TUESDAY: Honky Tonk

BY GORDON RAY BOURGON

Copyright is held by the author.

MAURICE, “Mo,” Leblanc walked into the cool, dark barroom with his Fender Mustang in one hand and his Fender Twin Reverb amp in the other. His denim jeans and shirt were both black, and he wore a silver studded belt that twinkled in the half gloom. His ebony hair was mottled grey and pulled back so as not to insinuate a receding hairline and to cover a bald spot on the top of his head. His left leg bowed. He had a day’s stubble on his chin.

In the back seat of his Camaro out in the parking lot was a ragged suitcase with two microphones and their cords, and song lyrics written on pages of foolscap. Next to the suitcase was a mic stand. He stopped before the door closed behind him and the sliver of daylight that had sliced across a table of drinkers there disappeared.

He looked around like he knew the place and the people, even though he’s never made tracks in here before. His name was not on the marquee outside so he knew he had to find the manager right away, to confirm he was actually playing here, Carp’s Corners, tonight.

The small stage in the corner had a table and two chairs, as though in expectation of a couple of drinking chums or an uninspired husband and wife out on their anniversary. Not a good sign. At the very least the stage, diminutive and pitiful as it was, should be made ready for the night’s entertainment.

Stages waited quietly for him. He loved hauling in his equipment, setting up, flicking the switch for a bank of coloured lights — red, green, yellow — and playing a sample of a song for a sound check and warm up. He patched the mic through the Fender Twin, doubling the amp’s duties. The bars back then smelled of old smoke and beer. When he arrived two hours before show time there was already an atmosphere of loneliness and outrageous expectation that clung to every bar stool, table, dusty ceiling fan and slouched back at the bar. Mo loved it. He felt most comfortable in these kinds of places.

Some years ago he was accused of running away to these places: escaping. The accuser, his first wife, Marjorie, wanted Mo to feel guilty when he packed up his gear and left for a weekend. She wanted him to feel he was only as good as the dives he played in and would never amount to anything more. But he loved those dives and, three years after divorcing Marjorie, he still loved them. Guilt, the kind she was trying to coax out of him, was never there. If there was a single atom of it he refused to give it to her. It would be permanently fixed somewhere in his heart, like the sweetness of a Hank Williams’ song.

Nevertheless, Mo secretly imagined he was running away, escaping from dive to dive, weekend after weekend, for a few hours of playing guitar each night, three nights straight (sometimes a Saturday matinee).

Now, he was an enabler of someone else’s running, escaping. Loni.

He met her last weekend, at a bar in the next township south — The Whistle Stop. This drinking hole was almost as old as the area’s history of farming, the C.P.R. cars that rolled through, and the sun kissed wind that swept across corn tassels and the rusted domes of silos.

She was a waitress there. She supplied him with Blue after Blue, and told him how much she loved his treatment of Townes Van Zandt’s melancholy For The Sake Of The Song. When Mo sang it, picked his Mustang like it was a scorned lover on the rebound, she stopped serving drinks and watched him from the shadows.

Loni didn’t care if he got drunk. She had him drinking four beers before he played his first song. Mo could not resist her smile, her lack of duplicity. “Drink up,” she said, “or I’m gonna’ have to break some fingers. You wouldn’t want that, would you? Didn’t think so. You’re one of those smart cutey-pies.” She turned and flung a heavenly scent of musk and lemon in his face, and called over her freckled shoulder, “I got my eye on you guitar man.”

Mo knew it was women like Loni that Marjorie was afraid of. A woman like that would sweep Mo away and gut him like the fish-out-of-water-creature he was. Marjorie never saw Mo play so she concluded he was completely out of his element in these back road bars. She had no idea of the synchronistic relationship he had with places like Carp’s Corners, Embassy and Victoria Hotels, and The Whistle Stop.

Marjorie met Mo when he was a letter carrier for Canada Post. In her mind, Mo was to always be that, and his only aspirations were to deliver mail. Playing music was for punks and drunks. Though when they went out to a bar to watch a band perform, Marjorie was star struck when they came up to the table to talk to Mo. She didn’t care if he knew them; they came to her, her table.

Mo never imagined her face in the crowd when he played. Any set of eyes looking at him was enough. One smile, one nod of the head to the rhythm he laid down was almost a love affair. He could only smile back and give the best performance he could possibly give.

Mo had to move the table and two chairs himself. Their wood was sticky and cratered with cigarette burns and knife marks. There was a stool he hadn’t noticed before against the wall.

The music he played, the lyrics to the songs, were all about story. He sang about real life. The music and words may go down dark and twisted paths, but someone out there, Mo believed, has gone down those very same dark and twisted paths. His path was Loni.

He should have felt the signs: he was falling for her. Loni was her own constellation, a menace, and the only understanding soul on the planet. And Mo was helpless. His eyes drifted from her fingers to her green eyes, to her dimpled chin and ruby lips. He was tongue-tied but he tried to rationalize it to himself that he was tired and his throat was sore from singing.

He tried to rationalize the fact he was almost twice her age. What was he thinking? What was she thinking? If he pushed on, if he went further down this daunting path, he might never be able to return from a sticky entanglement of embarrassment and shame. But he’s learned over the years that scary paths are generally the better ones.

If Loni heard his thoughts she’d say, “Dumb-ass! If you want to make a move on me, make a move on me! I’m not going to be kicking around forever you know!”

She was perfect, his thoughts kept saying. Exciting. Sexy. Intelligent and . . .

And she had baggage.

“What the hell’s going on, Loni?”

Mo and Loni were sitting across from each other at the end of a Saturday night gig. An angry looking man as big as a steer, stood at their table, his massive thighs inches from Loni’s chin. Mo thought he remembered seeing him with the group that hung around the pool tables. In the big guy’s hand was a cue ball.

“What do you mean, Ziggy?” Loni said, with a very close New York accent. “I’m off duty. I’m relaxin’. Now bugger off and go play pool with your buddies.”

Mo took it as a bad sign that Ziggy kept his eye on him while Loni was talking. Then the big guy snapped his glare back at Loni. “Come on,” he said, tilting his head, strenuously, in some sort of direction. “Let’s go do a line.”

“Really?” Loni said. She contained a smile. Neanderthal Ziggy’s proposal appealed to her. Mo could see that.

“Yeah, come on,” Ziggy said. “In the guy’s can. Joey will keep an eye out. Come on. It’ll be good. I’ll, uhh, I’ll tell Joey to give us a little extra time, all right? Know what I’m sayin’?” Ziggy wrapped a big but flabby arm around Loni’s neck. Mo recoiled when something inside him told him to lunge.

Loni flung her hand across the table to take hold of Mo’s. “Umm, what were we talking about, sweetie?”

“Sweetie?” Ziggy barked.

“Fuck off, Ziggy, for one second, ’kay?”

“I don’t know.” Mo lied. He knew very well they were talking about getting together after the bar closed. They were talking about Loni making the trip to Mo’s next gig at Carp’s Corners, all by herself, and maybe — the inference was there — spending the night, with him. That’s what they were talking about. How could she forget?

“I think we were talking about, us,” Mo said.

Ziggy shot out a laugh through his nose. He doubled over, his sweaty torso draped the table, nudging Mo’s bottle of Blue. “Are you fucking serious?” Ziggy spat. “This guy? This, fucking guy, right here?” Ziggy jabbed a finger at Mo’s face.

Ziggy then stood straight up and took in a deep, snotty breath, and grabbed Loni’s hand.  “Come on, bitch, quit fucking me around.” Quickly the Neanderthal scooped Loni from her seat and whisked her away.

Mo hadn’t much of a chance to stop them. He knew, however, where they were headed. To the men’s washroom, to “do a line.”

He did not know what he was doing when he stood up from the table like a bat out of hell. Same frame of mind for when he stormed across the bar, heading for the men’s washroom. He was no saviour. He was no Samaritan. He was no Jean Claude Van Damme charging like a locomotive into the men’s washroom to not only reclaim the girl but save her, possibly, from going down the wrong road in life.

“Can’s out of order, man.” This was Joey, standing guard in front of the men’s washroom at the end of a dark, narrow hall.

“Say that again?” Mo said. He wasn’t certain if he fashioned an intimidating pose or if he was being polite.

“I said you’re not going in there. Not yet.”

“You don’t want to do this, Joey.”

“Hey. You know my name.”

“Yeah. I’m a mind reader. I also really have to take a piss.” Mo moved around Joey, put his hand on the door. “What ever’s going on in there will be our little secret.”

Just like that he was inside the tiny, sweaty washroom startling Loni and the Neanderthal who were bent over the small counter inhaling thin lines of white powder.

His first thought was that everyone was doing this, and it was not a drug you necessarily got stoned on, but one that turned you into an asshole. Mo had done his share of weed, hash and mushrooms in his youth, but this generation and even the older ones who still thought they could hold on to their youth, seemed hell bent on spending outrageous sums of money on something that made them want to antagonize the world.

“Who said you can come in here?” Neanderthal Ziggy barked. The tip of his nose dusted white.

“I came for Loni,” Mo said.

“What?” Loni and Ziggy said together.

“You came for me?”

“Fuck off, moron,” Ziggy said, pouring out more lines of cocaine on the counter. “She don’t wanna’ go with you.”

“Fuck you, I don’t.” Loni said, making her way to Mo.

Ziggy snapped an arm out to stop her just as Mo reached out to take her arm. His hand, however, smacked into Ziggy’s chest, sending him sprawling onto his back on the piss-stained, tiled floor. His head made a wet cracking sound as it connected with the hard plane. His eyes, still dilated, looked more glazed-over than before. Also, the wind was knocked out of him.

Mo grabbed Loni’s hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here. Car’s ready to roll.”

That night they escaped from The Whistle Stop, from Ziggy, from whatever mixed emotions they felt when Mo saw Loni doing drugs in the men’s washroom. Later that night they escaped any residual effects the day or even their lives put on them. In each others arms they forgot their pasts. The future’s concern was all about further embraces, sweat-sweetened skin, inhaling scents that rose from desire, finding the sweet spot between physical lust and previously untapped tenderness.

And even later yet, when they said their goodbyes in front of the Pineview Motel 20  miles down the highway, Mo still felt a sense of departing from all things that were life inhibiting. What was happening between him and Loni was a gravitational pull. The connection would not be stopped. Only some cataclysmic force or death could put an end to the coming together.

At Carp’s Corners, Mo opened his final set with Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. Song over, two people in a barroom of 12 applauded. They were old enough to still be excited by Dylan, and to be reminded of a more magical time in their lives. Mo followed with Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, and then Hank Snow’s I’m Movin’ On.

It started to rain. Mo could hear it falling as though the ceiling above the stage was the actual roof.

Mo was exhilarated: happy for her, happy for himself. Things were playing out like an old country song. Two people who found each other in a beat up honky tonk despite their tumultuous pasts of broken hearts, broken dreams, and journeys to the bottom of a bottle.

Tonight, his version of Hank Williams’ Hear That Lonesome Whippoorwill began with a soulful guitar intro — bluesy. Just to feel the friction warmth from running his fingers across the strings was enough, was love, completion, a happy ending to a long, otherwise sad story.

And then Loni entered the bar with Ziggy. They were stoned out of their minds, floating across the room to the bar. Just once Loni looked over at Mo. No smile, not even a glint of recognition behind the glassiness.

Mo finished the Hank Williams and quickly launched into On The Road Again.

Ziggy smacked the bar top with the flat of his hand, and, like a hooked fish, bounced out of time to the tempo of Mo’s song. He didn’t care for the music, had no respect for the original artist or for Mo — he was just being an asshole. Loni thought he was funny. She, too, couldn’t have cared less for the music. She held two fists together in front of her chest and pumped them up and down as though she was pulling back the reins on a horse. She wore a ridiculous expression — cross-eyed with an overbite.

Mo knew Loni was lost to him.

The song ended. The Mustang nudged Mo’s hands. The microphone begged for a kiss. And he sang.

“. . . . . There are many roads to go down, and the ones you choose may not be pretty. Hold on to the ground, when it takes you down, in one single breath. My journey’s almost done. Living is a lie, dying is the truth. The truth is what sets us free. The truth can set you free.”

Applause came, but Mo did not hear it. He could hardly see the barroom through a haze that hung in front of his eyes. The music, the story, was in him, begging for release. It saddened him to know that there will always be more songs, more stories like this one.

“You sound like shit, man.” This was Ziggy. He teetered on the tiny dance floor in front of the stage. “Just kiddin’. Hey, she doesn’t want to talk to you. Loni. Yeah. She talked me into coming here, now she’s chicken shit.”

Mo nodded. He focused on packing down his equipment. He glanced over at the bar and saw Loni staring off into space or the tops of her knuckles. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, feeling. For all Mo knew Ziggy could be telling the truth.

Ziggy stepped closer. He reeked of pot and whiskey. “If you know what’s good for ya’,” Ziggy said in a confidential tone, “yer’ gonna’ stay away. Got it? I’m with Loni. She’s mine.” Ziggy punctuated his sentence with a belch. He grinned like an idiot and sauntered back to the bar.

Mo watched the big man put an arm around Loni and whisper something in her ear. Loni reared back her head and shoulders as if in laughter. She did not turn around to look at Mo.

When it was time to leave Mo stood at the door he first entered a day ago. The bar looked gloomier, darker than ever. The patrons no longer concerned themselves with him; many of them had opened up old wounds for which they needed alcohol to soothe the hurt.

For a moment Mo watched Loni and Ziggy drinking at the bar. He wanted achingly to talk to her but knew he would be out of place. He had his time, his moment with her, and now it was time to move on. It was okay to feel a slight sting because Loni did not acknowledge him. He will keep this wound as a souvenir. He will place it inside his Mustang, his music, for as long as he needed to.

He turned and made his exit from Carp’s Corners. He never returned.

***

“So he hasn’t called you or anything?” Loni asked Bob, the manager at Carp’s Corners.”

“Nope. To be honest, I think he’s done playin’. Happens. Guys have enough of the road, lose the enjoyment, and need to move on. That’s what I think happened. I mean, you been comin’ here for what, three weekends now? And still no word? Take my word for it, Missy. He’s done.”

Normally Loni would balk at being called Missy; the person would think twice about using that word ever again after she’s through with him. But now . . . that didn’t matter. There was an emptiness in her heart that was bigger than all that sort of stuff. A hole created most likely by her stupidity.

She knew she blew it with Mo, but can’t remember how she did it. She blamed it on Ziggy. When she gets herself involved with him poor decisions tend to happen and the memory of what she did is elusive. This happened too many times. It was a vicious circle, an entanglement, from which now, finally, she had the courage to escape.

“If I were you,” Bob the manager said, “I’d lay it to rest. Whatever you and that fella’ had goin’ on between ya’s. Save yourself a headache.”

Loni nodded. Not that she agreed with the bartender. It was almost a reflexive action, without forethought.

“Care for another?” Bob asked Loni, nodding to her rye and coke.

Loni swiveled in the stool to face the small, dark and empty stage. She grinned. “Yeah,” she said. “What the hell. One more.”

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