November 25, 2010—-
She lived 7,000 steps beyond the truck stop.
The Midway truck stop was pretty much just as I left it about 10 years ago. The Midway is exactly 121 miles each way between Kansas City and St. Louis, which means it is no-way.
That’s why everything is going on at the Midway. There’s a general store stuck in ramshackle 1970s design filled with dusty bottles of Mountain Dew and souvenir wooden toothpick holders for $1.99. A 24-hour diner serves mashed potatoes drenched in gravy and green beans out of the can. There’s a tattoo parlor, a beauty shop and 85-room motel. The boot store has closed.
The country-western bar still plays on.
Upstairs from the diner in the Back Door Lounge.
Right off of I-70.
In these days of tight security and freaky morality, how could a 225-seat honky tonk still exist in a truck stop? Whitey Morgan and the ‘78s have to play this joint.
I stopped in last week to hear a cover band play rock-hard versions of Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and some Waylon. These cats had been around since Harry Truman. The guy collecting the $3 cover had about three teeth that dangled from the roof of his mouth like chandeliers in a riverboat casino. The cigarette smoke was thick and the Busch beer was cold and gassy.
Everyone drinks Busch beer around Central Missouri and I hate it. But it is cheap, especially when you are driving in search of new horizons. You are looking for someone who maybe won’t hurt you. That is why you drive fast.
“What are you haulin?,” she asked.
I talk more when I’m a stranger. “Cajun turkeys,” I answered. I don’t know why I said that. Stupid. Lots of things have happened to me that I don’t understand. Maybe I looked like a trucker. I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, I wore a Shrimp & Petroleum Festival baseball cap and my sideburns were way too long. Thanksgiving was coming.
Back around Alton I heard a New Orleans chef talk about his recipe for Cajun turkeys on a satellite radio station. She had never been south of Chattanooga and spent some time in Nashville, Tn. during the final country-western boom of the mid-1980s.
She was even too late for that.
I could see her Busch-can-blue eyes through the smoke and neon shadows. Lines had formed around her eyes like backroads to twin lakes. She wore a blue plaid flannel shirt with the top three buttons undone. This revealed a loose black bra. On second glance the lacy brassiere looked old with black turning to shades of gray. Maybe she was 45. My mind drifted to a two-lane road trip out of Eureka Springs where we saw wild dogs and Get-Right-With-Jesus billboards posted by a militia group. I had to take a picture.
“Skeeter Davis,” she said in a snap. “I loved Skeeter Davis. She put a good spin on hurt.” I knew Skeeter’s mid-1960s hits, “The End of the World” and the shoop-shoop of “I Can’t Stay Mad at You.” She was a thin-as-a –Marlboro version of Skeeter Davis. “I used to hear that a lot,” she said. “Not so much now.” She nodded towards the bandleader who looked like a George meets Grandpa Jones. She said, “Ever notice when you go to a gig there’s someone who looks like the person on stage?” Sure enough one
of the white-haired pool players looked like he got tossed out of “The Grand Tour.”
“Actually,” I said, “I first saw that at a Faces concert when a couple guys looked like Rod Stewart with the rooster hair, before the mascara.” She looked at the empty tip jar at the front of the stage and said, “Same thing, a couple of summers ago when Kid Rock came to the state fair.” I countered, “You should see the audience at a Cher show.” She said, “Or Guns n’ Roses.”
We laughed and agreed that there never is anyone who looks like Bob Dylan at a Dylan concert. We also concluded that Garth Brooks version of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” isn’t all that bad.
“Couldn’t find work singing Skeeter stuff,” she gnarled, revealing a tooth with an arrowhead chip. “Then Garth, Shania and then I gave up. Got married to a guy who ended up teaching English at the University of Missouri.
“So where are you going with your Ca-gin turkeys?”
“Kansas City,” I said. That was the truth. K.C., Mo. not Kansas. “Stopping off to see the Thomas Hart Benton home,” I added. I thought about buying her a can of beer.
She knew of the Missouri artist/muralist from books in her ex-husband’s collection. We talked about the Benton mural in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Benton dropped dead in his Kansas City studio while making that mural that was inspired by cowboy singer Tex Ritter.
“I didn’t know that,” she said as she nudged a little closer. The previous night in Litchfield I fell asleep reading Benton’s autobiography “An Artist in America.” He ended the book by saying how the only way an artist can fail is to quit work.
“Well I still sing here every other month or so” she said in defiance to the artist. “But no Skeeter, hell today’s truckers don’t even know Tammy or Kitty. Maybe I’ll do some Reba.” Her day gig was in landscaping at the university athletic department and I didn’t know if I should believe that until she asked if I wanted to help her put a reclaimed baseball tarp over her backyard garden.
A late autumn chill was blowing across the Missouri plains. She talked of faded roses, wild potato vines and horesemint. Poke shoots? Never heard of of ‘em. “I live walking distance from here, behind the motel,” she said as she nodded away from the interstate.
“I’m in a hurry, but if its close I can help.”
The band launched into a George Strait song. There were about 10 people in the country-western bar on a Friday night. You could hear the sound of knocking pool balls underneath the music. The place smelled funky, like a mix of cigarette smoke and an old wet beagle. I told her about the last time I was here with DuPree. We drank beer and came up with names for the unknown house band: Z.Z. Truck Stop. Renegade Wind.
We got up and left. It was only a four minute walk in a cold rain to her beige ranch house, about 7,000 steps west of the Midway. She asked where I was from and how long I had been driving. “For years,” I answered. “But I’ve never left my hometown.”
I could say she invited me in to somewhere where it was warm, but that would be stretching the truth. I did help with the damp orange and black tarp. It was torn in the middle. I grabbed one end, she grabbed the opposite end and we tucked away the summer.
She continued to talk about country music that no one listens to anymore. She liked Faulkner, especially his line about “the past is never dead, its not even past” or something like that, but I never read much Faulkner. She pointed to a green Ford pick-up and said, “Not much into fancy stuff. I’ve got a desktop computer, but I use it for numbers and buying seeds. I’ve never been on My Space.” She had never heard of Facebook or status updates.
I heard an extended rhythm to a voice open to dialogue. She asked sad questions like “Do you have a family?” She liked peach pie and vanilla ice cream in the winter. In her distant eyes I saw the flicker of an honest dream. I cannot say I got to know her, but then I know her better than some people at home.
I will return in the spring.