The little bell rang a happy jingle as I swung the door open. Smells from childhood nearly overwhelmed me and I couldn't help but smile at the aromatic memories. Strong, persistent coffee mingled with sweet caramel rolls and spicy sausage and my mouth began to water. It was impossible to believe that nearly twenty years had marched along since I'd last opened that door.
"Come on in, hon. Close that door, 'afore we all catch our deaths!" the waitress grinned and winked. She was old enough to be my mother, but I didn't recognize her. So few people ever moved into my childhood town and I was sure that I would know everyone. But then again, it had been twenty years.
She grabbed a couple of plastic menus and a cup of crayons and said, "Follow me."
I held back so that my wife and daughter could walk ahead of me, then I followed too, my head moving from one side to other, hopeing to reconcile what I saw with what I remembered.
The vinyl seats that had been bright orange were replaced with a more muted hunter green (a definite improvement, I thought) and the curtains on the windows were newer, but the chandeliers were the bright, faux-Tiffany style that I remembered. The wooden booths were the same; the scratches on the tables were even familiar.
As we scooted into the booth to which we'd been directed, a voice from the other side of the dining room drawled, "We'll I'll be! Is that you, Cam?" My head snapped up to see the owner of a voice I knew so well smiling at me. Vic was older, but so much like I remembered and in my mind, I was 15 again, up to my elbows in dish soap, waiting for my breakfast shift to be over. "Margie, this here's Rita and Marty's boy. Worked through high school here, 'til he up and left town to go get a fancy degree. Come here, boy!" He wrapped his big arms around me ferociously, then stepped back to look me up and down.
I introduced my family and then Vic's voice changed. "I was real sorry to hear about your mom. She was a one-of-a-kind lady and we're all gonna miss her a lot." I nodded, not allowing myself to say anything. He moved away, stopping to talk here and there with other patrons and I settled back into the booth.
We ordered cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes (the unofficial must-have meal at Vic's) and I started to reminisce.
"That was where I had my first date," I said, pointing to a booth next to the window. "I kept having to rub my hands on the vinyl seat, I was so nervous!" Then I turned behind me. "That was where we had ice cream the night we knew we were going to the state championship my junior year."
Then I stopped. I heard whispering from the booth behind us, and I couldn't help but perk up my ears when I heard my name. "...on the team that was accused of cheating. Not just accused, 'cause one or two of 'em fessed up. A huge scandal, I tell you. One of the players stole the Tiger's playbook--they were the rival team in those days, you know--and made copies for everyone. Even the coach was in on it! Well, he resigned and moved onto someplace else, the team was disqualified from playing football for the next two years and a bunch of them kids got suspended..."
I'd heard enough. I admit that although I hadn't studied copies of the playbook like some of the team, I wasn't squeaky-clean either. I'd known about the whole thing, but hadn't been mature enough to take the responsibility of telling someone. I hadn't gotten suspended, but after all these years, I was being lumped in with that team of cheaters. Was this what I was to be remembered for? As one member of a disgraced team? What about graduating second in my class? Or being on the team the year before that had made it to State?
I was saddened and my enthusiasm for being 'home' was dampened as I realized that this was one case in which I'd never completely shed that uniform that I'd previously worn.
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