Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Today's Special

These old boys ambled toward their table next to the corner windows in Miss Shelly’s Place. The sign by the two-lane just called it “The Place.” Underneath, the words “Country Cooking” had “Country” highlighted in quotes, as to make clear.

Inside, pies and cakes were lined up on the counter, each under a glass bell. The chalkboard listed today’s


Biscuits and gravy, two eggs, two strips of bacon, all the coffee you want -- $3.99.

A party of eight men were already seated in the other corner, wearing boots and Wranglers and Carhartts, some with caps that said “Green River Barge.” They watched these newcomers get themselves seated, and the tables exchanged nods of recognition or words of greeting and some calling each other by name. The old boys situated themselves and nobody needed to pick up a menu.

The sun was just coming up through an east window and Amanda walked over with her hands full. A cup of decaf for Lloyd, black for Jim and Tommy, and an RC Cola for Daniel, who didn’t drink coffee.

Amanda took up Jim’s stainless coffee tumbler and in its place left a bottle of Texas Pete Hotter Hot Sauce. Amanda gave everybody a smile and Lloyd and Daniel stood up to get the hugs they knew were coming.

“Y’all good?” she said, patting Lloyd on the back. “Everybody the same this morning?”

The boys confirmed they were all good and verified that everyone's breakfasts were the same as usual. Amanda went to put in their orders.

They talked among themselves and discussed what needed to get done today and whether anybody needed anything at the hardware before heading out Bullpen Road to the cabin. Most of them had a flat carpenter pencil in a hat brim or a shirt pocket. A couple of them used those pencils to sketch out on napkins how the last two courses of sandstone needed to be laid if they were going to finish out the chimney today.

Amanda came over with a smile on her face and four breakfast plates balanced on her arm, which she started passing out like a croupier dealing cards at the Lady Luck over to Caruthersville.

The bell jangled on the front door and a short fellow with a red face came in carrying a sleepy toddler on his shoulder, a girl of about three with blonde curls and a thumb in her mouth. The short fellow walked stiff-legged to a table he’d picked out as his. He had a pugilistic look about him and one of his cheeks had the yellowish overripe-banana tinge that usually followed a black eye by a week or two. Amanda’s smile dropped away and she went over to freshen coffees at the other table.

Lloyd held his coffee cup to his mouth but didn’t drink. He looked over the rim of his cup and followed the pugilist with his eyes.

“What is it?” Jim said.

“That boy used to live with her. It didn’t end too good.”

“Should we take him out?” Tommy said, and everyone made some grunt of assent and they were only half-kidding.

Everyone kept an eye in that direction as Amanda exchanged words with the dour fellow, took his order. No, nothing for the child… she’ll get her breakfast at the daycare. Amanda brought him his scrambled eggs and toast. He dug in, eating with one hand, holding the sleeping child on his lap with the other. He looked up from his plate every couple bites with a “what are you looking at” expression, to nobody in particular but like he was daring somebody to look in his direction.

He finished his breakfast and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and threw a five on the table. He said something to Amanda as she passed and Amanda shrugged and kept walking.

The front door jangled as the fellow pushed out into the parking lot with the child still asleep on his shoulder.

Amanda had Jim’s stainless mug and set it down in front of him, full of coffee to go. Lloyd poked Daniel and said, “You know what she does? She washes out his coffee mug with hot water so his coffee stays hot longer. Does she do that for you?”

“No,” Daniel said, “she surely doesn’t. She may be sweet on him. Let’s ask her.”

The teasing seemed to put her at ease and a smile edged back onto her face. From their corner window, the old boys watched the short fellow strap the sleepy child in her car seat and climb into the cab of his pickup.

As he backed out, the morning sun caught the front bumper plate. A glamour-shot photo, maybe a high school graduation picture, of a handsome lad leaning toward the camera with a collared shirt and a smile and his hair parted on the left. Two pale white stars were airbrushed behind him, the rays implying a twinkle. Under the picture the words said: “Alex – R.I.P.”

The old boys tipped Amanda a little extra and went to finish their chimney.

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