With a routine smile, the waitress brought sharp, black coffee to the old couple at the diner booth. It was a gesture offered to all patrons. She placed the cups on the red checkered tablecloth. The poised, elderly lady sat elegant, gracious, and mute in her lace-ruffled blouse, and gazed at her elderly husband like a starry-eyed cult follower. She deferred to him with a faint, sweet smile and he took conversation like an Alabamian takes grits on a plate. He told the waitress he was a humble, God-fearing man with a humble, God-fearing wife, and he spoke genteelly of how wonderful it was to see a white woman serve him and care.
“Too many of them people everywhere,” he said.
The waitress stiffened but maintained her long-practiced expression. His wife’s honeyed smile never wavered as she scraped the teaspoon around the brim, watching her husband with that lifetime of snake-charmed eyes.
“Either of you want any cream?” asked the waitress, changing the subject while maintaining her own practiced smile.
The old man scowled and shook his head.
“Naw, naw,” he answered with an ancient, gruff voice. “We like our coffee black as Africa. She likes hers with a lot of sugar. You might keep an eye on that.”
The old lady’s gaze left her husband and turned to assess the sugar pourer, smiling all the while as she stirred the spoon in the cup.
“Sugar,” she said tranquilly, “takes away the bitterness in the black.”
“You sure are a pretty, little thing,” said the old man. He squinted at her name tag. “What’s that tag say? Flora . . . Ah, Flora . . . What’s your last name, darlin’?”
“Shireson,” she answered.
“Shireson,” repeated the old man. “Good stock of people. Good stock. Isn’t she just lovely, Madeline?”
His wife briefly dropped her stayed expression, closed her eyes, and nodded.
“Pretty green eyes, black hair. Skin’s a little on the sun-kissed side, but fair nonetheless,” said the old man.
“Sun’s a damage to the skin, my dear,” advised Madeline with a renewed placid smile.
The waitress blushed and turned her head. A fresh group of people had just seated themselves at another booth in her section. She turned to the couple and smiled piercingly.
“Well, then,” she said, “I’ll give you all a chance to look over the menu. And I’ll be right back to take your order.”
She pivoted toward the recently sat table. They had already decided from the menu, so, after she took the new order, Flora marched toward the kitchen and posted their ticket. She hurried to the dry storage room, clenched her fists, and punched a bag of rice. Her eyes felt hot. The flush reached down to her stomach and back up again. Bertie, a fellow waitress, entered the room. When she caught sight of Flora, her eyes widened.
“I – I was just gettin’ some salt for the kitchen crew,” Bertie said, fumbling for the container. She turned to leave but hesitated, then asked,
Flora said nothing. Her chest heaved with shallow, heated breaths and her lip curled. Bertie stepped back a little and almost tripped. She stopped for a minute, shrugged her shoulders, then walked out. Flora followed her and pulled Bertie gently aside.
“I’m sorry, Bert,” Flora offered.
Bertie smiled, shook her head, and patted Flora’s hand.
“You see that couple over in Booth C?” asked Flora.
Bertie craned her neck as she filled salt shakers for the grill and fry cooks.
“Aw . . . they look like a cute, old couple. What about ‘em?” Bertie asked.
“Old-time racists,” said Flora. Bertie sighed, cast her eyes down, and shook her head.
“In this day and age? It’s 2003, for God’s sake. Did you tell ‘em?” Bertie asked.
“No,” answered Flora. “Why would I? I’d lose a tip, and a measly one at that. You know they’re stingy. Just look at ‘em.”
Bertie stood on her tiptoes. The old woman sat rigid with a mechanical smile while she stirred her coffee; and she seemed to look through the old man with a vacant stare.
“Holdin’ onto their money like it’s got a soul,” Flora muttered. “Anyways, they can’t tell. They never can. I reckon I got plenty of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry situations in me. Certain notions, though, are such a bitch.”
“You want me to wait on ‘em?” Bertie asked.
Flora gathered coffee cups for the fresh booth.
“No. They’re just ignorant folk who like to spout off ‘cause they think they’re above everybody. Really, it’s all about being afraid. Afraid of somebody else. Afraid of losing. Afraid of change. But I’ll tell you one thing,” Flora said.
She put the coffee cups on a tray.
“I’ll take their money to better myself. People’s got to prepare. Mark my words. One day, people’s gonna rise up, take all that ignorant money, and do good things. Read your history books. History don’t change. It’s just a matter of time. Besides,” said the waitress, shrugging her shoulders, “I can smile through anything – just as much as she can.” She nodded in the elderly lady’s direction.
Bertie glanced at Booth C. Sure enough, the old lady sat, still gazing at her husband, still smiling like a habit gone wrong.
Flora moved toward the coffee maker and grabbed the coffee pot. She balanced the tray of cups on one hand and gripped the coffee pot with the other. She stopped in the doorway, took a deep breath, put on her best sunny smile, and trekked forward.