I didn’t recognize the waitress when I walked in; she was tall, and her curly hair was gray. She was close to the door. She smiled at me and welcomed me in.
“You’ll have to settle for a table,” she said when she spotted me eyeballing the lack of seats at the counter.
Everything is close to the door at Bertie Lou’s. The place is tiny. As you enter, you’re at one end of the counter: the kitchen right behind the bar in a space maybe 20′ long and 10′ wide. To the left is a doorway to the dining room, the same shape as the counter space/kitchen, except it had two four-tops and five two-tops, only one of which was a window seat.
On more beautiful days, there were seats outside. Today was not a more beautiful day. Even under the umbrellas, you’d be soaked and chilly.
I had wanted company, but if there were no seats where I could chat with the cook and other customers, I would, indeed, settle for a table. “Well, alright, if you insist,” I said.
“Brian!” E.’s voice came from behind the taller, older waitress. “It’s good to see you!” She was short, shorter than me. Her eyes lit up behind her glasses, and she tucked a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. She smiled.
“Oh, I was hoping you’d be here.” I smiled, too, but I felt the social pressure to move from the cramped area right by the cash register and move into the back, following Tall Waitress, so through the doorway, I walked.
I picked the two-top against the back wall because I had brought my laptop and didn’t want to disturb anyone if I had to use it. Tall Waitress asked me if I wanted coffee. “And cream, please,” I agreed.
I sat, she brought coffee but no cream. I sipped the coffee and pretended to look at the menu. E. came back shortly after, asking me how I’m doing. I don’t get to come in here very often when E. is working. It had been a while.
“I’m leaving,” she admitted, suddenly.
“Leaving… Bertie Lou’s? Portland? Sellwood?”
“Oh, no, I’m not leaving Sellwood. I’m going to stay here for as long as I can. No, my last day is in November. I’m… I’m not really sure what I’m doing, honestly.”
“Do you have something else lined up?”
“Yes! Yes. I have a job—”
“There’s a space at the counter if you want to move!” Tall Waitress interrupted genially.
“Uh, sure, that’d be great, thanks.”
E. stepped back, allowing me to grab my laptop bag. “Here, I’ll carry your coffee for you.” Tall Waitress chuckled. “See, it’s good I haven’t brought your cream yet.”
The open seat was back against the wall, not near the register. I had a great view of the cook, a bald wiry guy with a wry sense of humor. E. tried to take my order, but I had already given it to Tall Waitress.
I got my breakfast—chicken-fried pork chop with gravy, scrambled eggs, a biscuit, home fries—and ate it, while surfing on my phone, trying to keep my elbows tucked in as others sat down on either side of me, trying to chew with my mouth closed (a complaint an ex had with me, and one I’ve internalized with shame). I listened to the chatter around me, took in the faint sounds of country-western music, and felt at home.
Both E. and Tall Waitress kept my coffee mug filled. Another regular, D., came in and got a conversation going about horoscopes and astrology, which gave me an idea for a short story.
I love this place.
When I’d cleaned my plate, and had my fill of coffee (and cream), I gathered my bag and my coat and slid down to the register. E. and I smiled at each other, and I handed over my card. “I’m going to save my cash.”
I felt the urge to say… something. Something. Anything. I remembered a lovely summer afternoon, sharing tacos with E. and her doggo, on an outside table at another favorite haunt of mine.
Abruptly, she said, “Do you have my number?”
I sighed and smiled. “I was just about to ask you for that.”
I pulled out my phone and typed in her number, tapped out a text message: “Hi! It’s Brian.” Hit Send.
“I am sure I will be back in here before the end of November,” I said, “but just in case, maybe we can hang out and have tacos again sometime.”