Kansas. An itty-bitty town. An old cafe. Linoleum floors, vinyl stools. The coffee tastes like ditch water.
In the parking lot: one semi truck, and fifty Fords. George Jones is on the radio.
Thank the Lord these places still exist.
This morning, I visited a river my father used to fish. I had to see it again. I was going to go fishing for old time’s sake, but decided I wanted eggs instead.
My waitress has the personality of a saint, and the smile to go with it. She warms up my coffee. I notice the skin on her chest and neck is marbled red and purple. Burns. Bad ones.
The man beside me is white-haired, wearing a cowboy hat. So are the old men beside him. I don’t know them. But these are the men my father came from.
We start talking.
“What’cha do for a livin’?” one cowboy hat asks.
Men have a biological need to ask this question of strangers. It’s as essential to manhood as fishing rivers our daddies fished.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
This causes a stir among the hats at the counter. They lean forward to get a better look at the out-of-towner.
“What’cha writin’ about?” one asks.
Between five of them there are four cowboy hats, three pairs of suspenders, and enough white hair to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay. These men are the men I come from.
“This, that, and the other,” I say.
“Well, son,” says Cowboy Hat. “I’m gonna tell you a story about Bigfoot that I been trying to get published for SIXTY years…”
The other men laugh, but the old fella is serious.
“I was a boy,” Cowboy Hat goes on. “Saw this big ole thing in the woods. I’s scared to death, but got me a good view… It was Bigfoot, alright.”
The others are cackling. One is wiping tears. I’m not sure if they’re laughing at me or him. But Old Cowboy Hat isn’t laughing. He’s staring at me like he’s just seen Elvis.
Our waitress refills my cup. This time, I notice there are bad burns on her hands, too.
She asks how I’m enjoying my eggs. I tell her they’re the best I ever had—not counting my mother’s. She curtseys, then walks away.
“So what’cha think of my Bigfoot story?” Cowboy Hat asks. “You wanna write it?”
“So what DO you write about?” another asks.
Good question. I suppose I write about people who deserve the poets, lyricists, and prize-winning authors to tell their stories, but get stuck with me instead.
And dogs. I write about dogs.
“You know,” says one man. “Oughta write about her.” He nods to our waitress at the other end of the restaurant.
The men’s voices become whispers. And here’s what I learn:
She has two kids. She dropped out of high school after she had the first. She was raising them as a single teenage mother. Her mobile home caught fire. It was heroism. There’s no other word for it. She saved her babies, and she bears the scars of it.
“And there’s more to the story,” another cowboy adds.
A lot more.
A few years ago, she finished her GED. Today, she takes night classes at a campus two hours away. She drives to class almost every night.
To pay her way, she works part-time as a custodian. She push mows a few local lawns on weekends for cash. She picks up shifts at local restaurants.
While the men talk, she appears with a coffee pot. Everyone gets quiet.
“Hey,” she says to them, “why’s everyone wearing silly grins?”
One man says, “We’re just telling this guy how beautiful you are, darling.”
It makes her blush. “Me?” she says. “I’m not beautiful.” And she seems to mean it. She really doesn’t know how bright she shines.
She walks aways. The men tip her silly. So do I.
Cowboy Hat says, “You ever change your mind on my Bigfoot story, come see me. We’ll go fishing, got a nice river outside’a town.”
Yes sir. I’ll do that.