Breakfast was an important meal to Sonny. Like an air attack, it came in waves: first the cold cereal backed with a tall, frosty glass of milk; then the grapefruit half dusted with confectioner's sugar and topped off with a small glass of orange juice; and then the eggs and ham, four large Grade-A's cooked over-easy, the yellows staring up like weird goggles, the country ham deep red and salty, with a slightly burnt glaze. In a small bowl on the side the "Redeye" gravy, purse grease cooked from the ham and mixed with a dash of water, gravy to make a cardiologist roll over in his grave. And biscuits of course, tall, light, fluffy and baked to just the right shade of brown.
Sonny looked up from his eggs to her. A new girl, one he hadn't seen around before.
"Sure." He pushed the cup over toward the edge of the table. "Where's Glenda?"
The girl filled the cup. Sonny noticed that her hand was shaking as though she was unsure of herself. She was blonde and pretty in a ragged sort of way.
"Oh, she quit," the girl replied. Her voice was flat, midwestern. Not the usual southern drawl Sonny was used to hearing. In his part of Mississippi the accent was very pronounced. An "outsider" stood out like a sore thumb.
"Is that so?" He pushed a bit of egg around with his fork. "You know why?"
She shook her head. Her straight hair shifted in one mass. She had fine hair, he noticed, almost like baby hair.
"Miz Donnigan didn't say why, just said she wouldn't be comin' back," he said. She smiled, or hinted at the possibility. "You're Sonny Flood, ain't you?"
"Howdaya know that?" Sonny asked.
"I heard about you. . .I asked Miz Donnigan if it was you and she said it was." Her face flushed red, lighting up her cheekbones down onto her neck. "I heard about you," she said again.
Sonny smiled up at her. At 37, he was getting a little pudgy around the middle and had the beginnings of an extra chin, but he still wasn't a half-bad-looking fellow.
"You heard what?" She wasn't half bad herself, he mentally noted, prettier than Glenda. She was too thin, though; Sonny liked women with a little meat on them.
"That you was a hero of some kind, that you was a prisoner in Vietnam for a long time. . . " Her voice trailed off at the end as though she was afraid to mention something so terrible.
She shrugged and rolled in eyes in an awkward way. "Well, I heard you was a gambler and a ladies' man, too, and that you done some bootleggin' and just about anything you wanted and didn't nobody fool with you too much."
Sonny threw back his head and laughed. "Damn, I sound like a real rounder!" he said.
She looked embarrassed. "You sure eat a big breakfast," she said, apropos of nothing.
Sonny shrugged himself. "Eating nothing but a bowl of rice a day for six years gives you a big appetite," he said.
He grinned, to himself this time. He'd beaten the little bastards, he was tougher than they ever dreamed. They'd starved him and they'd beaten him, they'd done everything they could to break him down and they had failed. The strange thing was, Sonny didn't hate them or resent them. They had forced him to prove something to himself and he was grateful for that.
"It was a good education," he added, looking up at her.
"It must of been awful," she said. Her thin eyebrows came down between her eyes and she looked genuinely pained. A woman with a heart, Sonny thought.
"Nothing's ever as bad as it sounds to other folks. . . you just have to learn to go with the flow."
"I've heard that, but seems like it's hard to do sometimes."
"What's your name?" Sonny asked.
"Betty Sue Peevey. . . I used to be a Garner, before we left here."
"You any kind to Seth Garner?" Sonny knew the old red dirt farmer who lived over near Cane Creek, a lecherous old bastard who was tighter than a drum head.
He's my uncle, my daddy's brother," she said. Her mouth tightened into a little purse. "We moved off from here and went to Indiana when I was little. I don't really know him much."
"Ain't much to know," Sonny replied. He took another gulp of coffee, then motioned for her to refill his cup. "Then you're married huh?" That didn't matter to Sonny; if he was interested in a woman it didn't matter if she was married or not. In fact, sometimes it seemed the married ones were the easiest.
"Naw, I was but I got divorced. I was married for 11 years, though. . . Got two kids."
"Who tends to them while you work?"
"Oh, they're both in school and I get off about a half hour after school lets out. They stay by theirselves till I get home. I got a place right up the street, a little apartment over the jewelry store."
"Yeah, I know it, over Bright's."
"Sure, that's it." She swallowed hard a couple of times and the color came up deeper on her cheeks. "You know, I'm always home night, if you're ever by that way you can stop by. . ."
Sonny looked her in the eye and winked. It was more of a friendly gesture than a lewd one.
"Well, I'll keep that in mind, I surely will," he smiled good-naturedly.
Pookie's Pool Hall was the gathering place for all the knockabouts, roughnecks and unemployed in the town of Seeley. Sitting on a back street behind the town square near an abandoned railroad depot, it was considered a cancer of sorts by much of the local populace. Fights were frequent there and over the years there had been several killings. Men drank and gambled and putting the two together spelled trouble. But the fact was, Pookie Dawson was the biggest bootlegger in Yakanawa County and he paid off a lot of important people. Getting him closed down was next to impossible, as more than one Baptist minister and his outraged flock had discovered over the years.
When Sonny walked through the front door at 8:30 a.m. the joint was half full. The air smelled of cigarettes, stale beer and the greasy burgers that Pookie fried on the crusty old grill behind the counter; the health inspector was a good friend of Pookie's, else he would have been closed down long ago.
Sonny took a seat at the counter and ordered a beer. It would be some time before Red John and Henry and the real players showed up. For now, the tables were in the hands of several pimply-faced dropouts and a couple of old sodbusters, who were shooting eight ball for dead-on nothing.
Sonny Flood considered himself a supreme gambler. Whether with a pool cue, a deck of cards or a pair of dice he could do better than most. He was fairly lucky, but he understood that luck was but a small part of the equation. It was skill that counted, along with a healthy portion of pure nerve. A man who was unwilling to risk it all would never be a real winner. There was no feeling on earth like sitting behind a full boat and jacking the bet, wondering if the dude across the table had flushed or foured, staying cool and calm on the outside, unreadable, but with the adrenaline pumping somewhere behind the eyes. It was better than sex, those rare moments. Far more rewarding that a sweaty roll in the hay and a few seconds of transient pleasure.
A man knew he was a man behind a full boat. After sex, he sometimes wondered.
Sonny was on his seventh beer when Red John came in. "Ready to shoot a little pill this mornin?" Red asked. He was a long, lanky redhead who always had the burnt-out stub of a cigar clenched between his front teeth. Sonny couldn't recall ever seeing Red John with a whole cigar; it was kind of like that Arab fellow with the checkered table cloth on his head, always looked like he had a three-day growth of beard. Sonny wondered about such things.
"Damn straight," Sonny replied, sliding off the stool. "Damn straight" was something they'd said back in high school, one of those phrases that seemed to lodge in some crevice of the brain. Outside of that small circle, it might have sounded dated.
"Well, let's do it to it," said Red John.
When they approached the rear table the two kids shooting crazy eight didn't have to be told it was time to hang up the sticks. With a sad shrug they glanced at one another and did just that.
"Rack 'em, Bug," Red John said. Bug Tolbert was the official racked, a job he'd held as long as anybody could remember. Pookie paid him seventy-five cents and hour, fed him a couple burgers a day and let him sleep on a table at night. He had a tiny head and a long body that was mostly arms and legs. His eyes were huge and protruded from the sockets. His name fit perfectly, for he resembled nothing more than a huge, scrawny insect.
"Sawbuck OK?" asked Red John.
"Fine by me," Sonny replied, tilting his Blue Ribbon and taking a big gulp.
Red John shook the pill bottle loudly and drew his pair, passing the plastic bottle to Sonny. He shook it and let two of the small red "pills" drop out in his hand. A duce and a fifteen, damned good pills.
Sonny lost the lag and Red John broke the rack. The seven went on the break. Red John sighted on the one ball and sent it scooting effortlessly into the side pocket. "That's all she wrote," he said, lining up on the eight ball. The cue ball touched it with a gentle click and it whispered across the felt and dropped into a corner pocket. He straightened up and put his pills face up on the table. The one and the seven.
"Christ, how lucky can you get!" Sonny said, peeling off a tenspot and tossing it on the table. Loosing with a two and a fifteen seemed like a bad omen.
It was. By five that afternoon Sonny was down over $200.
"Shit, I might as well hang it up for today," he said. He unscrewed his stick and put in back in its custom case.
"That's the way it goes, first your money and then your clothes," said Red John. He picked up the bill and stuck it in his front pocket. "Hate to take your money, Son."
"Well, you been doing a damned good job of it," Sonny smiled. Win some and lose some, that was the name of the game. Sonny felt a little off today, something just wasn't setting right for him.
"We're gonna be rollin' the bones tonight out at the stock barn," Red John said. "Your contribution will be greatly appreciated."
"Think I'll skip it tonight," Sonny said. No need to keep pushing it when the luck was running against you.
"Well, if you change your mind. . . "
She sat the cop of coffee down beside him on the scarred end table. He noticed her hands: they were red and chapped.
"I was hopin' you'd drop by sometimes," she said. "Sorry I ain't got nothin' to offer besides the coffee."
Sonny smiled. "That's fine. I got a pint in my coat pocket. Want a little touch in your coffee?"
She shook her head. "I ain't much for drinkin'."
"You mind if I have one?"
"Lord no, go right on! I ain't got nothin' against drinkin', I just don't like the taste of it."
"Oh." He added a good-sized dollop of bourbon to the steaming coffee. The aroma came up, a pleasant smell. The small apartment smelled of stale spaghetti and something else. Maybe it was despair, hopelessness.
"I should of had things cleaned up more," she said self-consciously. "I normally don't keep such a messy house."
"It's fine," he said.
The oldest boy, about nine, had come out of the bedroom where she had sent him when Sonny first came to the door. He now stood in the doorway glaring at Sonny. Sonny smiled at him, but he only glared harder. A scruffy, mean-looking little bastard, Sonny thought. His eyes were dark and shifty, mean. He'd probably end up in the penitentiary or the graveyard before he was old enough to buy a beer.
"Who's he, Ma?" the kid asked. He continued to stare at Sonny.
"I thought I told you to get to your room!" she yelled. "Now get in there and stay there!"
"I don't like him," the kid said. He looked from Sonny to his mother. "He ain't gonna stay here is he?"
"One more word and I'll take the belt to you!" she cried, jumping up from the ragged sofa where she sat across from Sonny. The kid turned and fled into his bedroom, cursing as he did so.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, her cheeks flaming red. "It's hard to raise kids by yourself, I just can't seem to do nothin' with them. Least of all Tom Junior."
"Yeah, kids can be a pain in the ass," Sonny replied. He thought about his own kid for a moment, wondered where she was and if she was all right. She would be 16 now. Marge had divorced him while he was a prisoner in 'Nam, had given up and called it quits. She had known that he was alive, but hadn't wanted to wait for him.
And he couldn't really blame her. All he blamed her for was the fact that she had taken his girl and disappeared. That was unfair, to keep him from his child all those years.
"You got any kids?" she asked.
"Naw," Sonny lied." I was married once but it didn't work out." It was easier to lie than to get into it all.
"Seems like they hardly ever do anymore," she said. She took a small sip of coffee. "Tom didn't treat me right, but I guess I'd still be with him if he hadn't run off with a young gal that he knew. He used to beat me all the time."
"Why'd a woman stay with a man that beat them," asked Sonny. "I've never been able to understand that."
"Well, I couldn't do nothin' else," she replied. "Anyway, you get used to it after a time."
Yeah. You did get used to it after a while. Sonny could remember the slopes coming for him in the dead of night. Taking him out of the cramped "tiger cage" that was his home. They were always smiling and jabbering something he couldn't understand, but he could understand the reason for their good cheer. They were going to have some fun. And then would come hours of pure agony, pain beyond description.
But strangely, he got to the point where he looked forward to it. It was the only thing left that made him know for certain he was still alive.
He had more coffee and whiskey and she told him her life story. He didn't really care to hear it, it was all too sad and common. But what the hell. It beat dropping the rest of his roll in a dice game he couldn't win.
She'd had a hard row to hoe, that was for sure. Her father had started abusing her when she was nine. Just touching in the beginning, but that soon led to other things. After a time, he'd rape her every night after he mother left to go to her cook job at a cafe. She hated to have him lying on top of her, grunting and sweating. Hurting her with his big thing. She tried to tell her mother but only got her jaws slapped for the effort. And then her two brothers found out and they began to use her too.
"I felt like a piece of used meat," she said sadly.
She met Tom Peevey when she was 16. He was a big strapping fellow, a steelworker. Handsome. Always had a pocketful of money and loved to spend it on a good time. He bought her things and took her places, and taught her that sex could be fun. Tom was not so large as her daddy or brothers and it didn't hurt so much.
Things changed right after they married. He began to lay out at night, coming in drunk with lipstick all over his shirt collar and a snarl on his face. When she said anything he beat her unmercifully. He would make her do disgusting things to him and curse her all the while, calling her "whore" and "bitch."
"Sometimes he'd tie me face down on the bed and. . .you know, do it to me back there till I bled. He'd stick a towel in my mouth so the neighbors couldn't hear me scream."
And yet for all that she hadn't left him. He had showed up one afternoon after a three-day drunk, a brassy young redhead on his arm. He told her he wanted her and the children--"the bastards" as he called them--out. He hated the children, claimed they weren't his, although Tom, Jr. looked just like him. He gave her bus fare and said he never wanted to lay eyes on any of them again or he would kill them all.
They wound up in the bedroom about 11:00. They had sat and talked, Sonny drinking until his pint was finished. She had placed her hand on his thigh and kissed him finally. It was a tired, sad kiss. When she took his hand a led him down the short hallway to her bedroom he followed aimlessly.
It was no use. She tried everything she knew and still nothing happened.
"I'm sorry," he said finally. He was glad it was dark and could not see his face.
"It's OK," she said, rolling over onto her back. "I know I ain't much of a turn on."
"No, don't say that," Sonny said. He felt sorry for her. But she was right, she had told him too much about her. It was like when you sometimes get too familiar with a woman they lose their appeal. Like when you watch them sit on the pot and do their business, it's never the same again. And he felt like he'd smelled her shit.
"I just drank too much," Sonny said, "that happens sometimes when you drink too much." He wanted to jump up and grab his clothes and run.
"Naw, it's no matter," she said. "Look, you're a nice guy. I guess maybe I come on a little strong to you, I just ain't had a man in a while."
He reached over and touched her cheek. It was a tender gesture, or as close to one as he could come.
"Hey, maybe next time," he said, trying to sound light. He knew there wouldn't be a next time, not if he had anything to do with it.
"Sure," she replied, holding his hand against her cheek.
He got up and dressed, his back to her so she could not see his face in the dim light coming from the lamp.
"I hate to rush off like this, but there's this big dice game going on."
"Don't worry about it," she said softly.
"I feel real bad about this, you know," Sonny said.
"It ain't no big deal, don't let it bother you." She managed a tiny smile. "Like you said, maybe next time."
"Yeah, next time for sure."
Climbing into the cab of his pickup, he felt very strange. Almost as if he'd arrived at some turning point in his life.
Change, that's what he needed. He was in a rut. He'd start having breakfast at the Truck Stop, that's what he'd do. Maybe start hanging in the pool hall over in Meade for a change. Things were just getting too damned predictable.
He went to the stock barn and dropped the rest of his roll in the dice game. Some days it didn't pay to get out of bed.