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Fiction: Low Roller by Harlan Yarbrough
By Harlan Yarbrough
Brad borrowed a pickup with a homemade camper—nice, smelled like cedar, but weighed a ton by itself—from a former lover. He thought about making the trip in his old Econoline, but he wasn't sure the van could make it there and back. Penny had joined the Army—otherwise he'd've prob'ly still been with her—and left the old pickup at his place. She’d said he could use it whenever he wanted to, but this was the first time he’d driven it since she reported for military duty six months earlier.
Two long days driving in each direction seemed a small price to pay for eight weeks of badly needed work. While house-sitting a shack for an absent friend, Brad had begun building a house for himself, and eight weeks in a casino would pay for almost all the remaining materials he needed. Extensions of his contract for a second and third eight weeks, hinted at by the casino management, could leave Brad a good, finished house by the end of the coming summer.
Brad spent a cold Sunday night in the camper beside the highway at the top of the Warner Canyon grade. Brad knew he couldn't drive much further without falling asleep, so he pulled off into a wide gravelled area and climbed in the back. At 5,800 feet in February, he felt grateful he'd remembered to bring his Gerry Himalayan sleeping bag. In the morning, he cleaned a light dusting of snow off the windshield and carried on east.
The gig didn't begin until Wednesday night, so Brad took his time. A light snow resumed falling before he pulled into the big casino parking lot Monday evening. Rather than confuse the management by presenting himself too early, he spent another night in the camper. His contract included a motel room, but he could wait and the camper was pretty comfortable. When he fronted up to the casino's manager the next day, the man arranged for him to move into a luxurious room in the casino’s motel.
Ed, the fiddler, and Leon, the bass player, both lived nearby, but they came in to avail themselves of the free dinner the casino provided as part of their contract. Because Brad's two sidemen were locals, the group opened to a larger than normal crowd for a Wednesday. The show went well—the audience was happy, the management was happy, the band was happy. No stars, the band comprised competent journeymen musicians and a top-notch singer. They did their job to the satisfaction of all concerned.
At the end of the band’s first week, the management assigned Brad a room at an older and somewhat run-down motel a couple of blocks away. Despite the torn carpet and dingy curtains and furniture, Brad preferred his new quarters—the old motel was a good deal quieter than the flashy one by the casino, further from the main highway and closer to the edge of town. Brad liked to clear his head by taking long walks though the sagebrush most days, and he could begin those walks by walking across the road. Brad liked the environment of the Steptoe Valley and enjoyed his walks in its open spaces and in the adjacent Ruby Mountains, important perquisites of these casino gigs.
The pay was good; the music was good; and the casino environment was OK, at least better than an ordinary bar. By the end of their first week, though, Brad noticed something that disturbed him: the managers, the bartenders, the dealers, and the front desk staff were all lily-white. All the other employees—excepting the band—were Hispanic.
Unlike some of his friends, Brad did not take four years of Spanish in high school—he didn’t even take one. Most of his friends had urged him to—“It's easy,” they said. “You can get an 'A' in it with hardly any work, and then you can put time into your other subjects if you want to”—but he declined, because it was what “everybody” was doing. Two years out of high school, Brad decided he wanted to learn Spanish. He didn't have a Latin American girlfriend at the time, but he liked languages and liked the idea of being able to communicate effectively with the many Spanish-speaking people in the communities where he lived and worked. He bought records; he bought tapes—they didn't have CDs then—he bought books, and he used them all. He practised at home and on the street; he asked for help from Hispanic friends and acquaintances—and even from strangers, Hispanic women and men running cash registers in stores, restaurants, and similar places.
Ten years later, he didn't think of himself as fluent, but he could carry on a rudimentary conversation in Spanish. He chatted freely with the casino's Hispanic employees—a practice that earned him frowns from the management. Ed and Leon did their best to discourage their singer from engaging in such gaffes, but he ignored their advice. In truth, most of Brad's conversations with his new Latino acquaintances were largely in English, because their English was much better than his Spanish, but he made a point of conversing in Spanish whenever he could.
In the course of getting to know his fellow workers, Brad discovered an amazing cultural diversity. Leon referred to all the Hispanic employees as “Mexicans”, but more of them were Guatemalan. Brad also became acquainted with several Hondureños, a few Salvadoreños, and a Cubano. Brad had difficulty understanding Guillermo, his new Cuban friend, in Spanish, but that was no problem, since Guillermo spoke excellent English. When Brad mentioned his difficulty to two of the Guatemalans, they said, “Oh, we do, too. His pronunciation is good—better than any of us—but he talks so fast,” which made Brad feel a little better.
Brad made more than four times what the highest paid Hispanic employee received, but none of them seemed to resent that. Even so, Brad felt uncomfortable about the discrepancy. Sure, he'd driven nearly thirteen hundred miles for a few weeks’ work—the gas alone cost him more than a hundred dollars one-way—and he was a highly skilled musician and entertainer. Nevertheless, he didn't feel right seeing people working hard for a quarter of what he was making—and being treated like dirt for their pains. The Latino workers must have sensed Brad's feelings, because he met nothing but friendly acceptance from the people the other Anglos referred to as “the menials”.
Leon, particularly, spoke ill of the Hispanic workers and considered them all thieves. Brad later cherished the memory of an incident he hoped might've provided an educational moment for his bass player. Because Brad didn't like the feeling of something on his wrist, he carried a pocketwatch. To structure the band's sets, Brad kept his pocketwatch sitting on top of his amp, while they performed, and glanced at it between songs to see how much time remained in each set. One night, Brad absent-mindedly left his watch sitting on top of the amp, after the band finished their show and went off to their respective beds.
When they returned the next evening, Brad looked for his watch but couldn't find it.
“One of them Mexicans will've got it,” Leon said.
Brad accepted the possibility but thought it unlikely. When they finished their first set and left the bandstand, Brad and Leon headed into the restaurant for their break. As the two left the bar area, Guillermo approached Brad, handed him the pocketwatch and said, “Señor, you forgot your watch last night.” After thanking his Cuban friend, Brad turned and gave Leon a meaningful look but said nothing.
In the seventh week of the band's second eight-week contract, they experienced a couple of strange nights in a row. The first one—it might've been the Thursday—they played to only two or three occupied tables for nearly two hours. Brad had begun to worry, when, about ten-thirty, people began pouring in, and the band played to a packed house for four hours.
The second night, the place was packed until about eleven. People began drifting out, and, by half-past, customers occupied only three tables. Between sets, Brad bumped into one of the managers and started to say something apologetic about the almost empty room.
“Don't worry about it. We made plenty in your first two hours. It just happens. Let's see what tomorrow night looks like.”
Brad thanked the man for the reassurance and headed back to the bandstand. During that next set, another couple left. With an audience of four, Brad summoned his reserves and put on the same show he would have for four thousand. At least one of the couples really listened and enjoyed his songs, which afforded Brad some consolation.
Mid-way through the last set, two men walked in and sat at the bar, while Brad sang a slow ballad. Brad saw the bartender, usually very professional and attentive, continue washing glasses and pay no attention to the two customers. As Brad sang the last verse, he watched the bartender stand directly in front of the two men and scan the room behind them, including the band and the four patrons, as if the men were not there.
Eventually, at the end of the next song, the two men stood up and walked out. Only then did Brad notice that they were Hispanic. When he realized what had occurred, Brad almost walked off the stage. He fought down his temper to keep from cursing at the bartender and packing up his instruments. The casino displayed no signs saying, “Hispanics will not be served,” but the policy was painfully, disgustingly obvious.
Brad felt almost physically ill and needed to marshal all his reserves of professionalism to finish the night's show. He felt torn: on one hand, he wanted to stand up to the bartender and the management and berate them for their attitudes and their treatment of their Latino employees; on the other hand, he had made a commitment to do a job and felt obligated to do it. On one hand, he wanted to be brave and stand up to the bigots; on the other hand, nightclub and casino gigs provided the best income available to a good journeyman entertainer.
The next two evenings brought packed houses both nights, and Brad performed with skill and his usual flair—but his heart wasn't in it. The audiences never noticed; Leon never noticed; but Ed asked, “What's eatin' you?”
Counting Ed as a friend as well as a colleague, Brad told him before they headed off to their respective beds Friday night—actually early Saturday morning. Ed responded, “Yeah, it's too bad, but that's just the way it is around here. Y'learn to ignore it.”
“You might, Ed, but I don't. I don't think I ever could.”
“Y'couldn't live around here, if ya didn't,” Ed replied.
“Yeah. I guess that's why I don't.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, and nodded as he headed toward the restaurant. As Brad turned to walk back to his motel room, Ed looked back and said, “Don't let it get to ya.”
“Thanks.” But Brad did let it get to him, even though he didn't reveal that onstage. He woke with sore jaws, which made him aware he'd been grinding his teeth. He spent an hour on the 'phone Saturday, chased up another bass player he knew, mentioned he was available, and lined up a last minute gig in southeastern Idaho.
Over the next few days, Brad talked about Thursday night's scene with several of his Hispanic acquaintances and friends. Consistently, they said, “Sí, Brad, it's like that everywhere here. Pasamos el rato juntos—we hang out with each other.”
Brad felt like weeping when Laura, a woman from Guatemala, said, “They don't mean to be bad. They just don't know any better.”
That next week, Brad again had to muster all his professionalism to perform up to his standard. Even Ed, who knew Brad pretty well, didn't realize what his friend and workmate was going through. Leon, as usual, was totally oblivious.
Management must've liked Brad's sound, 'cause they offered to extend his contract for another eight weeks. Despite the good money and the good music, Brad felt uncomfortable working for such people and in such an environment. He berated himself for not saying that out loud, but he couldn't afford to become a pariah to the casinos. Instead, he told the manager, “I'd love to, Bill, but I'm already committed up in Idaho for the next couple of weeks.”
The manager persisted. “These young fellas we have coming in, we've only booked 'em for a week, but we could extend that to two weeks and you could come back after that.”
Uncomfortable but determined, Brad paltered. “I'm really booked pretty solid for the rest of the year,” he said. “Maybe next year, eh?”
“Yeah, that'd be fine, Brad. Let us know when you're available,” the manager said, as he handed Brad the check for his last week's work.
“Will do,” Brad replied, although he had no intention of doing so. He shook the manager's hand, walked to the bank and cashed the check, then packed instruments, clothes, books, and his other stuff into the pickup and checked out of the motel. Before heading north, Brad drove back to the casino and said his farewells to each of his Hispanic acquaintances and friends—or at least all he could find—and to Leon.
5/29/2018 01:07:47 am
Excellent! I can't help wondering if it's based on a real person.
6/16/2018 12:23:02 am
Beautiful story. I wish I could write like that -- in English or Hindi.
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