Ashley sent me a text mid-afternoon: “Let’s have a little adventure tonight” which is code for “let’s eat and drink somewhere interesting.” Tonight’s winner was Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack, a fantastic place in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District. See, the South doesn’t know how to make wings for shit, and as that is a dietary staple, Ashley and I can’t get anything close to what we loved in the Ohio Valley. (Looking at you, Basil’s.) Believe me–a bite to eat on a weeknight is more important than it appears. It can change the direction of your week–something I need after today.
Eclectic is a great word for non-franchise places. Corporate can’t always get the job done, so it’s a big deal when you find a cool place with good people. Such was the case tonight.
We sat at the small bar on the restaurant side and ordered local craft beer to start. Anna was our bartender. She was last week as well. While we settled in, Ashley overheard her say that tonight was her last night. Anna’s undergrad is in freshwater ecology, and a road trip to Washington state awaits when she clocks out tonight. A new start? I’m jealous.
We made small talk with her in between bouts of customer service. In the meantime, Hunter has come in and has taken a seat next to us at the bar. He’s in a state of flux: 25, in between jobs, a few years of mistakes behind him, which he shares with eyes downcast, as though we give a damn. He’s come from Tulsa and stopped at Little Rock en route to Tuscaloosa, where he has a helping hand. Hunter is tall and lanky, with a southern accent–not Gulf, not swamp. Texas-by-way-of-Oklahoma, if I had to guess. We chat. Ashley tells him the story of how she escaped her classroom, and he seems to brighten at that. I like the way she tells it–we have lived it for two months, so it’s enlightening to see someone else’s take on it. A quick trip into the past: Hunter went to boarding school in Virginia and played basketball and football, so we talk about Richmond and Charlottesville, among others. He regrets not finishing college, but while he spent time in food service, he figured out what he really wants to aim toward. I take swigs of my beer, and remember 25 for a few minutes. It’s a long time ago. Hunter checks his phone a lot; his dinner party is assembling nearby, and soon.
While he’s occupied, I ask Anna if we can pay for a shot, if he wants another one. Hunter seems genuinely surprised by this, but there is no way for him to know that this is my favorite thing in life: meeting random souls at crossroads in their lives and the horizon in their eyes. Gods willing, if I ever don’t actually have to work for the Man (any Man), I’ll build a Waystation where all that happens is stories telling stories, on the way to more stories. Hunter chooses bourbon, but he’s humbled and says, “Oh, uh, well–whatever’s cheap,” to which I object. “Have him try Bulleit,” I suggest to Anna.
“To the future and new beginnings,” I say as we raise glasses. Hunter finishes his bourbon, looks at the glass, and shakes our hand on the way out the door. He is more than gracious, but the pleasure was ours. I’m happy for him, in a very deep way. “Follow your heart, sir,” I offer, and we shake hands one more time as he leaves and the live music from the bar side starts to supply the soundtrack for the rest of our night. He’ll do just fine.