I’m a little sad right now, and confused. And I am seriously reconsidering my place in the universe and wondering what it’s all about.
It’s all because of our recent outing to Cracker Barrel.
Oh, the hash brown casserole was perfect, as usual. I had a double order and sat there, slightly stunned and drooling a bit, after I shoved that first forkful into my mouth and all that potato-y-and-cheesy goodness went singing through my veins with the voices of angels while at the same time introducing themselves to all my other artery clogs.
Our waitress was suitably sassy and very attentive and responded to my father-in-law’s shameless flirtations and not-quite-but-maybe-a-little off-color jokes with all the grace and good humor of a true professional.
There was a fire in the fireplace and the guy who kept it going was a minor hero of sorts because it was cold outside. Every time he picked up a log, all of us would stop our conversations for a moment and wait for that shower of sparks to fly when he threw it on the flames. Then we watch as he poked the log into place.
There was always a kid or two standing next to him with looks of unabashed awe on their faces mesmerized by that minor magic. Then the fire guy would turn and smile a little bit and we’d all murmur our approval because, no matter where you are, a fire in the fireplace on a cold morning is a wondrous thing, and the guy who keeps it going deserves our esteem.
I finished my meal, leaned back in my chair, sated, sipped away at my third cup of coffee and watched Northerners — who obviously had stopped there while heading south along the interstate — butter their biscuits and gobble up their sausages while blatantly and blasphemously ignoring their little white-china side order bowls of grits.
Some had herds of thuggish children with them, uncoached in common manners — strangers to well-deserved smack upside the head — running around and practicing minor acts of terrorism while mom and dad smile tightly and pretend the rest of us think their kids are “cute.” Privately I gloated and gave silent thanks they weren’t mine and that in just a little bit, on this cold morning I’d be back at home in front of my own fireplace with a book in my hand, nodding toward a nap with a cat on my lap and not on the road heading north or south.
I got up to pay the bill and Love-Weasel and her daddy and Other Boy followed me out into the gift shop to wander through that maze of things no one needs while I stand in line at the counter and wonder if, maybe, I actually do need some more King Leo peppermint sticks or another whoopee cushion or maybe a Dale Earnhardt Pez dispenser.
I settle for paying up and then sidle through the crowd with my hands in my pockets and just look around while Love-Weasel mines the clearance corner for things she can’t possibly live without and my father-in-law, who never met a stranger, walks around striking up conversations and Other Boy shows great interest in all the retro toys while somehow pretending — as only a world-weary 20-something can — not to show great interest.
Only moments away from gathering my troops and heading toward home, a glimpse of the impossible lunges up and jabs a spike into my brain. I fall back a bit, stunned, flailing out and almost toppling a display of sweatshirts adorned with sequined snowman appliques.
Desperately, I try to blink away that impossibility, but I can’t because it is real and I almost wail out. Instead, I stagger to the rack of CDs in the corner of the room. I reach out, disbelieving, and then hold in my hands something that cannot be.
It is a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD made exclusively for Cracker Barrel, sharing rack space with a CD of the best of Prairie Home Companion.
“No,” I moan. “No.”
I must have fallen to my knees because the next thing I know I’m being helped up by a guy who is probably the same age as me. The pain and confusion in his eyes, I’m certain, mirrors my own.
“Sad, isn’t it?” he says.
I can only nod, unable, yet, to speak. We stand together for a moment, two old guys, silent in our grief, and mourn the demise of a reputation.
Forty-something years ago, the most dangerous thing in my life was the “Second Helping” album from Lynyrd Skynyrd and its semi-psychedelic cover showing Ronnie and all the boys looking mean and slightly nasty and obviously stoned. I hid that album — the first I ever bought with my own money — from Mama because, well, I wasn’t absolutely sure what Jesus would think of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of course, I knew sure as hell what Mama would think. And she was just slightly less forgiving than Jesus when it came to such things as albums with nasty, stoned-looking guys on the cover. So, I kept it hidden and listened to it only when she wasn’t around.
I shudder to think about how Ronnie Van Zant would feel about his once dangerous band making albums for a family-friendly restaurant such as Cracker Barrel.
I’m pretty sure he’d like their hash brown casserole, though.