Maggie Dalton with me? In my dreams, you might think. You might think, not in my league. Like she’s Alabama and I’m some weak sister school from California. Stanford, let’s say. No chance. But why not try? Nothing to lose anymore. She says no, she says no. Not like worse hasn’t happened to me. Anyway, shit I’ve been through, who’s to say what she’s been through doesn’t have me beat? So maybe she needs a friend, even if it’s just one night.
Also have to remember I don’t really know her. Someone you think’s not in your league, you don’t even try to get close. You stay away. Forget that it’s you decided to do that. You let the image get in the way so you never find out what she’s like. Let it stay in the way all these years and what you tell yourself are memories are just dreams and fantasies. You regret what she was like, regret she wouldn’t let you come near, but you’re only regretting what you let happen yourself.
Now I’m done with that. Going to find out what Maggie Dalton’s like and if it’s like I thought for all those years, at least I’ll know instead of just think. Keeping away from someone you think’s not in your league, that’s playing it safe. I played it safe with Maggie. But I played it safe with her because I played it safe with everything. Play it safe, you think, choose a safe life. That’s using your head. You tell yourself it’s the ones who gamble get burned. Trouble is, you fool yourself because there’s no way out of gambling. Choose a safe life, you’re gambling that a safe life will be good enough.
Poster said: Give a big welcome to hometown girl Maggie Dalton. Emmylou Harris tribute performer, next line said. Here three nights. Can’t sound as good as Emmylou but her picture on the poster looks prettier than Emmylou ever was.
You think, well, things they can do with pictures . . .
But in the flesh right here in front of me, from my table down in front, I swear that picture’s cheated her. Hardly changed in fifteen years. If anything, prettier now, a woman and not a girl. If that makes sense. I mean, you can’t get prettier than eighteen. It’s the skin. Skin at thirty-three’s lost something that it had at eighteen, that’s nature. So must be some kind of eye of the beholder thing.
See, I’m looking at Maggie when she’s thirty-three, but I’m thirty-three too. Or thirty-four, but that doesn’t matter. Point is, at thirty-four I have an appreciation that I never had at eighteen. Because at thirty-four I’ve lost things. It’s given me an appreciation of how precious certain things are. See a pretty girl when you’re eighteen you’re not thinking she won’t be pretty forever. But see a pretty woman when you’re thirty-four and you do think that. It makes her precious. Makes you want to hold onto the sight of her as long as you can because you know it won’t be long enough.
I’m early. She comes out on stage, checking in with the backup band. Not hers. They’re all local boys that Clay Burgess has hired because he’s cheap. Won’t pay for gas or meals or a room for her boys. Deal is he’ll pay for Maggie, that’s it.
Fiddler tells her, Clay’s a sumbitch but don’t worry, we’ll do right by you.
Bass player says, Anything Emmylou has sung we can play the shit out of, darlin’.
Her smile’s all lit up. She says, Boys, I never did worry.
She hasn’t noticed me so I speak up, say, Feel good to be back in West Texas, Maggie?
The second the words leave my mouth I wish I could take them back. If words were things you could see and touch, I’d have snatched them out of the air. Trying to start fresh with her, so I didn’t need to remind her how she seemed so proud back then, way too good for us with all her schoolgirl dreams of New York and LA. Now back in West Texas, fucking end of the earth. Says in black and white in the yearbook, Only time will tell whether Maggie ends up on Broadway or in Hollywood, but she’s sure to make us proud either way. Bet she wishes she could get hold of every one of those yearbooks, make a big old bonfire.
Not sure she’ll remember me. But she comes out with my name just like that. Like she was expecting me and had reserved the table. Smiles like she never thought what I’d said about being back in West Texas was meant to get under her skin. Which it wasn’t. I was just dumb.
Anyway, buy her a drink, ask, You happy in Austin?
She smiles again, says, Not Broadway or Hollywood.
Not meant to be anything against Austin. Music there’s as good as the music anywhere. But she’s talking about the damn yearbook. Yearbook saying Broadway or Hollywood meant she would be famous. Can be famous in Austin but we both know she’s not Willie Nelson. Now I’m wishing I could burn those yearbooks too.
Good to be back home with old friends though, she says.
Wasn’t ever her friend back then but I let it go. Look down at my drink. Then nerve myself up to look at her, just drink her in. Stetson, short red boots, short fringed buckskin skirt. About a mile and a half of leg in between the boots and the skirt. She’s such a pretty sight I look her up and down. But mainly I look her in the eye. She looks back in a way that makes me think, that was fifteen wasted years being scared of her.
She does a set. Nice voice. Not Emmylou nice but nice enough. Ends the set best way you can, with Pancho and Lefty.
Taking a little break now, she says. Then she’s back at the bar drinking.
Other people there with her. But no need for me to shove anybody or squirm in between, she makes room like I’ve showed up to take her to the prom. Got no bouquet to give but I can give her the truth. Truth was a gift because it was, That was beautiful.
I look at her glass. Looks like a double so I say, Guess you’re thirsty.
I say, Can’t beat Pancho and Lefty. Best part’s, He wore his gun outside his pants, for all the honest world to feel.
She looks at me like I’ve actually picked her up to go to the prom only she’s thinking, Let’s skip the prom, back seat of your car’s nice and roomy.
You’d think I’d be happy with that but I’m in a funny mood. Want to get philosophical.
I say, You know about the honest world?
She looks but not sure she’s listening. I keep going anyway.
Honest world is me.
I see now she’s listening because she says, What are you talking about, Frank?
Yeah, honest world’s me. Bank manager. Upstanding pillar of the community. Golf, Chamber of Commerce, Pastor over to the house for dinner. Pretty wife nice as pie.
She has to wonder what the story is with my wife. But got my piece to say and keep talking.
Nice suit, silk tie, shiteating smile. You can afford it, folks, it’s about your future.
Husband or wife says, I don’t know . . . payment that size every month?
Other one says, We could cut back somewhere, honey.
Maggie eyes me above the rim of her glass. Just listens.
Suit, tie, shiteating smile. Helps if they go to the same church, can chitchat about Pastor Richards. He look shaky to you lately? Not getting any younger.
Cut back where? Already cut down to the bone.
It’s okay having one doubter. Believer always wears the other one down. Believer’s got the American dream for a tailwind. Powerful stuff, like trying to stand up against the tide. Believer offers the other one some little thing, then they’re both holding the knife, both trimming. They cut into the bone together and my shiteating smile gets bigger. I get to fuck them in the ass soon so why shouldn’t I smile?
Got Maggie’s attention now for sure.
She’s just about drained her double. I wonder if she always drinks like that.
So what you’re saying is . . . honest world’s fake so fuck everything? You’re saying eat, fuck, and be merry?
I smile at her. But it’s not my shiteating smile.
No, Maggie, I’m not saying that. Don’t hear it in the song either. I think it’s saying you got to look for the true honest world. Honest world I live in’s fake but that doesn’t mean the true one’s not out there. True honest world is what Pancho wants. He’s not just some bandit. He’s a hero because his kind of honesty is true.
Well, she says.
Shakes her glass so I’ll see she’s dry but I already noticed.
You are quite the philosopher, Mr. Frank Dell. You wish you were Pancho?
I point to her glass so Tom the bartender will see. Hold up two fingers, mouthing double.
I do that and something happens to me. Buying a pretty woman a double, thinking I’ll fuck her in the ass tonight but not like I fuck them in the ass at the bank. Course, I’m drinking too. Not like she’s drinking, but I know it’s too much. Only I don’t care.
I say, Fuck Mr. Frank Dell, call me Pancho.
She laughs and says, Pancho it is, and waits for her drink.
Short wait because Tom’s good and he’s fast.
She says, Tom, meet Pancho, and he smiles the way every bartender in the world learns to smile at drunks.
She takes a sip and says, Better do what they’re paying me to do.
Second set’s different. No more Pancho and Lefty type stuff, no more sad shit. Kicks it off with Jambalaya, gets the place buzzin’.
When she wraps up Jambalaya, she’s thirsty. Swallows the double I’d got her in one gulp like she’s a horse come to the trough after a hard ride. For the first time I’m worried. But she’s a big girl, what can you do? Free country.
She holds up her glass. I don’t want to buy, but I do. Up on stage the whole place will see she’s empty. I don’t buy, then somebody else will. I don’t have to ask if it’s another double.
I’m buying when out of the corner of my eye I see Clay Burgess. I nod and he nods back. He looks worried. Own a bar, you better get used to drunks, but I guess this is different. Don’t bring in a girl singer so she’ll get drunker than the drunks.
I turn away because who wants to look at Clay Burgess when there’s Maggie to look at?
But next thing I know he’s right beside me, big arm wrapped around my shoulders and mouth in my ear, shouting because Maggie’s cranked up the volume and you got to shout.
Frank, just wanted to say I heard that pretty Lynn of yours left. Real sorry about that.
Tired of hearing people say they’re sorry Lynn’s gone. Feel like telling him so. But he means no harm so I just tell him, Thanks.
He’s quiet for a bit. Watching Maggie with me. I feel him tense up. I know what he’s thinking. Way she’s whirling round I’m worried she’ll fall off the stage so he must be too. But when he opens his trap again it’s not about her.
Waco’s what I heard, Frank. Not from Waco, is she? Got family there?
Fishing. I don’t bite though. And no use fishing. Truth’s out there, only he wants to hear it from me. Never mind him meaning no harm.
Free country, Clay, and Lynn’s a free lady. If she’s got family in Waco, first I heard of it. But I don’t guess family’s what she’s after.
I grin at him. Same shiteating grin I use in the bank.
God bless old Lynn, but I’m taking Maggie home tonight, Clay.
His eyes get big and I say, Anyway, done being Frank, now it’s Pancho.
He looks at me like I’m crazy. He’s right, but you know what? Sometimes crazy feels good.
He stands there another minute but I see he’s done with me. He’s worried what Maggie will do. Some scene, some disturbance she’ll cause. I’m worried too but it’s something different. She gets too drunk, maybe she passes out. Course then I won’t touch her. But I guess it’s still up to me to look after her. Her Mama and Daddy split up years ago, both moved away. Got friends here, I guess, old ones she said it was good to be back with. But not seeing any old friends tonight, looks like I’m her best friend. Kind of funny. Have to ask her later what that’s about.
So, got to look after her. She passes out, can get help getting her to the car. But then what? Have to get her in the house by myself. Not like she’s a big girl, so I can carry her, but after that I need a plan. Spare bedroom’s upstairs but even though she’s not a big girl she’s no child either. Lay her out on the sofa. Leave her clothes on except her hat and boots, load her up with blankets.
Anyway, waiting and watching, hoping for the best. Turned out the worst that Clay and I were afraid of never comes to pass. You know how a drunk’s mood can turn on a dime. Well, Maggie has the joint jumping, then suddenly she doesn’t want that. Out of the blue looks out over the crowd with her big pretty eyes that had been on fire but have a different look now. Maybe like they wanted to start streaming tears. I don’t know if that’s right though. I don’t know exactly what kind of look it is. But it’s different for sure.
Says, You know, glad you’re all having a good time, but let’s not forget we only have good times to help us forget what’s real.
Bows her head, walks right up to the edge of the stage. Toes of her boots hanging off of it. That’s the closest she comes to falling, closer than when she was whirling like a wild stallion that some old cowboy was trying to break.
Doesn’t fall though, just says in a quiet voice, Want to sing you something by a man who makes us remember what’s real, man who died too young and wrote this song about a bandit boy who died too young.
Feeling of embarrassment settles over the place that’s so heavy you’d need ten strong men to lift it. Everybody else has to be thinking like I am, She forget she already sung this one?
But embarrassment gets more painful.
Song’s meant to be about a bandit boy who wore his gun outside his pants, she says. But we all know what a gun really means to a man and why they like the feel of it so much.
She keeps going only not saying gun anymore, saying dick. Saying maybe the world would be a better place if men wore their dicks outside their pants, that’d be the honest world. All the world could feel it and know what he wanted and when, no more guessing what he wants, no more wondering does he really like me or does he just want to stick it in me and then get the hell down the road, find the next place to stick it.
Course there’s women in the crowd. You hear some of them. They’re saying, You tell em honey, and, They need to hear this girl, and like that. But mostly they’re quiet like the men are. Whatever they feel deep down they’re also embarrassed. Maybe they all think what Maggie’s saying is the truth, I couldn’t say. But sometimes the truth is hard to hear.
Best part of the night for some people has to be when she finally stops speechifying, sings the damn song. Sings it slow like that way she could wring out all the meaning. I got to say that’s the prettiest her voice has sounded all night.
She finishes. Still not knowing what’s good for her, she heads for the bar. But she knows she’s drunk. Walks with that too straight up, look at me I can walk in a perfect straight line walk that you see in drunks at a particular stage of drunkenness.
Heads for the bar but never gets there. Clay meets her on the way, delivers the bad news.
Bad news for Maggie, that is, but good for me—she’s not so drunk she can’t walk to the car and walk into the house. I’m thinking I’ll set her down with some black coffee, listen to her spill out the anger and humiliation. Then say my piece—You really care if a lowlife like Clay Burgess yanks you off the stage? Tell her Clay Burgess is such a lowlife piece of shit he ought to be a banker. Make her laugh.
I ask does she have a purse or coat or something, she says, In the car.
I tell her I’m driving, she says, I think that’s best.
I say, We can get your things, you got the car keys?
She says, In Clay’s office in a drawer, leave it for now.
Her second set’s ended—her last one but only Clay Burgess and Maggie and me know that—so folks have drifted away from the stage area toward the bar. They’re quiet with her. Night’s young and they expect another set so maybe reserving judgment whether to give congratulations after that crazy speech of hers.
Suits her fine. She’s got my arm. She says, Hope you liked the show, Frank, and I say, It’s Pancho remember.
She laughs, not hearing the woman we pass who says, Hon, you was speaking for all of us.
But what the woman was talking about was on her mind. She says, Frank, I hope you’re the honest kind of man.
I don’t say anything. What good are words? Could be lying. Got to show the kind of man you are with your actions. I just give her arm a squeeze.
On the way out we pass Billy Grimes. Almost didn’t get past because he sticks a shoulder out, bumps me good. But I don’t want to get into it with him. Pretend like it didn’t happen.
Few years back had a run-in with Billy when he was building one of my neighbors a porch. Working with his cousin and they didn’t care what kind of language they used so I had words. He took it poorly, used more bad language with me. Then he’s in the bank a month later wanting a loan. Wanted it so he could start a proper construction company, not rely on scrounging up odd jobs. Could have lent him the money. Not sure his plan made sense, didn’t see how he’d justified every dollar. But should have lent him the money anyway, foreclosed on him later. Would have deserved it, not like those nice young couples that I get into loans I know they can’t afford. But I knew it would feel so good to tell Billy no to his face that I couldn’t resist.
I pretend not to notice the bump so he calls after me, Didn’t say scuse me, Frank.
I ignore him but Maggie says, Isn’t Frank, it’s Pancho.
She never knew Billy. He moved here after she went away.
Billy’s surprised but quick enough to think of saying, Then how come he ain’t got a gun?
She’s quick too, even after all she’s drunk. Turns around, says, Wears it inside his pants.
She grips my arm tighter. Laughs that kind of laugh that’s like music, that when you hear it from a pretty woman makes you think you’ve died and gone to heaven and that’s what the voices of the angels sound like.
She smiles at Billy, says, But I’m going to work hard tonight on getting it outside his pants.
We walk out into the night.
I won’t say just for the sake of making a statement that I was drunk. It doesn’t matter if I was because drunk or not, I saw the whole thing plain as day right in front of me.
There wasn’t much to it—happened too fast. I didn’t know him, but right after I described him to the people inside, they all said his name was Billy Grimes.
Yeah, I’d recognize him, no problem.
Some of them said there was history between him and Frank, but I don’t know anything about that. I just know that when we were headed out the door he said something to Frank. Frank didn’t answer but I did. It was nothing. Or anyway I thought so at the time. He must not have liked it that Frank was leaving with me. It’s the kind of shit you see between men. Sometimes they’re like gorillas beating their chests. I was only joking, but I guess Grimes didn’t take it that way.
In the parking lot we were almost to Frank’s car when we saw him again. He said, “You want to see a man who wears his gun outside his pants, I’ll oblige you.”
It had to do with that song Pancho and Lefty, the last one I’d done. Everybody knows that song.
He reached for his fly. I figure he meant to pull it out but he couldn’t because Frank took a swing at him. It was only a kind of a glancing blow because Grimes made this little dodge. Frank started to take another swing and that’s when I saw the knife, and heard Grimes say, “Should of worn a gun, Frank.”
It was over so fast it was like the guy hadn’t even meant to do it. I don’t mean I’m excusing it. I’m only saying I don’t think he thought to do it, he just went ahead and did. Old boys like him, they’re not big on thinking.
Big gorilla hightailed it.
I bent over Frank, I was crying, I just said, “Frank, Frank.”
And he tried to speak, but he was gurgling up blood, so I didn’t hear his dying words.