Kent McDaniel: Counting Flowers on the Wall
It was Friday, early spring, half an hour before midnight. Crenshaw staggered through the door and over to three tables shoved together, where everybody sat. He fell into a chair and bellowed, “I’ll fight any man from any land who wears shoes, boots, or brogans.” We glanced up and went back to drinking our coffee.
The booths between the lunch counter and us were still empty, and all but one of the tables by the windows were, too. A bumper sticker on the wall behind the cash register said DON’T BLAME ME. I VOTED FOR GOLDWATER. On the jukebox The Statler Brothers were shouting: “Countin’ flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all…Playin’ solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one…Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kang-a-roo…”
The waitress strolled over in her white uniform, and Crenshaw shouted, “Six cups of coffee!” She kind of looked at him and he yelled, “I’m drunk!” She walked off nodding to herself like Crenshaw had proved something she suspected. This was the Egyptian Trails, a twenty-four hour restaurant, where every weekend, after midnight you could find any guy in town who was under twenty-five.
“Hey, Crenshaw,” I asked, “how come you didn’t just order one cup and have it refilled five times? You could’ve saved fifty cents.”
“Cause I’m drunk! Shit-head.”
“Oh.” I nodded. Crenshaw had short red hair, blue eyes, and a pale round face plastered with freckles. He was a year older than me, and a freshman down at Murray State, I’d heard. I didn’t know him all that well, but he’d always seemed OK. I’d never seen him drunk before, though.
In a minute the waitress strolled back carrying a tray with his six cups of coffee, which Crenshaw arranged in a neat line in front of him like dominoes. He pointed at my glass of ice water. “Put some ice in my coffee.”
I scooped up some with a spoon. As I started to dump it into one of Crenshaw’s cups, a hand tapped my shoulder. When I turned, Bob Adkins next to me gestured toward himself with one hand. He had a saltshaker in the other, and when I held the spoon in front of him he dumped a pile of salt on the ice. I dropped it all into one of Crenshaw’s cups. As he stared drunkenly at the floor, a process began: I’d get a spoonful of ice; Adkins would sprinkle salt all over it; I’d dump the ice into Crenshaw’s coffee; then while everyone snickered softly, we’d repeat the operation. This went on until each of Crenshaw’s cups of coffee had a healthy serving of ice and salt.
Pretty soon he looked up, lifted a cup of coffee to his lips, and drank. “Aaagh!” He sprayed coffee all over the table. He sampled all the other five cups, grimacing and spitting the coffee on the floor after each. When he finished he glared at me. “Did you put salt in my coffee?”
“No.” I smiled. “But I know who did.”
“Who!” he shrieked.
“I can’t tell.”
“Adkins.” Crenshaw peered at him. “Did you put salt in my coffee?”
“No,” Adkins said, “but I know who did.”
Crenshaw asked each of the other seven guys sitting there if they’d put salt in his coffee, and they all said the same thing: “No, but I know who did.”
“Waitress!” Crenshaw snapped his fingers. “Another cup of coffee!”
When she’d set the coffee in front of him, he glowered around the table, his pale freckled face bright pink. “All right, you guys,” he snarled, “I’m gonna go take a piss. When I come back, if there’s salt in this coffee, I’ll stomp the guy’s ass who did it, if I have to fight every one of you.” He stalked off across the room toward the restroom beside the lunch counter, saying, “I’ll fight any man, from any land, who wears shoes, boots, or brogans…”
Tom Phelps, who had a mostly full cup of coffee sitting in front of him, picked up a saltshaker, unscrewed its top, and dumped its contents into the coffee. Laughing lowly, he shoved it over to Crenshaw’s place and took the fresh coffee for himself.
On the juke-box The Beach Boys were complaining: “I’m gettin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same ole strip. I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip…”
Crenshaw lurched from the restroom. He paused to badger two farmers in a booth by the front window, demanding they tell who put salt in his coffee. When they gawked like he was talking in tongues, he bellowed at them. They kept shaking their heads in wonder while he raved, and finally he shook his head and stomped back to us. He took a sip of his coffee and spat it out.
“All right,” he growled, his blue eyes narrowed, “everybody out.” He stalked out into the night. So we all stood up laughing and trooped two by two between the coat rack and the counter with the cash register. We piled out the glass front door into the cool night and strolled under the awning and through parked cars into the middle of the lot, where we stood in a semicircle facing Crenshaw. On our right was The Egyptian Trails Motel, a green neon VACANCY sign flickering in its window.
Crenshaw shouted that we were “all gonna sweat blood” and he’d “slash our tires” and “break out our windows.” After a while you could see there wasn’t going to be a fight, so most of the guys went back inside. I left with Phelps and Adkins and a couple other guys to do some more drinking. After polishing off a couple of sixes, we headed back to The Egyptian Trails.
As we walked up to the front door, Crenshaw stumbled out. He shoved Adkins and growled, “get fucked.” Crenshaw stood about my height, around six foot, and he was stocky, but Adkins was six-six and built.
“What’d you say?” he asked.
“You heard me.”
“Hey, Crenshaw,” Adkins said, “you know who put that salt in your coffee? I did.”
“You wait till I’m sober,” Crenshaw snarled. “I’ll take care of you then.”
They exchanged words for a while, and it began to look like a fight might be brewing. Maybe sensing this, Adkins, despite his size, seemed to get edgy. “Yeah, Crenshaw,” he said, “I put salt in your coffee, and Joe helped me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and Phelps helped, too.” Phelps had a reputation as a bad man to mess with. Until he graduated last year, he’d been Captain of the football team and played ball-smashing, eye-gouging dirty football--even in practice. Phelps, catching the spirit of things, quickly involved his buddy Johnny Frazee, and Frazee naturally involved the last of our little group, Bill Maedecker. Of course, these last two hadn’t really put any salt in Crenshaw’s coffee; they probably just didn’t want to feel left out.
“All right,” Crenshaw asked, “How do you want to do it, one at a time, or all at once?”
“Are you kiddin’?” Adkins laughed. “All at once.”
We surrounded him and began to close in. But, it didn’t happen. The fight deteriorated into an exchange of insults. This kept up for maybe five minutes, and then Jerel Jeffords and Mike Childers hopped out of their car and walked up.
“Who are you with, them or me?” Crenshaw demanded.
“Hell, man!” Jeffords jumped into the air laughing like he needed a straight jacket. “I’m with the crowd!”
Crenshaw put the same question to anyone who drifted out of the restaurant or arrived later. Nobody strayed from Jeffords’ decision. Within half an hour over thirty guys surrounded Crenshaw, hurling a rain of derision at him. It was all pretty funny to me, but I was starting to worry about curfew. It was after one now, and I was seventeen. The Trails was out at the edge of town, but someone inside the restaurant could call the cops. Next June, when I turned eighteen I’d be OK after curfew, and couldn’t wait. I’d have to register for the draft. And unless I went to college, LBJ would send me to Viet Nam. But to my eyes no curfew looked like manhood.
The action had drifted to the left, and we were to the side of The Trails now, not in front, Crenshaw holding his own. He was unloading a barrage of taunts on us, spiced every now and then with: “I’ll fight any man from any land who wears shoes, boots, or brogans.”
“Come on you guys!” he howled. “Here I am backing all of you down! You fuckin’ cowards! I’m ashamed of you!”
“Crenshaw, you’re not brave,” somebody jeered, “you’re stupid.”
“I’m the man who won’t back down, that’s what I am!” Crenshaw screamed.
Phelps’s foghorn voice boomed, “You’re the man who eats shit on bread.”
“Oh, I know I’m gonna go.” Crenshaw’s blue eyes flared. “But, I’m gonna take one of you with me, and you don’t know who it’s gonna be. That’s what’s holding you back. That’s why I can back all of you down, that’s why you’re afraid.”
Crenshaw “backing us all down” gradually began to get old, and people started going back inside. When the crowd had dwindled to nothing, I went inside, myself. Finally the last of his tormentors left and Crenshaw was outside alone.
Sitting by an open window, sipping a coke, I watched him howl. “Come on out and fight you lily-livered bastards! I’m--I’m the man who won’t back down!” He gulped air. “I got balls!” He hit his chest, his voice a hoarse scream. “I’m the man who faced down the whole town!” He looked down at the blacktop. “I’m the man--I’m…” He gazed around the empty parking lot and then stared straight ahead. He drew his head back once in a half-nod.
He walked to his car, slow and careful as a tightrope walker. DSS
Kent McDaniel of Chicago, IL., has been a teacher, trade checker, farm hand, and blogs at www.dumbfoundingstories.wordpress.com. His book "Jimmy Stu Lives! was published in 2012 by Perumba Publishing. He's also a musician.
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