Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six
By Frank Ross
Jim Buck parked his car a block from the Silver Banjo Tavern. The sun had slipped behind those westward hills, and a warm autumn breeze came across the valley with long, dusty shadows.
Jim stopped outside the Banjo and dug in his pocket for the note. He read the message to himself: Jim, meet me around six o'clock at the Banjo. Bring the money. Red.
Inside, Jim froze; he couldn’t see a thing. They’d changed the lighting. New things had a way of disturbing him. He took the first vacant stool.
“What’ll you have, mister?” asked the barmaid.
“Oh,” said Jim, surprised.
“First time being here?”
“No, but it’s been a while.” He was having a problem keeping his eyes off the woman’s large breasts. “Carl - uh, he don’t work here no more?”
“Why, he certainly do. I’m expecting him - any minute now,” she said, smiling. “You ain’t his son, are you, mister?"
“No.” He looked about. “They sure changed things up a bit.”
“Been about two years now,” she said, coming a little closer. “Where you been, mister?”
“Nowhere, really. I live right down the road about sixty miles.”
“If you won’t mind my asking.. .” The barmaid leaned forward, bringing herself very close. “When was your last time here in Silverville?”
“Well, I could tell you right down to the moment,” said Jim, amused. “If I had myself a large T.J. Bourbon.”
“I can’t believe myself,” she apologized. “How’d you want that?"
Jim was staring at her breasts again.
“How’d you want - ” She was liking his distraction.
“Uh...branch water will be fine,” he said, catching himself
“My pleasure.” She went off, swaying her hips.
Jim thought the young woman appeared a bit overripe, though cute as all hell. Nursing babies crossed his mind.
The barmaid returned and poured twice the normal amount and was about to make herself comfortable when a customer called; her face showed annoyance. “Now don’t you go and get lost, mister.”
The redheaded man stood back, watching Jim. He shook his head and walked over.
“Ain’t been waitin’ long, have you, Jim?”
“Hi, Red,” he said. “Come and join me.”
“I really hate. . ." Red took a stool. “Jim, hate puttin’ you through this.”
“Wish you wouldn’t put it that way,” said Jim. “Why hell, we’ve been friends since we were boys.”
“Yeah, I know.” Red took a cigarette from his pack and lit it. “Man kinda wants to stand on his own.”
“I ain’t never met a fella that stood any taller than you, Red.” Jim took a big swallow of bourbon. “Hell, guess I’ve told a thousand folks that.”
“Jim, I don’t wanta vex you none.”
“Seems to me, you’re trying your best.”
“That’s better, partner.” He glanced around. “Where’s that nice little lady?”
“Up to your old tricks. Ain’t been in town a hot hour - and startin’ all over again.”
“Red, she stuck ’em right up in my face.” He took another swallow. “I could see the imprint of her nipples.”
“Few years back," Red laughed, “you would’ve jumped up howling.”
“Yeah, but those days are gone,” said Jim. “Man gotta put away the toys.”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself”
“I’ve been toein’ the line.”
“How long has it been now?”
“Today is our second anniversary.”
“I’ll be damned.” Red flung his arm around Jim’s shoulder. “I’m right proud of you, Jim.”
"Me too,” he said. “Never stuck to nothing this long.”
“How’s the family?"
“Fine. Sally’s folks are here. My sister, Annie, and her fat husband came in from Denver last night.”
“Sounds like you’re doin’ a little celebratin’.”
“You know how Sally is,” said Jim. “She makes a lot of fuss over things like that. Goes plannin’ way in advance for ’em.” He took an envelope out of his pocket. “There’s ten thousand dollars here.”
“Jim, that’s twice the amount...” Red’s eyes got watery. “I don’t know when I’ll see myself clear.”
“You sure know how to bring on bad weather.”
“What in hell do you want a man - ”
“It wouldn’t hurt none to fetch that nice lady.” Jim tapped his empty glass. “I’ve gotten damn thirsty.”
“Jim, you’re on.” He looked hard at him. “Maybe you’d rather have her breast-feed you?”
“Swell idea. My health should come first."
Red laughed. “Didn’t we used to give ’em hell?"
“Sure did,” said Jim, starting to get up.
“All jokin’ aside - don’t seem right not buyin’ you a drink.”
“I can’t be late for Sally’s dinner.”
“Aw hell,” said Red, pointing. “Would you just look what’s comin’.”
Carl was a tall, robust old bartender. He hurried down the walkway behind the bar, grinning all over himself.
“Goddamn - what dragged you into town, Jim‘?” He clapped his big hands. “Think this calls for a drink.”
“Why in hell ain’t you gone?" Red grinned.
“He’s too goddamn old," added Jim.
“Nicely said - smart alecks. When I get back, I’ll make you sing that tune outta your ass.” Carl started to turn. “Jim, that reminds me. On my way in - I saw a friend of yours sittin' down at the end of the bar.”
“Hell,” said Jim, looking toward the rear. “It’s so dark in here, I can’t see that far.”
“Yeah, still there,” said Carl, squinting his eyes.
“Well, give him a bottle on me.”
“Jim, ain’t a him.”
“Ain’t a him?”
“No sir. It’s - Lucy.”
“Christ,” cried Red. “Christ”
“I’d better get those drinks,” mumbled Carl, rushing off.
“Damnedest thing - Lucy and me here at the same time.” Jim looked at Red. “Coincidence - or what?”
“Jim, I don’t know how to put this.”
“Do it some kinda way, won’t you?”
“It’s all my fault.”
“How’d you mean that?”
“I all but - invited her here.”
“Shouldn’t joke that way.”
Carl carried everything on a rectangular tray. He placed a bottle in front of each man when a customer called. The old bartender toweled the area about the men before he went off.
“Gettin’ back to what you was sayin’, Red.”
“Took my Sara to the depot this morning.” He choked, then gulped down the rest of his drink. “I was surprised to see Lucy there. Been in town for a week, on account of her sister Betty was sick.” He poured another drink. “Had her bags - she even hugged and kissed Sara good-bye. I saw her get on the train with my own eyes.”
“You told her - I’d be here tonight?”
“I didn’t have any idea - she’d double back.”
“You must've forgot how Lucy was.”
“Jim, I forgot how both of you were.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Christ, you should’ve seen your face when Carl told you."
They spotted the old bartender coming toward them.
“Kinda hoggish - couldn’t have our first drink together,” he said, pouring and downing his bourbon. “Jim, you want me to take Lucy something’?”
“No, don’t bother. I’ll mosey down that way pretty soon.” He caught the old bartender’s eye, shifted his eyes toward Red.
“You did know - Lucy was back in town?” asked Carl, playing along with Jim’s joke.
“Can’t say I did, Carl,” said Jim, stealing a look at Red.
“Must’ve come as a shock?”
“You might say - a damned earthquake.”
Red glanced at them suspiciously.
“Lucy plannin’ on stayin’ a while?” Carl asked, holding back a smile.
“Don’t ask me - ask Cupid over there.”
“Jim, goddamn you and Carl.”
Carl had himself a big laugh.
“l’m gonna go back and speak to Lucy,” said Jim. “Red, if you wait I’ll give you a lift.”
“I got my old pickup outside.”
“Well, take care of yourself.”
“I’m gonna hang ’round for a while - keep Carl some company.”
“Good, then I’ll see you before I leave.”
The men watched Jim walk away. His black outfit merged with the darkness of the tavern and was lost in the shadows.
“I never knew a fella that walked so forceful - and yet so damn easy.”
“Yeah,” said Red. “Jim can saunter some.”
“Red, you know Jim better than anybody.” Carl filled his glass almost to the brim. “What say his chances? I mean, what you think gonna come outta all of this‘?”
“I don’t know - and I’m worried,” said Red. “Had to happen sooner or later.”
“Sally’s a good woman,” said Carl. “You couldn’t find a better wife.”
“You’re right, can’t get ’round that,” he agreed. “On the other hand - Lucy ain’t a bad gal either.”
“Yeah. Folks was kinda lookin’ for Jim to marry her.”
“I never got the handle from Jim - but it seemed to brew ’round a lot of petty things. Lucy wanted a small spread and Jim wanted half the damned state.” Red rubbed his knees. “That was ’round the time he was thinkin’ politics - Lucy didn’t want none of that. She wanted a bunch of kids. Jim wanted a couple.” He finished his drink. “Carl, that goes to show - him and Sally ain't had none yet. Mind you, I never did get it from him.”
“Yeah, but - Lucy was still wild as hell.”
“I know most folks thought that - but Carl, I’ll tell you right now, she wasn’t. Lucy only carried on that way to be with Jim.”
Jim paused when he saw Lucy. He was disturbed. He hated to admit it but he was. His breath came in short spurts as he tried to resist that old familiar warmth creeping over him. The large brim of her hat was drawn deep to her left, and her back still beautifully straight under the lace shawl; Jim’s hands flinched, remembering when her lovely back was bare. He headed toward Lucy with sudden quick steps.
Lucy had caught Jim’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar and lowered her head.
She whirled around as if surprised. “Oh, Jim. You sure know how to catch a lady off guard.”
He dragged a stool closer to her. “How you been, Lucy?”
“Can’t complain none, Jim,” she said, reaching out and touching his hand.
Red and Carl fell into an anticipation of a vigil that might last half the night. Carl brought out a tray of glasses and began polishing them. Red had resorted to examining each puff he took from his cigarette, then he started wondering whether a new glass would improve his drink.
“Carl, give me another glass, will you?”
“Don’t mind workin’ a man none, your kind.”
“Keep thinkin’ - know I shouldn’t be.” He looked toward the rear. “But - l keep thinkin’ Jim’s gonna mess ’round and give up the whole shebang.”
“Red, you’re jumpin’ the gun. Why hell, he ain’t been back there more than half an hour.”
“But if Jim had any intention on makin’ Sally’s dinner - he’d be fixin’ to leave ’bout right now.”
“I’ll say this for Lucy.” Carl held a polished glass up to the light. “She’s the best-lookin’ woman ever seen in these parts. When I went back there to serve ’em - I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”
“How were they carryin’ on?”
“Same old way.”
Red groaned. “Christ."
“She was up on his lap - and Jim was smilin’ like all hell.” '
“I wouldn’t be none at all shocked if Jim up and left here tomorrow with Lucy.”
The old bartender’s mouth dropped open. Red turned to see what Carl was staring at and saw Jim coming toward them.
“Figure up my debt, will you?" Jim reached in his pocket. “I gotta be movin’ down the road.”
“Hell, it’s on the house, Jim,” said Carl.
“I’m pullin’ up too,” said Red.
“Adios.” Carl watched them walk out the front door.
The autumn night was clear and the stars sharp-pointed, while light breezes rustled through the street-lined treetops, tossing golden-brown leaves along the sidewalk. Jim and Red stopped under the street arc-light.
“Had me worried there for a little while, Jim.”
“For a while it was touch-and-go.”
“That was the last thing I’d have aimed to happen.”
“Don’t trouble none about it,” said Jim, looking at his watch. “Damn, it ain’t near late as I’d thought.”
“Yeah, you got good time.” He glanced toward the Silver Banjo. “If you don’t mind me askin’ - how’d Lucy take it?"
“She handled it well enough,” said Jim, and wondered. “Well, I guess as good as I did.”
“Feel a little guilty myself. All that time back there - I was only thinkin’ on your behalf;” he said. “Damn shame, didn’t give Lucy no concern at all.”
“Red, don’t worry yourself none.” Jim slapped him on the back. “She’s a tough old gal?
“That’s what’s botherin’ me,” he said, pushing some leaves with his foot. “Lucy - she ain’t tough."
“What?” Jim drew back. “You got too many T.J.’s in you.”
“Jim, you know damn well I ain’t drunk.”
“Well, you`re still talkin’ outta your head.”
“Lucy’s a timid soul - shy, that’s right - all her life,” he pointed out. “The way I see it - she did everythin’ to please you. Yeah, and what did her hero do - up and abandoned her.”
Jim stared at him.
“That’s right. Yeah. All that taggin’ all over hell with you - I’ll tell you right now, Lucy always hated it.”
“You’re crazy,” snapped Jim and backed away.
“I wish you were right,” called Red, watching Jim hurry up the street.
Jim couldn’t shake off his best friend’s outburst. He knew that Red wasn’t just sayin’ those things. He wasn’t built that way. He would’ve never spoken those words. Why’d he believe all those things if they weren’t true? He took out his keys as he approached his car.
“Yeah,” he said, glancing around.
“Reckon you saw Miss Lucy?” asked a young black boy.
“Good night, Mister Jim,” said the boy, turning away.
“Hey, boy - is that all?”
“Miss Lucy said to make sure - uh, you didn’t get outta town without her seein’ you.”
“Night, boy,” said Jim, wondering how much Lucy had paid him. Then came the beeping of a horn and Red yelling out of his truck. Jim waved and watched the old pickup’s taillights fade into the night. He put his keys into his pocket and started back down the street toward the Silver Banjo.
Carl held back a smile when he saw Jim walk from the shadows to the bar. Jim whispered something in the old bartender’s ear.
“Sure, Jim,” he said, nodding his head. “I’ll fix you right up." Yeah, I sure will, he thought, watching Jim heading toward the rear. “You son of a bitch.”
Lucy’s head was bent and Jim’s arrival went unobserved.
Lucy looked up slowly, her hazel eyes blinking to focus. She reached out and touched Jim timidly, as though to reassure herself. “Why - why, Jim.”
Jim sat down, taking her hands. “Lucy, your hands - as cold as ice.”
She smiled weakly.
Jim led Lucy to the little hall by the arm; they climbed the narrow stairs slowly, then headed along the corridor, checking the numbers on each door.
Inside the large room there were matching golden drapes at the windows. Jim sat sipping his drink on the loveseat while admiring the big, shiny brass bed across the room.
The sound of running water came from behind the bathroom door where Lucy tidied herself. The turning of the doorknob brought his impatient eyes toward the hall where Lucy appeared.
“Lucy - ”
“Just a minute, Jim”
He watched Lucy crossing the room, carrying her hat and shawl at her side. She paused to look at her reflection in the mirror on the wall.
“Lucy - ”
She smiled at him.
“Lucy - ” He patted the loveseat cushion.
She laid her things aside and came over and sat beside him.
Jim handed Lucy her drink; they touched glasses.
“Jim, let me get you another drink.” Lucy stood up and took his empty glass.
“You barely touched your drink.”
“I’ve always been a slow starter,” said Lucy, smiling.
Jim watched her preparing his drink at the buffet, standing so straight, so attentive, and he felt a deep-rooted regret while he removed his boots.
"Jim, don’t.” She rushed back with his drink.
He took his glass and wondered what she was up to.
“I want us to do it like we used to.” Lucy picked up his boots, set them out on the carpet in the middle of the room, then she removed her shoes, laying them beside the boots.
“Jim,” she said, looking at the big brass bed. “One time or other, we must’ve used every single room here.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I sorta fancy that little old utility room best.”
“Why, that was just awful,” she replied. “Had my legs all dangling, me squirming on those old shelves, and you laughing your silly head off.”
“Come here.” Jim stroked the loveseat. He always liked the way Lucy walked, and watching her, he felt an old urge.
“Jim,” she said, snuggling against him. “Think the hospital will be able to help Sara’s eyes?”
“Supposed to be the best in the country.”
“I certainly hope so - for Red’s sake.”
“He said she’d go blind without the operation.”
“Jesus, I sure wish them well,” she said. “Red’s worried to death.”
“Yeah,” he said and looked down at Lucy thoughtfully. “He’s worrying about you too.”
“Why, I can’t imagine what could give him a reason.”
“Guess he thought about all those menfolks chasing you all ’round Chicago.”
“There’s no - ” She checked herself; then flashed a bewitching smile. “A lady has a right to fun sometimes.”
“So, you do have a bunch of fellas?”
“Jim, you know - I’m kinda wild.”
“What’s their handles‘?”
Lucy paled. “Well - ”
“They do have names, don’t they?”
“Why - yes, of course,” she said and stood up. “I’m going to freshen up my drink.”
“That’s the same one you started with.” He studied her.
“I need some ice, Jim.” She went to the buffet, slipped some ice cubes in her glass. She knew he was watching her. “Jim, you know I was never good at names.” She went to the bed, sat her drink on the night table, and started fluffing up the pillows.
“Lucy, you know what I was thinkin’ ’bout?” He was studying her very closely.
“The time we three went out hoboin’.”
“Jim, we sure had some fun.” She sat on the bed. “I cut my hair to pass for a boy.”
“You did enjoy those times, didn’t you?”
“Red said something different.”
“I can’t imagine him thinking a thing like that.”
“He said you always hated those things.”
“Why didn’t you say something, Lucy'?”
“You wanted me to go - don’t you remember?”
“You mean - Red was right‘?”
“I didn’t want to cut my hair,” said Lucy. “Run all over the countryside in those old men’s clothes.”
“What ’bout all those fellas up in Chicago?”
“Jim, starting over takes a little time.”
He stood up.
“I know I’m a tough gal - you always said that, but - ”
“Lucy, it’s been over two years now.”
“It’s hard getting used to new folks,” she said. “I guess - I know I will in time.”
Jim went to the bed and lifted her up by the hand. “Let’s go to bed.” He put his arm over her shoulders.
“No, Jim.” She resisted. “Let’s do it like we used to.”
“It’s been a long time, Lucy.”
She led him by the hand out where the boots and shoes lay. Then, without a word being passed, they started undressing each other. Their eyes began an old conversation, their hands moved politely, sometimes one aided the other; and afterward, they stood in silence.
“Now, Jim,” she sighed, closing her eyes. “Like you used to.”
He picked her up in his arms and carried her toward the bed. Lucy peeped over Jim’s shoulder and smiled at the single pile of clothes. He sat down on the bed, still holding Lucy in his arms, squirmed back until he was about in the middle of the bed, and then he began to rock her in his arms.
“Jim, go ahead,” whispered Lucy.
He kept rocking her.
“Like your momma used to do you.”
He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Then he felt her tears drop and run down his chest. Jim tightened his grip about her. He held Lucy in a way he had never held anyone.
“Sing for me, Jim.”
Jim cleared his throat. “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you - way across the wide
Missouri - ”
Frank Ross AM7185
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244
Kathryn Fanning, an editor/lecturer and a native of Oklahoma, had the most influence on developing Frank Ross's craft, though he always adds with a chuckle, “She was a severe taskmaster”. Ms. Fanning has denied it. A reporter, after interviewing both Fanning and Ross, stated she believed his side of the story. But whether he writes about a good ol' boy trying to pursue a hooker to go away with him; a monster-hunting Vietnam Vet; an ill-fated first love of a little boy; a prisoner working in a vacant house who falls in love with a ghost; or the collection's title character, Nora, a black woman who can pass for while but insists on being colored in 1890 America – the folks who are in these tales go a long way to bare their souls to him.