We speak English in this establishment,” the man said.
He stood at the edge of the coffee-shop table, his red and black plaid shirt clinging tightly to his belly, his rough hand combing through the scraggly tuft of hair on his chin.
The couple sitting at the table looked up and paused. The man looked to be in his mid-40s, the woman in her early 30s. Both men had similar dark beards.
“Excuse me?” the man at the table said with a slight Middle Eastern accent.
The woman reached across the table and placed her hand on her companion’s. Her nails were perfectly manicured and her fingers were long and the color of mocha. She looked back at the man standing and smiled.
“Do you not understand English?” the man finally asked the woman. “We don’t allow that kind of talk here.”
“I understand English,” the woman said with a slight British accent, still smiling.
“Bob, leave them alone,” a waitress called from behind the counter. “They ain’t hurting no one.”
Bob turned and stared hard at the woman and then shifted his gaze to the man.
“Stay out of this, Marge,” Bob said. “These kind can’t be allowed to—” he started and then paused.
“I thought that in America people were free to speak anything they like,” the woman said, her other hand now on top of the man’s second hand. “Mohamed and I speak—”
“I don’t give a damn what you speak,” Bob interrupted. “In this town we only speak English. And we also don’t allow those burkas, so that’ll need to go, too.”
“It’s not a burka, you moron,” Mohamed said. “It’s a—”
“Who’s the moron?” Bob said as he pulled his shirt up to reveal an 8-inch knife strapped to his belt.
“It’s OK, Mohamed,” the woman said. “It’s fine. We’ll just go.”
“You’ll just take that rag off your head,” Bob said.
“OK,” the woman said and reached up to take off her hijab.
Mohamed reached over and grabbed her wrist.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort, Mira,” he said. “That’s a sign of your faith, and you can’t let this guy push us around.”
“Shhh,” she said and gently pried his fingers from around her wrist. “My faith is deeper than what I wear.”
Mohamed glared at Mira as she took off her headscarf and folded it into a neat square before she looked up at Bob, her silken brown hair shimmering.
“If we promise to speak English, may we stay and finish our breakfast?” she asked, her voice soft but serious.
Bob appeared stunned and then stepped back from the table and his hands dropped to his sides. He mumbled something inaudible and then turned abruptly and went back to the counter and sat down.
Marge smiled at Mira as she approached the table.
“Sorry about Bob,” she said in a whisper as she refilled the couple’s water glasses.
“Lucky I don’t call the cops on that nutcase,” Mohamed said. “We have our rights.”
Marge put the pitcher of water on the table and leaned down.
“Thing is,” she started and then paused.
“Was his boy killed in the war?” Mira asked.
Marge nodded and closed her eyes.
“He was a good kid,” she said. “It was 10 years ago. Bob’s never been the same.”
“It must be difficult for him to relive that memory,” Mira said. “I could see the pain in his eyes.”
“But still that guy can’t just go around stepping on people’s rights,” Mohamed said. “Plus he’s going to hurt someone someday.”
Marge shrugged and then stood up straight again.
You might be right,” she said. “It seems like it’s actually getting worse over time.”
Bob remained at the counter, unmoving, breathing heavily.
“You know we have to report this,” Mohamed repeated. “That guy’s going to kill someone and he can’t just go around acting like that.”
Mira looked up at Mohamed and her large brown eyes flashed with flecks of gold highlights. “It will be OK,” she said.
They sat in silence as they finished their meal.
Outside a Mexican street vendor sold kettle corn to a boy and a girl. Both looked very young, 4 or 5. The girl had on a purple sundress and held a yellow balloon. The boy wore light-blue swim trunks with frayed white trim.
“This is the sort of town that gives America a bad name,” Mohamed said and looked from Bob to out the window. “I’d never live in a backwoods place like this. Kids running around half-dressed with no supervision.”
The kids were now sitting on the curb eating fistfuls of the caramel-colored popcorn. The girl was talking intently and the boy was listening and nodding slowly. The vendor had moved down the street, followed by a dog that was sniffing at his heels. The man shooed the dog away and laughed when the animal skittered away but then quickly returned. The vendor looked around shyly and then reached out to give the dog a handful of the popcorn and a pat on the head before shooing him away again. The dog seemed fine with the game.
“Can we get the check?” Mohamed said, waving his hand to Marge and then turning to Mira. “I want to get back on the road and leave this place far behind us.”
Marge came to the table wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
“The check’s been taken care of,” she said. “Hope you didn’t get the wrong impression about this place. There’s lots of good people here.”
“I think it’s a lovely place,” Mira said. “I could see us living here someday.”
Mohamed looked at her in astonishment and then shook his head.
As they left Mira looked back toward Bob. He was watching them. Mira tightened her lips for a moment and then smiled a sad, small smile. Bob lifted his hand, only a little, and then his lips parted as if to say something. He stayed paused like that for a moment before he dropped his arm and looked down at the counter.
When I left the small diner in a town on the outskirts of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the air had grown hot and still, the smell of freshly popped corn thick in the air, the two kids still deeply engrossed in their conversation, the dog and vendor nowhere to be seen.
Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2017