That One Sad One
Second Place, the 14th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest
I climbed into the backseat and started making some chord noises on the guitar. There's a reason there aren't many good songs about hangovers. When you've got one, there are only about eight words you can think of, and it's impossible to write a song with just cuss words.
I pulled into a gas station five hours later with the sun giving up behind me. I figured $12 for gas and $3 for chips and a jumbo fountain Dr Pepper, which would leave me an almost-crisp twenty to start the week with.
"That everything?" the clerk yawned as he rang up my drink and chips.
"Yeah, and $12 on the pump out there," I said, looking outside. Across the road, the neon signs in the darkened window of the Slow Down Lounge weren't glowing any brighter than they had been five minutes before, but the settling dusk had supplied enough contrast, and the contrast supplied enough of an excuse. Crossing the highway, the radio played an ad about how this one company could turn all your little unpaid bills into one big unpaid bill.
You walk into a bar like that and the only decision you've got to make is which barstool you're going to fall off of at the end of the night. I sat down at the bar and reached for a napkin to write on, but then I realized that was probably an old line and I was just remembering it. There are only so many ways to say that you drink too much, or that you could use one more, or that you still miss your old girl, or that the sound of trains whistling through the night reminds you of all your uncomplicated failures. Usually when I thought I'd figured out a new way, I'd just forgotten somebody else's song well enough to remember its lyrics as my own.
The bartender got me a beer without taking her eyes off the TV or acknowledging the whining seductions of the only other man sitting at the bar. Near a jukebox on the other side of the room, two old men each sat alone at tables arranged around an open area that might have been a dance floor in a more festive decade. I took my first sip and watched the younger of the two hobble toward a small tabletop karaoke machine and pick up a microphone. A synthesized piano line snuck out of the speakers and he began, singing like the tired slow creaking of an old wooden chair. I took my second sip and wondered whether I'd ever leave.
When the song was over I wanted to clap, but the rest of the bar was quiet and I remembered childhood Sundays at church, and my great-aunt's hissed insistence that I didn't need to clap for the music because God already knew how much I liked it. The singer sat down as the older man rose crookedly from his own chair and approached the machine. The same song started up again and the new singer lowered his crinkled chin to his chest, warbling another dreadful confession into the microphone.
"That's Older George singing, and the one who just got done is Old George. They just take turns on all the George Jones songs I've got," the man at the bar explained, glancing over his shoulder at Older George. "I taught them to work the machine."
Old George and Older George continued their humble passage through George Jones' catalog. Old George picked the setlist since Older George always repeated the previous song, but it wasn't a competition they were guides, leading each other toward that dark, miserable consolation that can only be reached via the low road of country song. "What goes wrong with the mind of a man in a bar," Older George sang, though he wasn't asking a question. Just as Old George had a few minutes before, Older George was presenting himself as the answer.
After spending an hour trying to get the bartender to talk to him, the man at the bar turned back to me. "You want on there, say the word," he said. "Name's Jace. I'll hook you up."
"I'm fine just watching," I said. Karaoke had given people a way to sing the good songs themselves, which they liked more than listening to people like me sing our own unknown songs, songs that'd never been on the radio and probably never would. It wasn't all karaoke's fault that I had to drive across the state to get a gig, but it couldn't have helped. But that night I wasn't protesting karaoke the real problem was that I'd never even sang one of my own songs, much less anyone else's, as sincerely as Old George and Older George were singing all of them.
"I'll get you up there 'fore the end of the night," Jace said. "Those old coots might look like they're running things, but I just let 'em punch in the numbers so I can sit here with my girl."
With her back to the bar, his girl could reach in the cooler, open Jace's beer, and set it in front of him without taking her eyes off the tube, which was exactly what she'd been doing all night.
"Hey, how 'bout it, Jo," he said, too drunk to realize his scheme was hopeless. "Dude here'll do a song if you and me sing a duet."
"Every song I sing'll be three more minutes he's here," she said, looking at me while still managing to ignore Jace. "So, no thanks, sugar."
"Hoo-eeee," he laughed, sipping through a sloppy smirk and spilling some of his beer down the front of his sleeveless shirt. "She called you sugar 'cause she wants you!"
Jo focused on three crime scene investigators who were speaking in judicious voices over a mangled dead body. "So, you gonna sing or what?" Jace asked, talking to me while eyeing Jo's back. His confused jealousy made the question sound like a dare.
"Give me one good reason."
"I wore my voice out last night," I said.
"I had a gig up in Amarillo. With an old songwriting buddy."
"Yeah? Y'all written anything I'd know?"
Dayton Furr left for Nashville the day after our high school graduation. He got a job at a guitar shop, met a couple other songwriters, peddled his songs around town, and called me late at night a couple times a year, drunk and exaggerating uncontrollably.
After 14 years, he'd gotten his break. A fading country star with some forgettable past hits had recorded one of Dayton's songs, "Never Trust a Slow Dance," for a comeback album. The label had pegged it as the album's possible second single, but the first single didn't get airplay, the album was ignored, and the singer had drowned in a fishing accident six weeks after its release. Our show the night before had been a pathetic sort of homecoming. Dayton had left Nashville and moved into his Mom's apartment in Amarillo. We'd played for her, three sisters who worked in the booth next to hers at the antique and collectibles mall, and a few pool players who didn't speak English at a sports bar that hosted live music on Saturday nights. "I thought y'all'd play some music that'd get them dancing," the bar owner had said, as explanation for reneging on the cash payment and instead only picking up our bar tabs. "Hard to get them dancing if they ain't here in the first place," Dayton had replied, leading the bartender to renege on his initial renege and hand us the tab.
"You heard 'Never Trust a Slow Dance'?" I asked.
Jace seemed proud to say he hadn't. There wasn't anything else for me to say, so I turned back to the music.
"How about a couple on the house for me and the songwriter, sweetheart?" Jace called out, but Jo didn't turn from her TV crime scene. "You know," he said, rising partway off his barstool and poking a finger into her back, "I could just leave y'all in the quiet."
"You think I'd mind?" she asked, pushing his hand away without turning around.
"I bet you'd get lonely with just those two George Joneses crying all over themselves all night."
"I'll take that bet."
"Shit, Jo, you gonna give me a free beer or what?" Jace suddenly shouted, tumbling from his barstool into a wobbling stance. "I drive all the way out here every Sunday night to set up that damn machine and keep you company."
"Save yourself the drive," Jo said calmly, finally turning to face him. "Those two don't even buy drinks, and I'm sick of George Jones songs."
Jace took a last imaginary chug from his empty bottle and slammed it down on the bar. He pushed off and aimed himself at the dance floor. Older George was working his way through "Tender Years" as Jace unplugged the machine from the wall and packed the deck and the speakers into an old suitcase with the blustery incompetence of a drunk man trying to do a simple task with conviction. "Last time you'll be seeing me around here, old timer," he said, yanking the mic from Older George's hand and stuffing it into the suitcase. He drifted toward the door and Jo turned back to the TV. Outside, a car door opened and closed. After a long time the car started and pulled away.
I'd wanted to be on the porch, working through my chips and watered-down DP, when Deb got off work. But she hadn't come straight home in a month. She was probably headed to the Caboose with the guys from the restaurant for a couple drinks. I knew I didn't have a key to her place, but I reached into my pocket anyway. I felt a guitar pick, the twenty, a car key, and a pen I'd stolen from a convenience store on the way up to Amarillo so I could write down that "hurt so" sort of rhymed with "dirt road."
I knocked on the bar for another and walked across the room toward the jukebox that squatted against the far wall.
"It don't work," Old George said.
"Hasn't for years," Older George added.
Jo set my fresh one down and gave me the sort of weary look that could only come from a woman who'd called five thousand men "Sugar" and still hadn't meant it once. As I passed Older George's table, I heard him humming softly. "What song's that?" I asked.
"Oh," he sighed, staring down deep into the tabletop. "I don't know the name. It's that one sad one."
Deb was heading to the Caboose for a few drinks, then going home to unlock the door and walk inside and lock it again whether I was waiting on the porch or not. Dayton was probably lying on his Mom's sleeper sofa, strumming his guitar and staring at walls covered with commemorative plates nobody had ever eaten off of. Older George was humming that one sad one at the Slow Down Lounge. I didn't know the song's name either, but it was the same one I was always humming. The one I couldn't quite come up with words for.