Grand Bay, Alabama
As desegregation began in the ’60s and ’70s, many white residents of Mobile (previously living in downtown and midtown) migrated several miles to the west. Eventually, so many moved—in a futile attempt to escape the city’s growing racial diversity—they created a distinct sub-section of the city, West Mobile. In 2020, the demographic majority of West Mobile remains middle and upper-class white people, but they are discovering that the west is running out; Mobile isn’t a white space anymore. Most don’t realize it never will be again.
There are still those who keep moving west. Thirty miles west of Mobile lies Grand Bay (population 3,500), a rural town filled with abundant farmland and country people—over ninety-nine percent are white. I accepted a job my brother had gotten me in the heart of Grand Bay as a farmhand at Broken Oak, where Mr. Charles taught me how to drive a backhoe and asked if I brought poodles and noodles every day for lunch.
Along with Mr. Charles and the other farmhands, I perused through the tools at Dawes Hardware—a mom and pop shop that didn’t bother posting a sign on the building because everybody knew it. We built fences—drove the T-posts by hand. We ate lunch at the gas station off Jeff Hamilton where the gravel lot doubled as venue for used car sales.
Every errand meant a few moments of bliss, out of the sun, staring out the window of the speeding truck and watching the fields and animals blur but seeing a list of the never-ending tasks we would have back at Broken Oak. It was a job for the money. And of all the farmers, cashiers, waiters, and waitresses, the only Asian-American I saw in Grand Bay that summer, besides my younger brother, Adam, was the waitress at Sam’s Super Burger.
Sam’s Super Burger has enough room to seat about thirty people. The red and white floor tiles squeak under the rubber soles of my boots. Adam lugs his cooler over and reserves our normal corner booth. I admire his frugality, packing his lunch to save every dollar possible, denying the hot lunch that I never could.
Mr. Charles, Collin, two other boys, and I stand in the ordering lobby, a tiny room separate from the dining area. On the east wall there’s a cow diagram with dashed lines illustrating which parts of the cow are used for flank steak, filet mignon, ground beef, etc. There’s also a yellow and blue head-shot mural of a heifer painted by a local artist. Mr. Charles tells us he’s been coming to Sam’s since he was a teenager, and the place looks the same as it did forty years ago. The only problem is the cheap owners have shrunk the hamburgers, removed the taste from the chicken, and the ice-cream, well, it just isn’t as good as it used to be.
I hear her laugh before I see her. It’s deep laughter. She looks about my age, twenty-one. Her black hair gleams behind the counter, despite the dreary fluorescent lights. I think she might be Korean. A part of me is glad to see her here in Grand Bay, somehow, and I hope she’s saving the money she needs, for college, perhaps, or maybe for marriage, like me. She doesn’t wear a nametag. I wonder if she sees me as Asian, if there could be a moment when our eyes grapple for one fleeting second across an endless sea of white to say: you’re Asian, so am I.
After she takes our orders the group joins Adam at the corner booth. Mr. Charles and Collin sit across from Adam and me, and the other two farmhands pull chairs to the end of the table. Mr. Charles says, “Adam needs to date a pretty Asian girl like her.” He rests his elbow on the table and jabs a pointer finger at the waitress. “Didn’t make ‘em like that when I was younger. Didn’t see many Asians a’tall.” He continues for a few minutes in the same vein.
Adam looks straight ahead. On the ride back to the farm, Adam will ask me why Mr. Charles tells him to date the Asian girl; I will say I don’t know. Before I lie, I will envision the dust mask Adam wears as he cuts grass—the fifty stars and thirteen stripes seared on the black fabric—the DON’T TREAD ON ME engraved on his pocket knife, how he wears shoes or boots in the house. I will picture the Jeep Cherokee or Chevy Silverado he dreams of and how he scoffed when I asked him to learn Mandarin with me. “I really don’t know,” I will say.
Collin picks at his neon yellow goop, the remains of a large order of chili cheese fries. Mr. Charles offers to buy everyone ice-creams. No one else wants anything, and he walks toward the waitress to order.
“Old Charles. I worry about him,” says Collin, as he shakes his head.
The two boys at the end of the table stare at Adam as he finishes his lunch. “Why do you bring rice every day? Don’t you get tired of it?”
“It looks good as hell,” says the other boy.
I tell Adam to let me out of the booth. I’m a few steps away when one of the boys asks me where I’m going. I turn back to the table and grab my Styrofoam cup, which I crush in my hand. At the counter, Mr. Charles has finished speaking with the waitress and hobbles toward the booth. There’s no telling what the old man said. She is standing behind the register when I ask for a new cup. My fingers brush hers as she giggles and hands me another. “The machine is over there.” She points at the faint red glow of the Coke dispenser and turns to the next customer.
Siew David Hii lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His prose appears or is forthcoming at The Common, Salt Hill, Hobart, and elsewhere.