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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

~