When the door chimed, announcing a new customer, or an exiting customer, Maria’s head turned automatically, smile pasted on her face, the lessons of her grandmother, and mother branded into her brain to always smile. So, despite her pain, Maria smiled, and the ordinary man smiled back, only to Maria he didn’t seem ordinary at all. The man seemed downright strange to her but harmless. For some inexplicable reason Maria felt better as she made her way to seat him.
“Just one today?” she asked.
The man made a tsk tsk noise while shaking his head, the smile never leaving his face. “Except for that lazy vagabond laying on your front porch. Believe me, I tried to encourage him in the strongest of words to go somewhere out of sight, that no one wanted to look at his mangy carcass. Really madame, he has the worst habits imaginable and a mind of his own.”
Maria peeked around the man to see who he was referring to, only to see the most adorable Labrador Retriever she had ever seen, and it appeared, yes he was wearing a polka dot tie. She laughed loudly, “He’s adorable, what a cute little tie he is wearing.”
“Oh no, please tell me it’s not the polka dot one. He has no idea about fashion and proper attire.”
“Would you like to eat?” Maria asked hopefully.
“I am absolutely starving, and I could smell the wonderful food from your establishment for miles.”
“From here?” Maria sked skeptically.
“Yes indeed. Is there perhaps a booth where I could sit, somewhere I can watch that mangy mutt?”
“Of course. This way.”
Maria led the man to a recently vacated booth, where cleanup was just being completed. From there the strange man had a clear view of the front entryway and the shaded area where the dog in the polka dot tie rested with his head resting on his front paws. The dog’s tail, Maria noticed, wagged when anyone crossed in front of him. She thought that the dog might be the sweetest dog she had ever seen.
As the man sat, removing his hat, Maria said, “Menus are right there on the table. Can I get you anything to drink?”
The man laughed and said, “Oh my I think a glass of refreshing iced tea would be perfect. I don’t think I need a menu at all. I have been dreaming of your meatloaf for the last twenty minutes, with some of those wonderful mash potatoes and I think some green beans would be just lovely. If it would not be too much of a bother could the cook whip up a hamburger patio for that rascal laying out there. He may cook it anyway he likes. For that matter, the dog would eat it raw.”
Maria seemed genuinely surprised. No one had ever described the food at Carlotta’s in that manner. She just knew the man would be disappointed. At least the dog would be happy.
“I think we can manage a couple of hamburger patties for your dog. Does he have a name?” she asked.
“Oh, I believe nowadays he is going by the ridiculous name of Rosco. Its as good as any I suppose.”
Maria smiled and as she did the strange little man could not help but notice the many people that were staring. Much of the attention centered around a group of tourists from the northeast who had traveled to Cordova to eat at Carlotta’s. For three days this group of friends who took food trips every year had come to Carlotta’s at least twice a day to laugh, carry on and criticize Carlotta’s. Before the strange man had arrived, they had been talking loudly non-stop about everything they had been served. They had criticized the tea, which was much too watered down. They had criticized the coffee which they suspected was three days old at least. They had spat out the soft drinks which had no carbonation at all. The fries were too soggy one day, and raw the next. The hamburgers were horribly overcooked. The meatloaf was the worst conglomeration of food they had ever seen or tasted. The mashed potatoes were watery. The Mexican food tasted more like German food. Everything they had said with horrible derision was said loudly so that the entire staff had heard. Maria had cried all three days after they left. Of all the miserable tourists that had ever entered Carlotta’s this group was by far the worst. Now they stared at the man who smiled back at them, his eyes twinkling with wry amusement.
As they finally turned back to their food, suddenly a small thought entered the mind of one of the women, who was named Marge. She suddenly remembered a moment from her childhood when she had a horrible accident and wet her pants. For days she was laughed at and ridiculed and for over a year she found it difficult to make any friends. For the rest of her school days at different times one of her classmates would remind her and she would be embarrassed all over again. One of the men, named Ted remembered his late wife and how when they had first married his wife had been a horrible cook and he often consoled her as she cried over the terrible meal she had served him. His wife was now dead, and he missed her terribly. So it went, as one by one this group of friends remembered individually horrible moments from their past. They remembered humiliations, failures, losses, and broken dreams. Slowly the table grew quiet.
Nearby, the strange man sat unconcerned, sipping his iced tea. He was unconcerned with the lot of them.
Finally, the group rose to leave, checks in hand and walked to the cash register. Instead of the mean-spirited comments of the days before each wished the cashier a pleasant day.
Marge though sought out Maria. Embarrassed, her head hung low, she said, “Your café is wonderful, so clean and bright. We have been horrible, and I am so sorry. Your food doesn’t deserve the criticism. Please apologize to your staff for me.”
As Marge joined her friends and left the café, Maria stood there in shock. Somehow the lady had slipped a new one-hundred-dollar bill into her hands.