Lunch at Romano’s Grill

By Lorraine Jeffery

MADELINE WALKED OUT in the middle of sacrament meeting with her eyes blazing, her mouth set in a firm line, and her hands gripping her large black purse. Her friends and fellow Church members glanced at her quickly and then glanced back. She could see the questions in their eyes, but without a nod or a shrug, she looked away and resolutely focused on the chapel door.

By the time Madeline stepped outside the church, she was shaking. She wanted to attribute it to anger but she wasn’t sure she could fairly categorize her feelings. Anger? Frustration? Outrage? Still, she realized, it might just as easily be embarrassment, humiliation, or old-fashioned guilt.

She stood uncertainly outside the door for a few seconds, and then making up her mind, headed for her car. She had only taken a few steps when she realized she didn’t have a key. She usually left her key on the ring by the kitchen door on Sunday mornings. Frank always drove.

“What do you need a car key for?” he had asked, and she had agreed that, at least on Sunday, she didn’t need a key.

In fact, since Frank’s retirement, she seldom needed her keys at all. While he was gracious about driving her to appointments and around town, he made a point of letting her know he had “things to do.” But, he assured her, he was “more than happy to drive her where she needed to go.” Madeline knew she should appreciate his kindness, but she missed the independence she felt while driving herself.

Her feet hurt and she leaned against a gray Camry and considered her options. She could go back into the church and ask Frank for the keys. She would be a distraction again, and she knew Frank would not surrender the keys without first putting his hand on hers, looking soulfully into her eyes, and asking softly, “What’s the matter?” No, she would not go back and ask for the keys.

It was a warm day in May and she briefly considered walking the five miles to their home near the feed mill, but immediately dismissed that idea. Even if she could walk that far, she knew the pain in her arthritic knee would be unbearable and she would be taking ibuprofen for the next week as penance.

Going back into the church and sitting in the foyer was not an option either. There would be questions from concerned friends, and she didn’t have the words to make them understand.  Leaning on the Camry, Madeline looked to her left and saw the storefronts of Manti. The church had been built on land just outside of town, but Manti was growing and would soon envelop the building.

She pushed off from the warm car and walked slowly to the sidewalk and turned left. She would walk toward town, maybe window shop. She would be back standing by the car when church was over. Hopefully, by then she would think of something to say to Frank.

Madeline’s knee was beginning to hurt by the time she reached the first storefront. If I can find a drinking fountain, I’ll take a Motrin, she thought. She was always prepared. She carried Motrin, Advil, Pepto-Bismol, and Imodium in her purse. All the stores had “Closed” signs posted in the windows. Two cars drove slowly down Main Street but there was no other activity.

Manti, Utah, was a small town built under the imposing shadow of the stately Manti Temple. The temple stood on the only hill in the region and dominated the entire landscape. Driving home from Salt Lake, Madeline knew the exact curve in the road when the temple would come into view, hovering on the horizon. She had seen it in winter, set against the slate-gray sky, and on hot summer evenings when it had the iridescence of an opal. She had seen its rich cream color offset by drifted white snow and cradled by flowering cherry trees. She had seen the pageant performed on its sloping lawns. The temple had been her heritage for the twenty years she had lived in Manti, and she loved the beauty and strength it represented.

Did the proximity of the temple influence the decision of store owners to close their businesses on Sundays? Madeline wondered about that. She knew many of the businesses in Salt Lake, Ogden, and Provo remained open on Sunday. Even some of the stores in the small outlying communities had Sunday hours now. Manti was one of the last holdouts—and proud of it.

As Madeline neared the center of town she saw several cars parked along the street at the intersection of Main Street and Elm, and a small group of people standing on the sidewalk, talking. She noted they were in jeans and T-shirts. Curious, she kept walking and suddenly smelled the food. The aroma of herbs, garlic, tomato sauce, and freshly baked bread washed over her and her mouth watered. She knew she shouldn’t be hungry. It wasn’t fast Sunday and she had eaten her bowl of Raisin Bran. Still, sacrament meeting had started at eleven o’clock, and her stomach growled.

I know why the people are here,
she thought. It was the new Italian restaurant that just opened a couple of weeks ago—or was it a couple of months ago? Madeline couldn’t remember. Although she and Frank sometimes ate out, it was seldom in their hometown.

“Why pay money to eat out when your food is better?” Frank had asked with a smile.

So, usually, the only time they ate out was when they were traveling. However, Madeline had friends who had eaten at the new Italian restaurant and had told her the food was good; but they hadn’t told her it was open on Sunday. A restaurant open on Sunday in Manti, Utah.

She walked slowly down the block until she could see the A-frame sign on the sidewalk.  “Romano’s Grill” was written in calligraphy, and the specials were written in black felt-tip pen.  Her gaze lingered on the sign. Lasagna was on the lunch special for only $4.99. Frank didn’t like lasagna so she rarely fixed it, but lasagna was her favorite Italian dish.

Madeline stopped walking and turned to face the window of the hardware store next to her. She needed to think. She had to get some water to take the Motrin. The café would have water, she reasoned. It would be perfectly acceptable to walk in and ask for a glass of water and leave, more acceptable than walking out of church. How was she going to face Frank after striding out of sacrament meeting?

And then she allowed herself to think about sitting in that dark little café and listening to other people’s conversation—people who were wearing jeans and T-shirts on Sunday. She thought about eating the spicy lasagna, by herself, in her Sunday dress.

She shifted her weight off her sore knee and her reflection in the window moved. The old woman in the window stared back at her. Madeline saw the beginning of jowls on the broad Scandinavian face. She saw a short, squat body with the telltale bulge over the belt of the blue floral dress. She saw the mother of six grown children and the grandmother of eleven. She saw the wife of the retired farmer, a farmer who wanted to go on a Church mission to some God-forsaken place on Earth. She saw a mortal woman with a generous helping of rebellion in her eyes. What she didn’t see was endless years ahead.

She searched those defiant eyes for a moment, then walked resolutely down the block to the café. Madeline walked purposefully through the door while several customers glanced up at her and took in her Sunday dress and low white pumps. A thin girl in a clinging black T-shirt and tight black jeans directed her to a booth and returned with a glass of ice water and a brightly colored menu.

Madeline dug out her pills, took two, then settled back to read the menu. She ordered the lasagna with garlic bread, and a pink lemonade. As the waitress was leaving Madeline said quickly, “Wait, can I order dessert now?”

“Sure,” the girl said, and flashed her a smile filled with braces. “What do you want?”

“A piece of strawberry cheesecake,” Madeline said. “If I wait, I might talk myself out of it.”

The girl nodded and laughed. “The cheesecake is really good.”

Madeline looked around the café. Most of the people were young and dressed casually. One couple had a cute redheaded toddler who seemed intent on painting her highchair and face with spaghetti sauce. Madeline smiled—she remembered.

She had a few quiet minutes to think about the sacrament meeting and the spectacle she had made of herself. Brother Nelson was a good man. She knew that. He had enjoyed his mission to Kentucky and he wanted everyone else to have the same opportunity. She knew that too.

But his statement—that older couples who enjoyed good health were duty-bound to go on a mission—had hit her wrong. True, he had the right to his opinion, but he hadn’t stated it as opinion. He had stated it as doctrine. He had gone on to ask how older couples could turn down such an opportunity when, years before, they had encouraged their sons and daughters to go on missions. It was at this juncture that Frank had turned to her, squeezed her hand and nodded his head. There was a smile on his face but it was smug and knowing. He, the Lord, and Brother Nelson were all on the same side. Then there was her side, and standing on that side was, who?  Just me, she thought and grimaced. Just me.

The smug smile and the nod of his head had made her furious. She had stood up and walked out. She hadn’t glanced at Frank’s face to see if he had any idea what had precipitated her exodus.

Madeline sipped her ice water. I’ll talk to him after church, she thought, but I know what he will say. He will say he just nodded and smiled and I invented all the rest. And anyone who knows Frank will believe him.

Madeline sighed and looked at her placemat. Maybe I did invent it. What’s wrong with me? But she knew. It was the expectation that had wound around her like the silk thread of a cocoon. She had twisted and struggled but she was still wrapped tight, swinging from the branch, waiting.

It was the expectation that after raising six active children and spending hundreds of hours in service to the Church, she would be anxious to move away from her children and grandchildren and be a good example of further unselfish service. That she would want to spend eighteen months working with strangers—children of God, she corrected herself—in Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Iowa, or some faraway place she had no interest in seeing. She saw that expectation in Frank’s blue eyes, and in the eyes of her friends.

Some of those friends had confided that they would “love” to go on missions but their husband’s health wouldn’t allow it. She knew there were others who had responsibilities that prevented them from going. But we could go, she thought. She bit her lip. Her guilt and anger were evenly balanced.

And then the lasagna arrived and Madeline forgot everything except the flavor of the fresh sun-dried tomatoes and the mushrooms in the spicy herbal sauce. The garlic bread was slathered with butter and when she bit into it, the butter ran down her chin. She quickly grabbed her napkin and caught it before it dripped onto her dress. How would I explain that? she wondered.

She forced herself to eat slowly and savor each bite. It was a very different experience from the hurried meals she and Frank ate when they traveled. And, as she had suspected, she was full before the cheesecake arrived. There’s no sense in wasting it, she reasoned as she pushed the uneaten portion of lasagna aside. The cheesecake melted on her tongue and she ate it all. She looked longingly at the remaining lasagna but didn’t know how she could stand by the car waiting for Frank to come out of church with a restaurant box in her hand.

She settled back in the booth and glanced out the window to her left. She could see the temple from where she sat—serene and solid. “Yep, you’re still there,” she said softly. “Like Frank.”

I need to be solid too
, she thought. I have to find the words to make him understand that I don’t want to go on a mission out of duty, and right now that’s the only reason I would be going.

Madeline picked up the tab and looked at her watch. Relief Society is half over, she thought ruefully. I’ve missed Cindy’s lesson. Cindy, with her enthusiastic attitude and her well-prepared lessons, was her favorite Relief Society teacher.Next month, she thought. I’ll catch her next month.

Madeline left a generous tip for the girl in black, paid for her lunch, and then walked slowly back up the street toward the church. Do I smell like garlic? she wondered.

But as she walked, she wasn’t remorseful. The lasagna was a stowaway in her stomach. If Frank asked her where she had gone, she would tell him window shopping. If he smelled the food and asked if she had eaten lunch, she would tell him she had. She knew, sooner or later, she would tell him about Romano’s Grill and the sacrament meeting exit. But later would be better.

Madeline’s knee no longer hurt as she walked back past the dark storefronts.Things change, she thought. There might be a time when I would want to go on a mission. There might be—but not today. She looked up at the temple and realized she’d quit twisting inside her cocoon, that the silk had loosened. She felt full and comfortable and surprisingly happy. I shouldn’t feel happy, she thought. I shouldn’t. But she smiled as she walked steadily toward the church building.


About Lorraine Jeffery

Lorraine Jeffery earned her bachelor’s degree in English and her MLIS in library science, and has managed public libraries in Texas, Ohio and Utah for over twenty years. She has won poetry prizes in state and national contests and has published over fifty poems in various publications, including Clockhouse, Kindred, Calliope, Ibbetson Street, and Rockhurst Review. She has published short stories in Elsewhere, War Cry, The Standard and Segullah. Her articles have appeared in Focus on the Family, Mature Years, and Utah’s Senior Review, as well as other publications. Her first mystery novel, Death is Always a Resident, was published by Cedar Fort in 2015. She is the mother of ten children (eight adopted) and currently lives with her husband in Orem, Utah.

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