12 June 2016

The woman over there at the eat-joint had pushed three tables together so there was room for the whole bunch. She greeted George and Phil pleasantly enough, so her suicide husband mustn’t have tipped his hand about being taken by the scruff of the neck. Well, hell, what man would dare tell a woman a shameful thing like that? She had got out white napkins for each place, quite an experience, Phil thought, for the cowhands who had about as much use for napkins as for finger bowls. La-di-dah. Worth the price of admission to see what the fellows did with them. The place was kind of roadhousey, and Phil guessed that accounted for the candles she had in old wine bottles.

And the paper flowers, the paper flowers.

Phil would have preferred to have had the whole place to himself, just for the Burbank outfit, but over in one corner was a party of six that gawked at them when they entered. Phil always had hated strangers around gawking and whispering and touching their lips with their napkins as if they were ladies and gentlemen. One of the women was smoking a cigarette, bold as brass and twice as cheap, and my wasn’t she trying to look elegant touching her lips with her napkin, like real quality, and then smoking that cigarette! It was Phil’s opinion that a woman who would smoke in public would do anything. And she was. She was drinking. 

Over there, too, were paper flowers on the table, paper flowers in a bottle painted so it wouldn’t look like a milk bottle. 

‘Well, where’s the service?’ Phil asked aloud. ‘If we can’t get the power, we ought to get the service, eh, lads.’ The young cowhands, cowed by the prissy roadhousey atmosphere and the napkins looked at Phil, admiring his poise. 

Then there came through the swing door the woman’s son with a white napkin over his arm, just so. He wore pressed dark trousers and white starched shirt, and smiled at them there at the table, at the Burbank outfit, and went right on past to the table in the corner. Phil made a harsh chuckle. ‘Hmmmm,’ he said aloud. ‘I guess we-all must be black.’ 

Well, there’s one thing Phil could tell you: that young kid with a napkin over his arm was a sissy. Phil watched him standing there by the party of six. A little bit too heel-clicky to suit Phil, a little too spruce, funny little arrogance. Must have been the kid’s idea of some Frog waiter, something picked up from some moving picture he’d gone to, or maybe some fool story in a magazine. 

Yes, the kid was talking to the party of six and yes, the kid had a little lisp just like every sissy Phil had ever heard, and a way of tasting his own words. Now, some people can get along with them, just as some can get along with Jews and shines, and that’s their business. But Phil couldn’t abide them. 

He didn’t know why, but they made him uncomfortable, right down to his guts. Why in hell didn’t they snap out of it and get human?

And oh, didn’t that sissy kid just walk right by them, with that glance of his, and the lips set in a way that made Phil want to smack them!

‘Yeah,’ and Phil leaned back in his chair so the front legs were off the floor. ‘I guess we-all must be black.’

George sat there like the Great Stone Face.

Hmmm! Phil knew how to get the kid’s goat, and he chuckled, thinking of it. Imagine having a kid like that! Oh, Phil knew how to get his goat. Phil was sitting at one end of the improvised festive board, George at the other, just as they sat for breakfast at the back dining room table now that the Old Lady and the Old Gent were leading the social life in Brigham Young’s paradise, as Phil called Salt Lake City.

Now at that table in the town of Beech in the year 1924 at around eight of a fall evening, he reached across the table and picked the paper flowers out of the painted milk bottle; they did look absurd in his cracked, chapped, long-fingered hands. He had cut himself at noon opening a sardine can, and had neither mentioned the fact nor wiped off the blood. So there the flowers were, helpless in that marvelously clever hand.

‘My, oh my,’ he said, ‘but I wonder what young lady made these pretty posies?’ And he leaned to smell them, brought them to his thin, sensitive nose.

It surprised him that the boy didn’t color. The pale face remained pale, and Phil noted only the slight throbbing of a blue vein in the boy’s temple, a vein that emerged suddenly, like a worm. The boy then turned and marched right over.

‘The flowers? I made them, sir. My mother taught me how. She has a way with flowers.’

Phil leaned over and elaborately put the flowers back, and touched them, pretending to arrange them. ‘Oh, do pardon me,’ and he made a broad wink at the company around.

‘Would you care to give your order now, sir?’

Phil leaned back on the hind legs of his chair. His voice was a drawl. ‘I thought we had that settled. I thought we’d made previous arrangements.’

Now George spoke, first harrumphing. ‘It’s the chicken we want, boy.’ 

The men had decided to ignore the napkins. George did with his what you’re supposed to do. Phil then tucked his own under his chin and leaned forward to enjoy his chicken. He was bound to admit it was good, but maybe because of hunger sauce. The party of six had pulled their freight, hightailed it, and the kid fussed over there clearing up and putting out their candles. Phil felt a lot freer with the party of six gone, and he told an amusing story of Bronco Henry who had got himself plastered there in Beech one time years ago after they’d got the cattle loaded, and he woke up next morning in the barn across the road with a halter around his neck, tied up like a horse to the manger. One of his pals had pulled the trick on him. ‘And let me tell you,’ Phil laughed, ‘he looked pretty sheepish.’ 

‘Well,’ George said, ‘you fellows go on over, and I’ll settle up here.’ 

‘Ain’t he brought you the tab yet?’ Phil asked. 

‘No, you all go on over to the lights and the music,’ George said, pretty fancy talk for him, ‘and I’ll settle up.’ 

So they scraped their chairs back and went over. The girls from upstairs had come down and stood at the bar smoking cigarettes and smiling around and cadging drinks and Phil watched the young fellows oblige. He felt strangely remote, even lonely, and sort of wished he wasn’t a Burbank, something like that, something. Those kids’d all have big heads in the morning, loading cattle, and maybe pick up the clap or syph, but they were sure kicking up their heels now, and maybe, who knew, maybe it was worth it. They threw their little bit of money around and loved up the ladies, and then they began to sing. 

. . . hot time in the old town, tonight. 

Most of them didn’t know the words, just went la-la-la, but Phil remembered them, and he looked into his empty glass and moved his lips with the true words. How he recalled being a punk kid at the time of the Spanish War, brass bands in those days in every park in every city, fireworks every Fourth; gone, proud, dead days. Wasn’t it on such a day he’d first laid eyes on Bronco Henry?

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

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