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  • Ma and Pa’s Cafe does a hell of a business out here on the curve, next to the railroad tracks, not too far from the old brick school that was the pride of the town in 1957.

    Sunday’s specials are fried chicken, roast beef, meatloaf, served up with whopping scoops of mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, and peas or corn cooked soft. It’s comfort food for a dying town.

    My hometown.

    Brenda Perry and her mama, Louise, preside over the place as though it is an extension of their own kitchens. And the regulars, especially those who tramp in the door early mornings, feel so at home that they pour their own coffee and go behind the counter in search of whatever they need.

    I’ve been in a hundred restaurants just like this one, from the coal fields of western Pennsylvania to the cedar swamps of northern Minnesota, from the Appalachian highlands of North Carolina to lonely stretches of the Florida Panhandle. Cheap woodgrain paneling and slick hard-laminate booths. Specials scrawled on dry-erase boards. A donation box for someone’s urgent health need. And on the bulletin board, fliers for lost beagles, used refrigerators, handyman services and credit counseling.

    My father and his siblings shared what would be their last meal together one Saturday night here, a few months before he died in 2009. Fried catfish. “And it was good,” my mother says every time she tells the story.

    I am thinking of this as I help her out of her Lincoln, steadying her on the treacherous remnants of an early snow. She pulls away from me once we are on the sidewalk and heads, under the metal awning, past the outdoor tables, toward the front door.

    We sit at a booth, me staring out the window, across the railroad tracks toward the center of town. I fixate on a pair of large stone houses, which seem from a distance to have suffered less than most anything else here. I am measuring everything that is by the memory of what was, and the deficit leaves me speechless. The last 30 years have been a slow-moving natural disaster for this place, obliterating nearly everything weakened by the economic and demographic changes rattling the ground under my feet as I fled after high-school graduation.

    When my folks moved on too, after retirement, I had no reason to come here.

    Few others do either, apparently. There’s still a bank (not locally owned), a bar, a convenience store (it’s on your way out of town on Illinois 61), a service station, an antiques store (it’s only open sometimes), and this diner.

    I’m like a movie character who gets a sudden glimpse of what life would have been like had she made the other choice at a critical moment. The story of this place — and who I might have been in it — of course has always been running just under the surface of my true story, grounded as it is in memory, family, experience and time. I feel at once invisible and exposed, too shy to reach for a piece of paper and start taking notes. I recognize no one in the place but my mother, sitting across the table from me in a turtleneck and green woolen vest adorned with ice skates.

    The blonde woman in a long-sleeved Christmas shirt wrangles my thoughts with a simple greeting: “Hello, Michelle.”

    Holy crap, I think. How does she recognize me?

    “You haven’t changed that much,” she says with a grin.

    It’s Brenda, the proprietor of this place, a schoolmate of mine, a woman about whom I had given no thought whatsoever in the 32 years since I rounded that curve, gunned the engine and headed out of town, running for my life.

    “I guess not,” I admit, and order a roast beef dinner.

    I turn away from the window to watch Brenda sew up the loose ends of the Sunday lunch rush, and I think about how a similar scene is playing out in a thousand no-frills rural diners at this very same moment. I’m grateful to her for tending to this threadbare, tenacious place, as a lifetime member of a sorority for which hard work is the only dues.

    Thanks for lunch, Brenda. It was great.
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