He wondered why it was he felt so happy in redneck beer joints, the ones where they played country music on the jukebox, or played it live, like in Tootsie’s. He hated cigarette smoke, and most of those places in the winter were for him “come home and burn your clothes” places. Or just undress in the yard and throw the clothes on the porch to send to the laundry. Don’t bring them in the house, with their galloping stench and carcinogenic spoor. “The singer plays for tips,” it said somewhere near the door, or near the path to the bathroom, a white cardboard hand-labeled sign on a jar stuffed with dollar bills. He guessed it was a pickled-egg jar once.
But there was something in Tootsie’s, something in all those places, that spoke comfort to him, deep comfort and rootedness. “Here you belong,” it said. “This is a part of you, this is your upbringing and culture, your beef broth and marrow. Here is where you should be, here you have been, and here a part of you always stayed even when you were off East.” You had left then, on a train to Boston, or your body did, but you brought it back, and you had the good sense in Tootsie’s to put your ass down on that plastic-covered steel-leg chair, and wait, no hurry, for the waitress. Wait for the tight jeans and twangy syllables, wait for her to come and see “what you-uns want.”
And she had it, the waitress, had what he wanted, more than she would ever guess, more than her cold beer and popcorn bags from the clip rack behind the bar. She had what he had needed all those years he was gone. It was more than just the feel of home and accretions of memories revived, though that was surely there. It was as though the waitress, the singer on the flat top playing for tips, the chairs scraping against the floor, the sunlight slanting through the open door, the pictures taped to the walls, as though all these things were part of an unspoken statement of acceptance, an unvoiced gathering in of his strengths and strangeness, of all he had learned and all the things he had worried about, and now knew were pointless. “Yes,” the waitress said to him, “You’ve been gone. But now you’re back. And high time, too.”