Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the Cave of the Chicken Leg

My grandmother was a formidable woman. A former nurse whom I remember complaining about the 3 pounds she gained when she switched from cigarettes to gum--and still weighed less I did when I got married--and the kind of person grandkids and restaurant/hotel staff feared to anger. Formidable. Fashionable. Determined.

She and my grandpa lived for a time in Port Arthur and there is a highway of memories between there and the city in which I grew up, a terminal node of which is the Luby's at Baybrook Mall. This was dinner before we arrived home, vacation over. It had the vastness of a way station--asphalt parking lots that faded into coastal scrub melting in afternoon heat shimmers, turned wood railings that made the restaurant itself seem partitioned but open, a line that stretched twice as long as our local Luby's. Refuel and jet into homebase . . .except that I was more elves and pirates than sci fi at that age. Still, the color scheme was the umber/ocher/olive of a specific time period, retro with that futuristic tinge of one-day-I'll-be-an-adult that hits you when you're away from home and just one more person in an impersonal line leaning against the carpeted wall and staring fixedly at the steam trays.

Several of my memories of her surround food and cars. They had big beige Buick and Cadillacs with puffy leather seats in the back that would become crammed with stuffed animals, notebooks, blankets. I would lie on my back and stare out those windows, watching the sky flash in the windows. Rain or sun would pound us the entire way to Port Arthur. This is Texas, after all.

Was Luby's the cave in which I came upon the chicken leg? No. The chicken leg was served in a restaurant whose name I can't recall attached to a department store. Heavy eaves covered the glass of the store, but it was bright inside. The restaurant, though, was a big open-raftered faux-Western barn of darkness. You sat at a table (maybe a booth?) where the light from the order area reached and received a single drumstick and a mound of potatoes perfectly formed by scoop and sealed with a layer of brown gravy that only extended to the edge of the scoop. No extra, no gravy down in the potatoes. Just a layer of salt and chicken essence brown on the tongue. It was enough.

There is a trust that allows you to push off from the edge and fall into the water, to feel the bright liquid all around you, supporting you, pressing the air from your lungs. You experience it entirely, from the heart of the pool. Eating chicken with Grandma was like that. She was giving you a break in the middle of the day and the best chicken and gravy you would ever taste. She wasn't going to tell your mom how irritating you'd been or about the new toy that was lurking in your bag. She was going to spend the weekend or the week toting you to the cousins, letting you have one sleep over, letting a family friend fill you up on tuna and macaroni salad (another post in itself). Right now, in the middle of day, it was hot and ya'll were hungry and here is a cool place were she can think and you can eat.

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