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Last Man in on Saturday Night (1981)

Last Man in on Saturday Night (1981)

©1981, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1981). Last Man in on Saturday Night. Unpublished short story.

This story is based upon a real-life experience of a fellow graduate student at the University of Tennessee.




Last Man In on Saturday Night

By Dallas Denny


This wasn’t one of our ordinary drunks, with Freddy retching out the window and Steve hollering at passing cars and us ending up in Nashville cruising slowly around the curb at Shoney’s looking for girls or someone to fight. No, this was a quiet drunk, with all three of us feeling apprehensive about being pulled over by the Waverly policeman or by a sheriff’s patrol car. We were in my vehicle, a 1962 Plymouth Valiant, an automobile with no heater to speak of, but which did sport a cheap eight-track tape player which, although brand-new, was already garnering a reputation for chewing up cartridges. We were down to two tapes.

As I said, we were strangely somber that night, riding around with more than a half tank of gasoline and pooled finances of a little over five dollars. A little earlier in the evening we had bought a pint of Jack Daniels’ Old No. 9 Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey from a bootlegger; we had drunk it on the banks of the Harpeth River, straight from the bottle. Lying and sitting alongside and occasionally pissing in the muddied waters, we had reflected upon our urine flowing majestically into the Gulf of Mexico after the long winding trip down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Nothing else can put a young man into a quiet and serious mood faster than envisioning his excretions lost in the vastness of an ocean; the quiet hours we spent there on the Harpeth had set the tone for the entire evening.

Now, the whiskey singing in our heads, we were eager for more beverage, but unsure where to buy it. It was too late to risk a return trip to the bootlegger, who operated out of Waverly, and we were too obviously underage to purchase beer from a store. Consequently, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, about twenty miles from Waverly on US 70, the two-lane blacktop that winds through low hills toward Nashville. Eventually we found a likely-looking place.

I was elected to go in. Crawling slowly out of the car, I focused on my destination. It wasn’t much of a joint. Covered with tar paper, it seemed a conglomeration of 10 x 10 foot sheds rather than a tavern. An assortment of old Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and pickup trucks was parked on top of a sea of gravel and pop-tops. An electric sign on the front of the building invited me to buy beer like the crew-cut man it depicted. At the moment I wished I had a crew-cut. I remember thinking that I ought to get my hair cut short so I would feel less uncomfortable when I ended up in these places or grow it longer than Freddy’s and Steve’s so they couldn’t use the argument, which they had just successfully done, that I should go since my hair was the shortest.

The screen door advertised the fact that Colonial was good bread. Avoiding the sharp edges of the sagging screen, I grabbed the door frame, pulled it open, and stepped inside. In the moment before my eyes adjusted I felt a shape scuttle past me and go out the door. As 1 waited for my eyes to adjust, I heard the talking and laughing that had been going on rapidly die away.

When I could see I found at least twenty human beings were glaring at me malevolently. The silence was absolute. Every eye in the place was fastened on me in decided unappreciation. I had entered a racially segregated bar. Everyone in the place was black, and I couldn’t spot an Uncle Tom in the bunch. Helplessly, I stared at the bartender. He wasn’t any more friendly than anyone else. I felt cheated. The crew-cut man on the beer sign had been white.

The bartender jerked his thumb to his right, and I followed with my eyes. He was pointing toward an overturned washtub in the center of the room. A broom handle stuck up from the middle, and a piece of wire ran from its top down to the tub. The bartender moved between me and the door. “Last man in on Saturday night,” he growled, “plays the tub.” He showed me his teeth. Two of them were made of gold. I would have bought him a mouthful of gold teeth if he would have let me out of there.

I was aware of a noise like a beehive. It was the sound of growling from twenty throats.

I had no other choice. I took a tentative step in the direction of the washtub. The muttering subsided a little. I took another step, then another, and then I was at the tub.

I reached out and grabbed the broom handle and pulled the wire taut and gave it an experimental plunk. Instantly, everyone in the tavern vat talking and laughing.

I discovered that as long as I played, however badly, I was ignored—but whenever I stopped for more than five seconds, I became the recipient of glares and scowls.

When I finished my second number, the bartender came over and handed me a draft beer. I told him I wanted a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He walked back toward the bar. I quit playing and turned to follow him, but a tall, lean man with a lime green sleeveless t-shirt and a purple head band barred my way.

“I know,” I said. “Last man in on Saturday night plays the tub.”

The murmuring was growing louder. I quickly walked back to my instrument.

I played for a long while. It must have been more than an hour. I had exhausted most of my limited repertoire of songs and my fingers were getting sore. But whenever I tried to stop, the growls and scowls forced me to play again. I was more than a little scared. I found myself wondering what would happen if nobody else came in for the rest of the night. It was Saturday night. Surely somebody would come in soon. But the more I thought about it, the surer I was that everybody but me was in on the joke and had come in early. I would be forever the last man in on Saturday night. Nobody was going to come in, ever.

Finally, I could take it no longer. As I was. playing Happy Birthday to You—which was the only song I could remember, I managed to work my wallet from my pocket. While playing, I removed the lonely five dollar bill that Freddy and Steve had trusted me with. I stopped playing, and as everybody turned to look at me, I held-the bill over my head in both hands so everybody could see it, then walked quickly to a window, opened it, and tossed the bill outside.

The bartender was closest. He darted after it. I stepped back and folded my arms. In a moment he came back in with the bill in his hand, looking at me as if I were crazy. I looked him up and down and said, haughtily, “Last man in on Saturday night plays the tub.”

The place broke up. The patrons cheered and stamped their feet and banged beer bottles on the tables. The bartender scowled, then shrugged good-naturedly and moved over to the tub. I was immediately surrounded by a group of men who half carried me over to their table and handed me a mug which they never allowed to become more than half empty.

A good two hours later I staggered back to my car, nodding to the silver-haired gentleman who was playing the tub as I went out. I could see the gray shape of my car under a street light. I made my way to it.

Freddy and Steve were having conniptions. “Where the hell have you been?” demanded Freddy. His pale face told me that if we had come in his ‘59 Biscayne Chevrolet instead of my Mercury Comet I wouldn’t have found him around. Steve was mutely putting the same question to me. I stumbled around to the driver’s side and sat heavily in the seat. Just before I hit the starter I turned to my friends and said very distinctly, “Last man in on Saturday night plays the tub.” It was the only explanation they ever got.