Donna and Mark sat down in a booth in the backwoods Georgia restaurant. The bench seat oozed stuffing, despite being repeatedly shored up with duct tape. Donna dropped her bulging tote bag on the concrete floor and glared at her husband. “After lunch at your place, I’m picking every restaurant in Savannah.”
A hodgepodge of people filled the place. Professionals in suits. Blue collar types in uniforms with embroidered name tags. A bearded redneck watched sports highlights on a wall-mounted television.
A sputtering window air conditioner battled the suffocating South Georgia summer. Dishes clattered. A grill sizzled.
Her husband smiled. “Just give it a chance.”
They had driven twenty minutes off the interstate for this? They’d miss their check in at the bed and breakfast.
At least they’d make Dalton Poole’s lecture at Savannah State University tonight. Poole was her favorite author. She wished she had his talent for Southern literature. Since getting her MFA from Emory she’d sold a dozen stories to online magazines, but couldn’t crack the literary markets. She hoped Poole might give her one of his rare autographs.
They were closer to the Okeefenokee Swamp than the ocean. “If you love dives like this so much, why don’t you move?” Donna snapped.
“You couldn’t live in the sticks.”
The waitress asked what they wanted to drink.
“Two unsweet teas,” Mark said.
He’d at least gotten something right. Donna glanced at the faded color photos of food on the frayed laminated menu. “What’s a pork chop sandwich?”
Mark frowned. “You don’t want that. You have to eat around the bone. The fried chicken sandwich’s just a drumstick on white bread.”
Donna winced. She could be eating peel-and-eat shrimp with a tall microbrew on River Street right now. Some vacation.
The waitress set down their iced teas. She plucked two straws and several packages of artificial sweetener from her apron and dropped them on the plastic tablecloth. “What’ll y’all have?”
“Dark meat fried chicken basket with fries,” Mark said.
Donna drummed her fingers on the table. “A house salad with a side of ranch dressing.”
“Get the fried chicken,” Mark urged.
The waitress smiled. “It’s our specialty, honey.”
Donna gave in. “Fine. White meat. Can I substitute salad for the fries?”
The waitress nodded and took the menus.
“You like fried chicken this much?” Donna asked. “We could have just got Kentucky Fried Chicken on I-16.”
“Dalton Poole eats here,” Mark said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Donna said. “I doubt he’d drive an hour and half into the swamp to get some fried chicken.”
The waitress brought Donna’s salad. Mark turned to her. “Have you met Dalton Poole?”
“He’s come in a few times.” The waitress pointed to the wall by the register. “His picture’s over there.”
The glossy pictures of waterfalls and mountains that covered the cinderblock wall looked like they had been cut from magazines. A black and white autographed photo of Dalton Poole stood out.
Mark sipped his tea. “Poole writes about places like this.”
Donna squeezed lemon into her tea. “He teaches at Duke. He got the hell out of this part of the South.”
“This restaurant is the South. We live in Atlanta,” Mark said. “That city could be anywhere. It’s not the South.”
Donna flicked a piece of wilted iceberg lettuce with her fork. “Then what is Atlanta?”
“Coffee houses and good sushi and health clubs. Just like Tampa or Charlotte.”
“Okay. Why do we live there?”
Mark shrugged. “It’s where the jobs are.” He flashed a grin. “I think Dalton Poole’ll come by here today.”
“Poole’s smart enough to eat in Savannah,” Donna said.
Mark snorted. “Eat what? Seafood lasagna? Quiche?”
The waitress brought two steaming servings of chicken. Donna’s basket still had fries.
“I didn’t order fries,” Donna said.
The waitress smiled. “White meat basket with fries and a side salad. Fries are on the house.”
Donna picked up the breast and took a cautious nibble. It was not what she’d expected. It was not overly greasy and had a strong flavor of tomato. “This is good.”
“They fry it in peanut oil and homemade tomato sauce.” Mark picked up a bottle of hot sauce and tapped a few drops into her ranch dressing. He mixed it with a fry. “Dip your fries in that.”
The crisp fries were seasoned with pepper or maybe cayenne. The spicy ranch dressing complemented the flavor perfectly. “Not too bad,” she admitted.
Mark pulled a familiar book from Donna’s bag. “Maybe Poole will come by here and sign this.”
Donna glanced at the novel she’d hoped Poole would sign in Savannah. “I read this the first time in college. He really captures the South.”
“We’re in the South right now,” Mark said.
“Yeah,” she said. “But, Poole has all the great themes. Fractured family lines. Racial divides. If he writes about a place like this, it’s just window dressing. I bet he never looks back at South Georgia.”
They were interrupted when the man from the next table walked over. He wore faded jeans, a Braves tee shirt and cowboy boots. He was the redneck who’d been watching TV.
He squinted at the hot sauce. “This is from Chicago. I don’t know what that’s even doing here. I would have asked for something local.”
Mark looked embarrassed.
The man picked up Donna’s book. “Good book. Not the best.”
“Excuse me?” Donna wasn’t sure what to say.
He took a pen from his pants pocket and scrawled something in the book before Donna could stop him. He handed it back. “I enjoyed writing it.”
Donna studied the stranger. It was Poole, more casually dressed than on the dust jacket where a clean-shaven Poole looked professorial in a tweed jacket with elbow patches.
Poole hugged the waitress before walking out the door to a battered pick-up truck.
Donna opened the book. In the front page Poole had written: “Remember — it wouldn’t be the South without local fried chicken and sweet tea. Dalton Poole.”
This is Peter Wood‘s first sale that is not science fiction or fantasy. He is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. He lived in middle Georgia in the early nineties and frequented Smith’s Fried Chicken in Soperton where Pat Conroy was rumored to stop on trips to Atlanta via I-16. Pete never saw Conroy. Smith’s, sadly, has closed.
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