It was a late Saturday afternoon, and The Bar & Grill was literally empty of customers except for me and five guys on my 40-and-over tennis team. We’d driven across Kentucky from the east end to the west end to compete in a tournament in this Trump Country town, and after finishing our day’s matches, had come to eat, drink, and watch the University of Kentucky’s basketball team play an exhibition game on big screen TVs that that covered every wall.
I ordered a Corona, but most of my teammates ordered thirty-two ounce schooners of draft beer. We persuaded the bartender to turn off the background music and hike up the TV volume on the game. Soon the entire restaurant reverberated with play-by-play as we passed around baskets of deep-fried pickle chips and studied this year’s version of the Wildcats. That’s what I was doing when he sat down beside me.
A little more than half of his unkempt gray hair was tucked under a gray baseball hat. He had a gray beard, not too long. Even his eyes were gray, and his face was sallow. He looked like the stereotypical homeless vet asking for money on the street, except he would date to Vietnam, not Afghanistan. I was a little creeped when he sat beside me because there was an unbroken row of vacant stools along the bar. It was like being in a theatre and some stranger ignores all the empty seats to sit in the one beside you. I could pretend that he wanted to be closer to the screen showing the game, but I think he wanted to share my space, like sharing an umbrella in the rain. He never told me his name, but I’ll call him Sam.
Sam asked me whether the game we were watching was live or a tape of yesterday’s game. His eyes were cautious, measuring my reaction, as if I might complain to the bartender that he was harassing me. I said I guessed the game was live (later, I learned it wasn’t).
“That game yesterday, nobody could hit a three,” Sam said. “Then they put Calipari’s son in. He shot a three and it bounced seven times on the rim and went in. It was the only three they made the whole game. It bounced seven times before it went in.”
I tried to look slightly amazed to be polite.
Evidently, Sam was a regular and had a “usual” because the bartender, a young woman with short black hair and piercings along the rim of her ear and eyebrow, came over and stated the food and drink Sam wanted, then asked for confirmation. Her tone was kind. She brought him a schooner of beer, and Sam and I settled into watching the game.
“See that number 14?” Sam said, pointing at the screen. “He’s the best jump shooter in the nation. He’s going to be real important, you wait and see.”
I nodded, but that wasn’t enough, so he repeated it several times to make sure I got it, that I appreciated I was receiving knowledge hidden from others, and that I preserved his thought in my mind for safekeeping and didn’t let it dissipate into oblivion. Sam spoke with such a heavy country accent that even a native like me had trouble understanding and, though he had his teeth, he spoke with the articulation of someone who’d removed his dentures. I realized it was Sam’s mind that was missing teeth and wondered how many beers he’d drunk over the years.
He asked me if I was from out of town, and I explained that I was here for a tennis tournament.
“Is it a seniors team?” he asked. My beard was gray, like his. I said it was an over-40 team.
“I’m sixty-nine,” he volunteered. I didn’t volunteer my age back but offered that he and I were probably the oldest people in the bar. He asked if I’d ever heard of such-and-such, a star tennis player from this very town. I hadn’t, so Sam explained how good the guy was and that nobody could beat him. Turned out such-and-such was a high school tennis player back in the 1970s. It was that kind of little town.
“See that feller right there?” Sam asked, his attention returning to the basketball game. “He’s a totally different player than last year. Last year he didn’t do nothing. He just stood around like he’d smoked five or six marijuana cigarettes.” Then, under his breath, Sam added, “I’m a dope-smoker myself, I don’t mind telling you.” I could tell Sam also wouldn’t mind inviting me out to his truck or back to his trailer or house for a smoke if I responded with some enthusiasm, but I just nodded.
The bartender was back with Sam’s dinner – a basket of tortilla chips, a bowl of cheese dip, and a jar of salsa. She took his empty schooner and replaced it with a full one.
“See that?” Sam said, pointing at his schooner. “Can’t get any fuller than that.”
He was right – it was filled to the rim. Sam took pride in getting his money’s worth. I imagined his calculations – beer by the schooner was a more cost-effective way to deliver alcohol to the bloodstream than were bottles or mixed drinks, and the tortilla chips and heavy cheese dip were enough to fill a meal-sized stomach for an appetizer price. I wondered what Sam lived on – monthly Social Security? He was slight of frame, but he moved well enough physically, so he might still be farming or doing some kind of work. I didn’t inquire because I didn’t want to get too involved in his world. I just wanted to watch the game.
The bartender struck up a conversation with Sam, saying she was glad he was her customer and she wanted to keep him. She sounded desperate. The place was pretty empty, even though it was getting into dinnertime proper. I wondered how she earned enough in tips to justify being there, or how the restaurant made enough to pay the overhead.
“See number 22?” Sam said to me, pointing at the screen. “He’s a badass. He’s the baddest badass on the court.”
Like before, he kept repeating the observation. And then number 22 shot a three. It was smooth.
“See?” Sam said. “He’s the baddest badass on the court. He can do that every time. He’s going to be the baddest badass in the country.”
“He’s good,” I said, finally giving Sam some encouragement.
“And he’s white,” Sam said. “That makes it funner.”
I heard the echo of history in Sam’s comment, both state and national. When I was growing up in Kentucky, UK basketball was like a religion. Around age 5, I remember listening to the broadcaster Claude Sullivan calling a game between UK and Temple. I prostrated myself before the radio as if praying to Mecca that Larry Pursiful would hit the free throw to win the game. Back in the 60s, as race barriers in sport slowly began to fall, UK’s basketball team was decidedly white. They’d played in the 1966 NCAA final against Texas Western, a team that started five black players, unheard of at the time. There was a heavy racial component underlying the game in the eyes of fans nationwide, mostly unspoken, but everyone knew it was there. Texas Western won. Culturally, that basketball game was part of the civil rights movement. Decades later, Afrilachian poet Frank X. Walker wrote a beautiful poem about his family listening to the game on the radio and what it meant to them. As the world moved into the 70s, the University of Louisville integrated faster than UK. The intense rivalry between UK and its ‘little brother’ Louisville had, I’d always thought, an unspoken racial undercurrent during that transition period.
Sam’s comment brought it all back. Racial divide is buried deep in America’s psyche, subconscious psychological scaffolding that made enslavement of fellow human beings seem not so bad, scaffolding that didn’t disappear with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Black faces driving the same cars as whites, having the same houses as whites, working the same jobs as whites, or better ones, are like acupuncture needles stimulating that subconscious scaffolding. The South lost the war, but in the collective unconscious of Trump Country, that structure still exists. I remembered that after Obama’s election in 2008, I’d thought we’d made landfall on the shore of the post-race world, that we were multicultural, now, just a big mix of everything and it was no big deal. But by 2016, the so-called post-truth world had emerged, a worldwide backlash drawing heavy energy from tribalism and misogyny. For most of them, it wasn’t a conscious animus. They felt victimized by something they couldn’t see.
Sam, in his innocent comment that having a white boy to root for was ‘funner,’ had exposed himself and America. I didn’t know what to say to his comment, so I looked away. When I did, I saw that most of my teammates had left the bar for a table in front of a better TV. I picked up my bottle of beer and joined them, escaping the gravity of Sam’s orbit.
There were a handful of other patrons in the place now, all white, mostly men. I tried to forget Sam and focus on the basketball game and my tennis friends. The Wildcats were running up and down the court like they owned it, their sails filled with the exhilaration of a physical body responding effortlessly and instantly, all of us watching and experiencing it vicariously.
The bartender, now our waitress, came to the table and I ordered another Corona. I looked over her shoulder at the bar. Sam was gone. It was early evening, and I wondered how he would spend his Saturday night, worrying as if I were his mother. Tibetan Buddhists say that every person, every creature, in the endless cycles of reincarnation has, at some time, been our dear mother. I don’t know whether it’s literally true, but it conveys the idea that believing we are separate from anyone or anything is the ultimate fake news.
I returned my attention to the game. UK was on fire. In short order, everyone in the restaurant was clapping and hollering like kids. I felt temporary relief to be on the same side of something in Trump Country, where so many people wore invisible red hats, yet found themselves cheering black men who could do things they wished they could do, too.
Mike Wilson’s work has appeared in magazines including The Seventh Wave, Fiction Southeast, Narrative Northeast, Chicago Literati, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He is author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020). He resides in Central Kentucky and can be found at mikewilsonwriter.com