The Coward


Misunderstood, underrated, misjudged—who wants the burden of righting so much error, even about oneself? Tommy, who most people just called Yellow, chose instead to let the town read him wrong. He had his Becky, after all, and with her he never had to prove himself. Thus he was true to the promise to his father in prison, who had asked the 10-year-old Tommy to always walk away from trouble. “You don’t have to fight to be a man,” were his dying words to his son. So we learn in the song “Coward of the County.” As a teen, I listened to Kenny Rogers sing the song on the radio, and later I played it for my kids on a garage-sale cassette. Now I listen to it on my car’s CD player on my commute to work.

For 20 years Tommy kept his promise. But when the Gatlin boys molest Becky, Tommy turns his father’s advice on its head: he doesn’t fight to prove he’s a man, but because he’s a man. I too avoid fights when I can. I don’t suffer the way Tommy does, but I’d rather back down than force a confrontation, or simply avoid it, as I do now on my morning walks when I keep away from a certain stretch of the river path. It’s not, as you might think, that my large dogs are troublesome or impolite. But the nice woman we frequently met going the other way on the path began offering them bread from the bag she took to feed the horses along the path. How do you tell someone who means well that their act of generosity is unwelcome? I’m not good at refusing gifts of any kind, and rather than hurt someone’s feelings, I often accept a gift or permit a situation I don’t like. But I told the woman it wasn’t really a good idea to give the dogs treats. “Nonsense,” she said, and proceeded to pull a hunk of bread from her bag.

That seemed a strange response until I realized I hadn’t quite said it wasn’t a good idea, as I’d intended, already softened from “It’s a bad idea,” or “Please don’t do it.” I’d said instead, “You don’t have to do this.” My intended caution had been taken as a veiled thank you.

Treats for the dogs must be distributed first to Toby and then to Oso. To do it the other way around is to ask for trouble. But that’s not all. The dogs become excited at a treat and begin to tug on their lead, twist, and rise up. It’s a little dismaying if you are holding the treats, but also if you are holding the dogs and bracing against their excited prancing. Prancing is still cute, but when it becomes thrashing? No wonder after a couple more meetings with the woman, I sincerely and clearly stated the treats weren’t a good idea. To no avail.

Now when the woman sees us coming, she stops in her tracks, urging me to stop too and hold the dogs. Easy to say! My dogs are drooling and pulling, and Toby is turning circles as the woman, rather than cutting back her treats until the dogs no longer expect the handouts, has instead upped the offering, and in addition to the hunk of bread, she holds out a dog biscuit in either hand. The dogs lunge. She gamely stands her ground and then smacks her hands together to signal there is no more. “That’s it, that’s all,” she says, and despite the endearments she still uses, I can tell my dogs have become a challenge and a trial.

If only I’d let her know right off that I was not saying no for some strange and old-fashioned fear of obligation but for very practical reasons. Tommy wiped up the floor with the Gatlin boys. But had he shown what he was made of earlier, he might never have had to, and had I insisted on no treats, I might not have to hurry along to avoid meeting the kind stranger but instead smile in greeting and exchange a few words as we pass. I don’t even get the satisfaction of saying “I told you so!” That reproach would mean nothing to her. “Nonsense!” that determined woman would say, still ready to risk her fingers. No coward, she.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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