By Charles Deemer


From Prism International, Spring 1971

Roll of Honor, Best American Short Stories 1972


GROOVY, THE WHOLE SCENE, even better than his short-timer's party in Baumholder, Germany, a year ago: the roast pig, which Tee was still carving, his large black hands glistening with fat; the colossal supply of beer and booze, which Phil was serving from behind the portable bar in the back comer of the yard (grass was verboten, Tee being straight); the huge happy crowd, predominantly black, predominantly middle-aged, incredibly friendly; and the sounds, out of sight, of the jazz combo on the patio; and the dancing, which Roy dug most of all, that sensuous and rhythmic elasticity which was theirs alone (man, how they could dance!). In line for seconds, Roy watched and saw the obvious: only a spade could dance like a spade. Witness whitey who was trying now and being made a fool of by the black girl who was his partner. Hours earlier Roy had witnessed whitey's arrival in black turtleneck, bellbottoms and shades, whitey chanting Skin, baby! to every black man within reach. When Roy's turn came, whitey merely had nodded, as one white man to another, and Roy had turned and walked away. 

How hungry are you?" Tee asked. "Or should I say, how hungry are you still

"Half as much as the first time," said Roy. 

"Half? You're kidding." Tee began filling Roy's plate with pig. 

"Beautiful party, Tee. Incredible." 

Tee grinned, as close as he would come to agreeing. Roy had known him only for five months, having met Tee and Colette and Phil at The Ash Grove during a Lightning Hopkins gig, but he had recognized Tee's humility early. To brag about the success of his own party was the last thing Tee would do, and so Roy repeated, "I mean it, I've never seen such a beautiful party." 

Tee laughed. "We try to do this every summer. I get the pig, and Phil and some others get the liquor." 

"Out of sight." 

"How many do you think are here?" 

"Jesus. A hundred." 

"Colette gave up counting at a hundred fifty." 

"Beautiful. Man, that's enough!" 

"I think you're on a diet." 

"Enough, really. Beautiful." 

There were tables near the bar and Roy headed that way, weaving his path slowly through the black crowd, he had never seen so many black men in one place at one time. The juke box was at full volume, Brownie McGhee wailing Walk On! as Sonny Terry echoed with harp. In front of the box a half-dozen black GIs, none in uniform, were dancing without partners, with themselves. The club was packed but Roy saw no other whites in the crowd, the German whores not counting, and this scared him. Crooks, on the other hand, was not bothered; he went ahead to the bar and when he found Roy hesitating near the entrance, Crooks called, Come on, man! Roy followed quickly then, a twitch of fear in his gut. He had heard the stories about knifings, knifings right here in Baumholder's own Bop City Club', about the continuous race war in which a black knife slipped without resistance into a white crowd. He progressed carefully and when he reached the back of the yard he spotted an empty stool at the end of the bar and went for it. 

"What'll it be, Mr. Hawkins?" Phil greeted him. Phil always called everyone 'mister'. 

"Beer. Mind if I eat at the bar?" 

"Please. What are they, thirds or fourths?" 

"Seconds. Man, I'm not sure I can handle them. Tee wouldn't quit." 

"I understand," Phil said. He grinned, a pipe clenched in his teeth. 

Roy ate leisurely, luxuriously. Phil often came by and topped Roy's glass whenever it was less than half full. Roy figured that Phil was in his niche tonight: puffing on his pipe, he kept moving up and down the bar, more concerned about a half-empty glass than about a customer's anecdote. He moved contemplatively, to the slow pulse of the pipe, and reminded Roy of one of his professors at Pasadena City College. Phil had the disposition of an intellectual, which made his friendship to Tee a curious one. An administrator for Bell Telephone, Phil was lighter than a Spaniard and quite articulate, while Tee, as dark as rich chocolate, drawled with an accent and worked in a warehouse (using brawn, no doubt). But Roy had come to learn that Tee and Phil did many, if not all, things together; they even ran a small Fix-It Shop on Adams Boulevard together. 

When Roy finished eating, Phil threatened to fetch him thirds but Roy declined and tossed the paper plate into a trash box. Food had whetted his thirst, the inevitable cycle. Because his car wasn't running, Roy had taken the bus into Los Angeles early in the afternoon to help Tee and Phil with the preparations. He had begun drinking immediately, sipping beer while Tee strung a mammoth fish net over the patio for atmosphere and Phil set up the portable bar, where Crooks had already ordered drinks. You have to check out the sides on this box, Crooks told him, and when the beers came he was off into the crowd before Roy could stop him. Quickly he followed: 

ahead was the juke box, still encircled with dancing GI's. How would they be able to get close enough to the box to check out the sides? Crooks cleared a path, Roy close on his tail. Look here, Crooks said, Look at all the Miles on here. And Billie Holiday, man. With Teddy Wilson on piano and The Prez on sax. Look, Horace Silver. Man. And blues, too, Roy learned, for a John Lee Hooker side came on. Crooks yelled, Your man! Let's do it! Do it!, yelling even as he joined the black dancers. Do it! Crooks called but Roy couldn't move. He was sweating under his uniform and couldn't moue, however badly he wanted to leave, at least to return to the bar. Later in the afternoon the first guests arrived, and for a while Roy was the only white man present, a fact that vaguely had flattered him. The scene was different now: two or three dozen white faces were mixed with the black, though Roy had no desire to seek them out. 

"Man, we need a speaker back here!" 

Whitey was crowding in beside Roy, using the black girl who had been his dance partner as a buffer. When the girl's body glanced Roy's arm she smiled and said, "Hi." Whitey's neck stretched out of the turtleneck and he repeated, "We need a speaker back here!" 

Phil came over and asked, "What's the problem?" 

"We can't dig the sounds back here. How bout putting a speaker up somewhere, man?" 

Phil puffed on his pipe. 

"Like a speaker on the tree there. Dig?" 

"I don't think so," said Phil. "To be honest, I rather despise jazz." He smiled slightly and moved down the bar; Roy felt like applauding. 

Whitey turned to him. "What'd I do wrong, man?" 

The girl told him not to make a federal case. 

"Man." Whitey's face turned upward, and the bar lights reflected off the dark glasses. "Lucius," he said, suddenly thrusting his palm at Roy for skin. "This here's Beverly." 

Roy took the hand and shook it. Lucius! A black name, he might have guessed. Lucius. "Im Roy Hawkins." 

Lucius said, "You could hook into their amp and hang a speaker on the tree there. We could dig the sounds then." 

"Maybe some people don't want to hear them," said Beverly. 

"You dig the sounds?" Lucius asked Roy, then went on quickly: "We could take a vote. A little democracy action! You dig that? How many want the sounds back here?" he called. A black man at the bar began to chuckle softly to himself, and Lucius repeated, "How many want sounds?" He started down the bar, taking his poll personally. 

"You want to dance?" Beverly asked Roy. Her eyes were wide and white as she waited for a reply. She was very black, very buxom, and Roy looked away. 

"Come on."

When she took his hand, Roy felt the dampness of his own palm. He didn't want to dance, he couldn't their way, but she was pulling him through the dark crowd and he could muster no resistance. He wanted to dance, he didn't: he wanted a dance he could manage, a slow dance, he couldn't join Crooks out there, conspicuous in the crowd, trying too hard to be rhythmically elastic. Roy would prefer to be in The Family Bar, a white bar, getting smashed. Granted, all the sounds were here, the jazz and blues, his music, but he could hear the blues back in the billets, he could play his records, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, B. B. King, Howling Wolf, his records, he had records in the billets. Downtown a white man found his comfort in a white bar. The bars in Baumholder had segregated themselves, that was the point. Comfort, not laws. A man went where he was comfortable. Comfortable, even with a juke box full of shitkicking hillbilly crap. White, comfortable: where there was no pressure on him to dance he would be able to maneuver without black and elastic limbs, which were not and could not be his, which no white man could imitate convincingly no matter how many black masks he put on. Roy wanted a slow dance, and when they reached the periphery of swift jazz rhythms he pulled on Beverly's hand and told her, "I can't dance to that." 

"Of course you can," said Beverly. "Come on." 

At the patio she broke free, turned, lifted her arms high and began to move before him like his own hired stripper. If he were black, he would move like her very shadow and woo her and win her away from the black-masked asshole improbably named Lucius; white, he stood still and stared at her, the flush full on his cheeks. 

"Come on," Beverly urged. "Let it all hang out." 

Cautiously, he tried. He thought there were eyes on him, black countenances amused by his feeble and doomed attempt; but Beverly kept cooing, "Let it all hang out," and he tried. He shuffled his feet in a pattern while his arms raised and lowered like parts of a crane. Certainly he knew how to dance fast, but not with soulful elasticity; he had only the jerky and mechanical habits of his youth. 

"You got it, baby," Beverly told him. "Now like this. Watch me. We walk the dog like this, we walk the dog." 

Roy watched her hold out one hand, holding an imaginary leash; the other hand went to her hip and stirred her pelvis into the gesticulations of an act of love. Roy quit dancing. 

"Don't stop," Beverly said. "We walk the dog." 

Voices behind him added, "You were doing good," "You had it, brother, and dropped it," "Pick it up again." 

He went quickly into the crowd. Heading toward the bar, he bumped bodies indiscriminately and didn't stop to apologize. He found Lucius and Phil arguing; neither noticed his arrival, so Roy listened. 

"Man, like I didn't mean to bug you," said Lucius. 

Phil smiled. "I haven't seen a single mosquito here tonight, have you, Mr. Frank?" An old man at the bar laughed. 

"Mosquitoes? You're jiving. Like that's okay, man, only dig that I didn't mean to bug you. The speaker was a plan. You dig that? I didn't mean to bug you." 

"You sure have bugs on the mind. Perhaps you need a repellant." 

"That's not cool at all," said Lucius. 

"Cool? In the middle of summer?" 

During the laughter Lucius discovered Roy, who looked away. Lucius brought a cellophane bag from his pocket and set it on the bar. Putting some cigarette paper beside it, he asked Roy, "Say, man, is Beverly dancing or what?" 

Before Roy replied, Phil said, "Is that what I think it is?" 

"It's grass, man." Lucius shook his head. "Grass make you uptight, too?" 

"Put it away," Phil said sternly. "Put it away now." 

Lucius chuckled but put the bag and paper away. Standing up, he said, "Okay, man. Your way, I'm easy." He went to Roy. "Beverly dancing?" Roy nodded. "Your way," Lucius told Phil. He moved into the crowd. 

"I don't know how he keeps himself out of jail," Phil told the bar. The amusement in his tone surprised Roy. "You want a beer, Mr. Hawkins?" 

"With a shot of bourbon." 

"Boilermaker? I guess it's your body." 

His white body indeed. Stiff, it had been a machine on the patio, a soulless machine. Next to Beverly, who moved so seductively, he must have come off like a zombie, another phony black-masked white bastard looking for rhythms around him made him dizzy. He became panicky, the dancers the water of his drowning. He had to get out, into fresh air, and he called to Crooks, Im leaving! and started for the door. Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, expecting always to be stabbed. Then the very hand he feared was on his shoulder, grabbing him, stopping him. His belly tightened, resistance to the entering blade he expected. Hey Hawkins, a voice behind him. The hand turned him around and he came face to face with Bradford, the spade who slept above him in the billets, who was grinning and saying, Good to see you, man. Though in the club's low lights they all looked alike and perhaps Roy had made a mistake or rhythms that didn't belong to his heritage. His heritage was closer to Lawrence Welk, the idol of his parents. 

He drank, and Phil delivered boilermakers as quickly as Roy consumed them. He drank and thought of Beverly; he drank, thinking it would really be something to have a black woman. 

"Here comes Jazzbo." 

Roy looked up. "What?" His voice told him he was drunk, really and finally drunk. 

"Jazzbo's coming back," Phil told him. 

Roy saw Lucius and Beverly making their way through the crowd. Abruptly he stood up, ignoring whatever Phil was saying, and staggered away from the direction of Beverly's approach. He had to avoid her, had to spare himself the polite and phony compliment he was sure she'd deliver about his dancing. When he reached the patio, which was still a mass of rhythm, he decided to go into the house for a piss. On the way he noticed Tee in the driveway: Tee was being talked to by two cops, two white cops. Pigs. Sons of bitches. 

"Hey!" Roy called out, approaching them. "He's my friend! Tee's my friend, I'll vouch for him." 

"Well, looky here," Tee said, grinning. 

"If he did something wrong, me too," said Roy. "You understand me?" He put an arm around Tee. "You don't take him unless you take me, too. We're together. We're brothers. Have to take us both, right, Tee? Have to take us both. We're just having a party anyway." 

One of the policemen said, "Quite a party." He grinned. Everyone was grinning. 

"So what the hell's wrong?" Roy asked. He lost his balance and had to use Tee to keep from falling. Recovered, he would save Tee from the pigs. Lucius bringing in that grass was the hang-up. 

"Nothing's wrong," said Tee. "You want to lie down?" 

"Who's in trouble?" 

Tee said, "This is Jim and Andy. No trouble, I invited them. You want a bed?" 

Roy staggered back toward the house. 



Tee was smiling down at him. Rich chocolate brown face, ivory teeth like piano keys. "You want some aspirin?" 

Roy sat up on the divan. Colette brought him two aspirins and a glass of water, then returned to the kitchen. Thanks, he wanted to tell her: he had rasped unintelligibly. 

"You want some of the dog?" Tee asked. 

Roy coughed. It was morning, he saw. Or afternoon. The sun was up. 

"You want a beer?" 

"No, Jesus." He laughed nervously. "I'd better get home. What time is it?" 

"Little after eleven. I'll drive you later if you want to wait. Phil's coming over to help clean up." 

Roy stood; everything ached. "I've got to get home." 

"You got homework?" 

"Yeah. Where's my jacket?" 

Fetching it from across the room, Tee said with amusement, "You college boys sure like to drink." 

"Thanks," said Roy, taking the jacket. "I hope I behaved." 

"Sure. That Lucius ended up smoking dope in the can. When Jim and Andy were still here. I chased him out the door." 

"The asshole." Roy started for the door. 

"He doesn't think. Smoking dope with the police right here. He knew, too, he saw them here." Tee followed him to the door. "You don't want a beer? I'll drive you home later." 

"I've got to make it. Beautiful party. Beautiful, really. I'll phone you during the week." 

Outside the day was blinding. Roy stood on the porch, squinting and lighting a cigarette, then headed up the street. The bus stop was on Washington Boulevard, six blocks away, and he began lengthening his strides as the day came into focus. A musty morning, by the odor of it. Children were playing in the street, the black boys wearing faded shirts and dirty sneakers, the black girls in braids and ribbons that had lost their bounce. A strong odor accompanied him: his own hung-over staleness? He was reminded of things extinguished: cigarette butts, stogies, the fizzled firecrackers of July 4. He walked swiftly, eager to get home, man, said Bradford. Roy nodded, lying, yes, Im at home. Yes. Thanks. But he wanted to leave. Im glad you came, said Bradford. Then Crooks arrived, and Crooks and Bradford gave skin. Come over to the table, said Bradford. And they went, but not Roy; he wanted to leave. Crooks returned and slapped him lightly on the arm. Be cool, said Crooks. All that shit's in your head. Be cool. Be home. Yesterday he had been nervous walking from the bus stop to Tee's house, but at least then his destination had been a bastion and a terminal. Roy liked Tee, he trusted him, he felt welcome in his home. The bus stop was no bastion, no terminal: he didn't even know how often the buses ran, or if they ran at all on Sunday. 

Two women were sitting on the bench on Washington Boulevard. They were fat, and already their dark faces shone with sweat. Roy considered going down the street to the next stop but he wasn't sure how far he'd have to walk and didn't want to miss the bus on the way. He stepped into the doorway of a sagging building and began to wait. Two minutes by his watch. Five. 

He sensed a conspiracy in the musty air: he was the only white man on the streets. He was isolated and a trespasser, at the mercy now of a bus schedule he didn't know. The odors of dust and decay surrounded him, the sun brought forth a damp fear at his hairline, he began to fidget. Once he turned in the doorway, thinking he heard something behind him. Just unused office space, on the door a weather-worn note giving the landlord's phone number. 

"Got a match?" 

Roy made a noise of fear. He turned to face a black man half-again his size, who held a cigarette in his lips and repeated, "Got a match?" 

Roy fumbled for his lighter and muttered, "Sure, of course." He knew that his hand would tremble if he tried to light the man's cigarette himself, so he simply handed him the lighter. He read sarcasm in the reply, "Thanks." The black man's countenance was menacing. Roy should have done it himself. 

The bus pulled to the curb as the man inhaled, and Roy maneuvered past him and rushed to the bus's opening door. The women beat him. They were fat and moved too slowly, and Roy waited for them to climb up the steps; waited. 

"Here, I don't want your lighter." 

"Oh." Roy took the lighter, put it in his pocket and turned back to the bus as the man strode away. He swallowed once, twice, waiting for the women to climb aboard.

When finally there was room in the doorway, he stepped up and in a moment of relief his gaze fixed upon the driver's silver badge, the metallic star that would guide him home.

Then Roy paid his fare and went to the back of the bus.