When strangers aren't strangers.
Yesterday Mom and I stopped at a hometown diner in Smalltown on our way back from the Smalltown Cemetery, after decorating the grave of my sister on the twenty-second anniversary of her death.
The newest song played at the Just N Time Restaurant was "Blue Kentucky Girl"-- the Loretta Lynn version. They played Hank Williams (Sr.). George Jones. Kitty Wells. I knew the songs. "Long Gone Lonesome Blues." "Heartbreak USA." And so on.
The omelet I ordered was enormous and cooked with real eggs, spanning the whole platter. The coffee tasted like Folgers, like they put more grounds on old grounds and never changed the filter. Mom's bacon was thick and very crispy, eggs over easy and cooked in the bacon grease. The man who came in while we were there flirted with the old waitress, like he did so every other day, it seemed, and she was having none of it. He was white-headed, with deep wrinkles, and complained that "I cain't hear for shit." I learned that his name was Jake, he was married twice and divorced three times, because he married his first wife twice, "for the kids." The waitress was pert, said that the restaurant made half their money these days from "deliveries to the school, because they don't like the lunches, I guess." With a wink she added, "even the lunch ladies order, and what does that tell you?"
It was perfect.
Breakfast was grounding. It reminded me that some things hadn't changed. People will marry and bury in small towns like this and the kids will leave.
There are Trump signs everywhere, splitting my Mom's world into people she likes and Trump voters she used to like. I realized that the kids who leave vote for someone else-- maybe anyone else--embarrassed by their parents' politics. And the folks at the Just N Time Restaurant who bitch about mask mandates and vaccines, well, people on my side are saying outright that Darwin will solve the problem by killing them off, and then wondering why they don't get their vote.
I want the people at Just N Time to be the kind of people who would understand and love all of my queer friends. I wondered when Jake looked at my masculine haircut, what he saw. I was wearing jeans and a plaid button down, with the sleeves rolled up.
I stood up with Mom, when we left and put on our masks, and Jake said something. He asked if we're related. I later wondered if that's his way of asking if we're lesbians, but I don't in that moment, because he asked it jovially and kindly. Mom answered proudly that yes, I'm her daughter. He told me he's seen me around town before, for years. He said it with a gentle smile of recognition. He said it like he's including me, and I don't quite understand.
Mom disagreed politely, sir.
He said, "Oh you, know, maybe twenty years or so, round about." He's insistent, like it's important.
Mom assured him that that's how long I've been gone. But Jake can't hear for shit, and turned his attention back to flirting with the waitress. We'd been dismissed, and we left shaking our heads.
We drove home and the load was lighter without flowers and chocolates for our deceased family in the backseat. With bellies full of grease. The "Lone Gone Lonesome Blues" echoed in my mind, ("She's long gone, and now I'm lonesome blue") and I wondered at how at home I felt, a stranger in the place.
Some part of Jake recognized me, as much I recognized him.
He was the man who sat at the Big Table at Mary's Cafe with my Dad and I before cattle auctions, talking politics, when my Dad was the loud and outspoken liberal. When he took the floor, some of the men would nod. "You're right about that," some man would say, about some point. Other men would jump in and defend George H. W. Bush, back when he didn't need all of the initials to explain himself.
I didn't understand everything (or really anything) about farm subsidies or welfare or Medicare, but whatever my father said was gospel, and the rest of them could go to hell.
Dad and I would eat a big, greasy breakfast before we went to an auction. Dad would challenge me to guess how much cows would sell for or the weight of the Biggest Bull. They were lessons, though I didn't know it.
The last auction we went to, we left in a hurry in 1993, when we received a call that my grandpa was in some sort of tractor accident. My grandpa became the first tombstone that tied me to the town where I ate breakfast at that diner. That little cemetery in Smalltown with the family section has a six by four plot empty right beside my sister's stone waiting for me.
Jake saw something in me that said I wasn't truly a stranger. I never could be.