Preview of “Waffle House Rules”
Long after all the other attendants had left the grave site, after the former colleagues and patients had paid their last respects to Dr. Jimmy Ryan, the Youngman sisters remained. They stood at the foot of the grave and acted out their ritual into the afternoon, until pink and orange hues from the early setting autumn sun filtered through the scrub pines surrounding the Twin Beach Road Cemetery at lower and darker angles. The cemetery workers, whose task it was to actually bury the casket, shoveling the coarse red dirt back into the hole and dismantling the sparse and subdued ceremonial staging, watched with obvious impatience, but from a respectful distance, near the perimeter of the trees.
“What the hell are they doing?” one of them, the younger one whispered.
“Look like bones,” his partner answered.
They moved closer, but stayed behind and away from the peripheral vision of the sisters, to see clearer.
The two women each held a brown paper sack, the size of a lunch bag, and were reaching into their respective sacks alternately and throwing what were, in fact, bones: brittle, unbroken wishbones-turkey wishbones, chicken wishbones, even quail and grouse wishbones, collected over a lifetime; tossing them onto the casket one by one, occasionally emitting a loaded sigh, as if that particular wishbone had a story more difficult to release than some others. That was the only sound emanating from the scene beside the eerie rattle of dried bones colliding with each other.
“Why?” the younger worker whispered again.
“Can’t answer that.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
“But you could try.”
“Naw. You got to hear the whole story for that.”
“What is it with you and stories?”
“Some need to be told. Some need to be untold.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Means it’s up to the ones that’s in it to decide.”
The Youngman sisters couldn’t, really, tell the whole story either, not in a way that would make anything like sense. They couldn’t even say if it ever made sense to them, exactly. They could say that Jimmy might not agree with what they were doing. But they would remind him that they were the only ones left, and that they were doing the best they could, with this ritual that no one really ever understood, but had been rehearsing a long, long time.
“A long time,” Abigail said.
“A long, long time,” Ruth agreed.
They can tell you how it started though.
“And that’s something, isn’t it?” Abigail asked.
“Of course it is.”
“Not many folks can tell you when things started.”
“If they even think to try.”
“It’s not an easy thing to do.”
“But we can tell you when it started,” they turned and nodded to each other.
“Yes we can.”
“And that’s something, isn’t it?” Abigail said again.
“Yes’m,” the older one agreed, though not so they could hear.
Started when Jimmy was six years old.
“The day after Thanksgiving.”
“Not Thanksgiving day.”
“No, the day after.”
Jimmy had been recently orphaned. He lost both of his parents and a little brother all at the same time, Halloween night, 1948. Thanksgiving was the next holiday to come along, and the gathering anticipation and congregation of family members kind of scared him. Things had finally quieted down, as quiet as they were going to get after the accident.
The accident. For the rest of his life Jimmy would get stuck on that word whenever he encountered it. He’d stare at it, or after it, like it wasn’t quite spelled or used correctly. Later he would learn from his Uncle Al the word’s origin, from the Latin for chance.
“Think of it as your chance,” Al told young Jimmy.
Jimmy didn’t really know what that meant, but he appreciated Al’s effort. He always appreciated Al’s effort.
He’d been out of the hospital for almost two weeks, and he’d been to all the services, standing or sitting in church pews and funeral home foyers or cemetery chairs, people gravitating toward him like he had some kind of secret message, only to burst into tears when they got close enough, clutching him in their arms, making his small, healing body hurt all over again.
People didn’t always cry when they looked at him now, but they still looked at him like they were waiting for him to break and die. Or they got real quiet when he walked around Uncle Al and Aunt Kay’s house. Al would at least try to make things more normal, in a crude and direct way that would often shock the other adults.
“Lighten up everybody,” he would say, puncturing the cloud of grief that seemed to follow Jimmy everywhere those first few weeks. “He ain’t dead yet.”
“Oh, Al, how could you!” Kay would squawk, later, when they were in bed, waiting for sleep, that time of day when either of them could say anything that occurred to them, or the thing they’d been mulling over all day long.
“Just trying to get the kid to laugh,” Al would defend himself.
“He doesn’t need to laugh. He needs to cry,” Kay insisted. The accident had compounded her grief in ways that Al would never understand. So he wouldn’t even think of quibbling with her, would never think to suggest anything as callous as “Get over it,” say. He knew much better.
“What kind of kid doesn’t laugh?” he asked instead.
Other aunts and uncles, and cousins, especially, would nervously chuckle.
And Jimmy was riveted to the sound, of people laughing, like it was a brand new sound, he would say later in life. Or like he’d forgotten how to laugh. He didn’t remember wanting to laugh during those days, even though he was drawn to the sound like a thirsty person to the sweet trickle of running water. He didn’t remember wanting anything so much as needing everything and everyone to stop. Just stop. It wasn’t what they were doing, or who was doing what that he resisted. He just wanted it all to stop. Just for a moment, a day, a while; he didn’t know.
What he remembered was that he couldn’t sit still or stay in any of the rooms with anyone very long. He could always feel them looking at him that way, that anticipating way, waiting for whatever was going to happen to him. That was a weight he didn’t understand, and didn’t like, as if he was supposed to be dead too, and would oblige at any moment, and they didn’t want to miss it or something.
Later, he would understand better why they looked at him that way, but at the time it made him feel completely orphaned, alone in the world, without anyone to turn to, so he would usually leave the room, their company, and try to find some place he could be by himself.
When Thanksgiving came, there was no place to go, no place there wasn’t a cousin or an aunt, an uncle or a friend, or somebody. And then they sat him at the big table, with mostly adults, those adults who cried the easiest around him, who looked at him the most painfully, Kay believing that what he needed most was loving company.
“He needs family,” she’d told Al the night before, but then started sobbing again, as she recognized Jimmy was actually losing family faster than she could gather them.
They sat him as a centerpiece of the big banquet table, which would fit eight people along either side, after Al inserted all his homemade partitions. Jimmy just kept sliding down in his seat, till his eyes were level with the clothed tabletop, and he couldn’t see anyone around him.
He remembered doing that at home, sitting across from little Frank, the two of them acting in tandem, like they were twins instead of brothers separated by fourteen months, their feet meeting beneath the middle of the oblong aluminum kitchen table. He remembered his mother joining in, sliding down in her seat and stretching her bare feet out to mingle with theirs, and his father, trying to discipline them all, hissing, “Children!” The three of them would giggle, and not nearly behave, Julia only singing, “A jewel here on earth, a jewel up in heaven.”
Jimmy remembered that. But when he stretched his feet out beneath Al and Kay’s banquet table nobody else responded, except to look at him like it was a normal thing for him to do, a perfectly explainable behavior for a child who’s recently lost his entire nuclear family.
But that was the problem. No one knew how to act, least of all Jimmy. He could’ve done anything that came into his head to do, and all those people that hovered around him day and night-sure that he was going to fall apart at any old time, but always within reach of the pieces, as if that’s all there was left of his life, its inevitable falling apart-they would have nodded their collective heads as if to say, “That’s all right, he’s grieving, after all.”
He excused himself from the table and hurried away before any of them could follow.
“Jimmy?” Kay started, half rising from her seat at one end.
“Kay,” Al said from the other, halting her. “Maybe it’s just too much, you know,” he said, waving at everything spread out between them.
“I just thought …”
The rest of the table murmured along with the sentiment. No one knew what to do.
“We have to try,” Kay said to them. “Don’t we?”
Kay and Al were older, well into their fifties, their children grown and gone. Kay had been like a second mother to Jules-a pet-name for Julia she hadn’t thought of in a long, long time, which only heightened her sadness-but had never been able to shake the feeling that she’d failed Julia. And so she never even considered that Julia could die, not before she could remedy, not after, she began to rationalize, but quickly banned that thought from her head.
“It’s so unfair,” she merely said, one night getting Jimmy ready for bed. “He’s already taken one of our Jules.”
“Who?” Jimmy asked.
She looked at him like she’d forgotten he was there. “What?”
“Who took your jewels?”
“Oh,” she said, not knowing how to tell him, but not knowing how not to tell him either, beyond believing that even though it was old news, it was still bad news, which Jimmy should be protected from, at least for the time being. “Never mind.”
Sometimes Kay would find herself thinking, as she was helping Jimmy brush his teeth at night, or dressing him in the morning, that she was merely preparing him for Julia’s return. Then she’d stop, and stare at the boy that way, the weight of the accident settling over her again, like the deepest, most crippling kind of fatigue, and she couldn’t imagine, couldn’t imagine what it must feel like for him if it hit her so unexpectedly hard each and every time. That’s why they stared. It was a “How in God’s name do you carry on?” look. “How do you cope?”
“I don’t know,” Al kept saying, over and over again, throughout the remainder of the meal, once everyone realized Jimmy was not coming back to the table. His plate sat there just as full, with turkey and Al’s favorite oyster dressing, sweet potato soufflé and corn bread, untouched, untouchable, as when they all first sat down and joined hands and tried valiantly to list what they should be thankful for.
Jimmy stayed away until well into the evening when most everyone had gone home. It was a balmy November evening, as was often the case in southern Alabama, just like it had been a stifling Halloween. Up until that night, Jimmy and Frank had only experienced trick-or-treating the rural southern way. Their father resolutely drove them from house to house, those houses that had porch lights or flood lights burning brightly, meaning they didn’t think Halloween was the work of the devil. He’d sit in the idling car while the boys ran up to the porch, something more like a military hit-and-run operation than a festival of passage.
But this Halloween they were going to town, downtown Fairhope, where the Organic School put on a dance and party and children roamed the downtown streets going door to door to all the merchants, the pharmacy, the walk-in movie theater, the police station, as well as the houses, returning to the school grounds loaded down with candy and trinkets. Julia was so excited for the boys, excited for all of them. She remembered Organic School Halloween parties as a girl, with her sisters, almost thirty years earlier, the dancing, the frivolous parents partying late into the evening.
“It’s so much fun!” she would repeat over and over in the days leading up to that Friday evening, thrilled to have garnered the invitation for them. Everything she did during those days was accompanied by a dance step, or a song. She waltzed along with the sweeper and transformed into a petite ballerina when she would wake the boys or put them to bed. But mostly, she sang. Nothing else mattered, and nothing could dampen her giddiness. All obstacles were resolved by song and celebration.
It didn’t matter that they couldn’t afford anything fancy for costumes. She’d make them. And if the boys offered any resistance to the tailoring process, she’d sing, “It’s magic,” the way she could transform old scraps of cloth into any character imaginable, “it’s magic,” because they were going in costume, “a wonderland here in your little hands, it’s magic.”
“What song is that?” their father would ask over the top of his newspaper. Julia was forever making up lyrics to familiar sounding melodies that he could never place.
“Even you, Dad,” was all she answered.
“Your eyes ain’t gonna cloud no more …”
“I’ll make you just a thing called Joe.”
“Another season, another reason…” she sang, colliding songs, inverting them, skipping lines. None of that mattered, so much as the song, the singing, because Julia had always had a firm grasp of what mattered.
“It’ll be fun!” she insisted, an insistence that almost belied the scope of the event.
“It’s just Halloween.”
Didn’t matter if he didn’t get it.
And it didn’t matter that the almanac was calling for a sweltering evening, a threat of thunderstorms, moisture hanging so densely all throughout the thick day it could drown you.
“We’re going,” she answered. “At last … Get dressed.”
Jimmy and Frank sat melting in the backseat of the family Plymouth, suffocating inside their sheep costumes. They were Little Bo Peep’s long lost sheep. All the previous day, and into the night, Julia would recite, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them,” as the boys hid from her view. “Little Bo Peep fell fast asleep, and dreamt she heard them bleating,” to which they would emit sounds loud and squeaky and completely unsheepish.
That night, as she was putting them to bed, Frankie asked, “What’s a bleat?”
“It’s not a what, honey. It’s a how.”
Jimmy pondered on that for the longest time.
Julia tried to coax their father into playing along, tried to entice him into a big bad wolf role, so that he might take advantage of poor Little Bo Peep.
“That’s a different fairy tale.”
“So? Doesn’t the big bad wolf want to eat Little Bo Peep?” she asked, slipping the strap of her dress off her shoulder and sliding over the bench seat toward him in an undisguised salacious way.
He howled at that. Said, “Yes, the big bad wolf is going to eat you,” growling at her, then twisting around to snarl at the boys in back, “And you, and you! Eat you all!”
Jimmy spent most of his Thanksgiving evening underneath Al and Kay’s house, beneath the dining room, listening to the sounds, the groaning of floorboards whenever Kay went into the kitchen to replenish serving bowls or platters, or circled the table with her pitcher of sweet tea. He listened to the different voices and conjured up the faces to match, almost, almost like he was watching a Saturday matinee at the movie theater, or wrapped up in his mother’s arm, which is the way he went to sleep most nights. Julia would snuggle with him and Frank on the den’s sofa and turn on a radio serial, telling them to listen with their eyes closed, to see the pictures behind the words. Jimmy liked Monday nights the best, when Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle came on. There were so many unusual and unfamiliar sounds it was easy enough for him to lose himself completely to the story, imagining himself swinging along on the kudzu vines that choked the woods behind their house to Tarzan’s jungle call.
Jimmy woke up to the sound of Al whistling along with the Emerson table radio in the kitchen, to “Blue Moon,” a song he knew painfully well. He stood outside the back porch door for the longest time watching Al working at the turkey carcass on the big butcher’s block in the center of the spacious room. He circled the bird time and again extracting bits of meat wherever they might be found with the thoroughness and precision of a surgeon. Jimmy’s mother would never spend that kind of time or energy stripping off every last piece of salvageable meat. His father would find half-eaten roaster chickens or meat loaves in the garbage and cry out, “Julia!”
“Who really likes leftovers?” she’d say, defending herself.
Al finished with his knives, finally, having gone over the bird once with the big carving knife and then again with a smaller paring knife. He was down to his bare hands, reaching between the bones of each shoulder blade and into the cavities over the hind end. He didn’t notice Jimmy’s presence until he was finishing, peeling away the shreds of meat and connective tissue clinging to the wishbone, until the boy fully entered the room and turned off the radio.
“Hungry?” he guessed, but Jimmy shook his head. “Come here, then, look at this,” he said, coaxing Jimmy toward the towering wooden block. “I’m saving this for you,” showing him the wishbone. “Tomorrow, when it’s dry, we’ll make a wish okay?”
“You go on to bed now and think about what you want to wish for.”
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t think of what he could wish for. He wanted to wish for lots of things, but didn’t dare. He said as much to Kay as she helped him ready for bed.
“I know, baby,” she said. “I know.”
He was scared to wish for most of the things that he thought of, scared for reasons he didn’t know. He knew being scared well enough though, so he didn’t wish for anything. He crept down into the kitchen in the middle of the night and stole the wishbone away to his room and kept it there, kept it for years, and years, unbroken.
“Had to be unbroken,” Abigail said, as they pulled the last of their cache from the lunch bags.
“Perfectly unbroken,” Ruth answered.
“Jimmy got so he could tell the slightest imperfection.”
“Why would he be scared to wish for anything?” the young worker asked, unable to stay back anymore.
“He said it was the act of wishing itself that scared him.”
“I don’t understand.”
Then they smiled. “Are you hungry?” Ruth asked her sister.
“Waffle House?” Abigail answered.
They shrugged, as if the answer had always been obvious, as if that had always already been their destination, turned, and walked away from the site, each supporting the other’s elbow as they made their way down the lawn to their car.
“Waffle House?” the younger digger repeated, watching their slow, cautious progress.
His partner set about their task in the little bit of remaining light.
“That’s just about the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” staring down into the hole at the barely discernible bones.
“I mean, where the hell did all those bones come from anyway?”
“Are you going to work, or what?” his answer came from the other end of the mound of dirt.
“Who collects that many bones?” he said, not quite ready to let it go.
“She-it, Cake. What’s it to you?”
“I know them.”
“You know them? Really. Don’t seem like the type you usually run with.”
“I know of them.”
“What you know of them?”
“I went to the same school they did.”
“Yeah, how’s that possible?”
“Same school, not the same class.”
“Fish River Community?”
“Right. I was years and years behind them, but their class is famous. There’s a shrine.”
“The fighting sheep?”
“Go to hell,” he said, and finally got back to their job.
His partner chuckled, and chuckled, enjoying the work suddenly.
It was dark enough that the workers had become specter-like in the evening, traceable only by the flashes of light reflected from the high street lamps out on Twin Beach Road off of the metal sleeves of their shovels.
After several minutes of nothing but the scraping of shovel face against the dirt and gravel, its cascading into the hole and the intermittent laughing, Alphonse conceded, “Well, then, maybe you should go to the Waffle House too. Get reacquainted.”