I have a few hours to kill. I stop at a small place to eat. The place is dead. It is just me and a waitress. She is older. Covered in tattoos.
The place is rundown. My coffee mug has lipstick traces on it. The music overhead is George and Tammy. My table is sticky. I’ve been in a lot of breakfast joints in my day, but this is definitely one of them.
I order eggs and bacon. And I type on a laptop while listening to George sing.
She watches me. At first she isn’t going to say anything, but eventually she does. Her boredom is unbearable.
“What are you writing?” she asks. Only it comes out sounding like “Choo rattin’?”
“It’s just a story,” I say.
“Story ‘bout h-whut?”
“This and that.”
“You a writer?”
“You any good?”
“I ever heard of you before?”
“I doubt it.”
“What’s your name?”
“Never heard of you.”
The music overhead changes to Randy Travis. I have always liked Randy Travis.
I ask her the quintessential breakfast-joint question. “So, where’re you from?”
“Virginia, originally. Only, I been in Alabama since I’s twenty.”
“This and that.”
“You any good?”
This makes her smile. “I was good at being stupid. So are my daughters. All been stupid just like me. My son’s the only one who did right. He joined up.”
“I think that’s their motto, the Marines, Semper Fi.”
“Is that Spanish?”
“I think Latin.”
“Don’t know nothin’ bout no Latin, but he’s a good boy, when I get to see him.”
She returns to wiping the counter. It’s just busywork. There’s nothing to wipe. The cook is in the kitchen playing with his phone. He appears to have a runny nose. He wipes it with his palm. And I think I’m going to be sick.
Out of the blue she says, “You don’t talk like Birmingham.”
“What do I talk like?”
“Just sorta, I don’t know, can’t tell. Is it Georgia?”
“Are you from Tennessee?”
“That’s right, how’d you know?”
The sound of a refrigerator compressor kicking in.
The cook sniffs his snotty nose.
Dolly Parton is singing: “Here You Come Again.”
“So,” she says, “do people pay you to write stuff or what?”
“But not all the time?”
I shrug. “Let’s just put it this way, my truck still needs new brake pads, and my wife’s car won’t crank without an Episcopal priest.”
“Sounds like my old car. But I don’t have to worry ‘bout that no more. My son just bought a new one for me. Rides pretty good. The AC will freeze your butt.”
“He sounds like a good man, your son.”
“Oh. He’s a Marine, you know.”
“You mentioned that.”
“What was that you said the Marines say again?”
“I think it’s Semper Fi.”
“Wonder what it means.”
“I think it means, always faithful, or always loyal, or something like that.”
“I gotta write that down.”
She writes it on a notepad. Then she says, “I should let you get back to typing on that computer, shouldn’t I?”
“No, it’s okay. I need some conversation, I have been on the road a lot lately.”
“I tell stories and stuff.”
“Stories? Oh man, I loved Captain Kangaroo when I was a kid.”
“How about that.”
Our conversation comes to a halt.
The sound of a clock ticking. My fork screeches on my plate. A few people walk past the door. She watches them go by.
She says, “So what’re your stories about?”
“Oh, so you mean kinda like Seinfeld?”
“I just love that Kramer.”
The bell on the door dings. A man walks into the restaurant. He has a little boy. The kid is wearing a plaster cast on his arm. She approaches his table. “What’ll it be?” she asks.
“Pancakes,” says the boy.
She winks. “Comin’ rat up.”
She barks the order. The cook puts his phone away. He sneezes. It’s time to make some cold-and-flu-virus pancakes for Junior. The smell of melted butter fills the room.
She asks the boy how he broke his arm.
“Skateboarding,” he says.
She says, “You gotta be more careful.”
“One time,” she adds, “my son, he broke his ankle when he was a little bitty boy, had to use crutches. He milked it for all it was worth.”
The kid smiles. The father smiles.
She leaves their table. She checks on me. I tell her I am doing fine. Then her cell phone rings. She steps outside to smoke a few and talk.
I finish breakfast and I pack my laptop. I leave cash on the table. I walk past her on the way out. She is leaning against a wall, on her phone. I can tell she’s talking to him because she is happy.
She waves at me when I leave.
“Is that your son?” I whisper.
She nods, covers her mouthpiece, and whispers, “He always calls to check on me.”
Probably to see how she’s doing. To see how her new car’s working out. To tell her he loves her. Or that he misses her.
Because, you know.