It’s 7:43. Merle is on the radio making empty promises. “Someday when things are good I’m going to leave you,” he sings. But we know better. I am sitting in a corner booth, surrounded by the rising tufts of Marlboros, and still trying to wake up good. Coffee stouter than napalm is dripping, slow and thick, into a pot purchased when Clinton was still Attorney General of our fair state. Breakfast is on its way. That will help. It’s the only reason I got out of bed before the sun had a chance to warp my feet.
I am not a morning person. If the Good Lord had intended for me to see the sun rise, he would have scheduled that for the middle of the day. I rise early because I ought to, sometimes because I have to, but never because I want to. Besides, I can’t recall one good thing in my life ever happening before noon. It’s never good news when the phone rings at 5 A.M. It’s either people in the hospital, folks dead or dying, or some fool from Indonesia overly concerned about the warranty on my pickup truck. Surgeries always occur in the gray dawn, and arraignments take place first thing in the morning when judges are still surly from being awakened by our friend from Jakarta. And I am not interested in either of those appointments. So years ago I made a deal with early mornings: “I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me.” We struggle, but these days we maintain an uneasy peace.
But from time to time I get to missing breakfast. There’s something about fried eggs and grits that hits different when eaten before the dinner bell rings. Sometimes I will get up and cook for myself, other times I will pry myself loose from the bed clothes and slide, still half asleep, into this cool booth.
This is not a restaurant proper, but if you get here early enough they will feed you. From 8 o’clock onwards, Mr. Turner services engines small and large. From half past 6 until 7:45, Mrs. Turner feeds the men who turn the wrenches. And she takes pity on a few other strays like me if they are willing to help buy the groceries.
The biscuits are huge. The eggs are fresh (I sometimes bring some from my own hens). The sausage is pure Arkansan. The portions are large. Thick grits with puddles of melted butter mingle with bacon fried to that perfect state between too crispy and overly waggly. A river of peppered gravy is in flood stage on the plate. There are jars of crabapple jelly and blackberry jam on the table made from fruit grown just out of town on Hwy 133, along with some of Dan Cotton’s local honey. Mrs. Turner can perform Old Testament sized miracles with a handful of flour, a splash of milk, and a few spoons full of bacon grease.
The back room of Turner’s Engine Shop is the way that small town diner’s used to be, and if God is merciful, will be again. There’s little talk of politics, but a lot of talk about little league games and why the high school football team just may have a chance this year. The younger men talk about trying to get ahead; the old men try to go back. Life was easier, they say, even though the work was harder, swinging lumber for 12 hours a day or stacking tissue palettes all night on the graveyard shift down at the paper mill. Mrs. Turner chimes in to tell the menfolk that they always had it easier than they knew since they didn’t have to swing a cotton sack down countless field rows with a toddler strapped to their hip. Occasionally, there’s some deep philosophizing between bites. You learn why you should never dig a posthole on a new moon. That Cummins still makes a good diesel engine. That cows standing upright in a field means that it’s a good day for fishing. And that it is perfectly honorable to cry over a good dog.
Several of the men smoke at the table. No one cares. From time to time, I will bum a Lucky Strike and try to remember the diners of my youth, back when this country still allowed the odd demonstration of personal freedom.
This slice of paradise won’t last forever. The Turners are getting on in years. So I pray that small town restaurants make a comeback sooner rather than later. Proliferated holes-in-the-walls where bleach blonde waitresses know your name, your order, and your mamma too. Where they’ve burned the “No Smoking” signs, but never the toast. Where it’s always culturally yesterday, and progress is only a distant threat. A place where you can enjoy life while you enjoy your meal. All while eavesdropping three tables over, listening to Sister Dunaway from First Baptist share “prayer requests” for Ashley Johnston who just got saved and Bill Evans who has apparently fallen off the wagon again and has taken to stealing radiators for liquor money. Make no mistake, you won’t experience any of that at Chili’s.