The man was a newcomer to Sally’s Place, barefooted in his low-quarter shoes, both heels hooked in the bar stool. An unruly hank of hair stood out behind his baseball cap. Sally was playing old Patsy Cline songs on the jukebox.
“There ought to be a government warning on sad country songs,” the stranger said, and Sally agreed.
“This time last year I walked in my house and found my wife with another man,” he said. “But I was polite and didn’t kill him. I only asked him would he kindly leave. Then when I put him out the door, his old truck wouldn’t start. You know, that rogue had the nerve to ask me would I give him a jump start. I said, “What I ought to do is kill you. But prison time ain’t worth the trouble of a sorry woman and a sorry man. And the only start you gonna get from me is a start down the street with the biggest stick I can lay a hand to. ” That’s my story this year. Ain’t that what all country songs are about?”
“You got it,” said Sally. “What you gonna have, duke?”
Sally sat on a high stool behind the bar with a floor fan lightly lifting the hair off her shoulders, and the newcomer read aloud from the sign on the wall behind her: “All Domestic Beers $1. 25.”
“You going to drink all the domestic beers?” asked the man beside him laughing aloud at his joke.
“Not all at once,” said the stranger. “Just one at a time. One after the other.”
“They’re a dollar now,” said Sally. “It’s happy hour.”
“I can’t believe it,” the stranger said. “If my luck gets any better, it’ll be happening to somebody else.” The man wore large Raybans so that Sally couldn’t see his eyes, and a threadbare t-shirt with his cigarettes rolled up in the right sleeve.
“So did you get the fellow’s truck to start?” the regular customer wanted to know.
“I remember the night old Patsy died and exactly where I was,” the man answered instead, ignoring the question.
“I was parked behind the wire fence of the rec center with Merry Amos—making out, and skipping church. And it came over the radio. The famous Patsy Cline had fell out of the sky and died in a fiery air crash. On her way back to Nashville from a concert. Now this Reba McIntyre is singing Patsy’s songs. Bobbie Gentry tried, but it wasn’t her style. Who do you like, Miss?” he asked Sally.
That was an easy one. Everyone knew Sally was a Reba McIntyre imitator. She could sing it herself or lip sync it and you couldn’t tell the difference. Sally’s ambition was to open some day in a Reba McIntyre concert. She said, “Reba McIntyre. Some Reba McIntyre’ll come on the jukebox in a minute.”
“You make good selections, ma’am. I like your taste. You are original.”
“Genuine,” Sally agreed, returning the stranger’s smile. She accented the last syllable. It rhymed with wine.
“I like Otis,” he said. “And I like Jimmie Reed and some of the other spades.”
“B. B. King,” Sally added.
“Brook Benton, Bobby Blue Bland. And then there’s the King himself. I saw the King when he came to Crampton Bowl when I was a young juvenile delinquent and nobody hardly knew who he was yet.”
“Yeah?” said the regular. “We got something in common then. I was at a Gene Vincent concert at Crampton Bowl when I was a kid. Actually, it was at the National Guard Armory next door. He sang Be-Bop-A-Lula,” he explained to Sally.
“She’s too young to remember that,” the stranger nattered, smiling broadly at Sally again.
“I know Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Sally said. She was a vocalist herself. She had a repertoire.
The regular customer’s name was Doyle. And Doyle was drinking beer backed with shots of Jose Cervos Gold Tequila, which to his taste was the closest thing to good moonshine. It put him in a mood to talk.
“Yeah,” he said, “Gene wore these red pants. I mean they were red, lipstick red, red as the flag on the back of a log truck. I had never seen a white man wear red pants. And with these red pants, Gene had on a blue shirt. Not just any kind of blue now. I mean Aqua Velva blue—blue like an electric spark. And half the buttons were unbuttoned showing all these chains and Catholic medals on his chest. And when Gene sang Be-Bop-A-Lula, that auditorium just went crazy. Little girls throwing brassieres up on stage, things like that.
“I found me a pair of pants like Gene’s. They weren’t exactly red as his, but they were the closest I could find. I found those pants over on Monroe Street in Montgomery. I was the only kid in school with red pants. And I paid for those pants. I took a beating for it every time I wore those pants for a while. Couple years later every boy in that high school had red pants like mine. I never could find a blue shirt though.”
“We’re members of a same generation,” the stranger said, “you and me. And we’ll always have that solidarity together. I been to Memphis to see Jerry Lee. And then I grew older, and I made the pilgrimage to Graceland.”
“One of my aims in life is to see Graceland,” said Sally.
Sally, the bartender, suddenly began singing her favorite Reba McIntyre imitation of Patsy Cline. The stranger sang tenor behind her, word for word. I fall to pieces. . .each time I see you again.
When they finished the song, he complimented the tone and timbre of Sally’s voice and got himself a beer on the house.
“Where you from, Mister?” asked the customer on the stool beside him.
“Over near Montgomery,” he replied. “Hank Williams’ town.”
“And what brings you up in the country, if it’s any of my business?”
“I’m bringing some business to one of your local dealers,” he replied. “Firearms.”
“You buying or selling?”
“Hot guns or legal?” Sally asked, blowing a thick plume of cigarette smoke toward the graffiti on the ceiling. The low ceiling over the bar was covered with hearts and initials and messages from those bold or drunk enough—and allowed—to leap up on the bar and squat under the low ceiling and scribble the mild profanities, philosophy, other life longings. Sally ran a clean place. Only a healthy level of rowdiness was allowed at Sally’s Place.
“I haven’t owned a gun since my divorce,” said the stranger from Montgomery. “Because I was afraid I would kill the sonofabitch if a firearm was at hand.”
“And now you have a new need,” the other customer assumed.
“Steve Starnes is my name,” said the stranger and offered his hand.
“Doyle Hines,” said the man beside him.
“Don?” Steve asked, his free hand cupped at his ear to hear above the juke box music and the fury of electric fans blowing all around them.
“Doyle. Doyle Hines.” Steve and Doyle shook hands heartily.
“It’s a country name,” Sally explained. “This is a country bar.”
“Pleased to meet you, Doyle. And your name is?” he asked Sally.
“I’m Sally,” she replied. “That’s why it’s called Sally’s Place. Like the sign you saw over the door coming in.”
“I don’t know. I’m not seeing much at all this afternoon.”
“You been drinking all day?” Sally asked.
“There’s a game we play,” Steve said. “Every time we cross a bridge we stop and fix a drink. Then if you go along and don’t come to a bridge soon enough, you turn around and go back to the last one you crossed and fix two. But that’s something you don’t have to do too much. We’re lucky we got a lot of water in this country.”
“You come over the bridge at Kowaliga coming up?” Sally asked.
“Yep. And turned back south and crossed again at River Bend.”
“You ought to be loaded then.”
“I’m doing my level best. You got insurance if I get hurt in here?”
“Poor thing. You come in here with hurt on your mind.”
“I apologize for my appearance, Sally,” Steve said. He lifted his cap and smoothed his willful hair down with his hand. “I didn’t wash my hair this morning.”
“Your hair looks fine,” said Sally. “You see anybody else fixed up in here? I took a shower this morning, and I was wringing wet again as soon as I dried off.” She was tapping another Winston into her hand.
“And it’s gonna be this way till Thanksgiving,” said Doyle. “Get used to it.”
“Is it as hot on that side of the bar as it is on this side?” Sally asked, blowing smoke back over her shoulder politely.
“It’s hot everywhere, honey,” said Doyle.
“And I got the damn beer cooler back here blowing hot air on me,” she said. She took her blouse in her fingers between her breasts and neckline and pulled it away from her skin with a shaking motion.
“We don’t have AC,” she said to Steve. “That’s where all my customers are, sitting home in AC to keep cool. They’ll start coming in about dusk. Regular as a clock. You watch.”
“Where’s your TV?” Steve asked. “You don’t have a TV either, do you?”
“Shit, we don’t even have a telephone. When customers don’t have a TV to watch, they have to talk to each other. When you don’t have a telephone, the wives can’t call.”
“I heard that,” said Steve. “And I agree absolutely! It’s a real pleasure to find this place. It’s like stepping back in time—for somebody up from Montgomery.”
“So I say,” Sally continued, “what’s the use of washing your hair every damn day? Sit around these fans half a hour and it all comes unglued anyway.”
She tossed her head to fling the bright bangs out of her eyes, and her hair bounced on her shoulders and fell down her back and sparkled in the lights of the bar signs and mirrors. The long blonde hair reached halfway to her waist.
Steve lifted his cap again and smoothed his hair flat with his hand. “Mine keeps easy enough,” he said. “My wife—my ex—put a braid in the back one time, but I cut it when she left. It was too long. But hey—I’m contemporary, right?”
“Did it take you all day to come up from Montgomery?” Sally asked.
“Well,” he answered. “Sharing with a couple other guys. Taking turns driving and drinking, you know—fun lovers.”
“Be careful, dear.” She said this to all her customers. Because Sally ran a clean place, the deputies didn’t watch it or hawk it, but every once in a while a customer would be missing for a few days and then come back again with the bad news that he’d been stopped and charged. Most of her customers had had an arrest.
“You going back to Montgomery tonight?” she asked.
“Hadn’t decided. I might get too drunk.”
“Be careful, dear.”
“Yes. That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I need a little care in my life.”
“So have you found guns around here, or is this purchase in your future?” asked Doyle.
“You been to the war surplus place off the highway?” Sally asked. “Guy got a trailer up in the woods—painted cameo color. House trailer.”
“That guy’s got nothing. Stuff is either worn out or overpriced.”
“He’s licensed. County, city, state, and federal.”
“Your friends gun buyers, too? They drive up for our arms merchants like you did?”
“Oh no, just bums. You drive through parts of town, Montgomery now, say Hey, drinks up the road, free drinks, you can draw a crowd. You know, road company. A less lonely trip.”
“So you found you a hot gun,” Sally guessed, careful not to name a supplier.
“Well, actually,” said Steve, “one of each, a hot one and a backup.”
“Cover all bases,” said Sally, smiling hugely as if this were the thing to do. Reba McIntyre was singing The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and Sally swayed with the rhythm on her high stool behind the bar. The cigarette rocked in her fingers like a tiny baton.
“I bought a drop gun and a registered one,” Steve said. “You don’t want your drop gun to be traced down.”
Doyle asked, “What’s a drop gun?”
“Aw, come on,” said Steve. “Everybody’s got a drop gun. Every cop carries one. It’s the one you throw down on the ground by the guy you shoot. If you ever have to shoot anybody,” he added. “His is the hot gun; he pulled on you. . .you shot in self-defense. So you want a drop gun and a keeper.”
“One for the left pocket, one for the right pocket,” said Sally. She still had the fresh, early afternoon smile, starting up another Winston. She was enjoying the intrigue and sense of adventure this was developing. Steve seemed safe enough so far, if that was his name.
“You gonna shoot him or her?” She asked, as if guessing a punch line. “Your ex or her boyfriend? Or you gonna shoot ‘em both?”
“I haven’t decided that,” said Steve. He was turning his chin in the palm of his hand one way and another, thoughtfully. Then he took his beer off the bar again and turned it up, Raybans aimed at the ceiling. Placing the bottle back on the bar, he said with deliberation, “The faithless wife. . . for sure.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Older and bolder I guess. A year later, and it don’t get no better. And she’s only getting what she deserves.”
“You think it deserves a killing, uh?”
“I’ll take off her hide and stretch it tight until it cures.”
“You been thinking about this some, haven’t you?”
“Cut off her titties and make coin purses. Somebody’11 have his hands on ‘em every day then.”
Sally looked at Doyle, who returned her look of surprise.
“Whoa!” She said. “You’re stepping over the line now, son. I was only joking, you know. Let’s keep it on a level of the possible awhile.”
“Not only possible. It’s planned.”
“You’re deadset on this, ain’t you?”
“You’ll read about it in newspapers.”
“You might be in the wrong bar then, sir.”
“Sorry, Sally. You know I wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings—not deliberately if I could help it.”
“If you’re going back to Montgomery and shoot somebody, I didn’t hear none of it. Did you Doyle?” Doyle shrugged no. This wasn’t his interest either.
“We don’t plot that shit in this place, you understand?” she told Steve. Sally was not angry, only making her point.
“Aw, read the papers, honey,” Steve said. “It goes on every day. Some pay for the outside hit, somebody else to do their shit for them. Some of us are more enterprising—the do-it-yourselfers.”
“No. No way. No way, Jose.” Sally could get a little manic when excited, as hard as she was to excite. “We never even had a fight in this place.” She knocked the top of the wooden bar for the luck. “Not the first one. And I won’t have no customers in here plottin’ murder.”
“But I told you the circumstances,” Steve said. “I got a spotless record. I got a good lawyer. And if I go up, I’m home in two, four years. Nobody stays long for doing a two-timing woman.”
“You lissen at me, son. I’m a Christian woman,” she said. Sally had lost her smile now. “You’re looking at a Christian woman,” and she flung her head horse-like to get the bangs out of her eyes again. “I been saved,” she added. Doyle looked from one to the other. He thought at least she might throw Steve out.
“What’s your church?” Steve asked.
“Churcha God,” Sally said fiercely, unable to smile about this at all. “And proud damn of it.”
“That’s Jerry Lee’s church,” Steve said.
“Don’t you talk about my church. It’s in my family. I got a nine-year-old nephew already marked to be a preacher. He can get down on one knee and talk so soft in that microphone and knows right exactly when to jump up and whoop. He already knows as much as our hired pastor.”
“How about you, Sally? What does your church think about you? People in your church, I mean. You cuss. You smoke. You sell beer and whiskey. You got ugly stuff written on the walls.”
“Some understand. Some don’t. Some know I have to feed my family. I have to put food on the table for my husband and my child.”
“Let’s be understanding then,” said Steve. “Let’s look at it this way. I’m only providing a couple of people with an opportunity to take it up with their Maker a little sooner than they’d planned.”
“I don’t believe in that shit, Mister,” she said again. “You don’t do that. You let God decide that. That’s His business. That’s not up to us.”
“What’s up to us, Sally, is only what we take upon ourselves to do.”
“Yeah, I heard that line somewhere before. You might want to think about getting outa here, Mister. I believe you’re serious, and I ain’t being a party to it. And I think I speak for Doyle, too.”
Doyle nodded, yes, she had spoken for him, too.
“Maybe I had too much to drink today,” Steve said.
Sally said, “I don’t care how damn much you had to drink, Mister. You got no business talking that shit in this place. This is a honest country bar. We got a clean place here and we’re gonna keep it that way.”
Steve grew repentant at this. He said, “I’ve come in here to this kind hospitality and made these people mad. I’ve drunk too much and said too much, and I’ve rucked it up. I have misbehaved.”
“You sure have, son. You done that number alright. You overdone it.”
“Let’s play the jukebox, Sally,” he said. “Here, feed the box what it likes,” he said and placed a new five-dollar bill on the bar between them. “Cash it and punch up what you want. You make the choices, some Reba McIntyre, some good old Bonny Rait, some more old Patsy Cline. I know you like the female vocalists. I like Waylon, and I like Merle Haggard. Old Merle served time once. But this is for you. You play what you like.”
“You can’t play that jukebox, Mister, Steve or whatever your name is. I think it’s about time you got outa here.”
“I heard that. You being a woman, you have woman sympathies. You just don’t think I ought to do my ex.”
“You got that right. Not her nor nobody else. You better get outa here right now, Mister.”
“What you gonna do? You gonna get the law on me? You got no telephone.”
“We got our means,” she said, glancing at Doyle.
“Can I use your bathroom on my way out?” Steve asked. “Will you let me go to the John, at least, before I go? Can I have a little rest stop, Sally?”
“Piss and git,” she said.
“Where is it?” he asked, turning to Doyle. “Will anyone kindly direct me to the John?”
“Round the corner,” she swung her head throwing her long bright hair over her shoulder indicating the front of the bar.
Steve got off his stool contritely, swaying instead toward the unlighted rear of the bar.
“No,” said Doyle. “The other way—toward the front.” Steve stopped and looked around uncertainly. Doyle said, “The gentlemen’s is up in the front.”
Then Steve stumbled toward the front. He passed the bar where Doyle and Sally sat and lunged toward the right wall beyond the pool tables.
“No, no,” Doyle said again indicating with his thumb. “The other way. It’s over on this side, the wall on our side.”
“He got there fast,” Sally said quietly.
“He was already there when he walked in the front door,” said Doyle.
The two restrooms were side by side near the front door, the entry to the bar and convenient to the pool tables and dart boards. Beyond, there was a large window view of the highway outside, only a little obscured with the twisted tubes of red and blue light flashing the brand names of beer and ale.
Sally gave Doyle a signal and swung around the bar, and the two of them raced to the front to keep the man from fouling a pool table or crashing over a cigarette machine. It had happened. Steve was searching along the front wall for the restroom. He guided himself along the wall with his hands. When he came close to her, shuffling each shoe inches at a time, Sally had a side view of his face and eyes behind the dark glasses. They were almost the closed eyes of a sleepwalker, and the hollows around his eyes and the bags under them were white as sheetrock. When he reached the front entrance, Sally opened the door and he fell into the parking lot outside. Sally slammed the door and dropped the dead bolt. For the first time Doyle had known her, she was without words.
“We’re locked in, Sally,” he said. “You locked us in here, Sally, and we don’t even have a telephone. We’re in a trap.”
“You want out?” she asked.
“What about his friends?” Doyle asked.
“His friends are fiction,” she said. “A sonofabitch like this has got no friends.”
“What about his guns? What if they ain’t fiction?”
“He ain’t the only sonofabitch with guns, honey. It’s a armory up under that bar.”
“But this place is all windows, Sally. We’re sittin ducks in here.”
“You think he could hit a sittin duck? Right now he couldn’t hit a bull’s ass with a brickbat.”
“He could rally.”
“Not before the night crowd gets here. Bobby, Harper, Albert. All of them. They hear this shit and they’ll be hostile.”
“Funny. Up till the time the guy got into that killing talk, he seemed to be a okay kinda guy.”
“Seams is in clothes, Doyle.”
“You let me out the back, and I’ll go down the road and borrow a telephone.”
“And tell ‘em what? Come out and get a drunk out of our parking lot? It’d reflect bad on the business.”
“What else can we do? You tell me.”
“Leave the sonofabitch lie. Maybe somebody’ll come rolling in and park a tire on his head. It’s about time for Bobby, Harper and them. What am I saying?”
“I heard it. A fellow sorry as that deserves everything coming to him.”
“I don’t talk like that ordinary, and you know it, Doyle. You never heard me say a thing like that in your life. Tell me it ain’t for real, Doyle.”
“I’d be lying, Sally, if I told you that.”
“Lie to me, Doyle.”
“Alright. It ain’t real.”
Right then Bobby rattled the door. The juke box had played all of its selections and gone silent, but the floor fans around the bar still whirred loudly, and they had not noticed him drive up. Sally looked and saw that Bobby was the only one outside, and she unlocked and let him in. Bobby was a construction superintendent who wore good boots and western shirts with plackets and pearl buttons on the front.
Bobby walked into the bar with his Happy Hour smile, and Sally said, “A breath of cool fresh air come in that door with you!”
He said, “You want me to leave it open?”
“Hell no, close it against that highway traffic outside.”
“It was a hot one today. You think it’s hot in here, you should have been on the job with me.” Bobby’s voice was still at construction-site volume, loud enough to carry over the roar of heavy equipment or across several acres of baked clay. “I been out in the heat screaming at idiots all day. Making America competitive again.”
“Enough’s enough, Bobby,” Sally said. “I can’t take it.”
“Bad day, uh? Things slow around here?”
“Slow ain’t the word.”
“Then let’s get it going! Darts or eight ball? Choose your game. Who wants to go in on the jukebox?”
“You got five dollars coming up. It’s on the house.”
“Are you the generous angel, or who do we have to thank for this?”
“Nobody. Just play the thing. Turn it up so loud I can scream.”