Eavesdropping at a Meat-and-Three

On a writing assignment a couple of weeks ago, I spent the day in a county about an hour’s drive from Cookeville. To protect the privacy of the folks I’m writing about, I won’t name the place.

The café where this happened is on the square in a little town. Out front are potted pink petunias and an American flag. A TODAY’S SPECIAL menu is taped to the plate glass window. There’s fake paneling on the walls and cracked leatherette covering the sagging booths. Though you can order salads and sandwiches, this is the kind of place where you’d be foolish to get anything but meat-and-three. The café opens at 7 in the morning and closes most evenings around 8. I arrived, stomach growling, at 10:45. Only a few of the tables and booths were filled and the skinny waitress wearing a t-shirt that said “Never Trust a Skinny Cook” invited me to sit wherever I wanted.

“Am I too early for lunch?” I asked, hoping against hope she’d say no because who would choose to eat eggs twice in the same day.

She shook her head. “We’ll fix you whatever you want.” Hooray! I slid into a booth with my back to the wall (I’ve seen too many TV westerns to sit with my back to the door if I can help it) and ordered fried chicken, fried okra and fried apples. You don’t go to a place like this to eat healthy. “It won’t be ready for a few minutes,” she said. “We’re just now heating up the grease.”

I told her I was in no hurry.

It pains me to confess it, but my immediate inclination was to grab my cell phone and start scrolling. But then I looked around at the other folks in the restaurant. Except for the waitress and a girl boxing up to-go orders, everyone looked to be at least my age. Some were a good deal older. Not one of them was looking at a screen. Not one. So I left the phone in my bag and took out a notebook and pen instead, not sure what I was going to write but determined to keep my eyes and ears open.

Two elderly men sat at a table near the window, talking loud enough that everyone could make out every word they said. I’m guessing this was because they were hard of hearing but I don’t know that for a fact. “I hate getting old,” one of the men said. “I didn’t expect it to be this way, hurting all over all the time.”

“Yeah,” his friend replied. “But I’m grateful for every day I’m given. My daddy died when he was only 42. I’ve doubled that and then some.”

“I ain’t hardly been out since the Covid hit,” the first man said. “Didn’t go to church. Didn’t get a haircut, neither. That’s the first thing I done once I got the vaccine. I like the new barber. He’s old-timey. Cuts off all your hair so you don’t have to go back so often.”

His friend smiled and sipped his coffee. “I got my shots just as quick as I could,” he said. “I can’t understand folks that won’t get it. Do they want to set at home and watch TV for the rest of their lives?”

“You shore can’t figure people.”

The waitress stopped by their table with the coffeepot. “Y’all need a warm-up?”

Both men nodded. “I reckon you wish we’d leave,” one of them said. “We been here most of the morning.”

“Nah,” she told him. “You’re welcome to stay all day if you’re a mind to.”

Which all goes to show what you can take in when you leave your cell phone in your purse and pull out a notebook and pen instead.

(Jennie Ivey is a Cookeville writer. E-mail her at jennieivey.com)