I am thirty minutes outside Birmingham. In the rural hinterlands. It’s a gray day. The sky is aluminum-colored and dismal. I don’t like gray days. They really depress me. To make matters worse, this is a pandemic.
Sometimes I wake up and wonder if this pandemic has all been some sort of elaborate nightmare; maybe one morning I’ll wake up and the world will have gone back to rock concerts and handshakes. But that didn’t happen today.
What I need right now is breakfast. I’ve been on the road a few days. I need carbs. I need cholesterol.
I pull over at an old joint. It’s the kind of rundown eatery with old music playing overhead and waitresses who can balance 38 plates on one arm and a carry bottle of ketchup in their teeth.
The place is socially distanced, masks are worn by servers. This new world feels foreign to me sometimes. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.
My waitress arrives holding a notepad, wearing an N95 respirator. She is cheerful, and dressed in what appear to be high-school colors. She asks what I want to eat. I go with bacon, eggs, coffee.
The coffee looks like tar and it’s strong enough to resurrect a cadaver. Which is good, I need an energy boost today because gray days sap my enthusiasm. They make me exhausted.
So I’m sipping this caffeinated sludge and wincing, since this beverage has roughly the same pH value as hydrochloric acid. That’s when I notice the people at the table a few spaces away from me.
There is a boy. I’m guessing he’s 6 or 7 years old. He is blind, or perhaps visually impaired. The kid sits beside his mother in a booth, his eyes are open, he is staring blankly ahead.
When the family’s food arrives, his mother ignores her own plate of food and begins feeding the boy.
“I can feed myself, Mom,” he says with the classic voice of a determined American child.
“No,” she says. “We’re about to see Grandma in a few hours, I won’t have you getting food on your shirt.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“I never said you were.”
“But Mom,” the kid whines. “Your food is getting cold.”
“I like cold breakfasts. Now open up.”
Mother and son are attracting the attention of everyone in this little place. Especially from the wait staff. We are all transfixed by them because they are magnificent.
The bell over the door dings. The door swings open.
A few truck drivers in camouflage and ballcaps walk in and take a seat at the bar. The waitress asks what they want to eat, but they don’t answer. You can tell these men are immediately captivated by the same tender scene the rest of us are watching.
Mother is spoon feeding Junior and the men don’t seem to be able to notice anything else.
I’m watching too. It’s too lovely to ignore. It would be like walking into a restaurant and trying to read a menu while Beethoven plays “Piano Sonata No. 21.” You wouldn’t be able to focus.
Finally the truck drivers order, and their breakfasts arrive. Their plates are heaping with bacon, their coffee is poured. But their conversation is minimal, they keep stealing admiring glances at the boy and his mom.
I believe there is something special about the relationship between mother and son. Throughout centuries, masterpieces have been painted by deft hands depicting the Madonna and her child. Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, the list goes on. The old masters didn’t go around painting things that were ugly. There is something holy found in the mother-son bond.
When the boy is finished eating, the mother dips a napkin into a glass of water and dabs his messy face. She wipes his mouth gently, then touches his cheeks and fixes his hair. He stares straight forward when she kisses his forehead.
He says, “Do you think Grandma will recognize me?”
“Don’t know,” says Mom. “You’re getting pretty tall and handsome.”
The boy likes this. “Am I REALLY tall?”
“I’d say you’re almost as tall as your sister.”
Now the boy is finished, and it’s mom’s turn to eat. We all watch her stare at a plate of cold food. She unwraps her silverware and prepares to eat ice-cold bacon and eggs. She doesn’t seem to mind.
But something happens.
No sooner has the mother lifted her fork than the waitress arrives. Without saying a word, the server places a new plate onto the table. This plate is steaming hot. The waitress removes the old plate, winks, and walks away. She doesn’t make a big deal about it, she doesn’t say anything.
The mother says thank you, and you can tell that she is visibly moved by this. And the author of this story begins to feel a prickle behind his nose and eyes.
The bell dings as the truck drivers leave the place. I can see them through the front windows, they are all hopping into enormous, muddy vehicles, firing loud engines that rattle the earth and shake my bones.
I flag my waitress. She asks if everything is okay. I tell her everything is great. Then I lean in and whisper to her, explaining that I’d like to pay the bill for the woman and her son. And if possible, I want to do this in secret.
The waitress smiles, removes my empty plate, and points out the window to the noisy trucks. “Too late,” she says. “Those gentlemen beat you to it.”
Suddenly, today is less gray than when I started this column.