Just us and the boys

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Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve done a healthy amount of table-waiting and service work.

But my most memorable gig was my first — in a little white farm house. There, it was just us and “the boys.”

After my Grandma Onie passed away, something came over Grandpa Andy. The short, white-haired man may have been 82, but it’s like he suddenly turned 21. He’d spent so many years holding down a standard routine — he never stirred things up. Rarely do I remember him doing anything unexpected — until the first call to duty.

The phone rang at our house, on a Saturday.

“Melanie, can you come up to the house?” Andy asked. “I need a favor. And bring one of those sisters along.”

While the instructions were vague, I assumed he needed something cleaned. So I grabbed one of the sisters — I think it was Maria — and we jumped in the car to run over to Grandpa’s house.

His house was located on the “home place,” which was only about a quarter mile away from ours. The two houses sat on two separate hills, with a deep valley in between. Where we lived, well there was just a house and some out-buildings. Where Grandpa lived — well, that’s where all the action was. The old house (in which he was actually born) sat among the barns and cattle yards.

As I pulled into Andy’s driveway, I was stunned to see a number of vehicles parked in front of his fenced-in yard. There were a couple of old pickups and an aged car or two.

Huh, that’s strange, I thought. Would Grandpa actually have company? He normally wasn’t much for visitors — except us, and he could just walk out in the yard to see us any time he wanted.

As we walked into the front porch, I saw several pairs of overshoes on the rug. Men’s overshoes. Several pairs.

“What is going on?” Maria asked me.

“I have no idea,” I responded.

We took our shoes off and opened the door to the kitchen. Andy was standing by the kitchen table and there was a certain smell about the air — one I really couldn’t identify.

I could hear voices coming from the dining room — men’s voices.

“Finally,” he said, grinning at us. “Our waitresses are here,” he said to whoever was in the other part of the house.

As we peered inside the archway door, we saw four old men sitting around a card table on folding chairs, right in the middle of the room.

First of all, that table was never supposed to be used, according to Grandma Onie, nor were the chairs. They were supposed to be perpetually propped against a back wall in the cold sewing room to the left.

I recognized Emil and a man named John. The other two weren’t necessarily really familiar to me, although I had seen them before . . . maybe at church. All I knew is that they were all widowers, now elderly bachelors.

So, I assessed, there were four wrinkly little men at Andy’s house – and not a woman in sight. I guess Maria and I were female, but we hardly qualified as women.

“OK, here’s the deal,” Andy said, orchestrating what was about to become my first experience in waitressing. “The beer’s in the sewing room, there’s bologna and braunschweiger in the fridge, bread’s right there on the table. I’ve got a carton of cigarettes, but some of us might need help getting them lit. Find me something for ashtrays. Me and the boys are going to be playing cards this afternoon.”

I stood there stunned. Andy was entertaining.

So he went in the other room and threw a deck of cards on the table. The crazy thing was that the cards weren’t one of the old ones that Onie kept stashed in the drawer by the sink. This was a new, slick deck with a shiny green exterior that said John Deere on them. Either Andy had stashed them after a Christmas past, or he went to an implement dealer where he got them just for the occasion.

They laughed and talked, as Andy said they wanted the beer first. I got Maria started on the sandwiches – bologna ones first, because neither one of us really knew what we were supposed to do with the braunschweiger.

I headed into the cool sewing room — note I said cool, not cold. There sat a case of Old Milwaukee . . . definitely not cold, but cool.

“Grandpa, the beer isn’t very cold,” I whispered to the old guy, who was grinning so hard in a conversation with “the boys” that I could see where the top of his false teeth didn’t fit quite right against his gums.

“Hey, we’re a bunch of old Germans,” he said. “We like it warm, don’t we?” he asked the boys.

“The boys” said they did.

“I’ve got some glasses sitting by the sink, if you want to pour the beer in those,” he instructed me.

I found six of those plastic, smokey-filmed glasses, so popular during the 1970s (maybe 1960s) that you sometimes find in old-fashioned cafes. Not necessarily the best glasses from which to drink beer, but that’s what Andy wanted.

The warmish beer was foaming up, Andy said he didn’t care. As the wrinkly men drank their beer, I swear I’ve never heard so many people say, “What? Huh?” as they tried to synchronize their hearing aids in order to hold a conversation.

“Get some matches,” he said, gesturing at the table by his chair, while his arthritic fingers pulled a non-filter Lucky Strike from its package. One by one, he passed them around to the boys, instructing me to light ‘em up. I did, but sometimes one or two of them wouldn’t puff hard enough to get them burning properly. So I’d have to light them again, while they “gave it another go around.”

I wanted to open a window, but there were none with screens. Grandma Onie only believed in storm windows. There were no fans, no ceiling fans. So I just propped open the door to the porch with a chair, knowing Andy would be glad I did, after the fun subsided.

I poured beer and Maria served braunschweiger with mustard and some with Miracle Whip. Grandpa asked us if we were having fun with him and the boys, and we said we were.

And we really were. The boys told stories about stuff they did when they were young, and told us stories about stuff we’d do when we were old. They said the beer was perfect, although it was the temperature of bath water and just as sudsy. The stench of the Lucky Strikes was everywhere and I’m surprised they could even see what cards they were holding through the smoke.

But I could see – and what I saw was Andy’s gums’a’grinnin’ from ear to ear while he drank his beer, smoked those forbidden cigarettes and shot the breeze with his old buddies.

Yes, they were all in their 80s, but I swear they thought they were in their 20s.

The party didn’t last long — they each had to drive home and wanted to make sure they were sober when they did so. Each grabbed an extra sandwich to soak up the suds and thanked us girls for our hospitality.

“You’re going to be a good little waitress someday,” one of them said.

They slapped each other on the back as they said good-bye, and took turns on the wooden chair in the porch to put their boots back on — that was a long process.

Andy was thrilled with his afternoon — it showed in his brown eyes. Sure, those eyes were surrounded by wrinkles and white eyelashes. But deep down, there inside his sparkly eyes, was the soul of a young man who had just hung out with the boys.

We cleaned up the mess and Grandpa said it was time for us to go, because “he had stuff to do” — translation, it was time to take a nap in his chair.

So we headed back home and smiled at what we had just witnessed.

I was so glad Andy had that afternoon — and several others after that. And I’m glad I have that memory of being there.

Just us and the boys.



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