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The Woman at the Cracker Barrel

She had gray piercing eyes and as she starred back at me I noticed a hint of a smile. Just a small smile and just enough to know she approved. I was oblivious to those around me; the traveling families, the overeaters, the comfort food lovers, the wait staff rushing orders to tables.

As a photographer, my depth of field was narrow. All the activity in this busy restaurant was blurred except for the view of this woman from across the room. She was sharp and clear, she was there, she was looking my way.

I could see her face, but I wanted to hear the poetry of her voice-her sound print on humanity. I wanted to hear her laughter, her crying - the voice she speaks when she is telling a story or when she is singing aloud in a historic, old church. I wanted to hear her accent - that voiceprint which makes us all unique and brands us with our region. That sound which rolls off the tongue and is shaped by our lips which gives any word personality and a life unto it’s own.

But, I knew I'd never hear her voice. She would never speak to me and I would never speak to her. At least not here.

Her skin was smooth and almost pale in nature. The gentle tones and lack of creases tell me she is probably half my age, but in many ways she is so much older than I.

She can look back at me and no words really need to be said. She is but a stranger amongst other strangers, hanging around the room, looking back with gazes of emptiness…yet she smiled. She showed humanity. She showed kindness. And she made me smile back at her, even though I know she is looking through me. Looking somewhere else, at someone else.

The thoughts in my head are broken with a jarring rapidity of motion. A large shape blocks my gaze like the moon in front of the sun. “Are you ready to order, sir?” I look down hastily at the menu and try to satisfy my server’s question with a response. My mind goes through the decision process of the usual favorites; would it be turkey and dressing or chicken and dumplings? A child cries for a bottle in the next room. “I’ll have the turkey and dressing please,” I tell her as she scratches away on her order pad. “That’ll be out in just a few minutes. Anything else?” she replies. “Nope, thanks.” I tell her and she moves onto the next table of hungry patrons.

I look back across the room and the woman is still there. Still smiling with that content look. But now, a group of kids with blue baseball uniforms are lining the tables directly in front of her. Their coach tries to keep the energetic players sitting in their chairs and the glasses on the tables from falling onto the floor. She doesn’t notice them. She just smiles.

After my dinner, as I walked past the team of little leaguers, I glanced one more time at the woman across the room. I wanted to wave; a simple nod off the head with my hand showing that I enjoyed her smile. But, I thought it would look odd so I returned her glance with a smile and made my way around the maze of tables to the cashier.

A faded print on a wall. A nameless portrait of a woman. Orphaned by time, enslaved by a decorator as a prop in a store for comfort-seeking travelers.

It saddens me to know that this woman's life, sits like a book in an antique store. A book without a title and without an author. Yet, she smiles and brightens a corner of this Cracker Barrel. She brightened my evening even though her smile and this photograph happened many decades before I was even born.

One day, years from now, this store will close. The antiques, props and photographs will be put into a storage room. Dark and cold, except for the smiling face of this woman unknown. Smiling for the camera in a different time and different place.

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