Sunday morning had crept in on a throaty wind, softened only by a pure but raggedly applied coating of snow. Sam had risen early, fed his dog Luther, and driven two miles on the all but abandoned two-lane to his pool hall. He wouldn’t open his establishment to business on a Sunday: the citizens of Striven, Alabama, its city fathers and religious leaders, wouldn’t have abided it. He lit the gas space heater at one end of the bar, listened to its hollow voice for a moment, and then warmed before reading the Sunday paper.
The door opened to Donnie Wimple. Without a word, Donnie chose a house cue, racked the balls on the table nearest the heater and began shooting. Sam turned to watch. After a while, he chose a stick for himself and began a game of rotation with Donnie.
Sam’s plump fingers ached with the cold still hovering in his building, the aching aggravated by arthritis and scar tissue from a long-ago Viet Cong grenade. As he attempted to line his first shot, he blinked. He adjusted his glasses. Blinking again, he swore and adjusted the glasses once more. Then he decided to turn on more lights in the ever-dim pool hall. He bent to the table. His cue ball chased after its object. Both dropped into a corner pocket.
Donnie shot and missed, and then he watched without his usual brash comments as Sam lined another shot. The ball failed to drop at a mid-table pocket, and the cue ball clumped its way back up the rail, leaving Donnie a perfect shot at the far corner. Donnie smirked now, and was about to offer a jibe. Before he could speak, Sam slammed his cue to the table and stalked away.
Donnie started after Sam, but then he stopped. Sam was an even tempered fellow for the most part; moody sometimes, though, and that made him seem unpredictable and maybe even a little dangerous at times. Donnie re-racked the balls and began practicing shots.
Sam returned to his paper. Minutes passed in thick, Sunday silence. Finally, he tossed the paper in wild array to the bar and reached for the TV remote. Nothing on the broadcast channels but the usual early morning political talk shows. He flicked to ESPN. Nothing there but rehashes of the previous week’s football games and a talk show emceed by two men who seemed bent on out-shouting one another.
Donnie cackled. “I s’pose we could wash up and go to meeting.” Meaning church.
“In a pig’s eye,” Sam growled.
Donnie quietly cleared his throat. Sometimes he felt that way, too. But on other occasions, when he felt himself sinking into moral quicksand, he’d sense the flames of Hell licking at him, and for a month or so, he’d show up at the United Methodist, singing the hymns as if his heart would burst and amen-ing every other of the preacher’s utterances.
“No?” he asked, altogether too timidly.
“If you had to deal with that bunch the way I have,” Sam growled, “you’d think fire and brimstone was the better way to go.”
“Okay,” Donnie ventured, “if you say so.”
“Go on,” said Sam. “Go on if you got a mind to. I’m staying right here in front of this fire.”
“I believe I’ll just shoot some more pool,” said Donnie.
Sam edged his chair a step closer to the heater. Before long he nodded off. Donnie continued to line his shots. Finally Sam woke and lumbered to the restroom. Returning, he drew a cupful of draft and selected a packaged sandwich from the small refrigerator behind the bar.
“It’s almost noon,” he said. “You hungry yet?”
“Thirsty’s more like it.”
Sam drew another cupful and handed it across.
Donnie licked at the foam and then took a long pull from the amber liquid. He eyed Sam. “Kind of sad, y’know?”
Sam turned to peer at him. “What is?”
“I ain’t judging, and that’s a fact. But lately you been looking like your dog’s done up and died. The pity is, you ain’t got nothing to your name ‘cept that mangy ol’ hound. A dog’s good to have around, I guess, but they’s just so much you a dog can do for you.”
“Least he’s quiet some. He don’t yap my ear off like you been doing.”
Donnie chuckled. “Maybe you do need to spend time singing some hymns.”
Sam said nothing. He finished eating, and as he turned toward the trashcan with the sandwich container, a scowl darkened his face. He eyed Donnie and began drumming his fingers on the bar’s top. “I got my trailer,” he said at last, “and my dog ain’t dead. Anyway, I got this pool hall, so that’s that.”
Donnie didn’t look up. “Sometimes I got to look after more’n the here and now, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Bull,” said Sam. “You just get scared Hell’s gonna scorch your britches. Then you let them sons of bitches twist you ever which way.” Sam waggled his fingers for Donnie’s beer cup. He refilled it and handed it back. “Myself, I ain’t been much on religion since I come back from the ‘Nam, ‘specially the kind of gospel they spew around here.”
Donnie probed the gap in his lower teeth with his tongue. He frowned. Then he shrugged and sipped his beer.
Sam snorted. “You think you can have it both ways, don’t you? You think you can chase women and gamble, drink and carouse, and then you can run off to church, and you won’t stay up nights worrying ‘bout what’s gonna happen to you when you die. Worse yet, you let that ol’ preacher and his deacons lord it over you – until you get tired of it, that is. Then you thumb your nose at ‘em and waltz on down the road and don’t give a thought to whether they’ll take you back next time you feel the need for a little religion.”
Donnie backed up to his table. Sam was becoming a scold, and Donnie didn’t like it. “It ain’t exactly like that. It ain’t, Sam, and you know it.”
“Okay, let me ask you, then. Just what do you get outta Sunday mornings hollering them hymns and amen-ing ever other thing that comes outta Wesley Wilding’s mouth?”
Donnie threw back his beer, crumpled the plastic cup, and tossed it in the general direction of the trashcan. “I’m going back to shooting pool.”
A half hour passed. Sam readied a new keg for the tap. He wiped down the bar and made a few swipes at the dusty floorboards with his broom. He took out the trash and burned it. When he returned, Donnie was absently whistling as he filled another cup.
“All right, then,” said Sam, “let me ask you one more time. If Wesley Wilding and that church bunch of his is so all-fired important to you, then what do you get from hanging out with ‘em?”
Donnie sniffed, worked his mouth back and forth as if chewing. “I like singing. I get to sing a little bit.”
“That ain’t much of a answer,” said Sam.
Donnie began an awkward shuffling.
Sam smirked. “That’s what I thought. You just hide out there when you think them sins’ve been mounting up and they about to tumble all over you.”
Donnie stomped a boot, sending a thunderclap through the rafters. “Dang it, Sam, what’s crawled up your ass this morning?”
Sam leaned, arms braced on the bar. “Just tell me, has all that done you any good?”
Donnie sighed. “Not according to Mama.”
“And she should know,” Sam said, as if it were a question.
Donnie nodded. “She’s the smartest person I ever knowed.”
The door had creaked open, the rectangular gap sundered by Archie’s gangly frame. He grinned at Donnie. “You bragging on your mama again, huh?”
Donnie didn’t reply, so Archie, in his socially awkward way, looked to Sam. “I don’t ‘member much about your mama, Sam, but I bet she was smart as a whip, too.”
Donnie picked up his cue, held it to the rafters and, rolling it with nimble fingers, sighted down its taper. Then he chalked up and stroked the cue ball. A pair of striped balls rattled toward the corner pockets. As they disappeared, he winked at Archie. Then he threw a glance Sam’s way. “You the only one here,” he said to Archie,” who’s gonna have people around to sing your praises when you hit the dirt side of the sod.”
Archie eyed them both and nodded. “That little daughter of mine, and them twins of hers, they’ll be Johnny on the spot then, ‘specially them two little ones. Don’t know what I’d do without ‘em. You two ever get lonesome for grandkids?”
Donnie leaned his stick against the table, fingered a smoke from his shirt pocket, and lit it. Another wink. “I got my Mama. Sam here ain’t got squat, ‘cept Lu, and it ain’t for sure she’s gonna stick around.”
Sam bristled at that, picked up his paper, and sat. He shook a pair of pages apart.
“Hey Sam!” said Archie. “If Lu packs her bags on you, I know this cute little gal you could run off with.”
“She ain’t gotta be cute,” said Donnie. “Ol’ Sam can’t see too good nohow.”
“Pull yourself a beer off that tap,” Sam said to Archie, “and y’all shut up.”
Archie’s chin quivered.
“He’s been that way all morning,” said Donnie. “Don’t know what’s come over him.”
Archie blew out a long breath and then drawled, “I guess a fellow that runs a pool hall’s liable to have a mood now and again.”
Noxanne and Wilson, toothpicks hanging from their lips following breakfast at an all-you-can-eat Denny’s in Auburn, had just clomped in. They snickered and elbowed one another.
“Sam don’t have a mood once in a while,” said Noxanne, “he comes to it as regular as I do my monthly.”
“He’s acting like he’s done crawled in a hole and pulled the dirt in over hisself,” said Donnie.
“What brought all this on?” asked Wilson.
Donnie eyed Sam. “Well, first off, he got a good grouch going about Brother Wilding. Claims the reverend’s done him dirty somehow.”
Wilson tossed his toothpick over his shoulder. “It was Wayman Tucker who did that. He tried to shut Sam’s Place down a half dozen times.”
“Then it ain’t got nothing to do with Brother Wilding,” said Donnie.
“Yeah it does, too,” said Noxanne. “Him and Tucker’s so close they might as well kiss.”
An aha moment took Archie. “I guess I ain’t surprised at that. I forgot about our good ol’ chief of police and Wilding being cousins, sumpin like two, three times removed on Wayman’s daddy’s side.”
Donnie glanced to the establishment’s rear, where Sam was drawing a round of beers. An old memory had surfaced, a story Sam had told only once, during an all-night drinking session, a night when Sam had been as snockered as anyone could remember. “Hey, Sam,” he called out, chuckling. “‘Member that gal you hooked up with over in Montgomery? Didn’t you get her knocked up or some such?”
“I ain’t had a kid with nobody,” Sam said, eyes narrowed. “Leastwise, none I know of.” He jabbed a finger at the line of foaming cups. “Y’all have a beer and lock up all the chitchat about something you don’t know a damn thing about.”
Archie and Wilson looked to their shoes. They hadn’t heard about the Reverend Wesley Wilding being so directly involved in trying to shut down Sam’s, and that was surprising in a gossipy little town like Striven. Too, Archie and Wilson knew better than to ask Sam more about it; experience had taught them that you just shouldn’t pry into certain areas of Sam’s life.
Donnie, though, was undeterred. “You ‘member, Sam, we was up to our ears in corn liquor one night, and –”
Sam’s glare deepened. “Drop it, I said.”
Donnie pushed with both hands at the air between Sam and him. “Okay, okay, don’t get yourself all worked up, now. I just thought…”
Noxanne put a hand on Donnie’s arm and peered to the bar. “You say them beers is for us?”
“Yeah,” said Sam, “if y’all can see fit to shut up about my private doings.”
Wilson, afraid Sam’s temper still might boil over, changed the subject. “Funny things happen when you get off the battlefield, huh, Sam?”
A quizzical look. “I reckon.”
“What I mean is, you could of took a job, any job a‘tall, over in Montgomery after that discharge of yours.”
For a moment, Sam said nothing. Then he sighed through a now-saddened expression. “They wasn’t all that fond of soldiers back then. Some of us got turned down for jobs because we was ex-soldiers.”
“I ‘member hearing ‘bout when you got out,” said Donnie. “You took a job sweeping up this place for your Uncle Clifton. Didn’t make much sense, even to a kid like me.”
“You ever been to a war, you’d know,” said Sam, “‘specially one that was lost.” He whistled out a breath, his eyes fixed on some faraway thing. “Damn war stayed with me for quite a spell. Sweeping up helped keep me outta the doldrums.”
For a while, none of them spoke, each seeming lost in a scattering of memories from that ancient time – the war, the craziness that had bled the country white because of it. Sam was telling the truth, but gently. Returning soldiers were spat on, taunted, their wartime traumas and injuries ignored by almost everyone, and that included the military that had put them on the firing line. It was as if the whole damned country was trying its best to forget the war had ever happened. The nebulous cloud of collective guilt born from that Asian adventure seemed to color everything about life in the U.S. back then, probably as deeply debilitating as the guilt burdening German and Japanese citizens in the years following World War II.
At home once again, but locked into their separate hells, ex-soldiers drank, smoked, and injected themselves into altered states in order to maintain the isolation they desperately needed to come to grips with a life of peace. Still, they held their heads high when they could manage it – as if the war’s outcome hadn’t mattered to them, anyway, as if the ones with draft deferments and their consequent good jobs and contented families didn’t count for much, as if the nightmares, the night sweats, the moods, were a part of everyone’s life, as if daily survival were the only right thing to these ex-soldiers’ lives.
Ironically, some of those returning wanted another war – a chance to do it right, as they came to explain it. And some wanted even more: the next war, and the next, and the next – because sometimes fighting your way out of a corner is all you feel you have left.
Sam, though he’d tried not to think about the war, and could hardly have put words to it anyway, hadn’t managed to evade such self-imposed estrangement. On his return home, he needed those long months of sleepless nights, the solitude, the simpleminded back-and-forth of that broom in his uncle’s pool hall. The only friends he could rationalize in that quietly deranged state were the ones who had left Nam in body bags, and the ones who had gone to the four winds following their return to The World. No, those months in the bush were the miraculous birth of Sam’s adult soul, but they were also the baggage of that birth.
Thus, isolation within a world that seemed deaf, dumb and blind where basic human compassion was concerned appeared to be the only way that promised him – and his fellow soldiers – escape from those war-born birth pains. And so, even after all these years, coming home – a real homecoming – remained for Sam a dream just over the horizon.
Finally, Donnie cleared his throat. “Maybe we ought not to hang out here all day. How ‘bout we drive up to Lake Martin?”
Archie harrumphed. “Colder’n a well digger’s ass out there.”
“Breezy, too,” said Wilson. He shivered.
“We ain’t gotta get out in no dang boat,” said Donnie. “I know a catfish place up there on the western finger we can go to.”
“I know that place,” Archie said. “They don’t serve beer on Sunday, though.”
“Don’t know as I mind that,” said Wilson. He belched quietly though stubby fingers. “I feel like I’m gonna toss my cookies, and another half dozen beers might just help that along.”
“It was all that fried okra you ate last night,” said Noxanne. “And that big ol’ breakfast this morning didn’t help none.” She was about to turn and offer a consoling hug when he stepped back to expel another pungent belch.
Archie peered to the bar. “You going, too, Sam?”
He glanced their way and sniffed. “Nah.”
Noxanne strode halfway to the bar and punched stubby fists into her hips. “Yes you are, too, Sam Witherspoon.”
“Yeah,” Wilson and Archie said in unison.
“Okay, then,” said Donnie, “it’s been decided. We’ll swing by and pick up Lu if you want to.”
Sam grunted, and for a long moment he didn’t move. Then he sighed, rose, and pulled on his jacket.
“Hot dog!” said Archie. “Good for you, Sam, get you out of that rut.”
Archie, Wilson, Noxanne, Donnie, Lu, and Sam had finished their catfish platters and were alternately spearing food particles with their toothpicks and contentedly tsking air between their teeth. As they’d eaten, Sam’s spirits had slowly, almost imperceptibly brightened. He told a couple of bawdy jokes and even reflected happily on his boyhood life in Striven. Now a waitress filled their tea glasses.
“Them’s fresh fish awright,” Archie said to her.
The waitress smiled and nodded toward the waters beyond the restaurant, where the sun was catching every ripple, creating a thousand bright winkings. “They slept in the lake last night.”
“What’s in them hushpuppies?” asked Noxanne. “They about the best I ever tasted.”
“We put a can of beer in each batch of batter,” said the waitress. “That’s what you noticed.”
“I’d of never knowed it,” said Wilson. “No buzz or nothing.”
“Cooking boils off the alcohol,” said the waitress, “leaves nothing but that good, rich taste.”
Sam nodded, smiling. “I’ll have to try that on my next fish fry.”
The waitress left, and Sam and his friends quieted.
“You used to thow fish fries all the time,” Donnie said, “back when you had voting booths in your place. Maybe you ought to go back to that.”
Sam’s smile turned sober. “I ain’t into such high mindedness anymore. You know what the city fathers did after they agreed to put voting machines in there. Tried to boycott my place as a voting location. Don’t know why they bothered putting them in there in the first place.”
“They didn’t want us who lived nearby voting,” said Archie.
“Yeah,” Sam muttered.
The waitress brought the check, and Sam reached for it.
Wilson snatched it away. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he said.
“That’s right,” said Noxanne. “We all gonna chip in and buy yours and Lu’s for a change.”
Sam said nothing, his face tinged with blush. He shrugged.
“There it is,” said Archie.
Donnie nodded solemnly. “About time we started setting some things to rights, Sam.”
The day had turned out sunny and vibrant, the sky a clear expanse, as rich a blue as the Gulf of Mexico, where it deepens south of Mobile. Donnie rode with Wilson and Noxanne, Archie with Lu and Sam. Lu, who sat between the two men, turned off the radio and motioned for Archie to crack the rider’s side window. For the next twenty minutes or so, the only sounds coming to them were the pickup engine’s hum, the hissing of the truck’s tires against the pavement, and the shrill complaint of wind as it buffeted the gap in the cab’s side window.
“Sam,” said Lu, “you really ought to thank everyone for our dinner.”
“I did,” said Sam.
“No, you just shrugged and let them pay.”
“It’s awright, Lu,” said Archie. “He’s done a bunch for us. We don’t need no thanks.”
“Yes, you do,” Lu replied. “It’s just common courtesy.”
“Aw, Lu,” said Archie, “it don’t matter. We’re all friends.”
“Okay, okay,” said Sam, “I’ll thank ever’body proper when we get back to my place.”
“Good,” said Lu.
“Hey, Sam,” said Archie, “I just ‘membered sumpin. You was good friends with that Irish doc’s bunch when you was a kid, right?”
“For a while.”
Archie tee-heed. “You was better’n friends with ol’…what was that gal’s name?”
“Drop it,” Sam growled.
Hardly chastened, Archie winked at Lu. “Ol’ Sam, he didn’t get around much back then, but when he did, boy-damn-howdy.”
Lu shook her head and then elbowed Archie playfully. “Now, you know the last thing I want to hear about is Sam’s past lives.”
Archie frowned. “Past lives? You believe in that stuff?”
Lu laughed softly. “I mean his B.L. lives.”
Archie’s eyes almost crossed with bafflement.
“Before Lu,” she said.
That had them laughing, even Sam.
As Sam pulled into the pool hall parking lot, he noticed a paper from a yellow legal pad thumbtacked to the front door. Lu, sensing something wrong, set a hand on Sam’s arm. Sam clambered from the truck, ripped the paper away without comment or reading, folded it, and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He waved everyone in, drew beers for them, and thanked them properly for his and Lu’s dinner. Only when they’d left did he draw the paper from his pocket and read it.
“What’s it about?” asked Lu.
“About what I expected,” he said. He handed her the note.
Several of our finest citizens, on their way home from church today, noticed your truck at this establishment, along with vehicles of several of your regular customers.
Let me remind you of the ordinance in this county prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday. I will be by tomorrow morning to question you about goings on at your place on this date, and I will expect to see your sales ledger for the Sunday sales you made.
Chief of Police, Striven, AL
Lu set the paper on the bar. “What’s going to happen, Sam? I mean, is there something he can do to us?”
“Harassment’s all it is. They ain’t much to make of it otherwise. I wasn’t open to customers, and I didn’t sell no alcohol.”
Lu looked to the floor and sighed.
“Don’t you worry none,” he said. “This happens ever once in a while. All that’s going to happen is Tucker’ll come by, make a few threats, and then we’ll both go about our bidness.”
“Oh, Sam, I hate this. I just hate it!”
He smiled, rose, and tugged her to him. “I was gonna leave you with the place tomorrow so I could go fishing. The only bad thing’s gonna happen is I won’t be able to wet a hook until I have my sit-down with Tucker.”
It was true: Wayman Tucker came by, with an armed deputy, as if Sam constituted a material threat to them, and maybe even to the town. But Sam had never kept weapons on the premises. He didn’t have to; even at his age he could manhandle most troublemakers who came his way. And Tucker did drop a few not-so-subtle threats during their conversation. Sam smirked at them and, for the third, fourth, and fifth times, he calmly told the chief that he hadn’t been selling alcoholic beverages, that a few friends had dropped by, and that they’d gone to Lake Martin for catfish.
Lu had wanted to stay for the confrontation, but Sam wouldn’t hear of it. Minutes after the front door to Sam’s Place closed behind Tucker, the phone rang.
“He tried to rile me a time or two,” Sam told Lu, “but I didn’t bite at it.”
“Then everything’s all right? No charges made?”
Sam chuckled. “He pointed one of them fat little fingers of his at me, said, ‘Your time’s coming, Witherspoon. You keep it up, and I’ll see you in my jail. No, better’n that, I’ll see you in the state pen.’”
Sam noted her slowly forming smile, just before he her soft, tentative laughter tumbled out. “I’ll bet that stubbornness of yours sent his blood pressure sky high.”
“Don’t doubt it.” Sam said with an oversized grin. “‘Fore he left, he turned – almost tripped over that deputy of his – and he said, ‘You never know where your next batch of trouble is gonna come from.’”
Lu said nothing to that.
Sam’s grin faded to jaw-jutted sternness. “I started to tell him trouble just might jump up and bite him on the butt, too. But I didn’t.”
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.