Joshua Penn sat down in the restaurant to another day of business without a thought of where things might go. He'd been working for his boss for four years, with nary a promotion and barely a word of thanks; despite tons of hard work, long hours, and putting up with the sheer stupidity his employer put out. Still, he was finally getting ahead -- he suspected his boss was getting ready to promote him, or why start bringing him to business lunches like this one?
He smiled cordially as he shook the hand of Mr. Akitowa, the businessman they were here to talk with. His boss chatted easily with the entire party as they settled in, and Joshua joined in as appropriate. He smiled at quips, laughed at jokes, and in general stayed as far in the background as he could.
Across the restaurant, he saw another man, probably from the nearby college, sit down to a table. The young man glanced over at him, and the green eyes caught Joshua's squarely. The youth flicked his dirty blond hair away from his eyes, and smiled at Joshua before turning his attention to a textbook. Joshua pulled his attention back to the business meeting, where his boss was, as usual, making an ass of himself.
"I tell you, Aki, the problem with this country is the niggers!" Mr. Jones exclaimed as a waitress approached the table. Joshua didn't even have to turn his head to look at her to know the color of her skin. But for a reason he couldn't define, he did glance up at the college boy sitting across the restaurant. Joshua didn't like the look on his face as the boy stared back at him. It was like the boy was judging him. And didn't like what he saw.
"Excuse me Sir, may I take your order?" the waitress broke in to the conversation with a rather forced smile. Everyone placed their orders quickly, and she jotted them down and took off.
Lucky her, Joshua thought, to get away from Mr. Jones so easily. Joshua wished he could!
But he needed the job, and if he defied Jones in any way shape or form, he'd be lucky to get a job mopping up at a bar. Just wasn't the way the game was played in this city. Damn he'd love to get out of here. And that college boy was smiling at him now, like he approved of Josh's train of thoughts.
Joshua didn't snarl, but boy did he feel like it!
Eventually the meal arrived, and all hell broke loose. Predictably, Mr. Jones was the cause. "Hey, nigger bitch get back here!" Their waitress paused for a second before continuing on. Joshua hid a careful smile. Mr. Jones threw a roll at her to get her attention, and she stopped and turned around. Picking it up, she placed it back on the table beside his place.
"I think you lost this, Sir," she said pleasantly.
"I think you need to respect your betters, bitch! I asked for my steak rare, and I got this!" Mr. Jones pointed to his well-done, almost charred, steak. "That's the problem with you people, never learning the English language, never doing what you're told. All you're good for and you aren't even good for that!"
Joshua looked away, and again his eyes were drawn to the college youth. Who was busily not looking at him, in fact had turned away to place his back to him.
Joshua got his message clear as day, and it hurt. Oh did it hurt.
Because the boy, not yet out of school, several years his junior and quite probably still filled with the idealism of youth, was right. He really shouldn't be sitting here for this. Joshua's gaze dropped to his own plate as the manager showed up to deal with the situation.
Mr. Jones was busy badmouthing the waitress, the cooks, the restaurant, the manager, and everything in between. The manager tried to placate him but, predictably, failed. "Either fire that bitch, or I'll get this place closed down!" came the ultimatum.
The manager began to splutter and complain, but Joshua already knew the outcome. What Mr. Jones wanted, Mr. Jones would get. The almighty god known as the bottom line would ensure that. And in this city, Mr. Jones was the bottom line for a business such as this.
Joshua didn't even have to look up to see the youth staring at him, completely disappointed with him. Gritting his jaw, he made his choice, exercising his human free will to damn himself.
"We normally don't fire our staff simply because of a mistake in placing an order-"
"You damned well will or I'll shut this damned place down, nigger-lover!"
"As I was saying, sir," the manager continued respectfully, "we normally don't fire our staff over a simple mistake in placing an order, but given the severity of her mistake and her behavior afterwords, we shall of course abide by-"
"No," Joshua said. Every head at the table turned to face him, shock clearly written.
Half the restaurant seemed to fall silent as he spoke.
"She didn't get the order wrong, Mr. Jones, you must have been distracted by your conversation with Mr. Akitowa, but you did order it well done."
The other half of the restaurant fell silent. Joshua didn't care, he was doing the right thing. "Mr. Penn, perhaps you should go back to the office a little early and clean out your desk," Mr. Jones stated firmly.
"Indeed," Mr. Akitowa said. "A clean desk is very helpful when one moves to a new position."
"No position, rather! He's fired," Mr. Jones voice went flat.
"Ah, so he's open for employment? I could use an honest employee who's not afraid to tell me when I'm out of line."
Joshua couldn't believe it. Mr. Akitowa was one of the biggest businessmen in the country. On a good day, his company rivaled Microsoft, if you squinted, anyway. And... was he really offering Joshua a job?
"Excuse me, Mr. Akitowa, but are you offering-"
"Starting immediately!" Mr Akitowa exclaimed, and then stated a yearly salary that almost quadrupled Joshua's current. Mr. Jones's mouth flopped open and shut like a fish out of water.
"I could hardly turn down that kind of offer, Sir!" Joshua enthused.
Across the restaurant, the college youth just smiled, green eyes twinkling. Joshua didn't look back as Mr. Akitowa lead him out of the restaurant, with the business deal ended by Mr. Jones shocking behavior, but he could feel the grin drilling into his back. Joshua just stood tall, and walked out proud.
He'd find the guy later and thank him – for everything.
Three years later, on a visit to his family, Joshua opened up a newspaper and glanced through the obituary section for no reason he could name. He froze, shocked. It'd been three years, and he hadn't been able to track down the youth with green eyes and dirty blond hair. Now he'd found the boy.
He called work immediately, and asked for a few days extra vacation, to "visit the funeral of an old friend." The extra days were granted, no questions asked. He'd worked hard, and made himself into a valuable employee, as well as earning several promotions. They wanted him happy, and not taking any of the offers other companies sent his way on a regular basis.
He owed Eric Nicholas Stephens everything, the least he could do is attend the funeral.