By Jonathan Odell
After spending most of the morning hunkered down in a Mississippi, small-town library researching a novel, I was more than ready for a lunch break. The librarian said there was only one place nearby to get a decent meal, a café called Lucille’s, just down the street within walking distance.
When I opened the door to the street-front diner, I thought the place deserted. Then I saw a solitary woman standing behind the counter. She was nicely dressed and carefully made up — her silver-gray hair neatly coiffed and her cheeks as brightly rouged as a Delta sunset. If it hadn’t been for the fresh-starched apron, she could have been a grandmother headed to church.
I took a step into the empty room, but kept a careful hand on the door thinking I might be in the wrong place.
“Hello, ma’am. You serving lunch?”
“Come on in and take a seat,” she called out. Her tone was hospitable and informal. She might have been inviting me into her living room.
She waited for me to decide among the six empty tables and then met me with a crisp, single-sheeted menu.
“I’m Lucille,” she announced, as if I might have been asking around about her. “Must be your first time here. Seeing as how you called it lunch and not dinner.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “The librarian sent me over.”
“Well, I’m proud she did!” Lucille laughed. “What you studying over there at the liberry? Sweet tea?”
I understood that to be two questions. “Yes, ma’am. Sweet. I’m down from Minneapolis doing research.”
Her black-penciled eyebrows arched. “Research for what? You studying us crazy folks down here?”
“Kind of,” I answered, laughing with her. “I’m writing a book.”
She clucked her tongue. “Merciful Lord, not another book!” She turned to head for the counter, talking over her shoulder as she went. “People always coming down here to Mississippi to write books on us. And I got to say most of what they say ain’t very nice. Why does everybody like to low-rate Mississippi? Must be good money in it, all’s I can say. What you writin’ on?”
By now we were talking across the entire length of the diner. I had to raise my voice to answer. “A novel.”
She lifted her eyebrows again, questioning.
“Fiction,” I explained.
“Fiction,” she said blankly.
“Made up,” I explained. “Not true.”
“None of them books is! That’s what I been telling you,” she said. “What yurs about?”
She remained in place, holding the plastic pitcher in a pose that suggested I wasn’t going to get my sweet tea until I answered.
I shrugged. “About life in the South,” I said, hoping she would just leave it at that.
Lucille eyed me with a hard stare. “Are you gonna tell how bad we treat the colored? Them books make us all look like a bunch of Ku Kluxers.”
Before I could answer, a head in a hairnet poked through the kitchen door. An ancient black woman scowled at both of us and then ducked back into the kitchen.
Lucille walked over with my tea. “Now, me personally,” she said, not bothering to lower her voice, “when I was growing up, I never thought of myself as a racist.”
“No, ma’am,” I answered, not yet having met a Mississippian who did.
“I didn’t think no different from nobody else around here. We liked the colored good enough. Never had no trouble with ’em. I was poor and they was poor. We was taught to treat ’em right. Only thing was, we believed we were better than they was, that’s all. You decided?”
“You know what you want to eat?” she asked. “Alma back there makes a mean chicken-fried steak.”
I cut my eyes toward the kitchen door. Lucille was talking loud enough for Alma to hear every word. I chose Alma’s specialty.
“Two sides with that,” Lucille said. “Three’s another 50 cents.”
I ordered turnip greens and fried okra.
Lucille took another look at me, like she might be reconsidering her opinion. “How you know about turnip greens and fried okra? You didn’t learn about turnip greens from up in Min-dian-apolis.”
I admitted I was raised in Mississippi, a couple of hundred miles south of here.
Lucille brightened considerably, discovering she was amongst family. “Then I don’t need to tell you nothin’. You understand how it is down here. Alma!”
Alma again stuck her head out the door. Lucille called out my order to her, and then laughed. “He’s OK, Alma. He knows about turnip greens!”
Unimpressed, the black woman disappeared behind the door without comment.
“No, sirree,” Lucille announced loudly, “I sure didn’t have nothin’ against the colored.”
“No, ma’am. That’s what you were saying.”
“But then, wouldn’t you know it?” she exclaimed. “My daughter went and fell in love with one.”
She paused, studying me for any reaction.
“One what?” I asked.
“A colored boy!” she cried out. “Now, ain’t that a kick in the head?”
I agreed it probably was a kick in her head.
I had no idea where Lucille was going with this. Painfully aware that Alma was only a few feet away, I busied myself dumping several packets of Sweet’N Low into my glass, forgetting this was Mississippi tea. Lethally sugared to begin with.
“I told my girl if that’s the way she was gonna do me, I wouldn’t never talk to her again. Swore I wouldn’t put a foot inside her house. I didn’t care if I was being racist or not. All I knew was, I didn’t want my girl marrying no colored boy. Lemon?”
“No, ma’am.” I took a sip of my super-sweetened tea, straining undissolved crystals through my teeth. “This is fine.” I grimaced.
I stole a glance at the kitchen door, wondering how many times poor Alma had been forced to listen to this story.
“Well, the next thing you know,” Lucille said, “the girls over at the Hollywood Casino where my daughter works was throwing her a wedding shower and I got sent an invitation. I didn’t even bother answering it. Tossed it in the trash barrel.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slow. “But then my youngest girl, Susie, snatched me by the shoulders and shook me good. ‘Momma,’ she says, ‘Gloria’s your own daughter. Flesh and blood. Just like me. You wouldn’t do me that a way, would you?’”
Lucille paused, her brow furrowed, like she was again considering her daughter’s question. Then she caught my eye.
“Now, I still didn’t want to go,” she confessed, “but I did. I walked into that trailer with all her friends up in there having their big party. White and colored both, integrated as a Pentecostal prayer meeting. I tell you my fur was up and I was ready for a fight. Then I saw my girl.”
Lucille wagged her head wistfully. “I don’t know who went first, but she was grabbing on to me and I was grabbing on to her. Both of us crying our eyes out. Right there in front of ever body. We had to go off to the back of that doublewide and cry some more.”
Lucille stood there with her arms folded across her chest, now gazing out the window at the afternoon traffic as it lumbered by.
“Well,” she said, “long story short, I ended up going to the wedding and now I got two coffee-colored grandbabies. Most precious things I got. And you know what?” she asked, finding my eye again. “That colored boy turned out to be my best son-in-law. Gave me this job in his café. Let me name it for myself.”
She shrugged. “What you gonna do? It’s family.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed. “What you gonna do?”
“You got family?” she asked.
I hesitated. “I have a partner back in Minneapolis,” I told her.
“Well, I guess your dinner’s ready,” she said, as if I hadn’t said a word. “I’ll go see about it.” She turned and dashed off for the kitchen.
That’s the silent response I had come to expect in the South when I volunteer the word “partner.” When Mississippians can’t say something nice, we change the subject. It’s a philosophy that keeps us from shooting each other more than we do.
After a few minutes, Lucille returned with my order. She set the steak in front of me and picked right up with her own story.
“Well, I guess God could have stopped messing with me after all that business with Gloria. He might have figured, that’s plenty for one old woman to deal with.
“But then that other daughter of mine I told you about, she’ll be here in a minute when she gets off work at the 7-11. She rides a motorcycle. Well, after getting me to make up with Gloria, she come to me and asks if loved her. So, I told her, sure I love you.”
“And then she says, ‘No. I mean do you love me unconditionally?’”
“Well, now that made me stop for a second. Unconditionally. I’ve watched Oprah enough times to know about that word. I figured Susie must have gone out and found herself a colored boy like Gloria done. So, this time I was gonna be ready. I wadden’t gonna act ugly or racist or nothing. I tole her of course I loved her. Just like she said. Unconditionally. ‘Good,’ she says to me, ‘cause, Momma, I’m in love with a woman. Ginny’s my partner.”
Lucille’s eyes widened and she dropped her mouth, offering up how surprised she had been. Then she gave me a conspiratorial look and put a hand up to the side of her mouth. She whispered, “How come me to think of that, was the way you said you had a partner up in Min-dian-apolis. Partner. That’s the word she says.”
Lucille shook her head and hooted. “Baby! Don’t never figure God is through with you until He’s done, you hear? I’m old as black pepper, and he’s still messing with me.”
“Was I lying or ain’t that the best chicken-fried steak you ever tasted?”
I agreed. Alma’s steak couldn’t be beat. “Taste’s like my momma’s,” I said. Which, in the South, is as good as you’re allowed to say anything is.
“Now, like I said,” she went on, “God could’ve give me a break after my first girl, but I guess He was wontin’ to see exactly how much he could stretch a person out. I’m not all the way there yet. I’m still stretchin’.”
Forking a bite of turnip greens, I agreed as to how there’s probably a little stretch left in all of us.
“You know,” she mused, “sometimes I feel sorry for folks that the Lord don’t love enough to mess with a little. Take this old woman from my church. She come up to me with a bless-your-heart look on her face, and says, ‘Lucille, how can you abide having a daughter married to a colored man?’”
Lucille laughed. “She was acting like I was a Christian martyr or something.”
“What you tell her?” I asked, knowing I was supposed to.
Lucille smiled. “Why, I just grinned at her real big and said, ‘Well, honey, the same way I abide having one that’s a lesbian, I reckon. I just love ’em to death.’ Boy-hidey, that sure shut her up.”
She shrugged her shoulders and winked at me. “I figure if the Lord ain’t going to mess with her, I sure earned the right.”