paper, loudly. 

The stuffed, caged birds were silent.

A tobacco-eater coughed.

The bacon was burnt, the grits were cold, there was a hair in one of the corn muffins. We shook our heads when Rhonda asked, "Sumpin' else yew need?" 

We waited for our change as the glass-eyed birds looked on. The distance to the door was like a perp walk

It rained on the way back, halfway home the sun came out. The sky turned a nervous shade of blue. I watched the road go by, thoughts leaping like wet frogs. It was a day I would remember when I saw “Eraserhead.” 

I got an A on the paper, but now descriptive powers fail me; capturing the memory of "Pete’s" takes more skill than I possess. 

You stab it and it bleeds. Then bounces like it’s rubber.

There are no words for any of it. 

Literally.

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