Washington’s Finger

Nobody knows my dad would have been one hundred today, but I don’t plan on telling anyone, not even the old farmers who knew Dad and loved him despite his eccentricities. When they walk into the cafe, they don’t stop to look at Washington’s finger. They know it looks like a piece of old rope that got left out in the field for a few weeks and run over by a tractor. My father kept it in a little velvet-lined jewelry box beside the cash register, but I wanted something fancier so I bought a rosewood case and sat it beside the rotating pie display across from the register. It makes the finger look more official.

The farmers order coffee and eggs and toast. There’s Lyndon who averages three words a week. Earl who opens the window so he can hold his cigarette outside. Jack who likes his bacon burned. I start more coffee perking as the farmers discuss the price of corn and morning errands they need to run for their wives. They’ve been talking about these things forever. The farmers respect Washington because he was a farmer. If they’d had breakfast with him, they wouldn’t have talked about politics but growing things. The farmers are all older than George got to be since he was sixty-seven when he died. My dad said it was a crying shame. I’m seventy-three now and it still doesn’t feel like an age to die.

The eggs and toast are done in a couple minutes. I serve the old farmers who bow their heads to me in thanks like they bowed to my parents. I wear the same outfit that my mother wore when she waitressed here: a pink blouse, pink skirt, and white apron. She and Dad are everywhere in the cafe, though no one else can see them. They pin up order tickets and wipe down the front counter and bus tables and stuff tips into their pockets and glance at Washington’s finger in the glass case. I’d like to hug them, explain my dilemma, but I know I’d be hugging air.

When Dad opened the cafe in this old farmhouse eighty-some years ago, he said it would put our town on the map. It’s to his credit that the cafe is still open, but no one remembers it’s here except coffee-slurping farmers who smell of alfalfa and dip their toast points in runny fried egg yolk. I stand beside the register and watch them eat, wonder what they’d say if they knew about the people who came in yesterday and wanted to buy the finger from me for two thousand dollars. A young woman and a young man. The young man wore dark pants and a tie. The young woman wore a black skirt and violet blouse. They waved bills and told me they’d treat the finger with respect. They had cash and smiled nicely, said they’d return today for an answer, and I said okay. I couldn’t tell them “no” outright, and I’m a little upset with myself for that.

A few kids come in for breakfast with their grandparents. Some run to the glass case to look at the finger, but others grab their grandma’s legs and shuffle to a far booth. My grandkids live in St. Paul and I don’t see them much.

“Don’t you get a hangdog expression while you’re working, Cora,” Dad would say. “You have to look chipper even when you aren’t.”

Dad had a point, so I tape a smile on my face and greet the bleary-eyed people from Massachusetts who stumble into the café from the entrance connected to the rest of the house. Dad converted the old dining room and parlor into the cafe, so my parents and I lived in the family room and kitchen downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. I turned some of the extra space into a bed and breakfast six years ago.

The Massachusetts couple wear bathrobes and slippers. My farmers glance at them and return to their coffee. The husband in his red bathrobe wanders over to Washington’s display case and stands for a moment with his hands behind his back. The wife in her pink bathrobe glances over his shoulder and wrinkles her nose.

I think of the young people who came yesterday, how they were excited and smiling. I was wary at first, but their intentions are probably good. Maybe they want the finger for some private collection or touring exhibit. Nobody has been that happy over Washington’s finger since Dad was alive, and I know it should go to folks who appreciate it like he did.

The Massachusetts couple sits at a table and I take their order. Eggs Benedict and sausage. The only people who order Eggs Benedict are from out of town. It was a dish Dad learned to make while he was in Philadelphia. He was the smartest boy town ever produced, and left for dental school in the east after he graduated from high school. He was seventeen then, as old as Washington was when he became a surveyor in Virginia. Dad was like Washington in other ways, young and bright and ambitious, but he had dreams of being a dentist. Everyone knew he’d make it big and visit at Christmas with city tales, but a year after Dad left he returned to Iowa, married my mother, bought the farmhouse, and opened the café.

The whole town crowded in on that first day because they heard Washington’s finger was going to be on display. When Dad revealed it in that little box by the register, no one spoke for a full five minutes. Then everyone ordered pie.

“They were so taken aback by seeing that piece of history,” said Dad, “there was nothing that could be said.” He told me how Washington’s great-great-grandniece sold him the finger. She said Washington lost it in an accident while chopping down a tree. That was after the presidency, when he was an older man and still pretty strong, but his eyesight wasn’t so good.

“Everyone knew your dad had all his marbles when he went to Philadelphia,” Mother told me when I was twelve, “but he must have dropped a few on the way there and back.”

“So you don’t think the finger is real?” I said.

“I’m not a betting woman,” she said.

“If you don’t think it’s real,” I said, “why did you marry Daddy?”

Mother looked almost surprised when I asked the question.

“I loved your father,” she said, “and I still do, regardless of his marbles.”

The finger had an odd sort of power in town, even if everyone didn’t think it was real. Dad had something to do with it. He possessed the charisma of Washington. People wanted to go along with that he said. Dad turned twenty-one when the Depression hit. George was the same age when he became a major in French-Indian War. During the Depression, the café became a meeting place for farmers. Most ate potatoes with onion gravy at every meal, gathered at the cafe for coffee and a sliver of pie and to think of George. Dad lectured that our country was a great place, and if we just worked together things would be okay. Washington had fought in difficult battles and come out ahead. We’d do the same thing. George connected us to something bigger. The grand story.

By the end of the French-Indian War, Washington commanded all of Virginia’s military force. By the end of the Depression, the cafe hadn’t closed. Dad said it was victory enough.

I serve the Massachusetts couple Eggs Benedict and see Dad nodding at me from the corner. I refill the farmers’ coffee cups and see Mother tallying receipts at the old register. Everyone in town loved my parents, regardless of what they thought of the finger. They wanted my folks to make it.

Six college students bash through the door, grinning in their ripped jeans and black t-shirts. They cluster around a table, snicker at the finger, but smile and pat my arm when I come to take their order. They call me Grandma, order eggs and toast and bacon. They’re all good kids even if they’re a little loud. The cafe has gained a name in the city as a quirky place for breakfast. We get a few college students every morning, bustling in to relieve their hangovers. They tip well, which makes up for the dark glances they get from my farmers.

But if I closed the cafe, would anyone miss me? I could sell the finger to those two young people and put the cafe on the market tomorrow. Nobody thought I’d stay here this long. Or at all. When I was young I was good-looking and smart. I won the state spelling bee and geography bee and was on the Homecoming Court. Everyone thought I’d move to the city and marry a lawyer, but I kept waitressing. I never thought of it as a choice, but a duty.

When Washington was forty-two he was made commander of the Continental Army, fighting against the British in the Revolutionary War. When Dad was forty-two he worked from six in the morning until midnight, making the cafe a place worthy of the fame he knew would come. He believed that with enough hard work you could do anything. He said it was the ethic of Washington. It made sense to me.

I was nineteen when he hired Jacob Ness as a grill cook. We married after four years of stealing kisses behind the café. Jake was a sensible person and took blue ribbons every year at the county fair for his cakes and preserves and pies. Two years later I had a baby on my hip.

That was when town was changing in other ways. We’d been isolated, a twenty-minute drive from the city, but that shortened to fifteen minutes, then ten, then five. The city blossomed buildings that crept to the edge of town and around us until one day we were surrounded by a sea of discount stores and fast food restaurants. I got sick of cranes and backhoes. We’d become a-town-just-outside-Des Moines. I felt lost even though we were in the same place.

Dad didn’t go to bed until two or three in the morning some nights because he was working on the books and tax forms and advertising. He was fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven years old, the same age when George became president of the Constitutional Convention and then President of the United States. When I went upstairs to bed I heard Dad muttering to Washington, reassuring both of them that everything would be okay.

Then Jake said he wanted to move someplace bigger, work in a restaurant that made more than fried chicken and roast beef. He knew not to talk about those ideas around Dad, just when we were together in bed, readying for sleep. Jake is a good man and a patient one, talked about a move for ten years, hoping I’d agree to follow him, but I was bound to the cafe. This was a family business, and I wouldn’t abandon it. I knew that Washington hadn’t wanted to be president, would have rather returned to his plantation in Virginia, but everyone else thought he would be perfect for the job. Washington sense of duty wouldn’t let him say no.

Twenty years after we married, Jake left for the Twin Cities to open an Italian restaurant. He said he didn’t want to get old and not have lived his dream. My son went with his father to work at the restaurant part-time and go to community college. We never divorced, talked on the weekends about how our son was doing in school, and waited for the other one to see the light and move. Mother and I waited tables while Dad mumbled about the Depression years when everyone said Washington’s finger gave them hope.

I refill the farmer’s coffee cups and give the college students their food. They joke about the finger and wonder if George dropped other body parts around town. I smile tightly and see Dad standing at the window, looking for the unfamiliar car he knew would come, the reporter who’d get our story printed in all the Iowa papers and maybe even The New York Times. Mother stood behind him and kneaded his shoulders because they were always sore.

Mother and Dad died when they were seventy-seven, within a year of each other. Both of them worked at the cafe until the day they passed. I overheard whispers at the funerals, how they were so intelligent, could have been so successful, and though folks didn’t say it aloud, they meant my parents had squandered their lives. I got angry. They didn’t have a right to question Dad’s dream or if my parents had made the best use of their seventy-seven years, though lately I hear folks whispering the same thing about me. I should kick them out of the cafe, but I don’t.

The year after my parents died I started the annual Washington-themed poetry contest their honor and gave free meals as prizes. Grandparents thought it was good for kids to learn that history. I was reading contest entires when my son called and asked when I’d visit Minneapolis. I said he needed to come back to Iowa for the holidays instead. I was too busy.

Late at night while cleaning the cafe, I talk with George and Dad about how everything is changing. Washington would have complained with the old farmers that kids don’t understand the importance of history. But those young people are offering me money for the finger, more than I’d expect to get from anyone else. It’s enough to move to St. Paul and put the cafe on the market. Jake has retired and says I should come live with him, have a rest. Our son is running his restaurant and doing well.

Dad knew how much I sacrificed in letting my son and husband move away, but he said they’d come back.

“You just give them time, Cora,” he said. “They’ll see what they’re missing.”

But dammit, Dad, who knows who’s missed what?

The Massachusetts man and his wife thump into the café with their suitcases and stand beside the counter with their bill.

“Sad,” the man says to his wife, nodding to the finger display case.

“Too many gimmicks in these little towns,” she says.

They don’t think I heard them, must believe I’m deaf. Either that or they don’t care. My cheeks flush an unexpected red. I march back to the rosewood case, lift off the lid (it’s heavier than it looks) and grab the finger. It feels good in my hand, hard and leathery, like it did when Dad let me hold it when I was a kid. He told me I was holding a piece of history, and when I was twelve I knew that was true.

I walk the finger to the front of the café and place it on the counter, where it used to rest before I got that display case. Outside of the case the finger looks more humble, more real, more like a finger that belonged to a farmer.

The Massachusetts man and his wife gawk. This is the power of George Washington.

They pay their bill and leave quickly. I peer after them into the parking lot. Those young people will be back soon, and I’ll tell them I’m very sorry but the finger is not for sale. Next week the cafe might be. Bob who minds the grill might be interested in buying, he’s said he wants to own his own restaurant, and I’d give him a good price. I curl my hand around the finger, and wonder what my grandkids in St. Paul will say when I show it to them for the first time. I’ll explain it’s a piece of history, which they’ll know is the truth.

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