Palm Sunday. I went out for breakfast. I landed at an old Birmingham cafe.
The bell dings when I walk inside. “Horse with No Name” is playing overhead. I hate this song. You’re lost in the desert, wandering around. Name the dang horse.
There are nine old men seated around a table. Some kind of coffee group. Ratty clothes. Reading glasses slung around their necks. Hearing aids. One man looks like he hasn’t bathed since medieval times.
I guess they skipped church too.
The waitress is a young woman covered in tattoos. The old men have something to say about her body art.
“When I was a kid, you never saw girls with tattoos,” says the guy.
“I’m no girl,” the waitress says.
“It just ain’t right.”
“You know what they say opinions are like,” she says.
Laughter from the table.
“Wait,” says one old man points out. “Why are you giving her such a hard time? YOU have a tattoo, Virgil.”
“My tattoo is different, I was in the Navy. I earned it.”
The waitress throws out a hip. “Yeah, well, have you given birth to three children?”
That shut them up.
There’s another table. It’s an older woman and a young boy, he’s maybe 6 years old. The woman is wearing a long skirt and her hair is tied atop her head in a thick bun. She looks devout. Church of God, maybe.
Their hands are folded and they are praying over breakfast. It’s a long prayer. They are stock still. The only thing moving is the woman’s mouth.
I can hear the woman praying for recent tornado victims, victims of the Nashville shooting, and lots of other things. The little boy is closing his eye so tightly it hurts.
When the waitress gets to my table. I give her my order, then I ask a question.
“Why do you let those old men tease you about your tattoos?”
“They’re harmless,” she says. “Plus, they tip pretty good.”
One of the young woman’s tattoos depicts an angel. I almost ask what the tattoo stands for, but I don’t. You don’t tattoo angels on your forearm for no reason.
She leaves me and I eavesdrop on other customers nearby.
Seated behind me, for example, is an older couple. They are Latino. They speak Español. They are huddled together.
The husband’s right hand is missing at the wrist. He only has his left hand, and evidently he can’t use it.
So the woman is feeding him. And she’s doing it discreetly. She’s not making a scene. There is nothing awkward about this moment. It’s purely routine.
They take turns eating. She feeds him a bite. She takes a bite for herself. Him. Her. Him. Her.
I am moved by this.
The old guys start laughing again. This time I can hear the joke they’re telling. I know this one. The punchline has to do with a surly character named “Mister Rab-BIT.” And even though these are tough guys, sort of like your granddaddy, I sense a lot of love at their table.
My greatest aspiration is to be an old man someday.
My attention goes back to the table with the old woman and the young boy. They are still praying. Amazingly. Their food is going to be frosted over soon.
After a few minutes, my waitress places my breakfast on my table before you can say “Palm Sunday.”
My coffee tastes like dishwater. My toast is soggy. My bacon is burnt. Everything is absolutely perfect.
“Anything else?” she asks.
I cannot restrain myself any longer, I ask about the angel tat.
“It’s a tattoo for my son,” she says. “He died. He was a 1-year-old. He had a heart defect. He died in my arms, right in my living room.”
“Maybe you should tell those old men what your tattoo represents. Maybe then they wouldn’t tease you.”
She laughs. “They already know what this tattoo stands for. One of those men is my grandpa. He gives me a hard time because he thinks he’s cute.”
Then she adds, “He’s the one who buried my son. I couldn’t dig the hole because I was crying too hard. He was crying too, but he was the one who used the shovel. We buried him beneath a family oak tree.”
I stay for a long time. I eat my breakfast. And the people around me are like a Monet. It’s a holy day. This all-American eatery is my chapel. And this cup of mud is my sacrament.
I’ve been here for a little while yet, and the old woman and little boy have only just now finished the World’s Longest Prayer. I hear them both say “Amen.”
“What’s Palm Sunday about, Grandma?” the kid asks.
“I just showed you,” Granny says. “Now eat your breakfast.”
James - April 3, 2023 2:16 pm
We share the same aspiration. Thank you for saying it in words for the world to read.
Matthew H Iskra - April 3, 2023 5:03 pm
“The people around me are like Monet”
Great quote that.
Gaylon Ponder - April 4, 2023 12:18 am
Pretty popular among us baby boomers for a song with only two notes and an unnamed horse. We were pretty easy to please back then Sean
Slimpicker - April 4, 2023 2:44 am
Paint me a Birmingham.
Richard Owen - April 4, 2023 1:39 pm
For me as a photograper, your words paint an image in my head. Thanks for sharing your writing gifts with the rest of us, Sean.
J0hn Fraughton - April 5, 2023 1:48 am
That’s the perfect way to describe Sean. He doesn’t write, he paints thought pictures.I saw everyone in that cafe.