She sits there behind the cash register. Every day. Reading “Better Homes & Gardens” magazines. Sometimes she reads “Real Simple” or “People.” She rings up customers in the modest, side-of-the-road Alabama café. I am one such customer.
Her husband recently died. He was 74. It was sudden. He had just retired. They were going to travel. See America. Live out their golden years in a 28-foot RV. Have fun. Now he’s gone. Now she works here as a cook. She sold the RV.
“You lose your husband, and you lose your place in the world.”
Warren. That was her husband’s name. There is loneliness in her voice when she speaks of him. Half of her heart lies six-feet below the soil, she tells me.
“I met Warren when I’s fourteen,” she said. “He was fifteen. My daddy made us wait two years to marry. Warren said he would’ve waited until Jesus came back if he had to. I thought he was so romantic. God, I miss him.”
The place does a nice little lunch business. It’s rural food. The kind of fare the American Heart Association wants to ban.
Our mothers ruin us early in this part of the world. They feed us smother-fried steaks, biscuits the size of regulation softballs, sausage gravy for breakfast, battered poultry, and casseroles which primarily consist of cheese topped with more cheese, garnished with cheese.
And we eat lots of vegetables, too. Only, our vegetables are cooked with bacon grease from a Maxwell House can which sits on the stove. Every family has a can like this. The suet inside the can has been accumulating since Nixon was in office.
My grandmother raised my uncles during World War II on a steady diet of bacon grease until they developed 42-inch waistlines. Granny would force my uncles to clean their plates. During each meal she would say, “Remember boys, every time you leave food on your plate, you’re feeding Hitler.”
So my uncles tried to starve the German army.
This older woman is someone’s granny. We are mid-conversation when the woman’s grandchildren burst from the kitchen. Two girls. Both blond. She showers them with hugs while she is ringing me up.
She asks how my food was.
“It was superb,” I say.
“Glad to hear it. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll have zipper peas.”
Believe me, I would. In fact, I would crawl across a sea of broken glass to eat zipper peas. But alas, I am on my way to Kentucky. I have a lot of highway I need to put behind me.
I place my money on the counter. The woman looks at the cash with a smirk. “Not many people pay cash anymore,” she says. “Even our older folks use cards now.”
She uses this opportunity to teach her granddaughters a math lesson. She looks at one of the girls and says, “You want to count his change?”
The girl is maybe 8 years old. The kid mashes buttons. She takes my money. She painstakingly makes change. She is one dollar and two dimes short, but who’s counting?
“I’m a different person since I lost my husband,” the woman goes on.
I ask how she means.
“For one thing,” she says, “I’ve started telling people ‘I love you’ more. I say it all the time now.
“Because you never know when you’re gonna see a person again. We could die today. You never know if this will be the last time.
“So I tell everyone ‘I love you.’ Even people not in my family, sometimes I just say, ‘Hey, I love you,’ because you never know. Someone might need to hear it.”
I ask the obvious. “Do I get an ‘I love you’?” I say.
The woman gives a wry grin. We’re strangers, but in a way, there is no such thing as strangers.
“Sure,” she says. “Why not? I love you, honey.”
“I love you, too,” I say.
Then we hug. Two complete strangers, hugging in an American café. She smells exactly like a woman I used to know.
I release her. I walk out the door. And I’m back on the highway in a matter of seconds.
She’s doing okay, Warren. I just thought you’d want to know that.