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By Dan Jenkins
TCU PressCopyright © 2010 Dan Jenkins
All rights reserved.
THE SCRUB OAKS looked like twisted wrought iron, and everybody's front yard had turned the color of a corn tortilla. It was October in that part of Texas. The north wind had already begun to sling carving knives at the city, even when preachers and doctors were outdoors. A north wind in Texas didn't care whose ass it stung just like a sad song didn't care whose heart it broke. But this was only a crisp day. The sky was bluer than a bathroom wall.
As the days came and went for Juanita Hutchins, she called it a keeper. "I guess I'd choose it over glaucoma," was the way she actually put it. Juanita's optimism had a tendency to get out of hand like that.
Juanita saw the day through the big casement window in the bar of Herb's Cafe. She was charmed as usual by the panorama of Herb's asphalt parking lot, a few of the compacts and pickups that rendezvoused there, a telephone pole, a store across the street with the absorbing name of WALLPAPER TO GO, Slick Henderson's Exxon station, and the side of a laundromat on which a clever old romantic had alerted the world to "Fuck Melissa Ann Webster."
The truth is, Juanita saw the day as she worked behind the bar in Herb's Cafe, which was how it went, she said, if you were born under the sign of polyester.
It was around three o'clock in the afternoon on that bright autumn Wednesday in Fort Worth.
The luncheon for the South Side B & PW was over, but some of the Business and Professional Women were still around. They were drinking strawberry Daiquiris, discussing the Christmas tree skirts they were making out of felt and sequins, and trying to think of something good to say about their dead husbands.
A fresh batch of Daiquiris was blending. Juanita trifled with the dial of a Panasonic radio. It sat on a shelf near a photograph of her daughter, Candy, a ravishing girl in her twenties. The radio was usually tuned to stations programing Country & Western music. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn were necessary to Juanita's work. So were Winstons and coffee—and Anacin, which gave the benediction.
As the blender purred to a stop, Juanita spoke to one of the South Side B & PW's.
"Vera, you don't want any more of this strawberry crap, do you? Switch to Pearl?"
Vera Satterwhite looked around from a table where she was vigorously combating a hot flash with an Oriental fan.
"Thank you, honey," Vera said, "I'd hold me a Pearl in abeyance, if it's real cold."
"Colder than the other side of your bed."
Juanita poured three strawberry Daiquiris and put them on a tray with the Pearl beer. She carried the drinks to the table of Business and Professional Women. Vera Satterwhite sold real estate, Josephine McClure owned a pet shop, Alma Roberts managed a garden and gift store, and LuAnn Hodges was a secretary for a chiropractor. The women all had powder-blue beehives. With their red dacquiris and blue hair, they looked like campaign posters.
Juanita placed the last strawberry Daiquiri in front of the last beehive. "If it was me, I wouldn't know whether to drink this shit or take it over to All Saints Hospital and donate it."
"Now I remember my favorite day in here," Vera said to the other ladies. "Juanita had laryngitis."
Josephine, Alma and LuAnn began combating their own hot flashes with menus and newspapers.
Slick Henderson sat on a barstool in his regular corner. His Exxon patch and partly bald head rested against the wall near a calendar. The calendar gave a special prominence to TCU's Southwest Conference football schedule and advertised O. R. Boynton's Poultry & Meats.
Robert (Slick) Henderson was a strong-looking man of fifty-two. A layer of weather covered his face and there was a glint in his eye. In the hours when he wasn't replacing another vacuum modulator valve on another Volkswagen, Slick worked on his fluorescent tan in Herb's.
Next to Slick, a younger man was slumped over, dozing. He wore a hand-crumpled calf-roper's hat, shredded coveralls, a week's travail of whiskers. Lonnie Slocum was the leader of Dog Track Gravy, a Western band not widely known outside of high school gymnasiums and Holiday Inns. Scrubbed up, Lonnie was an appealing fellow, shaggy-haired and innocent-eyed, but he was scrubbed up about as often as Europe.
Juanita opened a Budweiser for Slick. The Exxon dealer lifted up the brim of Lonnie Slocum's well-aged black hat.
"I think Hank Williams is dead."
"Yeah, old Hank's dead," Juanita said, without looking. "Still dead ... after all these years."
She warmed a mug of coffee for herself and did something else to the radio.
"Time for Old Jeemy."
Juanita Hutchins was a fervant listener of Old Jeemy's Music for Mourners, 3 to 7 weekdays. Old Jimmy Williams of KOXX in Fort Worth, "Cowtown, USA," was a Country & Western disc jockey who rarely allowed any tunes by John Denver or Johnny Cash to pollute his airwaves.
Juanita approved of Old Jeemy's prejudice in the matter, although more and more these days special-interest groups were giving prejudice a bad name. John Denver was no closer to Western Swing than jelly beans were to chili, and Johnny Cash had become an example of what could happen to a big talent when Nashville franchised something.
"Old Jeemy played Loretta's new one yesterday," Juanita said, singing a line for Slick:
"He's behind on the rent to my body."
"You could have written that," Slick said.
"I did," said Juanita. "It was just a test."
Lonnie Slocum stirred. He shuddered, groaned, raised his face out of his cupped hands and rubbed his eyes.
"Beat me," Lonnie muttered. "Beat me, fuck me ... make me write hot checks."
Lonnie was quoting from the graffiti in Herb's rest room.
From the radio came a drawling voice:
"This is Old Jeemy comin' at you, friends. If I don't sound the same today, it's because I got me one of them colds that'd give a headache to a Communist tractor. My throat's dryer than the oil stick on a '57 Chevy. But Old Jeemy's here with you. I'm hangin' in there like stink on a stockyard boot."
Old Jeemy played a Waylon Jennings number and Juanita idly made it a duet. She sang:
"Well, the honky-tonks in Texas were my nat'ral second home ... where you tip your hat to the ladies ... and the Rose of San Antone. Well, I grew up on music that we call Western Swing.... It don't matter who's in Austin ... Bob Wills is still the king."
Lonnie Slocum pushed around on his heart to see if he had one.
"Old Jeemy," he said. "Shit. That fucker would steal lice."
"He plays good records," Juanita said, squirting J & B into Lonnie's glass.
"If you pay him enough."
Lonnie used a nasal spray. He looked up at the round Bulova clock above the cashier's window. The clock was on a wall separating the bar from the dining room in Herb Macklin's Bar & Cafe Restaurant. The white stucco building with the red tile roof had been a fixture on the same South Side corner since Bonnie and Clyde. Once it had been a night club. Then it became a drive-in where chunky girls in campaign hats and Eleanor Powell shorts came out to the cars and took orders for frozen malts and pig sandwiches. Herb Macklin became the owner after World War II and he turned it into a popular saloon and eatery with a big neon sign that normally had only two letters broken.
Lonnie was displeased with the time of day. He said, "If Toby Painter ain't here in thirty more minutes, I'm goin' to Waco without him. Fuck rhythm players, anyhow. You only need 'em to play chords."
Toby Painter was the rhythm guitarist for Dog Track Gravy. Lonnie Slocum put together the group in the early 1970's when he and Toby were students at Texas Christian University. The TCU campus was only five minutes from Herb's and reasonably close to downtown, its vanilla-brick buildings ambling across the gusty hill of a neighborhood primarily known as "out there around TCU."
Juanita named the band. One day Lonnie and Toby staggered into Herb's after picking all night at a Chi Omega orgy. Juanita had watched Lonnie and Toby slop a bowl of cream gravy over their chins, sleeves, chests, boots, and part of their chicken-fried steaks.
"There they are, folks," Juanita had said. "Would you give a real Grand Ole Opry welcome, please, to Lonnie Slocum and Dog Track Gravy?"
The name stuck, as the gravy would have if Lonnie and Toby hadn't lapped it up before it hardened.
Slick Henderson said to the bandleader, "Where you headed after Waco?"
"We got a debutante party in Houston. Barbecue convention in Conroe. Back to Nashville after that, if Jesus is still my buddy. I'd sure like to get our album finished."
Lonnie accidentally dumped half a Scotch down his shirt.
"God damn, never let a rhythm player run off in your limousine. Toby better show up with a life sentence of cocaine on him! He's been gone long enough."
"I'm worried about you over there in Nashville," Juanita said, giving the entertainer a serious look. "I hope you don't get Grand Ole Opry'd. You may come home with a rhinestone growth on your collar bone."
"I'm a disciplined performer," Lonnie said, applying the nasal spray again.
"Uh-huh," Juanita said. "Another year in Nashville and you'll be up to your ass in all that corn whisky, Smoky Mountain, bluegrass, Jesus Saves, Momma-done-good bullshit."
Lonnie looked around. "Damn, I hope Acuff-Rose don't have this room bugged." Slick Henderson pushed an empty Budweiser toward Juanita and got back a cold one.
"There's one good thing about you living in Nashville, though, Lonnie," the barmaid said. "By the time I write a good song, you may have sucked enough cock to help me get it published."
The cry came from Josephine McClure at the table of B & PW's.
"I do believe your mouth is the most serious enemy Listerine ever had," Josephine said.
"We would all admire another strawberry daiquiri just the same."
Lonnie Slocum stood up.
"I better go see if there's any more blood."
He shuffled painfully toward the men's room.
Juanita was rinsing out the blender when Slick said, "Where's old Doris today?"
Doris was Mrs. Lee Steadman, the assistant manager of Wickley's Drug, a regular in Herb's Cafe, a pillar of the South Side B & PW, and Juanita's closest friend.
"She was here for the luncheon. She'll be back after work."
"That old boy been in again?"
"The one she picked up last week? If he had, you'd have smelled my can of Lysol air-freshener by now."
"He's probably dead in a motel somewhere."
Juanita said, "Doris doesn't hurt 'em if they come up with one of those burgundy bulbs on a blue veiner."
"Jesus God, Juanita!"
That cry came from LuAnn Hodges at the B & PW's table.
"How'd you know what I was referring to?" Juanita grinned at LuAnn Hodges.
Vera Satterwhite said, "Juanita, it's a shame Herb Macklin doesn't have any candelabra to go with the rest of the atmosphere in here."
To Juanita, Slick said, "Well, it was true love, anybody could see that."
"Oh, it always is," Juanita said. "Doris is my best friend but I swear when that woman's in the mood, she'd fuck an old boy in a caterpillar cap."
Juanita ignored two glares from the hot-flash crowd.
On the radio the voice of Old Jeemy said:
"Friends, here's a public-service announcement from the Texas Highway Safety Department. This weekend, when you're rollin' along the freeway, think about rollin' over. Thankee."
Lonnie Slocum seemed a little more chipper when he came back from the men's room. He examined himself in the mirror behind the bar and wiped off his nose.
A half-hour later Doris Steadman arrived. Nothing could have prepared Juanita for Doris waltzing into Herb's wearing a brand new full-length mink coat.
A mink coat was not often seen in the vicinity of South Fort Worth, least of all in Herb's Cafe. Minks didn't often escape from the good side of town, the West Side, and seek refuge in a cave of chicken-fried steaks.
Not mouton. Mink. Softer, thicker, and more expensive than the sideburns on the man who followed Doris through the door.
The man was Roy Simmons, independent trucker, a person not to be confused with Lee Steadman, carpet sales, Doris' husband. The men with Doris were seldom to be confused with her husband. Doris' companion was the Lysol gentleman of a week before. Roy Simmons' sideburns were unforgettable. They were shaped like Africa.
Doris and the independent trucker took seats at the bar, at the opposite end from Slick and Lonnie.
"What do you think?" Doris beamed at Juanita. "Have you ever seen anything as pretty in your whole life?"
"What would Mrs. Neiman and Mr. Marcus care to drink?"
In the Blackglama mink and with her hair worn in the style of an oversized gold helmet, Doris Steadman looked pretty much like a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Without expression, Slick Henderson said, "Lady in a coat like that ought to have a longneck Dom Perignon."
"Rusty Nail," Doris said.
Juanita smiled. Doris ordinarily drank vodka or beer.
"What do you care if I like the way it sounds?" Doris frowned at Juanita. "I want a Rusty Nail, damn it."
Roy Simmons ordered a Sperm-off vodka and a pur-year.
"Why's that funny?" Roy Simmons asked.
Juanita replied, "I was thinking about a man crawling across the desert, dying of thirst, saying, Terrier ... Perrier.' I can't remember which came first, can you, Slick? Was it Perrier or jogging?"
Vera Satterwhite had a request.
"Stand up, Doris. Is it really full-length?"
Doris modeled the coat. She glided from the bar to the cigarette machine. She twirled from the cigarette machine to the jukebox, an old bulging Wurlitzer adding a glow of purple, red and yellow to the paneled room. Doris slunk from the Wurlitzer back to the bar.
"I guess you can say it's full-length." Juanita exhaled a Winston. "Damn thing goes from her knees up to her knockers."
"Is that your coat, Doris?" Alma Roberts asked. "Lee must have made a big carpet sale."
"Lee?" Doris blurted out. "Lee Steadman wouldn't buy me a coat like this if I went home every night and put on a garter belt and a sailor hat."
Doris turned to the barmaid. "Juanita, you won't believe what happened. Roy made this haul to Houston. They unloaded everything in his truck but this coat. They flat overlooked it, can you imagine? It was underneath a quilt or something. They signed the invoice and everything. They are just out one mink coat, is all they are, and it is right hereon my back!"
"Pretty coat for a pretty lady," said Roy Simmons.
Doris snuggled up to the independent trucker. She kissed him near the African continent and tenderly squeezed his forearm where a tattoo said: TO JO IS A DWARF.
"Doris, I do admire your coat," Juanita said, relaxing in a tall chair behind the bar. Juanita's chair differed from the rotating Naugahydes on which the customers sat. Her chair had a red cushion and a back. "It's a good deal you've got a mink coat and none of the rest of us do. Where you plan to wear it mostly—to the A & P?"
Juanita was willing to bet her collection of record albums, even the 78's, that Roy Simmons had not given Doris the mink coat for merely slipping out of her Dr. Dentons.
As the assistant manager of Wickley's Drug, Doris had easy access to all the pharmaceuticals in the store, and Doris liked her capsules and pills. She was not a junkie by any means. But she did like her little pinks and reds for guaranteed sleep, and she liked her little greens and whites and oranges for guaranteed spunk.
Somewhere along the way, Roy Simmons had noticed the inside of Doris' purse. It looked like Moroccan jewelry.
Truckdrivers need pills the way vampires need blood or generals need wars. The screwing was incidental.
Juanita considered herself something of an authority on truckdrivers. She had opened her share of beer for truckdrivers, made her share of small talk with them. Once, in another life, she had even been married to a truckdriver.
Weldon Taylor qualified, Juanita would argue, although Weldon had only driven a delivery truck.
Actually, if Juanita brought up Weldon's name at all these days, she referred to him as the crowd-pleasing Weldon Taylor. Weldon had disappeared long, long ago, leaving nothing behind but a fetus and some fingerprints.
Juanita's daughter by Weldon Taylor, Candy, had grown up a luscious thing and very sweet, but rather adventurous.
At the age of twenty-three, Candy had run off with her second dope dealer.
Candy had once gone to an Oregon commune on the back of a Honda with a skeleton who braided his hair. The skeleton's name was Skylab. This time, Candy had driven to Aspen in a Mark VI with a young man who called himself Dove Christian.
Dove was a former wide receiver at the University of Texas whose given name was Ronnie Lee Dickerson. He had changed his name to Dove Christian, believing it to be more suitable for the humanitarian deeds he performed.
Only the day before, Candy had phoned her mother at Herb's and reported with breathless excitement that Dove had come up with a revolutionary method for smuggling cocaine into the country.
Dove's "mule" had used the method in returning from a buying trip to Bolivia and it worked better than diplomatic immunity.
Excerpted from Baja Oklahoma by Dan Jenkins. Copyright © 2010 Dan Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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