I try not to eat at restaurants often because the food is rarely healthy. I’m stuck in a strange town in a strange Chinese restaurant, in a small strip mall, in a very small Chinese restaurant, and the couple across from me has a screaming kid. I got loaned out to a project in Camilla Georgia and I haven’t been here since the tornado came through back in 2002 or maybe it was 2003. I went back to the neighborhood that was so torn up and nothing remains of the damage. I park my truck in the same spot I parked it when I did the damage assessment. There was a dead man right over there, in that spot, where there is a nice little house now. The man’s home had been utterly destroyed. The body was still in the house when I got there, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose job it was to get him out. Everyone had so much to do, and there were so many living people who needed help. It was a third world country with fiberglass insulation wafting down from the sky like toxic snow.
House after house after house after house after house had been damaged, or destroyed, and each time I stepped into someone’s home to survey the damage I could see they would have rather me not been there, but they were seeking some hope I might lead to some relief. The Red Cross was roaming the neighborhood trying to get water to people, and there were, I heard, buses coming to take people to shelters.
The screaming kid shatters my reverie and I wonder how the parents can just sit there and let the kid scream. I cannot age kids very well but this is a smallish creature, who looks to be maybe two or three. The one note single wail issues from her mouth like a siren or some warning device. Both parents are eating but as far as I can tell neither are speaking to one another. He’s a burly looking redneck with a seriously angry look on his face. I’m wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact with anyone, and I’m happy Burly doesn’t see me watching his family, if you can call it that. The woman is a chubby red-faced woman who looks like she’s trying to do anything other than notice her kid, or her husband, and the three of them seem to be in separate worlds. The kid wails. Please, one of you, either of you, do something, please.
Maybe the wail is their way of affecting a universe where they matter not at all. Maybe this child they have brought forward is there expression of selfness, the only way they can go out into the world and make any sort of impact at all. The child wails. Burly and Chubby stuff their faces. It’s a buffet and so one or the other, I didn’t see which, brought a plateful of food and dropped it in front of the Wailer, and then they tuned her out. The child stands in the chair and neither stops to get her a booster seat. The child wails. Neither Burly or Chubby seems to care as they leave Wailer alone while they refill their plates, and they attack the buffet as if this might be their last meal. Both return to the table with loads of food, and both ignore the little girl. The child wails.
A scan of the restaurant reveals a dozen people tried of Wailer. There’s a couple with a kid about the same age, and that kid is intently interested in what Wailer is wailing about. These parents demand their child focus on the meal, as much as they can. Another couple takes turns staring at Wailer’s parents. The child wails. Three men in work clothes are silent, not speaking at all, and their hunched shoulders say they are tired of the noise. A table full of Latinos speak in Spanish and glance at Wailer. Please, for all that is holy in the Universe, do something with that damn kid.
The Asian women who work the restaurant aren’t going to say anything to the locals about Wailer and you cannot blame them. The manager is a small man who works hard at not hearing anything. The child wails. All in all, the better part of fourteen or fifteen people are in a small, enclosed space listening to a child who has, if nothing else, a great set of lungs. I have a stop watch on my cell phone and I wonder how long this can go on. How long can this child stand there and cry?
The attack is so sudden, so vicious, so totally unexpected after all this time none of us can do more than do what we had been doing. Burly slaps the little girl so hard it knocks her off the chair, and onto the floor. “Goddammit!” he yells at her. “Shut up!” Her breath is cut off mid-wail, and the silence is terribly loud. One of the Latinos says something in Spanish, but other than that, we can hear Wailer’s ragged breath. She sits on the floor silently, waiting for some sign it’s over, or that it is not. Chubby pushes more food into her mouth, and chews slowly. The man with the child is turned around in his seat, and if he gets up I’m going too. His wife has a hand on his arm, and for a second, this man and I look at one another and we’re both ashamed we don’t get up. His wife leans over and I can see it in his face. She gets up and goes to the bathroom. Everyone else is just sitting there. Chubby keeps stuffing her face. Burly stares at the little girl, if daring her to exist. Wailer waits. Time stands still and a room full of cowards hope, as we always do. Wailer waits.
Two cops come in and they aren’t looking for a menu. One of the cops is a short stocky woman who looks like she’s just developed a seriously bad attitude. The woman who called the cops from the bathroom stands up, points at Burly, and says, “He hit that little girl.” The male cop asks Burly to step outside and he protests until the cop pulls the cuffs out.
The female cop gets names and phone numbers from most of us, those of us who finally want to speak out, if it comes to it. Burly is kept outside, in cuffs, and I have to walk past him on my way out. I stop and look at this person, he looks at me, and he says, “What are you looking at?”