The older you get the stronger the wind gets-and it’s always in your face.
“Any sugar for this here tea?”
“Umm, that thing there, it’s already sweetened ,” Sam said.
“Where’s the ice, I think I need some ice”
“There on the coke machine“
The old man, very thin, shaking, held his flimsy yellow paper cup, now half-full of the bitter old tea that they serve from big sweating metal cylinders with black plastic taps on the bottom, looked at the coke machine, levers lined up, the little grated tray held a few old ice cubes spilled by the last customer. The old man poked at these tentatively, like someone who grew up in an age when restaurants had waitresses that actually brought your iced tea to the table.
“They don’t give you any scoop.”
“Umm, see that thing right there in the middle?” Sam pointed at the curved piece of plastic..
“Hold your cup under it, press this lever, and the ice’ll come out.”
Sam had been standing next to the drinks, pumping catsup out of a recessed bulk container and mixing it with Tabasco in little white paper cups. As he stood back with his red plastic tray Sam watched the old man as the ice came out in an unexpected tumble, that startling fast-food ice bin rumble, Clankity-Clank. The old man jerked, collapsing his drink cup, ice and tea squirting out. The girl came out from behind the counter and helped him get things straightened out.
Sam sat down at a booth. It was late, almost three, the day at work had been awful, full of disasters, he hadn’t been able to sneak out for lunch until the middle of the afternoon. Desperate for a few quiet moments Sam had gone for fast food fish, hoping the place would be mostly empty this late. As Sam started to eat, the old man shuffled over and settled in slowly in the next booth. He sat down on the other side, facing straight at Sam.
“McDonalds has fish sandwiches now.” he advised.
“Mebee I shoulda gone over there, fish sandwiches, ninety nine cents.
Sam remembered noticing a big sign in the entrance to this fast-food chain fish joint that promised a hefty senior citizen discount. It made an impression on him because he noticed it would be only thirteen years before he would be eligible.
It was obvious that the old man wasn’t here so much to eat some fried fish as to talk to somebody. In small towns even today, most restaurants have long counters where you can go get coffee, maybe a cinnamon roll, and sit and the major activity is to for everyone to simply talk to each other.
“I can’t eat this hard crust on this fish.”
“I went down to the VA hospital to get some new glasses and some teeth. They bought me some glasses but I can’t see with ’em, I can see better with these.”
Sam took a good look – the old man was wearing an enormous pair of those cheap plastic reading glasses they sell at dollar stores.
“But they won’t give me no teeth. I’ve gone down to there over and over, the doctor said I was too thin, filled out this form….. they still won’t give me no teeth. The VA sent me these papers, hundred pages long, my sister…. but still they won’t give me no teeth and that’s what it said, right there.”
“You know, I really like tomatoes. Sliced tomatoes.”
“I really like eaten’ me up a big plate o’ sliced tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.”
“That’s what I had this morning, tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.”
“It they’d serve that here, it’d be…..
As he talked he became more and more garrulous. Also, more and more incoherent. He would be obviously jumping around in time, his stories would go on for awhile, then lose themselves in a long pause, only to start up somewhere else, related, but different. It was apparent that Sam didn’t actually have to speak to keep this conversation going, only look up from his food every few minutes and nod a little.
“Did you get bread? They don’t give you no bread here. I like some bread with my meal. I really like bread.”
“I went and got coffee… Eight-five cents!”
Sam wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be low, or high.
“At the Waffle House they’ll let you sit there and get coffee and some eggs.”
“Then they’ll keep comin’ over and warmin’ it up and let you sit there all day.”
“….. and they would wash that cup, that spoon, a couple of plates, wash them, pick them up, only charge five cents.”
“I was there in Houston this morning.”
Sam was sure the old man had walked up to the restaurant. Although he said “this morning” Sam have the feeling he hasn’t been in Houston for a decade.
Sam finished his food and had to get back to work. Actually, he would have liked to talk to the old man, get his story, but he was too far gone to be able to have a real conversation. By now the old man was simply complaining about random things that are too expensive. Also, it was uncomfortable for Sam to talk with a stranger like that, he had the uneasy sensation of looking into his own future. The day had been too stressful already to have to deal with that.
Sam mumbled something incoherent and dumped the remnants of his meal, plastic plate, paper cups, bits of fried something, through the swinging door on the trash bin. He didn’t make eye contact with the old man as he walked past and went out to his his car.
Sam said to himself, “Maybe I’ll set my alarm for a little earlier tomorrow. That way I can get up and make some scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast.”