Sunday, December 28, 2014

A conversation at the counter

The couple's generosity was the first thing I noticed. I mean, we had just met and they were insisting that I take a biscuit from their plate.

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

We were sitting at the counter at Sawyer & Co., a diner along an industrial block in far East Austin. I had arrived there first. A plate of eggs sardou had just been placed in front of me when they took the seats on my right.

“That smells so good and looks delicious,” Lydia said, eyeing my plate.

“It is,” I said, and we all exchanged excited smiles like family about to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner.

I continued to read my book as they figured out what to order. The waitress came and went a few times, filling coffee cups and taking orders. At some point, I looked up from my book and, before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I turned to Lydia and asked her if she ordered the eggs sardou.

“No, although it does look amazing,” she replied. “I just got a side order of biscuits. They’re supposed to be really good here.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

“Is this your first time here?” she asked.

“Yes. Yours?”


Her husband, who had been leaning in and listening, piped up for the first time.

“Are you from Austin?”

“No. But I’ve been here since 1996.”

“Oh, well then, you’re from Austin,” Lydia confirmed. 

“I went to college here in the ‘70s,” Craig said. “MoPac didn’t even exist then.”

The waitress came and placed two steaming biscuits in front of Lydia, and a plate of eggs and biscuits in front of Craig.

“Here, you have to try one.” Lydia took a biscuit from her plate and prompted me to bring my plate closer.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t. I mean, maybe a bite. But not the whole thing! I won't eat the whole thing.”

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

I looked at Craig.

“I have two here. I’m fine. It’ll just sit on her plate or yours.”

I took the biscuit and thanked them both.

“So, what’s that book about?” Craig nodded at the book next to my plate. 

I winced at the morbid title. 

“It's called 'A Year to Live.' It's by Stephen Levine. I realize it sounds dark, but the message is really life-affirming. It’s a meditative book, I guess. It’s about living each year as if it were your last. The author counsels people who are terminally ill, but the message is really for anyone.”

“Oh, I don’t think it sounds dark,” Lydia assured me. 

“The title intrigued me. I thought maybe it was a book about grieving," Craig said. "We lost our daughter."

He was leaning on his elbow and fully facing me. For the first time, I really looked at him and saw him. Lydia too. 

Both of them had olive skin, and faces and bodies that had softened with age. They spoke to me with a relaxed familiarity, no different than the tone they used with each other. His balding hair was mostly gray. Her wavy black hair was pulled together loosely at the nape of her neck. She wore glasses. He did not. They dressed almost identically in layers of dark hues.  

“Was it recently that you lost her?”

“Six years ago,” Craig offered.

“Then recently,” I said.

They both nodded in agreement. I felt a pop in my chest and a tenderness filled the cavity.

“I’m reading this book because my mom died the day before her 45th birthday." I felt a hotness in my eyes, a thickness in my throat. “I turn 44 next month. So, you know, I’m about to be older than she ever was, and that's… .”

My voice wavered, so I swallowed hard and smiled apologetically. Their kind, knowing faces told me the tears welling up in my eyes were OK.

I took a deep breath. "I feel like I need to mark this year somehow. I guess I'm looking for guidance on how to do that.” 

"Just start doing all the things you've always wanted to do," Craig said.  

“But I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to go crazy and blow through my savings.”

“Well, I'm not saying you have to do that. Just start doing things you've always wanted to do, and be responsible about it. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive."

I took a few bites of my breakfast and marveled at the conversation unfolding in front of me. These two people who had sat down next to me.

“What was her name?” I asked.

“Lauren,” Lydia replied without hesitation. “She was 17.”

“It was a car accident,” Craig added. “She was on her way to a birthday party.”

I thought about a young teenager, still inexperienced behind the wheel, free from her parents and out on the road.

“She was with a friend, and the friend’s mother was driving,” he told me. “It was all very innocent. It happened on Hwy 71.”

I nodded, letting him know I had an accurate picture of the circumstances of his daughter's death.

I looked at Lydia. “Was she your only child?”

“No, we have another daughter, Natalie.”

“Is she here in Austin?”

“No, she’s in Aspen. She just moved there two weeks ago.”

As she spoke, I noticed tears in the corner of her eye. I thought twice about it and then put my hand on her back and gave her a few soft pats. I kept my eyes on Craig as she wiped her cheek with a napkin.

“She’s doing what your book says,” Craig told me with unmistakable pride. “She had a really good job in fashion in Dallas, but she was tired of Dallas. She’s always wanted to live in the mountains, so she looked for a job in Aspen, found one and went. Just like that.”

“It’s true,” Lydia said, a new playfulness in her voice. “She landed a job in less than a week and found an apartment the very next day!”

“I believe when you’re moving in the right direction, The Universe will work with you in that way -- like a cosmic confirmation that you're on the right track,” I said.

“That’s exactly what she said,” Lydia smiled. “She said the stars aligned for her.”

The three of us sat alone with our thoughts for a while and ate our breakfast. Craig eventually flagged down the waitress and handed her his credit card. The couple began to gather their things.

I looked at the two bites' worth of biscuit left on my plate.

“I lied to you both,” I said somberly. They both paused and looked over at me. “Turns out I am going to eat this whole damn biscuit.” And I stuffed the rest of the buttery goodness into my mouth.

Craig’s face broke into a wide grin and Lydia let out a laugh. 

“Good for you. I’m Lydia, by the way.” She offered me her hand and I shook it.


Lydia's husband then extended his hand.


The waitress returned with their bill, and Craig pulled out a pair of readers to sign it.

Lydia leaned in toward me, as if confiding something. "I think I might read that book.”

“A Year to Live,” I reminded her.

“Oh, I won’t forget the title.”

Craig stood up to put on his coat and Lydia followed suit. 

“I hope this coming year is everything you hope it to be,” Lydia said. She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Thanks, Lydia."

Craig pointed at my book. "Don't wait. I wish all good things for you, Katie."

"Thank you. I wish you both the same. Happy new year."

And then I was alone again at the counter.

I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, not wanting to distract myself with the book or my phone or other people. Like a tape recorder, my mind continued to rewind and fast-forward, replaying various parts of the conversation, which covered more terrain than I bothered to write here.

It wasn't long before new people filled the seats next to me and my plate was empty. I signaled the waitress for my check.

Instead of going to the register, the waitress smiled and nodded in the direction of the parking lot, where Craig and Lydia had gone.

“Not necessary. They took care of it.”

And, for a second time that morning, I found myself tearing up in a diner.