I can’t think of a bigger adventure than eating on the road. Sometimes when there are eighty miles between cafes, a simple stop for supper can quickly turn into a prayer meeting. We had a spiritual meal like that in New Mexico once, where we gambled at a “Family Style Restaurant” whose sign also boasted, “Phones At Every Table.” We should have chosen to fast that night.
I know first impressions aren’t everything, but don’t you think they should count for something? The faded, burgundy carpet was covered in years of gravy stains, punctuated by a week’s worth of food crumbs brushed off the tables and onto the floors. The vinyl red bench seats looked cushiony until we sat down—and sank a full six inches down to the plywood base. That made eating a little less messy for us, though—we could just use the chin-high surface as a bib.
A waitress showed up immediately in the empty room, and greeted us with an enthusiastic smile. Suddenly I realized we were the only people in the whole place at six o’clock on a Friday night. A chill went down my spine as the reality of our situation became clear—we were stuck here for dinner. And by dinner, I mean food poisoning. But there was nowhere else to eat, no other town for miles, and no way to sneak out before ordering. I rifled in my purse for Tums and Pepto tablets.
We’re not the kind of people who stand up for our rights and risk making others feel bad. We have Southern roots. Instead, we suck it up, bear the burden, tough it out. Basically, we’re wimps. On the other hand, we have a germaphobe friend who would have surveyed the situation, turned on his heel, and marched out before anyone had a chance to hand him a flu-infested menu. Where was that guy when we needed him?
I dug around in my purse again, this time looking for some Purell so we could toast our wiser, absent comrade.
“Our special tonight is meat loaf and mashed potatoes,” our waitress was saying, “and the salad bar over there is included.” My husband and daughter checked out the salad bar first, returning to the table before I could get out of my sunken seat.
“It’s an interesting assortment,” was their only explanation for coming back with empty plates.
This just kept getting worse. I walked across the vacant, dimly lit restaurant to the shiny, metal cart with a dirty plastic canopy overhead. Snickers from behind me serenaded my approach, as the appetizer portion of our meal quickly disintegrated into a Search and Rescue operation.
The huge, gallon size plastic salad bowl was full of melting ice and a few pieces of soggy, floating lettuce. It was like a mini-terrarium gone awry—Titanic style—with no survivors. A small cereal bowl held six rapidly rotting cherry tomatoes, flanked on one side by a bowl of soupy cottage cheese and on the other a bowl of green jello chowder. I headed back to our table.
“Well, I wasn’t in the mood for salad anyway,” I announced to an explosion of hysteria from my family. “And I’m tired of feeling like I need a booster seat, too. What say we move to another table before the waitress brings our drinks?”
My husband, Captain of the Good Ship Don’t-Make-Waves, frowned in disapproval.
“What’s she going to do when she comes to our table and finds it empty?” he asked of the absent waitress.
“She’ll probably turn around in the crowded room and spot us across the aisle,” I retorted sarcastically, as I picked up my silverware and brought it with me.
It took two tries before we found seats that lowered us a mere four inches, but only one attempt for the waitress to locate us, as predicted.
“Playing musical chairs?” she asked. Rob pinched my arm so I wouldn’t give her a reason to spit in our soup. He knows me so well.
She took our orders and disappeared as fatigue and hunger began to mess with our brains. Suddenly everything was funny. The carpet, the wall-mounted telephones at every table, the empty building, the soggy salad bar. Slap happy and on the verge of delirium, it was all we could do to contain ourselves when our plates of “food” arrived. And believe me, I use the term loosely.
It was meatloaf. And that’s all I need to say about that, except that we should have known better. The mashed potatoes wore a yellow plastic hardhat pretending to be gravy. Through some lapse in logic, each of us had ordered the same meal. And now we were all doubled over in laughter—not only could we not eat the swill placed in front of us, we couldn’t even breathe. Tears and snot rolled off our red faces and ten minutes later, full dishes still on the table, we headed to the register to pay for our sins of omission.
Finally, we understood why there were phones at every table. It was either to call out for a pizza or to dial 9-1-1.
The next morning, as we crossed the state line into Arizona, my husband handed me a gift as a memento of our culinary adventure in the Land of Enchantment. It was a refrigerator magnet shaped like two vultures with a hungry look in their eyes. “Send more tourists,” it read. “The last ones were delicious.”
At least it explained the road kill at the salad bar.