No matter how Paul tried to position himself on the too-soft, too-short bed, his back ached in a new place and the springs dug into his ass.
The way his feet hung off the end of the mattress, he felt like he was trying to bed down in a kids’ playhouse.
The setting sun filtered through the motel’s mildew green curtains, throwing a sickly light across the room. And a rust-colored stain on the yellowed lampshade made it look like a pair of skidmarked undies.
Even a Motel 6 with a caved-in roof would have been a step up from this, Paul thought as he fiddled with the TV remote. He wondered just how much shuteye he’d be getting tonight. He was exhausted, but he sure didn’t see sleep coming easy at the E-Z Rest Motel.
The sign outside had promised free cable TV, but the circa-1985 set picked up all of four channels. The rest were like watching a snowstorm while listening to someone fry chicken.
Paul flipped between a car wax infomercial and CMT. It didn’t take long to get bored of the infomercial. But the parade of slick-coiffed Nash-Vegas hucksters prancing around on the country music channel wasn’t much better. They were playing some kind of cornball pop garbage that — aside from an occasional fiddle solo — wasn’t anything like the country music he grew up on.
None of those hat tricks looked like they’d ever worked for a living, ever gotten dirt under their fingernails. Probably lived in Hollywood and drove BMWs.
Whatever happened to real, honest-to-God country music? Turned to shit just like everything else, Paul guessed.
He made another cycle through the channels, hoping that he’d missed one. Nope. The tube still picked up the same four.
When he got back to CMT, though, the picture started stretching to the side. It almost looked like it was melting off the screen.
The set’s speaker made screechy sounds like a shortwave radio, and Paul heard some tinny, old-time country music with a steel guitar fade in. Seemed like an AM radio station was interfering with the signal or something.
“And that’s the new one by Buck Owens,” a DJ drawled over the final notes of the song. “Boy, ain’t that one a goody. In news today, the Telstar satellite —”
There was a loud pop, then nothing but roaring static.
Paul clicked the off button and threw the remote down on the ugly floral-print comforter. What the hell was that all about? Everything about this dumpy motel was screwy as a soup sandwich.
Jesus, he had to get out of here.
The bedsprings let out a groan as Paul sat up and grabbed his boots. After today’s repeated kicks in the teeth, he needed a beer. Needed one bad.
There had to be beer somewhere in the confines of Burma, New Mexico. The place was just a dust speck on the map, but there was no way his fate was bad enough that he’d break down in a town so tiny it didn’t have at least one bar. What else, he wondered, did people do around here but drink?
Paul walked to the office. It smelled like incense and curry, neither of which he was fond of. The place was owned by an Indian couple who seemed nice enough, but he wondered how they ended up in Burma. Seemed like the place had to be a step down from just about everywhere, even some slum in Calcutta.
“Excuse me,” he said to the owner, who was flipping through a stack of papers, eyeglasses propped at the end of his nose. “Know anyplace around here where a guy can get a beer?”
“Not here, sir,” the man said, barely looking up from his work. “No hotel bar. One bar in this town only. Across the highway.”
“How far is that? Walking distance?”
The man smiled and pushed up his glasses.
“Less than one mile. Your choice, sir, if that’s too far to walk.”
Paul nodded. He supposed he didn’t have much choice but to hoof it.
At least the sun was almost gone as he set out. Things had started to cool off. Probably would get kind of chilly as night fell, he guessed. A little chilly air would feel pretty good after he’d had to hike three or four miles that afternoon in 100-degree heat.
His Chevy truck had broken down just after three in a flurry of steam and sputters. He left it on the side of the highway and started walking, desert sun beating on him like a red-hot hammer. By the time he made it to Burma, he was sopping with sweat and about ready to pass out.
The owner of the town’s one truck stop, a grease-smeared slob named McCoy, dragged the car back with the town’s one tow truck and pointed Paul to the town’s one motel. McCoy also told him that the car needed a new radiator, which would set him back $450. And, oh yeah, it wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow afternoon.
Christ, Paul thought, why couldn’t I have broken down somewhere with more than a single stoplight? Maybe someplace near a Days Inn with a pool, maybe even a Denny’s. Shit, he would even have settled for an Econo Lodge with an ice machine and a Waffle House across the parking lot.
Paul trudged down the road in the direction the hotel owner had pointed him. He looked out at the desolate landscape of rock and sand. What an ugly damn stretch of country. It was kind of like the surface of the moon, only with a few scrubby bushes stabbed into the ground every few yards. The sun had mostly disappeared by now, and the sky was the color of a bruise.
What kind of person, he wondered, wanted to live in a Godforsaken place like this? Seemed like everything around here was dead or well on its way to dying. He could only imagine how the loneliness would play with peoples’ heads. Probably drove them all nuts.
He never would have ended up here if he hadn’t gone out to California. He never should have made the trip. But his ex, Jill, had sounded so Goddamn desperate on the phone.
And he wanted to be a good father. For once.
Jill told him their daughter, Jen, was failing her junior year of high school, drinking, staying out all night. She’d discovered a pharmacy-worth of pills in Jen’s purse. Their daughter needed to go into rehab, and Jill wanted Paul there for support.
So he drove to California. What else could he do?
The visit hadn’t been easy. There were tears. There were denials. But Jen walked into the doors of the rehab place on her own free will. Paul felt hopeful about that much.
But it was driving Jill back to her apartment that made him regret the trip. She set in on him just like old times. Started accusing him of being an absentee father, blaming him for all their daughter’s problems.
Things got worse when he told Jill that he wouldn’t have been nearly so absentee a father if she hadn’t up and moved to the West Coast, taking their daughter along. On the salary he earned fixing copy machines, it was awful hard to make it out to California more than once a year, especially with the amount of child support he paid each month.
Once things turned into a shouting match, Paul ordered Jill out of the car and headed directly back to Houston. Or he tried to anyway.
He’d mapped out the quickest route and made the mistake of getting off the big highways to save time. Didn’t exactly work out that way.
Instead, he ended up broken down in Burma.
Hell, “Broken Down in Burma” sounded like a good cry-in-your-beer country song. He’d have to remember that. Sell it to George Jones or something.
Paul shook his head and continued down the road, dust clinging to his boots and jeans. He walked under the highway, hearing the rhythmic thud-thud of a tractor trailer passing overhead. On the other side of the overpass, there was a boarded up gas station, rusted-out pumps leaning at 45 degree angles.
In the sand behind it was what looked like a graveyard for old cars — a few dozen decaying hulks littering the landscape, tires and shredded seats scattered around them. A couple of newer cars were in there too. They seemed out-of-place, but Paul figured they’d probably shit their transmissions, burned out their motors or something else too expensive to fix.
He thought about what happened to all the people who owned the cars. Did they hop the next Greyhound once their rides crapped out? Call someone to pick them up? He half wondered if they ended up buried in the desert while the slob who owned the truck stop stripped down their cars and pawned their belongings next town over.
Damn, that was right out of some kind of drive-in horror flick. The town was creeping him out, making him think all crazy.
As he cleared the car graveyard, Paul wondered if it had been a mile yet. Seemed like it had been at least that far. His feet were starting to ache, and the dust was sticking to his lips now, not just his boots. He spat and kept walking.
Finally, after he got to the top of a short incline, Paul saw the bar.
The place was a rectangular stone building with a porch in front. The porch railing looked to be made out of old wagon wheels. He could see a glow through the place’s single window.
As Paul got closer, he read the little wooden sign on top of the building. “D&H TAVERN.” In faded paint, it promised “COLD BEER, GREAT JUKEBOX.”
There was a faint thump from inside that Paul chalked up to the “great jukebox.” A couple of old neon beer signs hung in the window.
He smirked to himself as he checked out the brand names on the signs — Falstaff and Ballantine. He really was in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt. Nobody drank Falstaff or Ballantine anymore, did they? Maybe in Burma. Time must stand still here.
The boards gave a little as Paul clattered his way to the front door. He guessed there weren’t too many fat barflies around these parts. Anybody over 250 pounds would break right through the timbers.
He tugged open the door and stepped inside.
First thing he saw was a big Wurlitzer jukebox up against the wall, all chrome, glass and gaudy bands of green and red neon. Its Christmassy glow mingled with the light from the beer signs in the window.
Paul recognized the song. “Saginaw, Michigan” by Lefty Frizzell. Now there was a blast from the past. He remembered his granddad picking that tune on his old Gibson when the family would get together to barbecue and play dominoes.
The whole place looked straight out of a time warp. Not a thing in it could have been made after 1962.
The bar was the kind of chrome and Formica deal you’d see in a ‘50s diner. Same with the tables and booths. A faded tapestry of dogs playing poker hung above a pool table with worn, grey-green felt.
Standing behind the counter was an older man in a white western snap shirt with a couple of big red musical notes embroidered over the pockets. The guy’s slicked-back silver hair and jug-handle ears made Paul think of Lyndon Banes Johnson.
“What can I do ya for?” the old-timer said as Paul walked to the bar, boot heels clicking on the scuffed linoleum floor. Looked like the guy was ready for some company. Poor bastard was probably bored out of his gourd.
“A cold one sounds awful good right now. What you got?”
“You name it, pardner. We got Bud, Miller, Schlitz, Ballantine’s, Falstaff. Whatever you like.”
Paul swung out a leg and dropped onto one of the padded barstools. Felt good to get off his feet after that walk.
“Never had a Falstaff before. Those pretty good?”
“I’d say so,” the old guy said, smiling. He lifted an open Falstaff longneck from behind the bar. “Been my brand long as I been drinkin’.”
“Well, I’ll give it a try then. Must be good if you stuck with it that long.”
The old guy nodded and slid open the refrigerator case behind the bar. He popped open a bottle and sat it on a cocktail napkin.
“You reckon you need a glass with that?”
“Save the glass for somebody else. I like mine right out of the bottle.” Paul took a swig. The beer was cold. Any colder and there would have been ice crystals floating on top. After his ball-buster of a day in the New Mexico heat, it felt damned good going down.
The Lefty Frizzell song ended, and the jukebox made a few clicks and clacks as it changed records. It hissed as the needle dropped on a new one. Paul recognized the lazy, tinkling piano from “Crazy” by Patsy Cline.
“Boy,” said Paul. “There’s another classic.”
The old guy smiled and nodded. “Don’t reckon you’ll find too many on my jukebox that ain’t.”
“That’s quite a jukebox too. All that neon and whatnot. They don’t even make that kind anymore, do they?”
“No, I don’t reckon they do. All the new ones play them CDs now, from what they tell me.”
“Can you still get those little old 45 records like that thing plays?”
“Oh, I pick ‘em up, time to time. Got my sources. Never any new ones though. Just the oldies-but-goodies.”
Paul nodded. “How long you been here? This bar, I mean.”
“This fall it’ll be 45 years.”
“Is that right? So you’re either the D or the H in the name, I take it?”
“I’m the D. The H—well, Helga — she ain’t with us no longer.”
The old guy nodded to a yellowed photo of a woman that hung behind the bar. He raised his beer, nodded to the picture and took a swig.
Paul squinted to look at the photo. Helga had a big blonde hairsprayed mane to rival Tammy Wynette’s and a pair of black cat’s eye glasses. She wore a cowgirl outfit with a silky shirt and a red fringed vest. Looked like she was a real honky-tonk angel back in the day.
“I’m real sorry to hear that,” Paul said, extending his hand across the bar. “Looks like she was a pretty lady. I’m Paul, by the way.”
The old guy gripped his hand like a vice and shook it firmly. Old school. Not like the limp dishrags people took for handshakes these days.
“Name’s Dick. But some young fellers ain’t comfortable saying that. If you ain’t, you can just call me Richard.”
“I think I’m OK with calling you Dick. Doesn’t bother me too much.” He took a pull off of his beer. “Doesn’t seem like you get much business around here, Dick.”
“Nah. Not much of a town here no more. Over the years, people up and moved to places where there was better jobs and better times. I just keep coming in here to have something to do. Done paid off the building a long time ago, and I sell enough beer to keep the lights on.” He shrugged. “I got all them old records to keep me company, and I always got a cold one at arm’s reach.”
“Sounds like life’s not too bad.”
“Nah. Little lonely at times, real lonely some others, but I can’t rightly complain, all considered.”
Paul took another drink of his Falstaff. It sure felt good to unwind with a cold one after everything that had happened. And for some reason, he liked talking to the old codger. Just shooting the breeze with someone calm and sensible helped take his mind off all the crazy things that had happened.
“All those old records bring back some memories, I bet.”
“Yup,” Dick said. “I kindly remember differ’nt people by ‘em is how it works. Like that one, ‘Crazy.’ I got that one after some lady come through here kind of broke up and cryin’ about a guy done her wrong. She sat there on that exact barstool, cried her heart out to me. I done my duty as bartender to keep ‘em coming and let her tell her story. She said she was crazy for lovin’ a feller kept doing her wrong. Made me think of that ol’ tune.”
The Patsy Cline ended, and there were a few clicks as the Wurlitzer changed records again. A new single dropped in place, and Paul heard the opening bars of “Branded Man” by Merle Haggard.
“That one right there,” Dick said, nodding to the jukebox. “That one’s a whole differ’nt story. Old feller come in here, just got outta the pen. He’s traveling to see his daughter first time since he got out. Think he told me he was in for 30-some years. Armed robbery gone wrong. He told me he just wasn’t sure what life would be like after he’s branded a convict.”
“So you put that record on the jukebox in his honor?”
“Something like that. People come in, and if they got something interesting to say, well, I get me a record I can keep around to remind me of ‘em.”
Paul drained his bottle and put it down.
“Another one, Paul?”
“Sure, put it on my tab.”
Dick reached into the cooler case, uncapped a longneck and set it on the counter on top of a fresh napkin.
“Reckon you’re just passin’ through. Like the rest.”
“Yeah. Visited the ex out in California,” Paul said lifting a finger and making the ‘crazy’ sign by his temple. “Damn truck broke down on the way back. They’re fixing it over at the truck stop.”
He took a long pull of the beer.
“Happens time to time,” Dick said.
“Say,” Paul said jerking his thumb in the direction of the car graveyard he passed along the way. “What’s up with all those rusted out cars over there? Used car lot gone to pot or something?”
Dick chuckled, his paunch jiggling over his silver belt buckle.
“Nah. Mostly just old cars that gived up the ghost along the highway. Just kind of piled up over the years.”
“Yeah, I guess the heat’s murder on a car. I found that out myself the hard way.” Paul shook his head and wiped some condensation from the beer bottle with his thumb.
“Fitting way to end up the trip, I guess, bad as the whole thing was going. Had to go out there to put my daughter in rehab, then the ex sets in on me with all sorts of guilt tripping and crazy talk. Ended up a hell of a fight. Figured I had one more kick in the balls coming before it was all over. They come in threes.”
“Yup. Sometimes it sure seems that way.”
Paul nodded and looked down at his beer.
“You try to do what’s right, you know. Isn’t always so easy. I always paid my child support. Did what I could for my girl considering she and her mama were on the other side of the country. Guess I wonder if I could have moved out there. Maybe tried to do more.”
The older man shrugged. “Sounds like there’s been heartaches all around,” he said. “Plenty of ‘em. Yours, your ex’s, your girl’s.”
Paul nodded. “Yeah. I suppose I’ve got some, and I suppose I’ve probably caused my share. Thing is, I miss my girl, and I sometimes I even miss her crazy mama.”
“Well, alls you can do is rest behind knowing you did what you could. Ain’t no amount of wonderin’ gonna make things different from how they turned out. How’s that old song go? ‘Ev'ry hour through the day since you've been away, I keep wonderin’.’ Webb Pierce done that one.”
“See,” Paul said, tapping his finger on the bar. “That’s why those old songs on your jukebox are better than that new, Nash-Vegas crap. They’re about real people with real problems. You can relate to them.”
“Yessir. I surely think there’s a good ol’ country song for just about any heartbreak a man could experience. Another beer?”
“Yeah, I figure I’m not driving. Why not?”
Dick sat another Falstaff down on the counter.
“Didn’t even know you could get these anymore. Falstaffs, I mean.”
“Yup. Distributor reckons I’m about the only place around here still buys ‘em.”
“Well, I’m glad I got to try it. Not a bad beer.”
“Like I said, it’s been my brand for a good long while.”
Paul took one swig, then another. He’d have to look for Falstaff down at the Randall’s near his house. Didn’t taste half bad at all. Kind of fit with the old honky-tonk music on the jukebox, in fact.
“Well, it’s cold enough to make me forget the heat, and it’s doing its job making me forget all the problems I got stacked up.”
“Yup. That’s why beer got invented, I reckon.”
Dick took a swig and looked up at the picture of Helga behind the bar. The two men sat for a while and listened as the jukebox rang out its hit parade from decades long gone—“One Woman Man” by Johnny Horton, “He’ll Have to Go” by Jim Reeves, “Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb.
After a couple more tunes played through, Paul drained his bottle and put it down on the bar napkin. A few more brews would hit the spot, but he had a mile to go in the dark. Probably better to do it walking than stumbling.
“Well, Dick. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. How much I owe you for those beers?”
“Oh, don’t worry about them beers, pardner. The pleasure’s been all mine.”
“Sure as shittin’.”
As Paul pulled himself up off of the barstool, the older man turned to the cash register. He punched a key and the “No Sale” flag popped up.
A loud “ka-ching” rang through the bar, and the jukebox lost power for just a second. Its lights blinked and the needle lifted up before the end of the “Oh, Lonesome Me” by Don Gibson.
Dick turned to see the barstool was no longer occupied. He smiled, satisfied, sipped from his Falstaff and put it back down.
He walked out from behind the bar. There, sitting on the stool where the younger man had been, was a 45 record in a yellowed paper sleeve.
The old man picked up the record and laid it carefully on the Formica bar top.
He walked back to his phone and dialed.
“McCoy, this here’s Dick. That truck come in today? You can take what you need off it, drop it down with others. Looks like we got another one that’s stickin’ around.”
He listened for a bit.
“Yep. You have a good one too, hear? And tell the missus I said ‘Howdy.’”
He put the receiver back in place, then picked up the 45 and examined its bright orange label. “Heartaches by the Numbers” by Ray Price.
“Now there’s one I ain’t heard in a spell,” the old man said. “Reckon that will go real good on the jukebox. Nice of you to stop in, Paul.”
originally published May 24, 2010
Sanford Allen is a musician and former newspaper reporter from San Antonio, Texas. He gave up on journalism after he found out it’s more fun to tell lies than to uncover the truth. More than two dozen of his horror and dark fantasy stories have been featured in magazines, web publications and anthologies, including Necrotic Tissue, Sand: A Journal of Strange Tales, and Innsmouth Free Press. His band, Boxcar Satan, recently released its fifth full-length CD.