My Grandma Dot knew how to fling up her ruffled skirts and out-polka anyone in Furgusson. When she married Grandpa Benny, he renamed his family eatery, The Polka Dot Restaurant. He even covered the tables with polka dot cloths, and carefully painted round black dots across the wooden over-the-counter menu.
From the time I was a little kid, I remember the smells of greasy eggs and sweet waffles as the background of Grandma Dot’s booming laugh and Grandpa Benny’s quiet grin. My mom went AWOL, heading to the city and leaving me and my brother, Georgie, behind. I was bereft, even though in retrospect I know she wasn’t much of a mom – not mean or anything, just always thinking of something more interesting than her kids. Men, singing, men, music, men…We got a few cards, phone calls, and a lot of promises, but she never came back.
Georgie and me rattled around Furgusson, graduating from high school, putting off college or anything else that would get us out of town. He fixed trucks and helped cook at the restaurant. I worked as a receptionist for the town’s lawyer and waited tables.
It was comfortable here. We had friends and memories.
I had put a few too many waffles under my belt over the years, and I was soul-deep afraid that the poundage would have strangers laughing at me, as well as promptly send any man to the other side of the street. After all, even when I was a cute kid, my mom had left without a backward glance. I could laugh big like Grandma Dot, so no one but Georgie knew I was as shy as Grandpa Benny...and as restless as my missing mother.
About once a month, Georgie would frown at me over a plate of French fries and fried eggs, and say something like, “You need to move on, Kath. You need to get out and find a life.”
I’d scowl back and stab whatever I was eating with my fork. “I’ve got a life – here in Fergusson with you and Grandma Dot and Grandpa Benny. Family, y’know? And what about you?”
Georgie would shrug, maybe grin. “I got all I want.” He would gesture grandly around at the nearly empty restaurant, which even to my prejudiced eyes was chipped, worn, and tacky. But we would laugh and he would let it go for a few weeks.
And then it all fell apart. While Grandpa Benny was at the doctor’s, Grandma Dot tried to touch up the paint on the old menu. Somehow she fell off the ladder and cracked her head on the edge of the counter. She never woke up, and died two days later at the hospital. Grandpa Benny lasted less than a day after that – his heart died in his chest without Grandma Dot there to dance and laugh him through each day.
Georgie and I held the wake where it needed to be – at the Polka Dot Restaurant. We pushed back the tables, served up a buffet of all the town’s favorites, and played Grandma Dot’s polkas. We danced and ate and laughed until we all but collapsed.
And then everyone left and the silence fell.
Georgie and I faced each other over a wobbly table with a stained polka dot cloth. “Now what?” I forced out over the sobs rising in my throat.
Georgie drummed his strong fingers on the table and looked around at the chipped paint and dingy corners. “There’s a life insurance policy, as well as the restaurant.”
“I don’t care about money.”
“I want to keep this place going, Kath. I want to stay in Furgusson and make this a fun restaurant again, where folks stop by for coffee in the morning, and dinner at night so they can see their friends and listen to some music.”
“Great! I think that’s great,” I said. At the back of my mind a black hole was growing and a stale wind carried screams through my head. It was like the polka dots had widened and were swallowing me alive. I moved the cutlery around, lining it up carefully. Georgie reached over and knocked it crooked.
“I want it,” he said. “But you don’t, Kath. Stay for a month to get yourself straight and make plans. Your share of the insurance will pay for a couple of years of college and a place to stay. I know you want to get out.”
“But what if it’s a disaster?” I wailed from the bottom of my soul. “What if no one ever wants me?”
He gripped my hand. “You can always come home. The Polka Dot Restaurant will be here for you. And I will, too.” He sat back. “But once you go, I know it’ll be great for you.”
A month later, I drove out of town in an old car Georgie fixed up for me. All the way to the highway, I blasted old polka tunes. At the on ramp, I twisted back in my seat, but the restaurant was already out of view.