Athens, Georgia—I’m at a dive restaurant. The food isn’t fancy, but the beer is cold. I am starving. I’ve been on the road for two days, bound for North Carolina, I am depleted.
This place is slammed. I head to the bar.
Last night, I stopped to speak to a room full of Baptists. They were a tough crowd. They didn’t laugh, and they wouldn’t even clap when I sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
After the show, I was feeling low. To tell stories to a dead audience is like being buried alive in cat-litter-flavored Jell-O.
After the show, a boy approached me. He handed me a note that was folded like a paper football. He darted away without saying a word. I shoved it into my pocket and forgot all about it.
So, I’m sitting at the bar, twenty-four hours later, and I discover the paper in my pocket.
The kid had a lot to say in his note.
I won’t read you his letter, but I will tell you that the kid is eleven. His mother is a waitress, a house painter, she runs the sound equipment at church, and cleans the sanctuary. Times are hard.
But he wanted me to know that he enjoyed my show—even though nobody at the First Church of the Frozen Chosen even cracked a smile.
He closed his letter by saying:
“…You did really good tonight, Mister Sean. You are loved.”
I folded the note and choked back alligator tears. It’s not every day a stranger says they love you.
Anyway, my bartender is an older woman. She is rushing to keep up with her workload. The men at the bar are impatient.
“Another, beer, honey,” one man says.
“I need mayo on this burger,” says another.
“Silverware? I need silverware!”
“Sweetie, I ordered an Ultra, not a Corona.”
She’s running in all directions, tapping computer screens, darting into kitchens, refilling glasses. And she’s falling behind.
The man beside me is upset. He’s a salesman from Tampa. He informs her that she brought him steak instead of chicken.
The man on my left is also angry. He owns a construction business in Atlanta. He finished his first beer ten minutes ago, she forgot about him. Steam is coming from his ears.
He lets her have it.
But she is strong. I can see it in her face. She takes it like a woman. She admits it was her fault. She holds a flat face and answers with only “yessirs,” and “no-sirs.”
One man gets his meal free. The other gets a complimentary beer. They leave the restaurant. And though I can’t be sure, I don’t see either of them leave a tip.
Now, she’s gathering the messes they left behind. She’s stacking plates.
I ask how she’s doing tonight. I make a few jokes. I’m trying to be lighthearted, God willing, maybe even make her laugh.
“It’s a rough night,” she says. “We’re short staffed, I’m doing five peoples’ jobs.”
My food comes out. It’s the wrong dish, and it’s lukewarm. I ordered ribs; what I get is chicken tenders.
But. I don’t mind a little cold chicken. Not tonight. I don’t say a word.
Eventually, her crowd starts to thin. She comes to check on me. She is embarrassed.
“Oh my God,” she says. “I just realized you got the wrong meal!”
She apologizes up and down. She tells me she’s not going to charge me for my food.
But I don’t want a free meal. I am going to pay because cold chicken happens to be my favorite thing in the whole world.
This makes her laugh.
Hallelujah. Laughter. The drought is broken. The heavens have opened. I have finally made somebody on the planet laugh. I wonder if she wouldn’t mind clapping to “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
She hands me the bill. When she’s not looking, I write on a piece of paper. I fold my note into a paper football. And even though I am not a wealthy man, I leave a tip that will hopefully make up for the those who have short changed her.
I’m walking to my car. I see her through the window. She’s unfolding my note.
I can’t take credit for the words she reads. I stole them from an eleven-year-old.
“You did good tonight,” I wrote.
“You are loved.”