Knoxville. Last year. I am walking into a Waffle House to get supper because everywhere else is closed at this hour. The sidewalks are rolled up. The lights are off. Knoxville is asleep.
I should be asleep, too, of course. But I’m not. Because I had to make a speech earlier tonight. It was one of those long nights where I drove straight to Knoxville and came right back.
I had to wear a tux. Have you ever been to a Waffle House while wearing a tuxedo? You get a lot of funny looks.
“Did you just finish with senior prom?” the waitress asks.
“No,” I say. “It was much worse. I had to make a speech to drunk rich people.”
She leans on the counter. “You wanna cry about it?”
“No. I’m past that.”
“So. What’re we drinking, Prom King?”
“Anything that’s hot and black.”
“One cup of tar, coming up.”
There is a guy at the counter who is dressed in a service uniform of some kind. He is old. There are tattoos all over his arms. Tattoos on his knuckles. Piercings all over his face. A ring in his nose.
He is a little long in the tooth to have a ring in his nose, but there you are. The tattoos on his knuckles let me know that he has no problem using those babies.
He gazes into his coffee cup.
Here is a man who is not playing with his phone. Which is a rarity in our world. He’s not reading anything. He’s not talking to anyone. He’s just gazing.
“Evening,” I say to him.
He glances up from his coffee. “Hi ya, buddy.”
He’s country, with an accent like your favorite uncle. Country people always call you “buddy.”
The waitress stops by the old man’s mug.
“Get you a refill?” she says.
“Yes, please,” he says as she pours. “Thank you, baby.”
Country people also call you “baby.”
I ask about his tattoos. I always ask about tattoos.
He shows me his knucks. “I got these in prison,” he says. “Did them myself, with a guitar string and an ink pen.”
“You want to know something?” he says.
“I’m getting married. First time ever.”
“Really?” I say.
“Really,” the waitress says.
He nods. “I was in prison for twenty-three years. But she stuck by me. She was there every time she could be. Visited all the time. Every single time. She kept me going. She was my savior.”
“What’d you do?” the waitress asks.
I order supper. My meal is prepared by the cook de cuisine. The whole kitchen begins to hiss and sizzle.
I sincerely believe that Waffle House cooks are the most underappreciated persons on the planet. They make your food, they do it right before your eyes—that’s a lot of pressure. And yet they get no tips. None.
“She’s the one who asked me to marry her,” the old man says. “She got down on her knees and everything. We have two kids together. I ruined her life by getting locked up. I really [bad-worded] up…
“And she should’ve left me. She coulda become a gentleman’s wife. But she stuck with me. And now she wants to marry me.”
“What’d you say to her?” the waitress asks.
The man wipes his face. “What do you think I said?”
The man finishes his food. He kills his coffee. When he goes to pay his bill, the waitress informs him that his bill has already been taken care of.
“Who paid for my food?” he asks.
I hold up my hands in mock surrender. “Don’t look at me.”
The waitress holds up her hands. “Not me.”
The cook looks right at the old man and smiles. “Don’t worry about it, buddy,” he says.
They’re doing okay in Knoxville.