Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it’s busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.
When the boy’s sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.
His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.
A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.
“Is he okay?” she asks.
The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.
The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.
Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is a wearing ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.
He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks to her, he holds her hand. Something you don’t see much.
He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It’s a wonder he’s all alone.
Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.
One Mexican boy crawls into his mother’s lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.
And though I don’t know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You’re my special boy.”
To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.
When I pay my tab, Brooke is my cashier. She takes my breath away.
I haven’t seen Brooke since she was a ten-year-old in Vacation Bible School class. She’s in her mid twenties now. She has two kids. She’s a fine young woman.
God, where has time gone?
I ask about her mother. While we chat, the boy in the wheelchair is leaving the restaurant. His father wheels him out the door.
The boy throws his hands and says, “BYE EVERYONE!”
I wave goodbye. Most folks in the gift shop do the same. There’s not a single frown among us. How could there be.
Because it’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it’s always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.
It saves lives. It changes people. And you won’t find it on a television, smartphone, or newsfeed.
Sometimes I pay attention to it and it makes me feel strong. Other times, I don’t.
Tonight I did.
There goes one special boy.