By SEAN DIETRICH
I was driving. I was hungry. I had to pull over because I was about to eat my own steering wheel. The Tennessee autumn was in full swing. I had a long way left to go.
I found a meat and three in a strip mall. Lots of trucks in the parking area.
You can trust a place with trucks in the parking lot.
Everyone knows that if you see a throng of Fords and Chevys in a restaurant parking lot, the said establishment has exceptional fried chicken. If you see Cadillacs and Buicks, they will also have excellent congealed salad.
The server behind the sneeze guard asked what I wanted. He was tall, gaunt, wearing a hairnet. His neck and arms were painted in a gridwork of tattoos.
“Chicken or meatloaf?” he said.
“Chicken,” said I.
Fried chicken is a dying art in America. I was raised fundamentalist; fried chicken is my spiritual mascot. Fried chicken is holy food. And it is the only dish I don’t mind eating cold. Next-day chicken, straight from the fridge, is better than Christmas.
The server selected drumsticks that were roughly the size of a James Patterson paperback.
“You want veggies with it?” he said.
“Does the pope go in the woods?” I said.
The list of side dishes was plentiful: mac and cheese, fried green tomatoes, squash casserole, turnip greens, butterbeans, pintos, great northerns, zipper peas, cornbread salad, slaw, tater logs.
And don’t even get me started on the sweets. You had peach cobbler, lemon meringue, blueberry dump cake, caramel cake, chess pie and complimentary syringes of insulin.
When my foam box was loaded to capacity, I filled my cup from the tea dispenser. The man who served me was on break, waiting to fill his tea.
We started talking. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned that he had just gotten out of prison.
“I was turned down for 10 different jobs,” he said. “Most people don’t want a guy like me working at their business. But the owners of this place gave me a chance.”
I asked how he was adjusting to life outside.
He shrugged. “Honestly, it’s really tough. The world has changed since I first went in, back when I was young. I ain’t a kid no more.”
I nodded as though I understood. Which I don’t.
“Only part of the world I ever saw was working on a prison road crew. They let me run heavy machinery and stuff because I kept myself clean. If you don’t cause no trouble in prison, sometime you get privileges.”
He talked about everything. He spoke of friends: “It’s hard to make friends in prison.”
About religion: “It ain’t God I got a problem with, it’s preachers. They ain’t never tried to do [cuss word] for me.”
Our conversation took a few hairpin turns. He spoke of lost loves. Of double-crossers. Of his estranged adult children. He had a lot to say, and apparently nobody but me to say it to.
The man went on to tell me that a few years ago his mother died. He was inside at the time. The experience almost killed him. He didn’t want to live anymore. A prison chaplain visited him frequently because they were afraid he’d try to take his own life.
He almost did. But a turning point came one afternoon when a fellow inmate’s little girl sent him a random Christmas gift.
The gift arrived in the mail, gift wrapped. It was crayons and blank paper.
“I just felt warm all over,” he recalls. “Opening that package. Someone gave a [cuss word] about me.”
He has used every crayon in the box. He has drawn hundreds of pictures with them. He still owns the crayons, but only three crayons are left in the box.
“And they’re all worn to little nubs.”
He reached into his pocket and showed me his phone. On the screen were his recent drawings. One drawing showed an angel with scars all over his body. The angel’s wings were battered. His face was bruised.
He described the picture to me. “This is an angel who made a lot of dumb mistakes,” he said. “But God don’t disown anyone. So he’s still an angel, just trying to heal.”
The cherub is staring at heaven. There is pain in the angel’s eyes. Below the heavenly being’s feet is a scripture verse:
“When thou passest through the waters, I shall be with thee…”
“This was the verse my mom gave me,” he said. “I believe she can see me right now. That’s what keeps me going. My mom.”
Our conversation took a long time to come to a finish. By the time we parted ways, I hadn’t even eaten yet. My food had already grown cold.
But as I say, cold fried chicken is better than Christmas.