The old man opened the door to the cafe and stepped inside. He put one hand on the counter by the cash register and took the measure of the place. His head moved slowly back and forth, pausing as he looked at the people sitting in the tables and booths.
He headed for his regular booth by the window. He was close to the booth before he noticed a man and his wife were sitting there. He stood beside the booth looking at them. The man smiled at him and said, “How you doin, sir?”
The old man didn’t reply. He looked at the man and then at the woman. He looked at the chips and salsa on the table and at the beer in the man’s hand. Then he tightened his lips in a disgusted look and walked away. The woman’s eyebrows lifted. She bared her teeth and sucked in her breath. She whispered “What the hell did WE do?” Her husband looked at her and shrugged.
The old man went to another booth and sat down. A waitress scurried over and set down a glass of water and a menu. “Good afternoon,” she said with a smile. The old man didn’t seem to hear her. He picked up the menu and peered into it.
He set the menu flat on the table and pushed the pad of his index finger slowly down it while mouthing words. When he finished he closed the menu and put it aside. He folded his hands and looked at them. Occasionally he lifted his head and turned it until he found someone of interest to observe. He would watch them for a few seconds and return to looking at his hands. After a few minutes the waitress came back and asked for his order. The old man slowly leaned back so he could look up at her without bending his neck. He looked at the top of her head, then at her face. He looked down his nose at her body and then back up to her face. One of her eyes wasn’t right. It seemed dull and stared out from a limp lid that sagged around it. He returned his body to an upright position and scowled briefly. He looked back at the menu and spoke without looking at the waitress again.
“Enchiladas. No onions. I don’t want ANY ONIONS on that plate. One tamale with chili on it. Large beans. Not the refried. I want barachos. Ice tea.”
After a few minutes she returned with a plate and glass of tea. He stared at the plate.
“What’s that rice doin there?”
“The enchiladas come with rice and beans.”
“I don’t want it. If I wanted rice I’d have ordered it. There isn’t any kind of gravy you can put on rice make it worth eatin.”
The waitress reached for the plate.
“Leave it!” He waved her hand away.
He pointed at the bowl of beans. “That’s a medium bowl. I said large.”
“I’ll bring some more.”
As she walked away he hissed, “Stupid woman!”
A woman at the table next to him cringed and looked away.
The old man ate his meal in silence. He looked down at his plate while he scooped up food with his fork. He opened his mouth wide and slowly piloted the fork into his mouth with a shaky hand. While he chewed he stared at the empty seat across from him. If there was a loud noise he would turn his head and look for the source of it while he chewed. Then he would drop his eyes back to his plate.
As he finished eating the waitress dropped off his check. He pulled some reading glasses and a pen out of his shirt pocket. Smoothing the receipt flat onto the table, he checked the figures. He fished a money clip out of his pants pocket and dropped a few bills on the table. Then he pulled out a coin purse and pinched a couple of coins out of it. He laid them on top of the bills and stood up.
The door to the cafe opened and the noise caught the old man’s attention. A young couple entered. They looked to be in their 20s. The man was wearing a cap, a work uniform, and heavy work shoes. His wife was blonde and cheerful. She was pushing a stroller with a little boy in it. The man waved at someone in the cafe, and the woman chatted with the waitress who showed them to a table.
The old man’s face softened as he watched the family taking their seats. The little boy in the stroller was chewing on a finger. He reached his other hand up toward the ceiling, as if there was something up there he wanted. The old man laughed. He looked around at the people near him and pointed at the boy, wanting them to see what he was seeing. But no one noticed him. The people around him kept eating and talking. He shuffled over to the couple as they were sitting down.
“Aw, he’s a dandy idn’t he?” He reached down and patted the little boy’s head. The boy twisted his head around and bent it, bobbing, trying to see the old man.
The woman flashed a frowny smile at him.
“His name is Jackson. He’s six months old.”
The young man in the cap smiled and looked at the old man.
“Well, he’s a dandy that’s for sure. A beautiful young couple and their sweet baby. You folks light up this whole place, that’s sure enough the truth.”
The woman squinted at him and said, “Awww.”
They waited to see if he was going to say anything else. The woman glanced at her husband and smiled.
The old man pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the corners of his mouth. Then he said, “I wanna ast you a question.”
The woman said, “okay.” The man in the cap looked at him, waiting.
“Is he bein raised in a good Christian home?”
The smiles faded from the couple’s faces. They looked at each other for a few seconds, then the man looked down at his menu. The woman got a cloth and wiped the little boy’s mouth.
The old man spoke again.
“It’s the most important question anyone will ever ast you. And it’s the most important thing you can do for your son. Are you raisin him in a Christian home?”
The man kept looking at the menu. His mouth tightened. The woman turned toward the old man and raised her eyes up until she was looking at his chest.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Her husband looked at her. She looked back at him. She said, “Of course we are,” and looked back down at her menu.
Her husband pushed his tongue sideways into his cheek and made a growling noise. He looked down at his menu.
“Ain’t no of course about it, not these days.” said the old man.
The woman looked down at the table and said nothing. The old man put his hand back on the boy’s head and rubbed it gently. The man with the cap stared at the old man’s hand. The woman slid her hand over slowly and gripped the handle of the stroller. The little boy tried to bend his head around to see the old man.
The man and the woman stared at their menus, waiting for him to leave. But the old man stayed where he was.
“That’s mighty fine, ya’ll raisin him in a Christian home. You’re good people. Anyone can see that.”
The couple continued to stare at their menus. The old man stood watching them.
The woman looked at her husband and spoke loudly. “I think I’ll get the taco plate. What you think you’ll get.”
“I don’t know. Maybe enchiladas.”
“Good. You like their enchiladas.”
She leaned over, pulled her little boy out of his stroller, and put him in her lap. “It’s time for his bottle,” she said loudly. She turned away from the old man. Her husband made a show of having to lean around the old man to catch the eye of the waitress. He waved her over. When she arrived the old man moved away. He walked to the counter by the door and got a toothpick from a silver box by the cash register. He stood there picking his teeth and watching the young family.
He called out to them before he left. “He’s a dandy, all right.”