Middle Tennessee. She was waiting tables in an old bar. The waitress was young, but she had a face that made her look older. I was thinking late 40s. But she might have been 30.
“Something to eat?” she asked.
“I’ll take the burger,” said I.
“You don’t want our burger,” she whispered.
“The owner is a tight wad. He cuts our ground beef with breadcrumbs to save money. It ain’t a real burger.”
How about that.
“Well, then what should I order?” I asked.
“Between you and me?” she said. “You should get the fried chicken sandwich. It’s a great sandwich. Can’t screw up chicken.”
So I ordered the chicken and a cold drink. The drink came in a longneck bottle. They brought me a basket of fries big enough to require insurance.
Meanwhile, there was a band playing on the stage. They were young guys. Their music was allegedly country, but sounded like a nuclear field test. Three electric guitars, cranked to capacity, and one bass guitar that sounded like an F/A-18 Hornet.
But I was applauding them, because I have been that kid, standing on that little stage before. And it stinks when nobody pays attention to you.
The waitress checked on me. “This band’s pretty good, huh?”
I smiled. “They’re clearly audible.”
“The one playing the red guitar is my son,” she said.
“He’s very talented.”
She grinned at me. Then at him.
“When his daddy died,” she said, “I started him on guitar lessons, to give him something to do. He took lessons three times every week. Cost me an arm and a leg.”
I didn’t ask how his dad died. But she offered it. “His daddy overdosed. Pain meds.”
Neither of us said anything after that.
I noticed the boy looked young to be in a bar. But I didn’t comment. Namely, because the first bar I played in, I was 14 years old. My mother didn’t know I was there. And just look how I turned out.
“Sorry about your husband,” I said.
“Me, too,” she said with a butter laugh. “His daddy was the best musician I ever seen. He was always playing music at some club. He played with a gospel group, on the road, full time. He was a great man. He just had problems is all.”
I too know about great fathers with great problems.
“But my son is first in his high-school class,” she went on, “and he’s probably going to be valedictorian. When his band got offered this gig, I told my son, hey, if you want to play in a bar, fine, but I’m going to go with you. He didn’t like my rules. But that’s why I got a job here.”
“You got this job so you could keep tabs on your son?”
She shook her head. “Ain’t keeping tabs on him. I just sort of give him the stink eye sometimes.”
The woman works as an X-ray tech at the local hospital. That’s her main gig. This is a side job.
“My husband’s mom was dead set against my husband playing music, and she was so mean to him. I don’t want to be like her.”
“How did you meet you husband?”
“He was playing at our church, with this out-of-town group, and I thought he was so handsome. So I come up to the stage after the concert, and I talked to him, and we just connected, you know?”
“I loved him so much. He was so gentle and kind. I got pregnant when I was 16, and then his mom kicked him out because we was living in sin. We finally got married. His family never accepted him or me. But we had love, you know? And I don’t regret that.
“Which is why I’m going to support my son’s music. I pay for him to study guitar with some of the best guitar players in our area. He’s even got gigs in Nashville.”
Another nod from me.
I watched her son play. He truly was talented. Even though his guitar was turned up loud enough to affect the migratory patterns of geese.
“You’re a good mother,” I said.
“No, I aint,” she said. “I just know that the one thing I never had was unconditional love. And I know that unconditional love is what we’re all looking for. If I can only afford to give one thing to anyone in this world, it’s going to be unconditional love.”
It was a good chicken sandwich.
But the service was world class.