Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for Thalia High School, but it wasn't that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.
There was only one car parked on the courthouse square -- the night watchman's old white Nash. A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it. Sonny's pickup was a '41 Chevrolet, not at its best on cold mornings. In front of the picture show it coughed out and had to be choked for a while, but then it started again and jerked its way to the red light, blowing out spumes of white exhaust that the wind whipped away.
At the red light he started to turn south toward the all-night café, but when he looked north to see if anyone was coming he turned that way instead. No one at all was coming but he saw his young friend Billy, headed out. He had his broom and was sweeping right down the middle of the highway into the gusting wind. Billy lived at the poolhall with Sam the Lion, and sweeping was all he really knew how to do. The only trouble was that he overdid it. He swept out the poolhall in the mornings, the café in the afternoons, and the picture show at night, and always, unless someone specifically told him to stop, he just kept sweeping, down the sidewalk, on through the town, sometimes one way and sometimes another, sweeping happily on until someone noticed him and brought him back to the poolhall.
Sonny drove up beside him and honked. Billy quit sweeping at once and got in the pickup. He was a stocky boy, not very smart, but perfectly friendly; picking him up made Sonny feel less lonesome. If Billy was out the poolhall must be open, and when the poolhall was open he was never lonesome. One of the nice things about living in Thalia was that the poolhall often opened by 6:30 or 7 A.M., the reason being that Sam the Lion, who owned it, was a very bad sleeper.
Sonny drove to the hall and parked and took Billy's broom so he wouldn't go sweeping off again. The air was so dry and dusty it made the nostrils sting and the two boys hustled inside. Sam the Lion was up, all right, brushing one of the snooker tables. He was an old man, but big and heavy, with a mane of white hair; cold weather made his feet swell and he wore his old sheepskin house shoes to work in in the wintertime. He was expecting the boys and barely gave them a glance.
Once they were inside, Sonny let Billy have the broom again and Billy immediately went over to the gas stove to warm himself. While he warmed he leaned on the broom and licked a piece of green pool chalk. Sam the Lion didn't particularly care that Billy licked chalk all the time; it was cheap enough nourishment, he said. Sonny got himself a package of Cheese Crisps and made room for himself at the stove, turning Billy's cap around backward for friendship's sake. It was an old green baseball cap some lady had given Billy three or four summers before.
"Cold in here, Sam," Sonny said. "It's nearly as cold in here as it is outside."
"Not as windy, though," Sam replied. "I'm surprised you had the nerve to come in this mornin', after the beatin' you all took. Anybody ever tell you boys about blockin'? Or tacklin'?"
Sonny ate his Cheese Crisps, unabashed. Crowell, the visiting team, had tromped Thalia 28 to 6. It had been a little embarrassing for Coach Popper, but that was because the local Quarterback Club had been so sure Thalia was finally going to win a District Crown that they had literally jumped the gun and presented the coach with a new .12 gauge Marlin under-over at the homecoming game two weeks before. The coach was quite a hunter. Two of Crowell's four touchdowns had been run over Sonny's guard position, but he felt quite calm about it all. Four years of playing for Thalia had inured him to defeat, and so far as he was concerned the Quarterback Club had been foolishly optimistic.
Besides, he could not see that he had much to gain by helping the coach get new shotguns, the coach being a man of most uncertain temper. He had already shot at Sonny once in his life, and with a new under-over he might not miss.
"Where's your buddy?" Sam asked.
"Not in yet," Sonny said. That was Duane, Sonny's best friend, who besides being an All-Conference fullback, roughnecked the midnight tower with a local drilling crew.
"Duane's gonna work himself into an early grave," Sam the Lion said. "He oughtn't to play a football game and then go out and work all night on top of it. He made half the yardage we made."
"Well, that never tired him out," Sonny said, going to get another package of Cheese Crisps.
Sam the Lion started to cough, and the coughing got away from him, as it often did. His whole body shook; he couldn't stop. Finally he had to stagger back to the washroom and take a drink of water and a swig of cough medicine to get it under control.
"Suckin' in too much chalk dust," he said when he came back. Billy hardly noticed, but Sonny felt a little uneasy. He didn't like to be reminded that Sam the Lion was not as young or as healthy as he once had been. Sam the Lion was the man who took care of things, particularly of boys, and Sonny did not like to think that he might die. The reason Sam was so especially good to boys was that he himself had had three sons, none of whom lived to be eighteen. The first was killed when Sam was still a rancher: he and his son were trying to drive a herd of yearlings across the Little Wichita River one day when it was up, and the boy had been knocked loose from his horse, pawed under, and drowned. A few years later, after Sam had gone into the oil business, a gas explosion knocked his second son off a derrick. He fell over fifty feet and was dead before they got him to town. Sam sold his oil holdings and put in the first Ford agency in Thalia, and his youngest son was run over by a deputy sheriff. His wife lost her mind and spent her last ten years rocking in a rocking chair. Sam drank a lot, quit going to church, and was said to be loose with women, even married women.
He began to come out of it when he bought the picture show, or so people said. He got lots of comedies and serials and Westerns and the kids came as often as they could talk their parents into letting them. Then Sam bought the poolhall and the all-night café and he perked up more and more.
No one really knew why he was called Sam the Lion. Some thought it was because he hated barbers and always went around with a shaggy head of hair. Others thought it was because he had been such a hell-raising cowboy when he was young, but Sonny found that a little hard to believe. He had seen Sam mad only once, and that was one Fourth of July when Duane stuck a Roman candle in the pocket of one of the snooker tables and set it off. When it finally quit shooting, Sam grabbed the pisspot and chased Duane out, meaning to sling it at him. He slung it, but Duane was too quick. Joe Bob Blanton, the Methodist preacher's son, happened to be standing on the sidewalk wishing he was allowed to go in and shoot pool, and he was the one that got drenched. The boys all got a big laugh but Sam the Lion was embarrassed about it and cleaned Job Bob off as best he could.
When he was thoroughly warm Sonny got one of the brushes and began to brush the eight-ball tables. Sam went over and looked disgustedly at the two nickels Sonny had left for the Cheese Crisps.
"You'll never get nowhere, Sonny," he said. "You've already spent a dime today and you ain't even had a decent breakfast. Billy, you might get the other side of the hall swept out, son."
While the boys worked Sam stood by the stove and warmed his aching feet. He wished Sonny weren't so reckless economically, but there was nothing he could do about it. Billy was less of a problem, partly because he was so dumb. Billy's real father was an old railroad man who had worked in Thalia for a short time just before the war; his mother was a deaf and dumb girl who had no people except an aunt. The old man cornered the girl in the balcony of the picture show one night and begat Billy. The sheriff saw to it that the old man married the girl, but she died when Billy was born and he was raised by the family of Mexicans who helped the old man keep the railroad track repaired. After the war the hauling petered out and the track was taken up. The old man left and got a job bumping cars on a stockyards track in Oklahoma, leaving Billy with the Mexicans. They hung around for several more years, piling prickly pear and grubbing mesquite, but then a man from Plainview talked them into moving out there to pick cotton. They snuck off one morning and left Billy sitting on the curb in front of the picture show.
From then on, Sam the Lion took care of him. Billy learned to sweep, and he kept all three of Sam's places swept out; in return he got his keep and also, every single night, he got to watch the picture show. He always sat in the balcony, his broom at his side; for years he saw every show that came to Thalia, and so far as anyone knew, he liked them all. He was never known to leave while the screen was lit.
"You workin' today?" Sam asked, noticing that Sonny was taking his time brushing the eight-ball table.
"The truck's being greased," Sonny said. On weekends, and sometimes week-nights too, he drove a butane truck for Frank Fartley of Fartley Butane and Propane. He didn't make as much money as his friend Duane made roughnecking, but the work was easier.
Just as Sam the Lion was about to get back to the subject of the football game they all heard a familiar sound and paused to listen. Abilene was coming into town in his Mercury. Abilene was the driller Duane worked for. He had spent a lot of money souping up the Mercury, and in Thalia the sound of his exhausts was as unmistakable as the sound of the wind.
"Well, we barely got 'em clean in time," Sam said. Abilene not only had the best car in the country, he also shot the best stick of pool. Drilling and pool shooting were things he did so well that no one could decide which was his true vocation and which his avocation. Some mornings he went home and cleaned up before he came to the poolhall -- he liked to be clean and well dressed when he gambled -- but if it was too early for any of the nine-ball players to be up he would often stop and practice in his drilling clothes.
The Mercury stopped in front of the poolhall and Sam went over and got Abilene's ivory-banded cue out of the padlocked rack and laid it on the counter for him. When the door opened the wind sliced inside ahead of the man. Abilene had on sunglasses and the heavy green coveralls he wore to protect his clothes from the oil-field grease; as soon as he was in he unzipped the coveralls and hung them on a nail Sam had fixed for him. His blue wool shirt and gabardine pants were creased and trim.
"Mornin'," Sam said.
"Mornin'," Abilene replied, handing Sam his expensive-looking sunglasses. He once had a pair fall out of his pocket and break when he was bending over to pick up a piece of pool chalk; after that he always had Sam put the sunglasses in a drawer for him. Though he was the poolhall's best customer, he and Sam the Lion had almost nothing to say to one another. Abilene paid Sam two hundred and fifty dollars a year for a private key to the poolhall, so he could come in and practice any time he wanted to. Often Sonny would come in from some long butane run at two or three o'clock in the morning and see that Abilene was in the poolhall, practicing. The garage where the butane truck was kept was right across the street from the poolhall and sometimes Sonny would walk across and stand by one of the windows watching Abilene shoot. No one ever tried to go in when Abilene was in the poolhall alone.
"Let's shoot one, Sonny," Abilene said. "I feel like a little snooker before breakfast."
Sonny was taken by surprise. He knew he would not even be good competition for Abilene, but he went and got a cue anyway. It did not occur to him to turn down the invitation. Abilene shot first and ran thirty points off the break.
"Duane didn't go to sleep on you last night, did he?" Sonny asked, feeling that he ought at least to make conversation.
"No, the breeze kept us awake," Abilene replied. That was their conversation. Sonny only got to shoot four times; for the most part he just stood back and watched Abilene move gracefully around the green table, easing in his shots with the ivory-banded cue. He won the game by 175 points.
"You shoot pool about like you play football," he said, when the game was over.
Sonny ignored the insult and pitched a quarter on the felt to pay for the game. Abilene insulted everybody, young and old alike, and Sonny was not obliged to take it personally. Sam the Lion came over to rack the balls.
"I hope they hurry and get that truck greased," he said. "The way your fortune's sinking you'll be bankrupt before you get out of here."
"What'd our bet come to, Sam," Abilene asked casually. He busted the fresh rack and started shooting red balls. Sam grinned at Sonny and went over to the cash register and got five ten-dollar bills. He laid them on the side of the snooker table and when Abilene noticed them he took a money clip out of his pocket and put the fifty dollars in it.
"It's what I get for bettin' on my hometown ball club," Sam said. "I ought to have better sense."
"It wouldn't hurt if you had a better home town," Abilene said.
Sam always bet on the boys, thinking it would make them feel good, but the strategy seldom worked because they almost always lost. Most of them only trained when they felt like it, and that was not very often. The few who did train were handicapped by their intense dislike of Coach Popper. Sonny was not alone in considering the coach a horse's ass, but the school board liked the coach and never considered firing him: he was a man's man, and he worked cheap. They saw no reason to hire a better coach until a better bunch of boys came along, and there was no telling when that would be. Sam the Lion went loyally on losing money, while Abilene, who invariably bet against Thalia, cleared about a thousand dollars a season from Sam and others like him.
While Sam and Sonny were idly watching Abilene practice, Billy swept quietly down the other side of the poolhall and on out the door. The cold wind that came through the door when Billy went out woke them up. "Go get him, Sonny," Sam said. "Make him put his broom up for a while."
Billy hadn't had time to get far; he was just three doors away, in front of what once had been the Thalia Pontiac Agency. He was calmly sweeping north, into the cold wind. All his floor-sweep had already blown away, but he was quite content to sweep at the curling ribbons of sand that the wind blew past him. A time or two in his life he had swept all the way to the Thalia city limits sign before anyone had noticed him.
When Sonny stepped out of the poolhall the black pickup that the roughnecks used was stopped at the red light. The light changed and the pickup passed the courthouse and slowed a moment at the corner by the poolhall, so Duane could jump out. He was a tall boy with curly black hair. Because he was a fullback and a roughneck he held himself a little stiffly. He had on Levi's and a Levi's jacket with the collar turned up. Sonny pointed at Billy and he and Duane each grabbed one of Billy's arms and hustled him back down the sidewalk into the warming poolhall. Sam took the broom and put it up on a shelf where Billy couldn't reach it.
"Let's go eat, buddy," Duane said, knowing that Sonny had put off having breakfast until he came.
Sam the Lion looked Duane over carefully to see if he could detect any symptoms of overwork, but Duane was in his usual Saturday morning good humor, and if there were such symptoms they didn't show.
"If you boys are going to the café, take this change for me," Sam said, pitching Sonny the dark green coin sack that he used to tote change from one of his establishments to the other. Sonny caught it and the boys hurried out and jogged down the street two blocks to the café, tucking their heads down so the wind wouldn't take their breath. "Boy, I froze my ass last night," Duane grunted, as they ran.
The café was a little one-story red building, so deliciously warm inside that all the windows were steamed over. Penny, the daytime waitress, was in the kitchen frying eggs for a couple of truck drivers, so Sonny set the change sack on the cash register. There was no sign of old Marston, the cook. The boys counted their money and found they had only eighty cents between them.
"I had to shoot Abilene a game of snooker," Sonny explained. "If it hadn't been for that I'd have a quarter more."
"We got enough," Duane said. They were always short of money on Saturday morning, but they were paid Saturday afternoon, so it was no calamity. They ordered eggs and sausage and flipped to see who got what -- by the end of the week they often ended up splitting meals. Sonny got the sausage and Duane the eggs.
While Penny was counting the new change into the cash register old Marston came dragging in. He looked as though he had just frozen out of a bar ditch somewhere, and Penny was on him instantly.
"Where you been, you old fart?" she yelled. "I done had to cook ten orders and you know I ain't no cook."
"I swear, Penny," Marston said. "I just forgot to set my alarm clock last night."
"You're a lying old sot if I ever saw one," Penny said. "I ought to douse you under the hydrant a time or two, maybe you wouldn't stink of whiskey so much."
Marston slipped by her and had his apron on in a minute. Penny was a 185-pound redhead, not given to idle threats. She was Church of Christ and didn't mind calling a sinner a sinner. Five years before she had accidentally gotten pregnant before she was engaged; the whole town knew about it and Penny got a lot of backhanded sympathy. The ladies of the community thought it was just awful for a girl that fat to get pregnant. Once married, she discovered she didn't much like her husband, and that made her harder to get along with in general. On Wednesday nights, when the Church of Christ held its prayer meetings and shouting contests anybody who happened to be within half a mile of the church could hear what Penny thought about wickedness; it was old Marston's misfortune to hear it every morning, and at considerably closer range. He only worked to drink, and the thought of being doused under a hydrant made him so shaky he could barely turn the eggs.
Sonny and Duane winked at him to cheer him up, and gave Penny the finger when she wasn't looking. They also managed to indicate that they were broke, so Marston would put a couple of extra slices of toast on the order. The boys gave him a ride to the county-line liquor store once a week, and in return he helped out with extra food when their money was low.
"How we gonna work it tonight?" Duane asked. He and Sonny owned the Chevrolet pickup jointly, and because there were two of them and only one pickup their Saturday night dating was a little complicated.
"We might as well wait and see," Sonny replied, looking disgustedly at the grape jelly Marston had put on the plate. He hated grape jelly, and the café never seemed to have any other kind.
"If I have to make a delivery to Ranger this afternoon there won't be no problem," he added. "You just take the pickup. If I get back in time I can meet Charlene at the picture show."
"Okay," Duane said, glad to get that off his mind. Sonny never got the pickup first on Saturday night and Duane always felt slightly guilty about it but not quite guilty enough to change anything.
The problem was that he was going with Jacy Farrow whose folks were rich enough to make them unenthusiastic about her going with a poor boy like Duane. He and Jacy couldn't use her car because her father, Gene Farrow, made a point of driving by the picture show every Saturday night to see that Jacy's car was parked out front. They were able to get around that easily enough by sneaking out the back of the show and going somewhere in the pickup, but that arrangement created something of a courting problem for Sonny, who went with a girl named Charlene Duggs. Charlene had to be home by eleven thirty, and if Duane and Jacy kept the pickup tied up until almost eleven, it didn't allow Sonny much time in which to make out.
Sonny had assured Duane time and time again that he didn't particularly care, but Duane remained secretly uneasy. His uneasiness really stemmed from the fact that he was going with Jacy, the prettiest, most desirable girl in town, while Sonny was only going with Charlene Duggs, a mediocre date by any standard. Occasionally the two couples double-dated, but that was really harder on Sonny than no date at all. With all four of them squeezed up in the cab of the pickup it was impossible for him to ignore the fact that Jacy was several times as desirable as Charlene. Even if it was totally dark, her perfume smelled better. For days after such a date Sonny had very disloyal fantasies involving himself and Jacy, and after an hour's sloppy necking with Charlene even the fantasy that he was kissing Jacy had a dangerous power. Charlene kissed convulsively, as if she had just swallowed a golf ball and was trying to force it back up.
Of course Sonny had often considered breaking up with Charlene, but there weren't many girls in the town and the only unattached girl who was any prettier than Charlene was an unusually prudish sophomore. Charlene would let Sonny do anything he wanted to above the waist; it was only as time wore on that he had begun to realize that there really wasn't much of permanent interest to do in that zone. As the weeks went by, Sonny observed that Jacy seemed to become more and more delightful, passionate, inventive, while by contrast Charlene just seemed more of a slug.
When the boys finished eating and paid their check they had a nickel left. Duane was going home to bed, so Sonny kept the nickel; he could buy himself a Butterfinger for lunch. Outside the air was still cold and dusty and gray clouds were blowing south off the High Plains.
Duane took the pickup and went to the rooming house where the two of them had roomed since their sophomore year. People thought it a little strange, because each had a parent alive, but the boys liked it. Sonny's father ran the local domino parlor and lived in a room at the little hotel, and Duane's mother didn't really have much more room. His grandmother was still alive and living with his mother in their two-room house; his mother took in laundry, so the house was pretty full. The boys were actually rather proud that they lived in a rooming house and paid their own rent; most of the boys with real homes envied the two their freedom. Nobody envied them Old Lady Malone, of course, but she owned the rooming house and couldn't be helped. She was nosy, dipped snuff, had a compulsion about turning off fires, and was afflicted with one of the most persistent cases of diarrhea on record. The one bathroom was so badly aired that the boys frequently performed their morning toilet in the rest room of the Texaco filling station.
After Sonny got his delivery orders he jogged up the street to the filling station to get the truck, an old green International. The seat springs had about worn through the padding, and most of the rubber was gone from the footpedals. Still, it ran, and Sonny gunned it a few times and struck out for Megargel, a town even smaller than Thalia. Out in the open country the norther gusted strongly across the highway, making the truck hard to hold. Once in a while a big ragweed would shake loose from the barbed-wire fences and skitter across the road, only to catch again in the barbed-wire fence on the other side. The dry grass in the pastures was gray-brown, and the leafless winter mesquite gray-black. A few Hereford yearlings wandered dispiritedly into the wind, the only signs of life; there was really nothing between Thalia and Megargel but thirty miles of lonesome country. Except for a few sandscraped ranch houses there was nothing to see but a long succession of low brown ridges, with the wind singing over them. It occurred to Sonny that perhaps people called them "blue northers" because it was so hard not to get blue when one was blowing. He regretted that he had not asked Billy to ride along with him on the morning deliveries. Billy was no talker, but he was company, and with nobody at all on the road or in the cab Sonny sometimes got the funny feeling that he was driving the old truck around and around in a completely empty place.
Copyright © 1966 by Larry McMurtry
Copyright renewed © 1994 by Larry McMurtry