Guided by a star
By Tom Bryant
The note arrived on a Tuesday. Mail delivery had been sporadic at best, ostensibly due to the pandemic and delivery of voting ballots during the recent elections. The note was brief and to the point. It was a typical Bubba transcript and read, “We’re having a get-together at Slim’s next Saturday. Why don’t you come to the house on Friday. I have some fresh makings of Ritter’s apple brandy. We’ll test it, and I’ll grill a couple of steaks. Judith’s at the beach with some girlfriends, so we’ll have the place to ourselves. We’ll catch up and talk old times. Hope you can make it, Bubba.”
Bubba and I have spent many days afield, hunting, fishing and camping, and we have become great friends. Our paths went in different directions when Linda, my bride, and I moved to Southern Pines. Plus, Bubba started taking more exotic hunting and fishing trips across the world. To be honest, he has deeper pockets than I do. Our friendship remained, though, and we stayed in touch and met from time to time at cocktail parties, friends’ gatherings and such.
Slim’s Place, referred to in Bubba’s note, is an ancient country store, actually begun and operated by Slim’s grandfather. When the grandfather died, the store fell into disrepair and almost rotted away until Slim, after making a fortune out West in the real estate business, restored it to its former glory. For years, he ran the store more as a hobby than a business, often exclaiming, “The only reason I keep this obsolete old store open is so all you reprobates will have a place to go.”
We did go. It was a place, like the theme song played in the TV show Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.” We did know the names and the families and the dogs and the history, good and bad, of all the good old boys who took advantage of Slim’s hospitality. The patrons of the ancient establishment were a diverse collection, from mill owners to mill workers. Every visitor to Slim’s store was on equal footing, except maybe lawyers. They were jokingly treated differently.
We were in between the holiday seasons, Thanksgiving roaring toward Christmas, and it seemed as if everyone wanted the weird year 2020 to be over. The country was still divided, more so than I’d ever seen due to the acrimonious presidential election and the political differences in how to handle the coronavirus. There didn’t seem to be an end to the rancorous conflict throughout the country, and 2021 would soon be upon us. I hoped that a visit to Bubba’s and Slim’s Country Store and a meeting with a group of good old boys would put everything into perspective.
Bubba built his home back in the mid-’80s, and it’s quite a showcase. Pretty much energy-efficient, the home sits on a little rise overlooking a small lake that is consistently teeming with wildlife. Ducks, geese and even at times a pair of otters use the carefully constructed habitat.
I arrived there in the late afternoon, looking forward to a great visit with an old friend. After an appropriate time of good-natured insults to one another, we went through the house to the deck off his study to watch a beautiful evening sunset.
True to his word, as we settled back in chairs overlooking the pond, he said, “OK there, Cooter, let me pour you a little shot of Ritter’s finest.” (He bestowed on me the nickname Cooter years before and it stuck.) On the table between the two chairs was a decanter full of an amber liquid, and as he poured us a little libation into heavy cut glass tumblers, he added, “Ritter wanted you to have a couple quarts. Don’t let me forget to give ’em to you. He told me to tell you Merry Christmas.”
We both sat in comfortable silence and watched the sun slowly sink behind the tree line on the west end of the pond. Several wood ducks soared close over the water, did a hard turn and skidded to rest near the far bank.
“Watch, Tom, those ducks do the same thing every evening. They’ll swim around for a few minutes then fly up to those oak trees and roost for the night. Pretty to see, almost like they have a watch. They come in every sundown at the same time.”
“I love to watch wood ducks,” I responded. “Speaking of ducks, I thought you’d be down in Louisiana duck hunting about now.”
“Nope, this dadgum virus has everything screwed. I’ve canceled two trips already. One fishing and one hunting. I think I’m gonna just stay home until after the first of the year. Things have got to change. The country can’t continue like this. How about you? Y’all still heading to Florida on your annual winter fishing adventure?”
“The plan is still there. We probably won’t go back to Chokoloskee this time, opting for a closer fishing hole, maybe Cedar Key just above Tampa. Last year we were way down South when this virus thing broke and had to hustle back with the snow bird migration. It wasn’t a pleasant trip. How are things at Slim’s? Things at the store getting by in this crazy year?”
“That’s one reason I wanted this get-together, with you especially, and also some of the old crowd.”
After Slim passed away, Bubba had purchased the old country business from Leroy, Slim’s nephew, who had inherited the place. Bubba bought the store on a whim, and as he often said, so he’d have a place to go. Plus he liked the coffee.
“The venture is getting to be more trouble than it’s worth,” he continued. “We closed the first two months of the pandemic and gave all the perishables to local churches. Now we’re open only three days a week. I would have already closed the place, but I’m keeping it open because Leroy has to have a job, and more than that, in memory of Slim. Like I said, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
The sun had fully set but there was still a soft glow on the western horizon. In contrast, early stars began to twinkle in the eastern night sky.
We sat quietly, sipping Ritter’s brandy.
“I don’t know what to say, Bubba. No one would really blame you if you shut it down. I mean thousands of businesses are closing during this virus mess. Slim would probably have already closed the store. And yet I keep remembering that Christmas season years ago when you and Slim and I were sitting on the porch of the old building, also enjoying some of Ritter’s apple brandy, when that bright star showed up in the eastern sky.”
“Yep,” Bubba paused. “Those were good times, good days, Tom. I recollect that night every Christmas, especially about Slim quoting a verse from the Bible, you know, about the star and the birth of Jesus.”
He stood, stretched, and looked to the eastern sky that was sprinkled with stars. “I think I’ve made up my mind, Cooter, I’m gonna keep the decrepit old place open. I believe we need a bright star now more than ever. This Christmas, why don’t you come up here one evening and we’ll sit on the porch, drink some more brandy and watch for it. Maybe the visit and our search will bring good tidings in 2021. But right now, what say we grill a couple of steaks?”
I did visit Slim’s venerable old country setting one frosty evening a few days before this past Christmas. Bubba and I pulled up a pair of rockers on the wraparound porch with Slim’s favorite rocker on one side. We looked to the east and waited. The bright star was still there. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.