The sun has set. The night sky is blueish. Hartford, Alabama.
It’s suppertime. Highway 167 is getting to me. My wife and I have been on the road for days. My hindparts are sore. We’ve slept in hotels, skipped breakfasts, and today we skipped lunch because we were in a hurry.
Hunger has fallen upon us like General Sherman fighting the Battle of Chik-fil-A.
Hark. A restaurant ahead.
A tiny place. A gravel parking lot full of pickups. A Pepsi sign in front. It reads: “Home Cooking, 7 Days a Week.”
Mom’s Kitchen is your all-American meat-and-three joint. We are greeted by the smell of real food, happy faces, and a few pie coolers.
The waitress is young. She says, “Sit wherever y’all can find room.”
This place is buzzing. There are only a few free tables—a good sign. It’s full of something I can’t put my finger on, but it transcends food.
An old man behind me is eating alone. He’s having a tough time feeding himself. His hands don’t seem to work. Early Parkinson’s maybe. He’s trying hard.
The waitress takes good care of him. Whenever he sees her, he smiles big enough to beat the band.
Hold it. I owe you an apology for that last phrase. It’s corny, and a low-class habit for a writer to indulge in. And it’s proof that I’m my father’s son. Before he died, he used to end every sentence with: “to beat the band.”
A lot of innocent bands were beaten during my childhood.
I will always miss him.
Anyway, seated beside our table is a redhead boy with his family. His food arrives. He’s eating so fast he’s in danger of passing out.
I was a redhead like him once. I was a big eater, too. Once, my father took me to a country eatery and I ordered a triple cheeseburger.
My father looked at me and said, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”
It took me a long time to figure out what that meant. It took me even longer to figure out that it has nothing to do with food.
At the table behind our booth are white-haired ladies. They wear pearls, and pumps that match their handbags. These are women from our part of the world—you can just tell.
They are women who could balance the Complete Unabridged Works of Emily Post on their heads while vacuuming their den. Women who make Devilled eggs, crustless finger sandwiches, and if the occasion calls for it, ambrosia.
My wife orders grouper. I order turkey and dressing. My sides are zipper peas and coleslaw. It’s been a lifetime since I had a zipper pea.
This food is worth writing home about. The turkey deserves its own theme song.
It tastes like my mother’s fare. Mama was the kind who put pork products in all the right places. Her soups were ham-boney, her cornbread was a outlawed by the National Cardiologist Association.
It’s funny, the things you start to miss the older you become. You don’t even know you’re missing them until one day you pull off the highway to eat. A smell, a meal, a taste, or a phrase.
Country restaurants do that to me. So do small-town newspapers, middle-aged dogs, train whistles, Sunday schools, and old men who have Parkinson’s.
I’m noticing the old man again. He’s finished eating. He stands. He’s shaking bad. He leaves cash on the table. He hobbles outside. God love him.
A waitress grins big at the man.
“Bye, darling,” the man says in a voice that is sweet enough to beat the band.
There I go again.
Anyway, if you’re ever in Hartford, visit Mom’s Kitchen. Try the zipper peas. Leave a fat tip.
Tell them I sent you.