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Last Supper

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Early spring, and a wet fog envelopes the rolling hills of middle Tennessee. The windshield quickly condenses both inside and out, rendering the defogger worthless. A swipe of the sleeve works better. Store windows are fogged and dripping, streetlights shine through yellow, foggy halos.

We are going to dinner with Daddy for our last meal together.

We don't know if we will ever see him again, since we will both be going home tomorrow and he is very sick -- much sicker than he wants us to know, but we have asked the pertinent questions of his doctor, my sister being a nurse and I being a former physician's wife. We know what to ask and we know that those who ask for a straight answer usually will get it.

The doctor has told us that our father's fight is nearly over. Our father has told us that he can't wait to get back to work, or up the road to Kentucky and the horse races.

This night, he wants to take us to Sylvan Park Diner, our favorite meat-and-three joint since years back when I lived in the same city as Daddy. Nashville is full of these places -- crowded, sweaty dining rooms with aluminum, linoleum-topped tables and a hodgepodge of uncomfortable chairs, where waitresses with huge, teased beehive hairdos call you honey and sweetie then whisk you out of there before you know it.

These are places that regular customers go back to again and again, over decades, over lifetimes.

Dinner -- or supper as we call it -- is your choice of a meat and three vegetables, all of which have been simmering on the stove all day. Biscuits and cornbread come with every meal -- better than your mother ever made, moist from the steam of the kitchen, rich with buttermilk and lard.

"I went to Crisco a long time ago," says Daddy, nibbling on the edge of a biscuit, "but there's nothing like a biscuit made with lard." He is, of course, correct, though neither of his daughters would be caught dead with a block of lard at the grocery store check-out counters in their far-away hometowns.

The Sylvan Park has a fake fireplace on one wall, and above it, an oil portrait of a heavy, black woman wearing a white uniform. She is Nashville's most famous local pie baker. For more than 30 years she has come to this little converted garage in the middle of the night to cook pies. Every day there is a choice of at least four pies -- chocolate, chess, a fruit pie and the special of the day. On Thursday, the day of our last supper, the special is butterscotch pie, Daddy's and my favorite.

Steaming plates of fried chicken, chicken livers, roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, squash, green beans, turnip greens, cabbage and fried corn appear on our table. My sister and I dive into ours while Daddy takes tentative bites from each little pile on his plate.

"I just can't eat like I used to," he says. "I think I'd feel a whole lot better if I could just eat." Food, along with sports, pretty women, tall tales, cars and the open highway, has been the delight of his life. Now his body is rejecting food, preparing for its leave-taking.

"We'll wrap that up and take it home," I say. My sister and I feel bad eating, and watching him watching us eat.

"Okay," says Daddy. "But we've gotta have dessert. It's Thursday."

Our waitress brings us three slices of golden butterscotch pie -- the caramel filling oozing over the edges of a flaky pie crust, the tall meringue on top peaked and browned at the tips. Our table is silent as we dip into the heaping serving.

"Mmmmm, mmmmm," Daddy says. "I believe that's the best pie in the world."

My sister and I nod, wanting this pie every Thursday for the rest of our lives, wanting this moment again and again. We lick the back of our forks and watch as Daddy takes tiny bites of the filling and meringue, savoring each bite.

"Have you ever had a better pie anywhere?" Daddy asks, not wanting an answer. "I don't think there's a better pie anywhere than Sylvan Park."

We agree again. Daddy shuffles to the cash register, half bent over with digestive pain. We carry bags of leftover dinner and leftover butterscotch pie out the door.

The sky has momentarily cleared and a few stars are twinkling through. The inside of our car windows are streaked with sweat. Our father leans back and lets out a huge sigh.

"That was a mighty fine meal," he says, trying to find a comfortable posture in the upright car seat. "Mighty fine."

We know, finally, that we will never have another quite like it.

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