As an infrequent transient in this small town of Batesville, I confess that at times I feel the old souls of this place lingering around me, dwelling in the interesting remnants and observing its residents. I sit here, alone, in this sunlit open-air courtyard, surrounded in my periphery by those who live here, each of them unable to join me in my admiration for this place and this day. They are chained to their mundane duties as I experience their home. I wonder if the old souls lurking here find the humor in a visitor frolicking amidst their endeavors.
It is a noon on Friday, in the early reaches of March. Spring has already declared its foothold and despite the chilly breeze, people move with the enthusiasm that only spring can provide us. While my previous spar with itching-inducing plants still irritates me, I can’t help but enjoy the day as it unfolds.
I drove haphazardly about Batesville, vaguely looking for places of interest such as the expansive cemetery and the railroad spurs along the river, which, no matter where I find them in any small town, evoke a pungent nostalgia for a time I never lived in. The technology behind such places hasn’t evolved and though I am one to love the reaches of our creativity, I too relish the idea that we are the same nervous souls as we’ve always been, tied to places by the roots of who preceded us.
I made another loop around the railroad tracks and spurs along the boundaries of downtown, then alongside the incredible view of the river serenely passing me by. I stopped to slowly walk along the bank, wondering how many thousands of people had stood in that exact place, feeling March breezes and enjoying one of the quintessential smells of the American South. I then drove around the cemetery, a perfect blend of meandering stones and old town atmosphere, and behind the new park center being constructed. Looping around Harrison Street, I drove until the businesses and houses grew sparse and then returned. I stopped at Goodwill, hoping to find a hideous shirt to make Dawn gasp in mock disgust at my style choices. Instead, I gave my only $20 to someone who was buying a stack of clothing. I didn’t have to be in the conversation to know that she wasn’t buying out of a desire to hoard her closet with clothing – she was buying to keep it from being empty. All I said to her was, “Here, this is for you and I hope that you continue to find the luck you deserve today.” I smiled and left without granting her opportunity to reply. The clerk hollered, “Thank you so much, sir,” as the bell on the door jarred into a high-pitched clang and I made my escape.
Because I was inattentive to my whereabouts, I missed the quaint place near downtown I had chosen to invade with my appetite. As I looped around, I spotted the holy grail of double-barrel fried foods: a double location of KFC and Long John’s Silvers. I learned to distrust my hometown Long John’s; while it might lure one inside with the wafting scent of fried batter and hush puppies, there are myriad reasons to resist its deceptive Siren calls. Anytime I near such a place, I can almost hear a coven of cardiologists applauding their approval, knowing that increased visits to these places guarantee ongoing Colorado skiing vacations for them. In my defense, though, I could eat a platter of cardboard if I have tartar sauce to drown it in.
As I neared the entrance to the double restaurant, I noted a piece of paper taped inelegantly to the glass. “We no longer accept $100 bills or $100 checks,” the note indicated. Sardonically, I asked myself how often such a scenario might arise.
I approached the cashier and he said, “Buffet, I assume?” I laughed and said, “I don’t think you guys can afford to fill me up, so I’ll go for the pirate menu today.” With relief I noted I wasn’t going to have to pay with my chipped debit card. As I was getting my drink, a demure man had approached the other cashier and began ordering. There was a huge language barrier. I could make out he was ordering for 4 people in his family. I went back to the table near the buffet (to better be able to stare at what I was missing) and sat down.
From nowhere, I heard the cashier tell the gentleman, “We don’t accept $100 bills.” I groaned. “You have got to be kidding me!” I told myself. I filed away a mental note to stop mocking the notices posted on doorways as I entered them.
There were several exchanges between customer and cashier. He found an emergency $20 bill folded in his wallet. He then began a lengthy process of finding pennies, nickels and whatever loose change he could. The cashier did the same with the penny jar. I could see that he was going to be way short, so I approached and motioned to the cashier. “I’ll pay for it. All of it, if you will send it to the card reader.” I swiped my card and all 3 of the people working there came up to tell me how gracious it was for me to do so.
“We’ve got to pay it forward or there’s no point to any of this,” I laughed. “Besides, he can come back later for more with what he saved today. This tartar sauce isn’t going to eat itself.”
While I wasn’t sure the gentleman was Latino, I asked him in Spanish if he spoke Spanish, and then told him to repay the favor to someone else who needed it. His smile almost shattered the edges of his face, as it became so wide and pronounced. I felt a little piece of my heart slide away, recognizing that he hadn’t experienced many such unsolicited offers of help. I went back to my seat to eat my 77 packets of delicious tartar sauce.
As the man I had helped passed by he held out his hand, the same bright smile across his face. I shook his hand and told him to go home and enjoy his day with family. You might think he benefited more than I with our chance encounter, but the opposite is true. The gift of language united us for a brief moment, strengthened by one of the most underrated of our human powers: to help. The people working there got to forget the rush of work demands for a moment and see that we could manage to see beyond the roles of customer, stranger, and employee.
So, I sit in this courtyard, the same sun still beating down on my balding head, probably temporarily blinding anyone sauntering by the open end of the courtyard. For this day, I am thankful. Batesville’s heartbeat can still be heard and felt. For a brief day, I had the opportunity to step away from normal life and be an exclusive member of what can only be described as peace.