Today's story takes place today, 22 months after Stephanie's death. The coronavirus pandemic rolls on, killing more and more thousands of people, but life in America is returning to normal anyway.
Stephanie's favorite restaurant was Ogden's, a little diner a few blocks from home. It's a tiny place, only seats maybe thirty people, in an old brick building without even a sign, but Ogden's has some lovely touches you don't often see in non-swanky places. Jam in fancy glass jars with glass lids and glass spoons, flowers on every table, fabulous individual pies for dessert, and very friendly but never intrusive service. Also: really good food, at reasonable prices. Not a paid endorsement, but if you're ever in the neighborhood ...
We ate there weekly. Just the thought of it made Stephanie smile, and thinking of it now makes me smile, too. Unless the weather was bad, it was an easy walk to the restaurant and back, with me pushing Stephanie's wheelchair. We took that walk many times, but I've only been there twice since Steph went away. It's just too much, too many memories of too many breakfasts looking at Stephanie across the table from me, seeing her so happy and smiling.
Like everywhere else in America, Ogden's locked its doors when the pandemic struck, but beginning yesterday, they're open for business again. Reduced hours, and no inside dining for now, but you can call ahead for take-out. One person at a time is allowed into the building, masks required, to pay and pick up the food.
It was Stephanie's 50th birthday a few days ago, and I wanted a lighthearted but intentional tribute to her memory, so I called the restaurant, and ordered breakfast for one. Even ordered something she would've ordered. But not the blueberry pancakes — her favorite item on the menu — because that would've been felt like I was swiping Stephanie's breakfast. Instead I ordered her second-favorite, bacon and cheese and veggies fried into scrambled eggs. I'd never ordered that before, but I'd eaten it as nibbles off Stephanie's plate, knew it was terrific. And eating it at home meant I wouldn't have to worry that I'd cry in the restaurant, like the last time I ate there without her.
Very few customers. Everyone's afraid of the virus. But I had to wait outside the restaurant for several minutes, because, like I said, only one customer at a time is allowed inside. It was a nice wait, though, on a sunny morning, with many happy memories of standing right at the same place, outside Ogden's with Steph, when we'd been waiting for a table.
A customer left, and it was my turn to step inside. The waitress was fetching my sack of food, and the owner was standing nearby. "How's your wife doing?," he asked.
His voice was muffled by his mask, but I'd heard the question. I said, "Excuse me?" though, because I needed a moment to gather my composure.
He repeated himself, and I said, "Well, she got sick and then ... she died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. You two used to come in every week — blueberry pancakes — and she was always just the sweetest lady."
Yeah, I noticed, I thought but thoughtfully didn't say. She was indeed, the sweetest lady who ever lived. And this man remembered that she usually ordered blueberry pancakes!
"That's why you haven't seen me as often, even before everything was shuttered for the apocalypse." I was babbling but not yet blubbering. My eyes were watering, though. "She loved this place, we both did, so it hurts a little to be here. Sorry."
"I'll take it as quite a compliment, that she liked our restaurant so much you've been hesitant to come back without her. Thank you, and again, I'm so sorry for your loss." Just words, maybe, but damned eloquent words, exactly the right words.
We both smiled (invisibly under our masks). I paid and mumbled thanks and left in a hurry to let the next customer in. Hadn't expected any of that. I was crying, and needed to escape as quickly as possible. Cried all the walk home, but smiled, too.
He remembered us, but that's happened before. A big man pushing his wife in a wheelchair is a memorable sight, especially when we were there every week.
I'm more impressed that he remembered my sweet Stephanie's blueberry pancakes, ever though it's been two years since we were last there. You know, next time I'm there I might order the blueberry pancakes.