She had close-cropped gray hair in a pixie cut. A large woman with broad facial features, her skin tones made me wonder if she was Native American.
I often wondered how long her hair would have been, if she'd let it go. How black straightness could've contrasted against her pastel yellow dress, if time hadn't eroded the darkness.
Every Saturday for years, she was wearing that uniform. Standard waitress attire complete with apron and name tag, "Sue," it read in cheap white plastic. I always wished it had said Alice, or maybe Vera, like from Mel's Diner.
Green memo pad in hand, she'd take our order after bringing him a coffee and me a sweet tea.
"After so many Saturday breakfasts together, I don't even know why I write it down," she said more than once. "I should know what you want by now." She'd smile, and there'd be a gummy, pink glistening where her top two teeth should have been.
Her smile was infectious, even for the old man across from me.
We didn't talk much, ever. Our weekly routine was no exception.
I'd usually have a novel with me. I'd read it on the way to town and as we sat in the booth together, waiting for our meal.
He never asked me about my books.
He never asked me about much, really.
I'd wait to begin turning the pages until after I'd placed my order. He'd get the special, $2.65. Two eggs, any style. Over medium. Two pieces of white toast with apple jelly. Grits. Two strips of bacon. He'd switch it up every now and then and ask for some slices of tomato, and Sue would bring that out on a side plate.
Always black coffee.
He drank Sanka at home. He never ran the percolator after my grandmother died.
That was her machine. He made due with the instant.
I often ordered a western omelette.
A dainty man usually sat opposite the aisle from us, in the olive green vinyl booths. I heard he was a university professor, and that he walked to the diner every day. He would always have his face buried in the paper.
He kept his own jar of sugar free jelly at the restaurant. Diabetes, Sue said. He never spoke to us, unless nodding hello or goodbye counted.
We stayed to our side of the dining room, at Table Number Six, one of the high backed wooden booths. Our seatcushions matched the vinyl of his side of the divide.
Olive, or maybe avocado, was a popular color when that place was redecorated sometime long before Carter left Atlanta for a bigger house in Washington.
The floor was weathered and worn; some of the tiles had actually been eroded by the tides of countless shuffling feet coming in and going out. In some places, what once was white had drifted into a chalky black; buffing and waxing were never a priority at the Grill.
Along the walls, framed photographs of football teams hung. They were faded and some were askew; once vibrant prints had rippled to watercolor hues. Looking at them was like hearing almost-familiar lyrics; I knew I should have known the places and the people.
They weren't my places, and they weren't my people.
But they could have been.
The portraits started along one wall, near the front door of the restaurant. They hung over the high backed booths, almost jammed on top of one another in a semi-straight line that ran the length of the old wood paneling, all the way to the back door. Football teams in uniform were posing, year after year. They started off as children, and the frames grew as the players did, ultimately featuring nearly-grown men posing as undefeated State Champions. Interspersed between the team photos were countless framed newspaper clippings.
Fewer pictures hung above the forest of avocado vinyl booths. The portraits were a man's life story, from boy to champion, told in group photos and newspaper articles. A man's success, from star player to team coach, with a pause for time spent studying abroad in Southeast Asia wearing a different kind of uniform.
An actual trophy sat on the counter next to a manual NCR. It reached skyward among packs of Hubba Bubba and Juicy Fruit. Not a spec of dust discolored its golden shine. Ceiling tiles almost touched the crown of the thing, but they dared not.
The owner's son, from little league to high school through college, had gone on to become the head coach for the very same team with whom he'd won so many years ago.
Instead of putting the trophy in a case at the school, he'd brought it to his father, the small business owner who'd supported him and made it all possible.
His dad always ran the register, and he always did the cooking. A tall man with a white crew cut and glasses, his hair matched his pants, shirt, and apron. Marlboro reds were rolled in the short sleeve of his right arm. Like my grandfather, he was part of The Greatest Generation, but Mr. Webb smiled more.
Every Saturday, he'd ask how my Pop's garden was doing. How the breakfast was. How we thought the Team would do this year. How the Team was doing. How the Team did last night.
Sometimes, my grandfather would laugh at a joke the man would share.
How easy it seemed, watching my Granpa talk to that stranger-who-was-not-quite-a-stranger.
How easy it was to turn the page in my novel.
How hard it was to know the man I had breakfast with every Saturday.
How difficult it is to almost know more about the journey of that cook's son, as told in weathered photographs, than I do about that man who lived next door to me for so much of my life.
We didn't talk much.
We never will.