God's Back Yard

By Jessie Welborn Smith

An Episode from Act Three

Place, Tim Murphy's saloon.          Time, evening.

Men are crowding about the bar, drinking and laughing coarsely. The wives are huddled together on a long bench at one side of the room. The children keep close to their mothers, but stretch their little necks to watch the dancing in the back of the room, where a group of painted women are tangoing to the wheezy accompaniment of an old accordion. Over in the corner a man sprawls drunkenly across a broken-down faro table.

Dick Long (hammering the bar with his mug and singing). Oh, I'm goin' to hell, and I don't give a damn. I'm goin' to hell. I'm goin' to—hell.

Murphy (knocking a board from the crate that holds the new nickel-in-the-slot gramaphone). You're going a damn sight faster than that, Dickie Bird, but you'll have to speed up a bit to get in on the concert. The program begins at eight o'clock sharp, like it says on the card in the window, and everybody gets an invite, but Caruso don't sing this time.

First Painted Lady (stopping the dance and coming down beside Murphy). Let 'er go, Murph. Give us "Too Much Mustard." The piano player down at the Gulch plays that just fine, and a piece about a girl that didn't want to love him, but he made her do it. That machine was long on personal history, Murph. I heard them all through three times. Let 'er go. We're all here.

First Wife (leaning over and speaking eagerly). Mrs. Long won't be able to come, Murphy, and Old Moll is settin' up with her to-night. I met Doc as I came across. The young-un died. I don't see no use in waitin' when we're all here.

Rosie Phelan (reaching over and pulling Long's sleeve). Did you hear that, Dick? Your kid is dead. Your kid is—d-e-a-d. Do you get me?

Man at the Bar. Aw, break it to him gentle. He don't know he is a father yet. Have a heart.

Rosie Phelan (disgustedly). "Have a heart." Well, what do you think of that? For a man who guzzles all day you are mighty strong on the heart-throb slush. "Speak kindly to the erring." Didn't know you had got religion. Was it you got the revivalist to come up from the Gulch?

Nell (shifting her wad of gum). Well, he was sitting over at Benton's rather lonesome-like as I came along. I allus follow the crowd.

Murphy (hotly). And that is what that preacher will have to do if he makes any converts up here at the mine. I reckon that, with that music machine, I'm equipped to compete with any preacher that comes larking around here until kingdom come. He said he'd save me, if he had to chase me to hell and back, did he? Well, that guy should worry. That pale chicken-liver chase me to—Pour out the drinks, Bob. It's my treat.

Bob slops a little whiskey into every glass and mug on the bar and passes it round. As it comes to the wives they smile, but shake their heads. Murphy lifts his glass.

Murphy. Won't you women drink the minister's health. How about you females, Bett? Nell? Rosie? Mollie? You girls never turn down free liquor, do you? Ready? To hell with the minister.

Barkeeper. To hell with every denatured female that comes round here praying for our souls' salvation. I reckon a feller can do what he damn pleases with his own soul.

First Lounger (lazily boastful). I told my old woman that if I ketched her or the kids hanging round listening to that mollycoddle letting off steam, I'd——

First Wife (spitefully). Us women ain't got no call to get religion. We're too meek already. My man knows that he'll have a wildcat at his head when he comes in with that O'Grady woman, but it don't do no good. He ain't afeared o' nothin' short o' the devil. You don't ketch me joinin' while my old man is alive. You gotta have some protection. Safety first, I say.

Second Wife (meekly). They say the "Blue Ridge Mountains" is a mighty tuneful piece. My sister heard it over at Smarty's las' Thanksgiving. Can you tell whether your pianoler plays that, Murphy?

Second Painted Lady (patronizingly). How would you expect Murphy to know what is stored in that machine? You pays your money and your choice is whatever it happens to grind out. If you place your money on a "Harem" and draws an "Apple Blossom Time in Normandy," you got to take your medicine. What you waiting for, Murph? My gentleman friend is coming over from the Pass this evening, and I can't hang around here all night.

Rosie (excitedly, turning from the window that looks upon the street). The light is out at Benton's. The minister is coming over here. Remember and give him hell. Let him turn the other cheek.

Murphy. No prayer meeting virgin is going to interfere with my business.

The door opens and the minister steps inside. Murphy goes over and greets him with mock politeness.

Murphy. Rosie, you are chief usher to-night. Will you find the minister a seat? Sit over, Nell. There's room enough between you and Bett for any sky pilot that ever hit the trail. Bob, give the preacher a drink. He looks sort of fagged. It's hard work saving sinners in God's Back Yard. I hope this little concert ain't going to interfere with your meeting, parson.

Minister (standing at the bar, whiskey glass in hand). Not at all, friend. What is the bill of fare?

Rosie (coming forward in her low-cut red gown and swinging her full skirts from side to side). For Gawd's sake, why didn't you tell me it was going to be religious? I'd forgot it was prayer-meetin' night, Murph. (She carefully tucks her handkerchief over her bosom in pretense of modesty.) I'd dressed up more, if I'd remembered.

Nell (holding out a string of glittering beads). Here, take these, Rosie. These'll cover up some. I ain't takin' an active part, so I don't mind.

Rosie (lifting her arms to fasten the beads). Not takin' an active part? You don't know what you're sayin'. I heard of a minister once who could make hell look so darned nice you wanted to fall for it right away. Couldn't such a fellah give the heavenly gates a jar? (She turns to the minister.) Where d'you want to sit? Up there by Mollie? Take your choice.

Old Moll's Daughter (jumping down from her perch at one end of the bar and walking over brazenly to drop the first nickel in the slot). Clear the way, can't you? I'm praying for the "Bunny Hug" and the minister is backing me. For Gawd's sake, can't you clear the floor? Do you want the music to be half done before you find your partners? I'll be obliged to you, parson, if you'll save this dance for me. (She pauses a moment, nickel in hand.)

First Card Player. I'll stake you ten to one it'll be "The Pullman Porters on Parade."

Second Player (doggedly). They always play "A Great Big Blue-Eyed Baby."

Rosie (shaking her head and singing, hands on hips). "My harem, my harem, my roly, poly harem."

Nell (with mock sentiment). "For it's Apple Blossom Time in Normandy, in Normandy, in Normandy."

The nickel jangles in the slot. The disk begins to revolve. It grates and begins its introductory mechanical clinkety-clinkety clink. A small child wails dismally as the music shivers through the room.

"Jesus, lover of my soul,

Let me to Thy bosom fly.

While the nearer waters roll,

While the tempest still is high.

Hide me, O, my Saviour, hide

Till the storm of life is past.

Safe into the haven guide,

O, receive my soul at last."

Rosie's hands drop from her hips as the song begins. The dancing impulse passes from her limbs. Even the muscles of her face harden convulsively.

Rosie (hysterically). Oh, I can't stand that, Murphy. For Gawd's sake, can't you stop it?

She starts over toward the machine impulsively. Then something catches her, she pauses and is held a moment while a superstitious awe makes her eyes again the big roundness of childhood's wonder. She draws the back of her hand across her forehead in an endeavor to bring herself out of the daze.

Rosie (falling sobbing beside the bench). "O, receive my soul at last." Why did you leave your little Rosie? Mother, Oh, mother. I ain't fit to come to you no more, mother—I ain't fit, I ain't fit.

One of the mothers reaches over and strokes her hair.

Old Moll's Daughter (opening the door and stepping out into the lonely street as she laughs madly). Old Murphy in cahoots with the minister. Oh, hell!

The door slams shut. The glasses on the bar jangle harshly. A snatch of song boldly defiant rings in from the street: "Don't tell me that you've lost your dog." Murphy walks over and stands looking at the music box. It is still grinding out the music.

"Other refuge have I none.

Hangs my helpless soul on Thee.

Leave, ah, leave me not alone.

Still support and comfort me.

All my trust on Thee is staid.

All my help from Thee I bring.

Cover my defenseless head

With the shadow of Thy wing."

The wives are all crying quietly. Rosie and Bett are sobbing with the wild abandon that such natures know. Tears are falling upon the idle hands at the card table. The men at the bar are strangely quiet.

Man at the Faro Table (lifting himself up on his elbow). I ushe shing—I ushe shing zhat—I ushe shing Jeshus—Jeshus—I ushe shing—(He drops his head over on the table and weeps drunkenly.)

Little Child (pulling at her mother's shoulders and whining peevishly). Who is Jesus, mamma? Do we know Jesus? (Happily.) Will he cover my head with a pretty birdie's wing? (The mother shakes with sobs and the child speaks more caressingly.) Don't cry, mother. I like my hat with the posies on it. You can have the feathers, nice, good mamma. Don't cry.

Murphy (absently, looking at the minister). They sang that at the funeral. Sally didn't have no call to hide anything. She was that white and pure. I always felt her slippin'—slippin' away. She worried so them last days because of the little kid. "Take him back home, Murph," she kept sayin'. "A little child has got to have some raisin'. A kid has got to go to Sunday school, Tim, dear, and there ain't never no meetin's in God's Back Yard."

Man at the Bar (dejectedly, going over to the door). It's all right for the young-uns, but when a man has got a thirst and is down on his luck, I don't allow that God is going to help much. You got to get 'em young, parson, and keep 'em headed straight. It's hell turning back. I tried it, and I couldn't make it go.

Minister (gently, as if speaking to someone very near). Oh, Jesus, lover of all these misguided souls, come down to this little room to-night, for it is dark here, and, Oh, so cold and dreary. Speak to them, Jesus, as you did to me. Let them see the glory of Thy face. Will someone pray?

Murphy (looking across at the loafers and speaking half as an invitation, half as a command). Are you staying, boys?

One of the Men (doggedly, as they look at one another sheepishly and no one moves to go). Ain't we always stayin' till closin' time?

Murphy (warmly). You sure do, boys. (He buries his head in his crossed arms over the music-box.) It's your lead, parson.