There is an office building down on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. It’s getting to be an old structure with its brick walls and windows that you can actually open. There are two elevators that hold maybe 6 people at most. In order to get to those elevators you have to go through two glass double doors and stand in a fairly dated foyer and wait for one or the other car to show up for your trip to one of the nine floors above you.
Do you have that image in your head? Okay, good. Now, turn around and look out those double doors and beyond the sidewalk and the small trees that should have grown a little taller in the last twenty years, but haven’t. Look beyond the green and red parking meters that still make a whirring sound when you put a dime or nickel in them, that still have little plastic arms that pop up with an arrow on it pointing at lines that represent the minutes a parked vehicle has in that spot before the meter needs to be fed again (and before the dreaded ‘meter maids’ come by with their little tickets in a box and orange envelopes that tell everyone someone owes the city a couple of bucks). Keep looking across the two lane road and beyond other cars and meters to the cracked sidewalk and a building—much smaller than the one you are standing in. You’ll see a gray door almost directly ahead of you. Two your left is the corner of the building, thus the street corner as well with it’s myriad of lights and don’t walk/walk signs that tick off the seconds you have before the possibility of getting run over grows significantly.
Now, look to the right of that gray door to the small eatery with its black tinted windows and solitary glass entrance. It is within that establishment that I would like to take you. For lack of a better term, it is a mom and pop eatery—not a restaurant, but a cafe dedicated to serving the business people of downtown.
If you step inside, you will see a clean space of not much more than a hundred square feet with a table to the left and one directly in front of the door. Beyond that table by the door is a glass refrigerator like you see in the grocery stores. There are various salads and fruits and the best banana pudding in the world sitting within that little refrigerator. To the far left and in the shape of an L is a counter that stretches maybe ten feet and L’s out at about four feet. Behind it are the women—well, most of the time they are women—who work there, preparing orders with smiles and friendly conversation.
It is here, in this little establishment, that I met Vickie and her sister, Evelyn—the owners. Always smiling. Always a good word for people. I was maybe twenty or twenty-one the first time I stepped through the door to get a cup of coffee for my boss at the time. She—my boss, that is—referred to her coffee as if it were a woman. And, honestly, at the time I preferred the same type of women that her coffee was named after.
“How can I help you?” Vickie asked. She was short with light brown hair; a chubby woman with a grandmotherly smile. She was easy to warm up to.
I looked at her, maybe a little leery of what I was supposed to say. “I was told to order a cup of coffee, but to tell you that I want a tall, sweet blond.”
Vickie smiled. “This must be for Sheri.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.
And that was that. My first meeting with Vickie was for a cup of coffee for my boss. Over the next few months I ate there almost everyday. Not really knowing downtown that well, I didn’t venture out that much. Besides, the prices were pretty inexpensive.
It was during one of my visits for lunch that I noticed Vickie sitting at one of the two tables. The newspaper was spread out in front of her and, I think, she had been reading the comics section. But, the antics of Garfield and Snoopy and Hagar the Horrible aren’t important, just an added detail to the story at hand. In front of her sat an odd looking sandwich, one like I had never seen before. I puzzled over it for a minute, looking at it, but not wanting to get down and inspect the ingredients. After all, how inappropriate would that have been?
“What is that?” I finally asked.
“A Vickie Special,” she said, took a bite and chewed. A moment later, she swallowed. “It’s my own creation.”
“It looks really good.”
“Would you like one?” she asked me.
I must have smiled wide. She got up, walked behind the counter and began to prepare me a Vickie Special. She sliced a hoagie down the middle, spread mustard on one half, mayonnaise on the other. She sliced two hotdogs down the center and placed all four pieces on one slice of hoagie. Then came shredded cheese and crumbled bacon, topping it with chilli before putting the other slice of hoagie on top. Honestly, it was nothing more than a hotdog with chili and cheese and sprinkled bacon bits on it. But, in reality, it was so much more. It was a special creation that wasn’t on the menu that the creator shared with me, a kid she barely knew.
It also became my favorite sandwich. I only ordered it when no one else was around, mostly because I was being selfish. I wanted the Vickie Special for myself. Over the next couple of years I had it at least three or four times a month. I felt honored that Vickie had allowed me to partake in her own creation, something, as the name of the sandwich implies, was special.
And this is where my story takes a decided turn. Vickie became ill and her trips to the eatery became less and less frequent until she was finally hospitalized. She passed away, Cancer taking her life, her friendliness and her smile away from the world forever. Along with her death went the death of the Vickie Special.
Many folks mourned her passing. As I said, she was a nice woman, a friendly woman, someone anyone could talk to and feel at ease with. Though I still went to the little eatery, I never ordered another Vickie Special. It just didn’t feel right.
Eventually, I moved from the office across the street to a building two blocks away. My trips to the little eatery dwindled. I guess that’s partly why I am writing this. You see, like most things in life, out of sight, out of mind and I forgot about the Vickie Special.
I was hungry for a hotdog one day and thought to myself, “Self, I think I would like to eat at this place today.”
Self said back to me, in his usual dry tone. “You are telling me this, why?”
I shrugged a goofy shrug. It’s not like Self really has a say so in this. If I want to go somewhere I do, Self be damned. So I went. Halfway there I remembered… I remembered and my heart kind of sank. Yet, my stomach growled.
Let me stop for a second and explain something to the younger folk out there. I can’t expect you to understand how little things trigger memories, but the older you get, the more those little things become apparent and the more the things of your youth come back to you; the more they knock on the doors of your mind and say, “Hey, remember me?”
The little thing that triggered the memory is simple: a woman carrying a tall cup of coffee. There was no lid on the cup and I could see the coffee inside had been creamed down, making it a tall blond (whether it was sweet or not, I’ll never know). I stopped on the corner and stared after the woman. Get your minds out of the gutter, she looked nothing like you are thinking and there was no lust involved. Sheesh…
My stomach growled and I immediately thought of Vickie and her special sandwich. My mouth watered. Not that, oh-I can-smell-that-burger type of watering, but that Oh-my-goodness-I-gotta-have-that type of watering.
I made my way passed the gray door and to the black tinted glass one that separated the outside world from the eatery. A woman opened it, stepped out and I grabbed the door before it could close. Inside the temperature was considerably cooler and there were several people in the cramped space that was the patron’s side of the counter. The four workers—yes, all ladies—were busy taking orders, making sandwiches and taking money for the meals they served.
Evelyn wasn’t there.
The older blond, her cheeks rosy, a smile on her face, spoke. “Hey, it’s been a while.”
“Yeah. Too long,” I responded, taking in the menu on the wall behind her.
“What will you have today?”
“A Vic—” I stopped. We stared at each other for a moment, my mind on shutdown mode until it decided to kick back into gear. “Two chilli-cheese dogs, please. With mustard, if you don’t mind.”
“No, thanks,” I responded and tried my hand at some witticism, which I am usually quite good at. “I have to drive.” Yeah, cheesy, but it was all I could think of at the moment. For those of you who don’t get it, well, it just may be an inside joke shared with only a handful of folks.
I paid for my hot dogs and went back to my office, somewhat bummed out. For several minutes, I sat, staring at the deliciousness before me (they had loaded the dog down with chilli and lots of cheese) and thought maybe I should have went ahead and asked for the Vickie Special. Maybe I could have explained it to them and they would have made it. Maybe…
Or maybe I should just let it go.
The next day, I passed by the little café, continued along my way without going inside. My memories tugged at my shirt sleeves, saying to go inside, see if Evelyn was there and talk to her about it. But, the other part of me said to keep going, to just let the Vickie Special fade, to let it die… I stopped, looked back at the entrance, even took a step forward as if I were going to go inside and chat with Evelyn.
“Hey, can you make me a Vickie Special?” I would ask.
And she would cheerfully say, “Sure, I will. Anything for a customer.”
Or, maybe, her smile would falter, her eyebrows would raise and she would look at me in shocked disbelief or sadness… or both. And maybe it would bring up old memories of her sister, dead these many years. And how selfish would that be of me?
I turned around, made my way down the block. I haven’t been back since.
Some things are better left in the past with only memories to remind you that they were even there to begin with.
Maybe one day I’ll go back and have a couple of hot dogs, heavy on the chilli and cheese, please. I may even pick up a coffee, describe it as a tall sweet blond. But, I think the Vickie Special should be just that: special, because of who made it and that she shared it with me. And, I think it should remain in the past, buried with its creator…