Not Everything Is News
“Now Sylvester Cooper you know you want to spend that money on this party.” Everett said. “You get that paycheck regular but you don’t get married but once in your life.” “That’s right Sly.” Cal Washington said. “You done spent more on that ole Buick and it went to the junkyard with all the money you put in it.” “This’ll be something you going to look back and remember all your life, and your friends, they are going to remember it too.” Everett said, as he held out his hand. “You just sign that check over and we be right back with the fixings for a bash so loud your friends ain’t never going to say you was cheap.” “This ain’t another one of your practical jokes?” Sylvester asked. “No sir Sly, you know me better than that and we been talking about this party for a month now.” Everett said, the thought of a joke hadn’t even occurred to him, but it was just the right sort of occasion. Sylvester really did need all this persuading. He’d always been careful with his money. He worked for his, not like Cal or Everett. And it was hard to get a job in Kansas City, harder still if you were real black. But he had a job, even if it wasn’t the best job or the best pay. But washing dishes suited him better than hanging out at the welfare office and playing that game. He hadn’t planned to spend all his paycheck on this bachelor party, just half, but the rent was paid and he didn’t owe anything. His savings, though small, were gone, that junker Riviera and its endless transmission and suspension problems had seen to that. He was worn out. The oppressive city heat was even worse when working in the steamy confines of a restaurant kitchen, and now that he was home and Everett and Cal had gotten a couple of beers in him all of his resistance had wilted. Why not spend it all? What was two weeks pay to the road that lay ahead? What was the difference if he started saving it up again now or two weeks from now? Besides Shirley was going to be moving in and they could save some money by cooking at home instead of his taking her out to dinner all the time. “You going to hurry right back, aren’t you?” Sly asked. He’d grown up with both of them but it didn’t hurt to ask. “We be right back.” Everett said. “An’ we going to bring the whole liquor store back with us.” Cal added, a broad grin spreading across his plain face. “They be high times tonight.” “Well get mostly Carling but you be sure to get some Miller too, this is a special occasion.” Sly said, taking out his wallet and signing his paycheck. “You know I had too much to drink already this afternoon or I’d come along.” He sat back heavily on his tattered sofa and succumbed to the afternoon heat and his two beer drunk. “Right on brother, we be right back with the brew in a few.” Everett said. “Fool, this going to be great.” Cal said to Everett, giving him a slap on the back as they went out the door. “This going to be a hum dinger.” “What you talking about?” Everett said. “Ain’t but three hundred dollars here. That ain’t enough for a decent meal downtown and some squeeze.” “Still, it’s better than what we would be having if Sly wasn’t getting married next week.” Cal said. They ambled slowly through the busy downtown streets, Their shirts sticking to their backs as they strolled among the homeless, the hookers, the destitute that peopled the sidewalk in the only area of town they’d truly known and felt comfortable in since childhood. They’d grown up there, as had Sly, the world outside of urban Kansas City was foreign to them, a make believe place of happy endings and green scenery, like the car commercials, a world as refreshing and transitory as the cool relief one felt in the walk-in cooler where Sly was a dishwasher, it disappeared the moment you left. “Yea.” Everett said. “You imagine marrying’ Surely Shirley? Man that ole buffalo butt will have Sly crazier than a white boy before they married a month.” “She can eat more candy than any woman I know.” Cal said. “And that’s not all.” Everett said, giving Cal a confidential wink. “What you say?” Cal asked, with a puzzled look. “I didn’t say nothing.” Everett said, expressionless. “But I reckon ole Sly better call before he come home early from work.” He added, grinning.
They cashed the check at a check cashing service, the balding, cynical little man behind the glass looking the check, and its signature over sternly but handing them the money. In the liquor store they bought five cases of beer in cans, a number of bottles of hard liquor, including a couple of bottles of Tanqueray and one of Benedictine. They bought cigars, Antonio y Cleopatras, mixers, vermouth and some wine for the ladies should any drop by. They loaded this all into a shopping cart from the supermarket next door and Everett waited outside with it while Cal went in and bought chips and dips and rented a video machine. Next they picked up some stag films and from a friend of Everett’s named Digger they bought a half bag of ‘killer hooch’ for themselves and the other revelers. They felt it was their duty, Sly wouldn’t have thought of it. “Man we still got forty six bucks left to buy him a present with.” Cal said. “We ought to get Sly something to remember us by.” “Hell he isn’t going to remember nothing’ tomorrow anyway.” Everett said. “Let’s just split it.” “That ain’t right.” Cal said. “We his friends and he’s getting hitched soon, we got to do right by him.” “Well we could of bought more hooch but that was all Digger had.” Everett said, smiling. “You know he don’t smoke. We need something special for him, not for the party.” Cal said, we got to get him something that make him smile every time he think of us.” They stood, leaning against the shopping cart, bantering over their options. In the near distance a siren faded away, the roar of the traffic diminished for a while. The heat of the afternoon rose in visible waves above the unhurried characters patrolling the sidewalk. The city’s scurryings and sounds left Sly to his nap and Cal and Everett to their quiet conversation in the odd way that its anonymous bustle sometimes can make islands of small groups of men. The summer torpor lent its mood to Everett and Cals aimless chat, forty six dollars won’t buy much for men with million dollar dreams. The traffic roared along frantically, the crowd on the sidewalk continued their circuits, the city plodded about its business in the odor of oil and asphalt. Cal leaned heavily against the wall of the grocery store, lost in thought. Across the street a Trailways bus lumbered off in a cloud of thick diesel smoke. “I got just the ticket.” Everett said, suddenly slapping his thigh and laughing. “He ain’t never going to forget this bachelor party, you bet. Yes sir, I got just the ticket.”
Sly lay on the ratty sofa, he wasn’t a drinker, The two beers went hard on him, he wasn’t a drinking man, two beers was more than he had in a month. He was dreaming a confused heat and alcohol blurred vision of Shirley, nameless faces and small arguments. A uncomfortable topsy-turvy feeling in his guts troubled his sleep yet wouldn’t let him wake. Then Cal and Everett had come in noisily, the shopping cart just outside the door and people from the neighborhood tagging along, eager to get the party started.
The next day Sylvester half awoke feeling cramped and sore and awful. His head hurt and he felt cold, even chilled. He drifted back into an uneasy sleep, remembering the afternoon before, being woken up by Everett and Cal coming in. Or had the neighbors woken him from his nap with their fighting again? And Everett and Cal had been dragging all that booze and all those people in with them. He remembered drinking and worrying about how all the people, and all the noise and drinking, and those stupid stag films and someone saying, “I didn’t know them white boys got so big..” It had been a crazy party, he’d worried about his things, just clothes and second hand furniture but they weren’t worth much and Everett had kept bringing him more drinks. So many people in his tiny apartment and the noise all spilling and the room all spinning and his head swirling and swirling about. Then he remembered Everett and Cal taking him for a walk outside, then putting him to bed. He’d slept well, it had been quiet, and dark, and it was as if someone had been rocking him to sleep. He tried to pull his covering over him but when he did his backside became chilled. He thought he must be ill from all the drinking, he should be sweating, not cold. His bed was rough, hard as concrete, his hips hurt where they touched the ground.
He opened his bleary eyes, nothing was spinning anymore. He saw gravel beneath him and above, mountains and a clear blue sky. He sat up fast. He wasn’t in his bed, in his room, in Kansas City. He was somewhere new, somewhere he’d never been before. It was cold, there were mountains and he was sleeping on the ground, he wasn’t dreaming. A dark blue Ford pickup drove slowly by, and an older woman with pop-bottle bottom glasses and a powder white face stared down out of the passenger window at him as they passed by, close enough to touch. The air was brisk and tall sharp trees, dark green, grew on the mountain across a small valley. It was like a picture in a magazine, or like a beer commercial only far more real. The scene seemed to affect his vision, everything looked sharper, clearer. It was magical, he didn’t feel too hung over at all. Where was he? And how had he gotten there? He stood up and took a look around. He’d been lying in the gravel drive of a small gas station and general store. There was a sign on it that read ‘McGinty’s General Store’. And beneath that sign was another proclaiming it a Trailways bus station. He checked his pockets and found a ticket stub with a scrawled note on it that read ‘Good luck Sly, be back in time for the honeymoon, your friends Everett and Cal.’.
His mind reeled. Everett, it was Everett, and he’d played him an awful joke. They’d gotten him drunk and shipped him off like a sack of old clothes. He checked his wallet and found he still had the fourteen dollars he’d had the day before. They hadn’t robbed him so maybe it was just a joke. But where was he and how was he going to get back in time for work on Monday, to his wedding next Friday? His thoughts were wild, scattered. Down the street the small town dwindled to nothing after a bar and a tiny brick building that advertised a beauty parlor. Up the street the town looked more promising, but only for two blocks and a few more buildings, that’s all there was. He walked there hoping to find out where he was and looking for a place to get something to eat to quiet his head. A low, clean brick building to his left, the post office, gave him his whereabouts as Newcastle, Colorado 81620. Next to it was a neat white building, a gas station, with a beautiful flower garden off to one side. The sight was so extraordinary to him that he walked across the street to see it. There were so many plants, so many colors it startled him. The colors were shocking, vibrant and the garden held a thousand shades and textures of green. He’d never seen a garden as pretty as this. Even more shocking he saw that scattered among the flowers were vegetables, the orange tops of carrots, green tomatoes on vines. In Kansas City the municipal garden was pretty but always seemed to look dusty, manufactured but drab. Here people grew prettier gardens in their backyards, next to gas stations.
Up the street further was a large pale green building that looked like a school. In front were a number of small signs, including one for a cafe. The blue pickup truck that he’d just seen was parked in front. He walked towards the cafe, looking in wonderment at the red mountains that pushed in and surrounded him, and thrilled at the sights despite his predicament. The cafe was downstairs. A long row of windows made it bright and the air inside smelled wonderfully of bacon frying and fresh coffee brewing. He sat down on a stool at the counter. The older woman in the thick glasses from the blue pickup stared at him for a long moment, her ruddy faced, big bellied husband merely glancing up, looking him over then returning to reading his paper. Sly wondered how they treated black people here, he’d heard stories about redneck cowboy towns. A gaunt middle-aged woman with a tired but friendly face came from behind in the small kitchen and set a clear, frosty glass of ice water before him. It reminded him of the restaurant he worked in. They used the same kind of water glass, but the water looked different, clearer. She turned his coffee cup right side up in its saucer and filled it with steaming aromatic coffee. “What can I get you for breakfast?” She asked, kindly. He looked up from the coffee cup at her lined, pleasant face, then to the signboard on the wall that listed the menu. He wondered briefly whether he should just have the coffee, he might need money for the bus ticket back. “Just some eggs and bacon.” He said, deciding he needed to eat, to get balanced. “How about our Rancher’s special?” The woman asked. “That’s three eggs, any style, bacon or sausage, hash browns, toast or biscuits and gravy, coffee and a small orange juice for two thirty five.” “Yea, that sounds good.” He said, thinking it was a lot for the money. He wrapped his hands around the hot cup of coffee and began sipping. He felt more at ease immediately.
It was an inconsiderate joke to play on someone, to send them off with just the jacket on their back and not enough money to get home with. Why had they done it, did they think it would be funny? What if he couldn’t make it back in time and lost his job? What if he couldn’t get back in time to get married? Maybe it wasn’t meant to be a joke at all. Maybe they were tearing his apartment up right now, throwing parties, selling what little he had. Maybe Everett and Shirley were over there right now. He knew all about Shirley, that’s why he went out with her, at first. He hoped marriage would change her, but who could tell. He knew she was still playing around, even though they were engaged. But he knew he couldn’t be too choosy, he was lonely and someone who slept with you was better than no one at all. He knew he didn’t love her, and she didn’t love him, it was just an easy, practical thing to do. He wanted someone around and she needed a place to live, a source of income. He didn’t know how shallow this engagement was to her, in truth she was getting married because she thought it would make her more alluring to be forbidden fruit. Sylvester wasn’t in love but his mother had always told him that love came along slow and that it was no good to be alone.
He realized he was far different from the man his mother had raised him to be. She had hoped he would get an education, find a good job, leave the city. She had worked herself to an early death trying to make a better life for him. And now he was falling into the kind of rut she’d always told him to beware of. “It’s a big world out there son.” She’d said. “Don’t you settle for a little piece of it.”
“Here you go.” The woman who ran the cafe said, putting a huge plate of eggs, bacon and hash brown potatoes before him. She set another plate of biscuits covered with cream colored gravy flecked with black pepper to one side. “If you need anything else just ask.” She said. He ate slowly. His thoughts cleared some as he ate and he began to see the grim, sad reality before him. He’d work a few days to get the money to buy a ticket back, even if he was late his boss would keep him on. Then he’d get married, and Shirley would do what she wanted to and he wouldn’t say anything because he was lonely and couldn’t do no better. They were going to live in his shabby apartment and have fights just like the neighbors had. He wanted to have kids too but couldn’t with Shirley, she’d had an operation. He might take to drinking and fall into the very trap his mother had warned him about. He ate his breakfast and all these thoughts, these dire thoughts rolled through his head, held darkly against the mirror of the dreams his mother had instilled in him of a home of his own, a loving wife, true friends and a useful life. ‘But,’ He thought. ‘I’ve got to go back because it’s all I got. I don’t know anything else.’ “How is everything?” The waitress asked as she wiped the counter. “Just fine.” He answered, feeling full and much better. He never drank and he had no hangover to speak of once he’d eaten. “Say, you couldn’t use some help could you?” He asked, thinking he’d better get started right away if he was going to make it back in time. “No sir.” She said. “I don’t see that much business except for the lunch crowd and I close after that.” “Don’t know anyone who needs help do you?” He said. “I got to make some money so I can get back home.” “Not in this town honey.” She said. “But if you go on up-valley to Glenwood Springs or Aspen they always need help. Don’t pay much though, just four or five dollars an hour, for restaurant help.” He thought that five or six dollars an hour was real good wages, he only made three-fifty working at Bernie’s, back home. Maybe he’d work for more than just a few days, Bernie might understand, after all it wasn’t his fault, he’d been tricked. That might be a good idea, to work the whole week and then go back with some padding in his pocket.
“You looking for work?” The big, ruddy faced man said, folding up his paper. His wife stared up at Sylvester, goggle eyed behind her thick glasses. “Yes sir.” Sylvester said, politely deferential. “Well I’m running fence today and could use a hand. Starting Monday I’ll be putting up a pole barn and could use a carpenter.” He said, crossing his large, muscular arms over his large gut. “You ever do any of that kind of work?” “No sir, I haven’t.” Sylvester answered. “But I need the work and I learn fast and can work hard.” He added. A beam of sunlight had found it’s way through the diner’s window, warm on his arm, and he felt as if a ray of hope was shining on him, the good breakfast inside and now a chance to get back home. The mans face seemed to harden for a second, Sylvester felt the ray dwindle. “You finish high school?” The man asked, scrutinizing him from behind his folded arms and old, weathered face. “Yes sir.” Sylvester answered. “I was in college for a year before my mother took sick and I had to take care of her.” “Well,” The man said, mulling it over for a moment. “If you want to work you can today, helping me run fence, and I’ll pay you six bucks an hour. If that works out okay on Monday you can carry boards and maybe learn a little carpentry. Where are you staying?” “I don’t have a place yet.” He said, thinking he didn’t really need one but it might sound better if he didn’t say so. The man looked at Sylvester for a moment, then turned to look at his wife. “What do you think Lucy?” His wife smiled a broad, genuine smile.” We’ve got an old trailer my last hired man lived in.” He said. “You work out today and you can stay there and we’ll see how things go.”
Sylvester cut his hands and his teeth running fence that first day. Then he helped with the small barn, learning how to dig post holes and use a hammer and saw. He took to the work at the ranch. It was magical to wake early each day to the fresh, earthy smells and to work in the open air. He never went back. He called Shirley and asked her to come out, he felt he had to, and he was relieved when she wouldn’t have any part of living in the wilderness. He told himself she could do better than a fool as black as he was, she’d said so herself. He fell willingly into the hard daily routine, grew sinewy and strong, and felt as if his dreams, the ones his mother had raised him to live up to, were coming true. In time he met and married a girl named Lupe, a cute dark-haired girl who worked as a cashier at the Co-op where he bought supplies for the ranch and always had something nice to say. She became his best friend. He never took another drink. Thirty years went by. He had his own little house at the edge of town and his own small garden of bright flowers and green vegetables. And sometimes he’d stop what he was doing, maybe at the hint of a birds lilting song, look out at the rugged mountains before him and the bright blue sky above, breathe deeply of the crisp fragrant air and smile to think of the wonderful present his two old friends Cal and Everett had given him.