Ballad of the Moody Cafe

You've got to figure that Patsy Cline knew what it was to have troubles. This is what I'm thinking as I'm driving the highway north through Texas with a Patsy Cline tape playing. You've got to figure she was a moody kind of woman. What with all the sad songs she has.

Lonesome songs are good for a long stretch of highway, though. Things naturally start to wobble and shake when you're moving, anyway. Just like an unbalanced load in a trailer. Things can start to wobble inside you, too.

The best thing to do if you're stuck with a sad feeling is to get off the interstate. Interstates are made for people who are well-adjusted. People with appointments to keep. People who don't care for the past. So I get off the interstate.

I find an exit and a back road, hoping it will lead somewhere. And Patsy Cline sings of love and pain. I fall to pieces, she confides, each time I see you again. And such things.

I see by the signs that I am heading for Moody, Texas. Something seems right about that. Maybe it will be a place as sad and outdated as the songs I listen to. Maybe it will have a Main Street and an old drugstore with "sundries" and "notions." Maybe it will be a place to get lost in my own moody notions.

"Heartaches!" Patsy Cline declares, just as I pass a badly faded Chamber of Commerce welcome sign. "Welcome to growing MOODY," the sign says. Why not. I stop at the Drive-in Gro and turn the music up. It fits in perfectly. Fills the Texas air. Mixes in with the smell of pit barbeque from across the highway.

I drive around Moody and let the music play, as if it were the score to the town's own private movie. You hear the sound of the electric guitar, and the slightly corny male background singers, and the violins, and you can hear the sound of a thousand small towns, vintage 1950s. In truth, Moody looks as if it stopped growing at about the time Patsy got up on the Arthur Godfrey talent show and made a name for herself by singing "Walkin' After Midnight." That was 1957, the same year she divorced Gerald Cline.

I drive around the town square. There are two or three furniture stores -- not big-name outlets with plush suburban sofas, but old dusty furniture stores with things made of wood. Next to one store it says CAFE in big letters on the window. "Sure, we're open," says a sign. I turn off the music and walk in.

I go up to the counter and face a plain-looking waitress in a mustard-colored smock. Her pencil is ready at the pad. I order the catfish lunch special for $3.75. "Lunch," she says. Turning her head she says, "Mama. Catfish lunch." A tall and heavy gray-haired woman gets up stiffly and walks into the kitchen. There are two other customers at the cafe -- a middle-aged woman and a teenaged girl, both of them eating and not talking.

The cafe is a square room like a box, with a very high dirty ceiling and plenty of table room. I take a table looking out onto the street and watch furniture movers unload desks from a big square truck.

There is no jukebox in the cafe. You can hear the sound of the ceiling fan whirr, and the two women clinking their knives and forks on plates. I'm still hearing sad country songs inside my head. I've got your memory, Patsy Cline says, -- or has it got me? There is, of course, a reason her melancholy songs stick to me like burrs today. I'm trying to shake the grasp of an especially obstinate memory -- trying to get over someone, I mean -- though it has become apparent that Moody is more a place to look into the past than to look away from it. There would be no forgetting her here.

"Mama," the waitress says from behind the counter. "Bee's daughter's getting married." The waitress looks back at the woman and the girl at the table. The woman smiles proudly, but the girl does not. Mama asks the waitress how she knows that Bee's daughter's getting married. "'Cause Bee just now told me," says the waitress, and the woman smiles again.

When the woman and the girl finish their lunch and get up to leave, the waitress elicits the wedding date. Then she offers news of her own. "Bee," she says, "I bought Mama out."

"That's what I saw in the papers," says Bee.

"So we're gonna have specials every day," the waitress continues, "And we're coming way down in price on some things."

Bee says they'd be sure to come back. They leave and the screen door slams behind them.

The waitress brings me a large plate of fried catfish, and pinto beans, and cole slaw, and hush puppies. She asks what highway I'd been coming down, and how I found the cafe. She tells of her plans to put a sign out on Highway 317.

A neatly dressed woman who looks fresh back from the hair salon comes in and orders. With a hint of deviousness she asks the waitress if she'd been busy today. The waitress busies herself with her notepad and says no, it hadn't been busy. "Is business O.K. lately?" asks the woman. The waitress says yes, it has been fine and turns away looking more glum than before.

I sit and study the empty chair next to me. It's a good sturdy old-fashioned chair with shiny metal legs -- the kind of chair you can never pull out from the table quietly. The color pattern is worn away from the soft plastic seat and back. I can see the faint imprint melted into the plastic where someone had set a clothes iron years ago. I suppose maybe the chair came from Tell City, Indiana, a place famous for its chairs. I bend over and look at the tag underneath. But it came from Memphis, Tennessee.

Crazy, says Patsy Cline. I'm crazy for feeling so lonely.

I get up and leave the cafe. I put the music back on and drive around some more. Of course Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in 1963, leaving two young children and many sad songs. For all I know, that's when Moody began to die too. A lot of things began to change in 1963. A lot of places like Moody got left behind. You've got to wonder if a sign on the highway will change the fortunes of the Moody Cafe. Too many people seem to have too many places to go. It doesn't seem to matter now how good the catfish lunch is, nor if it comes down in price.

I'm driving north out of Moody. One notion I have is that we are always losing something. Every mile we go forward we are leaving one mile behind. Most of the time we can't go back, though people try.

It's always so short -- a singer's time singing, a town's prospering, a love's thriving. It's the forgetting that is so long.


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