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Kyle Jarrard

Dime Box

The garbage truck went down the street and around the corner, then all you could hear was the orange drink circulating in the orange drink machine and the fluorescent lights humming. Outside, the sun, a big orange ball, hung level with your eyes, and you could looked straight at it as if it were a cool, harmless thing down over the end of Houston Street. Against its light the buildings were black, the trees were black, the street lamps were black. Breezes batted papers across the gravel parking lot, and from the switching yard came a great slamming of freight cars, groaning engines, squealing metal—the sounds carrying across the whole town and fading out into the country. A car drove out of the sun with its headlights on and went on by into the gathering night.

Dewitt straightened up from the bar and hiked up his oversized blue jeans, but the thin black leather belt barely held them on his hips. "Got to go turn on the sign." He pushed aside a cotton curtain and stepped into the back room. Raymond and David turned away from the bar, looked out the front door. They heard a switch click back there, and then Dewitt called, "Is it on?"

"On. It's on," David answered.

On a pole out at the street a red neon sign flashed: DIME BOX. Its light turned the ground red.

Those nights were not so bad. It was still spring, and while it was not too humid yet, like in summer, the air was already heavier, thicker, odors stalled in it. The big stink in town came from the oatmeal factory: people were either nauseated by that stink or in love with it—it smelled like popcorn. Only when it rained did the air stop stinking and for a few hours everything smelled sweet. And they'd already had some rain lately, enough to flower the bluebonnets and paintbrushes, crab weed, the corn in the black clay fields. No one could complain, really, but without the weather to complain about, what was there to say? Without the weather to gripe about, and with the war drawing, at last, to a slow end, there was just no pressing reason to talk.

Dewitt did not talk. It was his bar, he had the right not to talk or to talk, whatever, but those nights he did not talk. He was tired of talking all the time. Everybody always said the same damn things all the time; nobody could think of anything new to say.

Raymond and David didn't talk much either. They stood there drinking their piña coladas and eating potato chips. They were big tired men with big tired wives and big tired children at home. They came to the Dime Box nights to get out of the house, away from the TV, dishes, children's fights, cat, dog, hamsters and homework.

Dewitt, who had no family, had a girlfriend who lived down in Van Alstyne about twenty miles from there. He said she two-timed him but said he'd maybe marry her someday anyway. Sometimes she came and slept in his bed with him in the upstairs apartment. He hadn't seen her for a long time, though—those days there was not much going on anyway anywhere to take a girl out to. He reached for a handful of chips and jammed them into his mouth, chewed, then yawned, chewed some more. He wiped his nine-fingered hands on his bar towel and then pitched it aside.

"Eat like a horse, damn it, but never gained a pound since I was twenty-two," he said.

"Who's complaining," David said, slowly turning his glass. "Be glad you ain't got a belly. Right, Raymond?"

"Speak for yourself, boy," Raymond said.

Dewitt swung open the icebox; the light came on inside, and he bent down and looked in there. "Wish I had some bean dip or something." He got hold of a carton of milk and set it out on the bar, then kicked shut the icebox, which ceased buzzing.

He made them new piña coladas in clean glasses and stuck long blue plastic straws in them. "You want whip cream this time again?" They nodded yes. "Cherries?" They nodded. He frowned, got the jar of cherries down off the shelf and dropped one on each pillow of whipped cream, straightened the straws a bit, then stepped back and assessed them. He thought maybe he was getting better at making drinks. But knowing how to make forty-three different drinks only made him worry about forgetting how to make them since it was rare for somebody to order something out of the ordinary. Most times a dude came in, ordered a beer or maybe something straightforward like a scotch and that was the end of it. A dude did not like to be bugged to have something different and drinks—God forbid if he ever called them cocktails—were things ladies might be interested in, but never a man. Yet maybe because they were nice guys and liked Dewitt or maybe because they were there oftener than anybody and usually late when nobody else was around, Raymond and David had taken him up on a dare one night and now you couldn't get them off the piña coladas even if you wanted. Which was fine with Dewitt: a piña colada was a dollar-fifty. And he could stay in practice at the same time.

He set the drinks in front of them and leaned over the bar and stared at his flashing sign thinking a little bit about Corinne and how really ugly she really was. He guessed it was those thick purple veins in her legs that got to him the most and those little tits she had that went flat when she was lying on her back and made her look like a boy. He didn't like that, never would, but the big problem that nagged him was that he didn't sincerely like her as a person. Everything seemed to hang on that problem: how to keep on going with her when he hated her, or how to go on without her. There was no one he could ask to help him on that. What man has anyone he could ask that kind of question?

"I wonder if that damn E isn't going out on the sign," he said, straightening up.

"Doesn't look like it," David said.

"Looks to me like the bottom of it's not as strong as the rest. See? When one part goes the whole E'll go. See?"

Raymond grunted. He and David simply had no opinion. A couple of minutes passed, the three of them looking at the E.

"Oh, who gives a damn if it does," Dewitt said. He picked up his towel again, stretched it out straight and made the cotton pop loudly. "If it went out then we'd have the Dim Box."

David said, "Then Dim Ox."

Raymond said, "You know, it's just us chickens tonight."

"Like last night, like the night before, like . . ." Dewitt said. "Hell, I'm going to have to sell this damn place." He went out among the three wooden tables and straightened the straight-back chairs. Each table had four chairs, a tin ashtray and a stack of beer coasters. He wiped one table and then went over to the door and peeked out the glass louvers. That E was going for sure.

He jammed his four fingers into a pocket and brought forth a badly mashed pack of smokes. Dr. Atherton at the Hilltop Medical Clinic had told him to stop or have another heart attack, it was that simple. He was warned that after a couple of heart attacks people can't do much of anything except stay in bed and feel bad all the time. Then after they feel bad like that for a long time they die. Dr. Atherton saw Dewitt once a month and did an electrocardiogram on him.

Once in a long while, those times when he felt upset, upset about everything and on the edge of it all, Dewitt smoked an entire package in a day and would have to close the Dime Box and lay up feeling bad in the bed for a few days. When he opened up again he was happy to see David and Raymond again, but did not smile or in any other way show that he had really missed them. They were kind enough not to pry into his personal life, did not question him on it. All the same they knew he had personal problems of a sort, what folks around there would call a peculiarity, what folks would talk about at home late at night sometimes.

Dewitt knew it. That was one reason he smoked in the first place. He had begun to build up, without exactly knowing it, but feeling its effect just the same, a sort of resentment toward the people of the town, a sort of jealousy. Most of them like David, like Raymond, had families. What they had—and what he didn't have—was this sort of drive behind everything, reasons for living, even if a wife who was hateful or children who were ungrateful, even if just fights, burned TV dinners, busted garden hoses, busted hearts, tears, bitterness. . . . It was just those sorts of feelings that a man needed to put meat on the skeleton of his existence. They had this. He did not. They had partners, dependents. Who did he have now but an ugly old gal from Van Alstyne?

Dewitt smoked half the cigarette and crushed it out in one of the ashtrays, his heart racing, his thoughts turning over the idea that he would probably never feel well again, that he would only think more and more about dying, feel bad a while longer and then go ahead and die. In the meantime maybe it was best to just keep being nice to Corinne. Hell, another woman wasn't going to traipse in through the door and get the hots for his thin white body, dirty hair and nine fingers. That just wasn't going to happen. This wasn't TV. He'd thought some about going out to the county junior college and taking a Spanish class because he half figured he might meet a lady out there. He'd even called for the prices, but he hadn't driven way out there in the middle of nowhere and now the whole thing seemed like the biggest dumb-assed idea he'd ever had.

No, there was really no answer, again, and the best thing he could do, he concluded, was to be content with what he had and to stop griping to himself about the rest.

He went into the back room, peed in the old yellow bowl, came back out hiking his pants up, and looked at their glasses. They had barely touched them, the whipped cream was sinking down, disintegrating, the straws leaning over the sides. A wrinkled five-dollar bill lay there, Raymond holding onto the corner of it. He was saying to David, "I can name you only two good friends besides my wife who I think will always be my number one best friend. You're one of them for sure."

Dewitt went to the end of the bar thinking so what and punched open the cash register. He straightened out the paper money and stuck it back under the clips in neat order, then fingered the change awhile and broke open a roll of quarters on the edge of the drawer.

Then David said, "That's really something that, well, a man doesn't quite know how to say anything to, if you see what I mean. But you've touched me, Raymond. And I mean that sincerely."

Then they shook hands like they'd just closed a big deal.

"Let's just get real drunk, then," Raymond said. "Counting your damn change again, Dewitt?"

Dewitt slammed the drawer shut and started looking through the bills he owed on the metal spike next to the register. The top one was for the lights, the worst; then there was the water, not too bad, but getting worse every month. Three kegs of beer on another. The third keg might go bad before he could sell it; sometimes that happened when nobody came in and the beer just went flat as a pancake. The worst time was in early August when David and Raymond both took their wives and children off on vacation to Mexico and places like that. On those nights he shut the bar early, sometimes even at nine, and lay up in his bed reading car magazines, then and again hearing somebody pull onto the lot, rev their engine awhile, back out mad and speed off. And many nights he cut the light off early to save money. At around the sixth bill on the spike he stopped. The rest of them he knew, had memorized even, and there was no reason to be looking at them again now.

"Going to go to McKinney tomorrow and pick up a swingset some dude down there is selling for twenty-five bucks," Raymond said. "The ad said it was brand-new. I called him and asked what the hell was wrong with his swingset and he said nothing was wrong with it, what the hell. So I asked again if it was really twenty-five dollars he'd take for it, and he told me that that was right, that he was moving up to the East and didn't have enough room to take it. You want to ride over there with me?"

"Why not," David said. "What time?"

"Oh, say nine. It's good to go before it gets too muggy. We'll see this dude, throw the set on the roof and get back by lunch."

Dewitt got on a stool, crossed his legs and began checking out the sole of one boot. He took a toothpick from a jar and picked at something lodged between the leather upper and the sole—a pebble, some dog shit, something. When it wouldn't come out he got his black-framed eyeglasses from under the counter to see better what it was: chewing gum. He gave up and left it.

Raymond said, "God, I hope the car don't bust down though. That's another reason to get over there early and be back before it gets too hot. I got a leaky hose, but it's taped."

"Ought to get it fixed," Dewitt said.

"Damn right," David said. "If there's anything I can't stand it's a hose going out on you out on the highway. Nothing's worse. If you find a gas station, well, then, they won't have the damn size hose you need, and if they do then they'll charge you out the ass for it and leave it to you to put the damn thing on. Goddamn I hate gas stations out on the road."

"Hell, everybody's got to make a living," Raymond said back.

"Bullshit on that. It'll be a cold day in hell before I'll stand up for those gas station guys. No way."

"Okay, okay. I'll do something about it," Raymond said. "What the hell was it we were talking about a minute ago? I forgot."

"Friends," Dewitt said softly.

David and Raymond looked at him.

"Don't look at me like that. You asked a question, I answered it. A bartender hears everything, don't he?"

"You're right, Dewitt," David said. "You were saying, Raymond, you had two friends besides your wife. I'm one, you said. Who's the other?" He smiled at Dewitt, who glanced down at the chewing gum on his boot.

Raymond had turned around facing the parking lot. "Big Mama."

"Your own mother?" David asked. "Is she still with us? I mean—"

"Big Mama. She's very special. A very special lady. You know she sure doesn't act seventy-one years old. She even still rides sometimes. We go over and see her as much as we can, take the kids and go out for Mexican food or something. She still does okay at home, and we don't see having to put her in a rest home or anything for a long time yet. She'll be a hundred before we'll have to see to it she's cared for. Her mother, you know, lived to be a hundred and four."

"A hundred and four," David said, whistling.

"Big Mama—that's what my kids call her—ran the lumberyard when Big Daddy died and did the work of ten men. Plus she could bookkeep good. Plus she had a real good sense of humor and could make the meanest old cuss in the world laugh. God, she is wonderful. Never once set foot in a church, she says, never will, never got onto people who did or said she ought to. Always went her own way. She could be nice to anybody. She still is. She always talked to me when I needed someone to talk to. And I guess she always told me what I wanted to hear, but at the same time she made me understand that I had to respect her, too. She showed me that that is how friendships work—giving and taking just the right amount and no more. You know I'd trust Big Mama with anything. Anything."

Dewitt remembered Agnes and Raymond Senior clearly. Their lumberyard was just down by the railroad tracks, a two-story whitewashed pine building with about an acre by the creek. When the spring floods came sometimes they lost some boards, some two-bys, sheets of plywood, bundles of cedar shingles. They'd run a good business after Korea when everybody was building houses out of good No. 1 wood. Right in the middle of the boom Raymond Senior had passed away—heart attack, cigarettes—and Agnes had stepped in. She'd worked all the time, long, long hours, but once in a while came over for a sandwich and coffee. She would ask him about Korea, and he would tell her things sometimes but never very much because a man just didn't tell a woman everything. She always came back with that story about her cousin Dan who'd got himself shot down over Germany and about the telegram which had come signed by President Roosevelt himself. When they'd finished talking about wars, they'd get to talking about how mean people could be sometimes, then growing tired of that, they'd talk about those people who despite it all managed to be kind and generous and thoughtful of others. In one such talk Dewitt had gone ahead and told her that he thought she was just that sort of person, and she blushed and thanked him and said she'd always remember that. When the time came for her to retire, she'd sold the yard to a chain outfit and gone home. Now she hardly got out anymore and Dewitt never went over to see her, never called her. He was afraid he would not know what to talk about with her. And the last thing he wanted to do on a Sunday was sit around and try to come up with something to talk about with an elderly lady in her house, though he knew inside himself he ought to be making an effort to be a little less self-centered and to think about how Agnes felt being old like that and alone. It made him feel even worse knowing he owed her and Raymond Senior a lot of gratitude for selling him the lumber to build the Dime Box at below cost. Every stick in the building was No. 1 pine and the place would hold up an easy fifty maybe sixty more years, he was sure.

"Yeah, that's really nice," David said. "It's nice when someone just sort of accepts you like you are, and even better when they just take you into them, like you do, Raymond. I don't want to sound stupid, but you know I don't think I can remember ever having a real friend like that, you know, someone who just comes up to you and says, `I am your best buddy,' and I think that's real special. Want to know the truth? Last real friend I think I ever thought I had was a fat boy back in eighth grade who was always last at everything in gym class. I was always next to last so we'd end up coming in last together. That sort of made us friends. Weekends we used to bicycle up to Lake Texoma, and I'd follow him around all day looking for birds in the wildlife refuge up there. He'd mark every kind of bird he saw in a notebook. I think even before I started going up there with him he had something like five thousand birds in those notebooks. Silly, ain't it. But he was a good, I'll say it again, damn good friend."

Raymond nodded, smiled, and then the two of them looked dumbstruck. And a little drunk.

Dewitt pulled their empty potato chip bag away, stuck his four fingers in it and got a pinch of salt and crumbs. He wanted to say something about Agnes, but what. It wouldn't come to him, but, hell, there was the whole night ahead of them. He'd think of something, and if he didn't, so what.

The cold water was dripping some from the faucet into a beer glass, the only one dirtied all day. The man who'd had that beer was a traveling clothes salesman who'd been downtown all morning seeing managers in the department stores—Prices, Riley's Menswear, Dills and the like. He had parked his motor home across the lot in such a way that it practically cut off the sun. He said that at night he just parked wherever he wanted and never had to pay a motel bill like most dudes out on the road. But he said he parked it pretty near the motels anyway in case there were any gals around who might want to come in and have a few beers and you know. . . . He'd talked so long about some of those motel women that Dewitt had gotten all charged up in his pants like a kid.

Then about six, David and Raymond had come in off their shift, still wearing their uniforms and guns and badges. Like every time, first they'd ordered drinks, then one had gone over and called his wife to tell her to call the other one's wife to say that everything was okay and that they'd both be home later, not to hold dinner and to get the kids to bed on time but that they'd be home in time to get everybody tucked in and tell everybody good night, that they were just having a last one and that was all. Now and then they forgot and had to call back and tell them to be sure and lock the doors on account of the child killer still being loose even though he was supposedly loose in the next town. He just might be getting it into his mind to come over here and take their little girls and drive them way out in the country and rape them and kill them like he'd been doing in the other town for a month now. Then they'd hang up and figure everything was just about as safe as it could be.

"Who's got a smoke?" David said. "I thought you said you were going to get yourself a coin machine in here, Dewitt."

"Tuffy Perkins wants too much commission. Besides, if I get one, then people'll find out and just start stopping in here for cigarettes and nothing else. Hell, I ain't running a grocery store. And I can't see going ahead and making everybody mad by putting up a sign on there saying No Cigarettes Unless You Drink."

"Couldn't really do that," David agreed.

Dewitt handed him his rumpled package. "Take these damn things away from me anyway. Keep 'em."

"That's tellin' 'em, Dewitt," Raymond said. "You ought to quit yourself, cowboy."

David got one out of the package and straightened it. "I know." He lit it.

"If it'll make you feel any better, we got old Tuff the other afternoon," Raymond said.

"How's that?"

"Twenty-two in a twenty by the elementary school."

"He sure was red in the face," David said, laughing. He ashed the cigarette and looked at the tip. "Real red. He better cut down on smoking, too. Don't think his heart's good anymore. Mine wouldn't be either if I drove around in that damn van of his chock-full of candy bars, scared shitless if I didn't get them delivered before they all melted."

"Somebody told me the other day he'd made himself a Boy Scout troop leader, did you hear that?" Raymond said.

"Poor old Tuff. What a sucker," David said.

Dewitt took their glasses down and made new drinks. "Tuffy Perkins is a jackass," he muttered. He shook the whipped cream up good and sprayed on as much as would go without it falling over. But the cherry jar was empty. "That's it on the cherries. Won't be getting any more cherries until Monday. Take it or leave it, boys."

David and Raymond said they didn't care so much about the cherries and started sipping, bending over their glasses almost as if they were trying to hide them from view. Dewitt wouldn't have blamed them if they'd been doing just that—they looked awful silly in a way, these big men, big with big heads big as cow's heads, big bodies big as steers, looming over those woman-shaped glasses full up with all sort of sweetness, sugary, sticky sweetness. They could have been at the malt shop twenty years ago striking the same pose.

"How about one for yourself?" Raymond said. "Or a beer or whatever."

They were always doing that. Dewitt always nodded yes and got up and drew himself a glass of cold beer.

"Think I'll have a dime-a-beer party sometime soon to get rid of some of my surplus beer."

"Ten cents a beer? Hell, I'll come," David said.

"Yeah, when?" Raymond said.

"I was just thinking, you know, use it before you lose it. Beer can go bad and make people sick. I mean, I'd have to dump it out."

"Dime beer at the Dime Box," David said. "You'd fill this place to the ceiling. Ain't too many places that'll serve what they advertise these days."

"All the high school kids'd try to get in. You'd keep a lid on things, wouldn't you, Dewitt?" Raymond said.

"Never served a drink to a minor yet."

"Didn't say you had. I know you watch that. I wasn't prying."

"It's important, though, for sure," David said. "Who do you think goes out there at three o'clock in the morning and scrapes their damn busted bodies off the farm-to-markets like animals or something. For me a big accident is like going to a funeral every time. I hate it and I will always hate it."

"I don't let them out of here drunk. But what they do after they leave here I can't control."

"We know that, Dewitt," Raymond said.

"No sir, never let them out of here drunk."

The refrigerator began to buzz again, drowning out the gurgling of the orange drink in the orange drink machine. Dewitt picked up the cigarettes, shrugged, and lit up one anyway while they looked at him. "It's the beer talking. Y'all want to watch some TV?"

David and Raymond looked up at the big heavy black and white set up on its plywood shelf in the corner. Sometimes they kidded him about it, said it was going to crash to the floor one of these days just from sitting up there, but Dewitt said he wouldn't give a hoot if it did since it never worked right anyway, and nothing was ever on worth watching anymore unless you could get into The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres and all that crap.

Then all the little goat bells on the door clanged and a man wearing a bright blue leisure suit and white loafers stepped in and took off his new straw hat, a bright crisp yellow thing that looked as if it hadn't been out of its box ten minutes, which he hooked on the hat rack by the pay phone.

"Howdy there," Dewitt said. "Didn't think we'd see you back in here today."

The salesman smiled and nodded at Dewitt, then at the police officers. "Evening."

"Evening," they all said back.

He approached the bar, undoing the main button on his jacket. "How y'all getting along," he said.

David and Raymond just nodded.

Dewitt went for a glass. "Beer?"

"Thanks. Sure."

"Not often a traveling guy'll come back in here twice in the same day. Makes me want to ask you your name, mister."

"Shipp. David Shipp. You?"

"I'm Dewitt Hayes. This here's David Lewis. That's Raymond McKowen."

David and Raymond nodded.

David Shipp said, "Looks like you boys are having something better than just plain old beer. What is that?"

"Those is piña coladas," Dewitt said.

"A piña col . . . what'd you call it?"

"Piña colada."

"Give me one, then." He drank his beer down in one go.

"Really?" Dewitt said. "They're a buck-fifty. But seeing as I don't have no more cherries, it's only a buck."

"Don't care for cherries anyway. And don't cut the prices for me. You don't have to do that. In fact, let's get these two gentlemen fresh ones while you're at it, Dewitt. And, of course, one for yourself if you want."

"That's a whole round," Dewitt said.

"Yeah, a whole round." He looked at Raymond, who was nearest. "So how's it going?"

"It's going."

David put in, "Fine. You?"


"Good," Dewitt said, working on the drinks.

"Yeah, got here this morning. I sell clothes on the road for a company in Dallas. Been seeing some of the store managers and folks here today."

"What kind of clothes?" Raymond said.

"Ladies' clothes."

"Ladies, huh," Dewitt said. "You tell me that this morning?"

"I think we was talking about my motor home this morning, Dewitt. But anyway, I sell ladies' clothes. Lots of money in ladies' clothes."

"Boy, is my wife living proof of that," David said, coming around and getting between Raymond and the salesman. "You want to know what a damn shirt costs that woman?"

"I'm sure he knows how much," Raymond said. "Stop bitching about your billfold."

"Twenty-five dollars a whack."

David Shipp shook a toothpick out of a bottle and began working it on his back teeth. "Any you all ever eat at the Rodeway Inn down there?"

"Every day at lunch," Raymond said.

"I had a Swiss steak, or maybe the Swiss steak had me. Goddamn," David Shipp said.

They all laughed and shifted their weight around.

"So," David said, "how long you been selling ladies' clothes on the road?"

"Ten, eleven years now."



"See the waitress?"

"The redhead?"

"Yeah, the redhead."

"Oh yeah."

"What an ass. I wouldn't turn it down. Jesus God no."

"Ah, hell," Raymond said. "She's probably got pimples or something."

"I can ignore the pimples," David said.

"Guess I could too," David Shipp said. "Maybe I'd better go back for some dessert later on."

"Pudding," Dewitt said. "Get the pudding." He put the first piña colada on the bar and grinned. "Ever have any chocolate?"

David and Raymond bent back laughing with their mouths wide open and all their gold teeth and gray gums showing.

"Can't say that I have," David Shipp said. "That's one thing I haven't tried. No sir." He sucked up a little of the piña colada. "Hey. This is all right. What's it got in it?"

"Little of everything."

"Good, real good."

Soon Dewitt had all the drinks made, and they were standing there working on them with their straws. Once in a while one of them thought about the chocolate pudding and started laughing again and then everybody was laughing and then everybody was quiet and sipping again. When David Shipp got out his nail clippers and started snapping his nails off, they watched him do that like they'd never seen anybody doing that before.

"Bet you were surprised to see me again today," he said.

"Sort of," Dewitt said.

"Well, there was nothing much on the TV, so I went out walking around a little up by the courthouse and past some of the stores I worked today. It's all right being free out on the road like I am a lot, but then sometimes it can . . . I don't know."

"I know. I live alone here."

"You never married?"


"Hell, I was married and had two fine-looking kids. They're all in Kansas now. Why the hell anybody'd want to move to Kansas beats the hell out of me. Well, that's all over. I guess being with one woman for a while is sort of like an episode in life, a passing scene, no more. If you don't expect a fairy tale . . . I mean don't expect no fairy tales and you won't be disappointed. A guy's got to sleep around with different women because his taste changes. Men change a lot like that. I don't think women change so fast, so it's like the men are always getting ahead into something new while the ladies just hold onto the present, to what they've got. The kids have a lot to do with that and that's okay, but a man's got to be smart enough to pick out some of the patterns in things. If he doesn't, if he can't see what I think of as the big picture, then sometimes he can just be like a boat out on a lake with a busted mast and no sail, just drifting, never touching shore, you know. It's like stagnation. Sometimes you got to just get the hell out of the boat and take your chances."

They all looked at him.

"This is a real good drink," he said.

"Well, thank you," Dewitt said.

"Yeah, sure are good drinks," chimed David and Raymond, David adding, "We always have them. One or two after hours. Never when we're on duty."

"I wouldn't think so," David Shipp said. "These are kind of strong."

"Too strong?" Dewitt said.

"No, not too strong, but strong. It doesn't matter. I needed a good one. Maybe it'll knock me out. Hey, but you're just having a beer, Dewitt. I bought you a drink, too."

"Nah, I never have anything stronger than a beer. No way."

"Is that right? Well, then, I'm still buying you that beer, plus another one if you want it after. Okay?"

"You got a deal, buddy."

"Maybe you could get in on our talk here," David said to David Shipp.

"What talk is that?"

"We were talking about friends, your real friends, how you only have a few of them, even if you're lucky, in your whole life. You know?"

"Maybe he don't want to talk about that," Dewitt said. "I mean it could hit him as just a bit silly right out of the blue like this. Friends. You either have them or you don't."

"No, I'd say that's a pretty important subject," David Shipp said. "Besides, what the hell else is there to talk about. We can just talk about this without anybody getting upset. I mean it's a subject that would count. Everything else most men talk about is women. Don't get me wrong, I like women, but sometimes you want some substance, some guts to the talking. Does that make sense to you?"

"I guess so," Dewitt said.

"Raymond was talking about his Big Mama," David said. "About how everybody liked her. She ran this town's big lumberyard all by herself for years."

Dewitt moaned. "Are you going to talk about your Big Mama again?"

"Oh no," Raymond said, rolling his eyes for David Shipp.

"Sounds like old territory," David Shipp said.

"Look, y'all, this is a good story."

Raymond blew through his straw and bubbled his piña colada some. Dewitt went out to the tables, straightened a chair or two and then looked out the window at the parking lot.

"I'm listening," David Shipp said. "Go on."

"Well, it was just the opposite with my Big Mama," David said. "She was a redhead from West Texas and everybody, I mean everybody, hated her guts."

"Where's this?"

"Sweetwater. We was in Sweetwater."

"Got you."

"Everybody hated her since she had something that wouldn't ever let her be nice. Nobody ever figured out why except that maybe she had some bad blood or something in her. Still don't know. She just always got mad all the time. Had a wild-assed temper. Nobody out there'd ever seen anything like it. I don't know how Big Daddy survived it, her, as long as he did. He was into fishing a lot. God, I can still see all those worms he used to use to catch bass out of them cow tanks. He had big trays of them in the shed out back of the house, and the hotter it got out there the worse it would stink. Anyway, he had a whole world to himself out there in that shed. It was chock full of crap. Millions of hooks, leads, sponges, spools of line, reels, corks, canes, everything. I can still see it all like it was a minute ago. I used to spend hours and hours in there with him just messing around. Big Daddy called it the Dog House."

"The Dog House," David Shipp said, looking into his glass, stirring the dregs around with the straw. "I can really see what you mean there. Damn if it don't make me want to go fishing right this instant."

"Sounds more like poetry," Dewitt said. "You ought to write poetry, David. I got an address where you can send in your poems and maybe get them published. They never took anything of mine, but I got some nice notes back anyway. Seems you're made for that kind of thing . . ."

David frowned and went on. "So whenever Big Mama got mad at Big Daddy she kicked him out of the house. Anything could make her mad and no matter what it was it was his fault. If a wasp got in the house it was because he'd let it in. If something burned on the stove it was because he'd made her burn it on account of his letting the wasp into the house. You get the pic. Anyway, everybody in the neighborhood, everybody in town for that matter, knew it when she kicked him out of the house. She would yell all over the front yard about whatever it was, then all over the backyard about it. One time—it was about them cannas out back—she really blew her top clean off. Them cannas was frying, all shrively and brown. The ground had cracks you could lose the waterhose nozzle into, big cracks. So Big Daddy had been trying to water them cannas, but all the water kept running straight off into the cracks like it was going all the way through the Earth to China, and he couldn't get any water to stay there at the roots of those flowers, and she said it was all his fault. He was out there trying to dam up a little lake of water around them cannas in the hot part of the day one day, and she came out and started yelling all over the yard. She even grabbed him by the shirt and pulled on his collar, and he ended up having to strike her. And he did. It shut her up okay, but then she went back inside and locked the front door. Locked it tight with those good locks Big Daddy had put on it so that if you wanted to get past them locks you'd have to bust down the whole goddamn door, and it was a good pine door. The neighbors looked away when Big Daddy started looking around at them from his porch. Then he took a long drink off the hose, threw the hose down and went off to the Dog House. It was near a hundred outside and at least one-ten in that shed, but he went in there anyway. The windows were nailed shut so nobody'd steal anything. That night they woke me up and told me he'd had a stroke in there and died."

"Every time I hear that story it makes me mad," Raymond said before anybody else could say anything. "It's like that is the only one you can tell. This drawn-out story about your Big Daddy. I mean, yes, it's sad, very sad and all, and unfair and all, but in a way you hang onto that story just a little bit too much, like you might need it or something. And besides, what's this got to do with friends? We were talking about friends."

David winked at David Shipp. "Guess you're getting tired some, Ray."


"Sounds like a women's club in here. Jesus," David Shipp said.

Raymond snatched off his sunglasses. "Look here, good buddy."

"Now, now, come off it," Dewitt said. "Shipp's right. Y'all talk like them old buggers up at the rest home."

"As I was saying," David said loudly, "if I may go on?"

"Yeah, go on," Dewitt said.

"As I was saying . . . I figure Big Daddy was getting there anyway. It was the heat. You know I can't blame Big Mama too much for that, no more than I can blame Big Daddy for putting up with her. People just act fucking crazy sometimes and do these things. The weird thing, though, the thing that's hardest to take, is that sometimes it turns out real bad like that—you know, somebody getting bad hurt, or somebody dying. Nobody really means to do it, I don't think. They just lose control and it just happens. How many times have I seen it happen just like that. People was joking around or fooling around with each other and then somebody just goes right ahead and really dies."

"We tend to forget it can happen just like that," David Shipp said, snapping his fingers.

"Yeah, just like that," David said.

"Shit, I'm going to the house," Raymond said. "I could sleep a whole damn week I bet. David, you ready?"

"Yeah, guess I'd better be going, too."

"We've got to get up good and early to go get that damn swingset in McKinney."

"Hell, I almost forgot. Dewitt, what do we owe you here?"

Dewitt pulled their glasses down. "Oh, a dollar two ninety-eight."

"Now come on," David said.

"Nah. It's on me tonight."

"Now I was going to pay here," David Shipp said.

"Nah," Dewitt said. "All y'all just forget it."

"Can't run a business like that," Raymond said.

"Run my business the way I please. Be polite and say thanks."

"Yeah, thanks," David said.

"Jesus damn, Dewitt," Raymond said. He gave him a light punch on the shoulder. "You're a good old fart."

"Ah, go to hell."

"You coming, Shipp?" Raymond said. "We can drop you off. Where you parked?"

"Thanks just the same. Think I'll have another nightcap and then walk back. Thanks anyway. You don't mind if I have another one, do you, Dewitt?"

"Hell, no. I ain't sleepy yet."

"Well, good night, y'all," David said.

"Catch you on the flip side," Raymond said. He put his sunglasses back on, then his police officer's hat.

"Nice meeting and talking with you folks," David Shipp said.

"A real pleasure," David said. "We'll do it again."

"That's talking," David Shipp said. "Good luck on that child killer."

"What's that?" Raymond said.

"Good luck catching him."

"You hear about that?" David said.

"Read it in the paper. I tell you. The world is getting to be pretty sour place when you got nuts out there killing little children."

Raymond put his hand on his pistol. "And I'll tell you one thing, mister. I ever see him and I'll blow his brains right out of his head. It'll look like watermelon splattered all over the place. I mean it."

David Shipp nodded. "I'm with you on that."

"He's got it coming to him," David added. "We're going to catch up with him. It's just a matter of time."

"That's right," David Shipp said. "Matter of time."

The two officers looked at him a while longer, then said good night again and went out. They sat and talked some in the patrol car and then drove off.

Dewitt busied himself washing up the dirty glasses and drying them with a big cup towel. David had left the cigarettes and he went ahead and had another one. He made a list of things to get come Monday: cherries, straws, some other crap, and stuck it on the spike by the cash register. David Shipp worked on his piña colada some more and watched.

"What made you say that about the child killer like that?" Dewitt asked quietly.

"Nothing particular. I just read it in the paper today. They're cops. I knew they knew about it."

"People's pretty spooked around here about it. I mean everybody's been picking up their kids at the last bell at school. You used to have a hell of a lot of kids walking home after school by here, but now all you see is parents taking them home in station wagons every afternoon. I sure the hell hope they catch that nut before he comes over here and starts in on our little girls."

"Little girls. It's goddamn disgusting."

"We'll catch him. This is war."

"I get the feeling."

"Goddamn war," Dewitt shouted. "I've been in Korea. I know a war. You go out there and shoot the ass off the enemy, and they pay you to do it. Right here it's the same thing. We're going to get his ass sooner or later. Ain't no place he can hide."

"Guess not. You got any potato chips?"


"Potato chips?"

"You want a bag?"

"Yeah, if you've got some."

Dewitt looked up on the junk food rack. "All's left is Fritos. You want those?"

"Yeah. That'll be fine."

Dewitt got them down and tossed them on the bar.

"Thanks," David Shipp said, tearing the bag. "Damn Swiss steak just disappeared and now I'm hungry again."

"I ain't got any real food."

"This'll be fine. How about a beer?"

"No drink?"

"Nah, just a beer."

Dewitt drew the beer. "There you go."

"Thanks." He took a sip. "Been a real nice evening. I mean in most towns I just sit in the motor home nights. You got your rednecks in the bars and half the time they just look at you like you're from Mars or something. Here we had a nice time. Talking and all. It makes a guy feel good."


"That David Lewis is a real talker. That was the weirdest story about his Big Daddy. You're right. He is a poet. Maybe he don't put the words down and all, but it sure sounds like poetry talking. And how many times does a dude run across other dudes talking about friendship and stuff. Not often. I think that's real fine, and I'm going to remember this evening for a long time."

"David and Raymond. I guess they're my best buddies," Dewitt said.

"Well, I can see why. And you're lucky."

"Why do you say that?"

"Guess I never had any real good friends."

"That a fact?"

"Been traveling since I was a very young man. Doesn't give you much time to establish many ties. It was okay with Vicky and the kids and all, but hell, they couldn't put up with me only being home once every two months for two or three days. I can't really blame them for pulling up stakes on me."

"I'm sorry about that."

"Hell, don't be. They're better off doing what they're doing now, and I'm better off doing what I'm doing, too. That's just the way it goes." He put a handful of Fritos in his mouth and chewed them slowly, then finished off his beer and wiped his mouth with his hand. "That's enough. I better turn in. I got to go over to Whitewright tomorrow morning and see a couple of people."

He stood and reached for his billfold.

"Put that away," Dewitt said.

He shook his head no and dropped a five on the bar. "Bullshit. You take that. Everybody's got to earn a living."

Dewitt caught a glimpse of some little color pictures in the billfold. "Those your kids?"

David Shipp looked down at the pictures. "Yeah. These are my three little girls. That's Tricia, Darlene, and the little one's Agnes."

They were good-looking kids, Dewitt thought. "Nice name, Agnes."

"It kills me to think she's almost ten now. I can't hardly believe it."


"Weeds is right. Well." He put out his hand.

Dewitt shook it. "Good luck to you."

"Nice meeting you, Dewitt."

"Same here, good buddy."

Dewitt followed him over to the door and locked up after him, then went in the back and switched off the sign and all the other lights except for one up by the bar. He hadn't eaten since lunch, so he drew himself another beer and had a few of David Shipp's leftover Fritos. After a while he didn't like just sitting there thinking nothing and so he got up and went over and put on the black and white. There was an old monster, a big black praying mantis, a pretty pissed-off big black praying mantis, walking around through New York City picking up people and eating them whole, stepping on skyscrapers, busting through power lines, tearing the place up. It looked okay. He got up on a bar stool to watch. It was better than thinking. The scientists were having a big meeting about what to do, and one of them stood up and said, "This is war!"

"You got that right," Dewitt said to the scientist. "Let's nuke him."

"Let's nuke him," the scientist said.

"Come on, boys," Dewitt said.

"Come on, boys," the scientist said.

And all the scientists got up and shook hands.

"We will prevail!" David shouted.

"We will prevail!" the scientists shouted.

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