Some years back, I put in two years of near-work at the University of South Carolina Aiken (USCA), and I got out of there with a near-meaningless Associate's Degree in English.
But lucky for me, while I was at USCA, I stumbled across my once-in-a-lifetime make-or-break teacher. That teacher turned out to be Franklin Ashley, now-erstwhile English professor, playwright, humorist and excellent jazz pianist. Ashley—whom I call Doc—taught me just about everything I know about playing music and writing stories.
So, last summer, when we Jowerses decided to take a little vacation down at Edisto Beach, S.C., I resolved to call Franklin Ashley, who lives within driving distance of Edisto. If weather and the Jowers women were agreeable, I hoped to have a little visit with him. Usually, I'm reluctant to call a friend I haven't seen for more than 20 years. I'm always afraid that the friend will be dead and buried, or worse, confined to an iron lung and cursing me with his last breath.
But I went ahead and called Franklin Ashley. Once I heard his voice, I was sure that he wasn't in an iron lung. He sounded great for a newly minted septuagenarian.
After Ashley and I talked for a while, he invited the Jowers women and me to Melvin's, a barbecue restaurant near Charleston. Brenda, who was nursing an ankle injury at the time, decided that she'd skip the indoor activities and just sit in the shaded part of the Melvin's parking lot with our dogfriend Rufus. Jess went into Melvin's with me. We looked around the restaurant, expecting to see Doc waving us in, but he wasn't there. I called his cell phone, and he answered, "Where are you, man?"
"I'm standing in the foyer at Melvin's," I said. "Where are you?"
"I'm standing in the foyer at Melvin's," he said. " And I don't see you."
Well, don't you know, there are two Melvin's barbecue restaurants in Charleston. Doc had driven to the old Melvin's. Brenda, Jess, Rufus and I were parked at the new Melvin's.
While I was in the South Carolina Lowcountry, I learned that some of the Melvin's restaurants had stirred up controversy in recent years, mostly by displaying controversial books, pamphlets and, uh, objectionable memorabilia. From what I could gather, everybody loves Melvin's barbecue and everybody loves their barbecue sauce. But not everybody loves the politics that come with the cole slaw.
Just then, I remembered something Doc told me back when I was at USCA. "When you start writing for publication," he said, "try to work with Northern editors. They'll hire you just for quaint."
Once Doc figured out how to get from the old Melvin's foyer to the new Melvin's front door, Jess and I found him, and we settled into a booth. Doc's still got his performer's mojo. Once he got started talking, he shared a career's worth of advice, reminiscences and stories. He shifted characters at Robin Williams speed, conjuring up a jazz piano player who enjoys the work of another jazz piano player because, as he says, "I like the notes he leaves out." When the piano player character was done, out popped a rapper who did a better-than-average job as a human beatbox. And when the rapper was done, the ghost of Strom Thurmond closed the show, tent-revival style.
Meanwhile, poor Brenda was sitting in Melvin's parking lot, waiting for Jess and me to join her in the family van. She was getting hungry and the van was getting a wee bit hot, so she called Jess' cell phone. "Baby girl," Brenda said, "how about you buy a small barbecue sandwich and run it out here to me."
Jess did that very thing, and Brenda set the sandwich between the two front seats. Just then, Rufus bolted from his bed in the back of the van, snatched the sandwich out of the bag and ate it in two bites, paper wrapper and all.
With her sandwich gone, Brenda decided she'd spent all the time she was going to spend sitting in the Melvin's parking lot. So she backed the van out of its spot, pulled into the drive-through line, and ordered herself a large barbecue sandwich. Don't you know, she put the bag between the seats again, and before she could get her hand into the bag, Rufus ran up and ate her sandwich for the second time in 10 minutes.
And with that, all four Jowerses, including the dog, headed back to Edisto. I'm pretty sure Rufus is already planning next summer's sandwich snatch.
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