Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of night. There are few cars in the parking lot. My wife is with me. We’ve been traveling all day.
On the way into the restaurant, I see a few kids sitting on rockers outside. They’re playing checkers.
“HEY!” shouts a little girl. “YOU CAN’T JUMP BACKWARDS!”
“YUH HUH!” shouts a little boy.
“NO YOU CAN’T!”
I don’t like to butt in, but this situation calls for some well-tempered adult advice. And since there aren’t any well-tempered adults around, my advice will have to do.
“She’s right,” I tell the boy. “You can’t jump backwards unless you’ve been kinged.”
“I can’t?” he says.
“Nope. Besides, even if you COULD, it wouldn’t matter, because your girlfriend says you can’t, and girls are ALWAYS right.”
“GROSS!” he shouts. “SHE’S NOT MY GIRLFRIEND, SHE’S MY SISTER!”
His sister laughs until the vein in her forehead shows.
We get a table. Our waitress has long hair and tired eyes. We still have miles to drive, I order coffee. Black.
The waitress tells me about her son. He’s about to start first grade when summer is over. She hasn’t seen much of him this summer. This isn’t her only job. She has two more.
She shows me photos of her son. He’s skinny. Thick eyeglasses. Freckles.
“He’s doing Vacation Bible School this summer,” she says. “He loves it.”
As it happens, I have passed many years in Vacation Bible School—both as an inmate, and as a warden. I consider the hours spent judging heated three-legged races to be golden.
I order my usual. Three eggs, bacon, biscuits.
There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her.
She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s wearing an oxygen facemask and a hospital bracelet. There’s a story here, I just don’t know what it is.
There’s another story at the table beside me. A group of men in neon-colored shirts, with muddy jeans. Five or six of them. They’re quiet.
One red headed man says, “My wife just said my daughter learned how to tie her shoes.”
A few smiles from the table.
“I can’t wait until we can all go back home,” he adds.
I don’t know these fellas, but I know them. I’ve worked alongside them. Out-of-town work is good money, but lonely.
My waitress brings food. She hasn’t let my coffee level sink below the rim all night. She’s a ray of sunlight is what she is.
The redhead asks his pal: “How old was YOUR kid when he learned to tie HIS shoes?”
His friend shrugs. “Dunno. I wasn’t there.”
Our meal is finished. I buy a few things in the gift shop for my niece. The elderly couple appears behind me while I pay at the counter.
He’s toting her oxygen tank on a dolly and carrying a large bag.
“How’re y’all tonight?” I ask, since I’m a chatty son of a biscuit. I get this quality from my mother.
“We’re exhausted,” he says.
I wish I knew more.
I pay. I leave a tip on the table, I take a final sip of Joe and tell my waitress she has a beautiful son.
“Thanks,” she says. “God bless.”
Yes ma’am. You, too.
We exit the restaurant. Out front, the same two kids are still playing checkers.
“Bye,” says the girl.
“See ya,” says the boy.
“Remember,” I tell the boy. “Be nice to your girlfriend.”
“GROSS!” he says.
I wish I could make this world a better place. I wish I could make sick people better, and give hardworking parents a chance to see their kids grow up. I wish I could hug every child who needs to be hugged.
But I can’t. I suppose all I can do is see people. Maybe even write a few words on their behalf.
Words like: “I’m so proud of you it hurts.” And: “Your kids absolutely know that you love them.” And: “You’re a unique and exceptional human being, just like everyone else.”
No matter what any poor, misguided soul in this life tells you, you simply cannot jump backwards in checkers.