âPassing through, honey?â the waitress said when she brought more coffee. Iâm fairly sure I had never in my life been called honey before this. She was thirtyish, virtually blond, with features youâd forget once you looked away. A woman who had made a sudden stop on the way to pretty, who would never quite get over how close sheâd been. A white plastic rectangle over one high breast read Alicia .
âWell, should you have a taste for a cocktail or two, thereâs this little place just down the road, Louâs, you canât beat.â She gestured across at the motel. âAnd you wonât do better than the Island anywhere within ninety miles of here if you need a place to sleep. If youâre of a mind, that is. My husbandâex-husband I should say, reallyâruns it like a cruise ship. I should know, I put in my share of sixteen- and eighteen-hour days over there. Anything else I can get you?â
I told her no, and thanks.
âYou change your mind, weâre open all night. Iâll be here to twelve, myself.â
Alicia waited a moment, put down the check and walked away.
Louâs was everything I could have hoped for, though I almost missed it on my first pass since the neon sign overhead read BLUE CORRAL . But a wooden one in the window said Louâs, and that was also painted above the front door in the same DayGlo green.
Basically it was a feeding trough: bar running down the middle of a long shotgun room, with slots for livestock, or in this case stools, on either side. Pool tables floated in their islands of light off in the darkness to one side, a dance floor lined with stacked plastic chairs loomed to the other.
I took a stool near the door beside a cowboy who looked like something from a wax museum and asked for a beer. Out in darkness on the dance-floor side, a guitarist and bass player tuned by harmonics. A dancing couple, the man forty or more and wearing slacks with white shirt and tie, his partner maybe half his age and wearing considerably less than half a T-shirt and jeans, periodically orbited into the barâs dim light and back out into blackness.
I drank my beer and asked for another. The cowboy was drinking coffee with bourbon in it. He had a little squeeze bottle of honey in his pocket and was putting some of that into the cup too.
After a while, having made the round of drinkers, the bartender came back over and stood across from me. He was as quietly animated and as flushed with color as the cowboy was waxlike.
âLou,â he said, sticking his hand across the bar.
I took it. âDave.â
âGood to have you. Havenât seen you in here before, I donât think.â
âHavenât had the chance.â
He nodded. âQuiet night. Thereâs usually a good group in here, though, most nights. Come in here either to drink and be left alone, or else to dance. Either way, mostly they donât get to minding somebody elseâs business.â
I told him I knew what he meant.
âNot like some places. You want a shot with that beer, maybe? Be on the house, you understand, first-time customer and all.â
âThanks, but Iâll stick with beer. Iâm not much of a drinker. Just unwinding a little. You know.â
âOn the road.â
I nodded, and he nodded back. Two good old boys who knew what a man had to go through.
There was a loud thump from out of the darkness, then a voice:
âAll right, you rebels, cowboys, horsewomen, Jaycees, JDs and all others within the sound of my voice.â A pause, an adjustment. âKeep those cards and letters cominâ in. And if you have a request, so do we: keep it to yourself.â
Lights came up slowly onstage. A portly, youngish man stood there with a high-slung hollowbody electric. He wore preppy clothesâsweater, broadcloth shirt, tan chinosâand a cowboy hat. Behind him in shadow, as though they belonged