In spite of the handicap of a mini-skirted uniform, Celia’s first weeks at the Grand Marsh Inn flew by quickly, without incident, although sometimes at night she dreamed of dinner guests calling, “Miss, Miss, Miss!” She was getting used to the routine, working hard to memorize so many new names and items on the menu. After a lazy morning at the apartment, she got into her uniform for the lunch shift at eleven, taking care to fix her hair as neatly as was possible, and choosing from a selection of ceramic pins for her collar: a tree, a star, a bird or her favorite, a dolphin. With shoes that fit, she enjoyed the walk down Main Street, the late-summer flowers in manicured gardens and peering into the shop windows. On arrival at the Inn, she got a friendly greeting from James, the door man, so gentlemanly with his suit and Virginia accent.
As she crossed through the kitchen to the wall with the time clocks, she nodded to anyone she passed, and hung her sweater on a hook. Inside the dining room, she went right to work on little jobs that had to be done ahead of time: folding napkins, filling salt and pepper cellars, putting sugar cubes into china bowls with their tiny silver spoons. The hour before noon was quiet, busy but not crazy, and sometimes she hummed to herself, or chatted to some of the other waitresses she was getting to know: Terry, a 30-something mother of three; Pam, who was young and single, like Nora, but recently engaged; and Evelyn, who was moody and sometimes sullen; she, too, had left college, Celia found out, and her dad was something important in town. There were two guys: Roland and Tony, one black, one white, brisk, professional, and clearly very close friends. Another girl, Wanda, one of the few black waitresses, was kind of a loner, at least not talkative like the others. She was a big-boned girl in her early twenties, with thick glasses, steady and careful in her movements.
Then there was Anita, a full-timer, who made the greatest impression. It was clear early on, she was one of the best waitresses, quick, experienced, and seemed to make so much more money than the other wait staff. She had medium dark skin, with large brown eyes and a womanly voice and laugh. Attractive. Her hair was always carefully curled, and her uniform fit snugly. It was hard to tell her age - mid-thirties? Nora learned that she had a son in high school, although there didn’t seem to be a husband around. But she spoke well - educated - and Nora found out eventually that Genevieve had gone to college, and then lived and worked in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Eastern Shore. Was it because of the pregnancy, or something else? It was her voice, Nora concluded, that kept the kitchen staff on its feet, getting all Anita’s orders lined up and ready to go, no matter the rush in the dining room.
Occasionally, Celia’s chores took her down to the other kitchen in the cellar of the inn, where most of the serious prep work was done, along with baking, salads, desserts, and it was where all the large storage shelves and refrigerators were located. Everyone, Celia noticed one day, was so intent on their work, like at a factory; and everyone, she noticed, was black. Taking the lid off a large coffee tin, she around looked around carefully. Out of maybe twenty or thirty people, she was the only white one. It was the first time in her life she could remember that to be true, and certainly not what she had expected, if she had thought about it at all. No one looked at her or smiled, as if she wasn’t even there.
On her way back to the upstairs kitchen, she paused in the stairwell, surprisingly cool and quiet. She was just restocking the coffee, there was no reason to hurry back to her station. From the landing, she could see through the windows of the lower kitchen doors, all the dark, unsmiling faces, contrasting so sharply with the bright white of the uniforms. It was like watching a silent movie. A few faces had become vaguely familiar, but she had the strongest sense of being an outsider. It might not be so easy to work with people so different from herself, with whom she had so little in common, that she sometimes had trouble understanding.
It wasn’t that she was afraid. How could anyone harm her under the watchful eyes of the Beckers? She recalled the voices of people she now worked with, the grammar, vocabulary, inflection. They weren’t just black, but mostly poor and uneducated, living in those unappealing houses in the neighborhoods where Grace had told her she should not walk.
From growing up, her only experience of black people had been driving on the highway by run-down sections of Boston or Springfield, places that looked scary and threatening even at a distance. With car doors locked, their mother had always been quick to pronounce. “It’s a disgrace that people have to live like that. Black people have gotten a bad deal in this country.” But Nora had no black neighbors, and only one black school-mate, a shy, sickly girl, who passed through the grades with little notice.