It’s a small cinder block restaurant in the middle of an American desert. “Comida Mejicana,” the painted sign advertises. We are far from town. Very far.
We park in an empty dirt area. There is only one car in the parking lot. A beat-up Chevette. Red.
I learned how to drive stick in my uncle’s Chevette as a kid. I’ll never forget the sound of my uncle, screaming from the passenger seat when I coasted down my first hill.
I never knew he could cuss like that.
I push the restaurant door open. A bell dings. A little girl comes from the back of the restaurant. She is nine years old.
An old man stands in the corner, watching her. He has skin like wrinkled paper, a white mustache, and an apron. He supervises her with a gentle smile.
The girl asks what my wife and I want to drink.
“Sweet tea,” we say.
The little girl makes a face. “Sweet tea? What’s that?”
“We’ll just take water.”
The girl hands us menus. They are written in Spanish. I recognize a few words, most I don’t recognize.
For example: “pambazo” and “capriotada.” These seem like words my uncle might shout while speeding downhill in a Chevette.
Finally, I say to the girl, “You know what? Tell the cook to surprise me.”
“Really?” she says.
“Is he a good cook?” I whisper.
“Good? He’s SUPER AWESOME!”
Then the girl says something in Spanish to the old man. He laughs. He pats her hair. He kisses her cheek. And if there’s anything sweeter, I don’t know what it is.
In the kitchen, I hear a stove hiss. I see the old man behind the window, cooking. The smells are heavenly. The mariachi music overhead is hard not to appreciate.
The girl is playing in the booth behind us. She plays with a miniature horse figurine. She is making sound effects.
I ask what grade she’s in.
“Fourth,” she says. “And I make all A’s.”
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?”
This, I ask because old people in my life have asked me this ever since my mother first brought me home from the hospital.
“I’m gonna be in the Army,” she says.
“Yep, ‘cause they always help people and stuff, and they’re really SUPER AWESOME.”
“Is it hard to get into the Army?” I ask.
“YES,” she says. “It’s hard, you gotta go to boot camp and stuff, and learn how to get in shape. Like this! Watch!”
She runs around the restaurant in circles, karate chopping the air, flexing her biceps, saluting various objects.
I wish I had half this kid’s energy.
Soon, our food is ready. The old man calls to her. The girl brings two steaming plates. It’s a wonder she doesn’t drop them—the dishes are bigger than she is.
“Trust me,” the girl says, sliding food toward me. “You’re gonna like what he made, it’s super freaking awesome.”
She places a mustard bottle on the table, but there is no mustard in it. Inside is hot sauce that’s spicy enough to melt the paint off a ‘79 Chevette.
“Be careful with the sauce,” she says. “It’ll burn your booty.”
The bell on the restaurant door dings.
Two more enter the joint. They find a booth. The girl waits on them using rapid-fire Spanish.
Several more enter. Then a few more.
Soon, the nine-year-old is waiting tables better than most adults. She is a hard worker, light on her feet, happy, and quick with a water pitcher.
The old man looks proud.
When my meal is done, I am sick-full. And I wasn’t going to mention this, but the girl was absolutely right about the hot sauce.
Before I leave, I pay at the register. The old man rings me up. His English is good, but rough around the edges.
“How you like thee food?” he asks.
“It was perfect,” I say. “Best I’ve had in a long time.”
“I also enjoyed the service,” I add, nodding toward the girl. “She’s special.”
By now, the girl is seated at a table, swinging her legs. She reads a book, and she’s sipping from a Coca-Cola bottle.
“My granddaughter,” he says. “She was my son’s daughter, but he is dead. I never imagine that I would raise a child when I am so old, God must have sense of humor. She is mi princesa.”
On the wall behind him, I see the photograph of a young man wearing a camouflage uniform and helmet. A lit candle stands beside the photo. And a miniature American flag.
“Thank you for coming,” the old man says. “I am glad the food was good.”
I shake his hand.
“It was more than good,” I say. “It was super awesome.”
Take care of that Chevette.