The smell of twist fries, fried meat, and brown whiskey clash in the air. People age 21 to a daring 43 sit around, screaming obscenities, taunts, flaunts, and proclamations of happiness – in other words, conversing in the way drunk people do.
Sweet Bubba’s Pub is an ordinary place full of ordinary people who think they’re extraordinary in some way. Maybe they are, but most likely they are not. Set in Midtown Atlanta near the only MARTA station the rich white people allowed to be built in the area, the place is popular among college kids, middle agers who’ve never grown up, and hipsters that chase the homeless aesthetic. Outsiders come to people watch.
Janet should be people watching. Instead, she’s watching her fiance, Tim, and his best friend, Lynne, talk bullets at one another. Rapid fire revelations, questions, and confessions going back and forth like two machine guns pointed at one another.
Her jaw aches from her mouth being closed for so long.
Tim leans across the table towards Lynne. “I did the math last night, man. According to my Ancestry test, I’m 1/8th Ghanian, 1/8th Sudanese, 1/4th Nigerian, and 1/2 Turkish.” His checkered secondhand J.Crew shirt is crumpled from a full day of bar hopping. His hand grips a nearly empty glass of ice water. He’s too sober for the amount of money he’s poured down his throat in the last few hours.
Janet shifts in her seat. For three hours she’s been forgotten. Tim’s on his 5th shot of whiskey. Thankfully the car seats are leather because he’ll probably piss himself on the way home.
Lynne flings a Vodka shot down her throat and says, “So, in shorter terms, you’re The Other Dark Meat?”
Backwash water pops at Lynne’s face. People stare. Janet coughs and her eyelids sputter.
Is this what she’s marrying into?
Wiping her face, Lynne proclaims, “At least it’s not Vodka this time!”
Some observant bar-goers waddle in their seats. Their necks crane attempting to be discrete in their gawking horror. A burly guy in the corner furrows his brows in defiance, ready to whip out Mjölnir from his butt pocket. Janet wants to hide. Her French-tipped hands shield her face as she uses her peripheral vision to find a bathroom. Maybe by the time she reapplies her lipstick and twists her fresh nose stud, these two will normalize.
Tim signals for the tipsy audience to simmer down. “She’s kidding. It was Everclear.” Janet spots a wooden Ladies’ Room sign. She bolts.
Burly Sir stands and pushes his chair aside. He cracks his knuckles. Patrons prepare their phones for the inevitable beatdown, the car wreck they would pay to see. A few — the wise — ask for their checks and request for an earlier Uber pickup time. One or two consider calling the cops, but they want no responsibility for another Black Lives Matter champion cause. Woke and Downtown Atlantian enough to acknowledge the problem, but Southern and Midtown Atlantian enough to want the movement to run out of fuel.
Tim and Lynne look at Burly Sir, his chest heaving like a cartoon bodybuilder. Too many steroids in his bloodstream; too simple of a manhood to react responsibly; too manicured to be completely straight. The pair burst into laughter. Tim’s snorts and Lynne’s wheezing intertwine in an obnoxious melody. The bar owner is on the verge of kicking them out. He hasn’t had two bigger assholes in his place since those two frat presidents from Emory. Burly Sir looks deflated — another Marvel moment ruined. When will he ever get to be the hero his father told him he would be?
A total of $41 slams against Tim and Lynne’s table. Lynne’s always stingy with tips, wanting to send a message to servers everywhere she goes: Don’t make this a career. “Keep the change, y’all!” By this time, Janet is back from her bathroom escape. A sense of horror hovers in the room.
$41 for an outing that costs $40? Tim stays back and watches Janet place $5 on top of Lynne’s payment. She slaps the $5 down so hard, the table rattles and the shot glasses vibrate. Her heels stomp against the hardwood and her hips sway as she walks away. She wants everyone to know the role she played here tonight: the responsible third wheel.
Everyone looks at Tim. Their waitress gives him that “Ooh-wee you’re in for hell tonight, bub!” look as she cleans the nearly dozen shot glasses off their table.
He sighs and runs to catch up with Lynne and Janet. The two’s strides match as well as their frowns. Lynne plops down on a park picnic table, Janet sitting on the opposite side. After inspecting his seat for insects, Tim sits down next to Janet.
The tension pulls at his artery. Lynne and Janet just stare at one another. There’s gasoline between the two, and he’s waiting for one of them to open their mouth to drop the match. He looks at his watch. 10, 9, 8 —
Janet sucks a breath in through her teeth and says, “You know, that $1 tip was such a cunt move.”
He didn’t even get to 5. Lynne has that effect on people.
“Excuse the fuck outta me?”
“You heard me. After all the fuss you two made in there, you have the nerve to leave a $1 tip? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You didn’t say one word to me the whole time. Actin’ like you got somethin’ against me and you don’t know shit about me. Now you gotta voice to be righteous? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Hey guys, can we not?” Tim’s voice is the strength of weak wind.
“Tim, this is the umpteenth time I’ve met this bitch and everytime she gets on a lil’ bit more of my nerves. Fucking cracker.”
“Excuse me! What!”
“Listen, I know your type. I know you never liked me. Too black for ya huh?” Lynne says as she chuckles. When they were little, Tim’s mom would call Lynne’s chuckle the sound of the devil’s chimes. She’s dangerous as the APD on a hot day, his mom would say after Lynne, adorned in some sort of Black Power gear, would leave their house on her skateboard. Tim’s poetic, poised, and full-of-the-gospel mother never loved Lynne, but she tolerated Lynne just enough for Tim and “his favorite gal” hangout.
Lynne looks down at her scuffed shoe tops in between the table’s wood planks. “Never wear fresh white kicks to a protest!” should be in a resistance rulebook because her Jays are fucked. “Tim, you already know what I’m about to say. We’ve been rockin’ far too long for you not to.”
Tim coughs. Time to lie through his teeth to save his ashy ass. “No, I do not.”
Lynne gives him ice-pick eyes. There’s a reason why folks called him Uncle Tim in high school. He’d throw a fellow brotha or sista underneath the bus and then hit reverse to make a human pancake just to protect his Oreo image. “You’re not with this bitch because you love her.”
Tim looks horrified. Janet is horrified.
He stammers, “Tha- Tha- That’s –”
With flames dancing in her eyes, Janet leans so far over the table, Lynne can see her makeup clogged pores. “Then why is he with me, bitch?”
“Since you like butting into conversations, let me make my next statement clear to both of you: JANET, YOU’RE WHITE.”
Vomit escapes Tim’s mouth. All over his lap and his side of the bench. He hears a single hollow clap. Through the tears in his eyes, he sees Lynne rubbing her right cheek. Janet is a tomato. She pays little mind to the vomit just a foot away from where she sat.
After giving her cheek two soft pats, Lynne says with a grin, “That’s alright, Janet. I forgive you. I know it must be real tough to know that your man is a slave to his self-hatred.”
“Fuck you! And Tim told me both of you grew up in RichWhiteyville, USA. You’re just a fraud, an act. You’re an impostor.”
Tim gets up and stumbles to the park shower to rinse off. Soon he’s drunk, nauseous, soaking wet, but clean of the brown chunks that once covered him. Janet doesn’t know that Tim is an impostor too. All his life he has felt like he occupied the wrong body. For years, he could only look at his palms, not the back of his hands. His palms were the closest he could ever come to what he wanted to see. He avoided the mirror in favor of building an interchangeable wardrobe. He turned the radio station off when rap played.
Tim should’ve been white, but one of the gods hated him too much to even give him mixed heritage. He’s the kind of dark that looks bloated and blue, deep black as midnight.
As he walks back over to the bench, he sees Lynne laying down on her side of the park bench while Janet has her head down on the table. Lynne was signing “Lift Every Voice” – a habit of hers during awkward silences. She took an ASL class in college to “bring the hard-of-hearing into the resistance” and “Lift Every Voice” was the first song she taught herself to sign. Tim’s great aunt signed the same song when family conversations took a turn for the worse at Thanksgiving as if the song doubled as a prayer for the ignorant. This same great-aunt still wears her Black Panther uniform. Instead of celebrating MLK Day, she set aside a day of mourning for Malcolm X. All MLK receives is a head nod to acknowledge he was the needed model minority. This is why he hasn’t brought Janet to Thanksgiving and planned on never doing so until their future children turned 10. How can you argue the merit of a relationship that has already lasted a decade – in delusion or full consciouness?
“Don’t take this as me being sus, but Ms. Dammit Janet ain’t right for you. And before it even leaves your lips Janet, I don’t wantcha man. Never have and never eva will. Oh, and I got a question… ” Lynne pops her lips. Tim’s jaw muscles flex. If her chuckle was the devil’s chimes, then her lip pop was the devil’s bullhorn. “Does she know about your ex?”
Janet’s head snaps up. Her eyes are pink and snot rims her nose. “What ex?”
Again, Tim stutters, “Wha- Wha- What?”
“You know, that Halsey-lookin’ chick you were head ova heels for until you found out her momma was a negro?” Lynne’s locks eyes with Tim. Her stare is so intense he begins to go cross-eyed trying to match her glare.
“Oh my god… Is that true?”
“I – ”
“Go ahead, Tim. Talk about your monkey dance.”
“Don’t talk about her. Lynne, Christ…”
“Last time you believed in God was when I was young enough to think Elmo was relatable. Spit it out. Tell her about ya performance for her kind. Tell about how you chase white approval. Tell about your dance, monkey.”
“God, you’re sick! You’re fucking sick! Let’s get out of here, Tim.”
Tim can’t move. Monkey screeches echo in his thoughts.
“Is this bitch your Kim K? ‘Ride or die’ and racially ambiguous?”
“You don’t know anything about me and apparently you know nothing about him. Tim, let’s go!”
“Since when the fuck did color not matter? Back when we were all in Africa before Mr. and Mrs. Williams pulled us from our tribes, villages, or whatever?”
Lynne is pushing Tim’s heart up his esophagus. He’s choking on his soul. She’s really doing it this time. She’s really calling him out.
“You’re faker than some Sweet ‘n’ Low, Tim. You’re leading this shallow heffa on thinking she got something real with you when all you care about is how close her ancestors come to being pilgrims.”
Lynne has not changed in all these years. For the past few months, Tim has tried to blend his and Janet’s world with the life of Lynne’s and his own. He’s failed. Not only has he failed, he’s exposed himself. Tim’s bare. Absolutely naked, stripped of his mask and cover. Lynne has been his best friend for 20 years, Janet his partner for 2. Of course Lynne can outsmart him at his own game. Janet, on the other hand, doesn’t even know the game he’s playing. Why would a 25-year old black man in the 21st century be so obsessed with whiteness?
As Tim sits and sits in silence, Lynne thinks back to their exchange at Sweet Bubba’s pub — vulgar, innocent, childish, rude. That was real. That had heart. She can’t let him waste his heart chasing a dream that never will be. Dreams birthed from hate aren’t dreams: they’re nightmares.
“Tim, I can’t let you do this to yourself. Enough is enough.”
He finally stands, “You’re right. Enough is enough.”
A smile flashes across Lynne’s face until she sees Tim grab Janet’s hand.
They walk way. He grasps Janet’s hands so tight a red rim surrounds the area where his fingers meet her skin. Lynne stares as they walk away, waiting for Tim to look back at her.
He does. Shame drips from his eyes.
Typical Uncle Tim.