The Liars Table and Other Stories
From the last supper, to the Knights of the Round Table, to women gathered at a table on “The Talk,” movers and shakers of the world have always huddled around tables to share ideas, progress reports, predictions, plans and bald-face lies. In this spirit is the world renowned Liars Table at Shonet’s in Milton, West Virginia. My father grins and calls it the “Table of Knowledge.” We don’t contradict and we don’t scoff. Like beauty, knowledge is in the eye of the beholder.
Amish have Rumspringa. Jews have Bar Mitzvah. My father celebrated his grandson’s coming-of-age by inviting him to the Table. Man Child was floored. He was going to the Liar’s Table! Unlike any other college spring breaker anywhere in the world, he was going to awaken at the ungodly hour of seven to do it, but by golly he would have a seat at the Liar’s Table! He chose his wardrobe carefully, wearing the jeans he’d only worn three times without washing, as opposed to four.
I spit on my hand and wiped a smudge from his cheek before he took his leave. My mother and I sniffed, waving tear-stained handkerchiefs in the air as our men pulled out of my parents’ steep driveway in Pawpaw’s beat-up truck. That poor thing is Mater in the original “Cars” movie. It coughs and pieces of it crumble onto the Wal-Mart parking lot. “But the engine’s good,” Daddy grumbles and he takes my child with him to the land of biscuits and gravy, manliness and that particular clink of flatware against china only heard in a diner.
While the men were doing man things, my mother and I worked out at her gym. Once again, white-headed octogenarians circled me like piranha as I grunted, huffed and begged my body to not pass gas. YMCA swim class flashbacks triggered me. The Silent Generation is stealthy in its steely-eyed ability to supersede my place at the gym.
I wondered if it were intentional that women were working out at the gym while men were eating biscuits and gravy at the diner. There are far more widows than widowers in my small town. Is this part of a plan?
When we reconvened at Casa Nanna & Pawpaw, Man Child was splayed out in the family room floor like a starfish washed ashore. He clutched his distended belly. “Omigod Mom. So. Much. Food. The omelet was as big as the plate. They used twelve chickens for the omelet.” He rolled over and farted, not demonstrating the restraint I used at the gym.
He mumbled into the carpet. “There are leftovers in the fridge. Like an entire meal of leftovers. Half an omelet. Biscuits and gravy.” My dad was in his recliner, lips pursed, head shaking in disappointment. His offspring had failed him once again. I had raised a weakling who couldn’t finish a simple Shonet’s breakfast. I’m sorry Daddy. He can’t shoot a basketball worth spit either. He’s really smart, though.
My foremost concern was that Man Child’s infirm stomach would ruin our plan for the day. Our raison detre. Driving into coal country. When I tell people I’m from West Virginia, usually the first response is, “I have an aunt in Roanoke.” I refrain from asking if they were home schooled or just slept through American History and politely comment that I’m happy that they have an aunt in Roanoke. I have a sister-in-law in Kentucky, which is ALSO a state that borders WEST Virginia.
The second comment usually centers around cousins-marrying jokes and I smile through bared teeth. Shortly after they’ve made themselves feel superior and brilliant, they will ask me about coalmines. “Well, I’m from the Huntington/Charleston area,” I say. “And that is usually more steel mill, chemical plant kind of industry. The coal mines are farther into the mountains….” As I continue with my soliloquy, their eyes glaze over and they mumble something about their aunt in Roanoke having married her own cousin and wow that’s really interesting.
Man Child had never been into coal country and he was fascinated by the entire concept. One of his favorite movies is Matewan. One of my favorite books is Denise Giaradina’s Storming Heaven. Both are only slightly fictionalized accounts of the mine wars. I had a kickass history teacher in college, Dr. David Duke (who is married to my kickass English teacher, Dr. Rainey Duke) who taught a class in industrial history that forever marked me as a pro-union kinda gal. The people of coal country, their plight, their rugged, challenging lives pull at me and I can’t explain it. The fact that this also pulls at my son, who has never lived in West Virginia is unexplainable even more.
Clutching his distended belly, he insisted he was up to a trip to coal country. Obviously I would be driving. He was barely coherent, continuing to mutter about the omelet the size of a dinner plate, biscuits and gravy. As we made our way to Charleston, via I-64 for the third time in a week, I asked him about the Liar’s Table. He confessed he was slightly disappointed. The day’s agenda seemed to focus on bellyaching that Trump was being treated unfairly. One man, a pro-union Democrat, sat quietly as the others teased him. I advised my offspring that perhaps today’s lesson at the Table of Knowledge was observing that man sitting quietly, remaining with his friends, despite their divisive rhetoric that has become rote words of recitation. Perhaps his allowing those words to bounce off him will show his friends that he is still there, still their friend, and contrary to what FOX News would have them believe, still the same American he has always been.
We turned onto US-119, known as Corridor G, and also known as the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the same Robert C. Byrd for which the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope is named. There are few things in West Virginia NOT named after the famous pork barrel king who directed federal money to his poverty-stricken state whenever and however he could. My loftier self “tsk tsk” judges for this overt use of power, but the underdog fighter in me high fives the fiddle playing Renaissance Man and wishes the Mountain State still had that kind of champion.
We passed the Chuck Yeager Memorial and Man Child woke from his stupor to holler, “This is where Pawpaw and I were yesterday!” His head swiveled like the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. “Except it wasn’t this road. It was curvier.” Good Lord, my dad had driven all this way the day after driving the Monongahela Forest? What the hell is he made out of and can I have some?
Man Child was surely getting his life allotment of curvy roads. His veins running with 75% West Virginia blood (his paternal grandmother was a Kentucky lady), he wasn’t one bit tired of them, either. In fact, he became petulant as we sped down the four-lane highway. “This is a boring road.”
“Oh for cripe’s sakes, son. Sometimes it actually IS the destination and not the journey. If we take the rural route to Matewan, we won’t get there before the sun sets.” Besides, I still had PTSD from driving Route 10 when I worked for my uncle.
Right after getting a BA in journalism, my first post-collegiate job was as the Marketing Director at Associated Grocers. AG was an independent wholesale grocer who tried to battle the chains by offering independent grocery stores the benefit of bulk supplying and therefore lower prices. My uncle ran Associated Grocers and yes, I, the beneficiary of nepotism, became his Marketing Director.
As such, I coordinated all of the advertising for the stores, which meant I regularly had to go to each store to have them sign off on their ads. Although not quite the era of stone tablets, this was before FAX machines were a common office supply. Independent grocery stores are notoriously rural and in less affluent garden spots of the world. I was driving to Chapmanville, Logan, and Williamson West Virginia, with the occasional foray into Pikeville Kentucky.
We had company cars. K cars. Lee Iacocca, I gotta tell ya buddy, those cars were AWFUL and they couldn’t stick a curve to save their souls – or OUR lives. There was one instance where I took a curve too fast and the tail end of the car swung out into the gravel just as a coal truck was coming toward me. After that, I took my own car into coal country. A Datsun 280ZX Turbo. I shouldn’t be alive.
I regaled Man Child with these stories as I pulled off of 119 and into the city of Logan. Man Child lived in Flint, Michigan during his freshman year at Kettering University. When the K car and its ilk failed and the automotive industry changed, cities such as Flint and Detroit deflated, like a jumpy castle after a birthday party. The silhouette remains, but the substance is gone. In similar fashion, from a distance Logan looks like the town it always was, but as we drove down the streets, passing shuttered storefronts it seemed as if the air had been let out. This happens when a place, or a person, or a generation, or a culture depends fully on one thing. The car industry is different than it used to be. GM will never be the heartbeat of Flint, Michigan. The coal industry is different than it used to be. It will never be the heartbeat of Logan and other towns like it.
We circled up and up and up, to the top of a hill, so we could have an overview of the city. I felt uncomfortable. Unsafe. Later, an uncle told me he’d been placed in Logan with his job for a while and it wasn’t a good place to hang out. I remember Lettie, who owned the grocery store in Logan, a large gregarious woman who always made me feel welcome and safe. Sometimes it’s not only industries that change.
We continued southwestward, off of 119 now and into the small burg of Delbarton. Even back when I considered Logan more or less safe, I have always been wary of Delbarton. Back in my day, the cheerleaders weren’t allowed to go to the away games if we played Delbarton. Those people were rough.
Because I had NOT eaten an omelet the size of a dinner plate or ANY biscuits and gravy, I lost all sense of wariness and reason. I was getting peckish and after all, middle aged, menopausal hangry me is as much a threat as anybody who grew up in the hills, valleys, and hollers of coal country. On the left side of the road a bright red building with a bright yellow door beckoned. I whipped into the parking lot spewing gravel from the tires. Sat in the idling car. Food characters cut from plywood danced on the façade. We read directions on another plywood board, “Blow horn for curb service.” That seemed complicated, calling attention to ourselves. I put it in reverse. The wooden happy face hamburger frowned. I put it back in drive. Moved forward a couple of inches. A fellow in what looked like turnout gear, but could also be coalminer clothes, or even what the stylish hunter wears, overalls with fluorescent horizontal stripes on the legs, motioned for Man Child to roll down his window. We have Very Liberal Bumper Stickers on our car. We were going to die.
“Go on in. It’s the best steak sandwich you’ll ever eat.” He grinned to reveal perfectly aligned beautifully white teeth. Delbarton was dispelling one stereotype after the next.
“In fact, that steak sandwich is so good, I pay for mine in advance, so I can just go in and say, ‘Gimme my steak sandwich.’”
Man Child and I looked at one another and shrugged. I slammed Pollyanna into park. I mean, if they’re that damn good. “Tell John that Jimmy sent ya!”
John Ramey, a shy, reticent man, was behind the counter when we walked in. “Sit anywhere!” he bellowed as he gestured to the two tables. We bellied up to the bar, errrr, lunch counter and told him that Jimmy sent us. “That Jimmy’s a crazy un. He pays for his steak sandwich in advance.”
I have no idea how long we were in Maria’s Drive-In because I think it might be an alternate universe. We learned that John and his wife Jan have an ugly daughter who is a student at Marshall, for whom they named the restaurant. Poor thing is so ugly that they had to create this restaurant for her so she’d have something to do with her life. He whipped out a photo of her. Poor thing indeed. Scarlett Johannson should be so ugly.
Like any waiter in a fine dining establishment, Monsieur Ramey explained the menu to us. Man Child was fixated on the steak sandwich. After all, it was Jimmy’s rec that got us to walk in the door. I looked down my nose through the reading glasses part of my progressive lenses. I wanted to know my options.
Apparently, their secret chili recipe is so good that Taco Bell offered him a “small fortune” for it. No dice. It’d been in the family for 118 years and in the family it would stay. I bemoaned the loss of deliciousness of my favorite hotdog stand, Stewart’s. Their hotdogs just hadn’t seemed the same to me in recent years. John had the answer. “They put beans in it now, to save money.”
We placed our orders. Hot dog for me. Steak sandwich and fried mushrooms for Man Child. Sorry nutritionist. I’ll get back on the wagon when I return home. We waited on the food. We learned things.
Delbarton was a kinder, gentler Delbarton than when I was in high school. Civic pride was in place. Parks were created. John owned a lot of land and was cleaning things up. “But that across the street. My brother’s in charge of that and he doesn’t take care of things like I do.”
I can attest that John takes care of things. The place was spotless. The two women working in the kitchen behind him cooked like real cooks do. As they methodically made our meal, silently dancing to a choreography known by families who cook together, by friends who cook side by side, there was no loud diner clanging, no assembly line production. There were simply two women making food and rolling their eyes at John Ramey’s stories they had to have heard a thousand times already.
We continued to learn things. We learned that one of the reasons West Virginia split from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War was because of the Greenbrier Military School, to which John Ramey had gone. Federal funds had created the school that was creating soldiers. So much for believing my noble people had divorced themselves from slaveholders. Still, anybody in West Virginia who waves a Confederate flag is certainly not celebrating his or her heritage. West Virginia was Union and being Union is why it became a state.
We learned that his father placed John Ramey on a train to Ohio, when John was only four years old. He was sent to live with his grandmother because his dad was a ne’er do well who knew he couldn’t do right by his son. Although painful, this parental rejection, John Ramey is grateful for his dad’s foresight. He was, indeed, a ne’er do well and spent time on West Virginia’s most wanted list.
We wiped up the last bit of hot dog sauce, licked up the last crumb of a steak sandwich and we bid adieu. We promised to come back and we will. I love, love LOVE a good hot dog and I like to learn things, no matter where the table of knowledge may lie.
Next: Mines, mine wars and a Kentucky State Trooper.