“When Bert was a kid,” Wes said, sitting back in his seat and smiling, “he got lost in that garden, trying to take the shortcut back from the road. We could all hear him screaming like he was stranded in the jungle, but really he was about two feet from the edge of the yard. He just lost his bearings.”
“Poor Bert,” I said.
“He survived.” He slid his glass in a circle on the table. “He’s tougher than he seems. When my mom died, we were all most worried about him, since he was only thirteen. They were really close. He was the one who was there when she found out about the cancer. I was off at Myers. But Bert was a real trooper. He stuck by her, even during the bad parts.”
“That must have been hard for you,” I said. “Being away and all.”
“I was back home by the time things really got bad. But still, I hated being locked up when they needed me, all because of some stupid thing I’d done. By the time I got out, all I knew was that I never wanted to feel like that again. Whatever else happened, to Bert or anyone, I was going to be there.”
The waitress was approaching the table now, a plate in each hand. On cue my stomach grumbled, even though I hadn’t thought I was hungry. She deposited the plates with a clank, gave us each a quick second to ask for something else, and then shuffled off again.
“Now, see,” Wes said, nodding at my plate, “this is going to blow your mind.”
I looked at him. “It’s a waffle, not the second coming.”
“Don’t be so sure. You haven’t tasted it yet.”
I spread some butter on my waffle, then doused it with syrup before cutting off a small bite. Wes watched as I put it in my mouth. He hadn’t even started his yet, as if first, he wanted to hear my verdict. Which was, pretty good. Damn good, actually.
“Knew it,” he said, as if he’d read my mind. “Maybe not the second coming, but a religious experience of sorts.”
I was on my second bite now, and tempted to totally agree with this. Then I remembered something, and smiled.
“What?” he said.
I looked down at my plate. “What you just said, that’s so funny. It reminded me of something my dad always used to say.”
He popped a piece of waffle in his mouth, waiting for me to go on.
“We never went to church,” I explained, “even though my mother always thought we should, and she was always feeling guilty about it. But my dad loved to cook big breakfasts on Sunday. He said that was his form of worship, and the kitchen was his church, his offering eggs and bacon and biscuits and . . .”
“Waffles,” Wes finished for me.
I nodded, feeling a lump rise in my throat. How embarrassing, I thought, to suddenly be on the verge of tears at a truck stop waffle house with Tammy Wynette in the background. But then I thought how my dad would have loved this place, probably even loved Tammy Wynette, and the lump just grew bigger.
“My mom,” Wes said suddenly, spearing another piece of his own waffle, “was the one who first brought me here. We used to stop on the way back from Greensboro, where my grandmother lived. Even during the health-food phase, it was a sort of ritual. This was the only place she’d ever eat something totally unhealthy. She’d get the Belgian waffle with whipped cream and strawberries and eat every bit of it. Then she’d complain the entire way home about how sick she felt.”
I smiled, taking a sip of my water. The lump was going away now. “Isn’t it weird,” I said, “the way you remember things, when someone’s gone?”
“What do you mean?”
I ate another piece of waffle. “When my dad first died, all I could think about was that day. It’s taken me so long to be able to think back to before that, to everything else.”
Wes was nodding before I even finished. “It’s even worse when someone’s sick for a long time,” he said. “You forget they were ever healthy, ever okay. It’s like there was never a time when you weren’t waiting for something awful to happen.”
“But there was,” I said. “I mean, it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve started remembering all this good stuff, funny stuff about my dad. I can’t believe I ever forgot it in the first place.”
“You didn’t forget,” Wes said, taking a sip of his water. “You just couldn’t remember right then. But now you’re ready to, so you can.”
I thought about this as I finished off my waffle. “It was hard, too, I think, because after my dad died my mom kind of freaked and cleaned out all his stuff. I mean, she threw out just about everything. So in a way it was like he’d never been there at all.”
“At my house,” Wes said, “it’s the total opposite. My mom is, like, everywhere. Delia packed a lot of her stuff into boxes, but she got so emotional she couldn’t do it all. One of her coats is still in the hall closet. A pair of her shoes is still in the garage, beside the lawn mower. And I’m always finding her lists. They’re everywhere.”
“Lists?” I said.
“Yeah.” He looked down at the table, smiling slightly. “She was a total control freak. She made lists for everything: what she had to do the next day, goals for the year, shopping, calls she had to return. Then she’d just stuff them somewhere and forget about them. They’ll probably be turning up for years.”
“That must be sort of weird,” I said, and then, realizing this didn’t sound right, added, “or, you know, good. Maybe.”
“It’s a little of both.” He sat back in the booth, tossing his napkin on his now empty plate. “It freaks Bert out, but I kind of like it. I went through this thing where I was sure they meant something, you know? If I found one, I’d sit down with it and try to decipher it. Like picking up dry cleaning or calling Aunt Sylvia is some sort of message from beyond.” He shrugged, embarrassed.
“I know,” I said. “I did the same thing.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really.”
I couldn’t believe I was about to tell him this. But then the words were just coming. “My dad was, like, addicted to those gadgets they sell on late-night TV. He was always ordering them, things like that doormat with the sensor that lets you know when someone’s about to—”
“The Welcome Helper,” he finished for me.
“You know it?”
“No.” He smiled. “Yes, of course. Everyone’s seen that freaking commercial, right?”