The maddest I remember being at my late wife (a Yankee lady, of Greek extraction and mercurial moods) was when she shouted, during a quarrel the origins of which are long lost, that I was “a dumb redneck.” My heart dangerously palpitated, my eyes bugged, I ran in tight circles and howled inarticulate general profanities until, yes . . . my neck turned red. Literally. I felt the betraying hot flush as real as a cornfield tan. My wife collapsed in a mirthful heap, little knowing how truly close I felt to righteous killing.
Being called “dumb” wasn’t what had excited me. No, for I judged myself ignorant only to the extent that mankind is and knew I was no special klutz. But being called a “redneck,” now, especially when you know in your genes and in the dirty back roads of your mind that you are one—despite having spent years trying not to be—well, that just don’t constitute fair fighting. I do not cherish Rednecks, which means I dislike certain persistent old parts of myself.
Of late the Redneck has been wildly romanticized; somehow he threatens to become a cultural hero. Perhaps this is because heroes are in short supply in these Watergate years, or maybe it’s a manifestation of our urge to return to simpler times: to be free of computers, pollution, the urban tangle, morally bankrupt politicians, shortages of energy or materials or elbow room, and other modernist curses threatening to make our lives increasingly grim. Even George Wallace is “respectable” now, the news media boys tell us and tell us, having been semi-martyred by gunfire. Since ‘Necks have long been identified with overt racism, we may be embracing them because we tired, in the Sixties, of bad niggers who spooked and threatened us and of laws busing our white children to slum schools; perhaps the revival is a backlash against hippies, peaceniks, weirdos of all stripes. Or the new worship of Redneckism may be no more than the clever manipulations of music and movie czars, ever on the lookout for profitable new crazes. Anyway, a lot of foolishness disguised as noble folklore is going down as the ‘Neck is praised in song and story.
There are “good” people, yes, who might properly answer to the appellation “redneck”: people who operate Mom-and-Pop stores or their lathes, dutifully pay their taxes, lend a helping hand to neighbors, love their country and their God and their dogs. But even among a high percentage of these salts-of-the-earth lives a terrible reluctance toward even modest passes at social justice, a suspicious regard of the mind as an instrument of worth, a view of the world extending little further than the ends of their noses, and only a vague notion that they are small quills writing a large history. They are often friendly in their associations and may sincerely believe themselves to accept “ever feller for what he is”; generally, however, they own more prejudices than a U-Haul could carry.
Not that these are always mindless. No, some value “common sense” or “horse sense” and in the basics may be less foolish than certain sophisticates or academicians. Some few may read Plato or Camus or otherwise astonish: it does not necessarily follow that he who is poor knows nothing or cares little. By the same token, you can make a lot of money and still be a Redneck in your bones, values, and attitudes. But largely, I think—even at the risk of being accused of elitism or class prejudice—the worse components of ‘Neckery are found among the unlettered poor.
Attempts to deify the Redneck, to represent his life style as close to that of the noble savage are, at best, unreal and naive. For all their native wit—and sometimes they have keen senses of the absurd as applied to their daily lives—Rednecks generally are a sorry sad lot. They flounder in perilous financial waters and are mired in the socio-political shallows. Their lives are hard: long on work and short on money; full of vile bossmen, hounding creditors, quarrels, disappointments, confrontations, ignorance, a treadmill hopelessness. It may sound good on a country-western record when Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings lift their voices, baby, but it neither sounds nor feels good when life is real and the alarm clock’s jarring jangle soon must be followed by the timeclock’s tuneless bells. No, we need not perpetuate the Redneck myth. Indeed, our mudball ideally might show a net gain if it were possible not to perpetuate Rednecks themselves.
Now, the Rednecks I’m talking about are not those counterfeit numbers who hang around Austin digging the Cosmic Cowboy scene, sucking up to Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson, wearing bleached color-patched overalls and rolling their own dope, saying how they hanker to go live off the land and then stay six weeks in a Taos commune before flying back on daddy’s credit card. Fie and a pox on such damn fakers; may such toy Rednecks choke on their own romantic pretensions.
No, and I’m not talking about Good Ole Boys. Do not, please, confuse the two; so many have. A Good Ole Boy is a Redneck who has acquired a smidgen or much more of polish; I could call him a “former Redneck” except that there ain’t no such. One born a ‘Neck of the true plastic-Jesus and pink-rubber-haircurlers-in-the-supermarket variety can no more shuck his key condition than may the Baptist who, once saved, becomes doctrinarily incapable of talking his way into Hell.
And here a warning against ersatz Good Ole Bys, too: those who find it advantageous to employ exaggerated country drawls, cracker-barrel observations, and instant histories of their raggedy-ass downtrodden childhoods. On investigation, however, these prove to have been no worse than the proletariat elite; probably they lived in a big white house on the hill with daddies who owned the region’s biggest farm or the town gas works; their mommies belonged to bridge clubs or Book-of-the-Month or better. Lyndon B. Johnson was a fake Good Ole Boy; sometimes, when he’s drunk, so is Norman Mailer. And Willie Morris misses it by no more than a freckle and a hair. Such people are trying to rise below their raising, to attain a common touch not necessarily natural to their roots. Don’t ask me why: I got the other problem.
The bona fide Good Ole Boy may or may not have been to college. But bet your ass he’s a climber, an achiever, a con man looking for the edge. He’ll lay a lot of semi-smarmy charm on you, and middling-to-high-grade bullshit. He acts dumber than he is when he knows something, and smarter than he is when he doesn’t. Such parts of his Redneck heritage as may be judged eccentric or humorous enough to be useful will be retained in his mildly self-deprecating stories, and may come in handy while he’s working up to relieving you of your billfold or your panties. On the other hand, such Redneck parts as no longer serve him, he attempts to bury in the mute and dead past. And he becomes terribly manic when, say, a domestic quarrel causes him to blow his cool enough that those old red bones briefly rise from their interment so that others may glimpse them.
A Good Ole Boy turns his radio down at red lights so other drivers won’t observe him enjoying Kitty Wells singing through her nose. He carefully says “Negro,” though it slips to “Nigra” with a shade much Scotch, or even—under stress, or for purposes of humor among close associates—slides all the way down to “Nigger.” He does not dip snuff or chaw tobacco, preferring cigarettes or cigars or perhaps an occasional hip toke of pot. He has semi-forgotten the daily fear of being truly dirt-poor—and, perhaps, how to ride a horse or the cruel tug of the cotton sack, or the strength of the laborer’s sun. He may belong to a civic club, play golf, travel, own his own shop or run somebody else’s. For a long time he’s been running uphill; sometimes he doesn’t know when he’s reached level ground and so keeps on struggling.
Who may I furnish as examples? Ah, yes. It may not be perfect, but maybe it’ll help you with the shadings: take two old Dallas Cowboys, sports fans, who began in redneck precincts at an approximate parallel. Where Don Meredith may be the quintessential Good Ole Boy, Walt Garrison is mighty like a Redneck. Meredith more that holds his own in chatting with senators, authors, mystics, and drag queens on late-night talk shows; Garrison actually dips the snuff he touts on TV commercials played mainly in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Dandy Don lives in a big house on twenty-odd landscaped acres in rich Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Wild Walt is often found ropin’ and brandin’ in the dustier sections of Oklahoma. Meredith bawls country-western songs with a wink in his voice; Garrison might not hear the wink. I can’t tell it no better than that. It has a little to do with relative smarts and luck and blood attitudes and maybe potty training. Whatever.
While all true, bona fide Good Ole Boys have been at least fringe Rednecks, not all Rednecks rise to be Good Ole Boys. No. Their gizzards don’t harbor enough of something—ambition, good fortune, con, education, opportunity, flint, self-propellants, saddle burrs, chickenshit, whatever—and so they continue to breed and largely perpetuate themselves in place, defanged Snopeses never to attain, accumulate, bite the propertied gentry, or smite their tormentors. These are no radicals; they can’t find the handle on it and don’t have time to think it through. Though generalities are dangerous, one risks the judgment that always they shall vote to the last in number for the George Wallaces or Lester Maddoxes of their time; will fear God at least in the abstract and Authority and Change even more; will become shadetree mechanics, factory robots, salesmen of small parts, peace-time soldiers or sailors; random serfs. (Yes, good neighbors, do you know what it is to envy the man who no longer carries the dinner bucket, and hope that someday you’ll reach his plateau: maybe sell for Allstate?) The women of such men are beauticians and waitresses and laundry workers and pregnant. Their children may be hauled in pickup trucks or old Fords dangling baby booties, furry dice, plastic saints. Or be plastered with bumper stickers: Honk If You Love Jesus, maybe, or Goat Ropers Need Love Too.
We are talking, my friends, about America’s white niggers: the left behind, the luckless, and the doomed. It is these we explore: my clay, native roots, mutha culture . . .
I didn’t know I was a Redneck as a kid. The Housenrights were Rednecks, I knew—even though I didn’t know the term; couldn’t have defined it—and so were the Spagles and certain branches of the Halls, the Peoples, the Conines. These were the raggedest of the ragged; there was a hopelessness about them, a wildness possible only in the surrendered, a community sense that their daddies didn’t try as hard as some or, simply, had been born to such ill luck, silly judgments, whiskey thirsts, or general rowdiness as to preclude twitches of upward mobility. Such families were less likely than others to seek church; their breadwinners idled more; their children came barefoot to school even in winter. They were more likely to produce domestic violence, blood feuds, boys who fought their teachers. They no longer cared and, not caring, might cheerfully flatten or stab you in a playground fight or at one of the Saturday night country dances held in rude plank homes along the creek banks. Shiftless badasses. Poor white tacky Rednecks who did us the favor of providing somebody to look down on. For this service we children of the “better” homes rewarded them with rock fights or other torments: Dessie Hall, Dessie Hall/ Haw Haw Haw/ Your Daddy Never Bathes/ But He’s Cleaner Than Your Maw.
Ours was a reluctant civilization. Eastland County, Texas, in 1920—less than a decade before my birth—had 58,500 people; by the U.S. Census count that year, more than 46,000 of these had attained the age of ten or above without having learned to read or write in any language. Yes, you read the figures right. I recall old nesters who “made their marks” should documents require their signatures. A neighboring farmer in middle-age boasted that his sons had taught him simple long-division; on Saturdays he sat on the wooden veranda of Morgan Brothers General Store in Scranton, demonstrating on a brown paper sack exactly how many times 13 went into 39, while whiskered old farmers gathered for their small commerce looked on as intently as if he might be revealing the internal rules of Heaven.
We lived in one of the more remote nooks of Eastland County, in cotton and goober and scrub oak country. There were no paved roads and precious few tractors among that settlement of marginal farms populated by snuff-dippers, their sunbonneted women, and broods of jittery shy kids who might regard unexpected visitors from concealment. We were broken-plow farmers, holding it all together with baling wire, habit, curses, and prayers. Most families were on FDR’s “relief agency” rolls; county agriculture agents taught our parents to card their cotton by hand so they might stuff home-made mattresses. They had less success in teaching crop rotation, farmers feeling that the plot where Daddy and Grandaddy had grown cotton remained a logical place for cotton still. There were many who literally believed in a flat earth and the haunting presence of ghosts; if the county contained any individual who failed to believe that eternal damnation was a fair reward for the sinner, he never came forward to declare it.
Churches grew in wild profusion. Proud backwoodsmen, their best doctrines disputed by fellow parishioners, were quick to establish their rival rump churches under brush arbors or tabernacles or in plank cracker-boxes. One need have no formal training to preach: The Call was enough, a personal conviction that God had beckoned one from a hot cornfield to spread the Word. Converts were baptized in muddy creeks or stock tanks, some flocks—in the words of the late Uncle Earl Long of Louisiana—“chunking snakes and catching fevers.”
It was not uncommon for righteous vigilantes to pay nocturnal calls on erring wife-beaters or general ne’er-do-wells, flogging them with whips and prayers while demanding their immediate improvement. Such Godly posses did not seek to punish those who lived outside the law, however, should commerce be involved: times were hard, and so were the people. Bootleggers flourished in those woods, and even cattle thieves were ignored so long as they traveled safe distances to improve their small herds.
My father’s house was poor but proud: law-abiding, church-ridden, hard-working, pin-neat; innocent, it seems in retrospect, of conscious evil, and innocent, even, of the modern world. Certainly we had good opinions of ourselves and a worthy community standing. And yet even in that “good” family of workworn self-starting country aristocrats there were tragedies and explosions as raw as the land we inhabited: my paternal grandfather was shot to death by a neighbor; an uncle went to the pen for carnal knowledge of an under-aged girl; my father’s fists variously laid out a farmer who had the temerity to cut in front of his wagon in the cotton gin line, a ranch hand who’d reneged on a promise to pay out of his next wages for having his horse shod, a kinsman who threatened to embarrass the clan by running unsuccessfully for county commissioner a ninth straight time. My father was the family enforcer, handing out summary judgments and corporal punishments to any in the bloodline whose follies he judged trashy or a source of community scorn or ridicule. It was most tribal: Walking Bear has disgraced the Sioux; very well, off with Walking Bear’s head.
So while we may have had no more money than others, no more of education or raw opportunity, I came to believe that the Kings were somehow special. A certain deference was paid my parents in their rural domain: they gave advice, helped shape community affairs, were arbiters and unofficial judges. I became a leader at the country school and in Bethel Methodist Church, where we took pride in worships free of snake-handling or foot-washings—although it was proper to occasionally talk in tongues or grovel at the Mourner’s Bench.
I strutted when my older brother, Weldon, returned in his second hand Model-A Ford to visit from Midland. I imagined him a leading citizen there; he had found success as manager of the lunch counter and fountain at Piggly Wiggly’s and announced cowpoke melodies part-time over the facilities of Radio Station KCRS. More, he was an outfielder with the semi-professional Midland Cowboys baseball team.
Weldon epitomized sophistication in my young mind: he wore smart two-toned shoes with air holes allowing his feet to breathe, oceans of Red Rose hair oil and a thin go-to-hell mustache. In the jargon of the time and place he was “a jellybean.” Where rustics rolled their own from nickel bags of Duke’s Mixture or Country Gentleman, my brother puffed luxurious “ready rolls.” When he walked among local stay-at-homes on his rare visits, he turned the heads of milkmaids and drew the dark envied stares of male contemporaries who labored on their fathers’ farms or, if especially enterprising, had found jobs at the broom factory in Cisco. He was walking proof of the family’s industry and ambition, and he reinforced my own dreams of escape to bigger things.
Imagine my shocked surprise, then, when—in my early teens—I accompanied my family in its move to Midland city, there to discover that I was the Redneck: the bumpkin, the new boy with feedlot dung on his shoes and the funny homemade haircuts. Nobody in Midland had heard of the Kings; nor did anyone rush to embrace them. Where in the rural consolidated school I had boasted a grade average in the high 90s, in Midland the mysteries of algebra, geometry, and biology kept me clinging by my nails to scholastic survival. Where I had captained teams, I now stood uninvited on the fringes of playground games. My clothes, as good as most and better than some in Eastland County, now betrayed me as a poor clod.
I withdrew to the company of other misfits who lived in clapboard shacks or tents on the jerrybuilt South Side, wore time-faded jeans and stained teeth, cursed, fought, drank beer, and skipped school to hang around South Main Street poolhalls or domino parlors. These were East Texans, Okies, and Arkies whose parents—like mine—had starved off their native acres and had followed the war boom west. Our drawls and twangs and marginal grammar had more of the dirt farmer or drifting fruit-picker in them than of the cattleman or small merchant; our homes utilized large lard buckets as stools or chairs and such paltry art as adorned them likely showed Jesus on the cross suffering pain and a Woolworth’s framing job; at least one member of almost every family boasted its musician: guitar or banjo or mandolin pickers who cried the old songs while their instruments whined or wailed of griefs and losses in places dimly remembered.
We hated the Townies who cat-called us as Shitkickers . . . Plowboys . . . Luke Plukes. We were a sneering lot, victims of culture shock, defensive and dangerous as only the cornered can be. If you were a Townie you very much wished not to encounter us unless you had the strength of numbers: we would whip your ass and take your money, pledging worse punishments should the authorities be notified. We hated niggers and meskins almost as much as we hated the white Townies, though it would be years before I knew how desperately we hated ourselves.
In time, deposits of ambition, snobbery, and pride caused me to work very hard at rising above common Redneckery. Not being able to beat the Townies, I opted to join them through pathways opened by athletics, debating, drama productions. It was simply better to be In than Out, even if one must desert his own kind. I had discovered, simply, that nothing much on the bottom was worth having.
I began avoiding my Redneck companions at school and dodging their invitations to hillbilly jam sessions, pool hall recreations, forays into the scabbier honky-tonks. The truth is, the Rednecks had come to depress me. Knowing they were losers they acted as such. No matter their tough exteriors when tormenting Townies, they privately whined and sniveled and raged. The deeper their alienations, the smaller they seemed to become physically: excepting an occasional natural jug-butted old boy, Rednecks appeared somehow to be stringier, knottier, more shriveled than others. They hacked the coughs of old men and moved about in old men’s motions somehow furtive and fugitive. I did not want to be like them.
Nor did I want to imitate their older brothers or fathers, with whom I worked in the oil fields during summers and on weekends. They lived nomadic lives, following booms and rumors and their restless unguided hearts. It puzzled me that they failed to seek better and more far-flung adventures, break with the old ways and start anew: I was very young then and understood less than all the realities. Their abodes were tin-topped old hotels in McCamey, gasping-hot tents perched on the desert floor near Crane, a crummy tourist court outside Sundown, any number of peeled fading houses decorating Wink, Odessa, Monahans. Such places smelled of sweat, fried foods, dirty socks, the bottoms of the barrel, too much history.
By day we dug sump pits, pissanted heavy lengths of pipe, mixed cement and pushed it in iron wheelbarrows (“wheelbars”), blistered our skins while hot-doping new pipeline, swabbed oil storage tanks, grubbed mesquites and other desert growths to make way for new pump stations. We worked ten hours; the pay ranged from 70 to 94 cents for each of them and we strangely disbelieved in labor unions.
There was a certain camaraderie, yes, a brotherhood of the lower rungs; kidding could be rough, raw, personal. Often, however, the day’s sun combined with the evening’s beer or liquor to produce a special craziness. Then fights erupted, on the job or in beer joints or among roommates in their quarters. Few rules burdened such fights and the gentle or unwary could suffer real damage. Such people frightened me. They frighten me now, when I encounter them on visits to West Texas beer joints or lollying about a truckstop cafe. If you permit them to know it, however, your life will become a special long-running hell: Grady, let’s me and you whup that booger’s ass for him again. Often, in the oil patch, I acted much tougher than the stuff I knew to be in my bones. It helped to pick a fight occasionally and to put the boots to your adversary once you got him down. Fear and rage being first cousins, you could do it if you had to.
But I can’t tell you what it’s really like, day to day, being a Redneck: not in the cool language of one whom time has refurbished a bit, nor by use of whatever sensibilities may have been superimposed on me through the years. That approach can hint at it in a gentlemanly way, knock the rough edges off. But it isn’t raw enough to put you down in the pit where only the fittest survive: let you smell the blood, know the bone dread, the debts, the pointless migrations, and purposeless days. So I must speak to you from an earlier time, bring it up from the gut, use the language, warts and all—the way it was spoken and the way it was perceived.
You may consider this next section, then, a fictional interlude . . . voices from the past . . . essence of Redneck. Whatever. Anyway, it is something of what life was like for many West Texas people in the late 1940s or early 1950s; I suspect that even today it remains relatively true there and in other sparse grazing places of America’s unhorsed riders: those who fight our dirtier wars, make us rich by the schlock and drek they buy and the usurious interest rates they pay, suffer invisible rule and stew in their own poor juices. It is, at once, a story that didn’t really happen and one that has happened over and over and over. I am trying to impart, dear reader, something of the constant confrontations, challenges, and survival techniques of white niggers who live on the fringes out near the very edge.
Me and Bobby Jack and Red Turpin was feeling real good that afternoon. We’d told this old fat fart bossing the gang to shove his pipeline up his ass sideways and then we’d hitched a ride to Odessa and drawed our time. He was a sorry old bastard, that gang boss. He’d been laying around in such shade as he could find hollering at us for about six weeks because we didn’t pissant pipe fast enough to suit him.
This happened in the morning, just before we would of broke for dinner. Red Turpin was down in the dumps because the finance company had found him and drove his old Chevy away. We tried to tell him not to sweat it, that it wasn’t worth near what he owed on it, but that never wiped out the fact that he was left afoot.
The gang boss had been groaning and moaning more than usual that day. All at once Red spun around to him and said “I’m ona git a piece of yore ass, Mister Poot, if you don’t git offa mine.” Well, the gang boss waved his arms and hollared that ole Red was sacked and Red said, “F—- you, Mister Poot. I was a-huntin’ a job when I found this ‘un.”
Me and Bobby Jack was standing there with our mouths dropped open when the gang boss started yelling at us to git back to work, to show him nothing but assholes and elbows. He was jumping around all red in the face, acting like a stroke was on him. Bobby Jack said, “Shit on such as this. Lincoln’s done freed the slaves,” and about that time he dropped his end of that length of pipe and told the gang boss to shove it. “Sideways, Mister Poot,” I hollered. And then I dropped my end in the dirt.
Mister Poot squealed like a girl rabbit and grabbed a monkey wrench off the crew truck and warned us not to come no closer. Which would have been hard to do, fast as he was backing up. So we cussed him for seventeen kinds of a fool and peed on the pipe we’d dropped and then left, feeling free as blowing wind.
Out on the Crane Highway we laughed and hooted about calling that old gang boss “Mister Poot,” which is what we’d been calling him behind his back on account of he just laid around in the shade by the water cans and farted all day. But finally, after four or five cars and several oil trucks passed us up, we kinda sagged. You could see down that flat old highway for about three days and all there was was hot empty. Red got down-in-the-mouth about his old lady raising hell soon as she learned he’d cussed his way off the job. Bobby Jack said hell, just tell ‘er he’d got laid off. “Shit,” Red said. “She don’t care if it’s fared or laid off or carried off on a silk piller. All she knows is, it ain’t no paycheck next week.”
By the time we’d signed papers and drawed our time at the Morrison Brothers Construction Company there in Odessa, and got a few cool ‘uns down in a East Eighth Street beer joint, we was back on top. We played the juke box-Hank Williams, he’d just come out with a new ‘un and there was plenty of Tubbs and Tillman and Frizzell—and shot a few games of shuffle board at two-bits a go. It was more fun than a regular day off because we was supposed to be working.
Bobby Jack danced twice with a heavy-set woman in red slacks from Conroe, who’d come to Odessa on the Greyhound to find her twin sister that had been run off from by a driller. But all she’d found was a mad landlord that said the woman’s sister had skipped out on a week’s rent and had stole two Venetian blinds besides. “I called that landlord a damn liar,” the Conroe woman said. “My twin sister don’t steal. We come from good stock and got a uncle that’s been a deputy sheriff in Bossier City, Louisiana, for nearly twenty years.”
Bobby Jack had enough nookie in mind to buy her four or five beers, but all she done was flash a little brassiere and give him two different names and tell him about being a fan-dancer at the Texas Centennial in 19-and-36. She babbled on about what all she’d been—a blues singer, a automobile dealer’s wife, a registered nurse; everything but a lion tamer it seemed like—until Bobby Jack said, “Lissen, Hon, I don’t care what all you been. All I care about is what you are and what I am. And I’m horny as a range bull with equipment hard as Christmas candy. How ‘bout you?” She got in a mother huff and claimed it was the worst she’d ever been insulted. When Bobby Jack taken back the last beer he’d bought her, she moved over to a table by herself.
A fleshy old boy wearing a Mead’s Fine Bread uniform straddled a stool by us and said, “Man, I taken a leak that was better’n love. I still say if they’d give the beer away and charge a dollar to piss they’d make more money.” We talked about how once you’d went to take a beer piss you had to go ever five minutes, where you could hold a gallon up until you’d went the first time.
Red Turpin got real quiet like he does when he’s bothered. I whispered to Bobby Jack to keep an eye on the sumbitch because when Red quits being quiet he usually gets real loud and rambunctious in a hurry. Along between sundown and dark, Bobby Jack got real blue. He went to mumbling about owing on his new bedroom set and how much money his wife spent on home permanents and cussing the government for various things. Bobby Jack hated Harry Truman for some reason, and blamed him ever time a barmaid drawed a hot beer or he dropped a dime in a crack. Now it seemed like he was working up to blaming Truman for losing him his job. I didn’t much cared about Truman either way, but I’d liked President Roosevelt for ending hard times even though ole Eleanor traipsed all over the world and run with too many niggers. My daddy’s people come from Georgia before they settled over around Clarksville and hadn’t none of us ever been able to stomach niggers.
Bobby Jack kept getting downer and downer. Finally a flyboy from the Midland Air Base tapped his shoulder and asked if he had a match. “Sure, airplane jockey,” Bobby Jack said. “My ass and your face.” The flyboy grinned sickly. Before he could back off, Bobby Jack asked what he thought of Harry Truman. The flyboy mumbled about not being able to talk about his Commander-in-Chief. “I got your Commander-in-Chief swangin’,” Bobby Jack said, cupping his privates in one hand. “Come ‘ere and salute ‘em.” That flyboy set his beer down and took off like a nigger aviator, lurching this way and that.
Bobby Jack felt better for a bit; I even got him and Red Turpin to grinning a little by imitating Mister Poot when we’d cussed him. But it’s hard to keep married men perked up very long. I married a girl in beautician’s college in Abilene in ‘46, but we didn’t live together but five months. She was a hard-shell Baptist and talked to God while she ironed and pestered me to get a job in a office and finish high school at night. Her mother believed that when people died they come back as grub-worms.
Red Turpin went to the pay phone back by the men’s pisser to tell his wife to borrow her daddy’s pickup and come git him. He had to wait a long spell for her to come to the neighbor’s phone, and I could tell right off she wasn’t doing much rejoicing.
“Goddammit, Emma,” Red said. “We’ll thresh all that out later. Come git me and eat my ass out in person. It’s cheaper that doing it long-distance.” Red and Emma lived over in Midland behind the Culligan Bottled Water place. “Lissen,” Red said, “I sure never stole my own kid’s trike today, and I don’t know who did. I’ll whup his ass when I can find him, but all I’m trying to do right now is git a ride home. What? Well, alright, dammit, I don’t like hearing the little fartknocker cry neither. Promise ‘im we’ll buy ‘im anoher ‘un.” He listened for a minute, got real red, and yelled: “Lissen, Emma, just f—- you! How many meals you missed since we married?” From the way he banged the phone down I couldn’t tell for sure which one of ‘em had hung up first.
Two old cowboys come in about then, the pot-bellied one right tipsy. He was hollering “Ah Ha, Santa Flush!” and singing of how he was a plumb fool about Ida Red. He slammed me on the back and said “Howdy, stud! Gettin’ any strange?” He laughed when I said, “It’s all strange to me,” and went on in the pisser real happy. When Red followed the old cowhand in, I just naturally figured he’d went to take a leak.
I moseyed back to the bar. In a little bit Red Turpin slid back on his stool and started drinking Pearl again, big as you please. About a half a beer later the second cowboy went to the pisser and come out like a cannon had shot him, yelling for a doctor and the po-leece. “They done killed ole Dinger,” he hollared. “I seen that big ‘un go in right behind him. They’s enough blood in there to float a log.”
Four or five people run back toward the pisser; a general commotion started and I said real quick, “Come on. Let’s shuck outta here.” But Bobby Jack was hopping around cussing Red Turpin, asking what the hell he’d did. Red had a peculiar glaze in his eye; he just kept growling and slapping out at Bobby Jack like a bear swatting with his paw. The barkeep run up and said, “You boys hold what you got.” He taken a sawed-off shotgun from under the bar and throwed down on us. “Call the po-leece, Skeeter,” he yelled. “And don’t you damn Bohunks move a hair.” I wouldn’t a-moved for big money.
The old cowboy had been helped out of the pisser and was sitting all addled at a back table, getting the blood wiped off his face. He groaned too loud to be good dead and kept asking, “What happened?” which is what everybody was asking him. The barkeep relaxed his shotgun a smidgen, but when I offered him twelve dollar to let us go on our way, he just shook his head.
Two city cops come in, one fatter that the other; hog fat and jowly. They jangled with cuffs, sappers, and all kinds of hardwear: them sumbitches got more gear than Sears and Roebuck. The biggest cop huffed and puffed like he’d run a hill and said, “What kinda new shit we got stirred up, Frankie?”
The barkeep poked a thumb in our direction and said, “That big ole red-haired booger yonder beat up a Scharbauer Ranch cowboy.”
“What about it, Big ‘Un?” the big cop asked.
“I never hit him,” Red said.
“Oh, I see,” the big cop said. “That fellow just musta had bad luck and slipped and fell in somebody else’s blood.” I could tell he was enjoying hisself, that he would of po-leeced for free.
“I never hit him,” Red said again. He commenced to cry, which I found disgusting.
“Yeah, he did,” the barkeep said. “Near as I unnerstan it, the boomer hit the cowboy without a word passin’. Far as the cowboy knows, he mighta been hit by a runaway dump truck.”
“On your feet.” The big cop jerked Red off of the bar stool. He tightened his grip and lowered his voice and said, “You twitch just one of them fat ole shitty muscles, Big ‘Un, and I’ll sap you a new hat size. And if ‘at ain’t enough, my partner’ll shoot you where you real tender.” Red kept on blubbering while the short cop fumbled the cuffs on him; me and Bobby Jack looked away and was careful not to say nothing. One time up in Snyder, I ask this constable what a buddy’s fine would be when he was being hauled off for common public drunk, and the sumbitch taken me in, too. Next morning in court I found out the fine for common public drunk: $22 and costs.
The big cop went back and talked to the hurt cowboy awhile and wrote down in a notebook; now that his health was better, the hurt cowboy ask for another beer. The cop come walking back to us: “You peckerwoods holding cards in this game?” We naw-sirred him. The barkeep nodded. The big cop looked us over: “Where you boys work at?” We told him Morrison Brothers Construction. “Him too?” He nodded toward Red. “Well,” I said, “I heard he quit lately.” The cop grunted and tapped Bobby Jack on the ass with his billy club and said, “Keep it down to a dull roar, Hoss. I’m tard, and done had six Maggie-and-Jiggs calls. Old ladies throwin’ knives and pots at their husbands, or their husbands kickin’ the crap out of ‘em. I don’t wanta come back in this sumbitch ‘til my shift’s over and I’m scenting beer.”
They taken the old cowboy to the county hospital for stitches. When he passed by, being about half helt-up, I seen his face had been laid open like a busted watermelon. I guess maybe Red’s ring that he got in a meskin gyp-joint in that spick town acrost from Del Rio done it. Just seeing it made my belly swim and pitch. One time at Jal, New Mexico, I seen a driller gouge out a roughneck’s eye with a corkscrew when they fell out over wages, and I got the same feeling then only more so.
The Conroe woman in red slacks was sashaying around telling everybody with a set of ears how we’d broke a record insulting her just before Red beat up the old cowboy. They all kept looking at us. After we’d drank another beer to show they wasn’t spooking us, and dropped a quarter in the juke box like nothing had happened, we eased on out the door.
I wanted to hit Danceland on East Second because a lot of loose hair pie hung out there. Or the Ace of Clubs where they had a French Quarter stripper who could twirl her titty-tassels two different directions at once. But Bobby Jack said naw, hell, he reckoned he’d go on home. I walked with him up to where he turned down the alley running between the Phillips 66 Station and Furr’s Cafeteria. “Well,” Bobby Jack said, “at least ole Emma won’t have to sickle over here to give Red a ride to Midland. He’s got him a free bed in the crossbar hotel.” We talked a little about checking on how much Red’s bail had been set at, but didn’t much come of it. To tell the truth what he had did didn’t make much sense and ruined the best part of the night. Without saying so, we kinda agreed he’d brought it on hisself.
I went over to the Club Cafe and ate me a chicken-fried steak with a bowl of chili-beans on the side and listened to some ole humpbacked waitresses talk about their ailments and how much trouble their kids was. Next day I caught on with a drilling crew up in Gaines County and it wasn’t but about six weeks more than I joined the Army just in time to see sunny Korea, so I never did learn what all Red got charged with or how he come out.