They stopped for early supper about an hour west of the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. Grace hadn't eaten since her steel-cut oats with Ed that morning.
Betty Sue's Kitchen looked like a million other greasy spoons across the country. Dark vinyl-covered paneling, baskets of faded plastic flowers hanging from the entryway, chipped Formica tables, framed posters of nameless snowy mountain ranges and countrysides. Years of fried meals hung in the air and clung to the red-checkered curtains. From a set of speakers mounted in opposing corners, Willie Nelson ruminated about blue eyes cryin' in the rain.
"It ain't pretty," Ray admitted, "but these places have real coffee, not that fancy latte-cappu-express stuff."
A waitress shifted their direction, moving like she'd been on her feet all day, uncomfortably tight in her white blouse and black slacks, her fading blonde hair pulled into a frizzed bun and her thin lips pinched. Grace hadn't waited tables in forty years, but she empathized with the look. The woman's gaze bounced off Grace, then Benny, and settled on Ray. "What can I get you folks?"
Ray nodded at Grace to go first.
"I'll have a six-ounce sirloin, medium, with sweet potato tots. And coffee."
"Cream with that?" she asked as she scribbled on her pad.
"And you?" The waitress looked up at Ray.
He glanced at Benny. "Fried chicken?"
"We'll have two fried chicken dinners. And coffee, black. Lots of it."
"Would he like anything to drink?" the waitress asked, bobbing her head toward Benny.
"A tall glass of milk," Ray answered.
The waitress collected their menus with a singsong "thank you," and hustled off.
"They do that," Ray said, "won't talk to him."
"We have that in common, your boy and me," Grace replied.
She met Ray's blue eyes – blue eyes cryin' – and allowed he likely would notice more than most because of the child sitting next to him.
Benny pulled an eight-count box of crayons from his shorts pocket and turned his paper placemat over. He dumped the crayons on the table, picked up the white one and stuck it in the corner of his mouth like a cigarette.
"No smoking in the restaurant," Ray told him, matter-of-fact like.
"Sorry." The boy put the crayon back in the box and focused on his drawing.
Grace worked her mouth to keep from laughing.
The waitress came back with their drinks, set them on the table with tired efficiency, and left again.
Ray took a sip of his coffee. "Man, that's good." He took another loud slurp, then asked, "So what's your story, Grace?"
She glanced at him over the rim of her cup, took a sip. He got it right about the coffee being good. "My story?"
"You know why Benny and me are on the road. What's so urgent about getting to Vegas that you'd leave your car sitting on the Interstate and hitch a ride with a couple of strange dudes like us?"
"Dusty stars," Benny said without looking up from the yellow house taking shape on his placemat.
Grace stared at the top of his head, surprised, yet not. She set her coffee on the table, careful to control the tremble in her hands. "The Stardust," she corrected. "It's a casino on the Strip. They're tearing it down Thursday."
"And you want to see it before that happens," Ray guessed.
"Mind me asking why?"
Again Benny answered before she could fit two words together. "Her papa."
Grace's eyes slid from the boy to his father. Ray shrugged. "Like I said, he sees things."
Grandma James would have called him a thought reader, Grace mused.
The waitress whisked a new placemat in front of Benny while he pushed his drawing aside and shoved his crayons back into the box. "Thank you, honey," he said, startling a smile from her pinched mouth.
"You're welcome, sweetie." She set their plates in front of them and asked, "Is there anything else I can get you folks?"
Ray lifted his near-empty cup. "Keep it comin', please."
Grace folded her hands in her lap and bowed her head. Dear Lord, bless this food and those who are about to receive it. May it give us strength on our journey. Amen.
"Amen," Benny echoed.
Grace lifted her head and looked at the child. He smiled.
Fresh coffee arrived while they ate. Father and son tackled deep-fried chicken next to mounds of mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. Grace's steak was done perfect, juicy and pink in the middle, and the tots satisfied, though the cook stubbed his toe salting the gravy. When she reached her stomach's limit, she pushed her plate away and said, "Mercy, that hit the spot."
"Way I see it," Ray explained, pushing his own plate aside, "little places like this don't have a lot of money, so they spend it on good food instead of new curtains and paint." He regarded her as he brought his coffee cup up to his mouth. "What's that saying? You can't judge a book by its cover?"
Grace acknowledged the hint. She glanced at Benny still working his way through his mashed potatoes, the fried chicken reduced to a pile of stripped bones on a napkin beside his plate. "Papa was a gamblin' man," she said, her gaze moving to Ray's for his reaction.
Benny listened to Dad and Grace talk while he finished his potatoes. The chicken was okay, but not as good as Mama's. It reminded him of her anyway, and that made him content.
"Poker was his game," Grace said. "Didn't matter what kind. Long as it was a cash game, he'd play whatever his opponents liked least."
Benny heard Grace's voice change when she talked about her papa. She sounded brighter, like remembering made her content. He liked that word – content. Happy with sad around the edges. Mama used it a lot.
"Papa played all over," Grace continued. "Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis – any smoke-filled parlor or saloon or basement that had a game going. The Vegas Strip was off-limits, but on the Westside places like the Harlem Club and Brown Derby catered to black folks."
Grace stopped to take a drink of her coffee. Benny gulped his milk and handed his dishes to Dad. Then he pulled out his crayons to finish his picture.
"It ate at Papa," Grace said. "Like a lone star tick burrowing deep under his skin. Casinos on the Strip invited 'Come one, come all,' but Jim Crow guarded the doors. The likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Lena Horne could perform on their stages, but when the entertainin' was over, they were showed the back way."
"Why?" Benny asked.
"Prejudice," Dad answered.
That was another word Benny knew. When people treated you different because you weren't like them. He looked at Grace's kind face and beautiful maple syrup skin and couldn't imagine why anybody would prejudice her.
"In 1960, equal rights forced them to change their ways," Grace said. "Papa made a big deal of taking me through the front doors of the Stardust for the first time. Oh my, you should've seen him in his avocado linen suit with mother-of-pearl buttons, struttin' his stuff. He'd waited a long time to – "
She stopped talking and Benny glanced up to see her looking at him. He knew from the unhappiness on her face she almost said something she didn't think he should hear.
"It must have meant a lot to you too," Dad said in a soft voice.
Grace's eyes sparkled like she might cry. "I never want to forget it."
And that's when Benny saw what scared her. He saw what made her sad and afraid, what made her take a car that didn't belong to her. He was pretty sure of that now, too. It was so she could get back to her memories. She had trouble remembering things, just like he did sometimes. She was afraid some day she would have trouble remembering her family. Benny knew how awful that would be. He never wanted to forget his mama. Not just because she was his mama and he loved her, but because he was the reason she died. That made it his job to remember her.
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