Welcome to Mississippi. It’s an overcast day in the Magnolia State. I’m at Waffle House, consuming my daily quota of grease.
I’ve been driving all morning. And Waffle House serves the best T-bone in the southeast. For $9, you can’t be beat that kind of deal with a Louisville Slugger
There is a man at the bar next to me. He is large. Towering. Thick limbed. His hands are as big as supermarket chickens.
“How tall are you?” I ask.
“Six eleven,” he says.
His voice is a muffled baritone, originating somewhere in his deep chest.
“Six eleven?” I remark.
He takes a sip. “Mmm hmm.”
“How’d you get to be so tall?”
Shrug. “Just prayed real hard.”
His name is Robert. He drives a truck. Born and raised in Mississippi. He’s been driving since the early ‘80s. He says he’s logged nearly 4 million miles on his old body.
He started driving because of his child. His daughter. She needed medical procedures for her legs. Without the operations she might not have walked. Trucking paid pretty good in the ‘80s.
So the road became his home. He sent paychecks back to Mississippi. He lived on coffee.
“I’m a good driver. I’m aware of my surroundings. I work hard. That’s my secret.
“Ain’t never had a preventable crash. I been married for 48 years. I should be retired right now. All my friends are done with driving. But I’m still going. What else am I gonna do?”
I ask which truck in the parking lot is his. Because, deep in my heart, I am a little boy who likes big machines that go vroom.
He spins his stool. He points out the window. Red. Peterbilt. Tall exhaust pipes. Chrome fuel tanks. Four hundred horses.
“I seen the whole United States,” he says. “Front to back. Side to side. Up and down. Parts of Canada even.”
By now, our waitress is eavesdropping on our conversation. She is invested in Robert’s story. She asks what his favorite part of the country is.
He frowns. Takes a sip. Squints into the middle distance as though trying to see the past.
“Probably right here.”
“Here?” the waitress ays. “Mississippi?”
“Best place in the world.”
Then he tells another story.
“I was out West when my mom died. Wanted to be home so bad. Real homesick. But you can’t just leave your job and fly home.
“When they told me my mom wasn’t going to make it, I called and told her I was sorry. I was crying and everything.
“She got on the phone with me, and you know what she told me? She says, ‘Robert, don’t be sorry about nothing. You earn money for my grandbaby girl. You treat her good, you hear me?”
The waitress brings his food. He douses his waffle in a prodigious waterfall of maple goo. He starts cutting into it.
The waitress asks about his daughter. The old highwayman perks up at the mention of her. His deep set eyes become bright.
“She’s my pride and joy,” he says with a mouthful.
“Last summer, my daughter decided she wanted to come with me on a trip out West. She says she wants to see what I do. So I says, ‘Hey, only one way to find out, baby.’”
She went with him all the way to San Francisco. She slept in the sleeper cab. He spent long nights behind a wheel.
When they got to Frisco, he put her up in a nice hotel. He took her out for fancy dinners in expensive restaurants. He spoiled her. They saw the Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz. You name it.
He removes a mobile phone and starts showing pictures to the waitress.
“That’s my baby girl,” he says. “I’d do anything for her. Anything.”
The waitress leans in to look at the photos.
“She’s pretty,” the waitress remarks.
“When we got back home from San Francisco,” he says, “we crossed back into Mississippi, and my daughter was hungry. So we stopped for lunch.
“You know what she did? She walks into the restaurant, sits down, ain’t been home five minutes, and she tells the waitress she’s glad to be back in Mississippi, and she wants a big bowl of grits and butter.”
He starts laughing. Before he finishes his laughter, the waitress has already placed a hot bowl of grits before him. And butter. She tells him it’s on the house.
The old man acts surprised. “What’s this for?” he says.
“For being a good dad,” she says.