"TABLE for one?" the tiny hostess mutters through her smiling façade without as much as looking up.
"Actually, I’m meeting some people for dinner. Ryan is the reservation I believe. Party of five."
A full house -- an investor, a doctor, a professor, and a small business owner each from a scatter of locales: Phoenix, Ohio, Denver, and Chicago respectively; people I do not know and have never met before. People that do not know me.
“Right this way.”
Lumbering into the main room, uneasiness fogs the atmosphere. Expensive plates along with equally elevated tastes clang and scrape together. The sounds dissipate into an almost innate symphony as I graze through the herd.
Young professionals flood the tables on this Wednesday night, arms constantly reaching upward clinging for the next rung. They are here because this is the night to be here; tomorrow it will be somewhere else. They splinter the foundations out beneath them upon each ascending step while silver spoons dangle from their jaws.
Their king, the investor, hails me over as I walk in. He sits at one head. To his right sits a smaller pudgy man with glasses, an educator tenured many times over with more degrees than common sense- a sort of self-professed jack of all trades. On the leader’s other side, a dainty young physician with a face tighter than a catheter tube. His gussied-up botox queen evidently plays doctor on herself.
They introduce themselves one by one. Acknowledging each with a nod and handshake, I know I will eventually forget their names. I gave up learning people’s names a long time ago.
I take the seat on the opposite head. To my right, an open chair. To my left, a brash woman with plumes of wild curly hair plops down laughing jesterly moments after I’m seated. “Fools, fools. I didn’t order merlot, but since it matches my nail polish…” Her jokes help ease the awkward tension.
A PhD from San Francisco had vouched for me, excusing the lack of a proper introduction. Unable to make it himself, my colleague told me he met them when he had been asked to join a local social organization of young leaders, a “great way to meet chicks” as he so eloquently stated. “Besides, you’re too anti-social. When’s the last time you got out? It’ll do you some good to meet some fresh faces.”
His friends had been searching for an enlightening evening of conversation from a native southerner. According to him, I was successful. Someone cemented in the region. He suggested that I would serve them well.
Their king asks a question or two to break the ice. “Always looking to make new connections and add more to the fold.” The waitress stops by and asks me what I’ll have. Amongst their chardonnays and experimental craft beers, I default to a Budweiser. Just a Budweiser.
The trickster next to me won't stop talking. After sitting down 10 minutes ago, were there any privacy in the restaurant she would be mid-coital mounted against me firmly upon the table top. She tells me she has an art degree, but now works for her father’s company which she stands to takeover eventually. An entitled generation riding off into the sunset on daddy’s coattails.
Perhaps she thirsts for adventure, longs for something new. They all discuss how much they travel, internationally of course. Their stories turn into badges of merit proudly showcasing their status as tourists in foreign lands.
Finally a lull. As it gets quiet, their monarch asks where I am from. The table stands still. Hinging on my answer bears the weight of five generations of farmers, hunters, and laborers.
Perspiring under the heat of their glares, my mask is stripped. The truth comes out. I reveal myself.
"I grew up about 2 hours south of here. The middle of nowhere to be perfectly honest."
The wolf lies with the sheep. The devil’s kin in the devil’s den. There is no escape.
Their questions begin to slither out. What was it like growing up in such an impoverished socio-economic area? What kind of education do you have? How did you ever end up here? What’s it like losing your virginity to your cousin? How big is your truck? What’s it like living with type-2 diabetes? How many slaves did your great-grandparents own? How do you feel about this/that/the other? A native southerner that is properly housetrained can be quite the beautiful sideshow.
The tourists line up. Looking for a gin-u-wine southern experience? Look no further! Welcome to Alabama World! Home of the world’s biggest trailer park & our famous all you can eat BBQ! Ya’ll come back now, ya hear? Dance, hillbilly, dance! And don’t you dare stop.
I tell them about natural resources our state holds. I talk about farming, industry, fishing and hunting. Sustaining and surviving. No matter what I mention, they no longer view me as a writer or professional; instead I’ve become a monkey at a typewriter. A spectacle.
Their queen speaks indirectly to me. She purposes how could any rational individual possess a device created simply to kill? I tell her I've always been a hunter. It is just another tool. A means to an end.
And racism? What about race? Race always seems to be an issue only to the outsiders. They treat it like a neat little self-contained bubble in which hatred never spills past the Mason-Dixon line.
They are outsiders so their ignorance is excusable. The worst are those born and raised here who come to slam their heritage and home to garner favoritism by the tourists. These are just carpet-bagging assholes who don’t know when the party’s over.
This is a social gathering I remind myself, so I try to be polite. I don’t know many people, so this is an opportunity I keep telling myself. I answer their questions. We play the hands we are dealt. The grilling continues until their leader speaks up that it is time to order.
After the sovereign orders for his queen, the jack opens his mouth revealing an all-too-eager sly pretentiousness.
He speaks condescendingly. I listen attentively. Sticks and stones I remind myself.
"My father’s coming to town. I always hate it because it seems like the South encourages his sophomoric behavior. When he came down for the Tennessee game last fall we ate every appetizer on the menu and drank 22 pounds of beer. When in Rome, I suppose. Roll tide, right?"
He glares slightly at me from the corner of his eye to garner my reaction. I smile politely. Mischievously.
Their king dismisses his ramblings, noting to his friend how he could potentially be offending the only native Alabamian here. He is gauging me. Dissecting my mettle. Stirring the pot.
As the food comes out, I request another Budweiser from the waitress. The chatterbox beside me tells me how her Vietnam-veteran uncle only drank Budweiser. Lost his marbles after coming back stateside she says. I like him more each second.
They carefully slice with their utensils, blot their mouths. Slice. Blot. Slice. Blot. The queen discreetly nudges her king with a smile. Perhaps she noticed me using my hands to wolf down my stuffed shrimp. She whispers to her majesty curtly, “Savage”.
The cracks in her powdery face-cake become more evident. The symmetry of her last nose-job sits slightly askew. Some things simply cannot be bought.
Travis Turner teaches writing and literature courses at the University of Alabama deep in the dirty South. The Black Belt native’s work has been featured in numerous literary journals, magazines, and digital formats. He loves the outdoors, black cats, and good bourbon. Follow him online at: facebook.com/travisturnerfanpage.