I walk into the diner and plop into a booth. The smooth red vinyl makes it easy for me to slide over next to the window. I fiddle with the salt shaker for a minute and look around for my waiter. The place is crowded, as usual--plates and silverware clink and clank; a bell rings; people laugh and chatter. I get my phone out of my purse, take a selfie, then post an "I'm eating at Law's Diner!" status update on Facebook. I glance up.
I organize the sugar container. Put all the pinks, blues and whites together. Look out the window. Beautiful day. Perfect, actually. Blue sky. Sparrows pop in and out of the sycamore trees lining the street. I can't hear them, but I can tell they are chirping and singing. Their small beaks move rapidly as they hop in and out of the branches.
Suddenly, a plate is placed in front of me. Clink-clank.
It's huge and round and loaded with food. Heaps of it. Some looks Italian, some Mexican, maybe an Asian dish of some sort?...PLOP, down comes another plate. This one has a piece of pie on it. A big piece. I can't tell what kind of pie, but it looks delicious. Then my drink is placed in front of me -- some kind of purple beverage - wine? Grape soda? Kool Aid? I don't know. I look up at the waiter, wide eyed. He's holding an empty tray and handing me some silverware.
"But I didn't order yet?" I say, or rather, ask. "There must be a mistake."
"You get what you get and you like it!" He says firmly, but with a friendly tone and a smile. "Enjoy!" he says and walks away briskly.
I look around the diner. There are a few other people eating alone. They seem to be enjoying their food. Some people are talking to each other at tables or to the person next to them at the counter while they eat. Everyone is smiling a lot. Did they order? I don't know. I hadn't paid any attention to them until now.
I look down at my food. Steam is coming off what appears to be some kind of tomato-y pasta dish that is smothered in cheese.
You get what you get and you like it? When did this happen? I've been here before and I remember ordering. I remember ordering, receiving, eating, paying AND tipping as a matter of fact! What is this new "You get what you get" thing? What is a plate like this is going to cost me? Probably a lot.
I pick up my fork and cut off an small piece of what appears to be pasta. I raise it to my mouth.
Wow, this is good.
Really, REALLY good!
I poke at the Mexican entree on the other side of the plate. I take a bite.
Absolutely delicious. What is it? A tamale? If so, it is the best one I've ever had. And that is saying a lot. I buy home-made ones from my colleague Rosa every year at Christmas time. She and her mom spend hours working on them--stay up all night in fact, making enough tamales verdes to feed the whole office full of hungry lawyers.
Looking around, I begin to eat again. My waiter is no where to be found, so I can't ask him about the price or what's on my plate or even find out how I ended up with this order, but I don't really care at this point. The food is SO good. Every bite is just the perfect mix of salty and sweet--warm, but not hot--tender, but not mushy. Just perfect.
I pick up my beverage. Sniff it. Smells a little fruity, but hard to tell. I take a sip. Sangria? I can't be sure. I only had Sangria once many years ago, when I was in my early twenties visiting Puerto Vallarta with my sister. I take another swig. This tastes heavenly. I can feel the back corners of my mouth vibrating in response. I swirl it around in my mouth and then swallow.
Somehow, it goes perfectly with everything on my plate. The perfect match.
I finish off my meal, swirl some more of the mystery Sangria around in my mouth and then pull the small plate with my slice of pie toward me. I pick it up and look at it from every angle. Peach? Apricot? Mango? I don't know, but the crust looks hand made. It is crumbly and uneven, instead of perfect and flat like those frozen ones. At this point, I know I will be fine with WHATEVER kind of pie this is. Everything else has been great. Problem is?
I know I have no room for a piece of pie. I wished I had. I contemplate sitting in the booth for a half an hour watching the birds play and allowing room in my stomach to develop, but the restaurant now has a line out the door and I know people would give me the evil eye if I sat here too long.
So I am going to have to do the impossible.
I am going to have to find my waiter.
The waiter who had plopped everything off at my table was now behind the counter pouring coffee. Wait. Was it coffee? Or was it hot chocolate? I couldn't be sure, but he heard me and trotted over.
"Yes?" He asked. He looked down briefly at the plates on my table and smiled.
"Uh, can I get this pie to go?" I pushed the plate with the pie on it closer to him.
"You're not going to eat the pie?" He asked, sounding a little bit like a mother talking to a small child--not really upset, but loving and concerned.
"No, not right now; I'm too full." I said and dropped my eyes to my empty plate. "Everything else was so good, I just couldn't stop eating. But I really want to have my pie.I just need to take it to go, so I can enjoy it later."
"Sorry, you can't take it with you."
"I can't?" I was confused. Had the diner run out of doggie bags? Styrofoam containers? Were they implementing the same policy as the buffet across the street?
"No, sorry. Everything we serve must be eaten here."
I cocked my head like the RCA dog. "But I didn't even order this pie!" I said. I tried to soften my voice so it wouldn't sound like an accusation. In other words, I tried NOT to sound like a lawyer. I pointed at my pie and forced a tight smile. "I didn't ask for it. You just gave it to me."
"And there's a problem with that?" He asked. He looked like he was trying to hold back a laugh.
"Uh, well, no, but it just seems weird that I have to eat it here. I mean don't you have to-go boxes?"
"No, we don't actually. We expect all our guests to get what they get and like it."
"And eat it here." I said.
"Yes, exactly!" He agreed. He pointed at me like I had hit in on the nose. I half expected him to sing out, "Ding! Ding! Ding!" I was glad when he didn't.
"Well, OK," I said and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "You have a bathroom?"
He nodded and pointed at a door to the right of the counter.
"Oh, good. I just want to make sure I have somewhere to go if I get sick." I patted my stomach.
"Oh, you won't get sick. Go ahead and eat it all. Really. You'll be fine. Enjoy it!"
I smiled weakly. I could still feel the last bite of Italian surprise sitting dangerously near my esophagus.
I picked up my fork as he turned and walked away quickly. He was whistling, and for a moment I thought I saw him skip.
I took a small bite of my pie.
Not surprisingly, it made my mouth water. A LOT. I grabbed my napkin and dabbed the corners of my mouth. It wasn't peach. Or apricot. Or anything I could define...it was PIE MAGNIFICENCE. Heavenly. Incredible. Other worldly. Like an orange meets a peach meets a Hawaiian vacation meets my mouth.
Little by little, bite by bite, I ate it. All of it. And somehow, my stomach found room for it. I didn't feel sick--at all, just very, very satisfied. My stomach felt full, but not Thanksgiving dinner full. And my head almost seemed to hum with pleasure. I felt warm and welcomed, safe and satisfied, giddy and grateful all at once. What was this confectionery creation? This perfect pie?...And this meal? This whole thing? What an unexpected, unbelievable treat! My compliments to the Chef! I wanted to curl up with a blanket and just lay there against the window, stretch my legs out along the vinyl seat, rest my hands on my full belly and smile.
But then I remembered.
How much was this going to cost me? Sure, I had money, but still. I didn't order any of this and now they were probably going to slap me with some big bill figuring I'm some fancy lawyer who can afford it, so why not. I mean what am I going to say? I didn't order it, so you can't charge me? I ate EVERYTHING! Even my glass was completely empty! I had slurped out the last drop of purple nectar with a straw after my last bite of pie.
I waved at my waiter to come over.
"I'm ready to pay now." I said. I braced myself.
He smiled and folded his hands in front of him. Here it comes, I thought. He'll get my big check out of that little pocket in the front of his apron and slap it down on my table. I had a feeling I was going to hear: You get what you get AND YOU PAY FOR IT!
"Oh, no need to pay for anything. The bill has already been paid." He said.
"No, actually I haven't paid yet." I said, confused. I started to reach for my purse. This whole situation was starting to feel like the Twilight Zone, only with Rachel Ray as the director.
"I know you haven't paid, but your don't owe us anything!" He said. His smile was wide and he threw his arms out as if to say: Surprise! Isn't that GREAT!
"So let me get this straight." I said, plunking my purse down in my lap. "I come in. I don't order anything, food just shows up. Food that I have not ordered. Oh, and I get some strange drink, which was very good, don't get me wrong, but I didn't order that either. I also get a piece of pie, once again, that I didn't order, which I have to eat here--I can't take it with me because that isn't allowed and even though I am really, really full, I manage to find room for it and then when I go to pay for all this food I haven't ordered, you tell me my bill has already been paid? I mean that is really nice and all, but what kind of diner is this?"
I noticed he hadn't stopped smiling throughout my entire rant. He pointed toward the front door. I looked in that direction."Didn't you see the sign when you came in?" He asked.
"The one with the name of this restaurant." He said.
"What do you mean? This is Law's Diner, right? I've been here many times. I work at the courthouse right up the street and get lunch here all the time. In fact, I posted on Facebook that I was here at Law's Diner when I first sat down in this booth."
"No, this isn't Law's anymore," he said.
"Nope. It's under new ownership."
"Whose?" I asked. He smiled. A big, broad, good news smile.
"Welcome to Grace's."
-Hope A. Horner, 2014
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