“Soup or salvation?” she said.
“Beg your pardon?” He glanced around the room. A few old men sipped coffee and scanned the local paper. Dust drifted through the sunlight escaping the aluminum blinds like glitter in a snow globe. Fluorescent lights buzzed sporadically and an ancient window unit rattled behind a glass display full of Payday, Zagnut, Camel, and Lucky Strike.
“You want the soup?” she said. “Or would you prefer an eternity spent in the bosom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” He looked at the laminated menu on the counter. A quarter-sized stain, probably soup, had crusted over at the top of the menu and abbreviated a part of the block text centered there.
ALIFORNIA LUNCH ROOM
F OF SCENIC HWY 49 NEAR SUTTER CREEK
NG GOD AND GREAT FOOD FOR 25 YEARS!
“I’ll give you a sec,” she said, and pulled a coffee stained pot from the burner. He watched her reflection in the mirror behind the counter as she floated through the room filling the thick white ceramic mugs, humming a familiar tune and nodding politely to each customer as she worked. Each man thanked her in a different way as if communicating in some wordless language known only to blue-collar retirees. There were nods and points and grunts and winks and clicks in various combinations and she acknowledged each with a look of understanding. She stopped at every empty table to arrange the little groups of condiments by height – ketchup, hot sauce, and mustard at the back; sugar and creamer in the middle; salt and pepper at the front. She’d step back and admire each grouping with a little smile on her face before moving on to arrange the next family portrait of flavor. A damp rag was tucked into her apron and she gave each table a Zorro-like swipe, replacing crumbs and drips with a wide glossy streak that quickly evaporated into the dry air. An empty “Daily Deals” sign on the wall was just out of level and she touched it into place as she circled back around the counter.
“So, what’s it gonna be?” she said.
“I’m, uh…I’m not sure I understand the question.” He looked up as he spoke and flinched as she reached to tuck a cluster of reddish-grey hair back under her hairnet. His face was scrunched up like someone waiting for a balloon to pop.
“Listen, sweetie,” she said, “do you want the soup? Or, would you rather spend a thousand lifetimes baskin’ in the glory of heaven and God’s almighty goodness? ” She pulled an order pad from under the counter, flipped the page, and placed a well-worn carbon underneath. A piece of yarn dangled from the pad and held a stubby pencil wrapped with masking tape. She held it at a distance and examined the lead over the top of her glasses. As she touched the point to her tongue, she turned back to him, smiling. “It’s a pretty simple question, really,” she added.
He looked around the room for some sign of understanding. A logging truck roared past and rattled the blinds and the “Open-C’mon In” sign hanging on the glass door. The old men sat and noisily slurped their coffee. Occasionally one would shake and fold and shake a section of paper like a spasmodic cough until it was a manageable quarter sheet. The compressor on the window unit kicked on and off like an alarm clock signaling the next sibilant sip of coffee. There was silence amid a cacophony of sounds. He looked back at the stained menu.
“Take the soup.” An old man in a grease-stained Kenworth hat looked up from his coffee, and half-turned toward the counter. A week’s worth of white beard covered his cheeks. His Dickies work shirt was pressed, but only half-buttoned, exposing a white V-neck. A patch of silver-white chest hair poked over the V like a hood ornament. He paused for a moment, almost facing them then turned back to his cup. “Take the soup.”
“Cecil,” she said. “Mind your business.”
“Take the soup.” He spoke without turning around; his coffee cup inches from his mouth. His voice was deep and comforting, but rattled like the window unit. “Take the soup. It’s made with love.”
“I guess I’ll have the soup.”
She stared at the Cecil briefly, the returned to her pad, her smile only a little less broad. She checked the stubby pencil over the top of her glasses, and touched the lead to her tongue.
“Chicken Noodle, or Split Pea?”