The Virus (and Race) in Forrest City

October 20th, 2020

I drove for eleven hours yesterday, and at the end of the ride I could feel the road weariness. Fatigue has a way of sneaking up on me. I was okay while I was behind the wheel, mindlessly cruising along I-40 in Arkansas. It wasn’t until I dragged myself out of the driver’s seat that I realized how tired I really was.

I found myself at a hotel in Forrest City. It seemed to be all right as far as hotels go. Karin, who had made a similar journey in August, had encouraged me to go with more upscale type of lodging. I took her advice. I went into the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express and I asked the lady behind the Plexiglas if they had any rooms.

The woman told me that they had a few rooms left. I told her that I was looking for something cheap and simple. She frowned a bit and said that they were rather full. However, she could offer me a suite, if I wanted that.

I shrugged.

The lady told me the price for the suite. I cringed.

She looked at me with sympathy and asked, “Do you still want it?”

I shrugged again in defeat and told her, “I’m not driving any more today.”

The woman filled out the paperwork and had me sign whatever needed to be signed.

I asked her wearily, “Where can I buy some beer?”

She said gently in her southern drawl, “Well, the Shell station across the street sells beer. You can get it there.”

I did. Blue Moon Belgian ale.

Note: This hotel employee was white.

After going to the gas station, I went back to the hotel and found my suite. It was both spacious and uncleaned. That confused me. I thought that maybe I hadn’t understood the check in times. In any case, I dumped my belongings into my new digs, and waited to see what would happen.

Nothing did.

I roused myself to go outside my room and talk with one of the women who were cleaning the hotel rooms. I asked one of them about my accommodations.

The woman, who was Black, became visibly upset. She asked me,

Who gave you Room 224?”

I answered, “The lady at the desk.”

The cleaning woman replied, “That’s my room. They weren’t supposed to rent that one out. I ain’t even come close to cleaning it yet.”

I told her, “It’s okay. Get to it whenever you can. I’m okay in there. I just wanted you to know that nobody has been in there yet.”

The woman was still edgy. I had hurt her pride, and it showed.

I went back to my suite and I cracked open a beer. The woman came into the room shortly thereafter. She ignored me. I tried to ignore her. It was awkward. The maid did her job quickly and efficiently. She asked me,

“It going to bother you if I vacuum?”

I told her ‘no’.

She cleaned the carpet, and then she walked out. I thanked her for her work. She ignored what I said.

I had some quiet for a while.

Then I got hungry.

I ventured forth into the pandemic wilderness of Arkansas. My choices for food were very limited. I had had two beers, so I didn’t want to drive at all. I decided to wander down to the local Wendy’s to grab a burger. It seemed like a simple enough decision.

I walked into the Wendy’s with my mask on. I looked at the menu for a while. Then a very tall Black man confronted me. He said,

“This dining room is CLOSED. You need to go in the drive through.”

I answered, “I don’t have a car. I walked here.”

The man was unperturbed. He told me,

“Well, y’all just go in the drive through line. It be okay.”

I did.

It wasn’t okay.

I felt like a damn fool standing in the line where there were only other cars. I stood in front of the call in box, and I tried to give my order.

“Hi, you hear me?”

No answer.

“Anybody there?”

Dead silence.

I was ready to walk away. Fuck this.

As I moved aside, a Black man in a battered minivan talked to me. He was in the line behind me. He said,

“Hey man, you trying to order? Let me pull up closer, and then you try to order again.”

He drove up. I tried again. It worked. I asked for a double burger; no fries, no drink.

It continued to be weird. I walked to the next window to pay for my food.

The tall man walked out of the front door and yelled to me,

“Hey, you order the burger?”

I shouted back, “Yeah.”

He said, “It’s coming up. Wait here for it.”

I told him, “I still got to pay for it!”

He nodded and went back inside.

I got to the little window where money changes hands. A chubby white girl in the window wanted my cash. I asked her,

“Can I pay for the guy behind me in line?”

She smiled and said, “Sure.”

I pulled a twenty out of my wallet.

The girl took my money and gave me change. She asked me if I wanted a receipt for the other guy. I told her no. I told her to give him his own receipt.

I still didn’t get my burger. This bothered me since I was hungry.

The man who had offered me help got to the payment booth, and was immediately confused. Good. No good deed goes unpunished.

He drove past me as I was impatiently waiting for my meal. He yelled out the car window,

“God bless you , brother!”

I said the same to him.

I grew weary of waiting for my food. Then the tall Black man shouted at me,

“Hey! Come to this window! We good!”

I went back to the payment window.

The tall man handed me a bag with my burger, and a portion of French fries, and a soda that I had never asked for.

He gave me a serious look, and then he nodded.

I left very early the next morning.

The Black girl at the desk asked me how my stay was.

I asked the girl to do me a favor.

“Please tell the woman who cleaned my room that she did an excellent job. Tell her that.”

The young woman smiled and said, “That would be Miss Savannah. I will definitely tell her.”

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