Unforgettable Characters. A Quiet Hero.
April 6, 2012
If there was a neon sign out front with at least two letters burned out, if there was at least a dozen pickup trucks of varying shapes, sizes, colors, makes, and models, with a required number of dents, bunched together on a dirt or gravel parking lot, and if the wailing, heartbroken sounds of a honkytonk troubadour cut through the night and reached the highway, I knew I had found a genuine, down-home, home-grown, old-fashioned Texas beer joint.
They were all the same. Small. Frame. Peeling paint. Gone through too many storms outside and just about as many inside. Tucked alongside a back road. Far enough away from town for the kickers to do whatever it was they wanted to do. Close enough to town for an ambulance to arrive when needed and in a hurry.
Same waitresses. At least, they all looked alike. Tall. Blonde. Eyelashes too long. Lipstick too red. Legs never long enough. There was only one difference in them all. Some wore tight jeans, and some tight short shorts, preferably patched from denim.
Same peanut shells on the floor.
Same jukebox, all pouring out an assortment of literary short stories about drinking and fighting, living and dying, love lost and love found and love thrown away.
The lines in a Texas jukebox song could be classic.
“I’m gonna put a bar in my car so I can drive myself to drink.”
“Her woman’s intuition told here I was in to wishin’ she would leave.”
“I can’t get over her until the grass grow over me.’
“Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal post of life.”
“I gave her a ring, and she gave me the finger.”
If a man sat alone, he was there to drink. If a woman was sitting alone, she had come to dance. No names, proper or otherwise, were required.
We were in the Rambling Rose late one night in the Hill Country, somewhere between Comfort and Welfare. The beer was flowing and never stale, The jukebox had put cheating to four- four time. And a woman sat alone waiting for her heart to be broken by a rancher, cowboy, truck driver, or stranger just passing through.
An old cowboy sat at the far end of the bar.
He had been worn down by hard work and hard times. His face was wrinkled. His eyes had faded. He was a good five inches short of being six feet tall. He was lanky, not much more than a tanned hide over a satchel of bones.
A cowboy hat sat back on his head. It was obvious that, too many times, he had spit tobacco into the wind and walked into it.
His boots were caked with mud and a little cow dung. The boots were made from bullhide. No ostrich or anything else exotic had ever touched his feet.
He barely looked up when the stranger walked through the door. A big man. Broad shoulders. Thick chest. Well over six feet tall. He was a man who had muscles in places where I didn’t have places. He wore wind pants, a muscle shirt, and penny loafers. He said he was from Houston. He was a big city boy and wanted everybody in the bar to know it.
The stranger had already been drinking. He wanted another bottle. “Bring two,” he said. The first one wouldn’t last nearly long enough. “And keep the rest of them cold.”
He laughed. It was a surly laugh.
Now, I have always noticed that there are basically four kinds of drunks.
Those who turn quiet.
Those who turn loud.
Those who want to kiss somebody.
And those who want to hit somebody.
The stranger was a mean drunk. He was looking for a fight.
After a half dozen beers, he turned around, leaned his big frame against the bar, and, in a loud voice, announced, “I can whip anybody in this damn place.”
Nobody said a word.
He yelled, “I can whip anybody in this whole damn county.”
Nobody said a word.
The stranger looked around, wiped the beer and spittle from his mouth, and yelled even louder, “I can whip anybody this whole damn state.”
Nobody said a word.
The old cowboy stood up.
He ambled across the broken peanut shells on the beer joint floor and walked up to the stranger. His back was bent. His shoulders were sagging. He tipped his hat farther back on his head.
The stranger folded his arms in defiance.
The muscles in his arms looked even larger.
The old cowboy didn’t say a word.
He reached in his pocket, pulled out a knife, opened it as quickly as a rattlesnake might strike, reached up, and, with one brief motion, cut off a piece of the stranger’s ear.
“Out here,” the old man said softly, “we like to mark you tough sons of bitches.”
He ambled back to the bar.
By the time he sat down, the tires on the stranger’s car were already whining, spinning gravel, and pointed back to Houston.
The old cowboy put a dollar on the bar.
The lady handed him a cold beer.
She left the dollar where it lay.