She watched the soldier exit his truck. He was lean, six feet tall, with penetrating eyes, an angular face, aquiline nose, and brown hair trimmed close to his scalp. His gait fit his features—measured, nothing wasted. Lily sat alone in the Waffle House, sipping black coffee. She would have gone to the Cup-n-Saucer but it was very late. She had driven to this Waffle House off I-75, thinking she would be alone. But it was filled with customers. Lily was the only white woman there. The soldier pulled open the glass door methodically. No one looked up except Lily. The staff behind the counter pretended not to see him. The soldier stepped into the tiny waiting area, removing his cap simultaneously. No one said anything to him. Lily watched. Two minutes passed. Finally a large black man in a grease-stained apron at the far end of the griddle spoke to the soldier.
“Good evening,” the soldier returned.
No one else spoke to the soldier, but the din from customers at the countertop and tables was painful. The speaker above Lily’s table blared Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The soldier spotted an empty table from which a mustached Latino woman was slowly wiping crumbs. Lily sensed the soldier’s frustration at not being waited on. She grew nervous. The soldier was quiet and intense.
The empty table was adjacent to Lily’s. The soldier sat facing the door through which he entered. He looked up as he slid onto the slick faux-wood of the Waffle House bench seats. He folded his patrol cap and placed it in his right thigh cargo pocket. As he did, he surveyed the Waffle House again to see if he would receive service. He saw Lily watching him.
“Thank you for what you do. Welcome home,” Lily said.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’ve been back for some time now.”
Lily surprised herself. She almost never initiated conversations, but she was drawn to this soldier. Finally a young girl approached the soldier’s table. She was a young black woman, just over five feet tall, with a lean athletic build. Her nametag read: Mera. When she spoke to the soldier, Lily saw how beautiful her smile was. Her teeth were a white picket fence inside dark brown skin.
“Sorry for the wait. What can I get you to drink?”
“Coffee, please ma’am. Black.”
“I’ll be right back,” Mera said.
Lily sipped her coffee and watched. The soldier watched the door and watched the other customers. It was after midnight but the restaurant was filled almost to capacity. The soldier had taken the last available table. He watched Mera fill the cup with black coffee and return. Lily tried to listen to the soldier, to see if he was ordering food when he spoke to Mera, but Lily could not hear him above Prince’s guitar. Lily realized she had come not to be alone but because she wanted someone to talk to, but it was late. She reasoned that because she was new to Glim, a coffee shop near the interstate would suffice.
The soldier raised his coffee cup, sipped, and turned towards Lily.
“Didn’t think it would be this busy this late,” he said.
Lily smiled. “Nor did I,” she said.
“You traveling?” he asked.
“Not exactly. I live near here now,” Lily said. She was nervous about revealing too much, but she trusted him already.
“How about you?” she asked. “You traveling?”
“Yes. I can make time better at night,” he said.
Prince’s metallic guitar solo ended and the next song was some contemporary R&B Lily did not know. The soldier seemed unaffected by the loud music. Mera appeared at the soldier’s table with a yellow pad and red Paper Mate pen. The soldier shook his head and Mera walked off politely after putting the yellow ticket on the soldier’s table.
Lily wanted to talk to him but floundered with how to continue. She did not wish to seem impertinent. She sipped her coffee, and watched him as able. The speaker above her table seemed to grow louder and louder. The cooks over the griddle hummed and swayed to the blaring song. The large man in the greasy apron shouted to one of the cooks over the griddle.
“Pull a sausage and drop one hash, while you dancin’ to Mariah Carey, Q!”
Without looking up, Q. kept up his rhythm, as if he had heard nothing but Mariah Carey squealing through the speaker.
Lily watched the soldier for any reaction to the volume, or to the other customers, but he betrayed none. The soldier rose from his table to pay for his coffee. Breunna, another young black waitress, was ringing up a male customer with dreadlocks woven onto his scalp, who was standing in front of the soldier.
Mr. Dreadlocks paid, grabbed his takeout order, and the soldier stepped in front of the register with a debit card and his yellow ticket. Breunna pretended not to see him standing there. Lily watched him. He had been ignored when he entered, and now this. Lily felt herself swallow.
The Mariah Carey shrieks continued to bounce off the walls of the Waffle House. Q. shouted, “Breunna, order up!”
Suddenly Mera stepped up behind the register and smiled her picket fence teeth at the soldier.
“I’m sorry for your wait, sir,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the soldier said.
The soldier paid for his coffee and left a tip three times the amount of the coffee. When Mera saw the amount, she smiled and turned her head towards Breunna, who pretended not to notice.
The soldier retrieved his patrol cap from his right cargo pocket and passed by Lily’s table. “Nice talking with you,” he said.
“Likewise,” Lily said. She watched him walk measured steps towards his truck, remove his cap, open the truck door, and enter. He left as he’d entered, measured and alone, with different ideas of service.