BIRMINGHAM—Red Mountain filled my windshield from end to end. The sun was coming up. And the waffle gods were calling me. So I pulled over.
Waffle House was slow. The place was mostly empty except for a trucker, a teenage boy, and a cop eating hash browns.
The cook was staring out the window, sipping coffee. George Strait played overhead, singing about a clear blue sky. It was cold enough inside to hang meat.
My waitress was a motherly looking woman. She had long woven hair, done up in crimson braids. She approached my table. She placed my napkin and silverware down.
“Know what you want to drink, baby?”
I ordered a sweet tea, eggs, a pecan waffle and a few strips of sowbelly. She called out my order to the guy at the grill.
The cook lumbered into action. He was wearing one of those little paper hats. When I was a young man, working in the greasy bowels of an American diner, I wore a hat like this. We called it “the confidence killer.”
I listened to the symphony of a kitchen begin to play. Refrigerators opened and closed. Eggs cracking. The hiss of a flat top. The metallic chop-chop of a steel spatula on a griddle.
I watched my waitress approach the teenager in the booth in front of me. He looked like a rough customer. His arms, neck and chest were painted in an assortment of artwork.
I had a perfect view of him from where I sat. There was the tattoo of a lyre emblazoned on his chin. There was the image of a demon on his shoulder. On one bicep was a four-letter word. A well-known word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.
The kid was apparently hungry because he was on his second plate of food. When the waitress asked if he wanted to order something else the kid thought about it and said, “No, thank you, ma’am.”
Then he asked for the bill.
The waitress tore a page from her pad, placed it face down onto the faux-wooden table and removed his used wares.
As she walked away, the kid buried his head in his hands. He was either tired or upset about something. Or both.
When the kid rose and walked to the cash register, I could see how lean he was. You could have counted his ribs.
He passed me by and I noticed a large dark bruise on one side of his face. His lip was split and swollen. We locked eyes for a brief moment. Then he looked away.
His shirt had at one time been white, but was now brownish gray with filth. The tanktop was torn, and there were traces of dried blood on the fabric. His oversized jeans were slung below his hips so that his underpants showed. He smelled like sweat.
He stood before the register and handed the cashier a stack of ones and hung his head.
“It’s not enough money,” he said to her.
His head ducked even lower. “I got a card but it ain’t got much on it. I was trying to stay under budget, but I guess I figured it wrong.”
He ran his card. He keyed in a code. He waited. The machine beep-beeped. Declined.
The waitress didn’t know what to say. So she didn’t.
“If you give me a little time,” said the kid, “I can bring you the money back. I promise. I live real closeby. Just gotta go back home, I’ll come back. I swear to God.”
The cop in the corner tossed his napkin onto the table. He stood. He was tall, thick-armed, clad in Class B blues. His hair was high and tight. He wore a chest-mounted radio. His duty belt squeaked when he walked.
“Wait a second,” the cop said, approaching the register.
The officer reached into his pocket and removed a wallet. He unfolded two crisp bills. He handed them to the waitress.
The kid started blinking a lot. Almost like he had something stuck in his eye.
Allergies can be so bad this time of year.
“Thank you,” the kid said. “I can pay you back, sir.”
The cop laughed. Then he presented a meaty hand to the kid.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the officer. “It’s my treat.”
It’s good to be back home in Birmingham.