Murray State Memory

“Hey, that your friend over there?” the boy at the pool table asked her as she walked past him on her way back to the bar. “Yes,” she answered, “why?” “Cause I’d like to pop her,” he said and grinned. He was a country boy, and he probably thought he was pretty darn charming. “Well,” she said to the boy, “my girlfriend’s never been ‘‘popped,’ and I imagine that, when she’s ready, it won’t be you.”

Later, as we sat side by side on our barstools, she told me what the boy had said, what she said in reply. I thought to myself: this is my friend. That’s what she does. I remember thinking how good it was to have a friend like her.

We were at the Cotton Club on Highway 641 South in Henry County, Tennessee. We were college girls at Murray State, 20 miles away, just over the state line in Calloway County, Kentucky. It was a dry county and so the college students who drank came to the Cotton Club.

It was a concrete block building, low, flat, dark inside, and always smelled like stale beer. The floors were concrete, sticky and gross. During the day, the patrons were mostly locals, drinking beer and playing pool. There’d be a few pickup trucks outside in the dirt parking lot, the door would be open – there were no windows – and the sun shining into the dank interior seemed wrong. Also, the locals weren’t our friends, and god knows what we were doing there that day, on a sunny afternoon.

The time to go “South” – which was our euphemism for going to the Cotton Club – was at night, when the place was filled to the walls with college kids and the parking lot was filled with the old cast-off cars the poorer parents gave their kids when they went off to college alongside the sports cars of the rich fraternity boys. Inside, we listened to the best band at MSU, Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie, who played there every weekend. Everyone was drinking PBR and we thought it was the high life we were living.

Years later, after I’d divorced the trumpet player from that same band, and moved to Madison, Wisconsin to attend graduate school, I cultivated a more serious relationship with liquor and had my scotch-neat-with-a-twist in some beautiful taverns. My friend pursued the 60’s sitcom life and I became a radical. She was Donna Reed, albeit Southern style, and I was Angela Davis. Yet we have remained friends.

We are now polar opposites in politics, religion, everything. And yet tonight, her husband lies in a hospital and it may be serious. They do not know yet, but it could be very bad indeed. All she asks is that I pray for her. And that’s one thing I never do.

She walked back to a bar stool one day all those years ago and told me how she’d saved me. I know that was small, and this is big. But I still wish I knew a way to save her now.

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