I could’ve kicked myself for chasing a woman bass player
all the way to Cincinnati: a month after I got there, I left her for a
twenty-three-year-old grocery clerk. A few weeks later that was over, too,
and I didn’t even have money for a bus ticket back to Dallas. I hadn’t
been able to find a gig since I’d moved. I tried finding work in a music
store, and then started applying anywhere and everywhere—fast food,
motels, convenience stores—and finally to stay out of a homeless shelter I
had to pawn the only one of my guitars worth much, a 1965 Gibson
Hummingbird. I stayed drunk for two days. Then I started working day labor
so I could get it back. I was mixing mortar and carrying bricks, which I
hated because it messed with my hands. The second week I smashed a
Everyday I went to the pawnshop to make sure the guitar
was still there. The owner looked like a vaguely degenerate antique dealer
in a movie. He wore a vest.
Every morning I got up at five and made the half-hour walk
to the temp service, a trailer set up in a gravel lot. The place looked
like a used car dealership without any cars and the owner was a big thick
guy named Purcell who was quick to let you know he was retired Navy. The
whole set up was pretty shady. Pay was always in cash and you had to get
there before dawn to get a job. Except for me the crowd was all Mexican,
illegals I’m pretty sure. They stayed to themselves, so I’d stand alone
while we waited for Purcell to show up and smoke and drink coffee and
think about how I was going to smash the guitar over a low brick wall once
I got it back. My father gave it to me when I was eighteen. One afternoon,
1979, when my high school let out he was in the parking lot sitting on the
hood of an old Lincoln he’d parked sideways across five spaces. You
couldn’t miss him any way you looked. He was dressed in the same outfit
Hank Williams was buried in. I hadn’t heard from him for seven years.
I told my friends I was supposed to meet with a teacher
and went back inside and hid in the bathroom—I figured if I waited long
enough he’d leave. The janitor ran me out of there so I wouldn’t interfere
with his drinking. I killed some time walking the halls, then fooling at
my locker. Finally the assistant principal who was locking up made me
He was still outside. It was deserted now. He smiled and
"Thought that was you I saw," he said. "Figured I’d wait."
I nodded. I didn’t know what to say.
"I hear you’re getting ready to be a high school
graduate," he said.
I nodded again.
"That’s real good." He cocked his head, looking at me and
smiling. "Your grandma don’t mind your hair being that long?"
"She hasn’t said anything."
"First time I came in with a duck tail she chased me with
the scissors." He took a pack of cigarettes from his inside coat pocket
and rapped it on his knee and a single cigarette jumped halfway out, and
if he hadn’t been my father that would’ve been cool as hell.
He wanted to go get a hamburger. The inside of the Lincoln
smelled like a strip club at six AM. The radio was missing. I reminded him
how to get to McKenna’s, a place that had curb service. After we got our
drinks he poured part of his Coke out the window and filled it back up
from a pint of bourbon he pulled from under the seat. He offered me the
bottle but I shook my head.
"Don’t drink?" he asked.
He nodded. "Don’t seem to talk, either."
After seven years that crawled all over me. I turned away
and stared out my window.
"Ah son," he said, "I know, I know. I . . . well," and
then I heard his cup slosh. I was looking out at a station wagon where a
woman was handing around soft serve cones to her kids. A little boy in the
backseat was looking back at me.
"Your grandma tells me you’re playing now," he said.
"Yeah." I still didn’t look at him.
"What’re you doing?"
I was in a bad cover band that played sock hops and dances
at country clubs. I’d been listening to Earl Klugh and Wes Montgomery,
too, trying some of that out.
"Not much," I said.
The boy pulled his nose up with his thumb and grinned. He
had braces. His mother had on a green scarf.
"I guess you don’t go in for Bob Wills and such," he said.
"No," I said.
"Not many do anymore," he said. "That’s why this car’s
such a piece of shit."
Then neither of us said anything. A long minute passed,
then another. The little boy kept making faces between licks of his cone.
Then the mother caught him. After a glance at me, she jerked him around by
I heard him splash bourbon into his cup again.
Then the car hop brought the tray with the food and hung
it on his window and I felt like I could finally turn around.
"Anything else?" she asked. She was bleach blond and
pudgy—I recognized her from school a couple years back but didn’t know
her. She had on white jeans and a pink shirt with the tails tied into a
knot below her breasts. When you looked at her all you saw was stomach.
"You all got any ice cream left in there?" he said.
"Sure," she said.
"Then get you one and charge it on my ticket. Girl who
looks sweet as cake needs some ice cream to go with her."
"Or maybe you want a drink of this special Co’-Cola
instead?" he asked.
She leered, looked left and then right. "Sure," she said.
He handed her the cup and she ducked her head and took a drink.
"When they let you off here?" he said.
"Not soon enough," she said. "The horse’s ass that runs
the place keeps us here half the night."
"Well, we’re big boys," he said. "We get to stay up late."
I opened my door and got out. He looked around. "Hey,
where you going?"
I shut the door. My eyes met the girl’s over the roof of
the car, then I ducked my head in the window. "I’ve got to go," I said.
"I’ll see you," and I started away from the car.
"Hey!" he yelled.
But I didn’t turn around. He yelled a couple more times
but I kept going. When I was far enough away I looked back. The girl was
still standing at the Lincoln.
I was hoping he’d be waiting outside the house when I got
home. He wasn’t.
A week later a notice came from Martin’s Drugs saying I
had a Trailways package. It was a cardboard box wrapped in brown butcher’s
paper and tied with string, light to carry but about the size of
Shakespeare’s coffin. When I got it home and opened it I found a new
calfskin guitar case packed in newspaper and inside that was the
Hummingbird. The guitar was in good shape, but the words Mr Good
were scratched in tall letters on the back of the body. In the bottom of
the case was a note:
I wont you to have this a fine instrumint i bought it new
in 1965. Maybe somday we can play together i can teech you some Bob wills.
The only thing about it is i got no idee how the writing got on the back i
woke up in a motel in oddessa tex 8 yeer ago and it was almost nite and
their it was this is stil a good guitar.
I hadn’t heard from him since. If he was alive he’d be
sixty-three, and the older I got the more I wished I could see him. We’d
have something to talk about now that I’d made every mistake he had.
Once I was living with a psychologist and she started
ribbing me after she saw how I took such good care of the Gibson. Better
take Mr. Good to soccer practice, she’d say, or Mr. Good says he wants to
order Chinese. If she hadn’t been so good-looking I wouldn’t have put up
with her—she’d come home after counseling all day and make astrology
charts on her clients and smoke pot. She finally drank enough coffee one
morning to think to ask how I got the guitar. I told her the story about
"That’s cute," she said.
I just stared at her.
"What is it?" she said.
I shook my head.
"No, what is it?" she asked, almost hysterical.
"Nothing," I said. "Just looking at your hair."
* * *
It was cold. I was in Purcell’s lot, smoking, drinking
coffee, half-listening to the Spanish talk all around me. I had seven
hundred dollars in my socks—after getting paid today I’d have enough to
get the Gibson back, and after Monday and Tuesday I’d have enough to go
back to Dallas—and then suddenly an angry shout came from behind the
trailer, then another. The lot quickly fell silent. Then the Spanish
started up again and most of the men walked over and looked behind the
trailer but as soon they did they started leaving, some running, and in
about two minutes the place was deserted except for me.
I kept watching the trailer, about fifteen yards away.
Nothing. I couldn’t hear anything either but the hum of the arc lights. I
didn’t know what to do. I was kind of scared, but I had to try to work
that day, no matter what, so I decided to stay where I was and wait for
Purcell to show up. I started to light another cigarette, then footsteps
sounded on the gravel and a man staggered around the side of the trailer.
He was clutching his side and when he saw me he said something in Spanish.
He was big, at least three hundred pounds, and looked like a bear coming
toward me. Then he just stopped and stood there. I could hear his
breathing. He sank to his knees like a camel sitting down and fell over.
For about a hundred and fifty dollars I would’ve left. But
there weren’t any philanthropists in the vicinity. I went over to him. He
had rolled onto his back and when he saw me standing over him he started
talking in Spanish. He had a rip in the side of his thin jacket and there
were dark stains around it. I took off my denim coat and kneeled down, and
when he saw what I was doing he moved his hands and let me use the coat as
a compress. Some warm blood soaked into the denim, but not much. He seemed
more panicked than anything. He just kept on jabbering.
Then I heard other voices. Two Mexicans were standing a
few yards away, at the edge of the light.
"Habla ingles?" I called out.
"No much, no much," the taller of the two said.
I got him to hold the jacket in place and right away he
and the injured man started talking, arguing it sounded like. I ran the
three blocks to the store where I made a point of buying my coffee every
morning because I liked the way the clerk looked. I asked her to call 911.
"Sorry, the phone’s not public," she said.
"Are you kidding?" I said.
She shook her head. "That’s the rule."
"But a guy’s been knifed or something."
She hesitated, then looked at her watch, a pink thing the
size of a coaster. "My manager’s due here any minute now and he says you
can’t let the phone thing get started or people’ll be asking to use it all
the time." She looked over my shoulder. "Could you move, please?"
I stepped over but stayed at the counter and an old black
guy in a baseball cap moved up and gave her numbers for a lottery ticket.
"So you’re not going to call?" I said.
"No," she said.
I went outside and picked up the receiver on the pay phone
on the side of the building and put it to my ear even though I knew it was
dead. I asked two people going into the store if they had cell phones—both
shook their heads, though one had his in a holster on his belt. Then I ran
back to the temp service because there wasn’t another payphone nearby and
I didn’t know what else to do.
Purcell was there. He had his headlights directed onto the
scene and he stood in their beams next to the injured man and the two
Mexicans who were squatting over him. The shorter one, who I could now see
was an older man, was crying.
"I can’t have this kind of helling going on here," Purcell
"Mr. Purcell," I said.
He jerked his head around and squinted into the
headlights. "Hey, who’s there?" He recognized me. "So did you see what
"No. I just tried to call an ambulance but I couldn’t find
He waved like he was shooing a fly. "I checked him, he
doesn’t need one. It’d be a waste of the taxpayers’ money. All he’s got is
a little lard sliced off." Then he put his hands on his hips and stared
down at the man. He had on a white short sleeve shirt and a dark tie; I
had never seen him in a coat, no matter the temperature. "Hey," he said
loudly and all three Mexicans looked up at him and he spoke to them in
broken Spanish. The tall one holding my jacket answered.
According to Purcell’s translation: the two Mexicans who
had stayed were from the same town in Mexico as the injured man, and the
older one was his uncle or cousin or something. Two days ago the tall
Mexican had heard that the injured man—who looked at least thirty—had
gotten someone’s teenage daughter pregnant. The tall Mexican wasn’t sure
who the girl was, but he’d heard there’d been a blow up with her father.
"I didn’t think there was anybody left who cared about
that," Purcell said. He took out a pack of Juicy Fruit and put a stick in
his mouth. He stared down at the man, his face a brown study. I crossed my
arms and hugged myself. I was freezing.
"This has implications," Purcell said.
"We should probably call an ambulance," I said.
"We might do that," he said. "But we’ve got to move
him off this property first."
I didn’t say anything, but Purcell jerked his head around
like I had.
"Just because this pussel-gut decides to tap some Mexican
cheerleader, I should have to pay double and triple on my liability
insurance? And as for the police," he said, "what’d you think: Columbo’s
gonna show up here at dawn?" He pulled a wallet-on-a-chain out of his back
pocket and started speaking Spanish again. When he finished all three
Mexicans nodded. The old one wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
Then Purcell took out two fifty-dollar bills and handed one to each of the
two squatting men. They both spoke to the injured man, patted him on the
shoulder, then stood up and left. Purcell bent over the injured man and
slipped two bills into his pants pocket. He spoke to him and the man
answered. Purcell replied, his voice angry. The man shook his head back
and forth on the ground. Purcell started cursing in English. He turned to
me, "Sack of shit says he can’t get up."
"Huh," I said.
Purcell gave the man a little kick in the hip and said
something in Spanish. Then he grabbed the man’s arm and tried to haul him
up. He didn’t budge. He was dead weight. Purcell dropped his arm. "All
right," he said, "you get his shoulders and I’ll get his legs," and he
stepped around the man to his feet. I didn’t move.
He waved. "Come on, let’s go."
"That’s my coat there," I pointed.
"Yeah? So?" he said.
"It’s ruined," I said.
His expression deadened as he figured it out, which took
about two seconds. He shook his head and cursed again. He took out his
wallet and handed over a fifty.
"I need a hundred more," I said.
If either of us had been smoking the whole block would’ve
exploded. "Listen," he said, "I wouldn’t be paying anybody anything if I
could speak enough Spanish to make these tacos understand if they don’t do
what I say I’ll tell the police whatever I want. But even though you’re a
goddamn briar you understand me, don’t you?"
"The police might hassle me on your sayso," I said, "but
that’s about all they could do. And think about it. If I do end up talking
to them, I’m such a briar I might let it slip how you run a straight cash
He turned his back to me and started muttering. He stayed
that way at least a half-minute. Then he turned back around holding out
five twenties. His mouth was very tight.
Lifting the man was like picking up one end of a rowboat
full of water, if you’ve ever done that. We carried him ten yards, rested,
then went the last ten yards to the street. Purcell dropped the man’s feet
and stayed bent over with his hands on his knees, huffing and puffing. He
glanced up at me, then unhooked his key ring from his belt and tossed it
and it hit the sidewalk right in front of me and I had to do a skip to
keep it from hitting my feet. "Move my car up to the trailer," he said.
I looked at the keys, then at him. "What?" I said.
"Do it, or I’ll tell the cops you robbed me." He took his
cell phone out of his back pocket.
"Why do you want me to do it?" I said.
"Just because I do," he said.
"Forget you," I said.
"All right," he said and punched a button on the phone,
and that’s when I thought of the seven hundred dollars in my socks and how
great it would look on a guy without a coat.
The car was a Cadillac in name only. The last time it
looked good Eddie Murphy was funny. I slid under the wheel, but didn’t
close the door so the rooflight would stay on and I could find things. The
seat was too far up for me to fit my feet to the pedals, so I reached down
to find the lever and my hand hit a bottle under the seat. It was a
half-pint of Jack Daniels and all that was empty was the neck. I unscrewed
the cap, bent over like I’d dropped the keys and took a drink, then sat up
again. The glove box was missing its door, a cigar with an inch of dead
ash was in the ashtray, a single porno playing card was in the passenger
seat, a woman who looked like she was waiting for surgery to begin. I
turned the card over: seven of clubs. I bent over and took another drink.
I was thinking of the last time I saw my father—one of these old boats
always did that.
I discovered the seat wouldn’t move, so I managed to get
situated with my legs splayed out on either side of the steering wheel. I
shut the door, then pulled the car up in front of the trailer and cut the
engine and the lights. I stuck the half-pint down the front of my pants.
Then I looked in the rearview mirror: Purcell was still at the curb, under
a streetlight, standing over the injured man talking and gesturing. It
looked like he was haranguing a corpse.
I leaned over to get at my pants pocket and took out the
hundred and fifty and put it on the dash behind the steering wheel. I just
couldn’t abide the idea of having to think of Purcell everytime I played
the Gibson. I would’ve rather seen it in the hands of Campfire Girls.
The pawn shop opened a half-hour before the liquor stores.
I’d been waiting in a coffee shop across the street. I had the Gibson’s
empty calfskin case and a Epiphone in its case. I was going to pawn the
Epi which would give me the last fifty I needed to get the Gibson back,
plus another sixty or seventy. That much would get me to Shreveport, and I
figured I knew enough people in Dallas I could find someone who’d drive
out and get me.
I went in the pawn shop, the bell ringing over my head,
and right away I noticed the Gibson wasn’t on its stand in the line of
guitars that sat on a high shelf in the back. Holding the two cases I
suddenly felt like an idiot in a Norman Rockwell painting. The empty one
felt light enough to throw through the display window.
The owner was still wearing his pea coat and was at the
back of the long shotgun room behind a line of jewelry cases to my left.
He came up front.
"It’s gone," he said. "Girl bought it last night not long
after you came in."
I set down the guitar cases.
"She paid cash so I don’t know who she was," he said.
I asked him what she looked like.
"I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers," he
I kept looking at him. I couldn’t believe he had said
that. Then he gave a police blotter description of the girl—young, long
brown hair, skinny, pale, wearing jeans and a green jacket, said he
wouldn’t call her pretty exactly. I asked him, if she came back in, to
give her my name and the place where I roomed and to tell her I’d pay to
get the Gibson back. I said I’d pay him, too, for doing that.
"Once I tell her, you got no reason to pay me," he said.
"That’s true," I said.
"A twenty ought to take care of it," he said.
I felt so beat I didn’t argue. I squatted down and lifted
my pants leg to get at my sock. The bell rang and a guy in a dirty
overcoat and came in and set down a kit bag and started pulling out barber
tools. I stood up and the owner took my twenty. I picked up my guitar
cases and left.
Walking down the street, freezing, I realized I could take
the money I had and buy a coat and a bus ticket and be back in Dallas by
midnight or I could stay in Cincinnati and buy a coat and try to find the
Gibson. I thought about it three seconds and decided to stay.
I can play guitar pretty well. And I’ve spent twenty years
worth of afternoons in libraries killing time before gigs so I know the
difference between Augustine of Hippo and all the other Augustines and I
know that even if we do come up with a unified field theory it isn’t going
to change a damn thing. But other than that, I wouldn’t take my own advice
Steven has published numerous short stories and his novel,
I Was Howard Hughes, will be published in fall 2003 by Bloomsbury's
Tin House Books.