The horror of the thing overwhelmed me. It was a monstrosity; an unholy union if ever there was one. What kind of psychopath was responsible for this abomination? I looked across the table at my friends, and I could see my feelings echoed in their faces. Neal looked down at his plate with the furrowed brow of man looking at a mortally wounded ally on the battlefield. Jordan, on the other hand, wore a look of pure disgust; eyes open, mouth agape, and lips curled.
“Ma’am!” I called to our waitress. “I’m sorry to be a pain, but why is there gravy on our hash browns?”
“You ordered them ‘all the way.’ This is ‘all the way.’”
“Listen,” I said, with a quick glance at her name tag, “Amanda, for the last fourteen years, ‘all the way’ has meant seven things: chili, onion, tomato, jalapeno, ham, mushroom, and cheese. This, Amanda, is the holy grail of hash brown toppings. The ambrosia of Olympus. The secret sauce. When did white gravy crash that party, and for the love of god, why?”
“They started adding it in June. Corporate decision. Don’t know why. Wasn’t consulted.” She bit off these sentence fragments as if each sound and syllable took immense effort. She also seemed to have the ability to speak without moving a single muscle in her face, save her mouth, and even that was a kept to a bare minimum. “Want us to remake ‘em?” she asked, in a tone which promised violence if one responded in the affirmative.
“No,” Jordan interjected, though his eyes remained fixed on the plate. “The Rules say we have to eat whatever we order.”
“Rules?” the waitress inquired, shocking me by asking a non-essential question and actually raising a drawn-on eyebrow. Jordan and I looked at Neal and waited for him to explain. As you likely already know, every three-man friend group needs three roles: the brain, the smartass, and the leader. I was as close to a smartass as we had, and Jordan was the brain, leaving leadership to Neal. Our leader, however, appeared to be temporarily stupefied and oblivious to his surroundings, so I jumped in.
“You see, Amanda, we’re on a bit of a mission tonight. Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for the last fourteen years, these two gents and myself get together and eat at all three Waffle Houses in Aimsville. It’s the Toure de Waffle! And as such, there are certain established rules, like the one my good friend here has just elucidated. First, we have to eat at each of the three locations. Second, we have to eat everything we order, and finally, the person who eats the least has to pay.”
“Huh,” muttered the waitress, whom I was beginning to believe was really just an elaborate drone controlled by the Waffle House corporate higher-ups via remote control. As she wandered away, I pulled a flask from my jacket pocket. “I hate to start so early, but I’m gunna need all the help I can get to muscle this down.” After a covert swig, I passed it to Jordan. He took a pull, and passed to Neal, who came out of his haze just long enough to shake his head before disappearing back into himself. Jordan passed the flask back with a look of undisguised concern. Neal may have been the leader of our little triumvirate, but I’d never seen the man refuse a drink. Hell, he usually came to the first Waffle House with a good buzz on already.
“How’s the legal world, Neal?” I asked as I attempted to scrape the gravy-contaminated hash browns to the side of the plate. “Are you still doing mostly corporate defense stuff?”
“It’s alright,” he said, blinking up at me. “I, uh, I’m actually in between firms at the moment.”
“Oh, awesome! I know the last place wasn’t really your favorite. Where are you going to?”
“Uh, well, not totally sure at the moment.”
Andrew, you idiot! I chastised myself as I tried to dig my way back out. “Right on! It’s good to take some time to really evaluate the options, you know?” was all I could manage.
Silence. Total silence. The kind of silence in which all I could do was nod to myself, affirming the great wisdom of “taking time to evaluate the options.” Mercifully, Jordan took an at-bat. “How are the kids?” he swung.
“Good…” Neal bit off, and I thought I heard the hint of a crack in his voice, and a little sheen of moisture begin to form in his eyes. Jordan must have seen it too, because he immediately made his usual nervous twitch of rubbing his beard. Pop fly out on the first swing. Two outs. It was time for a diversion.
“Jordan,” I asked, “how was your flight in from Florida? I had a three-hour delay from Virginia. You’re a lucky bastard, Neal, you still live here!” So, Jordan and I exchanged travel horror stories and choked down the hash browns, all the while watching for any sign of engagement from Neal. No dice. We might have had better luck trying to get a smile from Amanda the Robot Waitress.
Eventually, Jordan and I managed to get down most of the food on our plates, gravy notwithstanding. Neal, though, had only taken a few bites. Per the Rules, he was obligated to pay. Per my standards as a semi-decent human, I preferred to avoid sticking my unemployed friend with the bill. Accordingly, I tried to stealthily snag the ticket when it arrived, but Neal grabbed it out of my hand with more than a little violence. “What the hell man?” he demanded, with genuine anger. “The Rules are the Rules.”
“Look man, its not that big a deal; we didn’t know about the gravy, and with you being in between-”
“Fuck that. We’re on the Toure. We’re doing the Rules.” With that, he stood up and strode to the counter to pay the bill.
The ride to the Waffle House number two, the location on Main, was pretty quiet after that. Tradition dictated that we all order chocolate chip waffles at Main. It hadn’t reached the status of a Rule yet, but it was close. Neal ordered first from a waiter who could have been Amanda’s twin brother. They didn’t look alike, really, but their essence was the same. Probably from the same manufacturer. Without looking up from his notepad, the waiter droned “Out of chocolate chips.”
This time Neal did not remain quiet. ”What the fuck do you mean you’re out of chocolate chips? How the hell do you run out of chocolate chips?” he barked.
“Hey!” I jumped in, “It’s all good…Tristan. We’ll just have pecan waffles then.”
“Out of Peca-,”
“Plain is fine, then Tristan! Plain is just fine.”
Tristan shuffled back to the cook, unphased by Neal’s outburst. “Okay, man.” I said, turning to Neal. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?”
He sat quietly for a moment and sighed. “Not really man,” he replied, staring down at the table. Another pause, another sigh, and he continued. “I got a DUI a few months back. Hit some guy’s car. Nobody was hurt, and we settled out, but the firm found out about it and let me go. Bad press, you know? Jamie was already pissed about the DUI, and when I lost the job, she moved out and took the kids. They’re staying at her parent’s place. I’m trying AA, but I can’t get past a fucking week sober. And Jamie won’t let me see the… yesterday was my first Thanksgiving alone.”
“Shit, man,” Jordan said, “Why didn’t you call us or something?”
“Right. What am I supposed to say? ‘Hey guys, I’ve developed a nice little alcohol problem and lost my license. Oh, and by the way, I got fired, and my wife bailed. How’s the east coast?’”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, apparently a little too loudly, as even Tristan shot a glance our way. “Dammit Neal, you don’t have to deal with this shit on your own. We-”
“I don’t want to talk about it, alright?” he interrupted. “I just want to do the Toure, and do it right, ok?” Thankfully, Tristan rescued us by bringing over the conspicuously plain waffles, which we consumed in awkward silence.
I tried to make small talk on the way to the final Waffle House on Maple but wound up just prattling to myself the whole drive, as I got no response from the back seat. I fell silent as we turned onto the block. I knew we were in trouble. The glowing yellow sign was not where it was supposed to be. Sure enough, when I pulled into the familiar lot, the lot just kept going where the Waffle House should have been. In the center of the lot stood a large wooden sign reading “Coming Soon! New Home of First Bank of Missouri!” Not knowing what else to do, I pulled in and parked. After a moment of charged silence, I heard a door click behind me and in the headlight beams I saw Neal walking slowly to the sign. He rested his head against the sign for a minute, then quietly drew back his fist and hit the sign hard. Then again. And again. Soon, he was throwing punches in a steady rhythm. Jordan and I got out of the car and approached slowly. As we drew near, I could hear Neal cursing with each blow.
I gently placed a hand on his shoulder. He stopped the assault then, shrunk down and squatted there in front of the sign. His body began to shake, and I realized he was weeping. I looked over at Jordan, but all we could think to do was squat there with him, hands on his shoulders. After a few minutes, his body stilled and the three of us remained squatting there in the harsh beams of the headlights.
“Guys,” I jumped as Jordan’s voice broke the silence. “Nothing in the Rules says we have to order the food here. We just have to eat it here. ‘Eat at each location,’ right? Could we just get some pie to-go from Main, and bring it back here?” I glanced over at Neal. “You’re the lawyer, boss. What say you?” Though his voice was still thick, I thought I saw a hint of a smile cross his face as he muttered, “The man’s not wrong.”
Twenty minutes later and we were back, sitting on the cold ground with our backs against the sign and pie and cokes (replacing the usual last-stop whisky) in our laps. On the drive, Neal had started to open up. He had insisted on paying for our three huge slices of coconut crème pie and had even laughed on the way back at my wildly risqué joke on the topic of crème pies. As I took my last bite, I saw Neal sit his fork down on his empty plate. “Thanks guys. I mean it. I needed this.”
“Any time, man.” I said. Jordan added, “That’s what we’re here for.”
Neal sat quietly for a minute. “And Jordan,” he said, finally, glancing down at Jordan’s half eaten pie with a smile, “you owe me $11.57 for this round.”