He looked exhausted. His shoulders were slumped, his shirt was rumpled and his blue striped neck tie was loosened and his eyes spoke volumes. He had a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his hands patted himself down looking for his lighter. The street light caught his salt and pepper, close-cropped hair and beard.
“Here you go, man.” I said and handed him my lighter.
“Thanks.” He lit his cigarette and handed me my lighter back.
“Long day?” I asked and lit one of my own.
He nodded and leaned heavily against the side of the bus. “Drove up from Atlanta, on our way to D.C.” He half heartedly pointed to the Georgia license plate.
“Wow, man. That’s a long drive. What are ya going to D.C. for? Not much going on this time of year.” I leaned on the bus next to him. The bus driver seemed to welcome the company.
He shrugged. Some church thing.” his smile preceded the laugh that came. “I ain’t never been a church go-er. But these folks…” he paused and shook his head smiling “These folks got the spirit. There’s a few of them…ok MOST of them, that’d get me in the pews.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
He smiled wider. The expression was practiced and easy. The exhaustion in his eyes seemed to fade a little. “Gotta love a good southern girl.” Was all he said. “Thanks for the light.” he stomped his smoke out on the black top and went to go inside.
“Hold on…” I said “I’m going in. have you eaten? You can grab a plate at the buffet.”
“Hey thanks man.” He shook my hand. “that would be great.”
We went to the back employees’ entrance. I paused and clocked in and ushered my new friend through the back. My fellow employees didn’t even bat an eye at the stranger in their midst. They welcomed him with handshakes and an overflowing of “how are ya” and “welcome”. Somehow, as if by magic, he even had a cup of fresh hot coffee by the time we made it to the port holed, double doors that led from the kitchen to the grand dining room.
“Where’d that come from?” I asked chuckling lightly.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“hope you’re hungry.” I quipped as I opened the doors to guide him into the dining room.
“Oh, yes I am.” he said and sipped his coffee while rubbing his belly happily. A motion that made me laugh lightly.
The group of women who he had brought with him filled the dining room tables. They were all laughing and eating and talking…talking loudly.
The cacophony assaulted my ears with a mighty vengeance. Voices climbed over other voices. Those voices clashed with plates and silverware clinking and scraping which then clambered over top of the sounds of the rest of the hotel. “You drove all the way from Atlanta with that in your ears?!”
He nodded solemnly. “Ooooooh yeah. 10 hours of it with a stop every 2 hours.”
“Wow.” I shook my head and grabbed myself a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and some of chef’s collared greens and ham. He always mixed up a healthy batch of carmelized onions into them, and I did so love that. “you’re a stronger man than I, my friend.”
He laughed good heartedly. “Thank you, sir.” We filled our plates and went back to eat in the relative quiet of the employee’s lounge. We talked about where we were from, what we did growing up and how similar our towns were. He did comment that it never got as cold down there in January as it did in these Blue Ridge Mountains.
The ladies eventually finished their dinner. The bus driver finished his while the ladies’ group were taking photos from the point and the porch. I filled his thermos with our good strong brewed coffee, shook his hand and wished him safe travels.
Chef Bill came outside with me and took a breath of crisp January night air. “he was a nice fellah…” Bill said, his familiar Cajun accent warming the night. “that bus driver. What was his name?”
My eyes widened a little. I was talking to this man for an hour or so. I knew where he was from(South Carolina), what his favorite sports team was (the Hawks) and even the name of his blue tick coon hound. “Bill,” I said “I never did get his name.”