The old man stepped inside through the front door of Snuffy’s, the local malt shop, and was inundated by the tantalizing aroma of seared hamburger and crispy french fries. His mouth started watering immediately. It was Thursday afternoon and, like every other Thursday in past memory, he made his way to the front counter.
“Sit anywhere, Gene,” Larry the manager greeted him from his customary position by the cash register, “You’ve almost got the place to yourself.”
The old man laughed, “Yeah, I can see that. Too bad for you, right?”
“Well, we need a break. It was packed in here earlier. You know, for the lunch hour.”
“Never hurts when you’re making money though, right?”
“Exactly,” Larry smiled, and waved him through to the seating area.
Gene grinned and made his way to the far wall and sat in the booth half way down, the same booth he always sat in. He took off his jeans jacket and lay it on the bench next to him. He was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, worn blue jeans and work boots. He was nearly bald and sported a trimmed gray beard. He patted his jacket and then took stock of his immediate surroundings: booths along the two walls, windows on one end overlooking the parking lot, tables and chairs in the center, old framed photos on the walls taken of the malt shop both inside and out; all the furnishings of the homey little restaurant he’d come to know and love.
When he was satisfied that everything was as it should be, he took out a pair of reader glasses and put them on with the careful and measured movements of one who had devoted many years to the practice. Then he reverently picked up the plastic two sided menu and began studying it, reading every line, the movement of his lips barely noticeable, his eyes moving rapidly, missing nothing.
Joyce, one of the afternoon waitresses, had noticed him come in and grinned, happy to see this particular regular customer. She brought him a glass of ice water and silverware wrapped in a paper napkin and set them down, “Hi, Gene, good to see you. Having the usual? Half a chocolate malt and half an order of french fries?”
Gene looked up from his reading, “You hit the nail right on the head, Joyce. Chocolate malt and fries it is. Same as usual.”
Joyce smiled and didn’t even bother writing it down, “Sounds good. It’ll be coming right up.” She fought back an urge to pat the old guy lovingly on the shoulder. She liked him a lot; he kind of reminded her of her father.
Gene returned to reading the menu, and Joyce went back behind the counter to put in the order and make the malt.
Clare was the other waitress, “How’s he doing today?”
Joyce reached for the metal blender container and scooped in ice cream before adding the malt mix and chocolate. She turned and gazed at the old guy with a look of compassion bordering on affection, “Fine. He seems good. He ordered the same thing.”
“Chocolate malt and fries?”
“Yep, same as always.”
“You’d think he’d change it up every now and then, wouldn’t you? Maybe get a strawberry shake and onion rings, something like that.”
“Don’t hold your breath. He and his wife used to always order what he’s ordering now. I don’t ever expect him to change. Ever. Not while he’s still alive anyway.” Joyce switched on the noisy blender bringing their conversation to an end.
Clare was relatively new to Snuffy’s, only having worked there for a few months. After the malt was mixed, Joyce put the container on tray and set out a tall glass. Clare tapped her on the shoulder. She’d heard the story before but asked anyway, “When did she die again ?”
Joyce set out a straw and a long handled spoon and then leaned against the counter, thinking, “Two, maybe, three years ago? I don’t recall exactly. It’s been a while, though.”
“And a chocolate malt and french fires every Thursday since then?”
“Yeah. He likes the afternoon discount, the 3 to 5 Early Bird Special. Both he and his wife did. They’d order the large chocolate malt and the full order of fries and split it. Now he just does the half order.”
Clare shook her head, “Weird.”
Joyce looked at the young waitress with her dyed black hair and ear piercings that wouldn’t quit and offered her own wry comment, “Well, at least he’s not home feeling sorry for himself.”
Clare looked at the old man’s booth. He was bent over the menu, still reading it even though he’d already ordered. “You’re right about that, I suppose.”
Joyce had worked at Snuffy’s for over thirty years and had waited on all kinds and types of people. Gene and his wife Julie had been two of the best. They were polite and friendly and not demanding; easy customers to deal with. Now, with Julie gone, she continued to feel a genuine fondness for the nice lady’s husband and was glad he still came in for his weekly “Treat” as he called it. She knew full well that his treat was really a sort of homage to his wife and her memory. It was element of his character she felt was actually very sweet.
“Order up,” Johnny the fry cook called out.
“Got it.” Joyce turned, picked up the plate of fries, put it on the tray and brought it out to the old man.
When Gene saw Joyce bringing his order, he set aside the menu. He was feeling pretty good with himself. It had been his policy over the last two years, seven months and fifteen days since his beloved Julie had passed away to try to keep himself mentally fit. He knew he was getting old. My god, he was seventy-nine for christ’s sake, but that didn’t mean he had to become a doddering old fool or a dithering old idiot, did it? No, of course not. That’s not what Julie would have wanted for him and neither did he.
To that end, along with his morning household chores, he took a long walk in the afternoon for fresh air and exercise. He also worked on his memory. Part of his memory work entailed memorizing these kinds of things: his favorite sonnets of Shakespeare; paragraphs from books he enjoyed reading; short articles in magazines and the words to his favorite songs. Stuff like that. He also challenged himself try to memorize the kinds of out of the ordinary things that people didn’t usually pay any attention to: like the ingredients on the back of boxes of cereal, or the items on a menu in a local malt shop. It was a fun to test himself, and he believed it helped to keep his mind from turning to jello.
If your asked him about it, Gene would be happy to say that so far his plan had been working out just fine, thank you very much. For example, he could tell you every single flavor of malt Snuffy’s made, from chocolate banana fudge to vanilla cream pie; all thirty-seven of them. He could also list the eleven different hamburger selections they offered as well as their various toppings; from your basic cheeseburger to the Snuffy Burger with everything on it. So there.
He might be old, and he might be slow, but he could still drive his little red Prius to the malt shop from his (and Julie’s) home seven miles away in Long Lake. He could still walk from the car and get to a table. And he could still order a little treat for himself, his chocolate malt and fries. Like now.
Joyce came up to his booth and set his order down, “Here you go Gene,” she said, “Should I pour?”
“Yes, absolutely. You’re the expert. I’d just make a mess.” Sometimes the thick ice cream would get stuck inside the container and then fall out all at once in a big glob, sliding over the edge of the glass and onto the table in a sticky puddle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Joyce did the honors and expertly delivered the malt into the tall glass, “There you go.” She turned to leave and then thought, To hell with it, and turned back and patted him on the shoulder. “Enjoy your…” She stopped herself from saying “treat” and said, instead, “…meal.”
“Thanks, Joyce. You’re a peach,” Gene smiled at her. Then he watched as she walked back to the behind the counter. Nice lady, but then again they all were here at Snuffy’s. That was one of the reasons he and Julie had kept coming back for all those years; why he kept coming back now. It never hurt to be around friendly people.
Then, happy with the success of his memory work, Gene added catsup to his plate and dug right in, savoring every bite of his fries and every sip of his shake. He took his time, too, like every other Thursday, making the experience last as long as possible. And if he had a little memory chat with Julie while he enjoyed his malt and fries, well, so be it. He wasn’t hurting anyone.
Later when he was finished Joyce brought him his bill, the same amount as always. He paid for it, cash, as always, along with the same twenty-percent tip he was happy to leave, as always. He put his money on the table, took one last look around, and said to himself, “So long, Snuffy’s, see you next week.”
Then he stood and made his way past the counter on his way to the door, saluting Larry as he went by, “See you, Larry.”
Larry saluted back. “You bet.”
Then he turned to the waitresses. “Good bye, ladies,” he waved to Joyce and Clare, “See you next Thursday.”
“Bye, Gene,” Clare said.
“Always good to see you, Gene. Have a good week,” Joyce added.
They both watched as the old guy went out the front door to the parking lot. Then they went back to work, Clare filling catsup bottles and Joyce wiping down tables.
Feeling good about the day, Gene paused next to his car and breathed deeply. Ah, it was the beginning of May and spring was in the air. Soon the gardens would be in full bloom. It was one of Julie’s favorite times of year, and, because of that, it was one of his, too. He paused, thinking for maybe the one-hundredth time that day about his dear wife, his fond memories swirling like so many butterfly’s fluttering around so many fragrant flowers. Then he shook himself out of his happy and nostalgic reverie. Time to go. Time to hit the road.
He reached into his front pocket for his car keys, and his good mood vanished in an instant. His hand came up empty. They weren’t there. Damn. He checked again. Nope, nothing. Shit. Where were they? They were usually right there, right in the front right hand pocket of his jeans. He quickly searched through his other pockets, front and back, until it became obvious: the keys weren’t in any of them. They weren’t anywhere.
Suddenly he felt an undercurrent of panic. Oh, my, god, what’s going on? Is my memory starting to go? Am I losing my mind? His heart began racing, pounding like a sledgehammer. He pressed a hand against his chest to slow it down. It didn’t help.
Feeling faint, he sank against the fender of his car. What’s happening to me? His breath was short and came in gasps. Am I having a heart attack?
The next voice he heard was Joyce’s’ “Gene, Gene. What’s wrong? Talk to me.”
Joyce had been watching out the window as he walked to his car, just to make sure he got there alright. She’d seen him pause as he searched his pockets. “What’s going on with him?” she wondered. When she’d seen him fall against the side of his car she’d run outside.
“Are you okay?” She put a comforting arm around his shoulder. “Maybe you should come back inside and sit down. Catch your breath a little.”
Embarrassed, Gene waved her off, “No, no. I’m okay.” He had no idea what had happened, but after that first rush of panic his heart had unexpectedly returned to normal; its rapid beating slowing considerably, almost down to where it should be. Maybe it had been a panic attack over the lost keys or something like that. He’d read that those kinds of things could happen sometimes.
Just then Clare ran up carrying his jeans jacket.”Gene, you forgot this. It’s your jacket. You left it inside. I thought you might need it.”
Gene reached out, “Clare, thank you so much.”
As she handed him his jacket he could hear a familiar jingling in the pocket. He smiled to himself as he suddenly remembered. That’s right. He’d put the keys in the jeans jacket pocket when he’d gotten out of the car, not his pants pocket like he normally did. He gratefully took his jacket and removed his car keys, jangling them in his hand as he did so. Mystery solved. Whew. A simple mistake, that was all it was. “Good thing I’m not going nuts,” he thought. In fact, he was starting to get back to feeling like his old self again.
Joyce and Clare stayed with him, though, just to make sure he was truly alright. Even Larry came out to check on the old guy.
Gene appreciated everyone’s concern, he truly did, but in his mind it was much to do about nothing. He was feeling good, back to how he’d felt a few minutes earlier when he’d walked outside into the mid spring afternoon after a satisfying meal of a chocolate malt and french fries. With that kind of meal under his belt how could he not help but feel on top of the world? Well, he certainly did now.
After talking with the caring employees for a few more minutes he told everyone he that he was in good shape and feeling fine and that he really had to get going. He said his final good-byes, got in his car, started it up and drove through the parking lot to the exit. Heck, it was just a little memory lapse, that’s all it was.
But when he was getting ready to leave the parking lot, he had a sudden idea. “It’s so nice out, maybe I should do something to enjoy it.” He pondered for just a moment. “It’s a perfect day to go for a drive so why not go for one?”
And just like that he made a snap decision. He flipped on his turn signal. Instead of turning to the left to go home, he would turn to the right instead. Today, he’d go on a little journey. Maybe he’d head out around the big lake nearby, Lake Minnetonka, and check out the scenery. “It wouldn’t hurt, would it, to do something a little out of the ordinary? To shake up the routine a little? Doing different things was supposed to be good for the mind, right? A good way to keep one’s brain active. Besides, it was a beautiful spring day so why not?” In fact, he was pretty sure Julie would for sure think it was a good idea, and that’s what sealed the deal for him.
So, instead of going left to go home, he went right.
Back inside the malt shop, Joyce had been watching from the window. She saw him take his right turn onto the busy street. As he did, she had a vague recollection. Hmm, didn’t he normally go to the left? She thought for a moment. Oh, shit. Yeah, he always did go to the left. Damn. Something must be the matter.
She turned and yelled, “Guys, I think Gene’s going the wrong way.” She grabbed her purse and started running, “Larry, I’m going to be gone for a while. I’ve got to check to make sure he’s okay. Clare, cover for me.”
Then she was out the door and sprinting for her car. What she was going to do if she caught him, she had no idea. All she knew was that she had to do something. She started her car and sped off, hoping she’d be able to catch him. Hoping the old guy wouldn’t do anything to hurt himself. Hoping she wouldn’t be too late and she’d find him and he’d be alright. Years ago, her father had driven off a few times and got himself lost. He’d even gotten into a couple of accidents, too, before the end. She didn’t want that to happen to Gene. She liked seeing the old guy every week. She wanted to see him, too, next Thursday, like always. She wasn’t ready to lose him just yet.
She gripped the steering wheel and raced out of the parking lot to the right and sped down the busy street, scanning frantically the cars in front of her. A minute later up ahead she spied a little red one. “Was that Gene’s car? It looked like maybe it was. Yeah, it definitely was.”
Joyce breathed a huge sigh of relief. She wasn’t going to be too late. It looked as if she was going to catch him. He was going to be alright. Just to be on the safe side, though, she pressed herself to go faster.
A week later, on Thursday afternoon, Clara came upstairs from getting some much needed supplies: catsup, mustard, relish and paper napkins. She noticed that Gene had come in for his usual malt and fries. Joyce was standing next to his table, and they were talking and laughing. “Good,” Clare thought to herself, “All is back to normal.” She watched as Joyce patted the old guy on the back and made her was back to behind the counter to put in the order.
“Half order of fries, Joey,” Joyce called out. She saw Clare, “Hi. Get those supplies?”
“Yep. Right here.”
“Good. I’ll get started on Gene’s malt.”
Joyce smiled, “Nope. Not this time. He’s breaking tradition. He’s going to try the blueberry crumble.”
“What?” Clare was visibly aghast. Not his regular chocolate? Is he okay. He hasn’t lost his mind, has he?”
Joyce laughed, “He’s perfectly fine,” She began to scoop ice cream into the blender container and put the malt together, “He told me he just wanted to shake things up a bit. No pun intended. (Clare grimaced.) He said that he felt he was getting into too much of a routine, and that his routine was turning into a rut, and that being in a rut wasn’t good.”
Clare laughed, “Sounds like he thought about it a lot.”
“Yeah, I guess he did,” Joyce grinned in agreement. Then she added the rest of the ingredients, put the container in the blender and turned it on.
While it ran she thought about what had happened a week earlier: how she’d raced after Gene to make sure he was alright. He was of course. He’d stopped for gas at a nearby gas station shortly after Joyce had spied him. She’d parked and walked over to him and, after he’d gotten over his initial surprise, they’d talked. Turns out that Gene was doing great. He’d just wanted to go for, as he had put it, “A little drive to check on the scenery.” It was about then, talking in the parking lot of the BP gas station, that Joyce had realized she had made a mistake thinking that Gene was in the same condition her father had been. It was clear that he wasn’t. He was cognizant and mentally sound. If he was just a little forgetful, so be it. She was, too, sometimes. She should be happy for him that he was doing as well as he was. And she was. She just needed to back off a little and readjust her thinking.
“As long as he doesn’t hurt himself or put himself in harm’s way,” was how she thought of it at the time. And she still thinks like that. “It doesn’t hurt to care, though. I just need to give him space.” And that what she intends to do.
When the malt was blended and the fries were ready, Joyce put the order on a tray and took it to his booth.”Here you go, Gene,” she said. She poured out his malt, “Enjoy.”
Gene rubbed his hands together, grinning from ear to ear, “Oh, yes, indeedy. I certainly will.”
Joyce smiled, turned around, and walked back to the counter, dispensing with the shoulder pat, remembering to give him some space.
Clare was still curious, “So, why do you care so much about him? He’s just an old guy, right? Sure he’s a regular customer, but we have lots of them.”
Joyce took a moment and then said, “I don’t know. There’s just something about him. Sure he reminds me of my dad, but there’s more. Maybe it’s because of how he and his wife were together. I thought it was pretty sweet.” She was quiet for a moment, watching Gene sip his malt and savor his fries. “To be honest, I really don’t know.”
Just then some more customers came in and Joyce pointed to them, “Ah, forget about it. Let’s get back to work.”
And they did. Gene, for his part, enjoyed his meal. Especially his malt. The blueberry crumble was extremely tasty and a nice change from his usual chocolate. He hadn’t told Joyce, but he’d decided that every week for the foreseeable future he was going to try a different flavor. They had thirty-seven, after all. With the blueberry crumble and the chocolate out of the way, he was down two and had thirty-five more to go. After that he’d move on to the hamburgers; he had eleven different varieties to try. That would easily get him into the following year and that was good. He liked coming to the friendly little malt shop. He liked the employees (even if Joyce was a little overly solicitous, that was alright. It was nice that she cared.) He liked the fries. He liked the malts. But, more than that, he liked coming to a place Julie and he used to enjoy. He liked to remember all the good times they’d had at the malt shop, because even though she was gone, she really wasn’t. Not in his mind anyway. She’d always be with him.
After he finished his meal, Gene paid his bill, said his good-byes to Joyce and Grace and went out to the parking lot . He took a moment to enjoy the sun on his face. It was another beautiful spring day. Another good day to go for a drive. In fact, it was a good day to head for the lake. He got in his car, started it up and drove to the exit. When he got there, he hesitated for just a moment and then turned to the right.
From the window Joyce and Clare were watching.
“Must be going to the lake,” Joyce said.
“Yeah, looks like it,” Clare said.
“Okay, then. Let’s see about cleaning up those tables.”
The two of them turned and went back to work while Gene went for his drive. He’d be back in a week to try another flavor of malt: strawberry swirl cheesecake this time. His mouth started watering just thinking about it. He was already looking forward to it.