Some people collect pictures, salt & pepper shakers, or old shaving mugs. I collect love stories, love stories told in Christmas trees, old cemeteries, waterfalls and garden paths. I was on a research jaunt when this love story came to me --- on an ordinary evening in a Burger King.
I was feeling alone and separate. A stranger in town, engaged in solitary pursuit of remnants of lives long past. Museums, the library, and historical sites gave up bits and pieces of the stories I sought. At lunch I sat on a rock, a single figure gazing out on the Columbia, dreaming of Lewis and Clark, Indians and Emigrants landing at this estuary. Now I was again sitting alone for the second night in a row in BK, toying with the usual order, “grilled chicken salad, no dressing please.”
I looked up from my mound of lettuce as a couple sat down in the adjoining yellow molded plastic booth. They appeared to be in their late 50’s, or they might have been younger but had lived a hard life -- just an ordinary couple. She was wearing a polyester sweater that had an odd iridescent sheen to it, and her dyed, dull brown hair was pulled into a ponytail and fastened with a multicolored elastic tie like my granddaughter once wore. As the woman sat down, she turned around, smiled at me and gave me a friendly, “Hi.”
The man, wearing a faded red western shirt with an equally faded Indian design across the front and the back, slumped into the booth. The shirt, unbuttoned and worn over a faded blue T-shirt, hung down below his belt. His blond scraggly beard, was not a long beard, but a beard that had been “tended to” for quite some time. Wisps of hair stuck out from the sides of his cap and from the back dangled a short blond stump of a ponytail. I kept staring at the baseball type cap he wore. I could make out the bucking horse embroidered across the front, but I couldn’t see the writing well enough to read the words. In a few moments he got up to make his way to the restroom. His short-legged body was engulfed in over-sized Levis that nearly covered the cheap tennis shoes. As he turned to leave, I caught a flash of silver from under his shirt.
While he was gone, the woman turned to me and said, “He just got out of dialysis in the city. He has to go back 3 times a week.”
I nodded. She waited for me to respond.
Groping for something to say, I blurted out, “That must be tough. Is he going to have a kidney transplant?”
“No. He doesn’t want to be in the hospital that long.”
“Mmm. I noticed the belt buckle he was wearing … ,”
“O yes, I bought that for buckle for him last year on his birthday. He rode bulls up north when he was just a young man. That belt buckle cost me over $100, but he is worth it. I love him so,” she confided, her plastic earrings jiggling, earrings with 3 pink plastic hearts hanging one from another. She tossed her head and said with a pride as if the hearts were sterling silver, “He bought these for me. He loves me too.”
As the man returned to the table, I found myself mesmerized by the gigantic silver belt buckle that was fastened below his paunch. The belt buckle was the size and shape of those given to rodeo champions. He nodded to me as he sat down, and the words on the baseball cap were now clear. The cap with the bucking horse was emblazoned with the words, “100 % COWBOY.” He wore the buckle and the cap with pride. As he sat down, I noticed his hands. They were white and soft. Hands that had not held the riggin' rope of a bucking bull for a very long time.
The woman introduced herself as Sally, and her husband Leonard. We talked of southern Oregon as we discovered that was where we had both been raised. She told me the story of how her dad lost an arm at a sawmill. We talked of places we knew, of cowboys and loggers, and the way it was when we were young. They gave me directions I should follow in the morning, “Just go up and over the breaks.”
Then her cell phone rang, and she talked a bit before handing the phone to Leonard. As he recounted his hospital stay into the cell phone, Sally turned back to me saying, “That’s our foster daughter. She calls us Mom and Dad and her children call us Grandma and Grandpa. We don't have children of our own.”
every night they said their prayers for him. Her face glowed with pride as she recounted the flowers, candy and cards with prayers that had been brought to his hospital room.
Leonard mumbled a “Goodbye.” He looked up as he snapped the cell phone closed. “They were worried about me.”
The two of them finally turned back to their burgers and fries, and I finished my chicken salad.
When I got up to leave, we exchanged warm good-byes, as though we were long time friends. I left BK no longer feeling alone and separate, but with a smile, a smile that touched my heart and soul. I had heard a love story, no fairy tale love story, but one lived day by day with plastic heart earrings and a huge silver belt buckle.
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