When You Bite Your Tongue.
I sit in the coffee shop in Real Town, having just finished a raspberry scone with a white chocolate glaze that would be the envy of any urban establishment. It was crumbly and dense; the fruit is rich and sweet. You can count on a PTO bake sale veteran to conquer a pastry.
I love Hillbilly Roast Coffee Shop, and the smell of their fair-trade beans, roasted in house. The scent settles itself in against the sweet.
Hillbilly Roast is part of Real Town’s downtown rejuvenation and features exposed brick and beams, lovely glass bottles of in-house brewed syrups, and reclaimed barn-wood bench seating—generously sprinkled with plug-ins for laptops.
You wouldn’t know you weren’t in a major metropolitan area if it wasn’t for the loving-kindness of the pastries. And, of course, the dresses and modest bonnets of the women baristas. The twenty-something women all wear small, tight black hair bonnets over buns from which unruly wisps of hair pop and curl as they work. They wear comfortable tennis shoes for their shifts and hoodies over dresses that are modern and store-bought, but not flashy.
They smile and laugh. They are friendly with me, but not familiar. The coffee shop closes promptly at five and never opens on Sundays.
As I sit here, with my white fabric mask and my laptop open, my eyes slide to the local newspaper pushed to the side of my slick wooden table. Real Town is proud to have a local paper, with hometown writers. Local News lives—not yet either bought out by a conglomerate or lost to memory. I glance at its front page today, and smile, shake my head, and raise an eyebrow: all the natural responses to small town newspaper stories, I suppose.
It’s graced by a friendly story about the local police and firefighters rankling each other in some sort of mustache competition.
But, alongside that, there’s a story about the county clerk’s high school voter registration drive. My heart swells a little with joy. Our county clerk’s last name isn’t an ordinary white one. It’s a Hispanic name, likely Mexican, like nearly one out of every ten of our county’s citizens, who’ve braved the census. Most of those working the voter registration drive with him share names like his.
I flip the folded paper to see pictures and leads talking about aging military veterans at car dealerships and a certain inspirational preacher making a return visit to one of the town’s plethora of Baptist churches to inspire kids away from “the growing drug problem, including heroin.” The local pastor says of his guest, “He’s the answer to that.”
My lips draw a tight line under my white fabric mask—the kind of line that gathers itself to spit venom.
“If this preacher had the magic answers, why is he on his second tour of duty in this county?” My eyebrows are raised in judgment, but within my voice is sassy and mean.
“Maybe he did solve the heroin,” the next interlocutor of my snide inner Greek chorus replies, “But he didn’t have the cure for the fentanyl that’s dropping folks dead.”
Within, the proud and angry parts of me want to snap at each other in approval. “Nailed him!” the chorus says, and they laugh at a church wanting to solve the crisis of overdose deaths and addiction with well-meaning words.
There is so much that is beautiful here, I realize. In this county. In this place that is suffering.
And this stifles my instinct to be judgmental, and I wince at the part of me that just relished a sense of superiority.
I hear the hiss of the steam making the next Americano. I hear laughter among the baristas. I look up and take in the patrons of Hillbilly Roast.
There’s a man who has worked construction at some point. I know because he of the well-worn neon t-shirt emblazoned with the branding of a company my father worked for when I was a kid. He reaches down and gently rocks a sleeping baby in a car seat resting beside his chair. A gaggle of Mennonite women let the cold in when they arrive together, all in dark, homemade dresses and full, formal white bonnets with dangling ribbons. A couple of twenty-somethings grabbing iced drinks, in spite of the weather—one of them a dude with dangling earrings in both ears who isn’t white. A few children underfoot, all well-behaved and eavesdropping on their grownups. A woman with a cane. A woman with fake eyelashes.
I am overwhelmed with an affection for this place. There’s a voter registration drive by a bilingual team and fentanyl on the streets. There is a hometown paper with Deaths and Funerals on 2A and a downtown that’s pulling itself up by its fingernails, brick by brick and cup by cup.
And when the lady beside me goes to the bathroom, she asks me to watch her purse. And I oblige smiling. And I recall the look of mistrust when I have made the request of strangers in any city I have lived in. And when she emerges, we exchange the requisite jokes.
“It didn’t go anywhere!” I inform her.
“So, I’ll still find my millions in it then?” she asks.
And we cackle. It isn’t brilliant shade. It isn’t worldly camp or sarcasm. It isn’t even honestly funny. But we share it. I haven’t seen her before, but I know her.
Being known and knowing people doesn’t stop fentanyl, and I know that. But maybe voter registration drives will. And maybe being known and knowing others will bring greater peace to 2A. Maybe paying attention matters.
And leaving doesn’t do a damned thing.