Pretty and I (along with the rest of the world) watched the final episode of Season Two of Big Little Lies this past week which reminded me of a story I wrote that became a chapter of I’ll Call It Like I See It: A Lesbian Speaks Out – my book that inspired this blog.
A LITTLE SPANISH MIXED WITH A LITTLE BIT OF
YANKEE AND A LOT OF MIDWEST
“Hey, hon,” the middle-aged waitress said as she brought my cheeseburger and fried onion rings to me. “Give me a second while I clean the grill, and I’ll visit with you while you eat. It’s just about closing time.” She gave me a friendly, but tired, smile. She appeared to remember me from my prior visits.
I sat at one of the four wooden picnic tables at Holder’s, my new all-time favorite hamburger and barbecue place. The day had cooled from the earlier rain, and a slight breeze blew through the outdoor eating area that provided a vision of the quintessential Texas roadside café. Waiting for food wasn’t a problem here. If you ran out of license plates and signs to read on the walls, the personal carvings on the wooden tables guaranteed entertainment.
In theory, I’m a vegetarian. In reality, I’ve loved hamburgers since my mother made them for me at home and Miz Inez Wood cooked them for me at the Richards Café more than fifty years ago. Hold the mayo—extra mustard. Lots of onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, and cheese, and meat that’s cooked on a grill until it’s done. No pink showing. The burgers at Holder’s are always perfect. Bobby Holder, the owner, trains his cooks to do them the same way every time, and I fear it’s a lost art. I was in hamburger heaven, and I wasn’t particularly interested in conversation. I don’t mind eating alone, and today was a day I’d planned to enjoy the total Holder’s experience by myself. The biggest decision I had hoped to make this afternoon was whether I wanted barbecue or the cheeseburger. I started dipping the onion rings in ketchup and wondered if anything could possibly taste better.
The woman who cooked for me, and served me, had an average height and very good posture for someone who was at the end of a long work day. I recognized her as one of several cooks/waitresses who worked at Holder’s on random schedules. She wore a pair of blue jeans and a tight-fitting blue T-shirt. Her hair was bleached blonde and pulled back under a navy blue Lowe’s baseball cap that left curls showing around her face. The face, however, was a dead giveaway for how tired she was this day, and all the other days just like it. Heavy makeup couldn’t mask the erosion of youth and the impression that her life required too much from her. I guessed she was in her late forties or early fifties. She began wiping the tables while I munched on the onion rings. She finished cleaning the table next to mine and stopped to sit down on the bench opposite me.
“Did you see that car and those guys who were here just before you? They kinda scared me,” she said. “One of them came in first and ordered, and then the other one came after I had already finished cooking the first order. It was odd. That’s all I’m saying. Odd.”
“I saw them,” I said. “They had two little children in the back seat of their car.”
“I’m not prejudiced or anything like that. I don’t care that they were black. It’s just that I’m here at the front by myself this afternoon, and anything unusual these days makes you nervous. You know what I mean?”
“Yes.” I nodded. “I don’t blame you for being careful.” I saw her point, and I tried to empathize more, but basically, I just continued to eat. Did anything smell better than a cheeseburger and onion rings? The grease-coated batter covering the onion rings created a wonderful, crunchy bite. Somebody stop me before I eat all of them. A dozen big home-made ones. This was definitely too many.
“I mean, they could be purple for all I care, and I would’ve felt the same way. If you had acted like that, I would’ve felt the same. It wasn’t about them being black or anything.” She stood up and started cleaning the tables around me again. I wondered if she had spied the Obama 2008 bumper sticker on my pickup truck or had seen a small frown steal across my face when she spoke about her fears. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, I thought.
I didn’t say anything. I hoped that was the last word on the subject of the previous customers. Actually, I hoped that was the last word on any subject. The tomatoes on the cheeseburger were fresh off the vines and mouth-watering. She had put the extra mustard that mixed with the onions in a taste that I’d missed for more than a month. No meat was better than hamburger meat in Texas. This was hallowed ground, and I wanted to worship.
“Are you from around here?” she asked. She’d finished cleaning the tables and now stood next to mine, across from me.
“Yes,” I said, mentally giving up on a solitary dining experience. “I grew up in Richards and bought a home in Montgomery several months ago.”
“Oh, well, that’s a coincidence! I live in Montgomery, too,” she said, and we were off and running on a lively monologue that included her, and her brother, being born in Massachusetts to an Army family that moved from the northeastern part of the United States to Nebraska where she attended junior high and high school. Her parents eventually settled in El Paso, Texas, and her father still lived there. Her mother had died two years ago after a lengthy illness.
“I lived in El Paso for twenty years with my second husband, and I can tell you that we were in the minority there. It’s a border town, you know. There’s more Hispanics in that town than you could ever imagine. Everybody always wonders about my accent, and I say there’s a little Spanish mixed with a little bit of Yankee and a lot of Midwest.” She laughed at her own joke, and I laughed with her.
Her demeanor changed abruptly, as if she had taken a wrong turn on a one-way street. The smiles vanished, and her good humor went with them. Her voice lowered significantly, although we were the only two people in the place. “My second husband was abusive,” she said. “Mentally, and physically, too. I put up with it for twenty years. He ran around on me all the time and came in at all hours of the day and night and beat me when he got home. He said I was unfaithful and useless.”
I was horrified at this intimate revelation, and I couldn’t think of an appropriate response. I’m not the best at quick reactions, so, before I could say anything, she went on with her story.
“We had a daughter, and I worked as a bookkeeper to help pay our bills. My mother used to ask me why I had black eyes and bruises, and I just lied about it. I told her I ran into things. She knew, though.” The woman began to gather the bottles of hot sauce and salt and pepper shakers from the tables to take them to the kitchen for the night. She kept up the conversation, and I began to experience the pain that prodded it.
“Gosh, that sounds like a nightmare,” I said, trying to think of more to say. “Twenty years? That’s a long time. What finally happened that made you leave?”
She stopped in her tracks and turned to face me. The matter-of-fact voice returned. “My daughter grew up and left home. One night I decided to turn the tables on my husband and give him a taste of his own medicine. So, I stayed out until four o’clock in the morning. I wasn’t doing anything but driving around, but I knew what he would think. He beat me so bad he broke my nose and busted my ribs kicking me with his boots. I crawled through the doggie door to get away from him because I couldn’t walk. I made it to my neighbor’s house, and she called 911. They took me away in an ambulance, and the emergency room doctor said he was amazed I wasn’t dead.”
“Oh, my God,” I exclaimed at this picture. I couldn’t imagine that brutality against her, and the rage I felt touched a fury within me that was like a powder keg sure to be ignited whenever I encountered oppression of the defenseless. I exploded with the same violence in my mind that her husband had shown in her living room. “Why in the world didn’t you just shoot your husband?”
“I don’t keep a gun in my house, and I didn’t keep one then either. I was afraid he might kill me with it. I left after that with my dog and my clothes in a car that I bought myself. That’s it over there. I still have it.” She pointed out the window to an older model Pontiac sedan. “My dog and I drove around the country for eighteen months. She thought it was her home for a long time since we slept in it. She’ll jump in it today if I leave the door open. I can’t get her out.” She smiled at the thought, and I made an effort to relax with her. I was still reeling from her revelations and working to subdue my own anger.
“We ended up in Texas, but I’ll never live in El Paso again. I don’t have much in the way of material things like other people, but I don’t care. Money doesn’t buy you happiness. It really doesn’t. I have a two-bedroom home and two dogs that love me. I’ve had a couple of boyfriends, but I’m not getting married again. Two abusive husbands are enough.”
“Your first husband did that to you, too?” I asked in disbelief. This was too much, and I struggled to make sense of this woman’s complexities and tragic circumstances.
“Yes, but I divorced him after three years. I was twenty-three when we parted company. We didn’t have any children, thank goodness. I guess I must have ‘I love a man who’s an asshole’ tattooed right here.” She grinned as she pointed to her forehead. “Are you finished? You didn’t eat all your onion rings.” Evidently, she was finished, and ready to go home.
“Yes, I’m done,” I replied. I was at a loss for words to end our conversation. “You gave me so many I couldn’t eat them all. Thanks so much for everything. It was delicious. You’re a good cook.”
“Yeah, I may be slinging burgers over a hot grill for the rest of my life, but at least I’m not a bookkeeper any more. I was as fat as a pig when I had that job. I sat at my desk all day, and I had me this little secret stash of candy that I snacked on during the day. Bills and Baby Ruth bars. I paid one and ate the other one for too many years. Say, it looks like that storm is heading back in. You better get going.”
“You’re right,” I said. “The clouds are headed this way, and my dog will be going crazy in the truck. He’s afraid of bad weather.”
“He sure is cute. What kind is he?”
“I think he’s a Welsh terrier. Whatever he is, he’s got a phobia about storms.”
“My daughter’s got a Chug a little bit smaller than your dog,” she said.
I must have looked puzzled as I tried to process the information.
“You ever hear of a Chug? It’s a mixture of Chihuahua and Pug. Get it? Chug. That’s one ugly dog with a smushed face on that little body.” She laughed one more time. “Well, I enjoyed talking to you. Hope to see you back in here soon. Be careful driving home.”
As I drove the five miles home to Montgomery, the rains came in a downpour, very much like my thoughts from the conversation with the waitress. My dog Red was a wreck, and he threw himself from one window to the other in the back seat of the truck while he panted frantically. Luckily for him, this storm was brief. It was over by the time we pulled into the driveway, and he was calm again. I was also an emotional wreck, with a jumble of feelings stirred by her words and had a strong impulse to fix a rare cocktail, so I did. As I sipped the bourbon and ginger ale and replayed her story in my mind that night, I sifted through the tumultuous feelings of outrage and compassion to a sense of admiration for a woman who refused to give up on herself. I toasted her courage that must surely have come from a little bit of Spanish mixed with a little bit of Yankee and a lot of Midwest.
Here’s to you, and others like you.