Continuing the Christmas tale of 2000, where we were split up across I-59, from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa... You can read Installment One right here, then catch up on Installment Two here, then read Installment Three here...
“Matt!” Stephanie exclaimed as they rushed into the lobby.
“Hey!” Matt quickly stood up to greet Leslie, Wookiee, Shawn, Amy and Stephanie. “Where have you guys been? I was giving you another five minutes and then I was out of here!”
“Not anymore,” Amy said. “They have shut all the major roads down, except for emergency vehicles.”
“No,” Wookiee replied. “We just heard it on the radio.”
“How is Ty?” Stephanie asked.
“Ty has a broken leg. It was shattered in four places below his knee and twice above the knee,” Matt explained. “The knee was completely unharmed, if you can believe that, but he’ll be on crutches for a good six months or so.”
“And where is Ginger, David and Michael?” Shawn looked around to see no familiar faces other than the ones in his immediate circle.
“And where are the others?” Amy asked.
“Have a seat, I’ll explain it real quickly,” Matt said.
Everyone sat down as Matt told a 3-minute version of what happened and where we were. “I told them as soon as I dropped Ty off and made sure he’d be okay, I would meet them at the gas station. I have to get there to meet them!”
He stood up and started to walk to the door.
“Matt, you go out there driving, and they’ll arrest you,” Amy cautioned. “We were stopped by a police officer already. The only reason they didn’t ticket us is because we told them we were headed here. There are patrol cars all over, and they will pull you over.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” Matt asked. “Ginger’s out there. And the guys are out there too! It’s freezing out there! They all three need to be inside somewhere!”
“Okay, Matt, calm down,” Shawn said, putting his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “They get to the gas station, they’ll go in. Then, they will stay there waiting on you. It’ll be warm in there, and if they wait all night, that’s fine too. Let them wait. At least they’ll be safe and warm.”
“What if the gas station closes?”
“If it closes, surely they won’t turn them out into the cold. Let’s tell the police, and they can arrange to make sure the three of them are okay,” Shawn said.
Wookiee pulled his cell phone out and dialed 911. When he got the police, he told them of the three friends who should be stuck at a gas station down I-59.
“Where is the gas station?” Wookiee asked Matt. Matt gave him the exit number, and told him what the Tide Pride station looked like. After a few minutes of impatient waiting, Wookiee hung up the phone.
“The lady just told me that the storm conditions are going to worsen for the next several hours,” Wookiee said, “which means it’ll be that long before they can get anyone down there to pick them up. She gave me a directory assistance number, and told me to ask for the Tide Pride Shell and Deli number. I guess she knew which one it was.”
Leslie pulled her cell phone out and asked him for the number. She dialed, listened for a minute, and then hung up.
“Busy signal. Looks like all systems are down,” she smirked.
“Has anyone tried to get in touch with Drew?” Shawn asked to the general audience.
14... WAFFLE HOUSE
Drew opened the door to the Waffle House, and Justin, Tommy, Jenn and Tom walked on in. Though all five had been in many, many Waffle Houses before this one, they were all equally amazed at how many people had come into this building. Each booth had at least six people in it, all the barstools were full and there were people in chairs crammed elbow to elbow.
“Y’all just hold on a few minutes and I’ll be around to get your order,” an older lady with bleached blond hair called to them as they filed in. She then grabbed a coffeepot and headed the other way.
“This place looks a little busy,” Justin observed.
“Slightly,” Tommy replied.
“So, do we just stand over here or something?” Jenn asked to no one in particular, then took a step back. Everyone followed Jenn, and they all ended up leaning against the window.
They stood for about fifteen minutes, no one really saying much, just looking around, when finally the waitress that had talked to them earlier came up with menus in hand.
As she approached, they noticed the men sitting in the booth on the far end were getting up, leaving a place to sit.
“How are y’all?” she smiled, but it was obvious she was either frustrated or tired, or more than likely, a combination of the two.
Each person in the group took a menu, with a thank you.
“Hope you don’t mind sitting in chairs against the wall for a while,” she said. “We’ll try to find you some sort of table to eat at, because as you can see, we are quite full of people.” She looked around to see the newly empty booth. “Well, looky there. If you’ll wait just a minute, I’ll clean that up for you and you can sit right over yonder.”
“I’m guessing you’ve been running like crazy, haven’t you?” Justin asked.
“Gosh yes,” she said. “My name is Bethany, and I’ll be your waitress. The power went out in the area… this is the only place to come and eat, so everybody in a ten mile radius has been coming through that door!”
“If people are driving around to get here, then maybe we can make it home,” Tom said.
“Where you from?” Bethany asked.
“Birmingham,” Tommy answered.
“Don’t try it, honey. Several bridges are iced completely over between here and there, and for the most part the interstates have shut down. Roads around here are supposed to be closed, but authorities are letting people get here.”
She looked around at an older man coming in the door, and grimaced.
“Oh goodness,” she smirked. “Here comes that old coot to harass my waitresses again.”
The group watched the old fellow as he went to the end of the room and sat down in the newly empty booth, the very one that Bethany had just offered up.
“Somebody needs to come clean this up!” he said loudly. The younger waitress turned and her expression soured.
“I’m coming, Roger,” she sighed.
“Well, you could have had that seat, but it looks like Roger’s taken it,” Bethany turned back to them.
“Well, I’m not really that hungry,” Drew said. “So, can we just sit and wait out the storm?”
“That’s fine too,” she said. “Can I get you boys, and girl, some hot chocolate? On the house today.”
“That would be great, Bethany,” Tom smiled. The five went to the remaining line of chairs against the wall and sat. There were two waitresses and one cook scurrying about behind the counter. Tommy scanned the room and did a quick count, coming up with a number of about 60 people being served in the room. There were also about five other people sitting in chairs beside the group he was with.
From out of nowhere, the man in the very back began to complain very loudly. His words were not very obscene, but his tone was very unsettling, all translating into wanting coffee but not getting it.
“I want coffee!” he yelled. “I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes and nobody got my order yet! What kind of service is this!?” He spoke as if he were the only one in the entire building.
“I’m trying!” said the younger waitress.
“How old do you think Flo is there?” Drew leaned over to Justin.
“Not more than 21, I’d guess,” Justin answered.
She frantically was pouring coffee, wanting to hurry up and get to the customer who had so rudely called her, but at the same time, trying to take care of the customers who had put in their requests first.
Bethany, the waitress who had talked to them earlier, carried a handful of food, and just gave a sorrowful look to the younger waitress.
After a brief silence, the man in the back began to call the younger waitress names. He called her slow, he called her spoiled, he called her lazy. His tone continued to be more detrimental with every word he spoke. All because his order had not been taken.
“If you were any sort of good help, I’d already have some food here in front of me, young lady,” he snarled.
“That’s enough of this,” Justin stood up and began to walk towards the counter.
The restaurant had become very quiet, because of the loudness of this particular man. The low volume of the noise made it easy for Jenn, Tom, Drew and Tommy to hear clearly the crying on the waitress who had been verbally attacked. She threw the paper and rag she held in her hands on the counter and ran outside into the cold.
“Justin, what are you doing?” Drew asked him, trying not to draw attention to him.
“Getting this man to be quiet,” Justin replied in a low voice back to Drew.
“What’s he going to do?” Tom looked at Tommy.
“I dunno,” Jenn replied, “but I’m going to walk outside and talk to this waitress.” She stood up followed the girl out the front.
Tom and Drew both sat on the edge of their seats, ready to leap up at any moment.
“You don’t think he’s going to start a bar fight, do you?” Drew looked at Tom.
“How cool would that be?” Tom replied.
Tommy watched carefully as Justin went to the counter, and in a low voice, said something to Bethany. She looked a little confused for a moment, then broke into a smile. She handed him something small and he turned and began to walk toward the back of the restaurant.
“What did he get?” Drew asked.
“I don’t know,” Tom answered, stretching his neck to see what Justin was doing.
Justin walked to the table, stopped and turned toward the man. And then he put for the biggest smile he could muster up, considering he was in a Waffle House.
“Who the heck are you?” the man looked up at Justin.
“Hey, my name is Justin and I will be your waiter,” he smiled. “What can I get for you?”
“My waiter? Didn’t you just come from the other side of the restaurant?”
“Well, yeah, but I just started. So, what can I get for you today?”
The man looked puzzled at first, then shrugged his shoulders and began to speak his order.
“Okay, grits or hash browns?” Justin asked.
“Uh… well… oh, gimme some hash browns. Covered and smothered and chunked,” the man ordered, reading off of the menu.
“Alright,” Justin nodded. “You see we are really busy tonight, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.” He then turned and walked towards the counter again. He handed the order to Bethany with a smile. “There you go.”
As he handed the small piece of paper over, she put both of her hands on Justin’s hand holding the order.
“God bless you,” she said. “That was about the nicest thing I think I’ve ever seen anyone do. Ever.”
“You need to get out more, ma’am. That wasn’t very much,” Justin laughed, and then walked back to his seat.
When Jenn stepped outside the door, the cold hit her hard. She remembered winters in Chicago, and this felt much like that. The wind was icy and the snow was still falling thick.
She looked around and saw the waitress who had run out standing at the corner of the building. Jenn slowly walked towards her, being careful not to slip and fall in the inch or two of snow that had come down in the last three hours.
“Ma’am?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, without turning around to look at Jenn. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
“You know, sometimes people are like that,” Jenn said in a soft voice. “You can’t let it get you down.”
“I know him. He lives a few miles from here. I hate waiting on him because he’s always so mean to me. It’s amazing because I get men in here that are ten times more obscene, making all kinds of sexual references to me, but they never bother me as much as this guy does. He doesn't curse, he isn't dirty... he is just plain mean.”
Jenn paused for a moment, careful not to get in front of her.
“My name is Jennifer,” she said after a few seconds of silence.
“I’m Claire,” the waitress turned around to face Jenn for the first time. Jenn observed a young face with already a wrinkle or two. She was pretty though, Jennifer thought. The waitress had really pretty curly hair, but obviously dyed the color red that it was. She stuck her hand out to shake Jenn’s, and Jenn obliged.
“So, how long have you worked here?” Jenn asked, praying in her mind for something to talk to her about.
“About six weeks,” Claire responded. “I’m a student at Alabama, and I live in this area. I’m just trying to save up some money to…” she stopped as her words faded off. Claire turned around again, folded her arms and shivered. “It’s cold out here.”
“To what, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m saving up my money to go to Harvard law school,” she said with a sigh.
“Really?” Jenn’s eyes widened a little more than she intended to show.
“Yeah, I know, I look like trailer park trash, and probably am. But I want to be a criminal lawyer.”
“No, no, its not that, I don’t think you are trailer trash.”
“Whether you do or not, you did when you first saw me,” she forced a smile. “Look at me! My hair is dyed red, I wear too much mascara, I’m 19 and I got a tattoo of a confederate flag on my ankle…” she lifted up her left foot into her right hand and pulled back her pant cuff and sock to reveal a faded flag above her foot. “…I’ve got white trash written all over me. But I want to be a lawyer. I work here because Bethany pays me really good.”
There was a brief pause, as Jennifer searched for something to say.
“So, have you ever just spilled coffee into that guy’s lap accidentally, on purpose?” Jenn said with a smile.
“Well, not coffee. But hash browns. The first time he came in when I was working. It wasn’t on purpose, the plate was hot and it slipped. He always orders them covered, smothered and chunked, so it made quite a mess in his lap,” her smile was authentic this time. “He started in on me the next time he saw me.”
Jenn and Claire both laughed rather loudly at that.
“Well, Claire, its cold. I have friends waiting on me inside, and you have a job to do, so what say we both go back inside?” Jenn suggested.
“Good idea,” Claire smiled. As Jenn turned to walk inside, Claire put her hand on Jenn’s shoulder. “Jennifer?”
“Yes?” Jenn looked at Claire.
“I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I’m glad you came here. Thanks,” she smiled.
Jenn smiled back, and they both walked back inside.
“How about that for you there?” Michael slammed his hand on the metal part of the door to the gas station.
“Closed due to inclement weather. Tide Pride Deli will reopen at 7am Sunday morning, weather permitting,” I read aloud the scribbled sign on the door. “Closed. Closed. The freaking store is closed.”
Ginger leaned back against the door and rested her head on the glass.
“Well, boys, now what do we do?” she smirked. She looked down at her watch. With a perplexed look, she shook her wrist a few times, looked down again, and then just shoved her hand back in her jacket pocket. “What time is it, anyone? My watch is frozen.”
I looked at mine and answered, “Ten after six.”
“Do we wait for Matt? Could he have already been here?” Ginger asked.
“I don’t think he’s been here yet,” I replied. “When he didn’t see us here, he would have gone back down the same road looking for us. Unless he passed by while we were down at the creek, he would have seen us. Or me, at least,” I said.
“There’s probably a good chance the interstate is closed,” Michael looked up and down the highway. “I haven’t seen a car or truck in an hour or so.”
“Well, we have to do something, because if we stay out here all night, we’ll get pneumonia. Michael, your foot is wet, and that can’t be good in this temperature.” I said.
“How cold would you say it is out here?” Michael asked, looking at me.
“Seventeen degrees,” Ginger responded, pointing to a thermometer hanging in the corner of the ceiling of the awning we were under.
“Yeah, we stay out here all night, all three of us are screwed,” I added. “We’ve got to find somewhere to go.”
“But what if Matt is on his way? I mean, what if the roads reopen, and he makes it here?” Ginger asked, almost in a pleading voice.
“Okay, here’s the plan. We stay right here until seven o’clock. If he’s not here by seven, we make a plan to find somewhere, anywhere, to go but here,” I said.
“In the meantime, I suggest we all stand really close together to stay warm,” Michael added.
“You just want to be close to me, don’t you?” Ginger smiled, moving in closer to where Michael and I stood.
PARTS 16 - 20