A meat-and-three restaurant. I am sitting in a booth, eating fried catfish. George Strait is on the radio overhead, singing about Amarillo.
There is a man pushing a wheelchair into the restaurant. There is a boy in the chair. Thirteen, maybe fourteen.
The kid does not quit moving his body. He rocks back and forth.
The man parks the boy’s chair at a table. He opens a menu for the boy. The child grins so big he almost cracks a tooth.
“I WANT SALAD, DAD!” the boy says.
“Salad?” his father answers. “Don’t you want chicken, or steak?”
“SALAD, SALAD, SALAD!”
“You’ll get it all over yourself.”
The waitress arrives and the man tells her he will have one fried catfish platter, and one Cobb salad.
“SALAD!” the boy says again.
Father and son have a conversation. The father speaks with an indoor voice, but the boy speaks loud enough to blow out the windows.
“I’M GETTING SALAD, DAD!”
His father shushes him, then asks, “How was therapy today?”
“IT WAS GREAT, DAD! I’M GETTING SALAD!”
“What kinda things did you work on today?”
“WE WORKED ON MUSCULAR FLEXIBILITY!”
“That’s great, how did you do?”
“I GOT THE GOLD STAR, DAD!”
“Another gold star? Let me see it.”
The boy works very hard to show the star to his father, but he has a difficult time moving his hands. Finally, the boy manages to touch his collar and display the bright sticker.
“SEE?” says the boy. “PRETTY GREAT, HUH?”
“It sure is,” says his father.
Their food arrives, and all of a sudden I realize I have been too busy watching to even eat my catfish. And I love catfish.
The boy is barely able to eat, it is exhausting to watch him struggle. But this doesn’t stop him from trying. The kid is determined.
I watch him hold his fork with an awkward grip. I see him spill salad onto himself. There is white dressing running down his shirt. Chunks of bacon on his lap.
“Do you want my help?” his father says.
“NO! I DON’T WANT HELP! THANK YOU VERY MUCH!”
Things go from messy to messier. Soon, the kid is covered in food. When the meal comes to an end, the boy is wearing more salad than he ate.
The boy says, “DAD! NOW CAN WE GET DESSERT?”
“I don’t know,” says his father. “Depends.”
“On if you have a gold star.”
“What kinda dessert you want?”
It is always good to chase a healthy salad with something like cheesecake.
The waitress brings a giant slab of cake. The kid can only stare at it for a few moments. Cheesecake deserves reverence.
His father asks if he needs help.
“NO! I CAN DO IT!”
“Are you sure?”
“LOOK AT MY GOLD STAR, DAD!”
His father crosses his arms. He watches his son cut cake with a fork. The boy lifts the fork to his mouth without spilling a single crumb.
His body gyrates. His face contorts. Each bite looks overwhelming, but by God, the kid does it.
After ten minutes, he is almost done with the cake, and half the people in the restaurant are watching. The waitresses stand outside the kitchen. They’re watching, too. So am I.
When the kid finishes, the waitresses applaud, and so does the boy’s father. So do a few others in the joint.
Their meal is done. His father brushes off the boy’s shirt. He dips a napkin into a glass of water and wipes the kid’s face, then fixes the boy’s hair.
The man pays his bill, and I notice he leaves a healthy tip. Then, he rolls his son out of the restaurant.
They leave the building and I can see them through the window. They are in the parking lot. The man loads his boy into a minivan.
There are no wheelchair ramps, no hydraulic lifts. The man lifts his child using pure willpower. He slides the boy into the front seat, buckles the seatbelt, collapses the wheelchair, stores it.
He leans against the bumper to catch his breath.
I watch them drive away, and I realize that my catfish is cold. I flag my waitress. I tell her I’ll take a to-go box. And I ask about the boy.
“Oh him?” she says. “Yeah, he eats here every week, after physical therapy. He’s the nicest kid.”
She points to the vacant table. Lettuce litters the floor beneath the chairs. It looks like a salad explosion has just taken place.
She smiles at the mess. “Today was the first day he fed himself without help. Usually his daddy has to feed him every bite.”
And I will never look at salad the same way again. Or gold stars.
Happy Father’s Day to you and yours.