“Are you at the good Denny’s?”
Three motels, one with its hourly rate proudly posted, and the adult bookstore directly across the street made it clear I was not.
I had been expelled from a closing airport and sent to spend Christmas Eve at the "bad Denny's" to be hit on by an aging gangster named Foot while sitting adjacent to Chardonnay, a stripper with a stack of singles and feather roach-clip earrings, wearing a black Santa hat emblazoned with the word "Naughty!"
“I don’t think so…but I need to reserve a cab pickup…”
“Ma’am, we don’t make reservations for pickups from Denny’s. Especially that Denny’s.”
All eyes turned to me, the pariah from the police car, who had just been plopped in the parking lot. I stood there, Delta Dawn incarnate, wearing an ill-fitting 17 year-old wool winter coat and ripped yoga pants, clutching a small suitcase.
Just hours earlier, I had been racing through an underground tunnel at LAX because the first leg of my flight had been switched and was suddenly being serviced by a completely different airline…in a totally different terminal…on the opposite side of the airport.
I made it, just in time to reprint tickets and tags and rush to the gate…where the flight was delayed. I had just set my carryon down and was readying to settle in when --
“Here, watch him!”
A complete stranger, not even bothering to make eye contact, shoved her son at me and disappeared…for half of an hour. She blew back in the same whirlwind in which she went, phone squeezed tightly between her shoulder and cheek, whisking him up as she hurried past and on off down the hallway hollering back to me without even glancing up, “Hurry up Helen! I can’t do this all myself!” No, she couldn’t. She definitely couldn’t. And poor Helen, wherever she was.
But now, I sat, plates piling high on the pressed wood table, ordering course after course from the menu to bide my time until the airport reopened in a few hours. I preferred paying rent on this sticky tabled booth rather than at the hourly motor lodge across the way where there was a good chance that the surfaces were just as sticky. I ordered $16 worth of food. $16 is an immense amount of food for a single person at Denny’s.
I swirled my straw through three dollars worth of strawberry shake.
“What you doin’? What you doin’ with that bad ass?”
I looked up to see a bandit-bandanaed-blonde-bombshell airbrushed across a black t-shirt just below some numbers and the letters “O.G.” sliding into the booth across from me.
“Foot” slurred a thick tongued introduction fragrant with fermentation as he extended his tattooed fingertips; a tinted motif that flowed up his forearm, then slipped under his sleeve unseen to later resurface, slithering up his neck and culminating around his eye in teardrops, dots and digits. He continued by unleashing an uninvited ode to my ass. That same, travel tired tush that was now respectfully tucked away in torn yoga pants under a large tunic.
The rip in the rear was the result of a snag from some stable doors set up in the sanctuary for Christmas Eve service. I was cleaning up the frankincense and myrrh when my derriere was detained by the doors just minutes before boarding an airport shuttle to make it to my original flight in the nick of time…before it was changed in every way possible.
A flight that I was taking to catch up to my husband who had already headed to the Midwest a few days earlier. A flight I had to take solo because I worked at a church and Christmas Eve is, well, a workday. A flight that was supposedly a “connecting flight” that had just landed at a tiny airport that “doesn’t do connecting flights.”
“Ma’am, you’ll have to leave. The airport is closing. It’s Christmas Eve and everyone wants to go home.”
“But I’m supposed to get on a connecting flight in a few hours.”
“Ma’am there are no connections. This is the end of the road.”
I stood there wagging my tickets for the remainder of my trip. Tickets printed by an airline that doesn’t service that airport. Tickets that no one would even look at when I asked them to because it wasn’t their airline. Tickets that cost hundreds of dollars, but were getting me nowhere except kicked out of the airport because it was closing.
“Ma’am. How did you even get here? Who dropped you off?”
“I flew. I just got off of a plane a little over an hour ago.”
And then the walkie-talkie was whipped out and I was described as a confused lady in a red wool coat. A really old red wool coat. A red wool coat that I was wearing even though it was at least 70 degrees outside.
Two Novembers into our marriage, I had no winter coat nor the budget for a winter coat. But was surrounded by Iowa weather that required said winter coat. This was back before you could order things online, so we went shopping.
There was a beautiful red wool coat, at Yonkers department store, that I loved. Then, there wound up being one functional coat at another place that was the only one that fit me and the budget. The store closed before I could go back and get it. I resolved to return the next day.
After work, I swung by home to change out of my bank teller’s uniform before heading out to make my practical purchase and there, lying on the bed, was the red wool coat. That red wool coat took extra hours. That red wool coat took giving things up. That red wool coat made me cry. And even though it has gone out of fashion and I live in the heat of Southern California, I still wear that red wool coat every year when I travel home for Christmas. It is the only winter coat I own. It may have been seventeen years old, but the intent and love behind it are still the same.
“Well, all of the cabs are gone now, and by the time one gets here, we’ll all be gone and it’s not safe to leave you standing outside alone. Is there someplace I can drop you until the airport opens again in the morning?” The airport cop had been summoned to deal with the confused lady in the red wool coat.
“Maybe a 24-hour restaurant like an IHOP?” I offered.
“I don’t know. A lot of things are closed.”
I checked my phone to see what I could find. I found a Denny’s. He said that was doable.
I climbed into his squad car with my carryon luggage in my lap, closed the door, and as the car pulled away from the curb, the questions began. Familiar questions. Questions we used to have on a list for a nonprofit I had worked for. Questions that were asked of mentally unstable people off in an alternate reality.
And according to my phone, we were not headed towards the Denny’s. Not by a long shot. I was headed to spend the early morning hours of my Christmas where those deemed “confused” who show up in old red coats at dead end airports with tickets for airlines that aren’t there wind up. So rather than starting at the beginning again. Out of desperation, I chose to start at the end. The destination. Rural Iowa. My mother and father-in-law’s house and how they would be waiting to pick me up, along with my husband.
And as fate would have it, this cop, way out on the west coast…had family…in the tiny town just one county over. And knew all of the places and even some of the people from my husband’s hometown. And at least for a moment, long enough to turn the car around, decided maybe I wasn’t completely deranged and dropped me at that Denny’s.
That Denny’s where I now sat across from a very large man, with very identifiable associations on his skin, as he wound up his ballad to my butt.
“I’d really like to kiss you.”
“Dad, leave her alone!”
And there he was, the son. Foot had a son! A son! A son with miraculous timing. A son whose face burned with embarrassment as he dragged his elder from my booth toward the door, apologizing profusely. A son who said he hoped his father hadn’t ruined my Christmas as Foot staggered back toward me offering, in his own way, to…keep in touch.
“For the love of God, Dad! Get in the car! Now!” And one kick to Foot’s own “bad ass” and they were out the door and into the waiting car.
I spent the next few hours in the booth next to Chardonnay and across from an autistic tree surgeon named, I kid you not, Gabriel. Who, from what I gathered, came in every night to sit on the same stool and eat the same thing. He would sit at the counter and talk about trees, to anyone and everyone, as loudly as he could.
He knew everything there was to know about trees! Their insides, their outsides, their bark and their bite. And how at this time of year, everyone loved trees. He got to string them with lights all throughout gardens and hedges. And shape them and tie them and make them look lovely. So of course Christmas was his favorite! And what better way to spend Christmas than with his favorite strangers and at his favorite place, Denny’s.
And he wished each and every one of us a merry Christmas and us him in return. And in those wee early hours while we were still in the night, all of us waiting for…something; the strays and the castoffs, the unwanted and wandering, the fringe and forgotten were gathered together and wished well and welcomed and given glad tidings of great joy from Gabriel, about his evergreens.
It was going to be okay. I had a place to be. I was warm and I had $16 worth of cold spaghetti and sides splayed out before me. I was pretty blessed and soon I would be with people who loved me...with or without underwear.
Yep. When I finally arrived at my destination, my luggage was lost…for five days.
Despite everything, I made it back to the airport, onto an outbound flight and to my mother and father-in-law’s house. Where I finally replaced my ripped open pants with a pair of pajama bottoms I opened for Christmas because I had nothing else to wear.
And being Rural Iowa, everything was closed for the holidays. I eventually had to give in and buy some underwear from a Mennonite supply store just to get by. These behemoth britches came way up past my belly button and my husband and I called these sizeable, sexy specimens my “Amish underpants.”
But I had made it to my destination. To people who love me, Amish underpants and all. And I know that I’ll never have another Christmas Eve like that one…
Because next time, I’m going to the “good Denny’s.”