Somewhere in South Alabama—Waffle House is packed. Families in every booth, truckers on every stool. I have been riding the interstate all morning.
I find a seat at the counter. My waitress is young. She brings coffee before I even finish ordering it.
A man sits next to me. He smells like the outdoors, and it’s been a few decades since he last shaved. His clothes are torn. His shoes are mismatched—one is gray, the other is black.
I notice he is carrying a tent. It’s sitting beside his stool in a ratty cardboard box that reads: “Deluxe Two-Person Tent.”
He’s eating eggs and grits, moving his mouth, singing along with the music overhead.
Finally, he looks at me and smiles. He is missing teeth.
“Don’t mind me,” he says. “I’m just singing.” He starts humming again.
“Singing?” I say.
“Yeah, it helps me figure things out, and I got things to figure out, man.”
“What sorts of things?”
“That’s my personal business.”
This signifies the end of our conversation.
The waitress leans onto the bar and grins at him. He grins back.
“You doin’ okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just got a lot to figure out.”
“Maybe I can help,” she says.
“Aw, you don’t wanna hear my problems.”
“Well, maybe you wanna hear MY problems. I got a lot of’em.”
He flashes a toothy smile. It’s an old-man smile. It ought to be trademarked.
He says, “I would love to hear someone else’s problems for a change.”
There is egg yolk all over his beard. She wipes it off his whiskers with a wet rag.
Then, she tells him all about her life. She talks about how she just started working as a pizza delivery girl in the evenings to supplement her income.
She has two kids. Her landlord is raising her rent. Her neighborhood is unsafe, her credit is bad, she is tired, overworked, and she has a pile of dirty laundry at home big enough to clothe a village in Japan.
And—big “and” here—she just found out she’s pregnant again.
“Sometimes I get so worried,” she says “I can’t sleep. All I do is just worry.”
There is a glassy look to the old man’s eyes. He touches her hand.
“I learned something a long time ago, darlin’,” he says. “You just have to look at life and say to yourself, ‘Hell, I don’t know, man!’ And then you just keep walking, and you just keep singing, that’s all you can do.”
She doesn’t know how to answer. Neither would I. In fact, I’m not sure I even understand what the old man is saying.
Next, he removes quarters from his pocket. He walks to the jukebox. He punches buttons. The sound of Johnny Cash’s voice is playing. The song is “Ring of Fire.”
The old man begins singing quietly. And I notice others in the restaurant who begin moving their mouths, to.
“Nobody can resist this tune,” he says. “Nobody.”
The man places dollars on the counter. The bills are crumpled little balls. He slides them toward her and thanks her for the meal.
She pushes the money back. “Keep your money, I got it today.”
“I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” he says. “I promise I will.”
“Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”
The man promises. Then he takes his tent and his duffle bag. He leaves. I see him behind the glass window. He lights a cigarette, then crosses the street, dodging four lanes of traffic.
I ask the waitress if she knows that man.
“Who, Mister Dale?” she says. “Yeah, he comes in here all the time. We’re sorta friends, I guess. He won’t even come inside if I’m not working.”
“He must like you,” I say.
“Honestly, I think he just needs someone to talk to is all.”
I place my money on the counter. If I had three hundred bucks in my wallet, I would give it to her. But I only have twenty.
I get into my truck. I am heading toward the interstate again. Ahead, I see him, moseying on along the shoulder. And his lips are moving. By dog, I think he’s singing.
I slow down and ask if he needs a ride.
“No!” he shouts. “I’m all good man, thanks! All good!”
We part ways. And I am wondering where he will sleep tonight.
I don’t know much. I know even less about why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why the world falls apart. And when I think I understand life, I quickly realize I don’t.
But I believe in waitresses, and mothers who work too hard. I believe in the music of Johnny Cash. I believe in the power of conversation.
And I believe that old man was right.
Cathi - December 31, 2018 12:01 pm
I do believe Mr. Dale may be on to something. Singing & walking are two good ways to figure life out. Thank you Sean for that reminder!
Edna B. - December 31, 2018 12:03 pm
Sean, I love this story. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance this year to go places through your stories, and meet and see folks in all walks of life. You find the beauty wherever you go. It’s definitely a gift, and it’s made my days so much brighter. You’re a beautiful person. I hope this new year is a good one for you. Happy New Year! Hugs, Edna B.
Barbara Bray - December 31, 2018 4:23 pm
Ditto what Edna said……couldn’t have said it better……..Bless you , Sean.( and Edna).
Johnny Parker - December 31, 2018 12:40 pm
You’re my morning humility check. Thanks for keepin’ me grounded. Keep walkin’, keep singin’.
Howard Humphreys - December 31, 2018 12:44 pm
Read all your stories…Enjoy each one…
Melanie - December 31, 2018 2:10 pm
The gospel according to Mr. Dale ❤️
Patti Greenlee - December 31, 2018 3:09 pm
You give me a morning moment of Southern Zen…my hometown is in the Panhandle so we are 2nd cousins counties removed. Sending you Cosmic hugs from the Flying Pig.
Robin Kidd - December 31, 2018 3:40 pm
Sean, Happy New Year! Good stuff, you have such a unique insight into the soul. Blessings!
Nancy Wright - December 31, 2018 4:09 pm
It is true. Sometimes I think the only way I can honor God is by just keeping on.
Anthony - December 31, 2018 4:16 pm
Why didn’t you sing along?
Barbara Bray - December 31, 2018 4:27 pm
I’ve noticed something …..some really nice people read your stories … There was a quote carved over the door of my old elementary school ( back then it was called a “grammar school” ) it said….” We become like those we most constantly admire “…..I admire your very much, Sean and so do a lot of others.
Karen - December 31, 2018 5:24 pm
Thank you for the reminder that all is good and to keep walking! I needed this today!!!
Pamela McEachern - December 31, 2018 6:40 pm
I hope you yours and all your readers have a Happy New Year. I enjoy everyone and love your daily dose of humanity for us. Everyone be sure to eat the traditional NY meal and don’t wash any clothes! These are the ones I was raised on!
Peace and Love from Birmingham????
Carol Pepper - January 1, 2019 6:21 am
Happy New Year, Sean! I look so forward to the new year and more from you!
Blessings to you and your family!
Jack Darnell - January 1, 2019 11:43 pm
Keep on walking into a burning ring of fire. What ever. Yeah I believe in overworked waitresses too!
Barbara Bray - January 4, 2019 2:47 pm
.Stalwart…..you, my friend.