Tom removed his fashionable gray fedora and pressed his face against the passenger train’s window, holding his breath to avoid steaming up the glass and obstructing his view. Finally, Anna’s taut, straining figure caught his eye as the train’s brakes continued scraping against the wheels and the clacking sounds grew farther apart. He could see her brown eyes searching each window as they passed her, little lines of apprehension wrinkling her brow beneath a narrow- brimmed rain hat. She stood a little apart from a knot of Guymon’s citizenry who looked to be as much a part of the scenery as the depot.
Anna saw him now as his car pulled even with her. Apprehension melted into radiance, and she started running along side to keep pace with him. The hissing and bell ringing of the train swallowed up the words her lips were forming, but she kept going, her baggy raincoat billowing out behind her as she sloshed through one puddle after another. Her eyes never left Tom’s as she ran, and he shivered at the thought of her running into something or getting her legs tangled in her raincoat and being thrown into the train’s wheels.
The train finally came to a stop and Tom was the first passenger down the steps. “Anna, you shouldn’t be out in this rain,” he scolded when their first long, warm kiss had ended. He had felt her chin quivering against his face but her lips were the same sweet yielding lips that he had craved intermittently now for…for how long? Since their junior year in high school when her family moved to Guymon? Could it be over ten years? Could it be over eight years since they walked down the aisle together in the high school auditorium, class of 1940, and received their signed, symbolic sheepskins? She was the same Anna, always wearing her beauty like an old coat, as though it belonged to her, as though she had not manufactured it but had accepted it, loved it, and was comfortable in it. Even the tiny beauty mark on the left side of her face was worn with charm like most women wear jewelry.
“I haven’t been here long—I’m not wet,” she said, linking her hand in the crook of his arm. Tom looked at the dark, water-sogged shoulders of her raincoat and smiled at her effort to please him. She looked admirably at him—regally tall, imperially slender, impeccably dressed, and with the dreamiest cobalt-blue eyes and dark, wavy brown hair.
“Let’s get in out of the rain where we can talk,” he said, reaching up and pushing his soft felt hat tighter on his head as they leaned against the windswept showers.
A brand new 1949 Ford coupe splashed past, glistening in the rain and windshield wipers valiantly trying to stay up with the downpour. The couple moved away from the railroad terminal. They walked quickly along the rain-glistened red brick of the depot yard and a half-block down Guymon’s Main Street until they came to a dingy-fronted café known as the Silver Grill. It held its place comfortably and securely in a two block row of business buildings that had faced each other across Main Street in languid stability since Tom could remember. The same stores had always been there, waiting in their county-seat confidence for him, like Anna, each time he returned to the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Tom had once looked upon Guymon as a metropolis—the center of the universe—but that was long before he had graduated from GHS, class of 1940, before he headed to Oklahoma University, before he had entered the U.S. Army the day after graduation from OU, before he had known Okinawa in the final year of World War II, and before attending the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Coincidently, Tom had decided that his father’s beloved Hawk Ranch was not the hub of the world either.
“Two coffees,” Tom said to the stubby little waitress. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and all the booths were empty except the one in which he and Anna sat. A wiry man with Ben Franklin spectacles and a sallow-complexion sat behind the cash register reading a copy of the Guymon paper. He had glanced at them briefly when they entered but seemed indifferent to them as customers.
“Oh, it just occurred to me that you might like to have something besides coffee. You probably haven’t had any lunch,” Tom said, embarrassed at his thoughtlessness.
“No, coffee’s fine. I had lunch with mother before I came down to meet you.” She smiled, studying him as though checking to see if anything about him had changed. She seemed satisfied with her analysis. “Have you eaten anything?”
“Yes, the Rock Island took care of that for me.” Tom was thankful for the privacy that the scant patronage inside the Silver Grill afforded. He had been mentally rehearsing what he wanted to say to Anna during the entire train ride from St. Louis.
“I’m so glad you could come out, Tom,” Anna’s eyes radiated warmth and concern. “I didn’t get to see much of you during your Christmas vacation. And when you called yesterday and said you were coming, I got so excited I didn’t think to ask what the occasion was…not that there has to be one.” She was smiling as she spoke, but a look of curiosity crept into her eyes. “Are you between semesters?”
“Yes, it’s between semesters. But that doesn’t matter. I would have had to see you and talk to you if it had been in the middle of final exams. An idea has been gnawing at me for a long time, and I’ve got to tell you about it or I’ll rip at the seams.”
Tom paused while the bubbly, stubby waitress served steaming coffee in thick ironstone mugs. His legs and back ached from the train ride. He usually slept soundly in a Pullman, but not last night. The clickety- clacks had grown louder with each mile, but not loud enough to shut out the thoughts that crowded in. He couldn’t wait to tell Anna his new idea and was excited to see what she would think about it.
The waitress left. Tom spoke quickly, “I wanted to talk to you about it during the Christmas holidays but, like you said, we were never alone. Besides, I wasn’t as sure of my plan then as I am now.”
Anna set her cup down and leaned forward, curiosity growing in her eyes. “Well, come out with it, don’t keep me in suspense.”
Tom took a swallow of the black, steaming coffee. It smelled good but the hot edge of the cup stung his lips. He set the cup back on the saucer and said, “It’s something we’ve both wanted for a long time.”
Anna smiled, the curiosity turned to excitement. “I know what it is,” she said teasingly. “They’re going to give you your M.D. a semester early, and then you’re going to intern at Guymon Memorial Hospital so you can be near me.” She laughed her soft throaty laugh and leaned over close to him, her lips turned up toward him like she was seeking a kiss.
“No. It’s better than that. Well, in a way it’s better. The overall plan is better. I’ve worked it out so we can be married right now!”
“Keep talking,” she said, raising an eyebrow skeptically, the teasing gone from her voice.
“It’ll mean me leaving school.” Tom paused and sipped at the still-too-hot coffee, watching Anna’s face, hoping to see it light up in a flush of acceptance. Seeing none, he continued hurriedly: “I’ve never mentioned it before, but medicine is losing its enchantment for me. I liked pre-med and the first year or two afterwards were tolerable, but since then…since then it has been one long stretch of pretense and agony. I can’t tell you everything, but things have happened recently to help me see just how I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I’ve pretended to like it just to please Dad. You know how crazy he has always been for me to become a doctor.”
Tom tested his coffee again and found it slightly more comforting this time. He gulped from the heavy cup, waiting to see what Anna would say. Nothing came. She sat staring at her coffee, twisting the cup back and forth on the saucer. Ill-concealed disappointment now filled her face.
“I can’t pretend anymore,” Tom said. “I want to do what I want to do—not what Dad wants me to do. I want to be free, to work outside in the fresh air. I’m sick of the smell of medicine, and I’m sick of sickness, cadavers and the hypocrisy of those that take the Hippocratic Oath. I want the fresh air of the Hawk Ranch, and I want to be free to be with you.”
“But Tom…you’ve worked so long for it. It would be such a waste for you to drop medicine now.” Anna’s eyes reddened as she stared at him, her lips quivering in unbelief. “Besides, we need doctors. Look at Mother lying flat on her back the past few years, wasting away because no one has found a cure for her heart problems.”
“That’s what I mean, Anna. Can’t you see? It’s all so useless—so many incurable diseases, so much pain that medicine hasn’t begun to touch. Oh, sure—someone will occasionally stumble onto a vaccine but you knock out one disease and two others will take its place. Medicine primarily consists of passing out pills and with not too much more efficacy than in Hippocrates’ time. We just do a better job of selling it now.” His voice trailed off unconvincingly, as he said all the words he had practiced silently on the railroad train ride to Guymon. Suddenly, the coherent, powerful statements were falling flat, splashing like raindrops on the sidewalk just outside the café window.
“You can’t believe that, Tom,” Anna said, turning her head to one side in an accusing glance. “Besides, your father would be outraged. He’d simply die!”
Tom looked away from her. The steamy window beside them revealed the curved shadows of more cars and trucks along Main Street. She had hit a nerve and she knew it. She knew how his father had planned and worked for him to become a doctor; how he had required him to forego baseball and even manual labor on the ranch for fear he would knock down some knuckles and make his fingers less dexterous; how he had kept after him year after year to improve his grades and had finally succeeded in getting him accepted into the University of St. Louis Medical School after he returned from serving in the army. She knew how badly Benjamin Bristow wanted the M.D. for his son. Tom knew it even more. Throughout his life, it was an ironclad milepost that loomed on the horizon. His father knew what he wanted for Tom, and Tom had always assumed that it was his destiny, simply because his father said so. Questions, once fleeting shadows, had become mountains.
“So that was it,” Tom’s thoughts flashed crazily as the words from Anna’s mouth tormented him. “I have to give up what I want so my father’s wants can be satisfied. For years, Benjamin had put him in a one-way, non-stop rut and there seemed to be no way of escaping.
Suddenly, momentarily, Tom did escape, faraway. Okinawa beckoned him. He saw Higa standing, welcoming him back. She was always available to him, a distant memory he could run to whenever he needed, an emergency antidote that he kept in reserve that no one knew about except himself. Higa was as real as Anna or his father, even though she was separated from him by five thousand miles of Pacific water and a half-decade of trying to put her out of his mind. No one would know how he had tried to forget Higa. But she always came back to him, usually when he least expected her, when he was in the middle of a grueling final examination or, sometimes, at the very moment he was kissing Anna. And now, she was back in his thoughts.
He forced himself back to Guymon, to the present, to the booth where he sat with Anna.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, more angrily than he had intended. “Let’s forget it now.”
He threw a tip on the table and handed a dollar to the old man behind the cash register. While he waited for the change, Anna came up beside him and put her hand on his arm. He felt his muscles tighten and he avoided looking at her so she wouldn’t see the anger in his eyes.
Why did she have to be so hide-bound to her ill mother? If it weren’t for that, they could have been married years ago. And why did she have to be so contrary now about his determination to give up medicine? It was the only way they could have each other now. Why couldn’t she have accepted his plan, not necessarily with enthusiasm, but at least with simple agreement. Instead, she seemed to echo everything his father wanted. She was like the professors at school and like his father.
Responsibility. Self-discipline. What you do now will determine your future. Make good choices or somebody else will have to decide for you. Never sacrifice the future on the altar of the present. Everything had to be so complex. Suddenly, he wanted to get away, to sort out his ragged thoughts. He didn’t really want to hurt her, but…
“I’ll see you later,” he said, pulling his arm away from her and carefully doffing his fedora. He walked to the door and turned to look at her. He could see the disappointment in her eyes.
“We were expecting you for dinner. Mother and Dad will be…” She stopped after walking halfway to the door biting her lip. Waiting.
“Tell them hello for me,” Tom shot back, more brusquely than he really wanted it to sound. “I’ll take a rain check on the dinner.”
Tom opened the door and stepped out into the drizzling rain. His insides felt empty and sick. He wondered if Anna was still standing in the café, and after a half block he turned and looked back toward the Silver Grill; there was no sign of her. He pulled his hat down further on his head and buttoned the top button of his raincoat. He stood, waiting, staring at the front door of the Silver Grill. Finally, a taxi sputtered its way down the street, its noisiness breaking the dull monotony of the rain. The driver, Archie, was a bushy red- headed man with only one arm. Tom had seen him driving Guymon’s lone taxi since he could remember. He waived him over to the curb.
“There’s a young woman. Anna Taylor. You may know her…”
“Yep, the preacher’s daughter. Right?”
“Yes, Dr. Taylor’s daughter,” Tom answered, bending down so he could talk without shouting. “She’s in the Silver Grill. See that she gets home without walking in the rain. He handed the driver a five dollar bill. As Archie started to roll up his window and drive away, Tom yelled as an afterthought, “Give her time to stop by the grocers! She always buys groceries on Saturdays.”
Archie stopped his cab momentarily, turning to look at Tom, holding a soggy cigar with two fingers of his only good hand and using the other two fingers on the steering wheel. Then the driver pulled away, drove to the end of Main Street, made a U-turn, and headed back to the Silver Grill. He pulled up to the curb and honked.
Tom moved over behind a neon sign and watched as the driver honked the second time. Maybe she had slipped out of the café without him noticing and was walking home in the rain. He felt better when he saw the door to the grill swing open. Anna walked to the waiting cab. She stood beside the cab for a moment, bending forward, talking to the driver, her hands tucked away in the pockets of her raincoat.
Tom kept watching as she straightened up and glanced down the street in his direction before getting into the cab. He had an urge to jump out from behind the sign and run to her, to apologize for his boorish behavior, to ask her forgiveness, to kiss and make up. The moment was gone before he could decide, and the cab with its precious cargo drove out of sight.
Tom was left alone with his blinking, hissing neon sign. The empty, sick feeling within him grew larger. Drops of rain dripped off the brim of his hat. For the first time he realized he was standing next to neon letters that spelled LONNIE’S POOL HALL. Behind the sign, a well-worn door leading into Lonnie’s stood slightly ajar. The smell of hamburgers and beer blended comfortably with the sound of men laughing. It was a warm, dry place. He opened the door a little wider and walked in.
“Give me a large draw and a sack of peanuts,” Tom said, sitting down on one of the plain wooden stools in front of the bar. His voice sounded curt even to himself, but no one seemed to notice. The bald headed man behind the bar moved quickly through a well-worn routine of grabbing a mug, setting it under a spigot and watching the yellow body of the beer eat its way up through the sudsy head.
Lonnie’s was the same as it had always been. The bald-headed bartender was more of a waiter than a barkeep. A grease-fringed short-order menu above the bar offered the same spaghetti-red, chili-with- beans, chili-plain, ham sandwich, cold-beef sandwich, bean soup and “Today’s Special.” The prices had changed, though only slightly, since Tom used to come to Lonnie’s with other high school chums for a game of eight ball or snooker.
Back then they were too young to buy beer, but occasionally they would manage for an intermediary to get it for them. Then they would sneak the golden, forbidden liquid back to the restroom. Amid rank waves of urine stench and graffiti-covered walls, they splashed it down youthful throats amid raucous and boisterous laughter. There mere thought of those moments brought back the smell the pungently blended odors of beer and stagnant urine.
It was a strange place for young boys to go, it seemed to Tom now, but back then the place held a magnetic, special attraction. There was something dangerous and alluring about the dank, almost evil, dimly-lit spot that kept them coming back. Perhaps it made them feel superior to slip something by the adults, but he never thought about it that way before.
After a couple of more draws from the frothy amber brew, Tom began to feel a sense of satisfaction, a sort of giddy comfort from this sameness that pervaded Lonnie’s Pool Hall. Two snooker tables still held their rank at the head of a row of other smaller and less pretentious pool tables. The “reds” and “colors” on the snooker tables made the same merry clacking sounds as the solid and striped balls on the pool tables as they raced over the fuzzy green felt cloth in response to smack after smack of cue sticks. It was a cacophony of striking ivory sounds that filled the room with a percussive symphony, blending perfectly with the Hank Williams’ honky-tonk song blaring in the background from the jukebox:
I got a feelin’ called the blues, oh, lawd, Since my baby said good-bye And I don’t know what I’ll do All I do is sit and sigh, oh, lawd That last long day she said good-bye Well lawd I thought I would cry She’ll do me, she’ll do you, she’s got that kind of lovin’ Lawd, I love to hear her when she calls me Sweet daddy, such a beautiful dream I hate to think it all over I’ve lost my heart it seems I’ve grown so used to you some-how Well, I’m nobody’s sugar-daddy now And I’m lonesome I got the lovesick blues.
Tom ordered another large beer and ambled with it and his peanuts back to the second table, distancing himself from the jukebox and its mournful tune He strained to listen to the clicking cue sticks, the colorful conversations, the clanging pans in the kitchen—anything besides the depressing song.
Something about a man playing snooker at that table made him stop and study him for a moment. He was muscular and his red, pudgy face almost hid two small eyes that peered out at the balls on the table. Except for his massive size, the man looked strikingly familiar.
Then Tom remembered. It was Willie! Tom couldn’t remember the guy’s last name. When Tom was in high school, Willie had been a skinny, wiry guy. This man had the same crooked teeth, but he was huge. Of course, eight years would change him a lot. Still, it definitely was Willie.
“What was his last name?”
Tom watched him as he crouched to shoot, then as he straightened up and pulled a cigar from his heavy lips. He seemed to enjoy pouring out colorful expletives toward his cue stick and the balls on the table.
“Lusby!” That was it. “Willie Lusby.”
Tom tossed the remainder of his peanuts into his mouth and took a long swallow of beer. He had almost forgotten how the foamy head on a beer tickled his lips. It had been a long time, especially under the withering schedule of medical school, since he had drunk any beer. Too long. This was living! He felt care- free, taking another long swallow.
He sat down on a high-legged chair by the table where the red, pudgy faced man was playing.
“Seven ball in the corner, Jennings,” the big man said. Grinning cruelly, Willie laid his cigar butt on the edge of the table, “and if I make it I’ll have your ass stretched over a barrel.”
His small eyes gleamed. Sliding the cue stick back and forth knowingly through his curled finger several times, he cracked the cue ball into the seven, knocking it into the corner pocket just as he had predicted.
“That gives me the game,” the big man said, chalking the score noisily onto the chalkboard.
Jennings had been standing unobtrusively to one side, so quiet that Tom just now realized he was a party to the game. He was average height but almost as slender as the cue stick he leaned on. In fact, the stick seemed to be propping him up as if it were a crutch. His skin was well tanned, almost leathery. From his clothes and demeanor, Tom judged him to be a farmer or farmer’s hired hand who had come into town to enjoy a rainy Saturday afternoon off.
Jennings stood for a moment after the seven ball thudded into the pocket, his lips quivering as though wanting to say something but unable to get it out. He looked nervously toward the blackboard and the score seemed to drain the color from his face. Finally, without saying a word, he walked over and racked his cue stick and started to leave.
The pudgy faced man stuck a heavy, hairy arm out to bar his way. “You forget something, plowboy?”
The skinny man looked up at him with a surprising amount of defiance. He said nothing but tried to duck under the heavy arm.
“You ain’t getting out of here without paying me, hoss!” The pudgy one grabbed a handful of Jenning’s shirt as he spoke.
Jennings still looked a little defiant but his voice was whiney and pleading, “You…you didn’t add the score right, Willie. It’s a tie and I don’t owe you a damned cent. We both got forty-seven.” He pointed at the numbers on the blackboard and Tom could see, quickly adding the figures in his head, that the pudgy-faced man, Willie, had erroneously given himself forty-nine instead of the correct total of forty-seven.
“You’re crazier’n hell,” Willie shot back, his voice sounding even more cruel. “Pay me the damned fifty we bet fair and square, or I’ll wring your skinny neck.”
The thin man glanced furtively, desperately around the room desperately, leaning back limply in the shirt that Willie still grasped in his meaty fist. His frightened eyes stopped on Tom. “You can add can’t you, mister?” he asked plaintively, pointing to the obvious two point error on the blackboard. “What do you say the score is?”
Willie joined the skinny one in staring at Tom, both waiting for him to speak—the skinny one like an accused man waiting for the judge to pronounce his sentence, and the pudgy-faced one much as a prosecuting attorney confident he had already won his case.
Tom got up from his chair and set his beer mug down. For a moment the two faces seemed to consist of four glaring eyeballs.
“Why should I get involved?” he thought quickly. “Let them fight their own battles.”
Tom looked at both of the men: “Uh…I haven’t been paying much attention.”
Deliberately, he turned away from the desperate eyes of the skinny one and started walking toward the front of the pool hall. After a few steps, he stopped and started to explain that he had to have another beer, but the two men weren’t looking at him anymore. The pudgy-faced one was shoving the skinny one out the door and into the alley behind the pool hall. Tom didn’t know why, but he felt somehow compelled to follow a dozen or so other pool hall patrons who were scurrying outside to see what would happen.
Tom slipped out of the back door just in time to see the lanky farmer pull himself up from the foul sogginess of the alley mud. He staggered to his feet and brushed at the mud splattered on his trousers by the fall, mumbling at the same time about the two point error.
Tom noticed that the rain had stopped falling. Still, the alleyway was a sporadic series of muddy pools. The farm hand was standing in the center of one.
“I’m giving you one more chance to pay me the bet, Jennings.” Willie’s face was a twisted grin of superiority. “You’ll pay one way or the other you, and it don’t make me no never-mind which way it is.”
Jennings was still bent forward wiping at the mud on his trousers when the blow landed. It caught him on the side of his thin nose. Tom heard the cartilage snap and saw the blood spurt at the same time. He wouldn’t permit himself to look away, not even after the pudgy one picked his victim up and hit him again and again. Quickly, within moments, the skinny one’s desperate eyes were swollen shut and the slim features had become almost unrecognizable. Tom wanted to grab the pudgy one and stop the massacre, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Finally, an old man came from inside the pool hall and waded in to stop the one-sided fight. For some reason, the elderly gent didn’t seem afraid of Willie at all. The bully quit with surprising willingness, apparently content with his bloody spoils. Willie wiped his blood-stained knuckles victoriously, deliberately, on his jeans, grinned triumphantly at the people in the circle, then stalked back into the pool hall.
Tom stayed behind to help the old man pick Jennings up out of the mud. After a little coaxing, with the help of the rain falling on his face, the two men brought the plowboy around enough to get him to his feet.
“Everybody knew he was cheating me,” Jennings mumbled between clinched teeth, “but nobody would say so. Everybody knew he was cheating me—everybody!”
The old man went back inside the pool hall. Tom squatted down beside Jennings, forcing himself to stare at the bleeding face. The rain seemed to be falling harder than before. Blood from the cowboy’s face washed onto the alleyway’s mud.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said, “I knew he was cheating, too. You were right. I knew.”
Tom pulled out a clean white handkerchief and placed it carefully with a practiced hand over the nose to stop the flow of blood. Then he helped him through the alley and to the farm hand’s ancient, rust-covered Chevrolet pickup truck.
“I’m truly sorry.” Tom tried to keep his voice steady. “I should have helped. I just…” Impulsively, Tom reached into his back pocket for his leather wallet, pulled out a fifty dollar bill, and jammed it into Jennings’ hand.
“Maybe this will help,” he said. “Maybe it will help make up a little for what I should have done. Maybe it will help you with…”
Jennings looked at Tom for a moment through swollen eyes, then his eyes that had flickered momentarily with a glimmer of gratefulness turned a steely, hateful, hopeless gray. The farmhand stuck the currency into his would-be benefactor’s chest pocket, opened the creaky door to his pickup, and through bloody lips spat out the words, “Take your money, mister, and go buy yourself some damned guts.”