We finished breakfast, but our conversation became strained. I could tell Eli had a lot more questions he wanted to ask, but I was sure he could also tell I wasn’t ready to give any more ground at that moment than I already had…even to him. I was officially talked out.
We practically grew up together, spent nearly every summer together from grade school through college, and this was the first time the two of us were utterly speechless.
The silence was beyond awkward. It was like taking a beating when the first blow to the stomach knocks the breath right out of you. This was worse. I was sitting not three feet from a man I’d grown up with, and I couldn’t even look him in the eyes without wincing. Then I noticed that he was having the same problem.
We were 6 years old again and had just been scolded by our grandmothers for tracking mud into the kitchen. My nagging 6-year-old’s conscious was telling me to spill the beans while my brain was telling me to keep my mouth shut until I had more information.
We sat in that booth nursing our coffee until the cups were ice cold. Eli stared into the cup as though it was going to give him some sort of magical answer to fix my screwed up life. I turned my gaze to the window facing the only street in town and watched the traffic light change. Green…yellow…red.
I never saw the check hit the table, but I heard Eli tapping the two to-go coffee cups on the cheap laminate.
“How long has it been since you strolled down these streets, Bits?” he asked handing me one of the cups.
“Way too long,” I answered reaching out for the cup of what I was hoping to be better coffee than what we had for breakfast. “Don’t you have a job, Sheriff? Like official duties to go along with that shiny badge and oath you took swearing you into office when you won the election?”
“I was appointed,” he said as he slid out of the booth and sipped his coffee. The pinched look on his face answered my question about the quality of the contents. “Come on. I’ve got a little time before court.” He reached for my hand and slid me out of my side of the booth. “Let me give you the grand tour of this great Southern city.”
“This shouldn’t take too long,” I said falling lock-step in with Eli as he made his way to the door. “There are only two red lights and a caution light.”
And, that’s what I’ve always loved about this little town. It was literally Main Street, USA, with one main artery running the length of the town studded with two red lights and a flashing caution light. Smaller vessels split off from Main Street leading to other parts of the county. There once was a train that came through town once a week, but the railroad tracks had long since rusted and been paved over. The town was small, but it wasn’t THAT small with two grocery stores stocked with fresh produce and meats from local farmers.
We walked down the street making small talk when I noticed how many of the old stores I remembered from my childhood that were still open and how many had closed and empty. They were sad structures filled with dusty shelves, cobwebs and the memories of a young girl and her grandparents from long ago. When we came to the Farm Feed & Seed, I stopped in front of the large picture window and was staring inside the empty store.
When I was little, both of my grandfathers were regular customers at the Feed & Seed, and I easily remembered tagging along with them both on hot summer days when they came to town to purchase their supplies for the week. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath remembering the heady mix of gardening supplies, fertilizer and catfish feed that once filled the store. Maybe it was thinking of all the pleasant times I spent following my grandparents down this street and into this store, or maybe it was the weight of the stress of my own situation today, but when Eli placed his hand on my shoulder and brought me back to the present, I had to wipe the tears from my cheeks before turning to face him.
“I can’t count how many times Mr. Messer tossed me out of this place because I knocked over one of his barrels of feed,” Eli laughed. “I think he tossed me out once because YOU knocked over a barrel!”
“I never!” I laughed and spun around to face him. “Actually, I think I did once or twice!”
We turned and walked a little further down memory lane before heading back to the diner. After all, Eli had a job to do…and so did I. I only wish I had noticed the old white Ford pickup trailing behind us sooner. In a town filled with pickup trucks, one more didn’t exactly stand out.