This is a story I wrote about one of the many interesting evenings that I experienced during my tenure as a waiter at Denny’s:

The ceiling fans spun lazily as I wiped banana, and drops of melted ice cream from a table in my section.  A young couple with two energetic toddlers had just occupied it, and unfortunately for me, they opted to go ahead and have dessert — a banana split. I think they took pity on me as I saw they added a hefty 25% on their credit card as a tip.

As I finished cleaning the sticky softserve from my hands, I saw a young woman, no more than thirty, walk in alone. She held her arms crossed and close to her body, nor looking up as she passed through the double doors. She was dressed in a black pants, and a black button-down blouse, nice but not dressy. She had long, curly brunette hair. She was pretty, but not beautiful. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I had the feeling she was a woman who’d had a long day. I could relate.

I finished resetting my table and walked back behind the counter to drop off my rags, while our hostess Tara greeted the woman with her usual cheer, which is to say, not very much. Tara sat the woman at table 3, over in the corner, which seemed to suit the woman just fine. I instinctively cringed as I realized she was most likely a ‘steader.

‘Steaders (ala homesteaders) were what we called customers who would come in, usually alone, and order a cup of coffee or a slice of pie, then proceed to sit around for hours; reading a book, scribbling in a notepad, or cramming for a midterm.

It wasn’t that they were any trouble, quite the opposite, but they did cut into your tips for the night. If you got hit with a ‘Steader, they would take that table out of circulation for half your shift; costing you nearly a third of your total tips for the night. For a 19 year-old trying to save up for his first car, this was almost a capital offense.

Resigned to my fate, I walked up to the table. I could see she hadn’t looked at the menu, it was still resting where Tara had placed it. “Something to drink?” I asked, pulling out my pad on the off-chance she wanted to order the steak and shrimp.

“Just coffee. And a slice of chocolate cake, please.” Maybe a really long week.

I put my blank pad back in my apron, and typed in the order on the computer. Tara gave me an apologetic smile and a shrug as she served the coffee for me. Least she could do, I suppose. I went to the chiller to pull out the cake. I cut out the slice, placed it on a plate and licked some chocolate off my fingers.

As I washed my hands, I looked up and saw the lady lazily stirring her sugar into the coffee, her chin resting on one hand. I realized she must have had a bad month.

I walked the cake over, and gave her the customary “Anything else” as I was starting to turn away. She looked up at me for the first time, and I was immediately stopped by her murky brown eyes. They betrayed a weary, torn existence. It was patently clear she had not had a very good year.

“Could I have a candle?” She managed a sheepish smile, and in spite of myself I grinned back.

“Your birthday?” I asked, hoping maybe I could keep that smile of hers going a little longer.

She shook her head, and her dark, curly hair fell like a shadow over half of her face. Her eyes darted down to the table, and then back up to me. “My husband’s. He would be 35 today.”

Ah, crap. I thought. Hey Shane, how does that Reebok taste? Maybe you should get it out of your mouth before you gag on it. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t—” Brilliant save; you’re a regular T.S. Elliot, you wordsmith you.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine.” She flashed that smile again.

“I’ll see what I can do. You want the trick ones that come back on?” Okay, you’re not allowed to talk anymore.

I spent the next 5 minutes tearing up the offices and storeroom, but to no avail. I grabbed Tara after she finished seating a party of teens from the high school band coming in after a competition, and asked her to go to the Target across the street, and pick a pack of candles up for me. “Here’s a twenty” I said. “Keep the change, just get it, please.” She tried to protest, but when I explained it to her, she was gone and back before I knew it.

I brought the package over, placed the candle on the cake and lit it. The lady looked at it for few seconds, closed her eyes, and blew it out. Tara peeked over from behind my shoulder, almost in tears. I couldn’t blame her.

Don’t. Don’t ask it. I told myself. You don’t want to know. “So what’d you wish for?” Dumbass!

She looked up at me again, those eyes were almost too much to bear. “Happiness” she said.

Ouch. You think that made her feel any better, genius? “Well, I-I’m sure you’ll get it.” Real reassuring, good one. “I heard a story once—” I stammered, and then kneeled down at the end of the table, so we were at eye level.

I went on. “It was about an ancient Chinese Emperor who commissioned his three wisest men to come up with one single phrase that would apply to all occasions. The story goes they spent nearly a year pondering, when finally the youngest of the three returned to the emperor, with a scroll. ‘Here it is’ he said.”

“What did it say?” I could tell the lady was almost crying. To be totally honest, I almost was too.

“It said, ‘And this, too, shall pass.’ The Emperor rewarded him with riches, and made him his chief advisor in all matters from that day, until the day he died.”

She smiled, and nodded to me. “Thank you.”

I managed a smile. “Anything else?” I meant it, this time. I’d have gone to milk a cow to get her more cream, if she asked.

“No, thank you though.”

I walked into the back office, sat down, and sighed.

About five minutes later, I went out to check on her, and she was gone. On the table was ten dollars, almost double what the cake and coffee cost. Also on the table was a CD. I picked it up, and saw the cover, titled ‘Big Heart’. On the back was a picture of her, and a good-looking young man who must have been her husband.

The back cover mentioned that in August of the year before, her husband had passed away from an enlarged heart. The album, it said, was to help her get through his illness and passing.

Tara came over to see it, and when I handed it to her, she burst into tears.

I walked into the back office, sat down, and cried.

The rest of the night went by in a blur, and as I drove home, I listened to the CD. It was sweet, if a bit folksy, and surprisingly upbeat songs. It was about love, compassion, and living for the moment; all things he must have done in spades.

A few months later, she came back. This time with some friends, and she had a real meal. Well, I wouldn’t call dinner at Denny’s a “real meal”, but she enjoyed it. We talked briefly, and she told me she was now working on a second CD. Apparently some people had liked her stuff.

She said she was calling it “And this, too, shall pass”.