The place is loud. One girl wrapping the clanking silverware into paper napkins, the air conditioner blowing full strength, maybe so you’ll get cold and leave sooner, the bald guy with the mustache nonchalantly filling the little round burners with hash browns, and Humpty Dumpty (who apparently goes to Waffle House to get his WiFi) watching YouTube videos at the bar.
“No, honey, that just means you get two waffles.”
As my friend finishes ordering, pointing at the sticky mat of a menu, asking if she can get chocolate chips in the batter, I stare at Humpty Dumpty. He’s large, but maybe that’s implied. Iceberg: A little head on a body that just gets bigger as your eyes trace down his shoulders, his broadening waist, his hips—there are no hips. Just flesh hanging off the edges of the bar stool, flesh that cuts into the bar itself, that makes you think he could fall right from that spot.
“And could I get strawberry jam with my toast? Not that fruit punch kind.”
“All right. Y’all’s order will be right up.” Our waitress calls out to the bald guy with the mustache, “Mark! Double waffle; bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich plate; two browns, scattered, smothered, and covered; bacon and sausage!” before telling us to tap on our window if we need her. We watch as she goes through the glass doors, passing the NO SMOKING and the WE NOW SERVE ORANGE FANTA signs. She stands in front of my car with her back to our window and lights a cigarette. We kind of watch her through the glass, I don’t know why. Maybe the same reason you look at strangers when you go to the mall and then dart your eyes away when you accidentally makes eye contact, or the same reason I was looking at ole Iceberg over there. A kind of amazement that other people exist. That other people go home, whether to families or to themselves, to do laundry like you do, or to brush their teeth like you do, too. Maybe they’ll say to someone, “Wanna go to Waffle House?” and they’ll show up as you’re eating there, and you’ll never see them again, but maybe they’ll order the same thing you did.
We watch our waitress smoking. She is talking to some men who walked over from the Exxon station, her skinny arms bringing the cigarette back and forth to her mouth and we can see the smoke exhaled into the late-night sky. She has those long nails. Plastic with a rhinestone or something in the tip, and she wears lipliner (something that makes me think of prostitutes or transvestites or the 1990s) and heavy eye shadow, like clouds for the tattoo stars around her left eye.
My focus shifts from our waitress on the other side of that finger-print-stained glass to the dozen-or-so white orbs reflecting in it. Lining the long building, one over every booth and a few over the bar, are large white lights hanging from the ceiling, bulbous. Round. Hanging above our heads, emitting a soft glow.
I look over at Mark, mustache guy, and he’s pouring batter out of a tin can onto the stove while a different waitress lays out strips of bacon to sizzle in all that grease, wiping her hands on her Dickies afterwards. Black pants, blue shirt. An apron that’s covered with flare. Buttons about Waffle House, buttons about Twilight, buttons that aren’t about anything, just smiley faces.
“Hey Red.” Some guy just walked in and now he’s talking to Iceberg, who’s name is apparently Red. “They’re lookin’ at your dog out there!” He points out the window to an older couple that’s looking, eyes wide and mouths open, at the Great Dane that has its head sticking out of Red’s truck window. Red turns around to look at the man speaking to him and to look out the window, but only half-heartedly, not caring to jeopardize the delicate balance that he’s found on his stool.
Mark calls, “Double waffle; bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich plate; two browns; bacon and sausage!”
Our waitress is still outside, but the other girl says, “Bring ‘em up!” and reaches for our plates as Mark sets them on the bar.
We say thank you as this waitress, whom we haven’t talked to previously tonight, brings us our food. My stomach turns a little as she slides my plate in front of me. A sandwich, bacon, and hash browns—shiny, reflecting light. For a second I feel bad about myself for putting this in my body, but then I take that first bite and the artery-clogging-crap melts in my mouth, so good.
I dig through the wire basket full of condiments, looking for a bottle of ketchup. Casa de Waffle: Picante Sauce, Tobasco, mustard, but no ketchup. Our waitress sees that we’ve been served our food by someone else and comes in to ask if there’s anything we need. I ask for ketchup and she nods before grabbing a bottle from another table.
There’s a quiet between my friend and I while we eat, but I guess we weren’t talking much before we got our food, either. Looking around the room at the people in the red vinyl seating or standing behind the bar, under those lights, I notice that everyone’s talking to each other. That old couple that was so awed by Red’s dog. Red is laughing with that man that walked in earlier, showing him something funny online. Starry Eyes is joking around with Mark, playfully waving her hand in the air like she might hit him. I feel a disconnect. The observer—the voyeur—paying more attention to these strangers than to the person sitting across from me. All of them smiling. The other waitress walks by our table to serve a denim-clad couple who just rode in on their motorcycles. Stitched in her apron are the words, “GOOD FOOD FAST & FRIENDLY.”
I take a bite of my browns—scattered, smothered, and covered—and smile a little bit, looking at the Great Dane as he pants out the window of Red’s Ram 2500.