Photo Credit: Chera Hammons Miller
Cigarette smoke hung like an early morning fog over the plastic tablecloths of the 24-hour diner. Its butter-soaked food and nicotine-faded wallpaper reminded me of my grandparents’ home, before the cancer. On entering I coughed and blinked away the smoke sting. It was near midnight and the place held at about half capacity—equal parts white hair and backward baseball caps. For a small Oklahoma town, this passed as nightlife.
I asked if she was working that night. The woman at the register, who herself had just started a few nights ago, didn’t know. High turnover. “You can sit wherever you want,” the woman told me. I circumnavigated the diner, reconnoitering its two main rooms. I eventually landed upon a familiar table that provided a view of nearly the entire dining room. The smoking and (much smaller) nonsmoking rooms were divided only by a waist-high wall, a legal afterthought. On a similar Friday night, one-week prior, I had failed her. I hadn’t known it then, but I did now, so I ordered a water and waited.
On that prior night, at the tail end of an evening of boredom and idle delinquency, I had eventually found myself at this same table with a group of friends. We were a few weeks into the second semester of our sophomore year at the local university. Bored and too cash-strapped for a drive out to Oklahoma City, we had originally decided on the fair grounds just outside of town. The rodeo’s proprietors had recently taken to locking their doors, so I didn’t expect much entertainment from this plan. But the gates were easy enough to jump. Once inside it was just dirt and manure covered livestock stalls. We stood in the center of the main rodeo arena with no audience but the full moon.
Once unlatched, the more interesting places, like the elevated judges’ booth, were now closed to those unwilling to learn the art of lockpicking or risk trespassing charges. We were bored and young, but not stupid. A winter breeze rustled the metal stock panels and cut through my jacket. I thought of a scene in a book I had been reading, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, where the main character floats on her back on a hot springs lake, naked under the winter moon. I shivered and called to my friends who ran in an out of an open stall for no apparent reason, like yearling colts. The thrill of the night had passed for me and I desired warmth over our redneck horseplay.
We had arrived at the 24-hour diner shortly before midnight. We shuffled past the whitehairs and waved at a few backward ball caps that we recognized on our way to an empty table. The cinnamon rolls here were the size of large cabbages. Wading in a kiddie pool of melted butter, generously drizzled with a sugary cinnamon glaze, and perhaps most importantly cheaply priced, they were the menu item of choice for most of the diner’s college-aged customers. We decided to share two for the table and, if enough spare change could be found, take advantage of the free refill policy on drinks.
I was surprised when she walked over to our table. My throat grew suddenly dry and my mind raced to think of how I could subtly create enough space for her to pull up a chair beside me. We had a class together last semester, but I was shy and she was always out the door promptly upon its conclusion. We had shared little more than proximity and a common language of Bio notes. I hadn’t seen much of her since the winter break – none at all now that I thought about it. But here she was, standing next to me in her pixie cut hair, bright but slightly tired looking eyes (it was midnight after all), and white button down shirt. I finally had the opportunity to impress her with more than fine penmanship.
I recounted to her the evening’s escapades, adding a little more flourish than reality. I was thrown off when she interrupted my tale with a question: “What can I get you?” She hadn’t come to join my little group; she had come to take our order. No matter. I was not going to miss this chance to impress her. I continued to exaggerate our adventures and joke with my friends. She needed to see me in this setting, where I was amiable and enjoying a moment of mild popularity. She asked me small questions about school and mentioned snippets about herself: how she had taken this job over the break, how her father had recently lost his job. Did she say something about maybe moving to a new town? She was hard to hear over our ordering and my bravado. Recognizing our order as the cheap-college-student-special, she frowned and walked away, knowing that she would receive a meager tip.
Another server delivered our food. It took me a while to realize what had happened. I had presented her with what I thought she wanted, which was myself as a cool, confident, datable man. In truth, that is what I had wanted. In all my strutting and feather-fluffing, I had never paused long enough to hear what she needed.
That was the last time I saw her.
That was years ago. Now I eat small to regular sized cinnamon rolls when I eat cinnamon rolls at all. My family has a history of diabetes.
I recently read a study demonstrating how people who read literature tend to be more empathetic. This makes sense to me because of the way literature affects the pace of my own life. It forces me to pause. Rather than a gut reaction or assumption, literature invites reflection. It takes me out of the immediacy of my life and reminds me of the other stories of which I am a part. Great stories take me out of my head and put me inside someone else’s. There is a reason that point of view, first person or third, is one of the first and most consequential devises a writer employs.
Literature does not attempt to simply erase the distances of time or place or culture, but rather gives these potential barriers a face. French, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that it is the face of the other, not some abstract concept of them, which calls us to responsibility and moral fraternity. Literature, then, cracks the shell of my own story, opening me to other narratives, to others’ narratives. When I think back on my early college days, especially that scene at the 24-hour diner, I realize that, among other youthful shortcomings, I had not yet read nearly enough literature.
Of course, a story or rather a character in a story is not really the other; it is not the true face of the other, but it can help get me there. It opens me at least to the awareness of the face of the other. It forces me to sit and spend time with someone whose perspective I might otherwise miss, or dismiss: A.G. Mojtabai’s Shine on Me—small town Texas seeking salvation in a free pickup truck; Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds—an Iraq war vet fighting the demons of loss and PTSD; Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—an old man, a preacher, struggling with mortality and jealousy. When I feel I cannot face another person, I can still read a good book.
Literature invites me into the head of someone else (the fact that this someone else is fictional does not matter) in a way that talking to someone face to face cannot. When I am talking to someone else I am still constantly aware of myself. How should I respond? What will they think if I say that? Can I disclose that piece of myself to another? To this other? I am so distracted by how this person may see me, or by how I want this person to see me, that I cannot truly see them. Or worse, if I grow bored with what the other person is discussing, I think of ways to steer the conversation back to more interesting topics—back, in effect, to myself.
With a book, though, I am able to truly lose sight of myself. I don’t have to worry about how a character may view me because that is not even an option. I am simply invited along on their journey. I am granted the privilege of forgetting myself and viewing the world through eyes that are not my own. When I close the book and return to myself, I still carry with me that other character and their unique perspective. Seeing through another’s eyes is the very meaning of empathy. Such literary empathy may not be sufficient to call me to responsibility in the same way that the face of another real person can; it does, however, bring me closer to seeing that such responsibility exists. It gives me practice in seeing another person as truly an other person, rather than a murky mirror in which to reflect my own concerns and insecurities. I am now in a better position to appreciate their unique viewpoint and history and encounter them simply as they are. Reading literature is thus a primer, a training, in putting myself aside.
Nearly two decades after that night at the 24-hour diner, I wonder if I am any closer to seeing, to attending, to another person the way they deserve. It is so easy to return to oneself. Concupiscence is the term Augustine of Hippo used to describe it—the curving of one’s focus and desires back in on oneself. It is such a natural posture—my original sin. I don’t know that my training will ever be complete. But there is always one more book on the shelf. I can only keep reading. I can only keep losing myself in these stories so that when I emerge again into the world, I am reborn each time with eyes a little more open.
Daniel Miller is a Texas-based writer and teacher. He holds degrees from the University of Edinburgh and Duke University. He has published one book, Animal Ethics & Theology (Routledge, 2012). His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Amarillo Bay, Cleaver, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and The Tishman Review.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.