`Good pie and a full life'

HE was a farmer, a broad-shouldered, meaty old guy with a strip of white across his forehead from wearing a hat outside all the days of his life. From the forehead down his face was the color of Oklahoma clay, although he was in Illinois and about to give me the title for a book. I had just walked into a little caf'e in a small town clustered among big trees several miles off the main highway. It was a Friday morning in July with the day's red sun just now giving color to the puddles of last night's rain and making long shadows behind the trees. The town was surrounded by cornstalks.

In the restaurant music played from a radio on a shelf above the pie rack. Two waitresses in different-colored dresses made trails back and forth among a dozen tables, and a third waitress, a teen-age girl with freckles and shy eyes, kept busy at the counter. A cook slammed and bumped things around in the kitchen.

A dozen people were eating, talking, or waiting for breakfast. When I walked in, they all looked up because I shouldn't have been there. Cross-country travelers like me were supposed to be six miles over, aiming big cars down the turnpike and staying at Howard Johnson's or a Motel 6. I had spent the night at a motel down the road. It had been built in the 1940s and was filled with the aroma of time and clean sheets instead of plastic and air conditioning.

All my life I have been in love with small towns. Now, in this town on this morning, I was a man in the midst of what he loved. I sat down three seats from the farmer, wanting to sit at the elbow of each person there and ask about their lives and how had they managed up to now and what were they doing that mattered to them.

As I pretended to look at the menu, I listened to the voices: The farmer was joking with the teen-age girl, the married couple behind me were discussing a troublesome relative, the taller of the two waitresses called everybody ``hon'' and chattered about a man named Bub who was late, and to my left the false teeth of two men clicked now and then as they grumbled about the high price of auto repairs.

The teen-age girl placed a glass of water in front of me and asked me what I wanted without looking at me.

``Two eggs over easy, orange juice, bacon, and toast,'' I said. ``Large or small orange juice?'' she said. ``Large,'' I said. She scribbled on a pad. ``Wheat or white toast?'' she said. ``Wheat,'' I said. She scribbled. ``Coffee?'' she asked. ``No, thanks,'' I said.

The farmer leaned over toward me, his gray overalls making a crinkling sound, his plaid, short-sleeved shirt straining against his enormous brown arms. ``She likes to dance,'' he said with a deep, rough voice, his blue eyes shining with gentle humor out of a face that could turn away black clouds. ``Look at the size of her feet.'' He shook with slow, low laughter when she tried hard not to smile.

``Just like yours,'' she said, which pleased him and he laughed again.

He was her grandfather and over the next half-hour at least a dozen people, men and women, drifted into the caf'e to say good morning to him. Clearly he was a man regarded with love and affection, shaking hands, slapping shoulders, everyone laughing together and at each other as they shared themselves on a small town morning away from the turnpike.

He had a manner that drew people to him, easy, ebullient, a man with a direct, open caring that jostled and fortified each person equally when he or she stopped to say good morning, some with a morning newspaper under an arm. Clearly he was a town institution, a parade, library, historian, and humorist all in one pair of overalls.

As each person came and went, he kept on eating, scrambled and fried eggs, hash browns, sausage, ham, toast, orange juice, tomato juice, a side order of French toast, a bowl of cereal, then another. Between bites he bantered, questioned, set people up, made them laugh, spun easy words around them, elongated their friendships, and ate and ate.

Finally, when I thought he had eaten the kitchen out of food, and when there was no one standing next to him, he pointed to a piece of cherry pie in the pie rack. It was the homemade kind, red cherries spilling out the sides and made with a crust that could float in the air.

I thought, pie for breakfast? Is he really eating pie for breakfast? He dug into it with his fork, telling his granddaughter to tell Brenda that she was second to none in the art of assembling 106 cherries in a pie tin and making them sing.

Then, when he finished, he pushed back the pie plate, exhaled with satisfaction, placed one hand on his stomach (which was not disproportionate to the rest of him), turned to me, and said slowly and with the deep peace of someone seated on a front porch at dusk, ``Good pie and a full life.''

He stood up, a fabulous giant at least 6 foot 7 or 8, reached in his pocket and peeled off a $20 bill and laid it on the counter. He nodded to me. The girl said, ``'Bye, Grandpa.'' He threw her a kiss and went outside to his pickup truck and drove off.

So, that's it. ``Good Pie and a Full Life.'' A short book, narrated by a farmer aware of his blessings, a big guy with unstoppable goodness, a book written as if you stopped by a small town caf'e some morning for a cherry pie breakfast and saw the world with a little more hope than usual.

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