Tucker McBride fed coins into an ancient soft drink machine, heard the clink clink clink as they fell into the box, opened the door, and pulled out a frosty glass bottle. After positioning it beneath the opener, he yanked, and the metal cap clattered into the box. Seated on a stool behind the gas station's counter, an old man with a tobacco chaw in his cheek watched him intently.
Tucker lifted the bottle to his lips and sipped. Sweet, syrupy, black cherry flavor exploded on his tongue, and instantly took him back to childhood. "Dublin Dr Pepper. Man, I haven't had one of these in twenty years."
The ingredient that made the particular variety of Dr Pepper bottled in the small town of Dublin so special was Texas's own Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. It made the soft drink sweeter, to be sure, but a Texan would tell you Dublin Dr Pepper just tasted different. Better.
"Well, you ain't having one today either." The gas station owner turned his head and spat a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon. "You must not be from around here if you don't know that the corporate suits out of Dallas put nails in the coffin of Dublin Dr Pepper a few years back. Sued the little guy, they did. Not allowed to make Dr Pepper anymore. What you're drinking is a Dublin Original. Twenty-four flavors instead of twenty-three."
No, he hadn't known. That wasn't the sort of news a man usually picked up in the desert of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, or the swamp of Washington, DC. "A knockoff, then. Damned good one."
His second sip took him back to summer days spent with his cousins, Jackson and Boone, at their grandparents' lake house at Possum Kingdom. Nothing tasted better on a hot summer day than Dublin Dr Pepper. They'd consumed the soft drinks by the caseload until they'd grown old enough to switch to Shiner beer.
The man behind the counter shifted his tobacco chaw from his right cheek to his left, then said, "Yeah. Can't get Original anymore either. Big city reporter stirred up trouble by writing about the situation, so the family pulled the plug on the flavor. Couldn't afford another lawsuit from Goliath. I hauled two truckloads of Original back here. Worked our way through about half of it." He gestured toward the bottle in Tucker's hand and said, "You be careful who you share my location with, you hear? I don't believe in wasting the good stuff on folks who can't appreciate what they got."
"You have my word. I appreciate you offering me access."
"I always offer to the military. I'm a vet myself. Vietnam."
Tucker gave him a look of surprise. "I'm not in uniform." Not anymore.
The man shrugged. "You got the look, son. So, where you headed? Fort Hood?"
Tucker took another long sip of his drink. "No. Not this time."
He'd left the huge, Central Texas army base for the final time earlier today on his H-D Road King without a firm destination in mind. Now, he turned his head and looked through the store's ancient screened doors toward the motorcycle parked at the gas pump. "I'm possibly on the road to Redemption. Or maybe Ruin. The jury's still out on that one."
"Huh." The gas station owner rubbed his grizzled chin stubble. "Well, I reckon most of us stand at that crossroads sometime in our lives. You want some jerky to go with your Coke? It's made locally. You won't find better."
In Texas, all soft drinks were Cokes, not sodas or pops or even Dr Peppers. Glad to be home, Tucker paid for his gas, his Original, and three different flavors of beef jerky, thanked the man behind the counter, and headed outside. He leaned against his motorcycle, sipping the drink and chewing on a piece of jerky as he scrutinized the intersection before him. Wonder how many farm-to-market road intersections existed in Texas? He knew the two-lane farm roads numbered over three thousand and made up over half of the state's road system. Bet Boone would know the answer to the question. He knew useless facts like that.
Tucker blew an airstream over his bottle to make it whoo just like he'd done when he was a kid, in no real hurry to move along. He was on no time clock. Nobody knew he'd come home to Texas. This was the first time in a long time he'd had the luxury to lolly-gag while traveling.