ï»¿blare of loud talk and laughter and Red Sovine on the jukebox and the heady reek of lysol from the men's toilet, and so far not a soul has uttered an unkind word. Couple of suspicious glances, maybe but no bad-.mouthing a-tall. Well, I decide, sucking at my beer and gaining confidence by the minute, so it was just paranoia after all, just paranoia compounded by my own unseemly willingness to think the worst of my countrymen. Clearly I owe them an apology, perhaps a musical salute to show that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I stand foursquare with them against the barbarian hordes. Taking my beer along, I leave my barstool and go over to the jukebox, plug it with a couple of quarters, and pick me out a bunch of songs--Kitty Wells and Buck Owens and Porter Waggoner and Tohnny Cash and several others--and then make my way between the tables to a booth over a- J|f| gainst the wall, where I settle down to drink my beer and listen to Patsy Cline sing "I'll Sail My Ship Alone" and watch a fat lady and her skinny boyfriend play shuffleboard.
And no sooner do I set my head a-drift in these familiar and relatively tranquil waters than I become aware of some sort of minor turbulence at my shoulder, a gentle but insistent jostling, and I look up to see a kid (I took him for 18 or 19. though I found out later I'd slighted him by perhaps half a dozen years) standing there beside my booth, a big, husky fellow all decked out like an archetypal Pennington Clubber from his blonde crewcut to his plaid shirt to his burnished wingtips (to be entirely honest, he was in fact the model for my archetype), standing there all big and blonde, his cheeks so cleanly shaven they are as pink as two slabs of raw meat, standing there shaking my shoulder and grinning down at me like a cat eating shit--a repast which, it soon develops, is precisely what he has in mind serving up to me. Instantly I feel the old adrenalin commence to surge--but for me at least that brand of fuel only works for running, and flight is out of the question just now, if only beca ise my man has had the foresight to position himself between me and the door. So all I can do is return his grin with interest, at the same time trying to make my own face say silently, Yeh? What can I do for you, jack? You know, an out-of-the-corner-of-the-mouth kind of look, tough but not hostile.
"Hey buddy, "he says, still grinning, "see that there guy over there? " He points to a nearby table where in fact two guys sit watching us. But there isn't any doubt which of the two of us he has in mind. The big one. The big thick-necked, dark-haired kid who is even now smiling as amiably at me as if he is privy to my every secret qualm, and knows exactly how to deal with such chicken-shit trash as me. His smaller companion looks a bit uneasy, but he too Â«*yos me the way he might a wad of bubblegum stuck to his shoesole.
6 JL Jli. 1
"I mean that black-headed one, " the crewcut explains unnecessarily. "You know what he called you? He called you a fuekin punk. "
Well, here it comes, hotshot, I tell myself. Can you dig it? Can you?
"Is that so? " I say lamely. But to my surprise my voice is stronger and steadier than I'd expected.
"That's what he called you. " He pauses as if reconsidering, then corrects himself. "No, wait, I take that back. He just said you was a punk. I_said you was a fuckin punk. "
"Oh. well, that's different then. " Careful there, McClanahan. No sarcasm, now. Sarcasm will get your ass whipped for you in the Pennington Club.
"What do you think about that? " "Not a whole lot one way or the other. " That's better; voice steadying, friendly but not cowed, not panicky. Hang in there.
"You know why we said you was a fuckin punk? "
There it is, an opening, a chance to score a point or two for my side. "Sure, " I say, as cordially as I can. "I expect it's because I got these boots on, and this moustache. And these glasses. "
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, looking just slightly surprised. He obviously hasn't anticipated a direct answer, and it has put him the tiniest bit off balance. But he plunges on.
"What you ought to do, " he says, "you ought to go over there and beat hell out of him for sayin a thing like that. "
"Naw, " I tell him, "I wouldn't want to do a thing like that. Because if I did, he might not like it, and then he might beat hell out of me. And then where'd I be? "
Again that fleeting hint of confusion crosses my interrogator's face, and I see that I'm still making the right moves, that he's been prepared for almost any reaction except what is so far passing for relaxed candor. But he isn't giving up yet--not by a long shot.
"Hey Emory, " he calls above the din, "come over here a minute. "
Emory rises and ambles toward us, growing taller and broader by the step. He-brings his beer bottle with him carrying it by the neck like a billyclub despite the fact that it is still half full of beer. A bad sign, that.
"Emory, " the crewcut says, "I was just tellin this guy you called him a fuckin punk. Ain't that right? "
Emory's grin widens. "Naw, Cecil, " he says, "I never said he was a fuckin punk. I said he looked like a fuckin punk. "
"Well, " I say, "you just might be right about that. You sure as hell wouldn't be the first one to think so. " Emory's turn to look puzzled. Seeing my advantage, I hurry on. "But what I am might just be an entirely different thing from what I look like. You ever think of that? "
There now, that was just right. Now I'm really grooving with it, and and Emory'8 uneasiness proves it.
"How's that? " he says. "I mean, I see one..."
"Well, maybe you do and maybe you don't. But I tell you what, why don't you all sit down here a minute and let me tell you a couple of things about myself, and if you still think I'm a fuckin punk after I'm through, why, we can deal with that then. "
Hearing myself make the offer, I realize that if they sit down with me it will mean the tide has definitely turned in my favor, and with that realization comes also the first full knowledge of just how desperately I want this encounter to work out right. Because it will justify so much; already I can see in it the substance of a metaphor that will explain perfectly the directions my life has taken during the last few years, explain then not just to the world but to me. . . Cecil and Emory look questioningly at each other, and for an instant my breath catches in my throat, and then to my relief and delight Emory slides into the seat opposite me and Cecil, following his lead, sits down beside me.
"Okay, " I begin, "now the first thing I ought to tell you Is that I probably wouldn't be too far wrong if I say I'm twice as old as either one of you. "
"Shit, you are, " Emory scoffs, his disbelief dangerously reviving his contempt.
"Well, I'm 36, " I tell him quickly. "I could show you an ID, I graduated from Maysville High School in 1951. So figure it out. "
"Shit, you did, " Cecil says. "You mean to tell me you're from Mays -ville? "
"That's right. I live in California now, but I come from Maysville. What'd you think I was some Cincinnati dude or something? "
"California? " Emory says. "What do you do in California? "
Beautiful. Now they're asking me for information, instead of making me force it on them. "I'm a teacher," I tell them. I teach college English. "
"Shit you do, " Emory says, but this time his scorn has been replaced by amazement. "What college? "
"Stanford University. "
That one struck a nerve I hadn't expected to hit. "Stanford? " he says. "Sure enough? "
"I could show you my faculty i-dentification card, if you. . . "
"I went up to Morehead State one semester myself, " he muses almost wistfully, "but I flunked out. "
I see now that the game is almost over, and that a kind of victory is within reach. I could probably launch right now into an us-college-men talk with Emory, and once and for all defuse what had been an explosive situation. But there's a lot I haven't got said yet. For a starter, there's styll one more possible explanation for my outlandish dress that I want to eliminate from their consideration. I mean that chance that they still suspect that I'm a faggot.
"One more thing, " I tell them. "I'm married, and I've got three kids. "
"Shit you do, " says Cecil. But by continued on page 13
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