They come to sweat about all that’s happening, and they sweat a lot.The Traveler’s Story.

More chapters from Other Voices, Other Towns

A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns

Chapter 14

The Scene: For a time, it did not seem as though Helen stood a ghost of a chance. The Indian mound builders came in 10,000 B. C., but they didn’t stay forever. A logging camp died away when the great virgin forest was all harvested from the slopes. Traces of gold dust almost created a genuine boom town. But, alas, richer deposits of the ore were found elsewhere, so the few ramshackle buildings became something of a ghost town, always a ghost town. Helen could have faded away, but its people were too stubborn to let the little town go.

The Sights: Helen has become a picturesque little Alpine village, simply located in the Nacoochee Valley instead of the Alps. The town has been transformed from a drab little hamlet into an architectural glimpse of Bavaria, a storybook village of gables, rococo towers, gingerbread balconies, and scalloped fascia boards. A vacant lot was even converted into a charming cobblestone alley, lined with almost two hundred Old World shops that offer imports from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. German restaurants dish up meals of schnitzel, sauerbraten, roulade, or wurst, and good wines come from Helen’s own Habersham Winery.

The Setting: Those who changed the face of Helen long believed that the morning veil of mist rising out of the valley and hovering above the Chattahoochee River would be a perfect backdrop for an Alpine village. They were right.

The Story: He came down from the timberlands when the morning was young, and the sun was still trying to climb the far side of the mountains. He was wise beyond his years, and his age had left a rawhide face etched with wrinkles. His hair, visible around the edges of a gimme cap, was white, and he walked with a slight shuffle.

He was there at the Country Café every morning. Coffee. Black. Thick. In a mug, never a cup. He sometimes brought his own. His eggs had more yellow than white, and his bacon had only been singed on one side. He sat at a back table, as he always did, and described once and for all, forever erasing all doubts, the differences between a café and a restaurant.

“Cafes ain’t got no tablecloths,” he said. “Cafes got pickup trucks out front.”

“How can you tell a good place to eat from a bad one?” I asked.

“By the number of pickup trucks out front,” he answered. The older gentleman scratched his whiskered chin, then said, “If a place has got only one pickup truck out front, you know the food’s not any good. And if it has twelve or fifteen pickup trucks out front, you know you’re not gonna find nothing’ inside but a lot of loud talking, loud jukebox music, and hard drinking.”

He grinned. He shrugged. He concluded, “Personally, I prefer a three pickup place.”

In a three pickup place, which is obviously too large for a one-horse town, you can always bet on finding a chief magistrate, who doubles as fry cook, distiller and dispenser of hot coffee, bottle washer, and semi-professional arbitrator, who holds court, either starting arguments or settling them, working from “can till can’t,” he says, and sometimes even later.

Sometimes the magistrates have white hair, and sometimes they have no hair at all. They may be male or female but hardly ever a transplant from someplace else. They can be young or old, pleasingly plump or as thin as a rail, stooped or gun barrel straight, and they have the propensity to sell the sizzle even when they’re out of steak.

The eggs are cracked and crackling by the time the sun finally pulls itself atop the mountains, and every day is a good day, except Sunday, which is the Sabbath and the best day of all. It is a day when the Good Lord takes a break and rests. The fry cook hasn’t been able to rest since the last time he was fired, which was the last time he forgot to come to work on Sunday.

Propped up on bar stools or huddled elbow-to-elbow around tables without any starched linen, cotton, or plastic tablecloths are genuine, card-carrying members of the hunkering and hankering society, the hard-core sweaters of the community.

They sweat about the weather.

“It’s been so doggone hot that I saw a dog chasing a rabbit,” one says, “and both of them was walking.”

“That’s nothing,” says another. “Back when I was a kid, it got so hot one summer than the catfish were wearing flea collars.”

“I can remember the year when we only got twelve inches of rain,” someone says.

“That’s not much.”

“No. But you should have been there the day it all fell.”

They sweat about the crops.

“This has been one of the toughest years I’ve ever had,” the truck farmer swears. “Some of my potatoes were as big as marbles. Some were the size of black-eyed peas. Then I raised a whole bunch of little ones.’

“At least you had somebody to help you raise a crop,” his neighbor tells him. “I had to do my farming by myself.”

“I thought you hired somebody.’

“I tried.”

“What happened?”

“I told him I’d pay him what he was worth.”

“And he didn’t take the job.”

“Said he wouldn’t work that cheap.”

He shrugs, chuckles, and wipes the sweat from his eyes. He would laugh out loud, but the pain had worked its way past the blisters on his hands. That was a lot of work for one man to do alone, and he was definitely alone and would have quit himself except he needed the work.

Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.

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