“Mississippi moon won’t you keep on sh-ttin on me!” Al sang above the din of the bar and the Doobie Brothers. “Hey!” he called down the bar, “Who rocked the jukebox? I don’t wanna hear no motha funky Dixieland. We’s sposed ta be cryin in our beers here.” His volume subsided as his eyes met the bartender’s.
“It’s just Pandora,” she said as she shuffled through a stack of receipts.
“Oh yeah? What’s the station, ‘honky tonk’?”
Her eyes widened as she looked back down at her receipts and walked away with them in her hands. “Just about,” she groaned.
Al took his first sip of his draught. He’d ordered one draught and one bottle. There was no point in the whole rigamarole of the second drink order. It always happened so soon, is was virtually simultaneous with the first drink anyways.
“You more of a Creedence guy?” asked the redhead seated two stools away.
“Well, I ain’t no fortunate one,” Al said, “I like your freckles.”
“Haha,” she laughed, “Thanks, I have plenty.”
“They’re all cute and make me wanna count.” Al moved to the stool beside her with the look of a jeweler inspecting a stone.
“You will be at it a while.”
“That’s ok,” he looked up at her, “I’d have good company.”
“Well of course.”
Al took a gulp from the draught. “You look like a girl I had a crush on in the third grade.”
“Really? How funny,” she replied.
“Yer like an unobtainable ideal.”
“What’s the ideal, female and freckles?”
Looking up and down he said, “Oh, I don’t have the words to describe all a yer features,” Al moved his hand palm-down in a sweeping motion, “But I assure you it has nothin to do with yer personality.”
He narrowed his eyes on her arms again. “Yeah, I guess it’s the freckles. But trust me, you are beautiful.”
“Well thanks. My personality is ok, too.”
“Like, marryin quality, or jus a couple a beers?”
“Well, I don’t know. I been married before.”
“Me, too. But I don’t provide references. She din’t have freckles, I can tell ya that much.”
“No references? Ok. Bummer about the freckles.”
“Yeah, fer a guy with such a thing fer freckles it was a livin hell.”
“Oh gosh, I’m sure there were other things!” She slapped his arm with her knuckles, “Like squeezin the toothpaste from wherever instead of the bottom. I do that.” She gritted her teeth, “Like an anarchist.”
“Oh, that’s hot. I like you. You go an get that toothpaste, git it!”
The two laughed loudly. The bartender passed by with arms full of glasses. “Jukebox is on. No George Jones.” Al glared at her. “Put ya on some John Cage, frickin… night school truant.” he mumbled. “Well,” he inhaled deeply with a smile and looked at the redhead again, “Now we’re in that awkward stage between bar meetin an nursin home. What should I say ta keep the momentum?”
“That’s a lot of awkwardness. I don’t know, momentum is not my best skill.”
“Are you awkward?” Al leaned in. He sprang back before she answered, “Me too! I can be charismatic up to a point, but intimacy can be awkward.”
“What I would like ta do initially in such an awkward situation is look away.” He raised a hand to the side of his face and turned his head away. After a second he faced her again, “Then I would stare, with this look that says, ‘Oh, yeah?’” he looked at her suspiciously, “Then I would make a move ta kiss some accessible part a yer body. Hopefully nowhere offensive.”
“Like my shoulder or something, like kindergarten?” She raised her shoulder and looked at it.
“I’d prolly just make a beeline fer the nearest freckle.”
“That leaves a lot of options!” she drank. The din of the bar resurfaced. A couple were holding a loud impromptu hamboning competition off in one corner. Someone’s phone played a video too loudly. “I’m just really awkward until I really get to know people,” she said, “Then the heathen personality comes out.” She raised her beer to her lips again.
“Tell me how awful you can be.”
She held the glass in front of her face, admiring the social situation through it. “It’s hard to explain. I have a kind of dark humor. Kinda odd.”
“Woah woah woah! Watch it now!” Al joked.
She frowned and put her beer down. “Well, somebody I was talking to made a joke about being dumb and took what I said as an insult to all disabled people. So apparently I’m not politically correct and need to shut up.”
“Put a sock in it already!” Al yelled and rolled his eyes. The two laughed loudly again.
“Ain’t nobody ready fer this jelly!” she said, raising her thin arm and grabbing her bicep. Al laughed and drank.
“Well, I’ve got a PC story a my own,” Al began, “But a course as a welder me an my colleagues usually run a tight ship so far as etiquette’s concerned.” He knocked on his forehead, “Behind evry weldin helmet lies a safe space, I tell ya what. But so last month me an this coworker Henry were on a job down in south Georgia— where I’m from— and we’re sittin in this shoppin center parkin lot waitin fer a call. Now Henry’s from West Virginia, the Northern Panhandle. Daddy was a hillbilly, momma was Italian. He’s full a these ridiculous stories bout the West Virginia mafia— strangest things yu’ll ever hear: ‘Y’all needa some-a one ta take-a care-a dat idjut?’ Anyhow, we’re sittin there in this parkin lot an Henry says ta me, all disgusted like, ‘I wonder how much they payin them Mexicans diggin that hole.’ So I look over an see this big ol hole in the asphalt a the lot bein dug by a team a six or so dudes— an I look over at Henry an I say, ‘Whatchu talkin bout Willis? Them’s Bubbas in that hole, not Pedros!’” The two laughed. “I said, ‘Boy, you done spent too much time up in them mountains. Down here a cracker works out in the sun an he gonna be brown as a berry.’ Still, Henry din’t believe me or he was tryinna save face an not commit to seein things my way. So I found myself in the uncomfortable situation a havin ta prove it ta him. So I rolled down my winda an hollered out at them dudes, ‘Que onda, chavos?’ They stood up, all wipin their brows and whatnot, lookin at me like, ‘What the— ?’” She laughed. “I din’t have nothin else ta say, so I jus raised a fist an said ‘Skyyyyyynyyyyyyrd!’ as I rolled up my winda!” They both laughed. “I shoulda asked ‘em how much they was paid. I’m sorry, what’s yer name?”
“Shelly,” the two shook hands, “and yours?”
“Al. Where are you from, Shelly?”
“You must’a been the prettiest woman in all of Amariller. Frequent the rodeos?”
“No, I didn’t run in those circles.”
“Ha!” she took a sip, “Wasn’t supposed to be a pun. But I guess it is. Like a rodeo clown.”
“You’re such a dope for letting that slip by you. I seriously thought you were ‘clowning around!’”
“I guess I’m just not that punny.” The two laughed again. Al had finished the glass and started in on his bottle with a smile on his face. Shelly look at him intently, and noticed a hint of shyness. Perhaps blushing. Al drank from the bottle and sat with his head down, eyes raised and directed at the shelves of liquor on the wall. In that moment Shelly could deduce that he was running on fumes of pure anxiety. He didn’t have any of this planned. “Did you grow up in the country?” she asked.
“Not entirely. City, country, and suburb.” Al put his fingers on his mouth, “My accent comes an goes. What about you?”
“Amarillo… it’s its own entity. But you seem country as a turnip green.”
“‘Amarillo by mornin…’” Al sang in a low baritone, and then said still looking at the wall, “You and I have great energy, Shelly.”
“How can you tell?”
“What, do your conversations with strangers always go this well, with such passion?”
“Hard to say…” Shelly drummed two fingers against her lips and thought.
“Oh, well I’m disillusioned,” he smiled at her.
“I think the last one was a catfishing rapist,” she said.
“I eat catfish and I don’t rape. I’m just your everyday friendly horndog. Except for the freckle thing.”
“Oh, well ok,” Shelly smiled.
“You ever been noodling?” Al wiggled his finger in the air in front of her.
“What, catching catfish by hand? Hahaha. No. The thought makes my skin crawl. That thing you just did makes my skin crawl.”
Al pretended to survey the barroom. “Well, I was ready ta propose but I guess I better go back ta playin the field.”
“Oh, you don’t want to do that, neither the playin nor the proposin. You should know better from last time… from your marriage.”
“Yeah,” Al snapped, with a smirk of agreement, “I really need to stick with the freckled woman until she relents. You are a league above her, anyways,” he winked.
“Hmm… The crazy scale outweighs the league,” she said, holding her palms up to mimic a scale.
“Everything you say just turns me on more,” Al replied.
“Ah, you are intrigued by the crazy scale?”
“Maybe I’m crazy, too. Ever thought about that?”
“Probably not as crazy as my ex. I’m also crazy, from being with a crazy person for seven years.”
“Why did you have ta bring him inta it? I was married five years.”
“Ya know, you have to make choices in life…” Shelley trailed off.
“Elaborate,” he said.
“Well,” Shelley brushed her hair with her hand and twisted her neck as if to crack it, “sometimes you just have to ignore warning signs that something is a stupid idea and see if it works out. Anyway…”
“I’m not sure I follow. My ex was from Poland. She got citizenship an then I found her in a compromising situation in the woods with a man I never knew about. So I was crazy ta get inta that in the first place. Anyway… you’re a total peach.”
“Oh my goodness, that’s terrible!” Shelly exclaimed, “How could someone do something like that? I mean, even to just get married without it meanin anything, but then cheatin and lyin, all to get somethin out of it in the end? People are sick! Y’all meet online or somethin?”
“No,” Al sighed, “We met up North. Long story. I poked around here and there over the years, ramblin. But I’m rootless now. Rootless an virtually homeless. So if we really hit it off I can move right in with you. An if yer husband left behind any bathrobes I can take those off yer hands, as well.”
Shelly guffawed. “I don’t have any of his stuff anymore.”
“Hmph. Well, we’ll still talk. So what brought ya here tonight? I’m here scopin out the joint for this comin Wednesday. Sposed to come see a guy play some jazz up here. I haven’t really been out an about in… well, you know…”
“Oh, well tonight’s Old Time night,” Shelly raised up a violin case from the neighboring stool. “Starts in about a half-hour.”
“Wow, you play? I oughta come up here sometime with my banjo.”
“Oh, of course you play banjo. Yeah, I grew up goin to fiddlers’ conventions and all that.”
“Well I grew up throwin car batteries into swamps ta lectricute the fish,” said Al. Shelly laughed. “So you like that old stuff, Ms. Shelly?”
“Sure! I started playing piano, actually. ‘Baby Elephant Walk’…”
Al located the jukebox on a wall at the other end of the bar. ‘There should be enough time for one more song,’ he thought, ‘no one seems to have been using it.’ Shelly was holding her glass up again, both drinking and looking through it. “Gimme yer number,” Al said, “I’m going to play it cool an sit on it for a while as though I have better things to do.”
“Oh gosh,” Shelly said with a smile, one eye open behind the amber beer. She put it down, reached into her case and pulled out a paper string envelope and a pencil. She handed him her number. Al read it and then put it in his shirt pocket. “Don’t wait up, Imma busy guy!” he said ironically. “Oh, wait! A song for you…” He walked over to the jukebox, struggling past a rotund man counting coins and two college kids talking over each other and mentioning Judith Butler a lot. Finally he made it, put in more money than was necessary, and located Townes Van Zandt. He tapped the bartender on the shoulder, who was sitting in a stool behind the counter reading the Piedmont Local, and handed her fifteen dollars as she rolled her eyes. “Keep it, buy yerself a smile,” he said. He then waited with his hand cupping his ear for the last track to end. After about ten seconds “Greensboro Woman” quietly started. He made his way back to Shelly. She looked at him surprised, a result of generalized nervousness. “There ya go! That’s yer song! Now, you’re the ‘Texas lovin’, not the ‘Greensboro woman’, ok?”
“Hahaha!” she laughed with a wide smile, “Ok, Al. So who’s the ‘Greensboro woman”?”
Al waved his hand, gesturing across the entire bar, “Take yer pick. Goodbye!, Shelly.”
“Goodbye!” she said.
“Greensboro woman, don’t you smile on me. I do not feel like being comforted…” sang Townes, with an unresolved knot in his throat, “…and if you don’t mind I’ll just think on her instead…” Shelly sighed and smiled. She’d survived. Time enough to rosin the bow before the jam. Time enough to wonder at what happened. Time enough.