Panera, Wednesday Evening

She paid for their dinners–two “Pick Two’s”: they each had a sandwich and a side; she had soup, he had pasta–with the vouchers the company had sent her the week before, an apology for a missing bagel at another branch.  They carried them to the back section, unoccupied except for a freckled, red-haired man, clean cut, intense looking, tapping fervently on a tablet in the corner.

“How will I know when Nancy gets here?” her son asked anxiously.

She looked at her watch. “It’s early yet, Bud,” she said.  “We’ve got 45 minutes.  Every fifteen minutes, one of us will get up and look around the corner, to see if she’s here yet.”

He nodded.  His autism made him anxious; he liked to have a pathway cleared, a roadmap for uncertain times.  Nancy was his writing coach; they met every Wednesday night.  Sometimes others joined them, adults with a variety of disabilities, diagnoses, developmental challenges.  There was a woman with Down’s Syndrome who read, Bud said, very, very slowly.  (“I want to finish her sentences; it’s so hard to wait,” he confessed.) A young man with a different version of autism than Bud’s came every week; he rocked and hummed constantly.  Sometimes that made Bud white-lipped. He wanted, though, to be kind.  When it got too much, he stood up and walked around the restaurant, two laps, and then went back to try again.

He liked Nancy; she was tall, broad, long-haired, talented, and patient.  She encouraged him.  She shared his passion for film and science fiction and fantasy.

When they got there early, he might get her first five minutes all to himself.

The freckled man sighed; one leg jiggled. He put both hands, palms down, on his little corner table, took a deep breath.  As if steeling himself, he lifted his hands, flexed his fingers, and started, again, to type.

Two older women came in.  Both had short, spunky haircuts; both had wire-rimmed glasses. But one was whippet thin and dressed in denim and lace, the other filled her chair amply when she sat; she wore forgiving polyester. They sat at the long row of two-person tables, their backs to her and her son.

“The knitters,” muttered Bud, labeling them.  He got up to look for Nancy.

The two women went and got drinks and pastries; they plunked bulky quilted bags onto their laps and pulled out frothy bundles of knitting, and they began to talk.  The thin woman had a crisp, no-nonsense voice; she told a story about her daughter, alone in her apartment in New York City hundreds of miles away, calling to tell her mother she had a bat. The plump companion answered in a comforting southern drawl: She’ll do that, she told her friend, all your life.  And you’ll always know you’re needed.  You-wah NEEEEEEE-ded, it sounded like, a little musical cascade of reassurance.

Whippet humphed. Bud polished off his sandwich and went, again, to check for Nancy.

Behind her, a young woman in navy blue scrubs ate at a tiny table across from a round faced child–a girl of maybe two or three.  She had a head full of curls (Ack–imagine combing those! she thought) and curiosity.  “Why dat man typin’?” she asked her mother, and instead of being embarrassed, the mother made it into a game.

“He’s typing a poem to a special girl,” said the mom.  “Who do you think that is?”

The man looked up, momentarily startled, and then went quickly back to his work.

“His little girl?” asked the moppet.

“I think maybe,” said her mother. “I think her name is Emma Dilemma!”

The little one took a big bite of bread. “Emma DILEMMA!” she chortled out around it.

A dark haired woman, her hand proprietarily guiding another, a short, brown-haired woman with a brown jacket and tan pants and a brown patterned bag, joined the knitters.  “This is my FRIEND!” she said, triumphantly. “Anita!”  Her voice rocked melodiously, the cadence of a speaker who learned English at a later age.  The two seated knitters fussed over them both, herded the newcomers into the seats across from them.

Bud came back from a peek around the corner.  “She’s HERE,” he said with great relief, and gathered up his paraphernalia, a book bag bulging with graphic novels, his laptop, an old fashioned notebook with a black and white speckled cover, three mechanical pencils. He looked in consternation at the cookie he hadn’t finished.

“Leave the cookie,” she suggested, “and you can eat it on the way home.”

His face cleared. “Good idea, Mom,” he said gratefully, and he hefted his bag, hugged his laptop, and sidled around the partition to where Nancy waited.

She cleared the little table, took her plate to the bussing station, and set up her IPad in its little keyboard. An essay had materialized that morning, a paean to the art of writing words by hand, with real pens, on real paper, and she had let it flow, appropriately, from mind to fingers, through the pen to the paper.  She thought it might make a blog post, and she appreciated the irony of morphing those handwritten words into electronic code. She opened the binder where she kept her journal pages, flipped to the handwriting essay, and began to type it, editing as she went.

The knitters filled in, a wonderful range of women, young, plump, beautiful, furrowed, a mother and daughter team, an elegant 60 year old. Their conversation skirled and danced:

“…a baby shower in South Carolina…do those babies NEED warm knitted caps?  So I made a whole boxful of booties…”

“…my mother’s afghan…pure wool…still snuggle up with it when I’m lonely…”

“..can’t get the hang of four needle knitting…two needle socks…but the seam…”

“…teaching my granddaughter…”

A new group converged on the empty side of the room; they had their laptops, too–maybe another group of writers.  There was a gentle-voiced woman who welcomed everyone; she seemed to set the tone, and they all settled in, talking quietly until they were joined by a short barrel of a man who brayed his words.  “…the HELL do I wanna do that, I said to her…” and the gentle-voiced woman talking him down.  He subsided for a bit.

She went back to her transcription, liking the flow and feel of the words she’d written, but changing sentence structure here and there, removing some self-conscious wording, adding a semi-colon, editing her ever-present run-ons.  The scrubs mom and her little one bussed their plates and whirled out the door, clasped hands swinging; a father in shirt sleeves and tie came in with his daughter, and they took over that table.

“You’re going to LIKE kindergarten!” he said.

“NO, Daddy,” she replied firmly, and when his buzzer lights started dancing, she added, “I’ll come too.”  They went up to get their food together, the dad’s brow wrinkled; his question–How can I make her fearless?–plastered on his face.

“…another DAMNED thing,” brayed the barrel man, and the shirt-sleeved dad, laden with plates, shot him a frown, and the gentle voice moved in to intervene.  Intense Red-Haired Guy sighed with finality, snapped his tablet closed, vacated. Over the hum of conversation she heard Bud reading aloud from his screenplay, and the pleasant, encouraging sound of Nancy’s response.  She went back to her work, typing up her handwritten story about the joys of writing by hand, and a young worker, a handsome young dark-skinned boy, came by and asked if he could move the highchair mom in scrubs had left.  Sure, she said, and smiled at him: she remembered what it was like to be young and working hard for minimum wage in a restaurant.

And can I take your plate for you? he asked, nodding at the melamine tray with a napkin draped on top.

Ah. No, she smiled; my son’s cookie’s hiding under there.

Oh! he said. Sorry! He smiled and ducked away, returning with a sweeper and maneuvering between the tables.

She finished typing the essay, went into her settings and added the restaurant wifi; then she emailed the work to herself, thinking, idly, that she needed to get more conversant with storage in the Cloud. Barrel Man stood up, complaining loudly, bundled things into a bag, strode away on short quick legs.  The gentle voice goaded her remaining companions; their conversation foundered, but veered back, gained strength.  The knitters’ fingers flew; their heads bent toward each other, across the table, their words lifting and twining.

“I WON’T make friends,” the four year old told her father flatly, and he answered with an edge of desperation.

And then Bud was at her table, a little white-rimmed, clutching his bag and his writing gear.  “It went well,” he said, “and I tried very hard to be kind.”

She powered off her IPad, packed her canvas bag, carried her empty coffee cup with her to the front.  The long-haired girl who’d rung up their dinners called to her, “Refills are free, ma’am!”

A jolt of dark roast on the way home might not be such a bad idea, she thought, and she stopped to pump rich dark brew into her paper cup.

“That smells GOOD,” said Bud, fervently, and he held the door for her as they emerged into the muggy August night, the shimmer of heat from the pavement wrapping them ’round.  “Nancy liked my synopsis. Mind if I read it to you?”

She hit the unlock button, and they bundled their things into the car.

“It starts with a scrolling introduction,” he said, “that says, It’s here: the story you’ve been waiting for,” and he pulled his door shut.  She started the car and took a sip of the hot coffee; they headed out of the parking lot, the rise and fall of his voice narrating their trip.

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6 thoughts on “Panera, Wednesday Evening

  1. Oh Pam – I was right there with you. Wow – the power of your words. You took it all in. Makes me want to go sit at Panera and watch and be aware. Another lovely piece of writing Pam! Bravo!

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