The other day, the staff at Long John Silver's took far longer than normal to finish our order. Linda and I talked, sipped our cold drinks, and relaxed, but the large, smooth surface of the table proved too great a temptation. So I folded my straw wrapper into a paper football and we flicked it back and forth a few times until it flew off the table and onto the floor. As I didn’t want to get my hands dirty before I ate, I reached for Linda’s wrapper, which she had balled up, and we each scored a few goals with that until it bounced off the table and onto the floor. Now we were faced with a dilemma: we must either abandon our game, or find another ball.
A solution presented itself with a sugar packet, and it proved an excellent football. Not only was it shaped perfectly to slide across the flat surfaces, but also its weight prevented it from flying off the table on its own. After awhile, the staff called our order, and we happily declared a draw as I went to pick up our lunch.
Although we had waited nearly fifteen minutes, I had to edge in between the ice tea dispenser and a retired gentleman who had come in after us. He evidently felt he had waited long enough. “I think that’s my order,” he kept insisting, even though my name, not his, was written on the workers’ portion of the receipt. Finally all three of us (the worker, the old man, and I) we got that straightened out, and I brought our orders back to the table.
As we ate and chatted, another old man sat at the adjacent table. A little girl, presumably his granddaughter, took the chair nearest us, and moved and angled it so that she ate as close to us as she could. I felt a little self-conscious, and did my best to ignore her scrutiny. But she was clearly interested in us, as if we possessed something that she lacked or desired.
When the staff called their order, the old man rose to collect it. She followed him, never more than a step away. I noticed that she wore a frilly pink dress with a tutu-style skirt, dark blue jeans, and cowboy boots with matching pink edging. Although her eyes remained on him, he ignored her. Instead, he wore a frown as unselfconsciously as the little girl did her outfit. When they returned to their table, he kept his eyes on his food, and never spoke to her. She never spoke either. But she kept watching us while she ate her fish and fries with her fork.
On a recent episode of “Hunter,” the title character arrives at a mansion to discover a boy hovering over his mother’s body, while his father lay dead in another room. While the boy claims an intruder ransacked the house and shot his parents, Hunter eventually realizes the boy staged the incident and fired the shots. He had not found the gun in his father’s study, but procured it from school. The couple never wanted children; the wife’s pregnancy had surprised them. So they never talked to him or took any interest in his life, regardless of how much he tried to impress them. The boy asks Hunter, “Why did I need them?”
I don’t know the specifics of the relationship between the old man and the girl. I don’t know what caused the silence between them. But she was clearly interested in us, and from the way she followed him around, looked up to him, and never complained, I can only assume she would have welcomed dialogue with him. I’m not suggesting that anything on the scope of the “Hunter” episode will occur between them. But all too soon, she will reach her teens. She'll discover new interests, and fill her life with all the things that young people use to define themselves as separate entities from their family. I cannot help but feel as though the old man missed out on a treasure worth far more than fish, and that, all too soon, any opportunity to claim it may be lost forever.
(A treasure worth more than the fish at Long John Silver's? What am I thinking?)
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