It was so hot in the kitchen of the Oklahoma City airport café that the plastic clock melted. Time oozed down the wall just like Salvador Dalí imagined. The metal pieces of the flimsy clock went, “click, clank, ting” as they hit the floor. That’s because the steaks were burning, the beans were boiling, and Nina the Ukrainian had pulled a butcher knife on Gretchen the German. There is a war going on. I am in uniform. But I race ahead of myself. This story begins in 1970.
First there are the characters.
Gretchen the German. A Catholic. The blonde cook with the white hairnet pulled down over her ears like a helmet. A Berliner, she escaped Nazi Germany during World War II to come to America and cook wiener schnitzels. That’s what she tells all the customers at the airport café.
Susan B. Anthony. The black, six-foot-tall-night-cook-in-
Nina. A Russian Jew from the Ukraine, she wears a white cotton uniform with socks held up by rubber bands. Nina’s thumb is tattooed and causes people to stare impolitely. She says she escaped the massacre at Babi Yar. Each night she chisels perfect heads of lettuce into identical salads and weighs each portion. She is quite insane.
And me. An Oklahoma Choctaw. The waitress in the yellow uniform at the airport café. I’m a union steward for the International Brotherhood of Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Workers of America; I’m nineteen years old and have been baptized many times. The Southern Baptists, the Nazarenes, even the Mormons got to me. Finally, I’ve given up being a religious consumer to become a socialist. The AFL-CIO is going to send me to college.
The airport café. Feeding time. The fall of 1970. Nightshift comes through the looking glass walls of the airport café. Braniff and United Airlines roar out of sight to exotic places. Somewhere a radio blasts Leon Russell’s singing, “…Here comes Uncle Sam again with the same old bag of beans. Local chiefs on the radio, we got some hungry mouths to feed, goin’ back to Alcatraz.”
At 6:30 p.m., one hundred Vietnam draftees drag into the Oklahoma City airport café. Afros, pork-chop sideburns, crew cuts, Indian braids. After two years, hairless pimpled faces all look alike.
Some smell bad. Some have beautiful teeth.
It’s not news at the airport café that the Vietnam War is being fought disproportionately by the poor. Every Monday through Friday we serve red and yellow, black and poor white boys their last supper as civilians. They’re on their way to boot camp. They clutch their government orders and puke-belch to themselves. Their hands shake. My hands are steady. I want to tell them to run. But don’t.
“No one gets hurt if they do what they’re told,” whispered the white teacher through the door of the broom closet. “Would you like to come out now?”
“Curious,” booms a voice across the airport café’s dining room. Some of the draftees look toward the kitchen; others continue eating as if they’d heard nothing.
The voice gathers strength and explodes.
“There were no survivors at Babi Yar,” roars Gretchen grimly.
I rush through the kitchen door. The steaks are burning, and the beans are boiling over the fire, and Gretchen is scrutinizing Nina in front of the gas grill.
“Your story is certainly unfamiliar to me. You probably branded your own thumb so people won’t accuse you. Very clever.”
Nina’s eyes make a circle in the kitchen. She examines her work: the stainless steel bins of freshly washed lettuce, tomatoes, radish flowers, onions, and watermelon balls. All are arranged, lined up in neat rows at her workstation. “I do what I am told,” she says, pushing her head against the walk-in freezer. “The sins of my occupation.”
“What a wreck you are. Always building a pile of shadows,” says Gretchen grabbing a slice of onion.
Nina’s mouth is set in a fold of bitterness. “I know Babi Yar. It’s a ravine near Kiev where Germans murdered 35,000 Jews in September 1942. By 1943, it had become a mass grave for more than 100,000 Jews.” She looks at something beyond us then screams, “I was there!”
“Yes, but what did you do?”
Nina charges Gretchen with a butcher knife in one hand, and a watermelon scoop in the other. Gretchen holds a small toaster oven in front of her like a shield. Together they dance around in the room like a couple of marionettes being pulled by the fingers of God.
Eventually Susan B. Anthony interrupts the madness and Gretchen shouts, “Schweig, du Neger!”
This is where I come in. I intercede like a good union steward should. Susan B. Anthony holds a hot pan of grease and is set to attack them both. World War II survivors are screaming in languages I can’t understand and pointing their weapons. They all scare the hell out of me because I’m unarmed.
1970 is a terrible year to be a teenage Indian in Oklahoma City. Vietnam is on television, nightly. World War II is still going on in the kitchen of the airport café, and I’m losing my classmates to mortar fire in Asia. Emmet Tahbone is dead. Blown away, literally. Richard Warrior is MIA, and George Billy has a shrapnel mouth.
This past week there were sit-ins at a downtown department store where blacks are still being refused services at the lunch counter. For almost ten months American Indians have occupied the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island. The word on the streets of Oklahoma City is that we’re fed up with colonialism. American Indians are finally going to change the status quo. Standing in the middle of the kitchen with my palms turned upward, a sign that I carry no weapons, I squint like a mourner who draws the curtains against the light. I feel powerless to change anything.
I look out the window and a moonbeam is crisscrossing a watery plain. It’s the Pearl River with its saw grass islands and Cypress knees rising out of the water like hands in prayer to Hashtali, whose eye is the Sun. This light once cut clear across the heavens and down to the Choctaw’s ancient mother mound, the Nanih Waiya in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Now it’s no longer visible except on special occasions.
I see a Choctaw woman, her daughter, and their relatives. They’re being attacked by a swarm of warriors from another tribe. Unfortunately, bad weather has driven them into a little bayou. They’re exposed from head to foot to their enemies, the Cherokees, who’ve been following them for days. The Choctaw woman shows her daughter how to be brave. Several times she runs and cuts the powder horns loose from her dead relatives in order to distribute them among the living. Finally the seven warriors, and the mother and daughter, seeing that they can no longer hold their ground, rush headlong upon their enemies.
A feminine voice interrupts my vision. “No one gets hurt if they do what they’re told.” I shake my head, trying to drive it out of me. “We fly daily non-stop flights to locations across America, Europe, and Asia,” continues the recorded message on the airport’s loudspeaker.
I turn back to my co-workers, who are drowning in a pool of tears. “No one will get hurt if we do what we’re supposed to do,” I say meekly. For a moment no one moves. Then they begin struggling with their kitchen utensils. Suddenly Nina is composed, Gretchen too; both of them square their shoulders the way soldiers do when called to attention. They promise it will never happen again, but no one believes them.
At midnight the lines on my face have melted like the clock in Salvador Dalí’s painting. I resemble a sad clown. When Susan B. Anthony and I walk outside to share a smoke we eye one another warily.
“What happened?” I ask quietly.
“God knows,” she says lighting a cigarette.
Together we watch the lights of a crayon-colored Braniff jet leave a trail of stale dead air, and I think I’ll buy a mask and become someone else. The AFL-CIO can’t save me now.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 12, July 15, 2014
Excerpted from Choctalking on Other Realities by LeAnne Howe, published by Aunt Lute Books, 2013. Choctalking on Other Realities can be purchased here; receive 20 percent off with the promo code “CHOC.”