|J.B. was the short-order cook at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was a large man, coal black, and fond of waving his butcher knife in a way I suspect he did not learn on the job.
This was 1976, our country's Bicentennial and the year I graduated from college. I worked as a waitress at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort, showing up most afternoons in a red polyester A-line topped by a red, white, blue and gold star-spangled pinafore. Up until the Bicentennial, the waitresses at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort wore hand-me-downs from waitresses at the other Holiday Inns in town.
Upon being hired, I was given a double-breasted polyester number that was the color of cantaloupe and a frayed shirtwaist that was the color of mud. Star-spangled pinafores were an improvement. A lot of our customers were spill-overs from other Holiday Inns, the ones that lived up to the HIA motto: "The best surprise is no surprise." Not that things weren't pretty predictable at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort. It was a safe bet that the motel manager would stay in her room drinking until the bar opened.
You could pretty much count on a lonesome guy they called Cowboy to put in his shift at the zinc mines then come on down and get a crush on whomever had time to be nice to him. You almost always knew that somebody was not going to show up, that somebody was going to get mad, that nobody was going to take it seriously, and that you were going to have a good time.
A customer once asked me what I recommended, and I said that he go somewhere else. He asked to speak to the manager of the restaurant, but the manager couldn't be found, and I heard later he was off gambling, trying to win enough money to pay off another little debt he owed. The customer settled down and eventually complimented the kitchen, saying he'd never tasted such well-cooked, second-rate meat.
There was nothing second-rate about J.B. though. He'd worked in the kitchens of some of the finest hotels in the South, the ones located downtown, the ones people came to when they wanted to eat really nice. Eventually, he came home to Knoxville. J.B. liked cooking at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort because it was close to his house. J.B. disregarded most people by pretending they weren't there, but he had to notice the waitresses occasionally because we interrupted his head trip by not doing things as he wanted them done. "Two ways of doing it, white girl," he said about turning in orders once I worked my first breakfast shift. "You can put your little piece of paper up there on that spindle, and if I see it I'll look at it, or you can call out your orders as you come through the kitchen."
It was amazing the way he could keep dozens of breakfast orders in his head, never, ever, putting sausage instead of bacon, toast instead of biscuits, over-easy instead of sunny-side up. Once I called out a table of 20 and J.B. set up my orders. "Look it over, white girl, tell me what's missing." I consulted my tickets and determined that nothing was missing. "You wrong," he said gleefully, "you're short a bowl of grits."
After a few weeks on the job, J.B. decided he would call me something other than white girl. "Nelda" was too hard to get out, he said, so he experimented with variations but found none that amused him. Once, I misheard him and thought he called me "heifer" and that I was offended delighted him so, he thought that would be what he called me. In the end, he decided that white girl fit about as well as anything, and he gave up trying to name me.
The best thing that J.B. gave me to remember about him was his response when I said, "J.B. how come you always wear purple nail polish?"
J.B. inspected the blade of that butcher knife, then looked up from it long enough to say, "white girl, I don't never always do nothing."
Every once in a while, the motel manager would burst forth from her room and say that Memphis was coming, shape up. We didn't want to lose our sign. Memphis was corporate headquarters for Holiday Inns of America, and it was fond of dropping by to see how we were doing. For some reason, it had the notion we were not living up to The Holiday Inn Standard.
In those days, every Holiday Inn was marked by a huge harp-shaped green sign with Holiday Inn in orange italics. To screw up badly was to have the sign hauled off on the back of a flatbed and evidently that was a fate dedicated motel professionals did not want to encounter.
Sometimes the manager was given 24 hours notice of an impending inspection and she would call for an all-nighter, and the guys on the front desk would join the kitchen crew for a big scrubdown. What grime couldn't be scraped was spray-painted industrial gray. As far as I know, Memphis did not question why we painted our stainless steel.
If she had time, the manager would sober up, if she didn't, she called in her son to handle things. He was a handsome young man with charming ways. The restaurant manager put on his string tie and polished his cowboy boots, the bartender rolled her eyes and agreed to be flirtatious but not vulgar. The rest of us tried to stay out of sight. Memphis would shake its corporate head, give some stern warnings, but in the end, we kept our sign.
There was a Baptist church next door to the Holiday Inn of Last Resort, built on a hill with trees behind it. I would take a book sometimes and sit for a while under one of the trees, either waiting to go to work or to catch the bus to go home from work. The hill was high enough that I felt removed from all that was happening on the ugly highway below. Old discouraged cars traveled the highway, the leg of the highway that took you out of town. Dilapidated buildings with hand-lettered signs were interspersed with garish fast food places with signs that stayed lit through the day.
But behind all of that, there were hills and trees, and on clear days I could see the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. I remember once looking at it all and having the distinct feeling that really and truly, the earth is in charge here, that one of these days, those hills and trees will rise up and reclaim the land. Maybe it was being so close to the Baptist church but I imagined flood, fire, earthquake. It would take something big to get rid of the ugliness. I remember being rather shaken by my own prescience.
The Holiday Inn of Last Resort did lose its sign finally. It bore the signs of a couple of motels on further down the chain motel chain. I was long gone by then. It was, after all, only what I did until I thought of something else to do. What I thought of was going to graduate school, and when that didn't work out, I thought of working for the public library, and that's what I've done ever since. Some of the shoutin' Christians got a hold of it for a spell. It's not unusual, I hear, for new churches of the unaffiliated variety to buy an old motel and use it for their church. Makes sense, I guess. The building is vacant now.
I have no idea what happened to J.B. or most of the people who worked at the Holiday Inn of Last Resort. I daresay J.B. never spent a nanosecond of headspace wondering what became of me, yet I've wondered a lot what became of him. It's harder to burn bridges now than it was back then. Today, I would get his e-mail or at least his address. I'd send him a card come Christmas. I'd insist he be reminded of me from time to time. I would not leave him alone to his head trip. But then again, just maybe I would. I've learned to never always do nothing.
Nelda Hill lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Besides writing she occasionally plays a mean mountain dulcimer in a bluegrass band.