Sally Rae and I run a little eatery called “The Waterin’ Hole Café” on Main Street in Heartbreak, Texas. We are 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s deplorable sushi bars. Here in Heartbreak we rejoice in two things: the perfection of the beef we deep-fry, and that GPS somehow lost us off its charts. We are a town that deeply believes in all our traditions: welcoming strangers, hard work, and a sort of spiritualism that embraces all races, all creeds, all people. Just don’t ask for hand-outs if you don’t need one.
Monday morning are always hard. First, we get the Cedar Choppers. They all got unresolved issues from the weekend. Also, they all got big hangovers and a bad attitude about having to go back to work.
Big Fred, a 19-year-old big guy with an attitude, raised Cain when Sally Rae dropped his eggs that were sort of runny onto his plate. He had asked for “eggs easy.” Sally Rae did not hesitate, she boinked him on the back of his head with the hot skillet. He settled right down and ate them like a good little boy. By the time he finished, he had forgotten the whole thing.
Customer service is No. 1 at The Waterin’ Hole Café.
Then Sally Rae went off to Culver City to do our weekly shopping. This always makes us nervous. She doesn’t trust me with running her little restaurant, and truth be known, I don’t trust myself. Still, the shopping has to be done. The last thing Sally Rae said was, “Be careful of my little restaurant while I’m gone.”
About 10 a group came in. They were out-of-towners. Three women and five kids came in, along with an old man. They asked for our vegan menu. I politely suggested “beans and rice, with occasional sausage” or salad. The women all sort of snarled.
The old man asked for a chicken-fried steak and I said, “That’s our specialty.” The women shivered in collective disgust and asked for time to think some more. We eventually settled on our fresh-made goat cheese and (lightly) wilted spinach (only from canola oil) with hints of soy bacon. (I really do try to please the delicate, discerning palate.)
About that time a skanky sort of woman walked in. She had a big blond wig and her attention seemed devoted to an argument she was having on her cellphone. She walked up to our cash register and slammed down her fist and said “Service. NOW.”
I walked up and for the first and only time she looked away from her cellphone and said, “This is a robbery. Give me all your money. NOW.”
I fumbled with the cash register until she looked down at the current argument she had with somebody, then I swung my cut-off baseball bat to her left ear and knocked her flat. She scooted out the front door and drove off. The last words I heard were “I’ll sue! I’ll sue you!”
Although I tried to keep this whole thing to a minimum, the three daughters jumped up, put their especially prepared salads in “to go” containers, and rushed out. They angrily left, and powered down the road. Of course, they didn’t pay or leave any tips.
By now I felt sorry for the old dad. I brought out his chicken-fried steak and he dove right into it. Poor old man, he had three harpies for daughters ... the least I could do was serve him a lunch, even if it was 10:30 in the morning.
Some old guys sort of draw me. I had a break and I grabbed the coffee beaker.
“Can I join you?” I asked. I sat the coffee beaker on his table as a gesture of good will.
“Sure can,” he said. “My daughters don’t seem to have much use for me but to pay their restaurant bills.”
“What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Dave.”
“I’m Seth, and you make a pretty good chicken-fried steak.”
Seth wanted to talk. “It seems folks are always worried about stuff. Hardly anything is worth all the fuss and hurrah we like to put on it.”
“You’re right, Seth. What I like about The Waterin’ Hole is that it’s usually calm, it has a few peak times, but the rest is simple.”
We agreed that most of the time we just buy trouble and constant worry didn’t have to be a part of it. I left my coffee urn with him. Then I walked back and washed some dishes. It was almost a normal Monday.
I respect a man’s privacy and I don’t rush people out. Old Seth just sort of sat there, really still. Finally, I had everything washed up but the coffee urn, and I cycled by his table.
“Can I get you anything else, Seth?” I asked.
His eyes were closed, and I thought he might be asleep. I repeated myself, but he just sat on. In rising alarm I shook his shoulder and poor old Seth fell forward. Feeling his neck, I realized, old Seth was deader than a doornail!
Now I’ve had all sorts of responses to my chicken-fried steak, but this was a first. What should I do?
I called Arney, our local law.
“Say Arney, I got a dead man laying face-first into his mashed potatoes and gravy, and the lunch rush is about to start. Can you help me out?”
I didn’t mean to be hard, but you don’t have to be a marketing expert to figure out that dead customers don’t set the right tone. To be brutally honest, just looking at Seth sort of set me off my feed my own self.
Arney could be really dense at times. “I’m sort of busy right now, and if he’s dead he isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be over in a while.”
I heard Junebug giggle in the background. Junebug and Arney were past “friends with benefits,” they were downright publicly romantic these days. I wasn’t sure a triple murder would scare our law out right now.
“Arney, of course he’s not going anywhere! That’s my point, we got to get the old guy out of here! It’s almost lunchtime.”
“Now Dave, don’t you go moving any dead bodies before there’s a proper investigation. That can get you in a lot of trouble. Like messing with evidence or something.”
I will admit that at that point I had distinctly uncharitable thoughts about local government.
Still, right or wrong, I had a situation, and it was all mine. I broke out some old scaffolding I had in the back and set up sort of a cage around the poor old man. Then I took butcher paper and sort of wrapped everything up, nice and tight, with lot of tape. I finished my “decorating” with a big “WET PAINT” sign, and then I ran back in to light the burner under the deep fryer for the lunch rush.
Things went pretty well until about 12:45. By then our place was packed and I was hopping to keep up.
Arney finally came straggling in with that dumb, self-satisfied look that only fresh loving can give.
“Well, Dave, where’s this dead body you’re telling me about?”
There was a collective hush among my lunch patrons and they all looked at my butcher-paper sarcophagus as one. At that moment poor old Seth let loose a real pip of a corpse-fart, fell out of his chair, through the paper, and onto the floor.
The whole place emptied.
I mean, not only did all my customers run out, but even Arney and I had to go out the front door.
I figured things couldn’t get much worse, and then they did.
Toby, the food police, that pigeon-breasted, over-dressed nemesis of my kitchen, drove up for a surprise inspection.
Toby and I have a long history, most of it unpleasant. Honest, I tried to like him, at least tolerate him, but on a good day the best I could do was a sort of grudging accommodation. That day I was written up for 27 offenses, including putting rice in the salt shakers! One was for “serving uncooked/undercooked food.”
It took another four hours to get the county coroner down from Culver City, and of course that killed the dinner trade as well. Then the coroner called in a special investigative squad from Austin to “screen a contaminated crime scene” for foul play.
Contaminated! Why I used fresh butcher paper! It was halfway through Tuesday when they finally carried out poor old Seth under a sheet. Only then did Toby muscle up and take a sample of the day-old chicken-fried steak for further analysis. I knew it was fresh when I served it, but I had a fair idea what it would be like by the time it was collected.
For one of the first times in our marriage Sally Rae had some decidedly harsh words about how I ran things in her absence.
The Waterin’ Hole Café got a big bad “Closed by Order of the State of Texas” sign hung on the front door for two weeks. It probably would have been permanent if the coroner hadn’t found an undissolved nitroglycerin tablet under Seth’s tongue. Even at that, we had over a thousand dollars of various fines from the food police.
Old Seth taught me a lesson, though. Anytime you think you ought not to be worried is when you are facing death. Life is one long train wreck, and making the best chicken-fried steak in the country doesn’t do much to help by way of forgiveness.