Elroy slips a quarter into the jukebox. Five plays per. He punches the E-6 key five times. Shit. He turns around and grins to show me that he’s lost another one. The bruise on his chin is yellow — must have been last week. He sneers, I know you love it, Ruby gal. I stand behind the bar and avoid his stare, wipe it down with my filthy rag. Tex Ritter sings The Wayward Wind. Five times in a row. Shit.
The 45s are all ancient: Take Me Back to my Boots and Saddle, My Adobe Hacienda, Riders in the Sky. Gene Autry’s ghost stands in the dark corner next to The Sons of the Pioneers.
Every afternoon when Dwayne shows up after his route, he starts his selection with A-14 so Rex Allen is the first one out of his five. At least Dwayne makes Rex step aside for four others.
Two years. I’ve come to think of these songs as the local lingo.
Most folks around these parts speak silent in between shots of Jack Daniels. After I unlock the door at 2, they come in and pause, allow their eyes to adjust to the dim light, then head straight to their place. It’s like they feel the need to keep loyal to some Boulder Flats tradition. Arnold has had his own barstool for who knows how long. And J. T. has come to know this, but only after a few talkings-to. All Arnold needs do is nod and I refill.
Before Pops left me the place, he explained why he chose to settle in this bend of the road. Ruby honey, he said, it has no swank, but it fetches an honest dollar. The quarry will always yield so keep the place open and you’ll do fine. This is the chance for you to finally rest and mend your thoughts.
I hired J. T. to patch the cracks in the drywall. To sand and refinish the floorboards. He agreed to take it in trade so I kept a tab to pay him back in drinks. I bought new curtains that let in a bit of light, and set out a few bowls of beer nuts. Everything’s entitled to a spruce up, and this place was no different.
And I swapped out a few of the records. I put in a Reba, a Tanya Tucker. I thought about Emmylou Harris but then I found Dottie West singing Leavin’s for Unbelievers. And I got Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right, one of Roseanne Cash’s best. If I didn’t know any better, I’d reckon those girls wrote songs with me in mind.
But Dwayne saw that Tanya Tucker was in Rex Allen’s spot and he kicked the jukebox with his boot. One of the inner lights shattered and a sliver from the bulb fell and scratched When the Bloom is on the Sage. The record skipped to the chorus and kept repeating. Arnold got up from his stool and yelled until I yanked the plug from the wall. He threw down a five dollar bill without even finishing his drink and stomped out with the rest of them.
Elroy and most all the boys from the quarry stopped coming in. And those that did, would take theirs home in a brown paper sack without leaving even so much as a nickel tip on the counter.
The days dragged on and on and there were hours between which the door never opened. Every night I sat in darkness at the window of my one-room above the bar. The red light at the junction flashed and the old sorrows returned. Burdens drained till there was nothing much left.
J. T. came in. I set out a glass and started pouring. But he just stood there.
I want my money, he said.
I don’t have it. And if things don’t pick up —
Not my problem, he said. And he stomped out.
I emptied the coins from the jukebox. Loretta Lynn was there. Tammy Wynette. I longed to sing with them, to produce anything other than a shaky whisper.
But I had no choice. Mule Train went back in, to bring back the long-haulers. I propped open the door three days straight and used my handful of quarters so Arnold would hear Along the Navajo Trail as he staggered home from the garage. Tanya and Reba and Dottie and the rest of the girls went into a box I keep in the office. They stepped aside for Rex Allen and Montana Slim.
I’ve gone back to wiping the sticky off the bar with a grubby rag. Keep the glasses topped up, gather the tips and stow them in my jeans pocket. A dry gust of wind accompanies each arrival. And Dwayne is back again, staring into space, making a steady tap with the edge of his cardboard coaster.
At closing time, I set the chairs bottoms up on the tables and mop. If ever I get a second chance, I want to be Patsy Cline with white fringe hanging off the bottom of my red skirt. I’ll take the floor and pick up the mic. The band will watch for my signal.