The names and places in this little story have been changed to protect the innocent. Let’s call the town where the man and the woman stopped for dinner, “Smudge.” The town was well-named. It was not much more than a smudge along the highway. And let’s call the restaurant where they dined the “Hole-in-the-Wall.”
On this evening of the opening day of elk season, nearly every table in the Hole-in-the-Wall was full. Many of the customers were families with children. Hunters, sprinkled throughout the room, were dressed in the unlikely combination of camo regalia accessorized with day-glo orange. Three tables had been pushed together in the center of the room to accommodate a gathering of senior citizens, there to celebrate the birthday of a smiling, grandmotherly-looking woman. The place buzzed with excited voices, interrupted stories and laughter.
At a corner table in the back of the room, his back against the wall, sat a middle-aged, balding, part-Native American man. We’ll call him "Ollie." Yes, that’s a good name, Ollie Oxinfree. Across from him sat a woman whose hair showed more salt than pepper. We’ll name her “Pyridoxine.” Pyridoxine Hydrochloride Donnelly.
She was the 17th child from a practicing Catholic family. Her mother, desperate to come up with yet another name, had been reading the ingredients on a cereal box when her water broke. The name had something or other to do with Vitamin B6. So her family called her “Bee” for short. They might have called her “Doxie.” Whenever she thinks of that, Bee shudders. The couple, recently re-acquainted, were no strangers to the aches and pains or the hard knocks of life.
Their table had been cleared but not yet wiped clean since the last diners left. The harried waitress put down menus, water glasses and utensils and turned to deliver steak sauce to the folks two tables over. Ollie loudly called after her, “Would you bring a rag and wipe off the table?” The waitress did not visibly respond. Ollie glared at her departing back, swiped his hand across the crumbs and knocked them to the floor. “She’s racist. Obviously,” he spit the words. Ollie drained his glass of water and set it down with a thunk.
Bee lifted her eyebrows. “Ollie, this place is a hive. She could be feeling hassled. No doubt she’s overworked, underpaid and probably inexperienced to boot. Maybe her boyfriend just dumped her. Or she missed her car payment. What if she just found out she’s pregnant? Or maybe she is just having a bad day.”
Ollie grimaced. “No, no, no. She’s racist. Bee, I can tell. I’ve lived with this all my life. Don’t you try to make excuses for her.”
Bee had no answer to that but Ollie’s words sparked in her a determination to put a smile on both Ollie’s and the young waitress’ faces. She turned slightly in her chair. She watched the waitress place three meals in front of other customers as she made her way to their table with a cloth. “You ready to order yet?” the girl asked as she wiped the table. Bee waited for her to finish then nodded to Ollie. “Take his order first. I still have to make up my mind.”
As the waitress left their table, Ollie called after her, “And bring me some more water. Didn’t you see my glass is empty? Listen, just leave a pitcher here.”
Bee studied Ollie. She felt very sad at the pain this man tried so hard to hide. She had no way to know what insults and abuses he had lived with. She knew him to be well-educated, articulate, a kind and gentle man, not the sullen hurting four-year-old across the table from her.
The waitress returned with a pitcher of water and their salads. Bee complimented her on her promptness, especially given this busy evening. When the waitress returned with their dinners, she ventured a half-smile that almost crinkled her eyes. Bee exclaimed, “My goodness, there is enough food heaped on this platter to feed three lumberjacks!”
Ollie and Bee ate quietly. Ollie secretly wished he had ordered a pizza to take home to eat alone. Bee made a mental list of the ways in which she had experienced bigotry. “None of us are immune,” she thought. Her list included being a Catholic, being a farm kid, being poor, growing up without a mother, being divorced, too skinny, too white, too fat, too old and crippled. “And we all are bigoted to some extent,” she thought. “Usually because of fear. Or maybe we become critical because of perceived differences. I like people. When I focus on the person, I see my fear is unfounded, the difference becomes unimportant.”
This story has no ending. There is no ending for bigotry. Bee wished she could ease Ollie’s pain, but knew she could not touch it. Ollie wished he could make Bee understand. When they left the Hole-in-the-Wall, the waitress, with genuine warmth, wished them a good evening.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)