I met JB under a very short bridge nearly a decade ago. He was wearing a dejected look I would never see on him again—a momentary interruption in his universally good mood. I was new to the South, recently transplanted from Los Angeles, so when I stopped the car to survey the roadside scene, I wasn’t expecting to find a massive overturned oil drum-style barbecue lying in the grass just beyond the crumpled mini trailer that was introducing worry to JB’s spirited face.
I helped him pull the trailer out from under the small railroad trestle bridge. The air felt so hot and still and thick that it was like trying to breathe underwater, and our shirts soaked through with sweat. I leaned on the tailgate of JB’s truck while he tried to pound the frame of his trailer roof back into shape. It was the first time I remember ever noticing Kudzu, or hearing the throbbing, ceaseless drone of Southern insects lurking beneath. Everything was alive.
I helped JB haul the enormous rusted grill pit back onto the trailer. My hands were black with charcoal and grease. JB tied the grill back down and thanked me, promising free sausages when he was back up and running. I smiled, assuming I’d never see him again. But this was not LA. “Oh you’ll see me everywhere,” he assured me with the knowing tone of a local, “I’ve got comeback sauce.”
Two weeks later I played a show at the 40 Watt club in downtown Athens, famous for once having been lit by a single 40 Watt bulb. It’s a legendary club that helped put Athens on the music map. I was thrilled to play there. I drank gallons of beer, and met what seemed like hundreds of people. After closing time, we all stumbled out the front door looking for something to eat.
And there was JB. Parked on the edge of the small crumbling parking lot, cooking up sausages for a crowd of drunk kids. I was shocked he remembered me and came through with free sausages, “with comeback sauce ya hear? Cause you’ll always come back for more.” He smiled. I walked away into the warm night and ate. The sausages were, well, sausages. But the sauce was something else.
As I was walking home with my friends, JB drove by and then stopped and waited for us to walk up to his truck. “There’s a party up ahead, ya’ll want a ride?” We jumped on the trailer and rode up the hill. JB set up in the front yard of someone’s house. He didn’t ask. He didn’t need to. This isn’t LA, there are probably street food codes, but no one lets them get in the way of a good thing. It wasn’t long before the party emptied out of the house and spilled into the street, everyone coming out for the comeback.
For the next eight or so years I would pay a visit to JB’s sausage truck at least once a month. I always came back. Sometimes even when I didn’t really want a sausage. I found it difficult to walk by without buying something. Over time JB ceased to recognize me, my face blended back in with the rest of the drunken, if polite, crowds.
A decade is a long time in a small town. I watched friends come and go. And come and go again. I moved away for a few years myself, lived in big cities, small ones, traveled around the world. But I always came back.
Athens has it’s own comeback sauce, something that draws people back to it like the moths and lacewings that form clouds around the streetlights on a warm summer night.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen JB outside the 40 Watt. Sometimes there’s a big silver truck serving a full menu. It probably meets city code. I haven’t eaten there. I suspect they have no comeback sauce.
I’m not sure what happened to JB. It wouldn’t be to hard to find out — Athens is still a small town when it comes to that sort of thing — but I don’t want to know. I prefer to keep coming back, hoping maybe one day I’ll see that dirty old oil drum of a barbecue throwing smoke up into the thick summer air and hear JB telling someone, ya’ll come back now, ya hear.
Upon re-reading this, I like it much less now than I did at the time. In my defense, I wrote this in about an hour, sent it off to Longshot and somehow it became the cover for the first issue. They even made a t-shirt out of the comeback sauce bottle artwork (not mine). Still, I’m not super fond of this story because I actually know JB and I don’t feel like I did him justice. He deserves better. -sng, 2019.