A little breakfast joint. The waitress is wearing a mask. I wear a mask. The few customers are wearing masks. All God’s children got masks.
Waylon Jennings is singing on an unseen radio. The whole place smells like bacon and lemon-scented Lysol.
A construction worker beside me is sipping from a mug. He is not wearing his mask per se, it sits atop his head while he drinks coffee. It looks almost like he is wearing a little sunbonnet.
“More coffee?” says the waitress. Her own mask impedes her speech, so it sounds like she’s saying, “Mmm kpfff?”
The waitress is wearing rubber gloves. After she touches his cup for the refill she removes her gloves, throws them into the garbage, and gets a fresh pair.
“Thanks,” he says.
“You’re welcome, darlin’.” she says.
A little boy sits at the counter a few seats from me. His mask has licensed cartoon characters on it. He lifts the mask before each bite, then pulls it back over his face to chew.
“Take your mask off to eat, honey,” says his mother.
“But,” says the little kid, “I like wearing it.”
This is a very different world than I’m used to.
The bell on the door dings. Three workmen come walking into the joint. They are not wearing masks. They are wearing work clothes, ball caps, and they are covered in sweat.
“Masks,” the waitress says to them. At least, I think she’s the one doing the talking. I can’t see her mouth moving.
The men dig surgical masks out of their pockets, wrap them over their faces, and apologize. They all sit in a booth with Sunbonnet Guy, who is apparently their pal. They browse the menus.
After a few minutes, one of the men starts talking about his daughter. It’s a brief conversation, but from what I gather, his daughter has just been released from the hospital. She’s had some kind of serious infection. The doctors have been feeding her antibiotics like water.
The other men are very inquisitive about his daughter. They ask heartfelt questions that typical construction workmen wouldn’t usually ask.
I was once a typical construction workman. We were not exactly known for our sensitivity and heartfelt behavior. The most sensitive issue we ever discussed was the importance of a wishbone offense.
But these men aren’t like that. They are genuinely concerned about this man’s daughter. And I can’t help but eavesdrop.
“Is she hanging in there?” asks one man.
“Every day gets better. Doctor says we’re out of the woods now.”
Another says, “My wife and I have been thinking about her, and praying every day.”
“She’s such a smart little girl.”
“Tell me about it.”
“How is she taking it?”
“Like a champ. She just doesn’t understand what’s happening.”
Now the father is showing cellphone photos to the men. A few of the guys are older and need reading glasses to see the photos. They all swipe the screen with their finger and say things like: “Gaw, she’s a cutie.”
“She’s gonna be a heartbreaker.”
“She looks just like you.”
“You’re gonna have to keep the boys away from your door with a stick.”
The waitress comes to take their orders. The men all order the Basic American Breakfast. Bacon. Eggs. Toast. Coffee.
“Cute girl,” the waitress says, pointing to the cellphone.
“Thanks,” says Dad. “She’s eight.”
“I love that age,” she says.
Next, the waitress calls their orders to the cook. I love hearing waitresses speak that code-word language they use in joints like this. They holler things like, “Pull three bacon, drop four, scattered, smothered, chunked, topped, diced, tilted, shaken, smashed, dropped from a moving bus, and beaten with a number-two tire iron!”
And the fry cook memorizes it all.
The humble fry cook is the most underrated man in this country. Somehow, a fry cook can keep fifty orders in his mind, simultaneously, without writing them down, without asking questions, using nothing but a single spatula to chop, dice, scoop, spread, flip, squish, mix, scrape, and smash. It’s amazing, really.
The cook gets to work on the orders. Soon, the whole place is alive with the hissing sounds of morning sausage and bacon.
Dad starts talking to his friends again. “Yeah, when that doctor told us she could die, we didn’t know what we were gonna do. We cried for a week. It was like being kicked in the face, man.”
There is silence among the men. It’s one thing to talk about your daughter. It’s another to share your innermost feelings. This level of sincerity demands respect.
“I’m glad she’s okay,” says one workman. “There must be a reason.”
“A reason? What do you mean?”
“I think there is a reason for all stuff,” says another. “We just never know what it is.”
They don’t say much more. And they don’t need to. Even though, personally, I wish they would because it would make a great story if they added a few more tidbits. But you can’t have everything.
When the cook finishes, the waitress brings their plates. Before the men unwrap silverware and start eating they remove their hats. They bow heads. They fold hands.
“Dear Lord,” says Sunbonnet Guy, “thanks for this food, and thank you for helping J.T.’s daughter get better. She’s so special, and we just love her to death. We all owe you one, Lord.”
Four amens from the whole table.
One amen from the guy who wrote this column.