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 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.

 ~