No amount of soothing words on my part could end that nerve-grating tantrum. It wasn't long before Joyce had had enough and, screeching to a halt off a nearby exit, hopped out of the van and dealt some old-fashioned Southern mother discipline. Nothing drastic, mind you -- we don't believe in beating our young'uns half to death, the way our parents did back in old days -- but she delivered just enough of a "leg-pop" to end Makenna's demand for Sun Chips and bring blessed silence to the interior of the Town & Country once again. Looking around, I saw everyone was in need for a pit-stop and, since it was already approaching six in the evening, I suggested "Why don't we stop somewhere nice and eat? Maybe Cracker Barrel?"
That seemed to lift everyone's flagging spirits considerably. Cracker Barrel has always been a favorite restaurant with the Kelly family. The rustic setting, high-backed rocking chairs on the front porch, Southern-themed antiques hanging from the walls and ceiling, and gallon upon gallon of sweet tea... all make for a comforting atmosphere for folks who grew up eating in Grandma's kitchen instead of a prim-and-proper dining room.
So we detoured off an exit just outside Atlanta. Everyone was hungry and ready to eat. Fortunately, we hit the restaurant at just the right time; we were ushered to our table with no waiting involved. Customarily around suppertime, you can wait up to an hour or more for a table at Cracker Barrel, but this time we were sitting at our table within the span of forty-five seconds. The waitress, who seemed new and inexperienced -- she wore no year-commemorating stars on her brown apron -- showed up to take our orders. Our drink orders were a no-brainer... sweet tea all around. When it came to ordering our food, Joyce and I decided that the catfish plate would be a good choice. So we placed our order and waited. The kids occupied themselves with Cracker Barrel coloring books and that weird triangular puzzle with the colored pegs that graces each table.
When our food arrived and the plates were set before us, a pall of silence fell over the Kelly family (which can be both disturbing and a bit frightening, considering that we, as a bunch, are never silent for more than two seconds at a time). "Hope you enjoy your meal," piped the waitress, then left. My wife looked down at her plate. Anpeculiar expression crossed her face; sort of like she had been clubbed between the eyes with a ball-peen hammer. Uh-oh, I thought. This isn't good.
Lately, Cracker Barrel has been doing what every other restaurant chain has been doing since that mini gas crisis happened a couple of years ago; you know when gas reached three bucks and more a gallon? They've been trying to con the consumer into believing that less-bang-for-your-buck is a good deal, increasing prices while becoming downright stingy with their portions. They no longer bring out a heaping plate of cat-head biscuits and cornbread muffins, but ask which one you prefer and bring you out one or two for the duration of your entire meal. And where they used to serve you a mountain of turnip greens or hashbrown casserole, they now plop down a portion that had to be doled out with the smallest ice cream scouper imaginable.
Well, this evenings meal was no exception. When Joyce appraised her plate she found the following items: a small thimble-sized bowl of cole slaw, five steak fries, and a sorry little piece of breaded and fried catfish. One measly piece... not the two generous pieces that we were normally accustomed to.
Makenna couldn't help but giggle when she saw that tiny, curled-up piece of catfish. "Hey, Mama, that sort of looks like a dog turd!" she said out loud. And she was right. It looked more like something Old Yeller would have left out front of the cabin porch than anything that should have come out of a frying pan. We all thought that was funny and had a big laugh about it... except Joyce. That bewildered expression remained on her face and then her countenance slowly took on a brilliant crimson hue; one that I was quite familiar with, given that we have been married for going on twenty years. Joyce is the sweetest, kindest woman on the face of the earth and I'm blessed to have her as my blushing bride. But you don't rile her. And with this sorry plate of food, Cracker Barrel had just crossed the line.
She lifted her eyes from her plate and stared at me, causing my mirth to wither in mid-chuckle. Instantly, an old Southern saying sprang to mind... one that rings true today as much as it did years ago. "If Mama ain't happy... ain't NOBODY happy!"
Immediately, a hush fell across the supper table. The kids grew silent and averted their eyes from their mother, as if afraid that her sudden wrath might be turned mercilessly in their direction. "Let's call the waitress over and tell her," I suggested. Joyce wouldn't hear of it, though. "No, she said in a calm that spoke volumes about repressed rage and self-control. "I'll take care of it later." She lifted her fork. It hovered above the turd-sized catfish filet for an uneasy moment, then began to pick at it, breaking away the breaded crust, revealing the tender white meat underneath. In my mind's eye, I pictured a hungry lioness dissatisfied with a particularly puny gazelle she had been forced to settle for on the African savannah.
"But it won't be any trouble at all," I said, starting to lift my hand to hail our server. Joyce's eyes blazed from the opposite side of the table. "I SAID... I'll take care of it."
So there we sat, mostly in silence, eating our meager $7.99 meal, which should have been enough to fill our bellies, but, sadly, didn't come close. The waitress had left our ticket when bringing our plates. Frankly, I think she knew she had screwed up. We never saw her again during the course of our meal. No coming out to see if we wanted dessert. No prompt and friendly refills of sweet tea, which, in my wife's eyes, is as heinous and unpardonable as home-made sin.
Needless to say, no tip was left on the table when we departed. "Take the kids to the toy section while I take care of this," Joyce said. As she picked up the meal ticket for $33.75, I couldn't help but think that the scrap of paper resembled someone's death warrant in her hands. "Come on, guys," I said, hustling the young'uns off to the toy corner. "Mama's got some business to attend to."
At the toy section, the kids occupied themselves with Beany Babies and toy trucks, while I nervously glanced toward the sales counter. When Joyce finally got her turn at the register and the cashier asked her "How was your meal this evening?" it was at that moment that she let loose... not angrily or making a big scene, but in well-measured words. I couldn't hear what was taking place from where I stood, but I could imagine. A disturbed look crossed the cashier's face and she quickly called for the store manager.
I looked around the Cracker Barrel gift shop, at all the browsing customers, oblivious to what was about to go down, and a phrase from my youth crossed my mind. That niave warning the school teachers once drummed into our heads in the event that a thermonuclear device might be detonated in our rural neighborhood. "Duck and Cover!" As the chubby Cracker Barrel manager strolled out, dressed in shirt and tie, wearing a no-nonsense look on his face, I looked over at my wife standing there, more than ready. An image of the Enola Gay opening its bay doors over an unsuspecting Hiroshima flashed before my eyes.
Again, no fuss or fight evolved, drawing stares of dismay and fear from the restaurant patrons. And, thankfully, no local law enforcement was called to settle the situation. Joyce handled it in her own cool and collected manner. As my wife voiced her displeasure, a stricken expression crossed the manager's brow and his face paled several shades (which was a feat in itself, considering that he was of African-American decent). A moment later, Joyce called to us from the front door. "Let's go!" Soon, we where back in the van and on the road again.
"So... what happened?" I finally asked after a few minutes.
"Well, we didn't have to pay for it," she replied and that was really all that was said about that particular confrontation.
I was well aware that Joyce was more than glad to pay for whatever she ordered and, in no way, would attempt to swindle a free meal from her favorite restaurant. But when it came down to a food portion that looked more at home at the bottom of a pooper-scouper than on a supper plate, my wife was ruthless and showed absolutely no mercy.