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.