Captain Bob

Lee DeCovnick
The Grill is our local breakfast cafe. You know, the one in every American town; complete has with a long counter, brown rotating stools, a couple dozens booths with wooden benches, and a mirrored rotating pie display case.  They serve tangy barbeque and slaw after 11:30 a.m., and sell 14 different kinds of whole pies including coconut cream and apricot rhubarb.

I ate there when I was ten, with my parents, while I mixed salt and pepper into the water glasses. I ate there with my junior prom date. I ate there waiting for my first child to be delivered at the local hospital. And I ate there Sunday mornings with my wife and my two toddlers. We moved away and much later we returned.

Tuesday, I stopped by the Grill, on a rare mid-week morning off from work. It was packed, a Thanksgiving week crowd full of friends and family from out town. I sat on a couch across from the cash register while waiting for an open seat at the counter, inhaling the familiar emotions from all the customers passing before me.

What first caught my eye were his bony shoulders, protruding from underneath his yellow cardigan sweater. I'm sure he was in his late 70's; rail thin, white hair still cut high and tight, pressed grey slacks and polished black loafers. Sitting at the counter hunched over a cup of coffee, he just stared vacantly straight ahead at the cooking grill.  In fact, his eyes rarely moved unless a line cook wandered into his vision. An occasional sip of coffee, but no other movement. I was totally mesmerized by this scene, until an older waitress put her hand on my shoulder and said there was seat open next to Captain Bob.

"Captain Bob?"

"Yes, the gentleman you have been staring at for the past ten minutes."

" Sorry, but....ah.. I was curious." She blinked and finally began to look at me.  I glanced at her name badge. "Betty, he seems very focused and yet...vacant, all at the same time." She smiled, looked at her watch and then firmly locked her eyes onto mine.

"Listen honey, Let's see if you can be a friend. But you have to swear to come back tomorrow at the exact same time. Otherwise I'll find you a seat in a booth, ok?"

"Ok.... uh ..how do I-"

"Just start, honey, just start"

I sat down next to Captain Bob. He didn't turn to see who was sitting next to him. Betty took my order of coffee and the number two omelet with toast and hash browns. I leaned toward Captain Bob.

"Captain?"  No response.

"Captain Bob?" No response.

"It's going to rain tomorrow....." No response. 

I carefully followed Captain Bob's gaze toward the steaming white mound of uncooked hash browns on the grill.

"Do you think the cook used enough oil on this batch?" A full thirty seconds passed.  Just as a bird's shadow darkens a page, the swiftest of smiles flitted across his lips.

"He never uses enough." Bob spoke with the gravelly voice of disuse, still staring straight ahead.

"Maybe butter would give the hash browns more flavor?" Again that long, long pause.

"No, butter smokes at a much lower temperature than oil, so you can cook more batches with oil in a shorter amount of time."

I had to push the envelope.

"So Captain, are there any other variables that determine the flavor profiles of these hash browns?" He slowly turned away from the grill and looked intently at my face while his eyes probed deep into my psyche.

"Moisture content of the hash browns varies greatly from batch to batch, depending on the processors' plant, the potato varietals, the brand specifications, and the seasonality of the harvest." And instantly the light went out from his eyes. He turned slowly back toward the grill, focused his vacant stare on the hash browns, and took a sip of coffee.

Betty has been standing next to me with my order in her hand. She put the plate down and placed her hands on mine.

"Honey, that was just wonderful. Captain Bob hasn't spoken like that for over two years. You are a dear friend. I can't wait to tell Emilio about today, he will be thrilled."

"Emilio is his.....?"

"Nurse and driver. He drives Captain Bob to The Grill every weekday around 10:30 and picks him up after lunch at 1:00. We save the same seat for him. He stares at the menu for more than half an hour, but always ends up pointing at the tuna fish sandwich on sourdough toast, hash browns and cup of coffee.  Oh, plenty of folks come by and try to talk to Captain Bob, but you're the only one to get anything back in long time."

"I'm guessing that Captain Bob was not always like this?"

"Heavens no, Captain Bob had a full life for 72 years until this horrible disease started to take him away. I served him lunch for almost 15 years, so I know him pretty well."  Betty stared at me a few seconds and wiped the tears from her eyes. "Now you promised me would be here tomorrow. Captain Bob has never remembered anyone more than twice, and then the entire memory of that person is erased, or blocked or whatever happens, forever. So you must be here tomorrow for a second visit, while he still has some notion of who you are."

I went home, called into work and told them I needed to take a personal holiday. No problem.

Wednesday morning I was at The Grill by 10:20, Betty was already there, hustling tables.

Emilio assisted Captain Bob to his stool, handed him a menu and sat down beside him. Emilio was in his late 60's, silver hair and the graceful body of aging athlete. His warm smile and warm eyes were delightfully happy. I sat next to Emilio while Captain Bob went through the menu.

"So, Betty tells me you got quite a response from the Captain?"

"Yes it seems so, .... uh, not Captain Bob, he was actually your captain? In the military?"

"Betty said you were smart. Yes, the captain saved my life in Vietnam more than few times; he actually saved dozens of us with his brains and instincts. He was a very bright man too. So now I pay him back by looking after him every day. After all he gave me the past 35 years with my wife, kids and grandkids. Seems like the right thing to do."

"So, Emilo...how long do I...we... have, if the door opens?"  The silence stretched forward.

"Maybe three minutes, probably less."

"Achilles and Odysseus?"  Emilio stared at me for long time and smiled.

Captain Bob finished his sandwich and hash browns, and began the vacant stare at the grill. Betty must have told everyone, as the entire café had become quiet.  I looked over at her and she just nodded. I turned back to Emilio, and he held up three fingers.

"Captain?"  No response.

"Captain Bob?" No response.

"It's going to rain tomorrow....." No response.

I took a deep breath.  "Captain, how were the hash browns today?" A faint smile flashed almost at once. Emilio mimed the downward motion of a stopwatch.

"Better than yesterday. Still not enough oil" he rasped, staring straight ahead.

"Captain, Emilio thinks you should look at Betty, she's here standing next to me."  He spun around on his stool. "You should say hello to your wife."

Bob's eyes glowed brightly." Ask Betty, did she sell The Grill?"

"No she didn't Captain, its still here and Betty is still running it. Please talk to Betty she's standing right here, next to me."  A long pause then Emilio held up one finger.

"Betty? ...Betty..... did Jenny graduate last year?"

"Yes honey, she graduated, got married and she has two kids, one is eight and and the other is five. Do you remember Jeff?"

" He loves baseball, I'd like to see one of his games."

" Jeff's a lawyer in Florida now. He and Cindy have two great kids. I love you honey, so much! What can we do to help you?" A much longer pause as Bob's chest heaves and he began to sob. Emilio holds up a second finger.

"I love.... having lunch ...with you... each day. Emilio, you're looking old my friend...... Betty ....I..uh.... I ... will always love...---" The light in his eyes quickly faded. Captain Bob, tears still streaming down his face, slowly turned back toward the grill and took a sip of coffee. 

Thanksgiving truly is family and memories.
The Grill is our local breakfast cafe. You know, the one in every American town; complete has with a long counter, brown rotating stools, a couple dozens booths with wooden benches, and a mirrored rotating pie display case.  They serve tangy barbeque and slaw after 11:30 a.m., and sell 14 different kinds of whole pies including coconut cream and apricot rhubarb.

I ate there when I was ten, with my parents, while I mixed salt and pepper into the water glasses. I ate there with my junior prom date. I ate there waiting for my first child to be delivered at the local hospital. And I ate there Sunday mornings with my wife and my two toddlers. We moved away and much later we returned.

Tuesday, I stopped by the Grill, on a rare mid-week morning off from work. It was packed, a Thanksgiving week crowd full of friends and family from out town. I sat on a couch across from the cash register while waiting for an open seat at the counter, inhaling the familiar emotions from all the customers passing before me.

What first caught my eye were his bony shoulders, protruding from underneath his yellow cardigan sweater. I'm sure he was in his late 70's; rail thin, white hair still cut high and tight, pressed grey slacks and polished black loafers. Sitting at the counter hunched over a cup of coffee, he just stared vacantly straight ahead at the cooking grill.  In fact, his eyes rarely moved unless a line cook wandered into his vision. An occasional sip of coffee, but no other movement. I was totally mesmerized by this scene, until an older waitress put her hand on my shoulder and said there was seat open next to Captain Bob.

"Captain Bob?"

"Yes, the gentleman you have been staring at for the past ten minutes."

" Sorry, but....ah.. I was curious." She blinked and finally began to look at me.  I glanced at her name badge. "Betty, he seems very focused and yet...vacant, all at the same time." She smiled, looked at her watch and then firmly locked her eyes onto mine.

"Listen honey, Let's see if you can be a friend. But you have to swear to come back tomorrow at the exact same time. Otherwise I'll find you a seat in a booth, ok?"

"Ok.... uh ..how do I-"

"Just start, honey, just start"

I sat down next to Captain Bob. He didn't turn to see who was sitting next to him. Betty took my order of coffee and the number two omelet with toast and hash browns. I leaned toward Captain Bob.

"Captain?"  No response.

"Captain Bob?" No response.

"It's going to rain tomorrow....." No response. 

I carefully followed Captain Bob's gaze toward the steaming white mound of uncooked hash browns on the grill.

"Do you think the cook used enough oil on this batch?" A full thirty seconds passed.  Just as a bird's shadow darkens a page, the swiftest of smiles flitted across his lips.

"He never uses enough." Bob spoke with the gravelly voice of disuse, still staring straight ahead.

"Maybe butter would give the hash browns more flavor?" Again that long, long pause.

"No, butter smokes at a much lower temperature than oil, so you can cook more batches with oil in a shorter amount of time."

I had to push the envelope.

"So Captain, are there any other variables that determine the flavor profiles of these hash browns?" He slowly turned away from the grill and looked intently at my face while his eyes probed deep into my psyche.

"Moisture content of the hash browns varies greatly from batch to batch, depending on the processors' plant, the potato varietals, the brand specifications, and the seasonality of the harvest." And instantly the light went out from his eyes. He turned slowly back toward the grill, focused his vacant stare on the hash browns, and took a sip of coffee.

Betty has been standing next to me with my order in her hand. She put the plate down and placed her hands on mine.

"Honey, that was just wonderful. Captain Bob hasn't spoken like that for over two years. You are a dear friend. I can't wait to tell Emilio about today, he will be thrilled."

"Emilio is his.....?"

"Nurse and driver. He drives Captain Bob to The Grill every weekday around 10:30 and picks him up after lunch at 1:00. We save the same seat for him. He stares at the menu for more than half an hour, but always ends up pointing at the tuna fish sandwich on sourdough toast, hash browns and cup of coffee.  Oh, plenty of folks come by and try to talk to Captain Bob, but you're the only one to get anything back in long time."

"I'm guessing that Captain Bob was not always like this?"

"Heavens no, Captain Bob had a full life for 72 years until this horrible disease started to take him away. I served him lunch for almost 15 years, so I know him pretty well."  Betty stared at me a few seconds and wiped the tears from her eyes. "Now you promised me would be here tomorrow. Captain Bob has never remembered anyone more than twice, and then the entire memory of that person is erased, or blocked or whatever happens, forever. So you must be here tomorrow for a second visit, while he still has some notion of who you are."

I went home, called into work and told them I needed to take a personal holiday. No problem.

Wednesday morning I was at The Grill by 10:20, Betty was already there, hustling tables.

Emilio assisted Captain Bob to his stool, handed him a menu and sat down beside him. Emilio was in his late 60's, silver hair and the graceful body of aging athlete. His warm smile and warm eyes were delightfully happy. I sat next to Emilio while Captain Bob went through the menu.

"So, Betty tells me you got quite a response from the Captain?"

"Yes it seems so, .... uh, not Captain Bob, he was actually your captain? In the military?"

"Betty said you were smart. Yes, the captain saved my life in Vietnam more than few times; he actually saved dozens of us with his brains and instincts. He was a very bright man too. So now I pay him back by looking after him every day. After all he gave me the past 35 years with my wife, kids and grandkids. Seems like the right thing to do."

"So, Emilo...how long do I...we... have, if the door opens?"  The silence stretched forward.

"Maybe three minutes, probably less."

"Achilles and Odysseus?"  Emilio stared at me for long time and smiled.

Captain Bob finished his sandwich and hash browns, and began the vacant stare at the grill. Betty must have told everyone, as the entire café had become quiet.  I looked over at her and she just nodded. I turned back to Emilio, and he held up three fingers.

"Captain?"  No response.

"Captain Bob?" No response.

"It's going to rain tomorrow....." No response.

I took a deep breath.  "Captain, how were the hash browns today?" A faint smile flashed almost at once. Emilio mimed the downward motion of a stopwatch.

"Better than yesterday. Still not enough oil" he rasped, staring straight ahead.

"Captain, Emilio thinks you should look at Betty, she's here standing next to me."  He spun around on his stool. "You should say hello to your wife."

Bob's eyes glowed brightly." Ask Betty, did she sell The Grill?"

"No she didn't Captain, its still here and Betty is still running it. Please talk to Betty she's standing right here, next to me."  A long pause then Emilio held up one finger.

"Betty? ...Betty..... did Jenny graduate last year?"

"Yes honey, she graduated, got married and she has two kids, one is eight and and the other is five. Do you remember Jeff?"

" He loves baseball, I'd like to see one of his games."

" Jeff's a lawyer in Florida now. He and Cindy have two great kids. I love you honey, so much! What can we do to help you?" A much longer pause as Bob's chest heaves and he began to sob. Emilio holds up a second finger.

"I love.... having lunch ...with you... each day. Emilio, you're looking old my friend...... Betty ....I..uh.... I ... will always love...---" The light in his eyes quickly faded. Captain Bob, tears still streaming down his face, slowly turned back toward the grill and took a sip of coffee. 

Thanksgiving truly is family and memories.