We slid into opposite sides of our booth at KFC and eyed each other before we removed our food from our trays and pushed them to the side of the table.
As we shook hands across the table he spoke. "I'm Andrew Le Blanc. My mother was English but my father was from French stock. Thus, the odd pairing of the names."
"I'm Robin, and my mother was part English, part French. My father was Scotch-English. I've always liked my name even though kids used to cajole me that it was a boy's name. Probably from reading about Christopher Robin."
I don't recall how we discovered our first coincidences. There were so many. We found that we had lived in Northern Virginia nearly at the same time, had graduated from nearby high schools. Our fathers were both Colonels, his in the Air Force, mine in the Marines, both pilots whose careers had landed them (and our families) in NoVa after many moves.
"I worked in the hobby shop in Falls Church. That's all I did besides go to school." I detected something different in his voice. Perhaps a hint that he did not buy into the high school scene.
"That was the best hobby store around. My father and brothers bought all their model airplane kits there. I sometimes came along. I wonder if you might have been there?"
• • •
Have you ever had this many coincidences reveal themselves this fast when you connected with a stranger? Are these coincidences? Can you share your story?
After my invitation to eat together, the man stopped, hesitated, then turned to me. "Yeah," he said. "That would be okay. Where do you want to sit?"
"I like the booths over by the windows, in the sun," I said. "Will that work for you?"
He said that would be fine. I heard something flat in his voice.
We took different routes to our chosen booth. He stopped by the condiments table and then arrived carrying plastic ware and napkins for both of us. I already sensed a politeness, a gentle- ness I liked about him.
• • •
What might the "something flat" in a person's voice be about?
The man nodded after he heard my remark about our same lunch orders. Both our trays were slid cross the slick counter. I turned to him, not expecting to say what I did.
"I'm on my own for lunch today. Do you want to eat together?"
• • •
How would you respond to a stranger's invitation to eat lunch together?
I recalled asking Priscilla about her name. That may have been the first time I spoke to her in particular, more than just a customer placing a lunch order.
"I like your name. I had a friend named Priscilla in grade school and junior high. She had long brown braids."
"I guess my mother just liked the name. I'm after no one in my family," she said softly. I loved how her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
I fiddled with my wallet to hand her exact change, $5.35 to the penny. Maybe I enjoyed the regularity, the predictability of this lunch routine, right down to the set price for lunch. And this KFC played 60's music, my kind of music. I often began humming melodies the minute I entered the doors.
So not seeing Priscilla today disrupted my routine, unsettled me. I ordered my usual, paid my usual and then stepped to the side of the counter to await my tray.
A man entered through the side doors of KFC and walked up to the counter to order his lunch. I overheard his request. It was exactly the same as mine. And he seemed to know exactly how much it cost.
I looked over at him when he moved near me to wait on his tray.
"We ordered the same lunch," I said.
• • •
Am I too out-going?
I craned my neck to see if Priscilla was in the kitchen filling buffet containers or wiping trays since she was not at the counter to take my order.
"Is Priscilla here today?" I heard the worry in my voice as I asked the young woman who stood behind the register.
"No, she has the day off. She had errands to run."
"Is she okay, she's always here on Wednesdays."
"Yeah, she had to take her daughter to the doctor."
I knew her daughter had been quite ill; hospitalized for some sort of surgery. Priscilla was taking care of her along with working her shifts at KFC. One day I had noticed Priscilla's usual sparkly blue eyes, one narrowed to a near-wink, appeared more gray and bloodshot. Her shoulders were more hunched. I mentioned to her that she looked tired.
That's when Priscilla opened up to me, began sharing her story in tiny, quiet snippets.
• • •
What do you think made Priscilla open up to me?
I remembered the last time I talked to Priscilla she told me she had worked the KFC counter for twenty-five years, pointing to the small gold pin on her black uniform; a token she had received for her service.
"Did they give you a raise or a gift?" I said.
"Naw. Nothing like that," she said softly, her cheeks dimpling with a smile. There was no anger in her voice.
Priscilla was an aging, black doughy grandmother. I imagined her grandkids loved to hug her. Maybe someday I would hug her. She lumbered when she walked as she replenished the KFC buffet table after the waves of construction workers, senior citizens, young highway workers piled their plastic plates high with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, limp green beans, jello, gooey cake. She favored her right leg as she delivered more food for customers' second and third trips through the buffet line. I wondered if she had a painful hip.
Hour after hour, she either shuffled back and forth from the kitchen to the buffet table or stood at the counter taking orders and ringing up sales. At any rate, she was on her feet all day.
But it was unusual that she was not at work today.
• • •
How does Priscilla's reception of a 25 year pin with no monetary reward affect you?
Excerpt #1 from Open for Lunch
I really stopped by Kentucky Fried Chicken to see Priscilla. Over the last couple years she had begun to recognize me when I ordered the same meal each time I stepped to the counter in south Asheville on occasional Wednesdays. Crispy fried chicken breast, coleslaw, biscuit, cookie and a drink. A total carbohydrate bomb. And all for $5.35.
To alleviate my guilt, I usually wrapped up the biscuit and cookie in the skimpy brown paper napkins I pulled from the plastic dispenser at the condiments table, and took the leftovers home for my husband, Gordon.
Neither of us usually ate this way but his eyebrows always popped up and his eyes opened wide when he saw the KFC treats on the kitchen counter.
Today, Priscilla was not there behind the counter.
• • •
OK. Be honest. How many trips do you make to KFC?
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Open For Lunch
Award Finalist in the "Health: Alternative Medicine" category of the 2017 Best Book Awards