4809 Everest Drive
Old Hickory, TN 37138
About 2,200 words
The door marked “Restrooms” swung open and Miss Annie Ledbetter toddled back into the restaurant proper, rearranging her gloves, umbrella, scarf, Sunday paper, Bible, and purse without losing a step.
Two of the three red booths nearest her were open, but the white-haired matron passed them by.
Two of the four booths at the far end of the counter were also open, but Annie continued only far enough to settle into the middle-most of the straight-backed waiting area chairs lined up along the front windows.
“Won’t be long, hon,” said a woman identified by her bright yellow nametag as Ruby – Shift Manager – 23 Years’ Service.
Minutes later, Ruby gave the counter a couple of exaggerated swirls with a wet towel to catch Annie’s attention, then nodded toward the booth in the front corner where a mature couple, dressed as if for church, was sipping coffee. Their napkins lay wadded up tell-tale on their nearly empty plates.
Annie gave Ruby a quick little smile and thumbs-up and was rewarded moments later with: “Miss Annie, your table is opening up.”
Annie’s eyes twinkled with anticipation. She remained seated a few moments longer while the church couple rose and started toward the cash register, the woman gathering up the bill as her male companion tossed some greenbacks on the table.
Juanita, the energetic rookie waitress, hurried down to clear and wipe the table.
For one with arms so full, Annie displayed a modicum of grace as she scooted across the plastic seat to take her usual place in the corner. She settled in and wished once again that these tables could be pushed to get just a little more room for comfort. Juanita waited until she was settled, then plopped down the usual: three napkins and two spoons.
“Three coffees. Two with cream and one black. Right, Miss Annie?” Juanita asked.
“Yes, sweetheart, if you please.”
Juanita spun around and stepped back behind the business side of the counter. Smiling, she called over her shoulder, “Coming right up, Miss Annie. I made a fresh pot just for you!”
The “Miss” most folks used was a Southern affectation, a sign of respect and not as cold and formal as “Mrs. Ledbetter.” When she came in on Sunday mornings, all the regulars looked up, smiled, and welcomed her and were greeted cheerfully in return. They called her Annie, or Miss Annie, or, sometimes, Ms. Ledbetter.
Hardly anybody called her Mrs. Ledbetter anymore. One exception was the third waitress on duty today, Mary Helen, who said, “Good morning, Mrs. Ledbetter,” with her mouth but not with her eyes. She had waited on the Ledbetters for years, but something changed and now she was grumpy any Sunday Annie came in – which was almost every Sunday right after church.
Ruby, believing she had some understanding of what soured things between Miss Annie and Mary Helen, made it a rule that Mary Helen wouldn’t be assigned on Sundays to the section containing Annie’s favorite table.
This particular Sunday morning rush was a bit slower than average. Still, there was plenty of hustle in the air.
Ruby tucked a stray auburn and grey lock back under her hairnet and hat, raised her order pad, and sounded off in the general direction of Big Al’s broad back, “Three eggs over medium, two waffles, order covered in the ring, pull two sausage.”
The size of the order meant the deputy at the counter, a Ruby regular who was a good tipper, must be hungrier than usual this morning.
Juanita sidled closer to Al, dodging as the cook moved in and out and around the grill area, then called out just a bit timidly, “Two eggs scrambled, order smothered and covered, pull one bacon.”
Juanita was being trained by Mary Helen, a veteran like Ruby and hardly the poster girl for honey-and-sunshine Southern graciousness – especially when Annie was near. Mary Helen was drill-sergeant-gruff as she fired out the orders of the three teenagers and two truckers seated in the booths farthest from Annie.
Big Al soaked it all in, hands, arms, skillets, and plates moving with hypnotic precision until at the end of an extended series of rattles and scrapes, clinks and clanks, the cook’s butcher block counter was covered by a row of glistening white plates all steaming with hot Southern-style breakfasts.
“Orders up!” the cook called out. He stepped back and, in a grand gesture, spread his big arms wide to showcase his art.
Big Al on the busy shift was a thing of beauty. The show he put on was part of the reason this place had so many regulars on Sunday mornings. He moved with the smooth grace of an Olympic gymnast – if Olympic gymnasts weighed north of 300 pounds, flipped omelets, and wore greasy white aprons and paper hats.
His prowess at the grill was not why Annie came every Sunday, although she was always happy to see him. She watched him today from her vantage point in the corner and chuckled softly when it occurred to her again that Al looked like he was conducting a stainless steel symphony.
On Sundays, people filled the Waffle House after early service and again after late service. Annie had always preferred going to the late service. Her son TJ and husband Tom Sr. preferred to skip church and would meet Annie at the Waffle House, taking a break from their favorite activity – working together on the restoration of a 1946 Hudson pickup truck.
TJ and Tom Sr. enjoyed Al’s showmanship with spatula and omelet pan, but that came second to their grins when talking rapid-fire about the next step in their long-running father-son project. That pair had their heads and hands full of antique pickup truck every weekend, it seemed, from Saturday morning until 11:45 am Sunday when it was time to head out and meet up with Annie.
They always did their best to get to there in time to claim and hold down the corner table for when Annie finished shaking hands and sharing warm regards with other members of the Ebenezer Lighthouse Victory Chapel.
Annie and Tom Sr. had continued coming to the Waffle House every Sunday after TJ’s National Guard unit deployed to Iraq, saving their absent son a place at the table and ordering an extra coffee – black, the way TJ liked it.
One of the few times they missed a Waffle House Sunday was the frosty November day Tom Sr. was flying home with TJ.
Tom Sr. wore what would have been his “Sunday go to meeting” suit if he had ever gone to Sunday meeting. He sat with two official escorts who were impressive in Army dress green uniforms.
TJ, also in dress greens and with new ribbons adorning his unmoving chest, was in a box in the cargo hold.
The next spring, Tom Sr. took sick and started missing more and more Sundays. Annie remembered how he laughed and cried and cussed almost all at the same time when the postman brought that letter from the Veterans Administration.
It said Thomas Ledbetter Sr. had been awarded a 100% service-connected disability rating, which meant a monthly compensation check and all the free medical care he needed to cope with the cancer triggered by his exposure to Agent Orange.
When Tom died six months later, Annie missed another Waffle House Sunday while she and a goodly crowd of friends and neighbors were saying goodbye to yet another flag-draped Ledbetter coffin.
Annie had gently rebuked several people who were critical of Mary Helen’s absence from Tom’s funeral, reminding them that Mary Helen never attended military funerals and that she wore a black MIA pin every day in honor of her brother Billy, still listed as Missing in Action in Vietnam.
Billy and Tom had gone over together, but only Tom came back.
TJ died in the War on Terror and Tom Sr. was a long-delayed casualty of the war in Vietnam. But Annie’s thoughts seldom dwelt on wars in jungle or desert.
She thought about that truck she now drove around town on her errands, and especially about how it was rescued by her smiling, sweaty, greasy men through long periods of dedicated work. Their labors of love were punctuated often by laughter and, just occasionally, a harsh word or two over a scraped knuckle.
Annie Ledbetter thought on those things and other pleasant memories as she sipped her coffee with cream while across the table another coffee with cream and a coffee black grew cold.
Mary Helen stayed at her own end of the restaurant, but could hardly keep from staring bullets at Annie. She thought, Look at her smiling and contented. I know what she’s doing. Trying to make me jealous. Trying to make me crazy.
Juanita was like an attentive niece or grandchild. She loved taking care of Miss Annie. When she gave Miss Annie’s cup a warm-up, she’d offer – unnecessarily – to warm up the other two cups. Before long, she saw a now-familiar small change in Annie’s posture that said it was time to head over with a coffee pot and her check. She refreshed Annie’s cup , set the coffee pot on the table, and waited. Annie looked at the check and told Juanita what you could get for $5 when she was Juanita’s age. She took a sip of the second warm-up of her coffee just to be polite, turned to pull a $5 bill from the depths of her purse and then brought out a little pouch from which she retrieved two shiny 50-cent pieces. Pressing one into each of Juanita’s upturned hands, making sure that both were face up, she said softly:
“Tom and I rode into town with his father in that old truck the day President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through town.”
Juanita simply smiled, and Annie smiled back with a twinkle in her now red-rimmed eyes.
Heads had turned in their direction, but Annie gave no sign that she took notice. She lined everything up in the space on the table she’d deliberately kept clean. As she stood and reached back for the coat draped over the back of her seat, there was the rustling as several of the gentleman customers began to rise to the occasion.
It was the deputy who got there first this time to help her with the coat, saying as he did so, “Now, don’t you be breakin’ any speed laws, Miss Annie.”
She giggled just a bit, then started loading up: gloves and scarf stuffed into the deep pockets of her coat, purse hanging from the crook of her left arm; Bible in her left hand and held close to her heart, umbrella in her right hand.
She left the Sunday paper, unwrapped but unread, on the table for the other customers. Juanita offered a hand as Miss Annie slid back across the seat and stood to settle herself for a moment before beginning the second half of her weekly processional.
As she headed toward the door, she called several other customers out by name, and always added: “Have a blessed day.”
As Annie was leaving, Mary Helen scurried over to that barely-vacated corner under the pretense of helping with the minimal cleanup.
She inhaled slowly and deeply through her nose, unconcerned that she might look like some old bloodhound because that’s just what she felt like. I didn’t matter because most customers and the Waffle House crew were all keeping fond watch on Miss Annie as she crossed the parking lot.
Mary Helen sniffed the air again, slower and deeper, and found what she was looking for: Unmistakable, though mixed in with Annie’s Chanel No. 5 and the ever-present Waffle House aromatic blend of coffee, bacon grease, and waffle syrup, was a faint trace of that familiar Ledbetter father and son combination: Old Spice, English Leather, and motor oil.
Mary Helen grunted, but nobody else noticed. She clamped her jaw tight, feeling her anger with Annie beginning to rise again and then regained control by telling herself, as she had so many times before. So what if she gets visits from her dead husband and their boy. That just means the reason I don’t get visited by Billy is that he is still alive and will come home to his little sister. Some day. Some day.
When Miss Annie eased that eye-catching antique pickup out of the parking lot, Big Al broke what had seemed to be an unspoken consensus to hold the noise down while she was toddling through.
“These waffles won’t cook themselves,” he called out.
The teens were laughing. The deputy went back to work on his big brunch. One of the truckers said loudly, “Hey, Mary Helen. We need more coffee down here.”
A family of three came through the door. Travelers from the looks of them and their out-of-state plates.
In a staggered verbal relay, Ruby, Mary Helen, Juanita, and Big Al acknowledged the newcomers, saying: “Welcome to Waffle House.”