Author's Note: The character of Lydia March was featured in my story, Conversation Hearts, and can be found on Audrey's Site. :>
Tastes Like Chicken
by Jill Hargan
"So whaddaya got planned for Mother's Day?"
Roy DeSoto stopped in the middle of buttoning up his uniform shirt and gave his partner a curious glance. It wasn't so much the question. It wasn't unusual for Johnny to be interested in Roy's family and some of their activities. It was the fact that after bursting into the locker room in an obvious rush to avoid being late, it was the first thing out of the dark haired man's mouth.
Roy started to ask the obvious question, "Why?" but immediately thought better of it. The explanation would come soon enough, and by just going along, the paramedic would save himself a half an hour of his partner sputtering about a guy not being able to ask an innocent question. He resumed buttoning his shirt and shrugged.
"Nothing much. Joanne's mother is in Chicago, visiting her sister." Roy couldn't help the smile that crossed his face at that good fortune. Johnny must have seen it too, judging by the giggle that Roy heard from behind his partner's open locker door. "Anyway, my mom's been sick with the flu and laid down the law that we weren't supposed to bring the kids anywhere near her. She's afraid she'll get them sick." He gave another shrug. "So we're on our own. The kid's always make Joanne breakfast in bed, then we'll think of something to do for dinner."
"Oh, yeah? Sounds like a nice day." The pensive look on Johnny's face ruined his attempt at sincerity.
Roy didn't say anything. He sat down to tie his shoes and wait for what he knew had to come next. When he managed to get both of them done and Johnny hadn't said anything, he glanced up, puzzled. It wasn't like his partner to remain silent so long.
Johnny was pulling on his uniform shirt, his face thoughtful enough to make Roy think something was wrong. He knew Johnny's mother had died a long time ago, but the holiday had never seemed to bother the younger man in the past. He had occasionally spent the day with Roy's family, but there had been an equal number of years when he'd done nothing. It had never seemed to make much difference. Now Roy wondered if he'd misjudged the situation. Maybe Mother's Day really did mean something to Johnny.
"You doin' anything?"
The grin that broke out on Johnny's face told Roy immediately that he'd fallen into a neatly orchestrated trap. The younger man turned to face his partner, his hands working animatedly as he began talking rapidly.
"Well, I kinda told Lydia I'd take her out to dinner... someplace nice, ya know. She doesn't have any family, and since her apartment burned down and she moved into my building, we've kinda become friends, and I didn't want her to be alone on Mother's Day... even though she's not really a mother, but, still..."
"Whoa... Johnny, hold on." Roy stood up again and held up a hand. He shook his head, trying to figure out what the purpose of this was. "I think it's great that you're looking after Lydia. She's a really nice lady." And what does this have to do with me and my family?
Johnny's mouth lifted in a self-conscious smile. "Well, she's all alone..." He paused and fiddled with his badge for a moment before he lifted his head, that half-grin still in place. "I was kinda wonderin'... well, if you guys didn't have any definite plans... maybe you'd wanna go out to dinner with us. I mean, it's okay, if you don't want to, but I just thought.... well, if Joanne and the kids were with us... it's be more like a real family... ya know?"
Roy stood there studying his partner's blushing face and realized Johnny was embarrassed to be asking this of him. He had a flash that maybe this wasn't all for Lydia and felt a rush of remorse that he'd suspected his partner of trying to rope him into something. He smiled to let Johnny know he was amenable.
"That sounds like fun. I'll have to check with Joanne first... see if she minds." Like she would. She's got a soft spot a mile deep for you, Junior. "Can I let you know later?"
"Sure. No problem." Johnny's face broke out into a hundred watt grin. He tucked in his shirt and closed his locker, whistling happily.
* * *
"Joanne says it sounds like fun," Roy reported, after he'd finally gotten to talk to his wife on the phone. They'd been kept busy most of the morning and it was well after lunch before Roy found a few spare moments to call.
Johnny rubbed his hands together happily. "That's great. It'll be fun." He picked up a wet plate and dried it with an extra flourish, then set it down on the counter.
"She did ask one question, though," Roy added as he came over and picked up another towel to help with the lunch dishes.
"She wanted to know where we're going... so she knows how to dress. Fancy... casual... you know women," Roy finished with a chuckle.
Johnny gave a slight snort. "Yeah, I know. But I think this is kinda in between. Not fancy, but she might wanna wear a dress."
"Where we going?" Roy asked, curious at what Johnny might consider "in between."
"Knott's Berry Farm."
Roy's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Knott's Berry Farm? For Mother's Day?"
Johnny nodded. "That's where Lydia wanted to go."
"Johnny..." Roy scratched his head as he tried to figure out why an elderly woman would possibly want to spend Mother's Day at an amusement park.
The younger paramedic laughed at his partner's expression. "Relax, Roy. She just wants to eat there. At the Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It was her and her husband's favorite place."
"Oh. Okay. That sounds more like it." Roy knew the place Johnny was talking about. He'd even eaten there once a long time ago. From what he remembered, it was good, country type food. "You make a reservation?"
Johnny shook his head. "Not yet. I was waiting to see if you guys were coming. I'll take care of it."
"Sounds good. Why don't you bring Lydia to our house first and then we can all go in the station wagon. No sense driving two cars."
"That sounds great," Johnny beamed. "How's 5 o'clock sound?"
"That should be okay."
The tones sounded, and both men put down the dishes in their hands and tossed the towels onto the sink, then headed out to the squad, their conversation put on hold.
* * *
Lydia March added a last finishing touch to her hair, then leaned forward to gaze critically at her reflection in the mirror. The person who stared back at her was wrinkled and white headed, but still clear eyed and alert.
"Not bad for a seventy-three-year-old geezer," she chuckled wryly.
She smoothed out her dress and stepped out of the bathroom, wondering again at the size of it. Her old one had barely been bigger than a closet. But the bathroom was only one of the aspects of her new home she continually marveled at.
All the rooms were larger and airier. The grounds were open and sprawling - no more darkly lit hallways. There was even a small patio outside her living room where she had quickly set up a collection of potted plants and flowers. She'd been here just about three months now, and the memories of the fire and subsequent explosion had faded fast as she made her new place her home.
She still found it hard to believe this nice, big place cost the same as her old, stuffy one. But Johnny had assured her many times that he'd manage to strike a deal with management and that this corner unit, far from the pool and rec room, wasn't as appealing to most of the younger people who rented here.
After a while, she began to suspect that Johnny was paying part of her rent. Especially after she made friends with the two nice young women who were her neighbors and found out how much they paid each month. But when she'd tried to pin the young man down, he just fell back on his original explanation. After that, she'd let it drop. In the short time she'd known Johnny, she'd seen what a kind and caring person he was. If he was helping her, it was true to his nature and she would be forever grateful. But she was also coming to know Johnny Gage didn't like his good deeds paraded around in front of everyone.
She heard a knock on the door and smiled, knowing it was Johnny come to pick her up for their Mother's Day dinner. She smiled as she went to let him in. When she opened the door, Lydia's smile grew even wider.
Johnny stood there dressed in a plaid sport shirt and a nice pair of jeans. It was obvious he'd made an attempt at combing his hair and she hid a smile at the stubborn tuft that still stuck out on his right side. When he saw her, he smiled and held out a clear plastic box. Inside, she could see a small corsage.
"Land's sake, Johnny, you make me feel like we're going to the prom," she laughed as she waved him inside.
The younger man blushed slightly as he fumbled with the lid. "Aw, Lydia, it's just a flower. My dad always gave my mom a corsage on Mother's Day." He held it out toward her. "You want me to pin it on?"
Lydia laughed lightly. "If you don't mind, I 'll do it myself. You men are all thumbs when it comes to sharp objects."
"I'm a paramedic, remember?" Johnny protested a trifle indignantly, but he handed her the flower nonetheless. "I make my living handling sharp objects."
"Yes, but you generally stick people with them, don't you?" She winked at him a she quickly fastened the carnation to her dress.
Johnny rolled his eyes, then crooked his arm for her to take as they walked out the door. Her leg had healed since the fire, but it was still a bit weaker than it used to be and steps were tricky at times. She took his offered help and they headed out towards the parking lot.
* * *
The DeSoto station wagon was filled; with Roy, Joanne and Jennifer in the front; Johnny, Lydia and Chris in the back. But no one complained at the crowding. The kids had met Johnny's neighbor before and liked her. Lydia herself, was quite the talker, so between her, the kids and Johnny, there was plenty of conversation to fill the thirty minute drive to Buena Park.
It had been a beautiful day so far. Joanne smiled and watched the passing houses as they drove along the 91 Freeway towards Orange County. The kids had brought her their traditional breakfast in bed, although this year the pancakes weren't burnt, so she assumed Roy had taken a little more control of the cooking aspect. Then, she had a long, leisurely bubble bath and an unhurried morning of relaxing on the sofa and reading, while Roy supervised the kids cleaning the kitchen. It was her favorite day of the year; ranking a little higher than Christmas because there was so little stress involved.
Now they were on their way to a nice sit down dinner, although it had taken some talking to convince Chris that even though they were going to Knott's Berry Farm, there would be no rides involved in their activities today. Their son hadn't been very happy about that part, insisting it was a big waste to come all the way to the park and not even go on the Log Ride. But, by the time they left, he was hungry enough that the prospect of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, and warm boysenberry pie with ice cream made up for the lack of more thrilling adventures.
Joanne was also happy with Johnny's choice of restaurant. She'd been to the Chicken Dinner Restaurant before, when she was younger, and knew the food was good and the kids would actually eat what they were given - with the exception of the stewed rhubarb. She wasn't sure if either Chris or Jennifer could be convinced to give it a try. But at least they would avoid the fight that usually ensued over what to order when they went to any restaurant classier than Denny's. At least here you didn't get a choice. You just ate what they brought you.
The had reached the Beach Blvd. off ramp and Roy moved the car smoothly through the heavy Sunday traffic to take the exit.
"Are we almost there, Mommy?" Jennifer asked. "I'm really, really hungry."
"Me too," Chris piped up, leaning forward from the back seat.
"Sit back, Chris," Roy chided. "You're leaning over Lydia."
"We're nearly there," Joanne turned to assure both children.
"I know I'm sure ready to eat," Johnny added, rubbing his stomach in anticipation.
"You're always ready to eat," Roy quipped.
"Ha, ha. Very funny."
"Look, Daddy, look!" Jennifer bounced on the seat between her parents and pointed out the windshield.
Joanne could see she was pointing to a large statue of a prospector and his donkey. And a moment later, they drove under a large "Knott's Berry Farm" sign. Roy slowed the car down to the 15 MPH posted limit as they passed rows of shops and the mass of pedestrians milling about them.
"Seems awful crowed," Lydia commented.
"Yeah, everybody's gonna go on the rides," Chris muttered.
"Well, then, that'll make more room for us at dinner," Johnny said, trying to cheer the boy up.
Joanne narrowed her eyes at the line of people. They were nearly to the restaurant and she was starting to get a bad feeling about where exactly all these people were lining up to get into. And, contrary to what Chris believed, she didn't think it was the rides.
"Uh... Johnny? We have reservations, right?" She turned to the back seat and her heart sank at the look on the paramedic's face as he stared out the window. "Johnny?"
"Ummm... ya see... well, not exactly."
"What's that mean?" Roy asked, his tone implying he wasn't going to like the answer. "You said you were gonna call."
"I did," Johnny answered defensively. "I did call."
Roy turned left into the short term parking that was free for shoppers and diners who weren't going into the main part of the park.
"So we've got reservations, right?"
Johnny shook his head and Joanne's shoulder sank. "They don't take reservations," he explained meekly. "Only for big groups. I... I thought that meant it wouldn't be busy."
Roy parked the car and turned off the engine. No one moved as they continued to stare at the seemingly endless line of people waiting for their chicken dinners.
"How long of a wait do you think it is?" Joanne finally ventured. She glanced at Roy and could tell by the set of his jaw he was irritated at his partner's lack of foresight.
"Couple of hours, at least," Roy stated pessimistically.
"Now, Roy." Joanne reached over to squeeze his hand in a placating gesture. She didn't want this day to turn into a fight.
"I'll go ask," Johnny volunteered, and he opened the door and jumped out at a speed that told Joanne he was probably anxious to get out of the car and away from Roy.
She watched him break into a trot as he headed across the street and toward the crowd of would-be diners. Then she turned to Roy.
"Don't be mad," she cautioned. "If we can't get in, there's nothing we can do about it. Getting mad at Johnny won't help."
"Maybe," Roy conceded reluctantly. "But it'll make me feel better."
"Yes, but this isn't your day, now is it?" Lydia spoke up from the back seat.
Joanne saw Roy turn and meet the elderly woman's eyes, then a slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
"You're right, Lydia," he sighed, a touch of chagrin in his voice. "Sorry. I don't wanna ruin Mother's Day."
Joanne smiled at the older woman, who gave her a knowing wink.
* * *
Johnny slowed his pace as he neared the front doors of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant. He couldn't believe the number of people waiting to get in.
Don't they have someplace better to take their mothers? Why do they all wanna come here? Why didn't I think to ask the lady on the phone how long of a wait there'd be? Roy's gonna kill me.
It took some doing to make his way to the front, where he might be able to talk to someone who worked here, and he got quite a few disgruntled stares from patrons who'd waited a long time and didn't take kindly to potential line cutters. But he finally spied a young woman in a long dress and apron who seemed to be holding a list of some kind.
"Excuse me.... excuse me... Miss?"
The girl's eyes shifted around, attempting to locate which guest was trying to get her attention. Johnny lifted his hand in the air and grinned when she found him. It never hurt to apply a little charm.
"I... I was just wonderin' how long the wait was."
The smile on her face faltered a moment. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "But if you're not already in line, I don't think you'll get in today. We're only open until 7:00."
Johnny's shoulders sagged, and he moved away from the doorway.
Damn it, anyway. This is where Lydia wanted to come. Now I've not only wrecked her day, I've messed up Joanne's Mother's Day too.
He shoved his hands into his jeans' pockets and slowly walked back toward the parking lot. The closer he got to the station wagon, the worse he felt and the slower he walked. He had wanted this day to be so special and had totally blown it. He finally reached the car, opened the back passenger door and slid in beside Lydia.
It was silent in the car for a time. Johnny did feel Lydia reach over and pat his knee, and he gave her a weak smile of gratitude for the show of support. At last though, Chris spoke up.
"I bet if we went into the park, we could get a corn dog or something," he suggested hopefully.
"Chris..." Roy left the implied threat hanging unspoken, but the boy understood the message and sat back with his arm folded and a softly murmured, "Sheesh!"
"I'm really sorry," Johnny apologized. "It just never occurred to me..."
"Don't worry about it," Joanne assured him kindly. "We'll just find someplace else to eat."
"At five o'clock on Sunday?" Roy muttered.
Johnny could tell his partner was on the verge of a major upset. He stared out the window a moment, trying to come up with someway to salvage their outing. He turned back, his face hopeful. "We're right on the major street," he observed with a wave out across the lot towards the passing traffic. "There's got to be a lot of restaurants around."
Roy favored him with a dubious look, but he started the car anyway. Johnny smiled. If there was one thing he could count on, it was Roy's practical nature. There was no sense sitting around here stewing. The only way to find a new place to eat was to go look.
* * *
Nearly an hour later, the mood in the car wasn't quite so pleasant. The kids were hungry and cranky, Roy had taken to muttering to himself at every red light they hit. Even Joanne had lost some of her good nature as they drove past one full restaurant after another. Most required reservations, and those that didn't had lines out the door.
Lydia felt her stomach growl and had to admit she was awfully tired of driving around most of northern Orange County on their fruitless quest. The children had taken to pointing out every fast food establishment they passed until their mother told them quite firmly to knock it off and be quiet. Johnny had started off the search eagerly looking for likely looking eating places, but after half a dozen disappointments had sunk back into the seat, his head resting on his hand, his face glum.
"Maybe we should just go home," Joanne suggested quietly. "We can order a pizza or something."
"Let's do that, Mommy," Jennifer agreed eagerly. "I'm staaarving."
"You hate pizza," Roy pointed out.
"It doesn't matter," Joanne answered testily. "The kids are hungry and it's just getting later and later. We can't keep driving around forever."
Roy sighed heavily and turned the car north, headed back towards the freeway. "We can stop and get a hamburger," he offered.
Joanne shook her head. "No. Let's just go home."
In the back seat, Lydia felt Johnny sink deeper into the seat. She could tell he felt badly about how things had turned out, even though it really wasn't his fault. He'd tried to get a reservation. What had started out a kind and generous gesture on Johnny's part was now threatening to turn into a fiasco unless something happened to turn things around.
The elderly woman scanned the rows of businesses they were passing. They weren't in a very promising district. She saw a radiator shop, a tune up place, a shoe store, an empty lot - hardly the local a nice restaurant would be found.
And then she squinted a bit to see better. Sure enough, down the road a ways she saw an unlit neon palm tree and some small writing that appeared to spell out Matiki Island Barbeque. It sounded interesting, and at this point she was willing to try just about anything. She reached up to touch Roy's shoulder.
"Turn right, Roy... into that driveway."
Roy threw a quick glance over his shoulder, then turned his eyes back to the road. "Right up here?" he asked dubiously.
Lydia nodded. "That's right. There's a place there we could try."
"Really?" Johnny perked up and peered out the window. "I don't see anything."
"It's right there on the end of these stores."
Roy drove up and pulled into one of many empty parking stalls. They could see directly into the big plate glass windows. There were several small tables, but no customers.
"I don't know about this, Lydia..." Roy began.
"Well, it's open and there's no wait." She gave a little laugh. "And right now I think we're all hungry enough to give 'em a try."
"You're right about that," Joanne agreed. "I say we go for it."
Roy gave the small restaurant another speculative glance, then shrugged his shoulders. "Whatever you ladies say."
"All right!" Johnny exclaimed as he opened up the car door and held out his hand for Lydia and helped her out.
"Do they have hamburgers here?" Chris asked with a frown. "It doesn't look like a hamburger place."
"We'll just have to wait and see," Joanne told her son.
The place may not have looked like much, with only a few travel posters on one wall and a tissue paper palm tree on the other, plastic chairs and Formica topped tables, but that was all forgotten by the wonderful aroma that met their nostrils. Something was grilling behind the counter, and whatever it was smelled heavenly.
"Hi, folks... Talofa!" A tall, handsome Samoan woman greeted them from the counter. "We're so glad you stopped by. We just opened and we didn't think we'd have any business since it's Mother's Day."
"Well, we were just sorta... drivin' around," Johnny answered with a grin.
"I'm glad you found us. Have a seat and I'll bring you some menus."
The woman helped them push two tables together and they all took a chair. She handed out several paper menus, then moved off to get them glasses and place settings.
"We were just driving around?" Roy asked dryly.
Johnny gave a little laugh. "Well, we were."
Roy just shook his head and turned his attention to the small menu.
There wasn't a large selection, mostly rice and variations of grilled chicken and beef with a few vegetables thrown in. But it smelled so good, Lydia was sure the lack of variety wouldn't matter.
The woman returned and took their order, then after about ten more minutes their table was filled with Styrofoam plates heaped with scoops of white, sticky rice, and more wonderfully seasoned grilled meats than they could possibly eat in one sitting. A small green salad finished it off. After a few tentative tastes, everyone, including the kids, dug in with enthusiasm.
The woman who waited on them was very attentive, making sure they were eating their fill, and then, when Lydia was sure they were all full to bursting, she reappeared with coconut cream pie for everyone, insisting it was on the house - a Mother's Day surprise for their only customers of the day.
Lydia was so full she couldn't eat more than a couple of bites of her pie, so she scooted the plate over towards Johnny, who had just finished shoveling his last bite into his mouth. He glanced up at her and quirked a self-conscious smile, then proceeded to polish hers off as well. The older woman chuckled at the young man's seemingly endless appetite. Albert had been able to eat like that when they were first married.
After a time, even Johnny was full and the sated group ambled out to the car, with many happy farewells and thanks from the Samoan woman and her husband, who finally came out from working the grill to talk to them.
Johnny patted his stomach as he waited for Lydia to climb into the car.
"Man, that was a great meal." He slipped into place beside her and shut the door just as Roy was closing his. "Now, see? Didn't I tell ya there'd be restaurants around here? And we ended up having chicken after all."
Lydia nearly laughed out loud at the look Roy shot his partner, but the man wisely refrained from saying anything.
* * *
Roy stood in his driveway watching Johnny's Rover drive down the street. He put an arm around Joanne and the couple headed back up the walkway to the house.
"Well, that didn't turn out so badly," Joanne sighed as she wrapped an arm around her husband's waist and leaned against his chest.
"No, I guess not." Roy breathed in deeply. "Although I still can't believe Johnny didn't bother to ask about the wait time."
"Now, Roy," Joanne scolded kindly. "It ended up just fine, and that food was probably better than what we would have had at Knott's."
She slapped his back playfully. "I don't think there were any 'wells' about it, the way you were eating."
Roy laughed and held a hand to his stomach. "I think you're right. I won't be able to eat again for a week."
Now it was Joanne's turn to laugh. "I won't hold you to that."
They entered the house. It was quiet, with the kids already upstairs getting ready for bed. Roy took advantage of the moment alone and kissed his wife soundly. When they broke apart to breathe, she was smiling at him.
"I hope you had a happy Mother's Day," he whispered.
"I did," she assured him, then her smile grew a little more seductive. "But I hope it's not over yet. Or did you eat too much to continue the celebration?"
Roy shook his head and grinned. "Not on your life."
* * *
Johnny walked Lydia up to her doorstep and waited while she searched her purse for her keys. Once she had them in hand, she opened the door to her apartment.
"You coming in?" she asked.
"Naw, I'm beat. I gotta go to work in the morning."
"Afraid I'll tire you out?" Lydia teased. Johnny chuckled and reddened just a bit, making the older woman laugh kindly. "Thank you for a wonderful day, Johnny."
The paramedic's smile dimmed a bit. "Well, I'm sorry for messing up dinner. I know you wanted to go..."
"Now, Johnny Gage, don't even start," she ordered sternly. "I had a wonderful time. None of that matters one whit. I always figured it's who you eat with, not where."
The grin returned to the young man's face. "You're a classy lady, Lydia. Thanks."
"You're pretty classy, yourself, John Gage. I'll tell ya one thing... I never had a son, but if I did, I'd want him to be like you."
Now Johnny blushed fully and for one of the few times since she'd met him, seemed at a loss for words. His eyes were fixed on the ground for a long time before he finally looked up and met her eyes. He looked for a moment like he wanted to say something, then he just gave her that cheeky, half grin of his.
"Thanks, Lydia. I'll see ya around." He leaned forward and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Happy Mother's Day."
He then turned and trotted down the steps. As he disappeared down the walkway to his own apartment, she could hear him whistling happily.
Thanks to Audrey and Kenda for the Betas. :> Matiki Island Barbeque is a real place, a family at church owns. It's only been open a few years, so I fudged a little on it being around in the 70's.
*Click on Johnny to send feedback to Jill
Stories by Jill H. Mother's Day Stories