Ambushed by Beauty and Chicken Nuggets

Stephen Williams: This is not what I thought I’d be doing at twenty-seven…

I pull my car into an empty spot in the K-Mart parking lot that lies just behind our store. Glancing at the clock, I say to myself, You’re pushing it, bro. Regardless, I stop to take a deep breath before heading inside. A thought begins to cross my mind. I attempt to rebuke it, but instead I think it anyway.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing at twenty-seven…

It’s the same observation I make at the beginning of every shift at Chick-fil-A, regardless of how many times my arrogance in entertaining it has been reprimanded over the past two months. I love the company, and I am grateful for the environment here and for the paycheck, but it’s humbling to tell many of my accomplished, high-flying friends that I am not currently doing something more “impressive” with my life. I know this thought is patently wrong on so many levels, yet I still have a hard time pushing it away as I walk through the front door.

Nora, one of our cashiers who effectively functions as the store grandmother, greets me with her thick North Carolina accent and reminds me that it is Family Night – easily the best night of any week at the store. She follows up, “You get to see your babies tonight!” I can’t help but grin at the prospect of the dozens of laughing kids who will arrive in a few hours. Why are you complaining again?

For now, I concentrate on prepping the dining room for the evening rush. I restock the condiment bar, make sure the bathrooms are functional and well-supplied, and search for renegade nuggets hiding beneath the booths. It’s golden hour outside, and, as usual, my heart picks up a little to see the light stream into the mostly empty restaurant. Thank God for my “window on the west” that allows me to track the sun through each moment of its happy farewell.

As I’m washing the entrance windows, however, I open the door for a haggard older man who steps into the vestibule but doesn’t enter the dining room. He’s still there five minutes later when I pop the door open and tell him he’s welcome to come in take a load off his feet. He murmurs something about wanting to get in from the cold as he shuffles inside and sits down. His left hand is holding a black plastic bag that appears to be clinging to a glass bottle. I fight back a tear, and my chest starts to ache a little.chicken

I move on to the windows on the other side, scrubbing furiously as I struggle to know how to respond to the gentleman. I can’t do NOTHING! “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat…” But what if he’s not homeless? I don’t want to insult his dignity…

I decide to get him a glass of water, if for no other reason than to attempt to console my conscience. He smiles gratefully. It is only after I am walking way that I remember the rest of the verse. “I was thirsty and you gave me water to drink…” It is too much. I walk quickly to the bathroom and shut the stall door and attempt to compose myself. He’s gone when I come back out.

There’s not much time to ponder the man apart from breathing a quick prayer for him as the dinner rush comes in. In a matter of fifteen minutes, the store goes from near total silence to utter chaos with the presence of children. I can’t help but grin as I watch the once-spotless dining room transform into a laughter-filled disaster zone. It is a beautiful chaos.

Amidst taking refill requests, talking to both parents and children, and the never-ending search for those renegade nuggets, I catch myself glancing impatiently toward the entrance. Come on, guys! What’s taking y’all so long!

I’m referring to Noah (6) and Wyatt (3), the brothers who are singlehandedly responsible for at least fifty percent of my favorite moments as a CFA employee. My wait ends as Noah comes tearing through the front door like a heat-seeking missile. He sights me immediately, lets out a yell that I think says my name, and then hits me with a flying tackle. Wyatt’s entrance is slower and much more quiet, but as I kneel down to greet him, he grabs my hand and squeezes it as hard as he can. Ten seconds pass by until he ends his silence by asking me, as he does every week, why I carry a white towel around with me all the time. He’ll probably be a philosopher, based on the number of questions he asks. Man, this kid could be teaching Plato and Pascal one day… Another grin crosses my face.

But the tyranny of the crowded dinner hour means that I have trashcans to empty and ketchup to restock and ice cream cones to make. I bid the boys goodbye for a bit and try to get caught up with the rest of the customers. In the process, I hastily shake the hand of Sam, one of our regulars, and encourage a couple folks seated on the western side of the store to take a look at the fiery sky outside. I pause briefly to observe an elderly couple spending three or four minutes blessing their food. It is a scene I witness often around here, yet I never can quite get over its sacredness.

chickElsewhere, a toddler begins to wail, and I catch the distressed glance of her young mother, stranded at her table with a sleeping baby in her arms. I hasten over and learn that she needs some silverware. She is clearly exhausted, and the gratitude written across her tired face makes me wonder if I haven’t instead handed her a million dollars.

You should pray with her…

…and so I do, clumsily, it feels like, but asking that somehow she would know that her exhaustion is not in vain. I leave her, hoping to have blessed and not offended.

Half an hour later, Wyatt grabs my attention again. He has obtained an orange balloon sword from Snookums, our Family Night clown. “Hey buddy! May I borrow your sword? Here, bend down on one knee… I dub thee, ‘Sir Wyatt!’” His smile pushes his chubby cheeks back as far as they can go. “Your turn!” he says. I bow my head over. “Knight Stephen!” he announces loudly, and then whispers solemnly, “Can you knight me again?” It is if he knows that this ceremony is no mere game. I fight back the tears again.

To think you didn’t even want to come to work today…

But the crowd has to leave eventually and they do, and I start my frantic two-hour closing routine with the memory of the children’s laughter fresh on my memory. My mood is noticeably brighter, and it occurs to me as I scrub the toilets that beauty – in its many forms – has yet again saved my evening, regardless of the fact that my initial outlook toward the night had teetered on the edge of smug ingratitude. The beauty you seek is not elsewhere, bro. You know that! Keep your eyes open. It’s often right in front of you…

The closing manager’s yell breaks me out of my reverie. “Get that dining room clean, Stephen!” I nod, sigh a little and smile, and then bump my mopping speed up a few notches to about 115%. It’s never quite fast enough

But soon the mop is put up and the trash is taken out and I get the nod that signals permission for me to go home. 10:20pm…not bad. The wind is icy as I leave out the back door, but I hardly feel it from the constant motion of the last six hours. A fog has settled in just above the now-quiet city of Salem, and I walk slowly through the dark parking lot to my car.

This is not what I thought I’d be doing at twenty-seven…

The thought hits me again, but with a far different force than before. It is humbling to work here, but not in the way that implies shame. Who am I to so readily dismiss a job where I witness the entire spectrum of human emotion during the course of a single shift? Who am I to think ill of this chance to observe – over and over again – the miracle of childhood and the poignancy of prayer? Who am I to think that the transcendent things that happen every night in a southern Virginia fast food joint are in any way of lesser importance than those that happen elsewhere?

Who am I? I am just a fellow traveler, seeking a Homeland along with each of the souls I met tonight. And that is enough.


Stephen Williams is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and lives in Roanoke, VA.

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