Gladys Henderson


It was the only building in Selma with lights on, a Hopper painting—
fuel pumps, streetlights stinging moths, a small clapboard diner,
windows soiled with years of cigarettes, greasy fry oil. 

There was one waitress for this small eatery, the locals
called her by name.  Mary Beth in her gray and white uniform, handkerchief
folded into a flower above her left breast and a pin of the confederacy,
its stars and bars holding it in place.

Mary Beth had been a waitress for years.  She knew how to take care
of bus-stop strangers, those who didn’t follow signs.  She worked
the counter with ease, took orders from the tables, whispered
with the locals — who glanced up from their plates towards
the old women seated next to me.

Mary Beth pitched the plate in front of the elderly woman, the last
passenger to be served, it made a loud clank, rattled cymbal like,
until the diners went silent.  Her sandwich fell to the floor.

The bus driver announced it was time to leave. When we entered the diner,
night was with us, but by then, morning sun had reached the cloudy windows. 

We saw the signs for the first time:

Colored Water Fountain, Colored Food Counter.
We exited the clapboard diner in solemn faced lines, as though waiting to view
the remains of a friend who had passed away unexpectedly. The old woman,
the last passenger to be served, wrapped her sandwich in a napkin, left her
money on the counter, took her place in the line of passengers. 

We boarded the bus and left Selma, the day and evening ahead of us. 
The rattle of the engine its groans, the hiss of the serpent-brakes
that followed us at every stop, and those signs, those signs, all the way to Dallas.

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