Coffee, black. Coffee, black. Coffee, black. A round robin of morning sullen voices greeted Blue-Eyes with the enthusiasm of a funeral procession.
“Just stop right there, y’all. I know how y’all take your coffee. Anyone want anything else?” She paused waiting for an answer she knew would not come. “Ok, see it’s a day like all other days.” Shitty. Blue-Eyes turned her back to stomp away.
“Hold on there,” The King’s voice rang out as massive and alive as the man himself. “I’ll take a sausage biscuit.”
“Thanks, Mr. Ben.” Of the old geezers who perched at the Huddle House’s only six-top every morning and afternoon, Mr. Ben was her favorite. Without fail, he left her a two-dollar tip at each convening of the Round Table, as they called it. Blue-Eyes turned away again, her step a bit more buoyant.
King Ben caught her by the arm. “I need to tell you something, Blue-Eyes.”
“I got a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“With my laundry.”
“I’m not gonna do your laundry for you.”
“No, no, it’s not that kind of problem.”
“Well, what kind of problem is it, Mr. Ben?”
“The elastic in my skivvies wore out. They’ve slid down over my ass, and the only thing that’s keeping them from being around my ankles is the crotch of my pants.”
“Let me go, you crazy bastard, or I’m calling your wife, again.”
“Don’t be all like that, Blue-Eyes. I’m a man in need, and I do so value your opinion. Tell me, what should I do?”
“Go to the damn Wal-Mart and buy some new ones, you cheap son-of-a-bitch!”
Blue-Eyes stomped off with renewed surliness while the Knights of the Round Table laughed. “Gentlemen, she loves me. And she does have the most beautiful blue-eyes. Who cares if they’re crossed?” The morning was off to a fine start King Ben surmised. “Well, well, look who’s pulling up.”
All the Knights turned to stare at the cherry-red Fire Bird convertible that had pulled into the parking lot. When the door opened, a bell jingled, heralding the arrival of Jeanne Cain, Batesville’s best-maintained, 55-year-old divorcee, and only Jazzercise instructor. Always the keen observer, King Ben noted that her class must have just let out, although her brassy blonde pony-tail, sprayed into submission with Aquanet, had lost none of its poof. Today she sported his favorite workout ensemble: indecently short white shorts, suntan control-top panty hose, white ankle socks, and white Reeboks. She topped it all off with a skin-tight orange t-shirt that her granddaughter had given her for Christmas. It read: “Objects *are* as large as they appear—Hooters”.
Simultaneously, King Ben and his Knights sat up straighter in their chairs. Weathered faces flushed warmer and more youthful with each step of her approach. Never a shrinking violet, King Ben smiled. “Jeanne, I must be getting senile ‘cause I don’t recall seeing your beautiful self at church yesterday.”
Jeanne blushed as girlishly as her heavy make-up would allow. “Oh, Mr. Ben, I went to a dance at the V. F. W. down in Water Valley. Didn’t get home ‘til real late. Guess you could say I’m backsliding.”
“Dancing? Now there’s a sight I wish I could see.”
“You should come down and dance with me. There’s always more women than men.”
“Jeanne, Ben’s the last person you’d want to take to a dance,” said the crusty old man sitting next to the King.
“Why would you say that, Boolie?” Jeanne Cain’s attention shifted away from King Ben.
“Brother Ben here don’t know how to act right at a club. Been kicked out of near every one he’s been to.”
A battle line had been drawn. “Boolie, that was damn near 30-years ago. Pay him no mind, Jeanne. I’ve matured a lot since then.”
“Like hell you have.”
“You’re a fine one to talk having been married eight times to seven different women.”
Jeanne made her escape when Blue-Eyes reappeared with the six coffees and solitary sausage biscuit. Acutely aware his object of desire had departed, King Ben took the Pretender, Burns Lee “B. L.” Reed, to task. “Why do you insist upon cock-blocking me? She’d as good as asked me out there, Boolie.”
“Brother Ben, you gonna sit there and pretend you weren’t barred from all the Delta Supper Clubs for fighting?”
“There you go exaggerating again, Boolie. There are many Delta Supper Clubs. I was barred from the one in Phillips County, and that was for one night only.” When Blue-Eyes sat his biscuit down in front of him, he grabbed her arm again. “Do you hear him rewriting history, Blue-Eyes? My niece, the one with blue eyes almost as pretty as yours, would call him a revisionist.”
“I don’t know what that means, Mr. Ben.”
“Don’t worry about it, Blue-Eyes. Neither does he.” The Pretender B. L. attempted to usurp the throne. The Knights of the Round Table, no good jackals that they were, had the audacity to laugh at their King. The fate of his Kingdom hung in the balance. It was time to draw blood.
“It means you’re a lying motherfucker, Boolie. Blue-Eyes, I’m much maligned. Pull up a chair, and let me set the record straight.”
Blue-Eyes scrambled to get a chair, grinning wide enough to show her missing teeth. She pulled a chair in between Mr. Ben and B.L. She had never been invited to sit with them before. No woman had.
“Let me give you a little back ground, Blue-Eyes. If you think West Helena’s small now, you shoulda seen it 30 years ago. So believe me when I tell you there was nothing to do after work but drink and fight and whore. But I’m going to keep this R-rated on account of your being a fragile flower of femininity.” King Ben cleared his throat and glared at B.L. with hard black eyes. “Boolie, you agree with my assessment of West Helena so far? Cause I’d sure hate to get this started wrong.
B. L. nodded “yes.” King Ben took a swig of coffee before continuing. “So we’re all working for Mohawk. We only had so much production to do in a day. We’d get done in four hours and leave the plant for the rest of the shift. Didn’t matter, we got paid. More often than not we’d head over to the Delta Supper Club ‘cause there was no where else to go. It was an institution in Philips County. Well known all over Arkansas. They called it a supper club, but all they served was pickled sausage, pickled eggs, and pickled pig’s feet. No one went there to eat. It was all drinking, dancing, and grab-assing. Nothing to look at. The front door opened to the dining room. It was narrow room. Really more like a wide hall with 4-tops and mismatched furniture. I’m talking barstools, barrel-top tables, aluminum pipe and Naugahyde chairs, wagon wheel hanging lights. Called them chandeliers ‘cause we didn’t know no better.”
Blue-Eyes laughed. “Sounds like a juke joint!”
“Just like a juke joint, ‘cept this wasn’t owned by the blacks. Or what do they call themselves now? African–Americans? Who can keep up with that P. C. crap?”
B. L. chimed in, “Preaching to the choir, preaching to the choir, Brother Ben.”
“Shut-up, Boolie. No one wants to listen to your ignorant ass. Anyways, Blue-Eyes, up the stairs was the dance hall, where there was a small bandstand and two restrooms. Men on the right, women on the left, both equally filthy. Kinda like the ones here. You might wanna attend to that when you finish your break.”
Blue-Eyes rolled her eyes. King Ben did not notice. “Now, it was a jumping little joint Monday through Thursday. But Friday night was the biggest night by far. We called it ‘Friday Night Fights’ ‘cause some time on Friday night, someone was going to get into it. Truth be told, I was usually up there in that mix. I was a complex and angry young man, Blue-Eyes.”
“There you go putting on airs again.” B. L. got up to pour himself another cup of coffee. He topped off every cup at the table except for King Ben’s. “You was just a dumb SOB like all us other dumb SOBs.”
“Boolie, I can’t believe I’ve put up with your shit for over thirty years. Now pour me some of that coffee before I come up out of this chair and whip your ass all around this Huddle House.” There was a reason that King Ben was King. At seventy-four he was as behemoth as he had ever been and could still get his bluff in on anybody.
“This is exactly the type of shit that got you kicked out of the Supper Club.” B. L. complied with the King’s request before sitting back down. Blue-Eyes laughed like she was having the time of her life.
“Once again, Boolie, you’re being revisionist. And Blue-Eyes, since revisionist is now your word of the day, will you please remind Boolie what it means?”
“Means he’s a lying motherfucker!”
The Knights roared with laughter.
“Blue-Eyes, you show such promise. But I digress. Let’s get back on track. The house band at the club was Clyde Hawkins and the Hawks. But we called them the Red Shirts or the Red Shirt Wearing Sons of Bitches, ‘cause back when we were coming up, bands dressed alike. It was part of the gimmick. They might’ve all been degenerates, but no one ever looked like one, because people took pride in their appearance. Not like today. These days, everybody’s a degenerate and looks the part. Now, look at that going there.” King Ben cocked his head at a teenaged boy walking past the Huddle House window. “Don’t you know his parents are proud! Baggy jeans belted under his ass-cheeks with the boxers out for God and everyone to see. There’s no way that could ever be comfortable. I should know given the present state of my laundry.”
The boy stopped to readjust his jeans, which were dangerously close to sliding down to his knees. All of the Knights’ heads shook with disapproval.
“So the Red Shirts. I guess they were all pretty good guys, and the music was okay. My real point of contention was not with the band, per se, but with the bass-player, Red. He was a C.P.A. who played with them for the hell of it. Blue-Eyes, know anything about C.P.A.s?”
“No, Mr. Ben, can’t say I do.”
“Well, they’re accountants, and they’re supposed to help you with money. Do your taxes, that sort of stuff. When they’re good, they’re great, but when they’re bad, they’re lower than whale shit, and that’s at the bottom of the ocean!” King Ben’s face turned serious. “Now, ol’ Red thought he’s real clever since he’d been to college. Not saying there’s anything wrong with a higher education, but sometimes educated folk forget others have brains too. Boolie, you remember that boxer who came to work at Mohawk?”
“What’s his name?” B. L. scratched at his scruffy beard while he pondered. “It’ll come to me in a minute. Real sweet and gentle fellow for a boxer.”
“This happens when you get old, Blue-Eyes,” said King Ben. “I can see his face plain as day. Gonna drive me crazy. So this boxer had won a little bit of money fighting before he came to work at the plant. He must’ve done something in his past to cause him to not want to use a bank. It was rumored he’d been in the big house for manslaughter. Or maybe he just didn’t trust banks. Many people back then didn’t. It’s getting to be like that again given our current economic crisis. Well, this boxer had given Red some money to hold. People do that sort of thing when they have a hard time managing money on their own. You know boxers and blows to the head. So the boxer comes to work one day, and I can tell he’s not his usual self. Being the caring, compassionate conservative I am, I asked what was wrong. He’d gone to get some money from the C.P.A., and the shiftless son of a bitch wouldn’t give it to him. It was all off the books, you see. Now, the boxer had been knocked goofy in the head more than once, but he knew enough about the world to know no one was gonna believe a transient, felon boxer over a fine upstanding citizen of West Helena. And if he went after Red, he’d likely wind up back in the pen. Can you imagine how that man felt? Made my blood boil. You can mess with a man’s wife, you can mess with a man’s daughter, but you don’t mess with his money. That’s women’s work.”
Blue-Eyes shook her head in agreement. “I hate it when parties of six or more don’t leave me a tip. That’s messing with my money.”
“Exactly, Blue-Eyes. Next time that happens let me know, and I’ll intercede on your behalf. Which is exactly what I did for this boxer fellow.”
“Now who’s being a damn ‘revisionist’ ‘cause that’s not how I remember this shit going down at all, Brother Ben. You was just a mean-assed drunk spoiling for a fight. You always were back then. You heckled Ol’ Red and led him to believe you were on more than friendly terms with his wife.” Gesturing wildly, B. L. sloshed his coffee all over the table. Blue-Eyes mopped it up with a dingy rag she carried in the tie of her Huddle House apron.
“That’s what I wanted everyone to think! God Damn, Boolie, are you, or are you not a veteran of the Korean War? This was a subversive op.”
“Oh hell. Here we go.” B. L. yanked off his grimy baby-blue trucker hat and ran his hands through what little hair he had left.
“Hush Boolie,” said Blue-Eyes. “I want to hear the rest of this story before the lunch crowd arrives.”
“That’s right, Boolie, shut up. You’re being most inconsiderate to our young friend.” King Ben patted Blue-Eyes on the arm. She flushed with pride. It made her happy to be thought of as young and as a friend.
“So yeah, I made Red think I had something going with his wife, which wasn’t hard to do. She was pretty, in a trashy-round-the-edges way, and she was known to have loose morals. Kinda like I hope Ms. Jeanne Cain does.”
The Knights spewed coffee and hooted with laughter. All heads in the Huddle House turned to see what the commotion was at the Round Table. King Ben caught Jeanne Cain’s eye. He winked at her and raised his coffee cup in a toast.
Blue-Eyes pulled on the sleeve of the King’s MembersOnly jacket. “Go on, Mr. Ben. Finish the story.”
“Well, we got to dancing, and I pushed up real hard on her, and she pushed up hard on me. I could tell Red was getting mad ‘cause his playing got worse and worse. Finally he lost it. Just stopped playing in the middle of a song. He hollered out to me, ‘Take your Goddamned hands off my wife, Ben Marberry’ and I hollered, ‘Why don’t you come down off the stage and make me, you non-bass playing son of a bitch.’ Well, that pissed him off. Red came down off that stage, and we started scuffling. I hit him a good lick or two, so the rest of the band jumped off the stage and separated us. I kept saying ‘Come on, let’s finish this outside.’ I wanted to get him outside, so I could get him over to Turk’s Junk Yard out back and really let loose on him and perhaps take his wallet. But they pushed me and Boolie outside and told us not to come back. Ol’ Red was somewhat of a puss. Kept hollering at me through the screen door, ‘I’m gonna kick your ass! I’m gonna kick your ass!’ And I said, ‘Come on out from behind that screen door, you red shirt wearing son of a bitch and kick my ass!’ He never did. Finally we got tired and went home. But let us be clear I was right back there on Saturday night, as were you, Boolie. Barred for one night and one night alone. By that time all was forgot. We never did hold grudges for long back in those days. Had the same thing happened today, someone would’ve been shot dead.”
“So did the boxer get his money back?”
“Well not right then. But I’ll have to tell you about that later, Blue-Eyes. Gentlemen, I need to take my leave. Queen Maxine needs me to stop at the Wal-Mart to exchange the pillow shams I got her for her birthday. Apparently plaids and florals don’t mix and the thought doesn’t count for shit.”
Everyone got up to leave. The Knights pulled out their wallets and tossed some token change on the table and mumbled nice-talking-to-yous to Blue-Eyes. King Ben saw her smile fade, making her look tired and older than her years. King Ben took out a five dollar bill from his wallet and placed it on the table. Then he stared the Knights down until each one took out a dollar bill from his wallet and laid it on the table. King Ben patted her on her hand. “We’ll see you this afternoon, Blue-Eyes.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ben.” Blue-Eyes gathered the empty mugs from the table and hummed along with a Toby Keith song on the radio. For the first time in a long while, she looked forward to the afternoon.