BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — 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.
The nine-year veteran waitress meets hundreds of people each day as they pass through her section of the restaurant, but something was different about Fox. The retired building inspector showed up alone at one of Quinn's tables twice in the same week.
"I was like, 'In for the second time this week, huh?'" she said.
Those eight words were the beginning.
Fox told her about the love of his life, Hildegard. He explained their story that began in Germany after World War II and lasted more than 60 years.
The couple built a life together in Detroit after the war, he said. They raised three children and stuck together through the best and worst of what life threw at them.
Eventually they retired to Traverse City.
Fox watched his life-long companion fade into the grip of Alzheimer disease. He sat at her bedside, longing for the days when her eyes lit at the sight of his smile.
After she died, he tried to keep busy.
"They did everything together, long walks, old folks groups. The important thing was that they were together," said Ilona Brustad, Fox's oldest daughter. "I think that's been the problem; he was very lonely."
Brustad and her two siblings live far from Traverse City and have children and grandchildren of their own to worry about, Fox said.
She worried that he shouldn't live alone, that he needed someone who would watch after him. She asked him to move to Ann Arbor to live near her home. He refused.
That was before he found Quinn at Applebee's on U.S. 31 South in Traverse City.
"It's a friendship now, a close friendship," Brustad said. "If I were to take him away from that, it wouldn't be fair."
She struggles with how to thank restaurant staffers who call worried when Fox doesn't show up on time for his lunch and who take him to their family celebrations so he won't be alone on the three days each year when the restaurant closes.
When Fox fell in his driveway and broke his wrist, Quinn left work to be with him at the hospital. And when he couldn't drive, she brought him food at home.
"They have nothing to gain," Brustad said. "It's not like he is a rich man who will leave them a big endowment or something like that."
But Quinn contends Fox already gave her something much more valuable than fortune.
"He probably thinks he gets more from this, but I really think I do," she said. "He can only see the way we make him feel. He has changed my life."
Even on the worst day, while wading through sometimes difficult customers, all Quinn needs is to catch a glimpse of Fox's smile.
"He gives me a reason to come into work every day," she said.
When Quinn isn't working, fellow waitress Sarah Majerczyk takes care of him. Getting to know Fox inspired her to go back to school after almost 20 years. She intends to finish her bachelor's degree in geriatric social work.
"I love seeing him every day," she said. "He's kind of stubborn at times."
Fox often refuses to stay at home during bad weather. He still drives the short distance from his 16th Street home to the restaurant.
"I get up in the morning and wait to come up here," he said with a smile. "Then I wait to get kicked out."
But no one would ever make Fox leave.
Quinn fends off thoughts about the day when Fox's chair near the front door aisle will sit empty.
"I try not to think about the day that Jerry's not coming into Applebee's," she said. "But Jerry's always telling me not to worry."
So she makes the best of every day.
She sends him away each day knowing he's not just another customer. He's family.