Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, December 13, 2018, 10:44 a.m.
I was on the way to the Laurens Commission of Public Works meeting and thought it was going to make me late. I am obsessively punctual and often fret about being late for meetings, so much so that invariably I wind up being there 20 minutes early, anyway. This wound up being such an occasion.
It was a simple trip through the drive-through. I knew that, when the meeting was over, I’d race home, process and crop the photos, write a story about it, and edit whatever releases had arrived via email. If I didn’t eat on the way to Laurens, it would be peanut butter and crackers while watching a late-night talk show.
I was watching the car in front of me. The girl in the drive-through handed some change out the window. The driver of the car fumbled the change. Several coins fell to the damp pavement. The woman in the car started yelling and waving her arms.
“I’m not about to touch that pavement to pick up that change!” she screamed. “You hear me? Give me my money again.”
The girl did so. The woman pulled ahead to the second window. I pulled my truck to the right, away from the window, got out and picked up three dimes off the pavement, which I handed to the girl along with my debit card.
“I was watching,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I pulled up for another long delay. The woman was demanding to see the manager.
“You ought not allow that stupid girl to be in there!” she yelled.
The woman suggested that her food ought to be free. If I’m not mistaken, I think she finagled an apple pie out of the deal. I wondered if that was her intention all along. She received a small drink and a small bag that I imagined contained a small hamburger. The angry woman, who was driving a car so large they don’t build them anymore, kept on yelling. I was starting to feel like cutting loose myself.
When she finally moved on and I pulled up, I said, “I saw what happened. That little girl didn’t do one thing wrong.”
I was in the same situation the next night, fancying that I was running late but not really, on the way to a basketball game. The same girl was taking money at the drive-through.
“You were working last night, too,” I said.
“I was behind the woman who started yelling at you about dropping her change.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “You got out and picked up the change. You might’ve saved me.”
“I told them up ahead you hadn’t done a thing wrong,” I said.
This wasn’t important. It was just one of the random, unpredictable incidents that careen into life every day. As I was driving to the game, I realized that the incident had been almost completely racial. The mad woman had been of one race and the girl in the window another. If they had been of the same race, the woman wouldn’t have gotten mad. She would have let it go. If the races had been reversed, the same incident might have happened. The woman would deny that. Racists always do.
The largest gulf between people rests in the dark waters of the mind.
Another way I cobble out a living is with my books, a wide variety of which is available for sale here.
The new novel, my eighth, is called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Lightning in a Bottle is now available in an audio version, narrated by Jay Harper.