Dark bar, like from an old western movie. Slow songs from a jukebox, old heartaches from olden times. A Mexican Merle Haggard singing Mexican ballads, but the voice is not pitted and pock-marked like Merle’s. It is a young voice, unlived. In Mexican music, even the ballads sound like a party. The worst tragedy can be strummed a certain way, given strange lovely voice, strung with tinsel and beads and you can drink to this. You can dance to this.
The smell of the place is sawdust and spilled beer, cigarette smoke and cheap French perfume. The whores are out. They are draped and painted. They recline on sofas in the back room or they are dancing or leaning into the bar. The bartender is pouring drinks and talking to the whores and watching the door for every swinging dick that enters. Old men are hunched over the bar, bony shoulders like folded bat wings up around their heads.
This is the kind of place I want to be.
I step to the bar. The old man next to me, a gringo, is staring at ancient hands folded on the bar before him. He looks up at me, nods, and goes back to his staring. I am just settled on the stool when the whore comes to me. She is old, as whores go, not young enough to be first picked in the bars and saloons, but not yet old enough to be cast onto the whore-wagons bound for the mining camps and cattle drives to the south. She has a thick purple scar on her neck, from one side to about the middle of her throat, as if from some dull blade pressed there years ago, then pulled away as if it were not worth the trouble. She smells of bathwater and ancient whoredoms.
“You want dance?,” she says. She is leaning on the bar, her elbow pressed there, her forearm pushing her breasts up and out for me.
“Not right now.”
“Is two dollars to dance,” she says.
“I know it.”
“We go in the back,” she says.
I smile. Shake my head. Look for the bartender.
She says no more to this. She leaves the bar. Looks for other places to dance.
“Everybody got something to sell here,” the old man says.
I nod. “What you got to sell?”
“What kind of stories?”
“Pay me and find out.”
“How much are they?”
“A drink of liquor.”
“What kind of liquor?”
“It don’t matter.”
“Alright then. I’ll have one.”
I motion for the bartender. He comes. I order two shots of tequila. He
brings the drinks. I slide a dollar over to him. He comes back with fifty cents change. I wave my hand at him and close my eyes as if fifty cents is a thing I cannot be bothered with. This is a place where a poor man can feel rich. The bartender pockets the change and goes back to his pouring and talking and looking. I take the one shot. Slide the other over to the old man. Bony fingers take it, slide it beneath his face. Both hands grasp the glass gingerly, bring it up to old chapped lips. The head tilts back and the tequila pours down and the throat swallows and the head comes back down and the glass settles again on the bar and a shirtsleeve wipes at the old lips and the old man is finished. He looks at me.
He tells me of floods and fires, of hailstones as big as a man’s fist. He talks of buffalo and elk and a grizzly bear that once tracked a man for three days before killing and eating him. He tells of drunken Indians once vassals of the plains. He tells of the way his mama used to read the Bible to him when he was a kid. He tells of his father’s strong hands gripping the plow. He tells of the sickness that took his father away. He tells of how his mother grieved herself to death after. He talks of the boat ride to France, and of the trenches, and of the German boy he killed there not much older than a schoolboy. He tells me of a time when black men stumbled, castrated and bloody, down country back roads and the southern moon shone virtuous and untouched in the dark sky above. He talks of the one-armed whore who bore him a son in a cabin by the Brazos River. He tells of the Rheumatic Fever that took them both. He tells of a woman beheaded in an open town square. He tells of prairie fires and runaway trains. He tells of nights when he thought the snow would never stop falling. He tells of a name he carries with him like a folded letter, always in his pocket, ready to be his last word. He tells of these things, and others. He tells and tells and tells until the telling is done.
And he stops.
He folds his hands again on the bar. Stares at them silent. The whores are on the dance floor, or they are leaning on the bar, or they are dancing in the backrooms. I reach for the last dollar in my pocket. Motion for the bartender. I touch the old man’s arm.
“I’ll have another,” I say.