Betty and the Panther

 

by

 

Thomas B. Macy

P.O. Box 927

Windsor, Colorado 80550

tom@macyplace.com

 

A short, short contemporary fiction story based on a true event

892 words


 

††††††††††† I was working the cash register next to her when they came inóbig, rough, ready for a fight. Like a ripple from the front of the store to the back, the murmur of talking diminished, and the sound of checkers ringing up customers slowed, except from Betty's direction. Seldom was the background music audible. That night the tune was clear.

††††††††††† Betty loved being a checker at the grocery store. Whoever came through her line was a friend. The store manager said he wished we all were like Betty. He wanted every customer to feel welcome. So many people must wonder to this day how she overlooked the pills, those people that were hard to swallow. Other checkers might gripe about the problem customer, the one who yelled, the one who argued. I know I complained. But Betty never said a bad word about the shoppers in her line.

As if unaware of who had just walked in, she greeted the next person.† "And how are you today?" Her voice was calm, like everything in the store was business as usual.

With a blank look, the young man stared back at the middle-aged checker. "Fine."

††††††††††† Betty smiled as she rang up item after item. "You a student at CSU?"

††††††††††† He nodded. "How'd you know?"

††††††††††† "Pocket protector. Engineering?"

††††††††††† "Math." The fellow stared at Betty.

††††††††††† "Bet you wouldn't need a machine like this to ring up an order." She laughed. Her fingers flew over the cash register producing a melodic rhythm. "Would you like help out with your bag?"

††††††††††† "No, thanks. Have a great night." The student left smiling.

††††††††††† How in the world could she not feel, or at least see, that these new men didnít belong here! In the fall of 1969, Old Main burned down. We held anti-war rallies on the lawn behind the Student Center. We marched to the verbal banner, "Power to the People." "Make love not war" was the theme. We were changing. The world was changing. We wanted to make a difference.

Fort Collins didn't have a gang problem. This was as close as it came. The Black Panthers had been invited to speak on campus. I attended one of their meetings earlier that day. Would you believe it? They stood guard with guns outside the room! These werenít folks to be trifled with.

I just wished they would leave the store. From the corner of my eyes (didnít want them to see me staring their way) I saw no weapons. My muscles relaxed, at least a little. I moved my shoulders in circles; my neck had begun to hurt.

††††††††††† The old lady in Betty's line fidgeted with a purse, doing her best to be courteous to the checker. But her eyes kept darting toward the scowling Black men.

Two stayed up front while a third walked through the store. I had heard stories of the Panthers. They hated white people. Thought we owed them something. Grew up in ghettos. Lived and died by violence. I didn't know how much to believe. But listening to them and looking at these men, it all could be true.

††††††††††† Betty kept working, talking to her customers. She might have noticed a reticence on the part of some, but that didn't stop her. If they didn't feel like talking, that was OK; she could talk enough for both. Each person in line deserved her full attention. But how could she be so oblivious to these Panthers?

††††††††††† The two in the front looked her way as the third muscled his way to the front of Bettyís line. My body felt like a rubber band ready to snap. I stretched my fingers and tried to focus on my customer. One of the men said something, and they snickered toward Betty. It all went by her unnoticed. If I had been Betty, I think I would have fainted away. But she just began removing items from the cart.

††††††††††† "How are you tonight?"

††††††††††† The man grunted.

††††††††††† My heart stopped.

††††††††††† "You with the University?"

††††††††††† He stared at Betty, ignoring the comment.

She smiled, read off the produce cost, and rang up the item. "You a coach?" She paused and looked up at him. "I think that would be a great job, working with children and all."

Betty! I wanted to yell. Shut up and check!

††††††††††† "No." He glared back.

††††††††††† The look in that Black manís eyes gave me the shivers. He stood like a cat that was the head of a pride and knew it. How could she just smile at him as if he were a normal customer?

††††††††††† "Well, why are you wearing a whistle around your neck? Seems to me it must have something to do with kids. What's it used for?" She rang up another item.

††††††††††† He leaned across the counter with a look on his face that made me cringe. "This is a bullet, not a whistle." He shook it in her face.

I grabbed the edge of the counter for support.

"Oh." Betty's response was as matter-of-fact as ever I had heard. "Thought it was a whistle. Looks like a whistle." With a smile, she casually placed the last item in the sack.

††††††††††† He grabbed his bag, threw some change across the counter, and walked off with a surprised, almost wounded look on his face.

††††††††††† "Have a good night," she called. "And hurry back soon."

††††††††††† Betty never had a bad customer come through her line.†††††††