“Breakfast at the Spindletop Café.”
“Where y’all from?” asked the waitress in the self-conscious too-polite voice she always used for strangers. In the diner where she worked, she usually knew just about everybody. They fed the workers from the oil fields close by. Some loggers, too, though they had less money. The worst of the breakfast rush was over, but under any circumstances, even in a crowd, this little group would have stood out—a soldier and his family—skinny wife and little boy, all three of them thin as broom handles.
She poured them each a coffee including the child and asked again, “Where y’all from?”
The blonde woman raised her head, made fleeting eye contact, and began to answer. “We from….” The waitress heard the kick under the table, not too hard, not too loud, but the woman winced. “Over yonder…,” she said, “on the river.” She hung her head back down again and stared at the menu.
“Want me to put some milk in the boy’s coffee?” No one responded, but the waitress tipped up the little tin cream pitcher anyway and drizzled a generous stream into his cup. “Sugar’s over there, baby.” No one moved. She waited another moment and said, “I’ll be back when y’all decide what you want.” Then she went to stand behind the counter with Tiny and Almaree, his mama.
Tiny owned the place and, of course, the last thing Tiny was was tiny. His immense girth was testament to both his culinary skills and his appetite. He always wore a white t-shirt and an apron. Mama Almaree had to make the aprons.
The morning was cold for a Louisiana fall, but Tiny never needed a coat. Just as well. He probably couldn’t have found one to fit him anyway. Almaree was snuggled into something ancient with a ratty fox draped around her neck. Its black bead eyes had fallen out long ago. The soldier seemed warm enough. He wore his uniform tunic open like a businessman might wear a blazer, showing his t-shirt underneath. His chest was covered in service bars and medals. The waitress didn’t know exactly what they meant, but she understood that he must have been brave, that he must have seen many campaigns. He was silent as a ghost and as pale.
“That ‘un’s had a rough go of it!” Tiny said to his mama. He felt a little jealous. After Pearl, he’d tried to enlist. Even explained that he could cook up a storm and feed an army, feed ‘em good. He’d been rejected nonetheless.
No one at the table of three said anything to each other. The man and woman kept looking at their dog-eared menus, studied them like the Bible, heads down, eyes riveted on the page, but ordered nothing. The child stared out the window.
The waitress made the rounds of the few remaining oilfield stragglers, the bosses—only they could go in this late—and topped off their coffees. Through the front glass of the little diner, she could see the silhouettes of the black oil derricks, scores of spindletop derricks thick as trees, thick as the trees they’d replaced. In amongst them, a person could still sometimes see the blighted stumps of trees, the few remaining looking like the tortured landscape in a Wolfman movie, black and oily as the ground in which they stood. The cold morning dew made them shimmer. “That’s what money looks like,” the waitress said to the little family at the table as they stared out the window at the bleak landscape beyond. The family made no comment.
She poured the woman a touch more coffee. The woman looked up with pale blue eyes and nodded her thanks. Her dress was a geometric print, blue on white, made out of feedsacks. The waitress could tell. She’d had plenty of feedsack dresses herself when she was a kid back in the Depression. The woman’s dress looked like it had been washed more times than it could stand. Its color was the same washed out blue as the woman’s eyes. The boy looked faded, too. She poured him some more coffee. Pale as paper, he wore a little shirt of the same print as his mama’s dress, but when he looked up at the waitress, he had big brown doe eyes, different from his parents.
“Look at your eyes, little man, eyes to die for. Women gonna love you when you grow up.” No one at the table said a word. Didn’t even crack a smile. This time the waitress stirred the cream into the boy’s cup until the drink inside was the color of a brown paper bag. She also reached past the woman in her thin dress, grabbed the sugar bowl, and did the same thing, stirring the sugar into suspension. The child looked up wordlessly again, but she was glad to do it for him. He looked like somebody needed to do something for him.
“Sad,” said Almaree to her son.
“Nope, ain’t nothing sad about that. He ’s a soldier back home. God A’mighty knows what he’s seen. What he’s done. He’s a hero.” The waitress leaned on the counter beside Tiny and his mother and sipped her own hot cup of coffee waiting and watching.
Finally, the soldier looked up and waved the waitress over. His eyes were blue like his wife’s, but harder, more vivid. The waitress guessed the woman was his wife. They both wore slender gold bands. “We’ll have it all,” he said. “Grits and bacon.” He looked at the woman. “How ‘bout you? Eggs? You still like ‘em scrambled?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “Scrambled.”
“I been gone so long, and things are so different, how would I know?” His voice was soft, but a sharp frown creased his face.
“The boy, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Scrambled eggs.”
In the kitchen Tiny did his best. This soldier had eaten K-rations that should have been his if the government had taken him. He loaded up their plates with piles of eggs, grits swimming in butter, gave them all two more pieces of bacon than usually went with the order, and threw in a sausage patty on each plate.
“Give that kid a big glass of milk.” When the waitress reached for the child-sized glass, he stopped her. “No, I said a big glass,” and filled it himself.
“That kid can’t be any more than three,” she whispered. “It’s a waste.”
“I don’t care. I want him to have all he needs. Looks like he’s missed a meal or two.”
When the plates were filled, Tiny brushed off his apron and helped the girl carry the food out and set it in front of the little family. Without a word the soldier pointed to the sausage.
“Don’t worry about that. That’s my doin’.”
When Tiny got back behind the counter, Almaree gave her son a frown. “It’s what I can do, Mama,” he said.
The café trio stood near the kitchen watching and trying not to watch. The waitress filled the soldier’s coffee two more times. The man and the woman ate slowly, but the little boy dug in, finished as much as he could. The moment his father looked away, the child tucked a sausage patty into the pocket of his little shirt.
When the soldier went to pay, Tiny refused. “No, man, I wish I could a been out there fightin’ the Germans with you. But this is what I can do. Food’s on me.”
The soldier gave him a hard look with his dead blue eyes and dropped a ten dollar bill on the counter. “This’ll cover us. Feed somebody else besides.”
With a feeling of shame and fear he couldn’t quite fathom, Tiny wadded up the bill and stuffed it in his apron pocket.
“Pride,” said his mama as they watched the little threesome climb into their old Ford out front. After a few false starts, it fired up and they drove on down the road through the spiked landscape of blackened oil derricks.
When the state geologist saw the lone soldier walking down a stretch of wooded highway, he stopped to offer him a ride. “You lucky I came along, son. Ain’t nothin’ along here but trees and more trees.”
“I ’preciate the lift, sir, but I walked Italy, I walked Germany, I guess I can walk Louisiana, too.”
“Just been discharged?”
“Ain’t been long.”
“How long you been in?”
“Since right after Pearl.”
“Going home to family?”
“You married, son?”
“Some of ‘em waits; some of ‘em don’t.”
The two rode in silence all the way to Alexandria. Mile after mile passed in twin solitudes. At the edge of town, the soldier said, “Just drop me on any corner,” and the man did. Parked, he watched the uniformed silhouette march away. All those hours, and they’d not so much as exchanged names.
Two days after Christmas the sheriff and two of his deputies came into the little café. All three were white around the mouth, pieted Tiny’s mother would have called it.
“The usual?” Tiny shouted from behind the counter.
“Nope. I don’t want to look at no food,” said the youngest deputy, the sheriff’s baby boy. “Don’t even show me no damn food.” He sat down and began to pick at the rope of faded tinsel which the waitress had wound down the length of the counter like a tarnished silver snake.
“Coffee. Black and strong,” ordered the sheriff making an arc with his hands encompassing the three of them. When Tiny set down the mugs, the sheriff pulled out his hip flask and poured a hefty slug of bourbon into each one. He shoved the first one in front of his boy. Then did the same for himself and the other officer.
“Sir, I don’t drank,” said the other deputy.
“You do now,” he barked. “Take it like medicine. I am.”
“You can’t...,” Tiny started to say drink in here, but the sheriff cut him off.
“Who you gonna get to arrest me?”
On his second cup, the sheriff patted his boy on the shoulder. “Kids is always the worst.”
“Oh, yeah!” coughed the other deputy.
“Boy’s first time,” said the sheriff by way of explanation, but he looked just as green as the kid himself. “Yep, woman and a little boy. Kid couldn’t a been more than three. Been out there for a while. Parked down a loggin’ road in the woods. Sittin’ in an old Ford. Hunter found ‘em.”
“What’s left of ‘em,” added the sheriff’s son taking another pull of his doctored coffee. He tore the rope of tinsel in half then pushed his cup down the counter and clinked it against his daddy’s mug, prodding for another slug. The old man poured him a generous dollop.
“A woman and a child?” asked the waitress. “Nobody else?”
“That was plenty,” said the sheriff. The deputies nodded amen.
Tiny and the girl blanched. She caught the cook in a desperate embrace across the vast front of his greasy apron. He sloshed coffee on the counter as he dropped the pot and grabbed her hard. He held on like there was no tomorrow. His mama, Almaree, looking on, had always hoped these two would somehow get together.
- K-ration. K-rations were ready-to-eat meals issued to U.S. military forces during World War II.
- Pieted. A colloquialized version of ‘pied,’ and I heard it all my life growing up in Grant Parish. . . . It's pronounced ‘pie-ted.’ Pie, as in not cake. The women in my family used that term to describe a blotched complection, from illness or exertion. As in the sentence, white around the mouth, meaning whiter than the rest of their skin. [Author's note]
Faircloth, Debra. “Breakfast at the Spindletop Cafe.” Louisiana Anthology. Ruston, LA: 18 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Aug. 2012. <http:// www2. latech. edu/~bmagee/ louisiana_anthology/ texts/ faircloth/ faircloth-- spindletop_cafe.html>.