(Warning -- this short story contains coarse language.)
How yall doin? This heres Yogi, and Im the head bartender here at Cowdudes. And boy, oh boy, is this place hoppin tonight. Every Wednesday night, Cowdudes is packed with cowgirl cuties and pretty, little ladies. Yes, sir! Wednesdays are almost like Ladies Night because we always have free line dancing lessons from 7:00 till 9:00, and those young lassies cant wait to "Tush Push" or do the "Achy Breaky". The guys come down here in droves, too. Not for the dancing so much. Naw, most of them are here to drink beer and watch. Its mighty fine watchin, too, if I do say so myself.
They call me Yogi around here cause Im just a big ol friendly bear, though I prefer to think its because of my great batting average on our slow pitch team. Why, Im the best damn hitter in Pickens County, well, except for my friend Leroy. Hes on my team, too, and he can sure whack a ball out of the stands! We got him a jersey last year with "The Babe" in big block letters on the back. To me, though, the true "Babe" in his family is his wife. Now, shes one spicy number, especially since she lost all that weight. Shes done trimmed right down to the skinny. Just take a look. Over there in the back row.
Yep, thats Leroys wife, Caroline, and she loves her line dancing. Shes here every week, dragging that sweet gal, Annie, in with her. Pretty as a peach, she is. But to tell the truth, I dont know which one of those ladies I feel sorry for the most. Theyre both good girls, and they probably dont deserve their lot. Its as if Mr. Life has dealt them a four card straight with a stray deuce on the side. You know what its like -- you feel sure youll end up with that big pot on the table, but the deuce keeps stealing your chips. Even so, they keep coming in here smiling. Why dont you just take a lil peek at them yourself? Back row. Go on now.
"I cant git rich, I cant make a livin/But I sure do somethin for the neighborhood women/ I wake up every morning with em knockin at my door/You cant keep em waitin when theyre wantin some more. . ./ I used to think they were after me/But theyre just after my recipe/For good brown gravy. . .GOOD BROWN GRAVY!"
"Okay yall, that was really great! Lets try it one more time and really work on those hip bumps. Git em swinging! Lets go!"
". . .You can sop it with a biscuit, you can eat it from the pan/ You can lick it off your finger when its runnin down your hand/. . .Granny told my momma bout the power that it had/ Good brown gravy is the way she got my dad. . ."
There they are, Annie and Caroline in the last row of line dancers. As that Joe Diffie tune beats into them, Caroline is merrily wagging her slim hips around while Annie caint figure her right foot from her left. Caroline chuckles at Annies twisting steps. She knows all these dances, probably even better than our instructor. After all, she told me she watches Club Dance on TNN every night, and she knows each beat and cliché of all the Brooks and Dunn songs ever recorded. Shes out here to scoot her bootie for all those beer-bellied cowboys with their tight black jeans and snake skin boots. They sure do like her fine bootie from all the hoots and toots. From the way she keeps grinning at those shit-kickers youd never guess shes such a hurtin woman.
Well, what about her friend, Annie? Shes a bit different from the other ladies here at Cowdudes. She may look somewhat western tonight, but Ive seen her around town. Shell be dressed all in black -- old, old clothes, stuff my grandma might have worn. One day, I saw her going in and out of those used record shops downtown. She had several bags in her hands, so I asked her what she had bought, hoping she might have an Alan Jackson or Travis Tritt record. No, not this girl. She had strange kinds of music in those bags -- Tibetan chants, Haitian Creole, Brazilian sambas. She said, "Vinyl of a Country & Western persuasion never touches my turntable."
I know shes really bred from a ragtag, down-home bloodline, but she says shes a tryin to sport a more "bohemian air", whatever the hell thats supposed to mean. All I see is a precious, but insecure, little girl trying to be something shes not. She needs a good-hearted man to hug her real tight and show her all the goodness shes long hidden deep in those uptown, high-falutin frocks. Though I always see her cringing at each wail of a slide guitar, Annie still comes into Cowdudes each week for Carolines sake. You see, theyve been friends for a long time now. I mean, you kind of get forced into a friendship when youve worked in adjacent cubicles at the phone company for more than seven years. And Im sure shell come around to Waylon and Willie someday. She could be such a sweetheart. She may even come around to ol Yogi as well. Ah, I think theyre talking. Lets listen in.
"Caroline, are you doing okay?"
"Of course I am, Annie? Why shouldnt I be? The Cowboy Boogies an easy dance. Hey, how about you? Just remember its grapevine right then grapevine left, not the other way around!"
"No, no. I meant about the song."
"Joe Diffies my favorite, Annie! Of course the songs all right. Just keep dancing. Concentrate, or youll knock over big ol Betty if you keep screwing up your turns!"
"I mean, I know how you can get about biscuits and gravy. Im just watching out for my friend."
"Whatre you talking about? Why in tar nationre you bringing up biscuits and gravy for, girl?"
"You arent listenin to the lyrics? Oh. Good. Forget I brought it up." Annies round cheeks are brightening to a glowing to a Carolina clay red. Thank God Almighty for that last turn. At least Caroline cant see her face now. I could just hear Annie thinking, "How could you be so stupid! Youre gonna get her going again."
I guess I need to fill yall in on some of whats been going on with Caroline lately. You see, like the rest of us around here, Annie feels sorry for her unzipped coworker. In spite of all their differences, Annie has seen her through some mighty big dips in the road. Lord knows, her life has played out like the bluest of country tunes. However, during the past few months Carolines life had reached a new level of "T-R-O-U-B-L-E". Carolines husband, Leroy, you know, "The Babe", is a tire tester for Goodyear and is out on the road most of the time. Hed say to me, "Yogi, the road is real stimulating, even titillating, if you know what I mean." Well, poor Caroline struck out when Leroy finally gave in to the highways tempting wonders. Two months earlier, he happened upon a pregnant girl in Moncks Corner, down in the Carolina low country. He said he stopped in a Stuckeys diner there and saw a dimpled, buxom waitress behind the counter with her belly looking bigger than that prize winning pumpkin at last years Pickens County Fair. I mean to tell you, thats big! We all know some men are breast men, some like a girls legs (thats me), but Leroy is different. Leroy loves a round belly. He later told me she was "oh so fine and oh so dandy and tasted bettern Good & Plenty candy." Yeah, Leroy was hooked and reeled in by instant infatuation right there over a steaming plate of... biscuits and gravy. "Damn fine biscuits and gravy! She made em herself." So there he stayed. If you ask me, if Caroline hadnt joined Weight Watchers, he might still be here in town.
"Back! Back! I holler to my hound/Youre supposed to keep em from a comin around!/ For good brown gravy. . .GOOD BROWN GRAVY!! GOOD BROWN GRAVY!!"
"Oh my God! Youre right about the gravy, Miss Annie-Fannie. But Im all right. The song dont bother me none. It dont. Itll be over in a second anyway."
Look. Caroline is trying her best to steady the beer in her hand. Her small hand is trembling even as her sassy face keeps smiling.
"There. You see! Its over. . .and Im not even thinking about that bastard. Im not, Annie. Im fine. I really am."
"Good. Im sorry I brought it up. Hes not worth thinking about. You know that."
"Thats so true, Ann, even if Im still his legal wife. See, the songs over. Its over. Hes over. Im over it."
"That was great gang! I think all yall got the Cowboy Boogie down! Good job! Even that lady in pink and violet fringes there in the back started getting the turns right at the end! Nice improvement!"
Oh, no. Annies scowling at Janine, our instructor. I bet shes wishing Caroline had never given her that pink and violet, shiny polyester Western shirt for her birthday. She gave it to her on a Wednesday night like this one. I like to tease Annie, saying shes trying to be Tammy Wynette in that shirt. Shes definitely too old to be Reba and not full-figured enough to be Dolly. She gets me back, though, saying something like, "How sexist! Being a 90s woman, I resent you expecting me to stand by my man. Im only here for Caroline." Shoot, I know shes jokin, so I just keep smilin at her pretty face.
"Well do Slappin Leather next, folks! Since most of ya already know this one well start right away with the music." Janine, in her perky way, puts down her microphone and spins around in her red Tony Lamas to go change CDs. "I can tell yall like Joe Diffie, so well keep him spinning while were scootin!"
"Annie, enough of this dancing. I wanna get fucked! Screw that goddam bastard of a husband of mine! I wanna get fucked and one of these cowguts heres gonna do it!"
I mean to tell you, shes really done it now. I can see her hands are shaking even more now and her face looks slightly crazed, even desperate.
"Caroline! Are you crazy? Ive never heard you talk like that! Just calm down, sweetie. Calm down. Itll be fine if you just calm down."
Yep, Annie can also tell poor Caroline is losing control. That damn Joe Diffie. That damn "Good Brown Gravy"!
"I dont want to calm down!" Caroline screams. "Hes banging that prego slut isnt he? Isnt he? If he can get laid, why cant I?"
"Caroline, Caroline! Just calm down. There are lots of reasons not to. Babies, AIDS, VD, beer bellies. You dont know any these guys, do you? How do you know they wont try to hurt you! God, this countrys so full of murderers and rapists these days. Anyway, all that hairy fat and sweat. . . I dont want to even think about it!"
"All men are assholes! No one knows that better than me. But theyve still got the ol gravy and Ive got a damn fine pair of biscuits," Caroline says in a wavering voice. "Get outta my way, Ann, its time to push my sweet tush."
"Why do you always do this to me, Caroline?! Just do the next dance. Itll help take your mind off it. You like Slappin Leather. We learned it last week. Just dance. For me, Caroline. Cmon, sweetie, lets just do Slappin Leather."
"Leroys slappin her leather, aint he? Im outta here, Annie. Im gonna pick out some stud to slap mine! But first Im getting another beer! OKAY COWBOYS! ONE OF YOU BUY ME A BEER!"
There she goes. Carolines starting to walk away from the rest of the dancers. She is unsteadily strutting towards me at the bar, her hips in a lurid swivel, her arms and legs shaking and jittery. Though not my style, she really is quite attractive and no doubt one of these good ol boys will buy her a beer. Maybe more.
"Wait, Caroline! Come back here! Youve had enough to drink already!"
Annies panicking now, as well she should. She sure puts up with a lot from her friend, and sometimes noe of us are quite sure why. She must have her reasons, and I sure bless her for em, too. Caroline always has been a little uncontrollable, but I know Ive never seen her quite like this. She isnt the type to sleep around. Annie knows that, Im sure. Flirt a bit, yes, but not actually act on it. Annies got to try and sober her up and get her home. I bet Annie wont be showing up here again for line dancing after this episode. Thats a damn shame.
"Okay gang! Ive got Joe Diffies Prop Me Up" all queued up, so lets slap some leather! Ready? Lets go!"
The class quickly reassembles their lines as Annie weaves and bobs around them. Goddam it! Carolines just dropped her Bud longneck, spilling the swill in front of her on the wooden floor.
"Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die---"
Caroline is stumbling after the rolling bottle. "God! My beer! My beer!"
"---Lord, I wanna go to Heaven but I dont wanna go tonight---"
Her left boot just stepped into the pooling brew, swirling and shifting, sliding and slipping.
"---Fill my boots up with sand---"
Her body is twisting forward as her boots race back.
"---Put a stiff drink in my hand---"
Damn! Her delicate little head smashed against the Terminator pinball machine. That hardened shield of hairspray of hers aint providin her much protection.
"---Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die!"
Jesus! Blood is now streaking her face, mixing all up with her mascara like some plate of Jambalaya as she slips smack down on the floor. Finally, Annie pushes her way out of the tangle of dancers.
"Oh, God! No! Not this!"
I reach Carolines body first, quickly pressing icy wet napkins against the wound, slowing the bleeding as best I can. Annie stoops down and wipes her face clean. Her friend simply smiles, eyes closed.
"Somebody call 911, please! Can you hear me, Caroline? Can you? Youll be okay! I promise!"
"She looks mighty bad, Maam. Looks like she hit right about at her temple. Mighty bad."
I hold Caroline as gently as I would a baby, keeping pressure against her head all the while. I look into Annies eyes and smile in a caring, concerned way.
"Thank you, Yogi. Thank you a whole helluva lot."
I offer my free hand to Annie. She takes it in her left hand and clings on.
A group forms around us, though at my orders, they keep far enough back to allow Caroline to breathe as well as possible. Annie is looking down at Caroline and reaches for her hand, completing our circle of three. Even though Annie has often complained to us, wishing she wasnt saddled with Carolines friendship (she could be a live-wire at times), I knew from her eyes she only felt love and desperation for her friend now.
"Annie, I sure got fucked, just like I said I would. Didnt I?"
Caroline was talking? Theres still so much blood and her eyes remain closed. Maybe shell be fine. Maybe.
"Dont talk, Caroline. Just rest. The ambulance is coming. Youll be okay, dear."
"Its not the kind I wanted, but I got it just the same, didnt I?" Caroline softly slurs. "I mean, they dont even have a jukebox in here, just a goddam pinball machine."
Annie caint help smilin. "Caroline. What a dear you are."
She releases her hand and carefully strokes her matted hair. She looks up at me, her pleading eyes saying, "Carolines got to make it. She has to."
Caroline sho do have to make it. What would CowDudes be like if her and my sparkling lil Annie didnt come dancing anymore? Who would entertain the gruff but lonely boys and show the other ladies that line dancin can pull in those hips and pull up those chins at the same time? She sho do have to make it, but the blood still flows like the beer at an all-night kegger in July. Even Leroy wouldnt want this. Even Leroy, the bastard.
"If I die, Annie, its okay. It would sure be easier on all of us. At least Ill go with someone at my side who actually cares, who might actually miss me." Caroline coughs up a small bit of blood as her legs again began to tremble. "Thanks for putting up with me all these years. And thank you, too, Yogi. You aint no asshole, for sure. No matter what Miss Annie-Fanny says."
"I never said---"
"Of you didnt, Miss Annie, now somebody find her a blanket, or a table cloth. Shes getting chilled!" I bark at the crowd, not letting Annie break the love behind Carolines attempted compliment. I begin rocking her, humming to her in a low, low voice, "And you aint no bitch, Caroline. Now just rest, just rest."
"Caroline, youre my best friend, of course Id miss you!" Annies crying now. Whether those drops are tears of fear for her maligned friend, or tears of joy from the kindred warmth deep inside her violet and pink polyester, now spreading like fresh manure across a butterbean patch in an August thunder-smacker, is anyones guess. Annie is finding she has friends. Im getting the feeling she knows Caroline aint so bad. Nope, and I aint so bad, neither, especially to her, Miss Annie. "But youre not going anywhere. We gotta dance on Wednesdays."
"Yeah, Annie. We will." Caroline awkwardly reaches and squeezes Annies hand as tightly as she can. "Youve still got a long way to go on your turns."
I chuckled, not realizing Carolines eyes had closed for a long siesta, a nap I want to avoid for as long as I can still pull the tap on some cold Bud. At least she was smiling.
"Okay, yall! Get back in those lines and lets do the Watermelon Crawl!" Janine shouted as all of those fine-and-dandy ladies got ready to line dance again. The cowboys guzzled their beers as their eyes followed each step, each lady, each behind. I went back to pouring beer. Somebody had to do it. Lots of thirsty dudes and dudettes, ya know. As for Annie, well, she took out a quarter and played a game of pinball. Not much else to do now, and she sure didnt want to dance.
© Chikara, 1995
Good Brown Gravy lyrics ©1994 EMI Blackwood Music Inc. (BMI)/EMI April Music Inc./Ides of March Music (ASCAP). Gee Wally Music (adm. by CMI) (BMI)
Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die) lyrics by Rick Blayblock/Kerry Kurt Phillips/Howard Perdew