Comin' Into Town
by Jonnia W. Smith
With short, shuffling steps and a rocking gait, he made his way from the end of Main Street through the parking lot of Walker’s Drive-In, carefully placing his cane, navigating the roots of the giant oak that had erupted through the crumbling asphalt. His Sunday best sagging over his bent frame and a gray fedora on his head, he came.
In Lucedale, Mississippi, in the mid-seventies, my sister and I were often allowed to entertain ourselves just outside my grandparents’ burger joint, playing around the tables or begging nickels to feed the juke box, while our parents helped out or when we just dropped by to visit after the lunch rush. On several of these afternoons, I had seen him. On this day, at this time, there weren’t too many other customers, and we had run out of coins for more music. I watched him move at a painfully slow pace toward us, knowing by the dark of his skin what part of town he must have walked from, thinking of the distance and how much time it must have taken.
Finally arriving at the building, he stopped a moment, removed his hat and carefully mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. He stepped up to the side window and waited to place his order. Not the front window just a few feet around the corner. Not the front window that was open, a few customers waiting for their food as a young woman took an order from the next in line. But the side window that was locked, that hadn’t been open all day and was only ever open on the busiest days. He held his hat and stood at this closed window and waited silently.
“Excuse me, sir,” I ventured, my voice too soft from shyness. “Excuse me, sir,” I tried again. “This window over here is open.” I pointed wide with my arms in case he still couldn’t hear me clearly.
He smiled. “That’s okay. I’ll wait right here,” his voice hoarse and strained.
“But that window is closed. She can take your order up here.”
“I’m fine. I can wait till she have time for me.” His face and manner so pleasant, it might be easy to believe that he actually enjoyed standing there in the wrong place.
I stepped up to the order counter to let Dorothy know what was going on behind the giant pickle jar that blocked her view of the man, as it sat directly in front of the side order window. She peeked out, then asked me to tell him to come around, that he was at the wrong window. Assuring her I’d already gone through all of this with him, that he didn’t understand, I suggested she talk to him. She leaned out and yelled around the corner for him to come up to the front window. I walked back to try to explain it all again.
He remained so pleasant, so calm and patient. Infinitely patient. I worked hard at the thought that I might be missing something, that more might possibly be going on here. There was also the thought that maybe his mind was beginning to weaken and he was the one missing something. I puzzled at this as I kept trying to convince him to step up front.
After more of this back and forth and getting nowhere, Dorothy finally shoved the giant pickle jar aside, along with stacks and small boxes in her way, huffed as she fumbled with the latch and shoved the glass open. She asked what she could get for him and wrote on her pad as he quietly placed his order for a regular burger and a small Coca-Cola. He counted his money out on the counter, thanked her as she handed his order over, and seated himself at one of the outdoor tables to eat.
She pulled the window shut and began moving things inside back to their places on the counter, grumbling that he never comes to the front no matter how many times anybody tells him he has to.
I knew it was impolite to stare, but I couldn’t help sneaking glances and peeks as he ate. There was such an air of innocence about him, that in years since I’ve come to see often in the very old. He was clearly enjoying the afternoon and his lunch. He seemed somewhat amused at my interest in him, but pretended not to notice my constant attention. After dropping his wrapper and empty cup in the trash barrel, he lifted his hat to his head, gathered up his cane, and began the long shuffle back through town.
I wish I knew his name. I have tried for years to remember if I ever once knew it. But his dark and deeply lined face, the movement of his stooped body, the way he hooked his cane in his coat pocket to keep it from falling and held his hat against his side – these things are still fresh in my vision.
And I still wonder.
Jonnia W. Smith grew up in south Mississippi in the 1970s, when integration was still a painful work in progress. “It gave me some compelling stories to share,” she says. “This is a telling of an old black man coming into town for lunch and the questions his behavior and dignified manner raised in my little girl’s mind.” This piece originally appeared on her blog. Smith now lives outside Atlanta with her family, dog and at least 72,396 books.