20 questions, and then some


The woman behind the counter at the jewelry store looks at me quizzically and says, “What is that?” emphasizing “is” and tugging on the vowel sound as if she were pulling taffy, to the point of making it a two-syllable word. 

I’ve come here on a Saturday morning to face the sad reality that I need to purchase a wedding band two sizes larger than the bridal set I’ve owned for nearly 22 years. I’m doing this rather than going through the hassle of resizing the existing rings in the hope that it will spur me to finally summon the discipline required to drop some of the 40 excess pounds I’ve accumulated over the past two decades, so that I can wear them again without cutting off circulation and risking gangrene.

This pleasant but exceedingly chatty saleswoman (“I just like to talk”) has asked for my name and contact information and is entering everything into the computer system so that I can be spammed by Kay Jewelers henceforth. It’s my last name, Raffaele, that is short-circuiting her brain. She can hardly be blamed, when you consider that with blue eyes, blonde hair, and skin that turns from white to a freckled off-white in the summer if I remember to use sunscreen, I don’t fit the profile of a surname I’ve married into that many people erroneously assume is Hispanic but is actually Italian. Between that, the Pennsylvania area code on my cell phone number, and whatever she perceives my accent to be, she is clearly overwhelmed by the apparent foreignness of a customer who nevertheless speaks the official language of Mississippi as decreed by the state Legislature in 1987.

More questions ensue. Where am I from? Do I work? What do I do for a living?

It is the latest in a series of transactions I’ve had with the locals in Tupelo that underscore that the people you meet in the South have ways of making you talk and are determined to extract your life story if they have to beat it out of you. Never mind that you are a taciturn, introverted quasi-Northeasterner who places a premium on efficiency when running errands.

It happened when I was setting up our water and electric service with the city-owned utility, something that could be done only in person. The customer service rep examined my Florida driver’s license and exclaimed, “You’re the second person from Florida I’ve had come in today! Usually, people leave to go there!”

And thus I was prodded to explain that my husband’s job at the local TV station brought us here. Which then brought forth another outpouring of information that one of the station’s reporters lived in the same apartment complex as we did, and she had set up this young woman’s service as well. Well gawww-lee, as Gomer Pyle would say. Small worlds and all.

Then there was the time I went to Walgreens with what I thought was bad hair. Because I’m now working remotely for the nonprofit agency I left behind in Florida, I’m less inclined to beat my hair into submission with a blow dryer and round brush after I’ve washed it. This results in some messy waves that could be described as “beach hair,” except that the nearest beach is about a 4-hour drive, and they don’t look nearly as polished as the “beach hair” styles that all of the women’s magazines tell you that you, too, can have, regardless of your hair’s natural texture.

My unstyled hair caught the attention of the lady behind the counter, who actually admired it and said: “I always wanted to have curly hair, but mine has always been just straight.” There wasn’t a question attached to her comment, but in the interest of trying to be polite I felt compelled to explain that no, this wasn’t what it normally looked like, I had let it air-dry, etc., although I stopped short of correcting her about it not being curly by a long shot.

Living in the South, with its reputation for outsize friendliness, at least on a superficial level, is challenging my natural temperament of avoiding small talk when I’m merely doing my part to grease the wheels of commerce. Casual exchanges with strangers, especially salespeople, that take up more than a minute or so of my time make me feel as though I’ve given a pint of blood by the time they’re over. I suppose that with the passage of time, I’ll build up some tolerance and learn to expect the Spanish Inquisition. After all, the groceries aren’t going to buy themselves.

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