Waffle House is quiet this time of night. I’m on my way home. I still have a few highway hours left ahead of me. I’ve been listening to Conway Twitty for an hour. I need a break.
I order a hamburger and a chocolate milk.
There is an older gentleman in the booth behind me. He is small, gray-haired. He wears a white button-down with black smudges on the front. A loosened necktie.
With him are three Mexican boys. They are teenagers, wearing T-shirts and boots, squeezed into a booth.
“Order WHATEVER you want,” he tells them, in a slow voice. “Please, it’s on me.”
They speak a few words in Spanish, waving their hands. I can’t understand them, but I happen to speak fluent hand gestures. They’re saying: “No.”
One kid says, in broken English, “You no need pay for us.”
The man says, “It’s the least I can do. I owe you big time.”
The boys talk among themselves, rapid-fire. They agree on ordering T-bones and Coca-Colas. The man orders the same.
And because it’s been awhile since I’ve had a Waffle House T-bone. I flag my waitress.
“Is it too late for me to change my order to a steak?” I whisper.
“Sure thing,” she says. “You still want chocolate milk?”
You bet your waffle-iron I do.
The boys eat their steaks in record time. The youngest of the group—who is somewhere around twelve years old—is still hungry.
The two older boys shovel leftovers onto his plate. He cleans all three bones.
A good time is had by all.
My Waffle-House T-bone is even better than I remember. Tender. Greasy. But then, I’m not surprised. I have always been fond of Waffle-House fare.
Once, at the ripe age of sixteen, I took Vanessa Spurton here on a date. She seemed disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot. It was our first and last evening together. The chili was exquisite.
When the boys are finished eating, the table is silent. There is a language barrier.
So, they thank the man with labored English, then they leave to wait on the sidewalk while he pays.
At the register, the waitress asks how his night’s been. She is only making polite conversation, but he answers, “Awful. Almost got killed on the interstate, changing my own tire. Those kids probably saved my life.”
Then, he leaves cash on the table, and he’s gone.
Through the window, I see the boys shaking the man’s hand. All four look like they’ve just discovered teeth. The youngest hugs the man.
The boys pile into a truck—rusted fenders, Texas plates. The man crawls into a white minivan. Both sets of taillights disappear onto the highway.
The waitress talks to the cook. “You believe that guy just left me forty bucks?” she says.
Yeah. Well, I believe it.
These steaks are worth every penny.