Waffle House is full of people who are fleeing a hurricane. While I write this, Hurricane Michael is circulating in the Gulf like a Margarita in a cheap blender. I’ve seen TV footage of this storm filmed from outer space. This sucker looks angry.
Hurricane Michael slowed down last night, but meteorologists tell us he’ll get meaner when he hits warm Gulf water.
Satellite images on the national news projected the eye of the storm making landfall around 7:00 PM. Then, computer models estimate that Michael will gain strength and run directly into my garage door.
So this is what everyone’s talking about at this interstate Waffle House. This one-room building is alight with nervousness in the air. We are all evacuees, eating waffles and hash browns.
“You think the storm will hit our house, Mom?” says a boy behind me. He might be six years old.
His mother is tall, lean, and wearing a service uniform. A hotel maid, maybe. Or perhaps she works in dry cleaning. Her hair is a mess. Her eyes are baggy like she hasn’t slept in ten years.
“Hush,” she says. “And eat your dinner.”
But the boy is becoming anxious. He’s hardly touching his waffle. “What about our house?” he says to his mother. “What’ll happen to it?”
“Eat, I said.”
“When will we be able to go back home?”
“I don’t know, now quit worrying and eat.”
Join the crowd, kid. You and two million others. Michael is a storm that threatens to suck our houses from the foundations and launch them into orbit somewhere near Jupiter.
Behind the boy is an old man seated on a stool at the counter. The man wears a cap with “Massey Ferguson” embroidered on the front. He overhears the boy and his mother.
The man wipes his mouth, leans over the divider, and says, “You ever seen a fifty-cent piece?”
The boy doesn’t know how to answer, so he doesn’t.
The mother smiles with an uncomfortable face. The last thing she needs tonight is for her son is to disrupt someone’s supper.
“Answer him,” his mother says. “Go on, tell him.”
“No,” the boy says in a weak voice.
His mother elbows him.
“No SIR,” the boy adds.
The old fella smiles. He reaches into his jean pocket and removes a silver half-dollar. He holds it to the light. The kid stares at it. He knows he’s supposed to be impressed, but he’s not. It’s just a coin.
“This thing is magic,” the old man says.
“Nuh uh,” the kid says.
The old man looks hurt. “You don’t believe me?”
The kid shakes his head.
“Oh no? Well, watch this.”
The old man shuts his eyes. His furry eyebrows are the picture of every American grandfather you’ve ever seen. He holds his palm facing upward, he places the coin on his open hand.
With eyes still closed, he says, “I’m gonna make this coin turn from heads to tails by resting my hand on it.”
The kid is skeptical.
The man places his hand over the coin. He breathes. He whispers something like: “Sim sim, balla bim, hocus pocus.”
The boy is craning his neck forward. So is his mother. And the waitress.
The man opens his eyes. His bushy eyebrows raise in a smile. He lifts one hand. The coin is gone.
The boy’s eyes are bigger than truck tires.
“Hey! Where’d it go?” the kid says.
The man rubs his chin. “Now let me see… Where DID it go? Gee wiz, must be around here somewhere.”
The man looks under his plate. He checks his back pockets. He pats his shirt.
“Guess it’s gone,” he says.
But the man begins to cough. Not a real cough. This is all for show. He covers his mouth with a fist and a half dollar falls out.
The kid almost passes a kidney stone.
“That’s COOL!” the kid says—which is the highest compliment a child can pay an old man. “Do it again!”
“Ssshhh,” says his mother. “Quit bothering this man and finish your food.”
“How did you do that?” the kid says.
The old man hands the child the fifty-cent piece. He winks. “Magic.”
Then, the man pays for his meal. Before he leaves, he tells the kid to mind his mama. He leaves the restaurant and I see him through the window. He crawls into a large truck and he is gone.
I don’t know where he is right now, or where he’s going. But I know that no matter what kind of hellish hurricanes hit this old world, there is a special place in Heaven for old men who can make little children forget about them.