ballad of a person living in a small town

By phillip gillis

A skateboard cracked against the wall on the building next door as laughter erupted. I didn’t have to turn around because I knew the kids, taught their parents, and probably knew their grandparents, too. Then I heard an exchange I’ve heard my whole life…

You alright?
Yeah.
What you doing this weekend?
Nothing.
Man, ain’t nothing to do here.

          The metal steps started at the backdoor on the second story of 1792 Beer Company and stretched down to the parking lot behind Black Creek Brewery. The backdoor of 1792 was propped open as Vampire Weekend played A-Punk and the speakers in Black Creek’s beer garden featured Freddy Mercury belting out, “Tonight I’m gonna have a real good time.” A food truck blocked the alley between the two businesses where four guys set up their instruments around strategically placed plastic tables.

It seemed like a lifetime ago when I first sat on those backsteps to catch my breath as we skateboarded and rollerbladed. However, I was still wearing black Doc Martens boots and a black t-shirt with a Zero logo.

          “So let me get this straight,” I said with my voice angled over my shoulder, and pushed my blackrimmed glasses up my nose. “You and Zack have the truck with New Orleans po’ boys and brisket at 1792 and Black Creek has the dumplings truck?”

“Yeah,” Kyle answered.

“How the hell am I supposed to pick between my two favorite foods?”

“You’re a big boy. Just eat bo-”

“Kyle!” Zack yelled from inside the bottle shop as the door slammed shut.

          He had a point, but I always carried a backup plan in my pocket for big decisions such as dumplings versus po’ boys. I stood up and stretched my legs -- or more specifically -- my knees. I remember a time when they did not sound like fireworks when I move.

The smell of dumplings and the sound of Freddy Mercury’s voice guided me down the alley, around the tables, and to the chalkboard menu propped on the side of the truck.

Juicy Buns, Chicken Minis, or Veggie Dumplings
Sauces: Chirba Spicy, Garlic Sesame, or Black Vinegar
Please Note: All Items Based on Seasonal Availability

          My first instinct was to dive headfirst into the back window of the food truck and into a never-ending supply of steamed dumplings.

“Hey, man. I got all of us a table,” my buddy Justin said. Austyn kept one eye on their two children to make sure they did not drink all of their Coke before the food arrived and the other on her book.

“Nice,” I said. “Candace should be here with our two monsters in a few minutes.”

“You need a drink?”
“Yeah. You?”
“Yessir,” Justin said.
“So what are we eating?”
We both shrugged.

          The poster on the front door announced:

Food Truck Rodeo
Uptown Roxboro
Sunday from 12-5pm
12 Trucks, Music, Vendors, & Local Brew
          A food truck rodeo. In Roxboro.

Never would I ever think I would see one here. My first experience with this type of rodeo happened years ago in downtown Raleigh. Food trucks blocked off the street and circled like wagons. In the middle sat a wrestling ring.

I can hear the conversation when Chris and I got there and found out who I was wrestling…

Sideshow, your match is against Otto.
You’re gonna get murdered.
Yeah, but I win most of them in Roxboro.
Yep… and this afternoon, you get murdered!
Oh well.

I remember Chris’s laugh as I put on my gear and his mockery at my misfortune while I prepared to wrestle in front of a few hundred people in a match which included me taking the business end of multiple powerbombs, enough chops that my chest turned purple later that day, and a spot where a random piece of straw landed in the ring and I hit my opponent in the eye with it and he sold it like he was blinded, but even back then, all I could think about was which truck Chris and I were going to eat at after the show.

On the way back out the door, the music from the speaker stopped and Matt, the lead singer of the band, moved to the mic.

“We appreciate all of y’all coming out this afternoon and REALLY love all the support for Uptown Roxboro, our band, the food trucks, and especially 1792 Beer Company and Black Creek Brewery. How about we start with something bluesy?”

The black, 2014 Honda Civic pulled into the parking lot from the opposite direction. I squinted to try and figure out if it was the right one and was assured when I saw the initials on the back window as she parked: CJL.

“Daddy!” my son yelled while he struggled to put on his mask and maneuvered out of the backseat. My daughter managed to get out of the car, put on her mask, grab a pizza and her pocketbook without the use of her eyes which were squarely on her phone.

“Hey, babe,” Candace said.

“Hey, beautiful.” I kissed her as my son hugged my waist, and I tousled his hair with my free hand.

“So the kids got pizza,” Candace said. “What are we eating?” I tapped my pocket. “Let me guess. You can’t decide between a po’ boy, dumplings, and brisket.”

“And gumbo,” I added. “Gumbo is tonight’s special.”

“Big choices,” Candace said with a smile.

I removed an orange, 20-sided dice from my pocket. My buddy, Kenny, pulled it out of a massive purple sack of role-playing dice when I was in high school and handed it to me at the card shop in between role-playing games and another friend teaching me to play guitar.

Now roll for defense.
Play C, G, and then D.
Let him finish his Dungeons & Dragons character sheet.
After he learns this.
You wanna be a warrior or a cleric?
Just take this tape home and listen to the songs tonight.

Years later, I still play role-playing games and acoustic guitar. The first card shop where I sat down at a table across from Kenny for a game of Magic: the Gathering and rolled my first dice has been gone for almost 20 years. The other shops where I met Justin and played guitar with Chris are more of a recent memory.

But here we sit, still gathered around a table in our hometown. I moved the orange dice around in the palm of my hand.

“Ready?” I asked.
“Ready,” said Candace.
“Ready,” said Austyn.

I rolled the dice across the table.
And it rolled.
Off the table.
Onto the pavement.
To the curb.
And into the gutter grate.

          “Damn,” one of us said. I’m not sure who.

  Matt tapped me on my shoulder. When I turned around, he put his Taylor acoustic guitar in my hand and asked, “Before you eat, you wanna do this?”

“Gotta do it some time.”

“Thanks for indulging an old man,” I said into the mic. “My buddy, who taught me to play guitar when I was 16, said that this is the most perfect song ever written. I didn’t quite get it then. I do now.”

I put the capo on the second fret of the guitar, turned back to the band, and asked Angel from Montgomery? The bearded bass player smiled and the rest nodded almost in unison. “This is for Handsome Johnny.”

I shut my eyes and strummed a D chord.

“I am an old woman...named after my mother…”

***

          I sat at the end of four long tables pushed together with four piles of dumplings, three shrimp po’ boys, a bowl of gumbo, two plates of brisket, and a large container of succotash between me, Candace, Justin and Austyn. Three of our children watched the skateboarders ollie the stairs in the alley as the fourth tried to decide if she should throw a rock at them or not. Duchess barked and begged for a piece of pork from under the table. Chris, still mocking me about that wrestling match, and Kenny, without his sack of dice, had two plates of brisket and potatoes in front of them that they swore were just about the best they ever tasted. Kyle pulled Zack out of 1792 and down the metal stairs to the table where they sat down with a couple of ciders and IPAs. Matt and the band put their guitars in their cases, covered the drums, and joined the rest of the crew.

“Ain’t nothing to do,” I heard a skater say off in the distance as the children gasped in awe as he jumped an entire flight of stairs.

“Ain’t nothing to do,” I heard my younger self say 20 years ago.

The people around the table showed me differently.

Summer 2021

Phillip Gillis is a teacher, writer, wanderer, semi-retired professional wrestler, and father of two beautiful children. He is also a proud native of Allensville, NC and grew up in a hardware store, C&G Supply Center.

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