It was New Year's Eve. This morning. I was coming out of J.C. Penny's. Returned a sweater my wife got me. It fit fine, but it had kittens on it, front and back. I don't do PR for anybody, let alone kittens.
Red was standing in an ever-changing crowd, looking lost. "Cope, ah t'ink maybe dey repo-ed m' truck."
"Hows about if we go get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, Red? Then I'll drive you around until we find it."
"Sure. I got sweater money."
"Where's 'd' yah wanna go, Cope? Der's one o' dem Sturbacks o'er der, but ah don' t'ink dey got pie."
"I think I want to go to one of those places where farmers go. Know what I mean? Where every morning except Sundays, farmers and retired guys and the chief of police sit around the table in the center, and the sunshine pours in a front window so big, you can see everything happening up and down Main Street. Someplace with a name like 'Grace's Cafe,' or the 'Dew Drop Inn.' I want to hear people who've known each other all their lives bullshit one another, and where some waitress named 'Connie' or 'Betty' is always telling somebody named 'Hoot' or 'Henry' to get their feet off the table and to quit playing with the napkin dispenser. Know any places like that?"
"Urrrr, le' me t'ink. Yup. Der's a place juss lahk dat in Fruitland. 'R is it Homedale? Ahs cain't 'member."
So we went to Fruitland. Then Homedale. Then Weiser. Then Melba. Then over to Wilder. And then some town even smaller than that. And there it was, just like Red said it would be. The waitress—Connie—poured us coffee before we even asked for it, and Red ordered lemon meringue pie. I asked Connie what else she had.
"Pecan and banana cream. Dutch apple and boysenberry. And I believe Ethel is just about to pull a cherry out of the oven, if you don't mind waiting a minute or two. Oh, and there's one slice of mincemeat left over from Christmas."
"I'll take it."
Red was watching out the window at everything happening up and down Main Street. "Been a hellova year, ain't it, Cope?"
"A hell of a year. That's right."
"Yew wurr'd?" Connie brought our pies. The lemon meringue twinkled like Mozart through an east window.
"Why do you ask, pal? Are you worried?"
He shrugged. "Ain't gonna say, not 'les yew say if'n yew are."
I took my first bite, the tip. The heart of the pie. "OK, then, yes. I'm a little worried. Yes. There. You happy?" Ethel made her mincemeat with cranberries and walnuts. And currants, I think. It was fat and dark and stood tall on the plate. Ethel could be proud.
"Yew t'ink id'll get wurst?"
"Do you think it'll get worse, Red? Your guess is as good as mine."
Over at the table in the center, the chief of police was telling the farmers and retired guys about how he was sure it was going to get a lot worse. The retired guys nodded solemnly and the farmers stared into their coffee cups so no one could see what was in their eyes. One man cleaned up the last of his pie—looked like pumpkin from where I was sitting—and leaned back in his chair like he was getting ready to unbuckle his belt. Connie called out from behind the counter, "Now keep your feet off the table, Hoot," and Hoot laughed. "Hell, I might as well stayed home. When my old lady bitches at me, at least I don't have to tip her." They all laughed with him, just as their fathers had, and their grandfathers, like they'd never heard that joke before.
Red let some meringue melt down his throat. Outside, a '57 Chevy Deluxe prowled by, gleaming in the bright sun like a Spielberg memory. "Wulls ... d' y' t'ink dis Barbamba feller o' y'rs can do sumptin' 'boud id all?"
"Why? Don't you think he's doing the right stuff?"
"Why's yew askin' me a dang queshun lahk dat fer? Hows d' hell 'm ah s'posed t' know what d' raht stuff is? Ah'm juss a ... juss a ..."
"I know, Red. So am I. I guess we can only hope he does what's right."
Every minute or two, Connie came back. "Want me to freshen that up?" and before we could answer, our mugs were back to full. I asked, "Did Ethel make this mincemeat?"
"Honey, Ethel makes everything. There isn't nothing served in this joint that comes from someplace else."
"Tell her she does good work, would you? Tell her she should be proud." Hoot overheard me and grinned like a happy pup. I think he was proud just for knowing about Ethel's pies.
"Cope, d'jer folks e'er tells yew whad id were lahk back den?"
"You mean, like, about when so many folks had no place to go and nothing to eat? Yeah, they told me."
For as long as it takes to picture yourself and your family, your friends and your neighbors, your countrymen and women, without a roof over their heads or a kitchen table to sit around, the two of us stared out the window, through the lettering—Ethel's Cafe—past Main Street, past the farmland and factories and shops and banks and schools and churches. I don't know what Red saw, but by the set of his jaw, it wasn't pretty.
"Yew t'ink id c'ld get that bad agin?"
"Don't know, buddy. All I know is, your folks came through it, my folks came through it, and look who they turned out to be."
Connie sang out from across the ages. "Hoot, you quit fooling with that napkin dispenser, you hear me?"
"How's the pie, Red?
"Good. Real good. Remin's me o' Momma. Real good."
I cannot let the year end without saying a proper goodbye to my wife's mother—here, where I have said goodbye to so many others. Mary Rivero was among the kindest, most generous and loving people I will ever know. She grew up in the Great Depression and the memory of it never left her. She saved everything. Her children joked about the things she would clean and put aside, but she once told me there wasn't anything, no matter how insignificant it may seem now, that couldn't be used and wouldn't be welcome if it ever got that tough again.
She passed away a week before Thanksgiving.