CALERA, ALABAMA—the Cracker Barrel off I-65 is busy this morning. There are people in the dining room from every walk of life. Lots of noise.
An elderly man with military patches on his ball cap. A young couple with loud children who test the limits of the known sound barrier. An old man in a cowboy hat, sitting with his grandkids.
My waitress is Tamba. She is pretty, middle-aged, with cropped black hair, and a smile that sets the room on fire.
“How y’all today?” she says.
Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.
She fills my coffee mug. She takes my order. And there’s that smile again.
My cheek muscles will never recover.
I watch her weave through the chaotic dining room like a ballerina. She takes orders from grumpy parents, over-caffeinated children, and flat-faced out-of-towners who woke up on the wrong side of the hotel bed.
She greets each customer with sugary words and that patented cheek-crippling grin.
She takes orders by memory. She listens when picky eaters specify exactly how they want their eggs. Before she leaves tables, she recites orders to her customers without flaw.
And I sincerely hope that John Q. Customer notices how remarkable she is. Her personality is brilliant, her sense of humor is refreshing, and her memory is the Eighth Wonder of the World.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet she could memorize the Jefferson County phonebook in one sitting and recite it with her eyes closed.
On her way to the kitchen, people flag her down.
“I need mayo!” hollers a man.
She’s got it covered.
“Ma’am!” says an impatient woman from the back. “I NEED some pepper sauce.”
Pepper sauce. Check.
“Ma’am, can I get some more biscuits?” says a little boy.
“‘Scuse me, Miss?” says a woman. “We’re outta ketchup.”
Coming right up.
Our heroine emerges from the kitchen holding a one-hundred-pound tray over her head. She delivers pepper sauce for the weary, coffee refills for the downtrodden, and more biscuits for the tired and heavy laden. And she does it with a smile that can only be measured with a light meter.
My food arrives. She places it before me and asks: “You got any big plans for today?”
She looks me in the eye when she says it.
Now here is a woman, I am thinking, with an entire dining room that wants a piece of her. A room she’s been servicing since her early shift started. But right now, she’s asking about my day.
We talk briefly. More smiling. And she’s back to work.
I eat my meal, but I’m still watching her. She zips through clusters of chairs, calming the impatient, winking at babies, and making people laugh.
Finally, she brings my check. She also brings me a to-go coffee in a foam cup.
She tells me: “Drive safe, sugar.”
And this might not sound like much to untrained ears, but in our part of the world, “drive safe” is code for: “I care about you.” And it’s hard to find people who care in this world.
I say goodbye. I wander through the gift shop, looking at trinkets and toys for my niece. Then, after purchasing some black licorice and a pair of toddler-sized cowboy boots, I pay my bill.
I reach for my wallet, and I see her.
Tamba is jogging through the dining room with a foam cup in her hands.
“Sir!” she’s saying. “You forgot your coffee!”
She hands it to me. I thank her.
Then, she nails me.
She hugs me. Hard. I am taken off guard because this is not your run-of-the-mill hug. This is the real variety. The kind of hug you get from church ladies; or Sunday school teachers; or cousins; or childhood friends; or from your aunt Eulah. This is a true slice of affection.
“You drive safe, now,” she says.
And she disappears.
Sometimes I wonder about this world. I wonder where it’s going. Another day, another tragedy. If you want heartache, flip on the news. You’ll find mankind has lost his ever-loving mind and he can’t seem to find it.
Somewhere along the way, people quit trusting one another. Hatred sells at clearance prices. People are angry with things they can’t even name. But that’s not the case here in Calera. Not this morning. At least not here.
In this restaurant there is only sunshine. Her name is Tamba. And if you are ever fortunate enough to meet this woman, your cheeks will be sore for days.