By R.T. Dickinson
The Missouri man opened Joey’s Lunchroom in Bamberg, South Carolina in 1868. Joey Langston had hired workers to build a two-story wooden building. They painted it blue and added a big white sign. The post-War city developed around the railroad. Memories of cotton and slaves were but whispers among Langston’s customers.
He hired a poor white woman with the family name of Bannister. She was born in a cabin where her own mother died from fever and her father picked his teeth while he decided how to raise the girl. The broke Mr. Bannister gave his daughter to a cook. She lived near a swamp. The cook raised the girl, and taught her to fish and prepare food.
In the early days of rebuilding, Langston found Mrs. Bannister. He offered her better money than she’d ever earned. Behind her back, he called her Madame Wart because of a large red mole above her lip.
Mrs. Bannister—who made the saltiest catfish—became ill. Her heart pumped so hard a second cook swore she saw it jump out of her chest. “It was like a toad come out of nowhere,” she said.
Mrs. Bannister’s flour covered fingers started to shake. They swelled to the point each one looked like a piece of meat rolled in egg, milk and flour. Langston knew of the two women he had hired, her cooking was preferred. He could not keep her much longer. She would die on the kitchen floor. While he was not the cleanest man, nothing prospered for business if rumors circulated about a cook who died in his restaurant.
Langston thought and ordered Mrs. Bannister to bring her son.
She came with him in the early hours when empty chairs sat at empty tables, and the sun had not yet intruded. Joey stood behind the bar. He waved his hands. Mrs. Bannister gave her son, Oliver, a gentle push forward.
Wooden puppet arms and legs and lazy day blue eyes—the kind belonging to a boy who lay in a hay stack—caused Langston’s mouth to form a flat line. Not much of a boy, he thought, especially to have come from a mother with wide hips and muscular arms. He questioned what Mrs. Bannister fed her son. It looked as if he’d eaten nothing but scraps from one of Langston’s tables.
“Can the boy cook?” Langston asked.
“Almost as good as me, sir.”
“How much school do you have, son?”
The yellow hair boy looked at his mother. Joey smiled. Any boy of, what—twelve or thirteen—who still relied on his mother for every decision would do excellent work, he thought.
“He knows his letters and numbers,” Mrs. Bannister said. “He reads and writes a few words.”
“Do you speak son?”
The boy looked at his mother again.
Soon she would die from her ailments. The boy would have no mother; no person of great significance to answer his questions for him.
This is the first of a series. More to come.