Exit 310 Cracker Barrel – Part Four

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Part Four of Four

In front of Hamlet, MarthaAnn placed a Belgian waffle piled high with cherry preserves and whipped cream.  Next to it she deftly set a cup of steeping Breakfast Tea.  The arch of her eyebrows told Hamlet not to even mention vodka and to pick up his fork.  Which he did.

Hester’s egg was as good as a hard-boiled egg can get; that is to say it wasn’t green-tinged or chalky.  She ate without pleasure.

Crusoe looked with interest at the three plates comprising the Old Timer’s breakfast arrayed in front of him.  The eggs delighted him with their circular perfection and he broke the yoke with a biscuit.

The three were fairly absorbed until Pauline from table next uttered a chilling sound, all vowels and absent of intelligence, yet human and carrying some raw attempt at communication.  It arrested all eating, slicing into the momentary calm with a knife-point reminder that things are not as they should be, not at all as they should be.  “Broken!” screamed that sound.

Hamlet sagged, dropping his cherried fork and placing his head in his hands.  Crusoe’s eyes went distant looking over a thousand seas to a place of unrelieved loneliness.  And Hester simply sat more erect, more brittle, and pecked with rage at her egg.  Until all three couldn’t help but watch Ray.

Ray reached over the table and took his wife’s hand from her lap and stroked it gently, wrist to fingertips, over and over, saying, “I’m here.  Your Ray’s here.  I’m here, sweet girl.”

He did this in tender rhythm until the distressed sounds ceased, and as the three watched, Pauline smiled.

Ray sipped his black coffee, all the dinner he had ordered, and smiled back at her.

~

Hester was enraged watching Ray because she felt cracks forming in her anger.  It wasn’t pure anger anymore.  It was veined with sorrow and yearning and a desire for Ray to hold her hand and call her his sweet girl.  Her chest began to heave without her ironclad permission and she bowed her head over her plate.  She was afraid she might make a sound like Pauline’s if she allowed her throat to work.

Beside her, Crusoe’s eyes came back from afar and saw today again and saw her distress.  He placed his arm with gentlemanly warmth around her shoulders and said, “Yes, madam.  Yes.”

MarthaAnn came round with tray aloft and began removing smeared and crumbed dishes, and refilling coffee with a backhanded pour.  Attentively not looking at Hamlet she nodded at his cherry-red waffle.  He paused for a long moment, cut off a few square waffle-chambers, arced them through the cloudlike cream, and tasted the piercing goodness.

~

“In all,” Crusoe concluded, “I was there 28 years.”

“28 years of solitude,” Hamlet said thoughtfully.  “I longed for that.”

Hester agreed with her deep, dark eyes.

“No,” Crusoe countered.  “No.  It wasn’t good.  But . . . it became good.”

“How?” Hester croaked the one word.

“When I understood it.  When I saw that it wasn’t punishment.  It was mercy.”

A memory stirred for Hester – Arthur, dying in her arms and saying something very like this.  But she had been so resistant then, so unwilling to see that something could look like one thing but be another.

Just then MarthaAnn arrived at Ray and Pauline’s table to clear the apple pie plate she had brought him unasked.  The same implacable air that made Hamlet eat an entire Belgian waffle cajoled Ray into enjoying the dense, tall, crumb-crusted pie.  The veteran waitress squeezed Pauline’s shoulder and wished her a Merry Christmas as Ray got to his feet and assumed his position as chair pusher.  Hester, Hamlet, and Crusoe watched silently together as Ray and Pauline headed back out into Christmas and the Rockettes.  MarthaAnn also stood watching silently, then turned to the three parties of 1.

Hamlet raised a princely hand and said their dinner was on Denmark and could he have the honor of paying for theirs.  Hester blushed rose and Crusoe looked profoundly happy.  Only MarthaAnn hesitated.

“Yours is paid for,” she said elliptically.

“What?  All three of us?” Crusoe gestured to ‘us,’ now 1 party of three.

“With a generous tip,” she added.  “Merry Christmas.”

~

Queen Sarah stood at her hostess station overseeing the exodus and reloading of the now-stuffed seniors.  She had helped Ray negotiate the wheelchair back through the giftshop obstacle course, and had told him to keep the Auburn scarf of course as a gift.  He had smiled the smile of a child under the Christmas tree, dazed with blessing.

Now came the three, still formal as ones from another era, but with eyes alive with the connection of one to another. Tying her cape at her throat, Hester helped Crusoe find the arms of his greatcoat as Hamlet perused a display of jars of striped sugar sticks lyrically flavored ‘butterscotch’ and ‘blackberry cream.’ Choosing three, he handed them around and asked Hester, “Who, then, paid for food he didn’t eat?”

“Someone with plenty, and much to spare,” she reasoned.

With that, Sarah watched Hamlet and Crusoe hold open the doors and honor the lady Hester as royalty.  And out they went into the twilight of Christmas night.

~

 As they left, more passed them coming in to the Exit 310 Cracker Barrel, hungry, lonely, or escaping.  Sarah eyed the waiting list of 11, when MarthaAnn touched her arm.

“Look at this,” she said to Sarah, her face and tone asking for help, help understanding.

She opened a thin, repurposed envelope that contained five twenty dollar bills and a note in deliberate, careful cursive:

“From our house to yours, Merry Christmas.  Love, Ray and Pauline.”

~

” . . .and with His wounds we are healed.”
Isaiah 53:5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exit 310 Cracker Barrel – Part Three

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Part Three of Four

The Rockette-bound tour group filled the gift shop to its bursting point, and Queen Sarah had the challenge of her career to date.  She had to create tables where there were no tables.  She had to hurry along diners without them feeling hurried.  She had to seat people immediately because if she didn’t they stood right in front of her threatening to call the Better Business Bureau.

She loved it.  Her blood sang and her brain fired on all synapses.  A chair for Mr. Carhart-jacket-with-a-walker.  A cracker pack for Mrs. Swollen-ankle-third-trimester.   She was the indispensable oil in this Cracker Barrel machine and only she knew it.

Standing at the hostess station, she could see her table of ‘three parties of 1,’ and like a clinical physician she was watching her seating experiment for data.  Was it working?  Did it need tweaking?  Was it a keeper of a tactic, seating singles together as if it were the norm?  The elderly, craggy-faced gentleman seemed to be the only one enjoying himself.  The skinny moody man looked on the verge of tears, and the woman’s back was to her, but she was motionless as death.  Sarah would keep her eye on them.

Just then she realized that much of the packed gift shop attention was focused on something near the door that she couldn’t see.  The charter bus was still unloading, so it must have been one of them, but porcelain and people were in the way.  Sarah pointed Madeline to take over the book and made her way through the people, her apron giving her an odd authority to part the crowd.  The seniors saw her as One Who Could Help.  And help was needed.

A woman in a wheelchair.  A man, the husband, pushing the wheelchair through the doors.  But the woman was sliding down like a waterfall, and the man was far too frail to hoist her back up, as were all the distressed fellow field-trippers.  Two images Sarah would never forget:  the woman was oblivious and the man’s face was the most radiant face Sarah had ever seen.  Later Sarah realized that she had one other impression that came out of nowhere.  The slight man, 5′ 4″, all bone and sinew, had once served in the military.  She just knew it somehow.

Gently pushing the onlookers aside she got to the woman in time to keep her from sliding entirely to the floor.  Standing behind her, she grasped her under the arms and pulled upward.  The woman was a dead weight and heavy, but Sarah got her back up into the chair.  She seemed to have no awareness of her situation at all.  The tour group lanyard nametag around her neck said ‘Pauline’ so that was a starting point.

“Alright Mrs. Pauline, there you are,” Sarah cooed, not letting go of her shoulders lest Pauline commence to melt again.  Order restored, the travel companions turned their minds toward their mid-afternoon dinner.  The husband, lanyard name ‘Ray,’ stood beaming at Sarah.

“Thank you,” he said simply.

“I’m glad to do it,” Sarah replied.  “But I can’t let her go.  Do you have a strap or something to keep her upright?  How do you usually do this?”

“I’ve never done this before,” he answered with a child’s absence of concern or chagrin.

“Ah,” said Sarah, with no time to get the full story of just what he meant.  “Alright, then.  We need . . .” and once again her alter ego failed her not.  Spotting a scarf rack within reach she asked, “Sir, are you for the Tide or the Tigers?”

“Tigers, Ma’am.  Engineering at Auburn after my tours in Vietnam.”

Sarah didn’t know really anything about that war, just the name.  So she polite-nodded as she tied a long Auburn scarf around Pauline’s torso and behind the chair back.  Good to go, she handed her over to Ray and parted the crowd once again, taking the two to the front of the line of waiting travelers.  Some wanted to complain, but couldn’t quite because of the obvious need.

Quickly stepping behind her station Sarah eyed the book and the tables and saw gladly that a table was ready in MarthaAnn’s zone.  Only a veteran like MarthaAnn could give these two what Sarah decided they needed and deserved.

Carrying two menus, Sarah led Ray and Pauline to a table in the center aisle, directly across from her experimental ‘three parties of 1.’  Quickly removing a chair so Ray could slide the wheelchair in its place, Sarah wished them a warm Merry Christmas, and headed back to harried Madeline and the hungry travelers.

~

 

Exit 310 Cracker Barrel – Part Two

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Part Two of Four

The three disparate individuals stood stumped and immobile.

Crusoe moved first.  He still wasn’t used to crowds, but he had learned to roll with the punches.  Seating himself nearest the wall, he started at the top of the menu and began to decipher its mystery.  Hamlet was used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; a table for one or for three – what did it matter?  With a bleak glance at the teeming humanity around him, he sat across from Crusoe, tore open a sugar packet and began tracing designs on the polyurethaned table top.

Hester had determined to continue her practice of not speaking to anyone, simply touching the scarlet letter on her gown bodice with one elegant finger when someone spoke to her.  It had worked well in Boston.  But the jostle and crush of people forced her to make a quick decision; acquiescing with a brief nod she seated herself fluidly next to Crusoe.  She would stick to her plan as best she could.  Story of her life.

Silence at the table.  Only Crusoe studied the menu, his craggy face craggier with perplexity.

“What would this ‘hashbrown casserole’ be?” he asked turning to Hester.

Always a beat off due to her years as a pariah, she stared for a moment at him, then shook her head, laying a finger on the letter on her breast.  But Crusoe had had almost three decades of his own isolation, so his conversational beat was off too.  He stared back at her face, then down at the letter, dimly remembering from his English childhood this punishment for adultery.

“But madam, surely that happened many years ago, owing to your advanced years,” he offered practically.

Outcast or not, a woman is a woman.  Hester’s fine nostrils flared and she almost opened up the well of words she had stored up for the magistrates, the village women, pitiful Arthur Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, and even for the God she no longer believed in.  But Hamlet intervened.

“It sounds French to me,” said the Prince of Denmark.

“Then we will steer clear of it,” said Crusoe decisively. “How about Maine Blueberry Pancakes?”

“Thank you, no,” said Hester, disdaining all of New England.

“Here is something called a cheese Danish?” suggested Crusoe to Hamlet.

“I don’t eat,” Hamlet replied.

Hester and Crusoe paused.  “What meanest thou?” Hester couldn’t help inquiring.

“I mean I don’t eat.  Nothing appeals.  Everything is so stale and flat,” he waved at the carnage on the plates around them.  “I drink.  Yes, I do that.  But I don’t see that on the menu.”

“Don’t see what on the menu, sweetie?” said a voice at their side.  Her nametag said, ‘MarthaAnn’ and she was game on point.  “What are we having today?”  She had 4 gold stars on her brown apron and didn’t use a pen or order pad.

“Am I to tell you what I would like from this list?” asked Crusoe formally.

“That’s how it works, hon,” she said, pleasant and needing to keep things moving.

“Good,” he responded with stately pleasure.  “I’ll have the Old Timer’s Breakfast.”

He turned with a smile to Hester and said, “Perhaps you’d like one of these too?  Are you not curious about ‘sawmill gravy’?”  He waved MarthaAnn silent as she was about the define it.  “No, no.  I just want to discover it in the moment.”

Hester ignored his suggestion and spoke briefly, “I would like one oatmeal muffin and a hard boiled egg please.”

MarthaAnn nodded the slow nod of one studying a puzzle, and turned to Hamlet.

“Do you not have any vodka?” he begged.

She laughed good-humoredly, “We’re dry.  Sorry.  But you’re skinny as a nursing cat.  I’ll bring you something good.”  And off she went scanning tables left and right for who needed what.

 ~

Exit 310 Cracker Barrel – Part One

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Part One of Four  

Christmas Day and the gift shop was packed with stuffed people going and hungry people coming and lonely people mingling and people sick of their families escaping.  They all breathed the same scented air and edge-stepped around each other, sucked-in and taut, trying hard not to break anything.  Three frantic hostesses conferred and worked logistics, estimating x number of dining minutes per party, times 11 on the waiting list and more coming.

Trying to accommodate MarthaAnn’s regulars and the two-highchair-one-gimp-hip party of 8, head hostess Sarah looked with dismay at three separate parties of 1 on the list before her:  Hester, Hamlet, and Robinson Crusoe.  Singles were so hard to seat on days like today. MarthaAnn was trying to placate her regulars, the regulars were screaming about not getting MarthaAnn, and Irvin just informed Sarah that a charter bus of golden gals and guys headed to Nashville to the Rockette’s last show had even now opened its doors with a hydraulic hiss.

Sarah had to diminish the waiting list.  Now.  These were the moments she loved her job.  An alter ego took over and she became Queen Sarah, Solver of Problems. “Gimp Hip, party of 8, Gimp Hip, party of 8, your table is ready,” she sang in her head, while her mouth called for the Millers.  Glaring at the bus boy to step it up, she pointed the party to a large table to the immediate left, and receiving inspiration on the fly, called, “Hester, Hamlet, and Crusoe, parties of 1, your table is ready.”

Smiling, impervious as a nurse requiring a sample, she greeted the three somber separate people with a collective air and waved them after her, deciding that walking and explaining brooked no argument, “As you can see, we are unable to seat you separately, but I am certain you will find your dining experience satisfactory.  Ma’am, Gentlemen.”  She gestured to a table just inside the dining room, handed them the signature enormous menus, and whisked away eagerly to the next seating challenge.

 ~

A Littleville Dictionary

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Have I mentioned that Andrew and I love Littleville?  18 years in, and one child born here, we are so at home we’ve picked our cemetery.  When the kids became old enough, we would leave them for an hour or so on sun-spangled Saturday afternoons for a motorcycle date – a free and glorious ride down county roads that smelled of earth and looked like heaven.   Gradually our motorcycle dates took the same road every time – past the gun club and stone house, a wave at the turn to Dale and Christie’s, across the low bridge in the curve, through the four-way that got hit hard by the tornado, and up the gravel path to the hilltop cemetery marked with a wrought-iron sign.  It was a peaceful place to talk and wander.

Those dates are on hiatus for now because one Moto Guzzi motorcycle is worth a few months of college tuition.  But I am not complaining.  The memories are close to perfect.

Meanwhile, because I am Littlevillian enough to plan to be buried here, I feel qualified to compile a list of local terms and usages that newcomers need to know.

comeapart – noun;  meltdown, tantrum.  “Skylar had a comeapart at Walmart because I wouldn’t buy him a Minecraft Lego set.”

complete comeapart – noun; total and complete meltdown. “Skylar had a complete comeapart when I told him that because of his comeapart I was taking the batteries out of his RC Nano-Falcon helicopter and keeping them.”

ill – adjective; pronounced ‘eel’, in a bad humor, grouchy, bad tempered.  “Skylar was just ill, so we went on back to the house.”

ideal – noun; idea, plan, scheme.  “My ideal was to put the Christmas tree to the right of the window and decorate it in all Auburn.”
*This is so accepted a way to say ‘idea’ that a series of hardbound ‘how to’ craft books at the library is entitled ‘Christmas Ideals.’

squall – verb; cry loudly, vehemently, or with great emotion.  “I just squalled and squalled overThe Notebook.”

tickled – adjective; highly pleased, glad.  “We are so tickled that y’all have been part of the whole wedding weekend.”
*This word is perfectly acceptable for an adult man to use and lose none of his virile masculinity.  It’s endearing.  Usually preceded by ‘so,’ it is pronounced ‘sa tickled.’

carry – verb;  to take or bring a person by vehicle.  “I carried Misty to the drug store to get a humidifier for the baby.”
*This one takes a little getting used to because to the uninformed it seems that the speaker is bodily carrying Misty, when in reality it is a vehicular carry.

rotten – adjective; spoiled, bratty.  “He’s just rotten.”
*This adjective is reserved for male toddlers and is used by grandmothers and mothers.  With pride.

‘I don’t care to’I don’t mind.  Though it looks the opposite, this phrase signifies compliance and willingness.  “I don’t care to babysit.  What time?”

Decoration – noun; one of four Sundays in May in which descendants converge on the rural family church and change out the flowers on the graves of ancestors.  Dinner on the grounds and hymnsings accompany this warm reunion.  “Pastor Andrew,   we can’t have our covered dish that day.  It’s Decoration!!”

mash – verb; push, press.  “I mashed the button, but nothing happened!”  “Well, mash it again!”

proud – adjective; glad, happy.  “Thanks for carrying Mother to Belk’s for the Red Dot Special.”  “Oh, I was proud to do it.”

‘s – The possessive ‘s’ is added liberally to businesses whose names end in a consonant, i.e. Belk’s, Walmart’s, Kmart’s, Shogun’s, etc.  This makes perfect sense and needs no defense.

evening – noun; afternoon.  “We ‘ll go this evening around 3:00.”

set – verb; sit.  “My glasses were setting right on the counter by the Shopper’s Guide.”  “Don’t leave your dirty dishes setting in the break room.”

giveout – adjective; exhausted, done in, faint from hunger.  “I was giveout from ball.”

ball – noun; baseball, softball.  Pronounced ‘mbaw’, this word encompasses the whole of the sport from Park and Rec to high school, from tryouts to final series, to practices, travel ball, tourneys, the whole package.  It is never confused with any other ball sport.  ‘Ball’ refers to a season, to a life.  “This’ll be my last Girls’ Night because ball starts.”

the beach – noun; Gulf Shores, Alabama.  There are no other beaches.  “We’re off Monday, so we’re going to the beach.  We are taking Tyler’s little girlfriend.”

little girlfriend/little boyfriend – noun; teenaged girlfriend or boyfriend.  Under 20, one’s steady dating partner is referred to as ‘little’ no matter their size.  “Jaylyn’s little boyfriend is starting at center this year.  He’s precious.”

This partial list is offered with joy and humility and the knowledge that lifelong Littlevillians will be puzzled over it.  What, they will ask, is odd about these words, or worthy of note?

What indeed?

Of Circuses And Dust

193I realized the meaning of the term ‘three-ring circus’ for the first time when I went with Will’s kindergarten class to the circus in Birmingham.  Finally seated after an hour’s bus ride, a class-wide potty trip, and an obligatory purchase of a neon light-up sword so Will wouldn’t be the only one with nothing to wave when the lights went down, I turned to look down on the arena floor.

There were literally three rings, and in each ring mind-boggling stuff was happening.  In ring one a lion-tamer was sticking his head in the jaws of a maned king of the savannah.  In the middle ring a group of 8-year-old contortionists were folded backward on themselves and building a pyramid.  And in the third ring a motocross rider was circling the interior of a clear sphere faster than vision could follow.  We really just followed his fire-trail.  Around the edges were elephants and jugglers and dancers in gauzy leotards and souvenir hawkers.

Ahhhh, I said to myself.  A three-ring circus.  Too much to look at.  Got it.

Will is a junior, so that field trip was 12 years ago.  But I was reminded of it this weekend when I was praying earnestly for peace and forgiveness from the guilt of a cold hard heart, and it occurred to me that at the moment my heart was not my problem.  My head was.  My head was a three-ring circus.  There were lion-tamers and jugglers and elephants and contortionists and motocross riders running riot through my thoughts.  I had no peace and no ability to impose order on the circus.  There are moments in life when all we can do is sit very still and hope we look calm, graceful, ladylike, and serene.  That was me.  Containment is a good discipline.  It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s a good start.

In the contained moment I was listening for the Lord.  He reminded me with wonderful practicality, “Child, you are dust, 49 year old dust.  Beloved and redeemed, but for now, still dust.”

I reasoned then that the circus was not due to the state of my heart, but to the state of my body which is frail and ever seeking to return to the ground from which it came. It is not alarming or even surprising that our peace suffers when our body does. It was His kindness to remind me, while I sat in self-imposed ladylike serenity during church, of the hormonal realities that can produce circuses.  I think I might have actually smiled up at Him.

Peace began to descend.  The surge diminished; the circus closed down and moved to another town.  Vision cleared, and I read:

It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.’ Lamentations 3: 26

For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14

Thank You, Lord, that circuses move on.

Thank You that You remind me that my frame is dust and my spirit sometimes gets dusty too.

Thank You for helping this dust wait quietly for You.