TRAVERSE CITY — Tension drained from Jerry Fox's shoulders and a smile warmed his face as waitress Mandy Quinn's hand brushed his shoulder in a soft pat of reassurance.
It's been three years since the meal that changed his life — one that gave him a reason to rise from bed every day.
Fox leaned back in his chair, the only one of four occupied at his small table. His hands came together on the edge of the wooden slab next to his empty plate, he adjusted the gold wedding band into the six-decade-old groove on his ring finger, and he waited.
He was far from alone, despite appearances.
Fox, 86, watched while Quinn, 31, strode toward the Applebee's Restaurant kitchen. She dodged a swarm of diners as she balanced a tray stacked with dirty dishes. He'd waited for Quinn's gentle touch.
Fox knows the food is better than anything he could hope to cobble together at home. And the beer — always two glasses of Killian's Irish Red — isn't bad, either. But he doesn't spend four hours at the same table every day for the Brownie Bites.
Quinn's red shirt flickered like a distant candle between a mass of churning bodies in the aisle before she disappeared into the bustling kitchen.
No worries. Another server brushed past, paused, squeezed Fox's shoulder, and said "You doing OK, Jerry?"
In a place where strangers dominate, Jerry Fox is family.
"I don't know why I first came in here," Fox said under the din of lunchtime rush. "If this hadn't popped up, I don't know what would have happened."
But Quinn remembers why Fox first showed up in her section at Applebee's.
"I think he was just looking for companionship," she said.