Reprinted with permission from A Cup of Comfort: Stories That Warm Your Heart, Lift Your Spirit, and Enrich Your Life
She was a horrible waitress. Never got anybody's order right. Always screwed up something on the customers' bills, sending them complaining to the manager. There were stains all over her gaudy pink uniform and runs in her stockings. Her bright-orange, Brillo-pad hair and pickle-like nose planted in the middle of her oval face made her look just like that adorable Muppet, Fozzy the Bear. Only, our Fozzy wasn't quite so adorable.
On Thanksgiving night, when no one else wanted to work, only Fozzy and I manned the wait stations, serving molded turkey shavings and ice cream scoops of mashed potatoes to the clusters of senior citizens who stumbled in out of the brisk November cold. Fozzy and I had never talked much, and that night was no exception. As Christmas carols blasted out of the diner's Muzak system, Fozzy hummed along, off-key, all night. Although I tried to share her enthusiasm, I had too much on my mind to be able to really feel cheerful.
My college tuition was due, and I was hard-pressed for cash. My father's business was in disarray, and he was considering filing for bankruptcy. After my parents' divorce, my mother had moved to an oceanfront condominium way beyond her means, which she had later put up for sale. In the entire year it had been on the market, however, not one person had made her an offer. My life felt out of control, and I had no one to turn to. Given their financial difficulties, how could I possibly remind my parents of their long-standing offer to help pay for my college tuition?
I'd been slaving away at the diner for nearly a year, trying to save up enough for my first semester at the local state university, and I had finally reached my goal. Then, just that morning, my car had refused to start. The mechanic had said that the entire electrical system was faulty and that it would cost more than $500 to fix it.
"And just when you were so close to starting college, too. Not a very happy Thanksgiving, is it?"
Had I really just admitted all of my troubles aloud? Had Fozzy actually listened?
Impossible as it seemed, there we were, nestled quietly over two cups of mud-like diner coffee, killing time while the last few customers of the evening wandered out into the miserable cold.
"Thank you," I said humbly, feeling a lump in my throat at having negatively judged Fozzy. "I didn't mean to go on like that. Thank you for listening."
"Well now," she sighed. "It sounds to me like not much listening has been going on in your family these days, with everybody rushing around with their own problems. Sometimes a friendly ear can change the way you think about things."
She was right. Pouring out my troubles, things I hadn't even told my best friends, had left me feeling like I'd just had a restful night's sleep.
"Listen," she said later, as we clocked out. "I've been trying to sell my old car for weeks. It's in good shape. Now, it's not exactly a babe magnet, but I'm only asking three hundred for it. That's less than it would take to fix your car. Maybe the money you'd save would round out what you need for tuition."
"And then some," I gasped, leaping at the offer like a little kid.
We sat quietly on the way to her apartment, the only two on the bus, everyone else busy celebrating the holiday with family and friends. I thought of my mom, attending the annual gala Thanksgiving dinner party at the country club, despite her having had to borrow money from my grandmother to pay for the ticket. I thought of my dad, working double-time at his company, trying to straighten things out. Neither of them had bothered to ask me what I'd be doing for the holiday.
"The paperwork is upstairs," said Fozzy. "I won't keep you long, I'm sure you have big plans for tonight."
I watched sadly as Fozzy slowly waddled away from me. I noticed for the first time that she favored one leg and that the soles of her cheap shoes looked old and worn. The halls of her building were dark and quiet, and I picked up enough clues to determine that Fozzy wasn't exactly walking into a festive apartment, either.
Fozzy's smile filled the corridor as she opened her door welcoming me in. While she fumbled through a desk for the car's paperwork, I sat on a threadbare couch and looked around her modest one-bedroom apartment. The room was clean and cozy, and the table was set with a paper tablecloth featuring turkeys and pilgrims. Turkey candles and pilgrim saltshakers rounded out her festive holiday decorations.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, noticing that the table had been set for two. "I didn't realize you were expecting company."
Fozzy smiled sadly, looking at her feeble attempts to bring the holiday into her home.
"Oh no. That is just habit. Ever since my husband died six years ago, I can't stand to see a table set for one. I just leave out two plates, so people don't go feeling sorry for me. I don't even know why I bothered this year," she said. While Fozzy signed the title, I looked around the room at her shabby furniture and homemade curtains. Scattered about were photographs of several young men and women in various celebratory poses: graduations, promotions, birthdays. Younger versions of Fozzy stood nearby, smiling proudly. Where were her children this holiday night? I wondered.
"Listen," I said, pulling out the wad of ones and fives I had earned during my shift at the diner. "I had a pretty good night. Why don't we order some take-out, so your nice table here doesn't go to waste. My treat. It's the least I can do to thank you for bailing me out like this."
Fozzy couldn't find the phone fast enough. "Do you like Chinese?"
Later, as Fozzy showed off the interior of the car and its impressive features, most of which no longer worked, and I noticed the stains on her threadbare uniform, I felt an aching in my heart. Her kind and generous gesture had afforded me the opportunity to finally start college on time. Classes would start soon, I would move away from home, and once settled, find a cushy job on campus and start the process of financial aid and student loans. My long, hard nights of dishing up buttered carrots and creamed spinach were nearing an end. I wondered how many long, hard years Fozzy would have to work before she could finally retire.
As I drove away in my new used car toward a brighter future made possible by the kind act of a near stranger, I ran over a bump and the faulty glove box door fell open. Inside I spotted a thin envelope, which I opened and read at a stoplight. Once I finished reading it, I had to pull over until my tears dried up and I could see the road again.
"Thank you for the first Thanksgiving I've celebrated in six years," said a quickly scrawled note on a scrap of paper. "This isn't much, just the tips I made tonight. Maybe you can buy one of your textbooks on me. Thanks again, Mavis."
Mavis, I thought, pulling back onto the road. All those nights working together, and it had been there on her nametag the whole time-if I'd only looked: Mavis.
I counted the money in the envelope. There was enough for not one, but two, textbooks. There was also enough for a brand-new uniform for Mavis. I couldn't wait to give it to her.