I remember Friday fish night at the small town Countryside Diner. Even before I climbed out of the car, I could smell the fish and oil in the air.
I remember the lace curtains and pink walls. “Too girly”, I thought as I took off my cap and sank into the vinyl bench. Each week my dad read the choices from the index card as if he expected something different to be listed.
“Catfish or whitefish. Breaded or baked. Hushpuppies and slaw.”
For as far back as my seven-year-old memory reached I had ordered my regular. A cheeseburger.
Then, just like always mom said, “Timothy, go wash your hands.”
My heart grew as large as a softball in my chest. I swallowed hard and grumbled, “Ahhh, mom.”
Then my dad knitted his brows and added, “Do as your mother says.”
I slinked off the bench, replaced my dusty cap, focused my eyes on my untied shoe laces and walked toward the bathroom.
Most of the folks I passed knew me. Among the layers of conversation that floated around me I heard, “Ain’t that Benny Wilson’s boy. Don’t he look jest like his daddy did when he was little.”
All that was o.k.
What I dreaded. What I feared. What made me wish for invisibility was when I walked by the white chair. The white chair with the giant in it. The giant with hair that grew in a u-shape around his head. The giant with the nose of a dwarf and the eyes of a leprechaun. The giant with the one white shoe. The shoe that had flakes of red mud around it’s edges. And those edges. They were as tall as a baseball card. All the way around.
I remember I couldn’t take my eyes off that shoe.
Until the giant garuffed, “Tim-o-th-ee. That ya under that hat? Leek up here, boy. ”
I lifted my eyes and answered, “Yes, sir, Mr. Paul.”
“Ye been a gud boy this week and minded yer mama? Listened to yer grandma?”
“Then come here. Let me tell you about this shoe. Ye remember ‘bot them shootin’ at me ‘til I was as holey as ‘yer grandma’s pincushion?”
I tried to keep slinkin’ toward the bathroom, but Mr. Paul just bellowed louder. “Tim-o-th-ee, don’t be ‘fraid. Come here and let me tell you how them medics thought I was dead. ”
The story had been told week after week, so no one even turned to listen to Mr. Paul as he roared, “My leg was bleeding. I bout lost it. They saved it, but the healin’ caused it to be four inches too short. I got me a medal for that. Did ye know that, son?”
I did, because I had heard the same story last week. “Yes, sir,” I mumbled shyly and continued on to the restroom.
Week after week I heard the stories of war and wounds and doctors and short legs and special shoes until I was a young man. Then I stopped going to fish night. Mr. Paul and his stories became forgotten memories.
Time passed and I became a man. A man with a family of my own. A man who just returned from a second tour in the Middle East. A man who tonight took his wife and child to the Countryside Diner for their first Friday fish night.
I climbed out of the car to face the unmistakable odor of fish and oil.
“Ahhh, Dad. You’ve got to be kiddin’,” my ten-year-old daughter whined.
“This place stinks. And I want a cheeseburger, not fish.”
She pushed open the door. I just smiled at her as I walked by. From the corner of my eye I saw the empty white chair in the corner. My knees weakened and I caught my breath.
“Wow!” My daughter whispered, “Look at that man’s shoe!”
I looked around. The u-shaped hair had turned white, but the eyes still twinkled. And the white shoe still had flakes of red mud around it’s edges. He limped toward us.
“Tim-o-th-ee. That ya behind that girl? Are ya’ back?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Paul,” I said as I shifted my cane to my right hand and hobbled toward him, our eyes meeting above the layers of chit-chat around us.
“Did ye fight the good fight, son?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Paul. Hows ‘bout we sit with you. We can talk ‘bout it?”
“Only if you want a cheeseburger,” he replied. “I hate fish.”
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