By three in the afternoon, the line outside Allman's Bar-B-Q has disappeared, and the counter is clean but still a little sticky. Ken Merrill is slicing pork shoulders. Judy Haynes is resting waitress-tired feet. Gail, who's killing time, sits on a stool. A man down the line dunks his sandwich in a deep pool of sauce, takes a bite, puts it down, licks his fingers and picks up the sandwich again. Another man leans two elbows on the counter, waiting for carryout.

"Hey, Kenny, is your wife still exercising?" asks Gail.

"Yep."

"Really? Well, listen. Tell her to call me. I need someone to exercise with. My philosophy of exercise is that I don't work out unless I have someone to do it with."

"Sounds like an excuse rather than a philosophy," says Merrill, handing a foil-wrapped sandwich to Judy for bagging.

"Seems like a lot of excuses pass for philosophy these days," says the man down the line, stuffing a last bit of dripping sandwich in his mouth.

"Seems like a lot of philosophy passes for excuses too," says the man waiting for the carryout. "Hey Judy, don't be stingy with the sauce. Why do you think I come here anyway?"

"Because you have good taste," Merrill says.

For 29 years Allman's has been an oasis of barbecue off Rte. 1, a place with cinder-block walls and plastic chairs where the talk and the sauce run deep. It is a homely little place that former construction worker E.W. (Pete) White has maintained without change all these years, a low brick building with paint-cracked letters spelling Allman's just below the roof, and a red neon sign, scarred by dry rivers of rust and spelling out Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q, on top.

Used to be, Allman's was flanked by the Santee Motel and Fredericksburg Building Supply. But those places are long gone. Today, Allman's neighbors are a 7-Eleven, a Pizza Hut, a McDonald's and Tony's Piano Lounge, housed in a long building with a red roof like a Lum's, decorated outside with streamers like a used car lot.

Allman's is a bit of old Fredericksburg. A bit of the days when the circus used to parade, elephants linked tail to trunk, down Caroline Street and Newbury's used to sell chicks and ducks dyed pink and green for Easter. Today, Caroline Street is boarded and rotting. But Allman's, not too far away, is still selling about 25 pork shoulders, a couple of hundred sandwiches, a day.

White says, "It's just plain luck that we're still here," but it must be something more. Maybe it's the way he serves his pork sliced instead of minced. The customers seem to think his pork piled by hand on a bun is more appealing than barbecue plopped on bread with an ice cream scoop. More likely, it's the sauce. With barbecue, of course, the secret is always the sauce. The secret of Allman's sauce, of course, is classified.

For whatever reason, Allman's packs them in. It has the regulars like J.D. Southworth, a landscaper who lives nearby and "doesn't ever miss two days out of a week," Merrill says. Southworth has a sliced sandwich for $1.35, an order of slaw and an iced tea. Sometimes he orders hot tea. He always argues with Merrill about something.

It is an odd mix that comes to Allman's, men in trucker hats and men in Polo shirts by Ralph Lauren, women in high heels and women in orthopedic shoes, the man from New York City who stops here only twice a year, on his way to and from Miami, the woman from Connecticut who calls the place "a period piece."

Over the years, Allman's has acquired some name brand customers too. White says Sonny Jurgensen ordered the pork without the bread, and Roger Mudd ordered two sandwiches. Former governor Linwood Holton used to bring the whole family.

Whoever comes, they get the sauce and the talk and the slightly sticky counter in the homely cinder block refuge that still stands across Rte. 1 from the McDonald's, the Pizza Hut and Tony's Piano Bar. "They go away satisfied," Merrill says. "You can't ask for much more than that."