By SEAN DIETRICH
I pushed open the door to the rural restaurant and the little bell above the door jingled. I had been on the road since six that morning. I was road weary, depleted and in dire need of monounsaturated fat.
An older waitress glanced up from her smartphone and peered over her readers at me.
“Wherever you wanna sit, sweetie.”
I love it when they call me sweetie.
The joint was mostly empty so I chose a spot by the window because I like window seats. Plus, the doctor recently told me I needed more vitamin D in my life. Two birds; one rock.
Immediately I noticed the waitresses were using their downtime to deck the halls of this café. There were three waitresses involved in the impromptu beautification committee and they were hanging plastic Christmas decorations on each vertical surface.
I checked my internal calendar to make sure I had the date correct. It was barely the second week in November. But here in the hinterlands of Alabama it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
On my way to my window seat I passed an old guy at the counter wearing an Army ball cap, clad in a cook’s apron. He was holding a broken ceramic figurine in his hand, squinting at it, using a tube of super glue to repair it.
A henna-haired waitress hollered at him.
“You finished gluing my little drummer boy back together? My manger scene ain’t right without it.”
Army Hat held the figurine up to the light.
“Almost done,” he said before squirting more glue. “What happened to this thing anyway?”
“My three-year-old son happened to it,” said Henna Hair.
“Sounds like quite a kid.”
“You should see what he did to Baby Jesus.”
In my booth, garland strung over the window and fake spray-snow covering the glass, I peered out the wintery window to see sunshine and robins singing in plush trees. It was nearly seventy degrees in South Alabama.
Soon, the henna-haired waitress was standing on a step ladder, attaching lights to a phony tree located beside my booth.
“What’ll it be, sweetie?” said Henna, who was buried face-deep in the tree, fiddling with endless chains of lights.
I wasn’t sure whether she was talking to me or the tree.
“Are you asking for my order?” I said.
“Yeah. Go ahead, hon,” came her voice from inside the pinery. “Give it to me. I got a good memory.”
So I spoke my order directly into the conifer.
Without leaving her tinsel, the woman screamed my order to the kitchen, then resumed hanging more Yuletide regalia on the Walmart branches.
The song playing overhead was “Last Christmas” by Wham! The worst song in the history of the human species, second only to “Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain.”
She was singing along.
Later, when the waitress delivered my food, there was glitter stuck to her T-shirt and greenery embedded in her vividly red hair. She was also wearing fuzzy reindeer antlers on her head and a jingle-bell bracelet.
Before she jingled off, I had to ask.
“It’s none of my business, ma’am, but isn’t it kinda early for Christmas?”
She smiled. “It’s never too early for Christmas.”
Another waitress chimed in. “She listens to Christmas music year round. She ain’t right in the head.”
Army Hat said, “She wraps our birthday presents in Christmas paper, too. My birthday’s in June, but I got candy-cane paper.”
This earned a laugh from the others.
The henna-haired waitress shrugged it off with a grin and explained:
“When I was a new mom, my youngest daughter got viral meningitis. We were in the hospital for a long, long time. Doctors said my daughter was probably gonna die. My kids totally missed Christmas that December.”
She kept talking while stooping beneath her tree to put the finishing touches on her faux tannenbaum. She continued:
“When my daughter got better I promised my kids we’d have a do-over Christmas. So we did it up big, in March, and it was great.
“We made it a real Christmas, my husband even hung lights outside. And I was like, ‘Hey, this is really fun.’ So we just sorta kept Christmas going that year.
“I mean, why not? Right? Why not give presents to people you love just because you love them? Why not be happy and sing? Why’re we only allowed to do that once a year? We have so much to be happy about, so much to be grateful for.”
With that she plugged in a cord and ignited the tree. All at once, the manufactured balsam illuminated with electric colors. The waitress stood back to admire her handiwork while I admired her beautifully tinseled heart.
“Merry November,” she said.
Yeah. Merry November.