The old lady looked like an overclothed munchkin with two sweatshirts, pants four sizes too big for her small hips, a shawl, a ski cap, and a Girl Scout sash with badges on it. She might have been forty or eighty, and looked almost homeless. She sat at a table by herself at the Super Peruvian Chicken (Steak and cheese, Hamburgers, Double Cheeseburgers) and was carefully dipping French fries in a small cup of ketchup. She wore a beatific look, each fry adding to her joy and pleasure.
It was 9 p.m.; the restaurant’s eight tables were all occupied. I was balancing a Styrofoam plate bearing a quarter-chicken, a half-pound of brown rice and a mound of lightly sautéed vegetables. She caught my eye and nodded towards the empty chair across from her. I sat.
“Best fries! Absolutely the best.” She looked up at me with a sly smile. “Too bad I’m done with ‘em.”
I offered to buy her another order. She feigned surprise. “My! A gentleman! Don’t mind if I do.”
I gave her a five dollar bill and in a moment she was back with her second heaping and a handful of change. I shook my head. “Keep it. More fries later.”
She bobbed her head. “Thank you.”
Her name was Mary Jones, and she lived in a welfare motel a mile or so away. She spent most of her time walking, she told me, and thought she covered ten to twelve miles daily. She pointed to the Fitbit watch on my left wrist. “You walk too?”
I told her I did, though only three or four miles, tops.
She got up, got a can of lemonade from the cooler. When she went to pay, the young woman behind the cash register smiled and shooed her away.
She came back to the table, popped open the can and drank daintily. “You know,” she said, lowering her voice. “All these people, they’re immigrants. The restaurant is open twelve hours a day. They work hard!”
We ate in silence for a while, and then I pointed with my fork to her sash. “A little old to be a Girl Scout, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “That? That’s not mine! I found it on the sidewalk. I wear it because that way, maybe the girl who earned all these badges will see me, and I can give it back to her.”
She slowed a bit over the third batch of fries. I learned she’d been a military wife, but her husband had divorced her just before retiring. She had three children, two daughters and a son, and they were all doing very well. One was in Korea, married to a soldier. The other two had good jobs, children, and lived in California. She herself had graduated from Vassar many years ago and had traveled all over the world. “Germany, I didn’t like the people much. France, I did.”
I told her I was French.
“Bless you,” she said, and started humming La Marseillaise between fries. “Lovely country. I don’t know why everyone says the French are rude. I found them very… nice.” She smiled with a hint of flirtation and said, “I thought your name was Perry.”
She said, “Oh, like the chateau?”
“Lovely.” The fries were almost gone. “Goodness. I won’t be able to eat for a week!” She wiped down her side of the table with napkins, and gathered her stuff. There was a large plastic handbag with flowers on it, a backpack, a brown paper bag with grease stains and a small, once elegant purse. She also had two gimme plastic water bottles on a belt she wore like a bandolier so it made an X with the sash across her chest. I offered to drive her home.
She shook her head. “I like to walk.”
I said it was cold and getting colder, and it would not be any trouble at all.
“Such a gentleman,” she said, and went out the door.