BEING A STORY THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE ‘NEWSPAPER GYPSY’
Dry Sunday Copyright William R.Burkett Jr
The Chronicle was a morning newspaper, so Eddy Miller worked nightside, which suited him just fine. He covered city hall and county government because it was easier for him than selling washing machines for Sears, Roebuck in Charleston, or learning address schemes at the Post Office in Savannah. He made more money on commission at Sears and had more job security at the Post Office, but this was easier. No pressure to meet sales quotas; no bureaucratic hassles from ex-military assholes who had seniority in the federal service.
As for actual newspaper work, he really didn’t have a good reporter’s eye or a gift of language, but he could string sentences together in the standard news format and never argued with copy editors who wanted to change his stuff. He had more or less stumbled into the newspaper business when his old Mercury blew a head gasket in Augusta on his way to Atlanta after he quit the Post Office. He’d had money enough to drive to California, which is where he was going, but not if he had to have a complete engine rebuild first.
So he answered an ad in the Chronicle for a sports reporter, figuring how hard could it be, given his knowledge and love of all sports. He bs’ed the personnel manager, quoting Sally League baseball statistics and citing famous college football games he had seen, selling himself like a Kenmore refrigerator, and sliding right past the usual job requirement for a portfolio of news clippings. Then he leveled with the sports editor about his snow job in personnel, recited his knowledge of all team sports, and stuck long enough to write publishable stories.
Eddy was nothing if not a talker, and he actually had been a Rotarian and a Lion in his previous lives, so he got on well with small-town business people and city employees. In six months, he knew his way around pretty well and was popular in the newsroom, and the city editor was a drinking buddy. Before too long his buddy talked him into giving straight news a try and here he was getting to know all the ins and outs of small city moving and shaking.
He got his Mercury fixed, and kept thinking that when he got a new stake built up he would load up his car and head west again. But he had developed a pretty enviable string of female admirers by then, randy Southern belles with a weakness for a line of patter and a knowing hand, and here he was, still.
But God, he hated dry Sundays.
There was slang then to the effect that any place interesting or exciting was “where it’s at.” The limit of Eddy’s sensitivity was to know that a dry Sunday in Georgia wasn’t where it was, and never was going to be. Sunday was dry because the governor of Georgia that year was a Baptist deacon who had entered journalistic history as a restaurateur who chased Negroes who tried to sit in his restaurant with a hickory ax handle. Once elected to statewide office, the deacon went after Sunday drinkers with Prohibitionist fervor, wielding an executive order like he had wielded his trademark anti-integration tool.
On dry Sundays, Eddy was reduced to doing his dirty laundry at the Laundromat on Walton Way. At two-thirty a.m. this Monday after another interminable dry Sunday, he had the place to himself except for a woman who looked like a sub-moron with a filthy kid clinging to her worn print dress. The kid looked like a refugee in one of those TV commercials about the Third World. The Laundromat was better than his apartment, even with a half-full bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the cupboard and a six-pack of beer he kept in the refrigerator in case anybody ever stopped by. Once in a while somebody did. But whiskey was hateful stuff when he was drinking alone and beer made him sick to his stomach drinking it in an empty apartment.
Eddy had never been drunk or sick after drinking in bars. He loved to drink in bars, even beer, and by now he knew all the spots and the night people even a small city this size supported. He was quite a social drinker on a normal night. Nobody bothered him on the desk about taking a drink or three as he made his rounds; night council meetings and civic club dinners and political rallies always had booze on hand. Drinking was an accepted and even expected part of his work, just like it had been on the sports beat.
He was quite a social drinker all right. It was almost a job qualification. And he had time after the final deadline to hit a few spots on his own hook, maybe buy a round at the Magnolia Club where the other news guys hung out unless he had scored a new woman. Then he’d go dance a dance or two and get laid at her place or some convenient motel. Either way, he could then float on home to bed in a pleasant alcoholic haze. He could sleep, then, really sleep if he’d scored; and when he woke up it would be safely noontime and he would be fine, fresh and ready for the day. But early Monday after a dry Sunday was just awful.
His wash was just soaping up good when a beat-up Chevrolet pickup rolled in. One headlight was out. The black couple in it brought in five baskets of dirty laundry and the Sunday paper. The man was ratty and smelled of dirty automobile engines. The woman was sleazy and sexless, and her grimy slip showed six inches beneath her dress hem all around. Nobody spoke or looked at each other. It was pretty grim, but still better than the apartment alone with the undrinkable booze and the unsleepable bed.
When he was alone at the apartment and cold sober, he could hear his mother in his head, telling him to go to bed. It was his strongest memory of her, always telling him go to bed, go to bed, tomorrow comes mighty early. Just close your eyes and you’ll be asleep. But he never was, even as a youth. He had been wide-awake for hours listening to everybody else sleep. Sometimes he imagined that the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing, or some other horror from the movies was creeping through the night, zeroing in on his house, and would get him if he dared to close his eyes. He always did close his eyes eventually and the creatures never came and got him, but the next night would be the same until his memory of that particular movie faded. Terrified or not, his main childhood memory was nights awake listening to the family sleep.
Now he didn’t even have anybody sleeping to listen to, and he hated going to bed worse than ever. Which was why he found the night newspaper work so easy. You couldn’t sell washing machines or deliver mail at night, but you could go to political fish fries out on the levee or cover county council hearings and listen to angry citizens raise hell about the roads. Then you could drink until the bars closed. If he was in a certain frame of mind, and he often was, he could go across the river to South Carolina and hit a couple of the unlicensed bottle clubs that never closed till dawn. But a lot of those clubs closed on Sundays too, not wanting to tempt fate and the beverage control cops. So dry Sundays he was stuck. When he tried to go to bed cold sober, the apartment was so quiet his ears rang. His ears invented sounds: somebody touching the toilet handle, that little clink just before the explosion of the flush; or the slither of a toothbrush being taken out of its holder beside the mirror. He would lie there not really asleep and not really awake and, just for a moment, think he was not alone. Then he would open his eyes and the silence would unload on him, ears ringing as if he’d fired a gun in a closed space.
He had left his wife behind in Charleston. Just got up one day and packed his things while she was at the hairdresser’s and loaded up his two-year-old Buick Roadmaster. He signed his Cadillac that he’d bought with appliance commissions over to her and left the paperwork on the nightstand by the bed. Then he drove the Buick down to a car dealer he played poker with and traded it for the old Mercury and cash back, and shifted his stuff into the Merc. When he went back to tell his wife that he was leaving, she said I hope you’re happy with that slut and shut the door in his face.
He drove down to Savannah that night though his Post Office reporting date wasn’t for two weeks; and moved in with Gail. She called those two weeks their honeymoon, swimming at Tybee Beach, dancing in the beach clubs and making out on the sand and in the back of the old Mercury. Maybe he should have changed apartments after Gail left him. Maybe that’s what he should have done. She had been up for the grand road trip across America as he described it, but not for being stuck in Augusta. She left him as soon as she realized that he was settling in. Almost before he realized it himself.
It was as if she left ghosts of the little domestic sounds she used to make when she was around the place, just to haunt him. That seemed a silly thing for a grown man to think, but he still thought it. Especially in the wee hours of a dry Sunday when he was cold sober and the other side of the bed was empty and cold. He never brought his girl friends home. Maybe that would have cleared the air and chased away the imagined sounds, but he just didn’t do it.
When Gail ditched him, all the other reporters and most of his new bar friends agreed that he should have just thrown all her belongings in the trash. But he hadn’t done that. He had lived with their silent reproach until she wrote where she wanted them sent in Savannah. Then he packed everything up in six cheap tin trunks and sent the trunks to her on the Greyhound. All except her iced-tea pitcher and glasses in the cupboard. He never looked in cupboards when he was by himself, so he missed them. When the reading lamp by the bed went bad and he was looking for a place to stuff it so he wouldn’t keep trying to turn it on, he found the tea pitcher and glasses. She was back with her husband by then, all her wild oats evidently sown. It would have been pretty awkward for her to explain a package of dishes mailed from Augusta. But he still felt bad about overlooking them. They probably weren’t among her favorite things or she would have written to ask about them long before now. But he felt bad just the same.
His wash had finished its cycle now. He transferred it to a dryer. None of the others in the Laundromat looked at him or said anything. But he could feel them watching him. Looking at what he was washing. He could feel their eyes on the back of his neck. When the dryer started, he walked to the plate glass window across the front. There were old cigarette decals on it. There was another ancient decal, partly scraped away, but you could still read “White Only.”
The only time Gail ever came here with him, she thought the sign meant no colored fabrics could be washed. Gail was so Southern it never would have occurred to her that you had to post a decal to keep Negroes out of a Laundromat in the white part of town. By the time they were there, the right of Negroes to wash their clothes in a Laundromat of their choosing had already been established, even in Georgia, so she hadn’t made the connection until he explained it. She heaved a sigh and said “all gone with the wind.” He didn’t know what she meant, but that was Gail for you.
Outside Eddy could see, but not hear or feel, the wind blowing. Trash, leaves, pages of a discarded newspaper, probably the Chronicle. He stepped outside to feel and hear the wind. A dog that had been trotting along the side of the building stopped short, dropped its ears and slunk off across the street, watching him over its tail. Dogs never were much good at pretending when they were someplace they weren’t supposed to be. The filling station across the street looked modern as a science-fiction story, but one of its signs squeaked in the wind like a rusty gate.
Eddy wondered where all the night people went after the bars closed Saturday at midnight. Midnight! That crazed deacon had to be voted out. They all agreed on that anyway; the cocktail waitresses in their black mesh stockings, the pool hustlers, the also-ran band members in their tarnished show clothes and the female barflies who began to look pretty good before the lights came up at closing time. But he doubted if a single one of them was even registered to vote. Neither was he. He was going to have to do something about that before some politician checked the rolls on him.
The night people would start to show up again Monday night as the bars reopened. By Wednesday they all would be accounted for. But where were they tonight? What were they doing instead of straggling out of bars that closed at two-thirty on a normal night, headed out for breakfast at the Busy Bee or the Huddle House? He had never seen a single night person on Sunday since this one-day Prohibition set in. And he had looked too; driving all the way out Broad Street to East Boundary, then back up Walton Way past the Partridge Inn and the rich peoples’ homes, then across Monte Sano past the sad dark abandoned-looking Tip Top Cafe. Eddy never had the nerve to ask where they went. He couldn’t believe they all went across the river to crowd into the one or two clubs that stayed open on Sunday because they had the fix in with the right authorities.
Eddy really would have liked to go back to those clubs himself, but it was no longer safe for him. He’d wound up sleeping with the current girl friend of the half-crazy Greek owner of those two clubs who, when he was depressed, would shoot holes in the ceiling with a big nickel-plated .44 revolver to let people know the show was over for that night. Eddy had only escaped a bad beating or worse because he was a Chronicle reporter and the Chronicle was a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the river. If the newspaper turned up the heat on the South Carolina beverage authorities, the Greek’s Sunday protection would evaporate and he’d lose a bundle. One of the Greek’s redneck bouncers, an ex-Gamecock linebacker, had been delegated to explain this to Eddy and take away his member key. He was no longer welcome. The hell of it was she hadn’t been that good in the sack.
But he couldn’t believe the Greek got all the night people on Sunday. He did not like to pry, which was a lousy attitude for a reporter. Perhaps more, he didn’t want to seem pathetic, asking about a place he was not welcome or seeming to angle for an invitation to some private get-together at somebody’s home. He believed that the night people accepted him. They even used the nickname his newspaper cronies had bestowed on him, Lightnin’ Man, for his way with the lonely ladies of the night. He was good for a tab at more than just the Magnolia Club, where all the newsies ran one. He got free drinks a good bit, because he was the nightside news guy who covered politics—a good contact.
The night people followed sports reports like bulletins from a war zone, and always thought he knew the inside scoop because he started as a sports reporter. He got invited to all the low-ante poker games, and even a couple where the stakes were a little rich, because they knew he also played poker with the county commissioners and the mayor. The small-time bookies always gave him the line to bet on the college and pro cards, and were so accurate that he made a nice little supplement to his salary and poker winnings that way. The gamblers were intensely interested in all sports, even local high school sports, and seemed to know an awful lot about which team was healthy and likely to win. He supposed there might be a story in there somewhere about gamblers having some much inside knowledge; there had to be a fix in somewhere. A real reporter’s nose would have been twitching, but Eddy didn’t pry. His main curiosity was where they all went after early bar closing on Saturday and where they stayed until Monday night.
He put his folded dry clothing in the clean white laundry sack that he always washed with the clothing. It had been olive drab when it was issued to him in Basic Training. He thought it was the only enduring thing the Army had ever given him. There was a 24-hour Huddle House down the street. Eddy locked his laundry in the Mercury and walked down there and ordered a breakfast steak with grits and coffee. He was the only customer. After the waitress asked him what he wanted, she never spoke again, not even to say good night. She had pale, uncommunicative eyes, which looked as if they were accustomed to total silence and preferred it. So he didn’t play the jukebox, or try to talk to her. He wondered if she missed the night people who would be here tomorrow morning about this time after the bars closed. She didn’t look as if she missed anybody.
He ate fast and mechanically, and paid his check in silence except for the ding of the cash register. The food was warm and heavy and irrelevant in his stomach as he went back out into the windy night and got into his car. He hadn’t even been hungry; he was just putting off going home sober as long as he could. He drove up Walton Way. It was three forty-five by the bank clock on the corner. Another dry Sunday survived. He was so glad that it was finally and irrevocably Monday that he almost felt like waiting up to watch the sun rise, just to be sure.