By Sean Dietrich
Somewhere in South Alabama—Waffle House is packed. Families in every booth, truckers on every stool. I have been riding the interstate all morning.
I find a seat at the counter. My waitress is young. She brings coffee before I even finish ordering it.
A man sits next to me. He smells like the outdoors, and it’s been a few decades since he last shaved. His clothes are torn. His shoes are mismatched—one is gray, the other is black.
I notice he is carrying a tent. It’s sitting beside his stool in a ratty cardboard box that reads: “Deluxe Two-Person Tent.”
He’s eating eggs and grits, moving his mouth, singing along with the music overhead.
Finally, he looks at me and smiles. He is missing teeth.
“Don’t mind me,” he says. “I’m just singing.” He starts humming again.
“Singing?” I say.
“Yeah, it helps me figure things out, and I got things to figure out, man.”
“What sorts of things?”
“That’s my personal business.”
This signifies the end of our conversation.
The waitress leans onto the bar and grins at him. He grins back.
“You doin’ okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just got a lot to figure out.”
“Maybe I can help,” she says.
“Aw, you don’t wanna hear my problems.”
“Well, maybe you wanna hear MY problems. I got a lot of’em.”
He flashes a toothy smile. It’s an old-man smile. It ought to be trademarked.
He says, “I would love to hear someone else’s problems for a change.”
There is egg yolk all over his beard. She wipes it off his whiskers with a wet rag.
Then, she tells him all about her life. She talks about how she just started working as a pizza delivery girl in the evenings to supplement her income.
She has two kids. Her landlord is raising her rent. Her neighborhood is unsafe, her credit is bad, she is tired, overworked, and she has a pile of dirty laundry at home big enough to clothe a village in Japan.
And—big “and” here—she just found out she’s pregnant again.
“Sometimes I get so worried,” she says “I can’t sleep. All I do is just worry.”
There is a glassy look to the old man’s eyes. He touches her hand.
“I learned something a long time ago, darlin’,” he says. “You just have to look at life and say to yourself, ‘Hell, I don’t know, man!’ And then you just keep walking, and you just keep singing, that’s all you can do.”
She doesn’t know how to answer. Neither would I. In fact, I’m not sure I even understand what the old man is saying.
Next, he removes quarters from his pocket. He walks to the jukebox. He punches buttons. The sound of Johnny Cash’s voice is playing. The song is “Ring of Fire.”
The old man begins singing quietly. And I notice others in the restaurant who begin moving their mouths, to.
“Nobody can resist this tune,” he says. “Nobody.”
The man places dollars on the counter. The bills are crumpled little balls. He slides them toward her and thanks her for the meal.
She pushes the money back. “Keep your money, I got it today.”
“I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” he says. “I promise I will.”
“Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”
The man promises. Then he takes his tent and his duffle bag. He leaves. I see him behind the glass window. He lights a cigarette, then crosses the street, dodging four lanes of traffic.
I ask the waitress if she knows that man.
“Who, Mister Dale?” she says. “Yeah, he comes in here all the time. We’re sorta friends, I guess. He won’t even come inside if I’m not working.”
“He must like you,” I say.
“Honestly, I think he just needs someone to talk to is all.”
I place my money on the counter. If I had three hundred bucks in my wallet, I would give it to her. But I only have twenty.
I get into my truck. I am heading toward the interstate again. Ahead, I see him, moseying on along the shoulder. And his lips are moving. By dog, I think he’s singing.
I slow down and ask if he needs a ride.
“No!” he shouts. “I’m all good man, thanks! All good!”
We part ways. And I am wondering where he will sleep tonight.
I don’t know much. I know even less about why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why the world falls apart. And when I think I understand life, I quickly realize I don’t.
But I believe in waitresses, and mothers who work too hard. I believe in the music of Johnny Cash. I believe in the power of conversation.
And I believe that old man was right.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.