By John Thomas Tuft

Folks arriving at the WAFFLE HOUSE on Route 221 in Central Virginia are coming for the eggs and hashbrowns, and of course, the waffles. But they are coming for a deeper reason. They come because that is where Tillie works. She has been up since before her 5am alarm went off. Breakfast is serious business, after all, and folks need nourishment. Of all types. Matilda, though her nametag reads Tillie,  could be 55 or 65; it’s hard to tell. People who make a living on their feet all day don’t have time for much nonsense such as guessing ages. But Tillie will have you pegged in a glance as you come through the door of the restaurant. But not by the size of the tip she can expect from you but the size of the heart that you need from her.

Buster and Ernie are right on time, 5:30 of the AM, their work trucks pulling in from the dark highway. Tillie is already filling the cups set before the last two seats in the row at the long counter. The two take their seats with a nod, calloused hands cradling the morning sanctus improvidus quod victum nourishment of hot coffee straight from the hand of Tillie. Life can be one long improvise and overcome moment after another, sanctified only by the good cheer of a smiling face in recognition. She returns their nods and launches in, “Buster, how’s Mary? That hip still abotherin’ her? You want the usual?” Buster grunts, takes off his cap to run thick fingers through his hair. “She ain’t complaining, you know how she is.” Tillie purses her lips. “I do indeed. Tell her I asked after her.” Raises her eyebrows at Ernie. “Your girl?” Ernie sighs. “She’s back to Charlottesville, third year now. That’s a lot of bricks to lay, straight and true.” All three chuckle at this divine comedy of working your bones tired all day, every day,  as Tillie turns to holler at the young man at the grill, “Give me two, scrambled, hashbrowns scattered, tomatoes, whole wheat dry.”

The morning settles into its own rhythm. Tillie is in constant motion, constant chatter, constant attention to ten different things a lesser goddess would never catch. Regulars and newbies alike, they all get the smile and practical attention. Some college students wander in after a long night just as a middle-aged couple, the Andersons arrive. She sees the youngsters blinking in the bright lights and gives them a casual, “Just sit yourselves anywhere, I’ll be right there with your silverware.” Plops down some orange juice in front of Seth Anderson and a sweet tea for Agnes. “Two pig platters,” she yells to the cook, “and make sure Agnes gets an extra patty!” She smiles at the two. “We’re so sorry to hear about your boy,” Seth starts to say but Tillie cuts him off, “He was never the same after he came back from Afghanistan.” She lets a mother’s fear show in her eyes for a brief second. “Mary’s got their boy at the house, trying her best to keep body and soul together.” Then she’s off to take the students’ orders.

A small, frail woman in her 70s comes into the House and takes a seat at the counter, next to the cash register. She tries to be unobtrusive as she opens her wallet and checks the few bills nestled inside. “What’ll be?” She startles, lost in her worry she didn’t see Tillie standing before her. “I think I can get some toast and coffee. Maybe one egg?” It’s a hopeful question. Tillie pours the hot liquid with a “Don’t you worry none,” and calls the order in. She takes a moment to add up some tickets and place them on the counter for grateful patrons of this haven of hope and appreciation. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a young man come in, looking about until he sees her. Tillie feels a catch in her throat. He’s the age her boy would have been if the afterdarkness of war had not claimed him. “Billy?” Billy smiles to her and holds the door open for a young woman carrying a baby’s car seat to join him for a magnificent presentation.

Tillie is beside herself and comes around from behind the counter. Billy proudly introduces her to his wife. Then he holds up the carrier, where a chubby infant gurgles. “And this is Sammy.” Tears come unbidden to Tillie’s eyes. Billy continues, “Yeah, we wanted to honor Sam’s memory.” Hand to her mouth, Tillie whispers, “He’d be so proud.” She hesitates, then reaches to touch the child’s cheek. “Is he…is he…you know, does he have a shake of sense?” Billy laughs. “Ten toes, ten fingers, and he’s just fine, Tillie. Everything is good.” Tillie busies herself wiping away imaginary crumbs, pouring the coffee. She turns to yell in an order and sees something at the grill. She hurries toward it, yelling, “Dang it, John Edwards, don’t throw that waffle away!” The cook looks up in alarm. Tillie crosses quickly, grabs a plate and rescues a disheveled waffle on its way to the garbage in one motion as with the other hand she throttles a bottle of syrup. On her way past the woman beside the cash register, she slyly slides the waffle and syrup in front of the supplicant with a casual, “It’s a sin to waste good food,” and hurries on by.

A stranger watching all this finishes his meal, aware he has worshipped at the altar of goodness this morning. He spots a white-haired couple patiently waiting along the glass wall. “Was I in your booth?” he asks. They smile. “We’re not in any hurry. It’s good to be here.” It certainly is. Anyone with a shake of sense could tell you that…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.