Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Hamburgers, Hesters, and Memories

Writing fiction is humbling.  My first novel started as a memoir, a tribute of sorts to my parents and the hard struggles they faced in life. I had kept notes and scraps of paper that eventually turned into computer files for years without realizing why I felt a need to record memories. Maybe my subconscious told me that I had better write these things down before they slipped away.

I started the book just after my mother died, because many memories had been rekindled with her passing. I wrote in a stream of consciousness for about a month, absolutely sure that everything I wrote had happened exactly as I recalled. I even won an argument or two with relatives about specific events.

Then one day, while searching through pictures, newspaper clippings, and family memorabilia, I discovered a mistake or two. I had been wrong about the time frame, the people involved or the sequence of events on more than one occasion.  That’s when I decided to change my memoir to a novel.

Five novels taught me that our memories often alter events over time. Some would say that we reframe them in a fashion more favorable to us.   But it’s more complicated than that. For example, a certain scene in Go Down Looking replays itself often in my memory.

I know that I was present the night a building exploded in downtown Commerce, and have confirmed with old pal Jake Gervers that we were both on the downtown square when it happened. Jake worked for Phillips Grocery and I worked for City Pharmacy.

I vividly recall returning from Ward’s Drug and noting a small flicker inside a BBQ joint next to JC Penney’s.  Other than that small flicker of light, the inside was pitch-black. I thought that was unusual because I could usually make out furniture inside the place even when it was closed.

I also see myself putting my hands against the window of the joint, feeling the heat on the glass, and peering through the hand-telescope I made. I recall seeing a small flicker of light inside and assuming it was probably a burner left on, too dumb to realize the window was hot and the place was black because the small flame had consumed all the oxygen.

Then the windows exploded, sending shards of glass across the street, crashing into the brick walls of Freezia and Steger’s. But where was I when it exploded?  I see myself against the brick wall most of the time, but sometimes I am out on the square, sounding the alarm, yelling at Jake. There is nothing heroic about my actions in any of my memories, so why do they change?

I mention that because when old friend Rick Vanderpool asked me to write a short piece for his Texas Hamburger Book, the first person who came to mind was Hester Hooten. I recall that Hester worked with my mother in the lunchroom at West Delta School when I was very young. She was always jolly and one of the kindest adults I knew. She covered my ears once when she was telling Mother a story that included the words “cow pattie”. Yes, she was that nice. I wasn’t nearly as innocent as she believed, of course.

When my father was very ill in Janes Hospital in Cooper, I remember Mother sending me to Silman’s on the square to get myself a hamburger. I remember Hester cooking there, too. She knew about Daddy’s critical condition and I could see the sympathy in her eyes as she cooked a burger just the way I liked, always making cheerful conversation while she worked. 

Now that Vanderpool’s book is in print, I wonder if I somehow transported Hester to Silman’s, because that is where I needed her to be. Maybe somebody else cooked for me there, but I hope not.  Here’s what I wrote for Vanderpool’s book. 

On hamburgers . . .

Cowboys, they say, like their beef with the hair still on and the hide barely singed. I think that’s a myth. Most cowboys I know like their beef cooked until it’s done. They see enough blood during the day and don’t want to see it on their plates or soaked into hamburger buns. I like my hamburgers old-fashioned and well-done. Old-fashioned to a lot of folks means greasy. Not to me.

Old-fashioned is the way they cooked them at Silman’s Grocery on the square in Cooper, Texas. That long-gone grocery store had a hamburger counter with stools. A boy just tall enough to see over the counter could watch Hester Hooten put together a masterpiece. She could make you feel as if she was making one-of-a-kind just for you.  

You could watch her shape the patty with her hands and roll it out with a rolling pin so that the edges were ragged. She always left it sort of loose so it could cook all the way through. She put a large pat of butter (sometimes made at home) in a big cast-iron skillet and let it bubble before dropping the patty in.

Flames shot up and that wonderful smell started to work on your taste buds.  While chopped onions cooked in a smaller skillet, she let the patty simmer up real good as she mashed it down and flipped it with a metal spatula until it was just right. Not too greasy, not too dry.

She poured off the grease, and then dropped a little more butter in the skillet to toast both halves of the bun on both sides. While it was still in the skillet, she put the patty on the bun and covered it with chopped lettuce (not big chunks), chopped farm-fresh tomatoes (not slices), and the fried onions. Pickles were optional. (I declined). She coated one half of the bun with just the right amount of mustard and topped off the perfect burger.

It was still almost too hot to handle when she wrapped it in paper thin enough to see through and put it in my hands. It was just flat enough to allow a small boy to take a bite without opening too wide and risking tomato juice dripping down his chin. I can still taste those crumbly, burned-just-the-right-amount-around-the-edges burgers.

Wife Jan can get pretty close to those burgers of days gone by, but she’s at a disadvantage because she is competing with a memory and memories get better with time. They don’t make many burgers like that anymore, and they don’t make as many Hesters, either. I suppose some café, somewhere, still makes ‘em. Write if you do.  I’ll come visit.


J A Hunsinger said...

Like all your stories, Jim, this one is a dandy. I ate hamburgers like that in other towns, some in the Texas of my youth and others in similar towns scattered about our Republic.
When I was a young soldier going to Jump School in Columbus, GA, I well remember a hamburger joint where they cooked little hamburgers about the size of a biscuit. God those were good. When I was 18-years old I could eat a dozen and often did.
Thanks for the memories, my friend.

Laci said...

Great read! Was too young to remember much of Silmans but I have heard many stories. Made me think of Chandlers and the greasy bar-b-que sandwiches that Son would make. That grease tasted really good, though! Thanks, Jim.

Vicki Ellis Griffis said...

Now you have gone and made me hungry! Your description brought back memories of my own. I don't think we will ever match those memories in real life, but your words sure made me wish we could.

I know the feeling of not being able to differentiate facts from fantasy. I think it is the writer in us! We paint so many pictures with our imagination that they feel real!

Great job!

Vicki Ellis Griffis, feature columnist in the Celeste Tribune