What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

Frank Littleton looked at the men around the table. Six of them, all wearing shirts they’d once worn in jobs in the city or for going to funerals or fundraisers. Collars spread open. Sleeves rolled to the elbows. Men he’d known and liked for years, some since they were boys sucking on summer peach pits and laying pennies on railroad tracks.

He felt care-worn. Knew they could read it on his face. As he looked up at each of them, quick as cats, they looked away. Their furtive eyes on one another but none on him.

“Bregman’s not coming today,” he said. “Just so we don’t talk about him while he’s sittin’ here right in front of us, I asked him to take the week off, so to speak. Maybe take his wife out for pancakes over to the place in Bethel.”

“Frank,” said Sam Kilburn, a lawyer, the man who’d written up the wills for most of the men in town, “We don’t have to do this now, do we? Can’t we just let the dust settle a bit? I mean …”

“Sam, listen, I’ve got to tell the guy something. I can’t just let him hang out there like a wet sock on a wash line or something. You can’t do that to a man. We’ve got to make this right by him somehow.”

“No, I suppose you’re right,” said Sam.

“Well, I’ll say this,” offered Pete Cornryn, “just playing devil’s advocate here. He seems like a good guy. You know. I’ve seen worse, but he don’t know us and we don’t know him so maybe we just say we were glad to meet him but we aren’t like expanding the group like we thought we might, you know, size beings as it is.”

Littleton scanned their faces, paused. “What Pete says here, is that how the rest of you all feel?”

The men meet regularly, 7:30 every Monday morning. At the My Cup Runneth Over Cafe and Bookstore. They sit at a table by the window in the back, carrying their coffee and whatever over by themselves.

They sit in the same seats each week. Order the same thing in the same way, tell the same jokes to the girl behind the counter, laugh as loud each time, clatter the same change onto the counter, and groan the same way as they lower themselves in into their seats each time.

Last Monday, Littleton had brought along a new man to the group, a friend, a guest.

“This here’s my friend Arnold Bregman,” he’d said, “Call him Arnie if you like. I do. He’s the one I told you about. So I asked him to come to by to say hello.”

The men fingered their hot coffee cups. A few, mostly those from down the hill, had a breakfast-on-a-bun sandwich in front of them. The rest had one or two of the fresh-made donuts. None had taken a bite yet. They all nodded towards Arnie.

He pulled a chair over, sat down, and nodded back. “’Mornin’,”he said.

“Arnie here’s been livin’ in Detroit the last few years.” Dee-troit was how he’d said it. “He’s a good man. Worked hard all his life. Knows a thing or two about machinery. Reads books, mows his own lawn, pays his bills and likes both cats and dogs equal.”

“Beings as he is new in town, I’m thinking we should go around and say our names so he connects a name with a face. I’ll go first,” Littleton said.

“Frank Littleton,” he said. “And that over there is Sam Killburn, and next to him is Jake…”

“I thought we was going to say our own names.” That was Jake Freeman speaking.

“You’re right as rain, Jake. Sorry, so go on ahead then.”

“Well you already said it, but I’m Jake Freeman. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

The rest of the men each spoke their names, one by one.

When it came to Paul Pelletier he said, “You come by just to say hi or you thinking you might come more regular?”

“If you’ll have me, I was thinking I might come regular.”

“Well then,” said Frank Littleton, let’s get started,” just like he said each week. Just like they expected him to.

Jake Freeman spoke up. “I’ll go first,” he said. “I see they’re settin’ up for makin’ a movie in town. Anybody ask you what you thought about it though? Nope. I didn’t think so. And any of you been by the Post Office down to the lake lately? Well, Jim’s ex-wife Flora’s not there anymore. Things is sure changin’ quick around here, that’s for sure.”

“Yep,” Pete Cornryn said. And then there were ‘Yep’s’ all around the table.

“So what do you think?” said Jake into his coffee cup.

“That new girl? She’s a pretty young thing,” someone said.

“Yep, she’s pretty all right.”

“But a little cold, sometimes.”

“A bit uppity, like they can be, if you know what I mean.”

“Right pretty, though. I’ll give her that.”

“Unusual hair, wouldn’t you say? I mean for around here? I mean for a postal worker?”

“Where’s she from anyway? She live in town, anyone know?”

Arnie Bregman, for his part, had not said a word. His face flushed. He cleared his throat. Picked up his coffee cup and put it down again. He looked over at Frank Littleton. “Frank?” he said.

Littleton should have seen this coming. Should have said something. Should have. But he didn’t.

“She lives with Arnie here,” he said. “She’s his daughter. Name’s Lorrie. Nice girl. College grad. And, yes, she looks different from you all because she is. She’s a young black woman with a loving father and a lovely, loving mother who is black, and” he said, looking around the table, “I thought we were all better than this. What you’re all dancing around. Bigger somehow. And I’m gonna say this straight out to you… I think we all need think hard about what we said here and why, and what we didn’t say and, more to the point, what was behind all of that. And when we’re done with all that thinking, we need to give Arnie Bregman a goddamned sincere apology. That’s what I think. You make up your own minds.”

2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race”

  1. Wish more people were like Frank. Wish this story was longer so we knew these men (all of them) better.
    Please write a sequel and a prequel!

    Like

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