“Best I ever ate.”
Out of all the catchphrases Howard Estes tossed around during my lifetime, this might be the one that stands out most. It was a joke. It was truth. It was a compliment. It was a chuckle. It was a frown. It was sarcasm. It was hungry. It was full. It was loaded. It fit every occasion he needed it to, and the only requirement was that there be food nearby. Most often, it followed a question.
“How was it, Howard?” my mother might ask after a family dinner.
“Best I ever ate,” he would sigh, leaning back, one foot resting on the opposite knee, a toothpick rolling between his lips. The words would tumble out before he’d even had a chance to think about it. It buttered up the hostess. It was a thank you. It was, “I’m full.” It was his tagline for the table. For some reason, I never anticipated it. Even though I probably heard it a couple hundred times. Sometimes he said it in a less pronounced way, if he wasn’t feeling like himself that particular day. That constant back pain he endured. His eyelids suggesting a nap was in order. Just above a whisper. Less animation to his voice and gestures.
“Best I ever ate.” Like a secret.
Other times, it was more drawn out, saturated with that southern charm. A waitress coming to check on us at the end of a meal. I could hear traces of Andy Griffith in his tone.
“How was everything, ya’ll?” She might tuck her hair behind her ear. Howard would barely look up.
“Well, now, I think that there might be the best thing I ever ate.” His lilting syllables could change the phrase just right to please its recipient.
“Aww. Yeah?” she would say, clunking plates into a stack to carry them away.
This most memorable tagline was also delivered when the meal wasn’t quite up to par.
“Best I ever ate,” he would grin at my father, his mouth trying to suppress a chuckle as he took down an overcooked chicken-fried steak at a local restaurant. Never to hurt anybody’s feelings. Just amused by the predicament.
He and Pops shared a lot of inside jokes over the years, a reference to a moment they’d had earlier on the golf course, something that didn’t need words. Just a wink. A nod. The tug of a grin. More like buddies than stepfather and son, and you could always be assured there would be laughter between them. Neither men missed the subtleties of the world, and both could find a way to work in a chuckle just about anywhere. Take the edge off a group of people. So different in their backgrounds. In their personalities. But, the little bit of glue that bound them, perhaps, existed in the simple fact that either of them could get along with anybody. And, perhaps best of all, neither of them took themselves too seriously.
We were in the dining room at Bonnie and Howard’s in Hardy, sitting down to a large spread of dishes that Bonnie and Mom had spent the entire morning preparing. Rarely did we eat like that at their home. Plenty of home-cooked dishes over the years, but mostly simple ones. Before us sat an organized mob of dishes and bowls that steamed and sparkled, my mother and Grandma having worked for hours preparing the feast. Green beans. Mashed potatoes. A large beef roast. Gravy. Salad. Fruit. The smells had been growing all morning, and were nearly as impressive as the visual feast of colors. Pops and Howard had been late, arriving almost two hours past their usual time, faces red from the sun, a smile in their shirt pockets. Must have been a good day of golf for the two of them. Their tardiness had gotten Grandma a little riled up, but she’d softened like butter at room temperature. Everyone was together. A nice meal.
“Here, Scott, try some more of these beans,” Howard said, one hand extended with a full casserole dish. Pops snorted a chuckle. All of us looked over at him, the corner of his mouth puckered in a grin he was trying to smother. Howard’s expression wasn’t quite as obvious, though his enthusiasm, for beans at least, seemed a little too ardent.
I watched my mother’s face. She took a little nibble from her own pile, wondering if she’d done something terribly wrong with the recipe. Like the time she used tapioca pudding instead of cooking tapioca in the pot of beef stew she made for Pops when they were first married. No. No, these seemed fine. Seemed ok. Nothing out of the ordinary. My sisters and I watched the adults. Grandma’s jaw munched away, her eyes alert, flitting back and forth between son and husband, waiting for one of them to spill the…well, you know…beans.
“Mmmm, mmmm,” Howard continued in a slightly exaggerated tone. “Well, you know these might be the best potatoes I ever ate. Scott, you get yourself some more of these,” he said, reaching the bowl of mashed potatoes out to my father.
Pops offered him a look, accepted the bowl with his head down, and stared at his plate. His neck and face grew red. Grandma’s fork hit the plate.
“Well, what is it?” she demanded, scowling at Howard.
“Well, I just, figured I’d compliment what fine work you two did in the kitchen today,” he responded. He was smug. My father’s was stifling a wheezing laugh.
“You’re actin’ real smart, buddy,” Grandma punctured the tension in the air with her careful words. Silence. The sounds of utensils on plates. Uncomfortable. But amusing. My father was choking down every bite, avoiding Howard’s stare, which was still tinged with indulgence. My sisters and I exchanged looks, tried not to giggle, but there was definitely something funny going on, and their smiles were contagious. Mom and Bonnie, however, care for the joke.
“Boy, you know, I think I’ll have another helpin’ of that ham,” Howard broke the silence. My dad coughed a couple laughs.
“Scott,” my mother scolded him. “What is so funny? Does it taste bad?” All he could do was shake his head. To speak would have meant unleashing uncontrollable laughter.
Visiting Hardy settled us into routines, as I mentioned in an ealier post. More often than not, especially during my earliest visits, I had to tag along with the girls, while Howard and Pops went golfing. That meant an entire morning, and the first few hours of the afternoon, shopping, which I detested. Minus the Razorback Red Hog Shop on Main Street, which featured everything an Arkansas Razorback fan could want (hats, t-shirts, mugs, flags), I was dragged around in Grandma Bonnie’s little red car to peruse a bunch of antique and leather shops, along with a handful of flea markets. Her driving could rattle your teeth and quicken your heart rate. Speeding around those narrow country roads, she would offer roadway insights as she revved the engine up and down hills.
“Well, now, he shoulda seen me comin’,” she’d say calmly to the honk of oncoming drivers, the rest of us clutching our armrests and whispering prayers under our breath.
The day of the feast, we had veered away from the traditions of morning errands for cooking. My sisters helped set out silverware and napkins, and we watched a little tv while we waited for the boys to come home from golf. Grandma and Mom had stirred and salted, sliced and roasted a fine meal. I could see the pride in Grandma’s cheeks, knowing how little she enjoyed cooking. A real accomplishment to feed so many with such fine dishes. She’d forgotten dinner rolls, and roared out of the driveway in a cloud of dust and gravel to fetch them from the store. The boys were late anyway. What was a few more minutes?
Little did we know that, a few minutes later, Howard’s Lincoln would pass the house, and see that her little red car was missing.
“Huh,” said Howard, stopping at the mouth of the driveway. “Must not be home.”
“Probably still out shopping,” Pops had offered. There was a short pause before Howard continued.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“Starving,” said Pops.
“Let’s go get us a big ole hamburger.”
“Now c’mon there, Scott. I think I see a dinner roll right there with your name on it.” Howard’s barrage continued. He was relentless, my father politely filling his plate each time. And each time, Pops laughed a little harder. Choking down the bites. He’d been stuffed before he even sat down.
“Now, Howard. What in the world is going on?” Grandma bellowed. “What’s gotten into you two?”
“Well, just a whole lotta good food,” said Howard. That broke the levee. Pops roared with laughter, and Howard followed, blowing his nose in his handkerchief.
Grandma was done. “You two dummies have lost your minds.” Mom was giving Pops the stink eye, still unable to erase her confused smile.
Howard couldn’t control his own grumbling laughter now. My two sisters and I giggled, though we were just as perplexed. Grandma Bonnie was done. She stood up and carried her plate to the sink.
“Well, now, Bonnie,” laughed Howard. “Don’t go gettin’ ornery. It really is good. Best I ever ate,” he pleaded, my father wiping the tears from his eyes. Grandma Bonnie turned to look at Howard from the sink. “I mean, uh, it’s so good, that, uh, we wouldn’t have stopped for lunch if we’d a knew how good it was gonna be.”
That was the nail in the coffin. Grandma and Mom gasped.
“Howard!” Grandma scolded.
“Oh, you two are rotten,” my mom’s voice was low and steady.
“Well, dear, we didn’t…” Pops started.
“Didn’t think ya’ll was even home,” Howard finished.
I’ve never seen someone do dishes so furiously as Grandma Bonnie did that late afternoon, half-listening as the rest of the story came out. There was real anger there, at least for a little while. Howard and Pops exchanged chuckles out of earshot for the rest of the night.
“The other part,” Pops shares with me on the phone last week, “was that after golf that day, Howard took me to meet his brother. And they sat down and played music for a while, and we all drank a few beers, and, hell, we were feelin’ pretty good by the time we rolled up to Grandma’s and didn’t see the car. A burger sounded like a great idea.”
She was still fuming the next day, and scurried to gather us up for a shopping trip to Main Street in Hardy, realizing the boys were taking the day off from golfing. Still licking their wounds from the day before, they putzed around the house as we left, trying not to smile at Grandma’s grumpy mood.
A couple hours later, dragging my feet down the wooden boardwalk, I looked up to see two familiar forms across the street, shadowing us. Pops and Howard. A peace offering of sorts. My mother and Grandma Bonnie saw them too, saw their grins from 50 feet away.
“It’s Daddy,” my sister, Kristy said, a smile on her face.
“Don’t talk to them,” Grandma told my mother, who followed suit, pretending not to see them, Grandma exaggerating the way she turned up her nose. “Don’t even look at ‘em.”
They ushered us into the closest shop, where we could keep tabs on them through the tall windows of the storefront.
“I want to go see Dad,” Kristy said again. Grandma’s performance continued.
“Nope. You can’t talk to them. We’re just gonna go on pretending they aren’t there.”
Nobody has ever told my sister, Kristy, what she was going to do. Well, a few have tried, I guess. A little bit of Bonnie and Pops both came spewing out. She was tired of the game, and let loose. “I can talk to my Daddy if I wanna!” she hollered, startling the other shoppers, Grandma’s eyes bulging in their sockets before she broke into laughter at the way Kristy had stomped off across the street to our father.
Warranted or not, it shattered the tension like one of those storefront windows. Grandma was laughing again, even though she offered the occasional scowl at Pops and Howard for the rest of that trip. And while we would laugh about it for years, the way Howard just kept egging on my father at that table, piling more food on to his plate, Grandma Bonnie will still shudder about it. Try asking her about it, even now, and I’d bet my life that you get a disgusted sigh out of her.
Best I ever ate.