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I hate Sunday lunch. Here at the Huddle House Sunday lunch means skimpy tips. Whether it's the hangover bunch or the church crowd who think since they just chunked some change in the offering plate they've earned their points for the day with God, almost nobody hands me more than a buck or at most two. So I would have been in a bad mood anyway, even if my daughter Carla hadn't sassed me last night when she waltzed in at two AM. Seems like just when everything else is tough, Carla decides to yank my chain too. She's been wanting a car lately. Just got her license and thinks she's entitled to a new ride. I've tried to tell her I don't even own a decent car-mine's been making a bad knocking noise lately and spewing out black smoke. Anyway, last night I lost my temper again, just yelled at her instead of telling her that I been struggling. Joe, my ex and her dad, hasn't paid child support in months. I've explained all this to Carla, but when I mention child support, Carla thinks that's all she means to me. I don't know how to show her I love her, and she don't really believe me when I tell her, so I quit trying a while back.
As I say, I would've been in a bad mood anyway, but today was worse than usual. Thomas, the cook, had some bug up his ass and he couldn't get two words out without one of them being the f-word. First it was the f-ing hash browns that wouldn't get done fast enough, then it was my f-ing handwriting on the orders. As if that wasn't enough, Mr. Hankins, the mechanic, thinks the Huddle House is the place he has a chance to show he's somebody's boss, and if I'm waiting on him, it's me he gets to be boss of. "I asked for RUNNY eggs!" he yelled when I brought him the order, quick as I could so he couldn't complain about me being slow. "If you all can't run a better restaurant than this, you oughta close the doors!"
To tell the truth, I'm sick of being yelled at. I been yelled at all my life. When I was a kid, I just learned to yell back, but no way can I afford to lose my job, as Hankins knows, so I have to take everything he dishes out. To top it off, he likes to stay and smoke three or four cigarettes after he's finished eating, no matter how many people are waiting for a booth, and he wants refills on coffee the whole time. After he ground the fourth butt into the ashtray I'd have to clean before the next customers sat down, he stomped on out. No tip, as always. "Hope you come again soon," I said, and waited for lightning to strike me dead, but Hankins didn't say a word.
Just then the new preacher at the Assembly of God church and his wife came in. He's a big man, obviously likes his food and so does his wife, but last time I waited on them, food wasn't all they thought about. I might as well be a tree to most of the people who come in here, but they were as polite as could be and left a five-dollar tip on an $11.62 order. So I just wanted to hug them when I saw him hold the door for his wife this morning. Seems like I couldn't do anything right, though. I guess I still had Carla on my mind. They both ordered sweet tea, and when I was handing it to her I spilled some on her dress, which looked to be new, at least compared to the stuff I wear. Oh well, I thought, there goes the tip. And I almost cried. It wasn't really the money, just everything. But she was nicer than I could believe, and before I could finish apologizing, she said, "There, now, it doesn't make any difference. It could have happened to anybody." Well, that about set me off. I could feel the tears begin to well up. "Can I take your order?" I asked, but the words came out funny.
"Are you all right, sweetie?" the lady asked, and she looked me in the eye. I mean lots of people ask how you are, but nobody means it. If you was to say, I'm having a really hard day, they would probably just mumble something and walk away. But I could tell this lady cared how I was doing. The tears ran down my cheeks, and when I tried to wipe them, half my mascara came off too. Then the preacher reached out and touched me on the arm. "Can we pray for you?" he asked. Nobody has ever prayed for me, at least not that I know about. I don't usually think a whole lot about God. He never seemed to do much for me. I always believed in Him, but I never could see that He cared for me. How could my life turn out this way if God really loved me, like the church crowd is fond of saying, as they leave their one-dollar tips? I even tried praying a couple times. Once when Carla was four and had the intestinal flu or something, I prayed for her for the better part of a night. I don't know what got into me-I was scared to death, I guess, and I'd just seen that TV show, Touched by an Angel. I felt so alone that night too. Joe had left a couple of weeks before, and there I was hugging Carla as she puked into the commode. She got better, but I didn't know if the prayers made any difference, so I pretty much forgot about God. As I think about it now, though, I remember praying kept me from feeling so lonesome.
After the preacher spoke to me, I stood there for a few seconds, trying to get myself together. By this time, half the restaurant was staring, and Thomas looked my way and smirked. I looked at the preacher. What the hell, I thought. If I was going to make a spectacle, I might as well give everybody their money's worth. I was still crying, so I didn't say anything, just nodded my head.
"I don't want to be nosy," said the preacher, "but is there anything in particular we can pray about? Is it all right if I call you Angie?"
I usually hate having a nametag. My nametag attracts all the smart-asses who don't know anything about me, and the few guys who want to pick me up-I'm no looker, and I ain't getting any younger, so there aren't many of them. But he was different, so I nodded again. "I guess you could pray for my daughter Carla," I sniveled. "I can't seem to reach her anymore." I started to say something about the finances, but I was afraid he would think I was asking for money. And really, Carla is what matters anyway. I need money so I can be a good mother to Carla. Good mother, my ass. How would I ever be that? But what could a prayer hurt? Actually, this guy and his wife made me a little uncomfortable. What would they say if they really knew me? They hadn't seen me warming stools in half the bars in town, hoping to find somebody who would stick with me, until I finally faced the fact that guys in bars generally want only one thing.
"My name is Tony," he said, "and this is my wife Susan." They were only in their late thirties maybe, but she put her hand on his like one of those old couples you see who've loved each other for the last fifty years. He took hold of Susan's hand and I thought for a second they were going to reach for mine too, but I didn't make a move, so they lowered their heads, and he started praying, like it didn't make any difference that the whole restaurant was gawking. "Dear Lord, I pray Angie will be able to show her daughter how much she loves her. I also pray, Lord, that You will give Angie wisdom and patience to be the wonderful mother she wants to be, and open Carla's eyes so she can see that Angie is trying to reach out to her."
He stopped and his wife started. "I pray that You will meet Angie's needs," she said. "I don't know those needs, but You do, Lord. I particularly pray that You will provide for her material well being, so she can be the kind of mother You want her to be. And most of all, Lord, I pray that Angie will know Your great, great love for her. In Jesus' beautiful name we pray. Amen."
I wondered for a second how they knew what to ask for, but then I realized I'd told them a lot of it, and they could look at me and tell I needed all that and more. But I thought about the last part, the stuff about God's love I'd heard from the churchy folks. "Thanks," I said. I wanted to say more. I wanted to say that they wouldn't talk about God loving me if they knew me, but I really didn't want them to know me. It felt nice just having somebody care, and that wouldn't last if I told them much about myself. "What can I get for you?" I asked. I stared at the pad as I scratched out the order-a Big House Platter for him and a strawberry waffle for her-and gave it to Thomas without a word. Usually I check on my tables while they're waiting for their food, but I stayed away from the preacher and his wife until their order was up. When I handed it to them, I was kind of stiff like, so they didn't say anything. I came over to refill their tea as they finished eating, and the lady said, "We'd love to invite you to church with us." Yeah, right, I thought. "Thanks," I said. "Maybe I'll come sometime."
I hoped that would end the conversation, but she said, "If you don't feel comfortable in the morning service, come by sometime for Wednesday night supper. You'll be our guest."
"Thanks," I said again. I left it at that and started cleaning up.
When they walked up to the register to pay, I busied myself with a table and let Joanne, the other waitress, take their money, but as they left, he walked over to me and said, "Good-bye. May God bless you." I gave them a little smile, turned away and headed toward their table. I didn't see the 20-dollar bill under the plate till after they had climbed into their 25-year old Plymouth. I hope I didn't chase them off. If they come again, I'll try to be friendlier.
Tonight when Carla comes in, I'm going to touch her cheek like I used to when she was little and tell her how much I love her.
Ike Coleman teaches English at the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics. Previously, he taught at Clemson University, and in public schools in a rural county in eastern Virginia. In addition, he spent several years traveling in the United States, Europe, Central and South America, working numerous jobs, including crew on a commercial salmon boat, park ranger in the Olympic National Park, waiter, longshoreman and construction worker. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org