Printed from WriteWords -


by  TheGodfather

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004
Word Count: 1734

L Y L E and I walked down Highway 80, the rural part that runs along the river side of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The southern skies lit up with stars, so much that the only places you could find darkness were in the shadows under the overhang of the willows that have lined the highway for decades. That stretch of the 80 on the way to Piccolos, the only bar with a pool table within miles of our home, didn't have any lights but the scattered porch lights and neon signs.
Lyle was a year older than I was. He always said that when mom and dad were done having me they must have given up. My immediate retort was always that no, they had finally got it right.
The moon was full, and if you looked really hard you could even see part of it in the tar-patched cracks that split the highway up all over. The lights from an old truck came up behind us, so we hopped over to the shoulder, where the weeds had managed to grow ankle high. The truck sputtered past us, just as we reached the curve in the highway where we could finally see the blue and white neon sign outside the bar, "Piccolos."
The truck rumbled into the gravel lot in front and turned off its lights. The gravel lot stretched around back, but the only person who ever parked back there was Piccolo. I still wonder why more people don't park out back. That would be the smart thing to do anyway. Many a car had been shattered by the beer bottles of drive-by juveniles. Piccolos never looked busy, and when you got inside you found out it wasn't.
That night wasn't any different. We had been there before to play pool and drink pop, but as we walked up the unyielding porch steps and past the screen door, we saw only four men sitting around a table near the bar, surrounded by a dozen or so empty tables. Bluegrass sang from the back of the bar. Red and blue chips were stacked in front of the men.
The bald black one at the far side of the table looked over and nodded his head sideways to get the other three to look over at us. After paying us a glance, they went back to their cards and beer. The light from the ceiling fans struggled through the cigar smoke and dust. Only one fan was on, so I figured the others must not work. They would have had them on if they did because it was hot. They didn't say a word to us.
Lyle had stepped inside, so I let the screen door close and followed him as he inched forward. We made our way through the muggy night air that had made its way inside, through the tables to where they were sitting and pulled up bar stools a ways back from the tables, six feet or so, as to not get in their way.
We sat that way the whole night, just staring pensively and watching their sober moves. They hardly said a thing to each other. They just played cards. When the night ended, the bald, black man we were sitting behind had all the chips. I left that night feeling as if I had a part in his winning but hoping the other men didn't think so.
The next night Lyle didn't come, and it was the first time I had made the walk through the willow shadows alone.
I sat behind the heavy one with the ash beard, who wasn't wearing a shirt under his overalls. There weren't any clocks in Piccolos, making that night pass like sleep. I looked around after the black man with the ash beard finished collecting the last chips and realized I had been there for hours but couldn't distinguish a single moment.
After I walked down the porch, I hurried to the back of the place and gathered a handful of gravel, not the muddy kind but the smooth, clean kind that rattles in your hand when you shift it around. I put it in the back pocket of my trousers and walked back across the lot to the highway.
Weeks went by. The scattered county Piccolos sat on the outskirts of was sparsely populated at best. Sometimes people were sitting around at the other tables, both white and black folks, and even some nights a couple would come in for a romantic dance or two. But most nights there wasn't anybody in there. I would sit behind a different one of them every night. Watching them play, being allowed to sit on a stool by the table every night made me feel like one of them, even though I never was dealt in.
One night on the walk home, a night very much the same as the last time Lyle had gone with me, I thought about the nights before. I wondered if the men knew what I knew. There were a few times when I doubted myself and my theory. Once I was sitting behind Piccolo. He was down to two blues, but he doubled and called eight times straight and put the other men out just like that. It might have been on account of luck, but that was the last time I doubted.
Lyle had gone off to school, but I still went to Piccolos. Every time my player won I took a handful of gravel from the back. When I would get out onto the highway, I would drop a pebble every few steps until I made it home, mostly just to pass the time. I had to sort through the leaves and twigs, and much of the clean, smooth gravel was gone. In the willow shadows where it was good and dark I would make certain to stay quiet as I spread out the remaining gravel with my shoe. I would hide in the shadows when Piccolo came out to leave in his old El Camino. Only after he was gone would I dare to go out into the moonlight.
The seasons changed and so did Piccolos and the highway that I walked to get there. The oaks and maples guarding the entry to the front porch turned orange and yellow, and it became harder to find good gravel in back. The characters who patronized the place changed with a consistency similar to the colors of the leaves or the genera of birds fishing in the local streams.
Lyle was coming home soon, next week, and I couldn't wait to take him to Piccolos to watch poker. He arrived home on the bus just before dusk, but I knew they would still be there. We made our way through the shadows of the willows on Highway 80 and finally saw Piccolos around the bend. The moon was full, so I made sure to walk so I could see it in the tar-patched cracks in the road. As we made our way up the steps, I could smell the cigars and hear the bluegrass tunes and the hum of the fan. I had never talked when I was there, and neither did Lyle. Whether it was my fear or my respect for their game, I don't know. I knew Piccolos, but I didnít dare talk.
We sat behind Piccolo. The man in the overalls sat to Piccolo's left with a mug in front of him. The bald man was also at the table to Piccolo's right, but the short one wasn't there. Sweat glistened on their black skin as they smoked on cigars and talked while they waited for him. As the night passed, they mostly told stories. Piccolo would get up to go get a pitcher to refill their mugs every once in a while. We just sat there on our stools behind Piccolo and listened to the stories, waiting for the short man. I'd have played, and I'd have bet my last dime I could've won too.
They let us sit there all right, but they never asked us to play. They let us listen to Piccolo tell the story about when he was sixteen and got pushed off a riverboat ferry by the husband of a lady that accused him of stealing and the story from the bald man's childhood when he went out in the morning to feed the chickens and there was a gator on his porch. All three of them had war stories. They went on for hours, well into the night. The only acknowledgment of us seemed to be the sideways nod of the bald man that pointed the others' attention to us when we first came in and when we inched toward the door to leave.
Sometimes life just wants us to ask it. It sets us up all nice and once in a while gives us the perfect opportunity, or an opportunity that would be perfect, anyway, if we'd just take it. I couldn't get up the nerve. I guess I was content with waiting for them to ask. To tell you the God's honest truth, I was petrified. If I had tried to speak up to talk, no more than an awkward chirp would have come out of my mouth. The three of them were seasoned veterans. They knew the ropes. They knew when to push the bluff and when to pass on the cards. They knew how rich their blood was. That was the gap between them and me. That's what had me frozen. All I seemed to be able to do was listen to their stories.
It must have been well after midnight when Lyle and I walked down the steps and out to the highway. Piccolo hollered out a joke, and the men all laughed and clanked glasses. I wondered if it was about me. I knew it wasnít, but I still wondered. Lyle and I didn't have much to say to each other, so we didn't.
The shadow from the willows seemed darker, so dark that I doubt a car from the road would have been able to see the white kids making a trip home. That walk home seemed quieter and even longer than the shadows. I doubted I'd ever return to Piccolos. I couldn't see the moon in the road anymore.