Jake found an open spot a block from the diner. At least that was something. He was on his way back to work from a dentist appointment—never a fun experience, and today was no exception. He needed a crown. But that wasn’t the only thing weighing on him.
He and his teenage son had a string of heated texts going back and forth. Michael wanted to see the Pathfinders for his birthday. Funds were too tight right now to go to a professional basketball game. They just replaced the furnace and now had the added expense of the crown.
A random urge inspired Jake to eat lunch at the diner. The mayhem back at the office and the endless battle with his son could wait. He needed a break. Jake’s text chime pinged as he fed the parking meter. The latest from his son:
Kyle’s family has season tickets. Why can’t we go to just one game?
“Because Kyle’s dad is a senior partner at a prominent law firm,” Jake said out loud. “And probably uses the company box.”
Jake willed himself not to send that to his son. Reasoning with a stubborn teenage boy was like trying to stop the howling wind in a tropical storm. He headed down to the diner, RJ’s, a classic joint.
The outside of the diner reminded Jake of an Airstream trailer with its rounded edges and metallic siding. Bright red borders outlined the windows and entrance. Friends at work raved that RJ’s was the best food in town. Today seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out.
Jake went inside and sat on a stool at the main counter next to an old man. It wasn’t too crowded inside, for which he was grateful. He could do without the noise. Apart from the long front counter, booths made up the rest of the seating. A menagerie of black and white photos adorned the walls. Everything about the place reminded Jake of something out of an old movie.
“Be right with you, sugar,” said a server, working from behind the counter. “Have a look at this while you wait.” She slid a menu over and offered a friendly smile as she glided away.
Jake caught the name Tabitha embroidered on her work dress. His phone chimed again. Another text from Michael:
You said you’d take me to a game but you never do.
“That kid,” Jake said. “Now with the guilt trip.”
The old man sitting next to him looked over. “Son?”
The wrinkles on the old man’s face framed it in a warm glow. “Been down that road.” He patted Jake’s arm. “Don’t worry, dad. It gets better.”
Jake silenced his phone and set it aside. “I’m glad to hear that because right now, it feels impossible.”
The old man laughed. “If life were easy, there wouldn’t be anything in it worthwhile, especially good parents.”
“I never thought of it that way.” Jake liked this old guy. He was one of those rare individuals who radiated inner joy and put you at ease.
The server came back. “Sorry about the wait, honey. Know what you want?”
Jake picked up the menu. “What’s good?”
“Get him the po’boy, Tabitha,” the old man said. “Rudy knew his stuff. That man was an artist.”
Tabitha smiled big at the old man. “You were always granddad’s favorite customer, Harold.”
“Granddad?” Jake said.
Harold reached over and tapped Jake’s menu. There was a black and white photo of a young couple on the cover. “That’s Rudy and Janice, the original owners.” He pointed at Tabitha. “Her grandparents.”
“Ah, RJ’s,” Jake said.
“That’s right,” Tabitha said with pride. “Granddad was from Louisiana. He was a Cajun chef who moved up north. Met Grandma Janice in Chicago. She was a classic-trained French baker. They fell in love and opened this place back in the 30s. Been in the family ever since.”
Jake looked over Tabitha’s shoulders at the pictures on the walls. Many were of happy couples and families working in the diner.
Harold gestured at Tabitha. “She’s in charge now, and what a fine job she does.”
“Why, thank you, Harold,” she said. “You’re always so sweet.”
Harold turned to Jake. “I’ve known the entire family.” He pointed down at his stool. “Sat in this spot for over 50 years. Met Rudy and Janice when they were a bit older.” He looked at Tabitha. “Got to know her parents when they took over and watch this one grow up.”
Tabitha set a fresh cup of coffee in front of Harold. “Hard to believe it’s been that long. Mom still comes in once in a while, but dad’s been with Rudy and Janice for some time now.”
Harold brought the cup of coffee to his lips. “He was a great man. Could make that po’boy as good as Rudy.”
Tabitha laughed. “You and that sandwich.”
“One of life’s true joys,” Harold said.
“I have to try it now,” Jake said. “I’m good and hungry too.”
“We’ll take care of that, sugar,” Tabitha said and scooped up his menu. “Fries okay with that?”
“Who doesn’t like fries?”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Tabitha scribbled away on her menu sheet. “I’ll get this put in for you.”
A loud crash caused them all to look toward the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. A busboy had dropped a plastic tub full of dishes.
Tabitha planted one hand to her hip and flicked the end of her pen with the other as she spoke. “Deshaun, how many times have I got to tell you, no looking at that phone at work?”
The boy looked up like an animal caught in headlights. “I wasn’t on my phone.”
“Don’t give me that,” she said. “Every time you do something clumsy, it’s because you’re on that phone.”
Deshaun put the spilled dishes back in the tub. “I was texting my friends about the movie tomorrow night.”
Tabitha took a step back. “Movie? I didn’t say you could go to no movie.”
The boy stood up. “Everyone’s going, mama, and I really wanna see it.”
“I want to see some grades, is what I want to see,” Tabitha said. “You put that phone away and finish out your shift. Then get your butt home and finish that homework. We’ll talk about the movie later.”
“Yes, mama,” Deshaun said and pushed through the double doors.
Tabitha shook her head. “That boy, I tell you. He’s a good kid, but do I have to get on him.”
“Sounds familiar,” Jake said.
“Got a son?” Tabitha said.
“Turning fifteen next month. Giving me hell about his birthday present too.”
“You know something,” Tabitha said. “If Grandma Janice got an orange for Christmas, it was something real special. A tropical fruit all the way up here in the middle of winter. Whatever happened to that kind of gratitude?”
“Dad gave us each a fifty-cent piece,” Harold said. “And we were thrilled.”
Tabitha nodded. “The world is changing faster than I can keep up with.”
“That’s how these things go,” Harold said. “Been here all my life, can hardly recognize the city anymore.”
Tabitha looked at Harold. “Some things never change, and thank goodness for that.”
“I gave up on change long ago,” Harold said with a wink. “Decided I liked myself and my life just fine.”
Tabitha laughed. “Amen to that.” She looked at Jake and patted the counter. “You sit tight, hon. We’ll have that right out.”
Jake passed the time chatting with Harold, who was overjoyed for the company. It turned out Harold was an army veteran who had served in the Korean War. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he volunteered, even lied on his enlistment papers to get in early. After he got home from the war, he started a small business and married his high-school sweetheart. They raised their only child, a son named David.
When Jake’s lunch arrived, the first bite about blew him off his stool. It was the best sandwich he ever tasted. An array of Cajun spices seasoned the battered shrimp. The French bread was crisp and light on the outside and fluffy on the inside. And what was that in the coleslaw, lime, cilantro? Jake forced himself to slow down so he could enjoy the delicious meal.
Jake hefted his sandwich to Harold. “You’re right. It’s amazing.”
“Told you,” Harold said. “But it’s nothing compared to the chocolate cake.”
Jake’s eyes popped wide. “Cake? Are you kidding?”
“The eighth wonder of the world,” Harold said. “I always share a slice with David. He loves it.”
Tabitha returned. “Get you gentlemen anything else?”
“Harold’s trying to talk me into dessert.” Jake held his hands up. “But I’m stuffed.”
“Grandma Janice’s famous chocolate cake?” Tabitha said. “Mom makes a fresh one every couple days.” She stared at Jake. “Only one slice left.”
Jake looked at Harold, who offered an encouraging nod. “Alright, you talked me into it. I’m going to burst.”
Tabitha gathered some of their dishes. “It’s worth it.”
Harold checked his watch. “David should have been here by now.”
“Meeting your son?” Jake said.
“Right here, every Thursday,” Harold said.
“That’s inspiring,” Jake said.
Tabitha’s face clouded over. “I’m sure David’s just running late. I’ll be right back with that cake.”
“If there’s only one slice,” Jake said to Harold. “I don’t want to interrupt tradition.”
Harold waved his comment away. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
Tabitha returned with the cake and set it down. “Here you are, my dear. Enjoy.”
Jake noticed that the frosting on the cake was thin, which he preferred. Thick frosting usually made cake too sweet for his liking. He ran the edge of his fork through the moist double-layer chocolate cake.
He took a small bite and his mouth exploded with flavor. “That’s unbelievable.”
“Always love to hear that,” Tabitha said with a pleased smile.
“The best,” Harold said and then pushed away from the counter. “I better catch my bus.” He put a gentle hand on Jake’s shoulder. “It was nice meeting you, and don’t worry. Things will be just fine with your boy.” He looked at Tabitha. “Always a pleasure. See you next week.” Harold set a five-dollar bill on the counter and headed for the entrance.
“You take care now,” Tabitha called after him.
Confused, and with his fork held in midair, Jake looked at Tabitha. “That was abrupt.”
Tabitha wiped some moisture from one of her eyes. “Harold’s been coming here all these years. Like family to us.” She took a deep breath. “David died several years ago. Cancer. He and Harold came in every Thursday for lunch. David was supposed to meet Harold one week but ended up in the hospital instead. Harold’s been coming in here to meet his son ever since.” She pointed at the bill on the counter. “Always leaves the same tip. I don’t have the heart to take it, so I’ve been putting it in savings for Deshaun.”
Jake set his fork down. “How awful.”
Tabitha nodded and gestured to the departing form of Harold, who was outside on the sidewalk. “Lives on the other side of town and uses the metro system to get over here. Takes him more than an hour each way.”
Jake looked out the window and saw Harold making his way to a metro bus stop. Harold favored one leg but moved slow and steady. At that moment, so much in Jake’s life became crystal clear. He nudged his plate. “Can I have this to go, please?”
Tabitha met Jake’s eyes. An unspoken understanding passed between them. “Of course, dear.”
Jake looked out the window again. An old man needed a ride home, and there was a teenage boy whose favorite thing in the world was chocolate cake.
And Jake had some basketball tickets to buy.