This is the one Waffle House in Mississippi that’s not just bone-shatteringly cold. You know because you froze to death in them in high school and trips back home at Thanksgiving and Christmas and summer, trips that gradually dwindled to every-other Christmas, down to “we’re going to try to make it this year, I promise.”
The glowing yellow rectangle is jammed into the parking lot of a gas station. You wonder why more don’t do that. Even so, it’s quiet, like an aging suburban library with tall metal shelves stuffed with faddish books that nobody reads anymore, hardback copies of The Thorn Birds and Michener’s Hawaii and Reader’s Digest Condensed books, stuff your grandmother devoured. You feel like you could actually relax here, it’s not filled with shouting drunk twentysomethings hogging the booths and vomiting in the bathroom sinks, no intense trucker guy sitting at the counter hissing like a ferret at anybody that walked too close, nobody with face tattoos talking about a court date. In other words, unlike every other Waffle House in Mississippi you’ve ever been in, some of which take on a palpable aura of danger at a certain point in the night.
A young woman in a pink Waffle House cap makes her way, roundabout like, to the booth you picked—what seemed like a good booth, one where you can see the unlocked back of the U-Haul, the padlock left somewhere hundreds of miles north, far north enough that you’ve given up trying to remember what gas station or terrifying motor court you left it at, tried desperately to stop trying to remember, anyway, still grinding molars and squinting eyes even as I-55 snaked across state lines from Memphis to Southaven.
Pink Hat has freckles and a big button with a picture of a little boy in a Cubs hat on it, and three or four dollar bills pinned to her starched apron, one of them fanned out prettily like an accordion. “Hey, welcome to Waffle House, what can I get you to drink,” she says without actually asking a question. “Coffee and a water, please,” you croak. You realize you haven’t talked all day, other than mumbling a quiet “thank you” to a man at a 7-11 ten hours ago.
“The coffee—well, the coffee ain’t no good,” Pink Hat laughs. “Nobody know what happen, but—but listen. You don’t want it,” she smiles, and from behind the counter there is hyena-like laughter. “Just water, then,” you manage, and then, remembering suddenly, like a second cousin you’d forgotten: “Is it your birthday?”
Pink Hat’s freckles stretch out as her smile squints her eyes into little slits. “YES!” she screams, and spins around, like an actual 360 degree spin. “Twenty four, my friend,” she says, drawing out the “four,” and spreading her arms wide like a magician, or maybe a ballet dancer.
“Awesome, happy birthday,” you say, feeling a little embarrassed that you said “awesome.” She grins and like runs off for the water.
You contemplate that maybe Waffle Houses are kind of mid-modern in design, look around at the molded plastic booths and wonder if this one is old or new, briefly consider looking up on Wikipedia if anyone has written about it. The thought of doing this fills you with a sense of shame, so instead you inhale slowly and stare out the window at the back of the U-Haul, thinking that you have paid more money to rent that lumbering thing and drive it across America than for all the mostly-Ikea furniture crammed inside, some of it now probably broken after an accidental swerve last night.
You mentally count the money in your pocket one more time, hoping you have an extra dollar for Pink Hat’s birthday, suddenly wanting more than anything in the world to see her pin that dollar to her apron.
Polaroid 600 // Impossible Project B&W // Jackson, Miss.