The Road to Texas
by Tom Honea
Port Allen, Louisiana
Even for a week night the crowd had not been good. None of them seemed to understand music. Warren did things with the guitar that he knew none of them had ever heard before. He played Jimmy Rogers railroad songs in a four–four beat, played it again in an eight–four beat. Played the Muskrat Ramble three–four, then six–four: nobody seemed to notice. He played some Texas swing, there were no dancers.
“You quittin’ already, Strings?” the bartender asked. The clock showed 11:20.
“Hell, ain’t nobody listenin’, I might as well.”
“Do one more. Somethin’ about Mama and goin’ home … somethin’ sad. Giv’ me a chance to sell one more round.”
Warren tuned the strings to a G–chord: played pure Robert Johnson.
“… uh … uuuuh, uh … uuuuh.
You better come on in my kitchen,
it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.”
… boom, boom, ah boomp … boom, boom
… boom, boom, ah boomp
Now the woman I love … …
He worked from the top of the neck toward the bottom, played the pulsating beat deeper and deeper into the bass.
The woman stood for maybe the first time all night, on the left, near the wall. She swayed to the beat even before she was fully erect. She had, Warren knew, known this beat from growing up, from long ago. He had not, he realized, played a real cotton-field-picking blues number all night. The woman, who understood and was moved by the earthy, guttural sounds had been left out until now. Her eyes mostly closed.
Warren played to the end of a phrase … suddenly threw in two minor eight–beat bars. The woman froze, her eyes went wide, she looked at him. He held her eyes, went back to …
… uh, unnnnh, … … uh, unnnnh ….
The woman I love, some joker’s got lucky …
Done stole her back again …
You better come on in my kitchen …
it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.
A grin touched the corners of the woman’s mouth. Her eyes almost closed again, she resumed the sway of her body to the beat of the music. This time, however, Warren knew she was watching him through the slightly open slits between her eyelids. She’s not from south Louisiana, he thought. Blond hair … fair. From the cotton fields up toward Arkansas.
He played the final chords through a second time.
“That wasn’t even about mama’s sick and might be dyin’, about goin’ home” the bartender said.
“No, but I noticed you sold some beer,” Warren answered even as he watched the woman against the left wall.
The bartender followed the direction of his gaze. “Husband’s a policeman, over in Baton Rouge … mean bastard,” he said. “Usually works nights.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Warren said. He closed up the guitar case.
He stopped just at the corner of the building, at the mouth of a small alley, rolled a cigarette with tobacco from a Prince Albert can.
“Need a match,” the woman said from just in the edge of the shadows.
“I think I’ve got one,” Warren answered. “ … need a cigarette?”
“Never roll my own,” she said.
“Uptown woman, are you?” He handed her the lit cigarette. She took it from his fingers.
“Not that uptown,” she answered. She took a deep drag, handed it back.
“Got a husband, I hear,” Warren eyed her through the smoke.
“Bar keep needs to mind his own business, ” the woman said.
“Mean bastard, I hear, ” Warren said.
“When he’s drunk. … Sober he ain’t too bad.”
“Is he drunk tonight?” he asked.
“Been gone for three days, how the hell would I know.” she answered.
“Huh? ” he caught her hand, held it. “ … I bet you’re a horny wench. … You ain’t seen a man in three days.” He held the cigarette to her lips, let her take a deep pull.
It, the cigarette, was down to the butt, bitterly strong. She held the smoke in her lungs for long seconds, let it out slow.
She laughed, deep in her throat. “ I didn’t say nothin’ about not seein’ a man in three days.” She pulled him deeper into the shadows.
They had sex immediately once they were in her car. It could not be called making love. It was too animal, too primitive. Done with no emotion other than need, lust.
He rolled another Prince Albert cigarette. “Where we goin’?” he asked. She had backed the car out of the alley, turned onto a side street.
“Somewhere I can take your clothes off,” she said.
He was leaned back against the seat. The guitar in the back, her panties crumpled tight in his right hand.
“I bet,” she went on, taking the cigarette from him, “you can get ‘im up at least two–three more times before the night is over.”
“ … Two–three times. … Honey, we jus’ gittin’ started.” Warren reached into the back, opened the guitar case, retrieved a whiskey flask. “What’s your name anyway?” he asked.
Six minutes later she turned into a narrow driveway between two shotgun houses, drove to and stopped in a small backyard. A soft rain had blown up from the southwest.
“At Camp sometimes when we were kids,” Warren told her, “we would run naked in the rain. … Did you ever do that? … Run naked in the rain? I haven’t done that in twelve years, maybe longer.”
Stella, she had told him her name was Stella, was already shucking her clothes, tossing them in through the open door of the car. She ran across the small yard, away from him, the car between the two of them. The far away heat lightening silhouetted her body.
Warren lifted the buttoned shirt over his head, not taking time to un-do. She ran to the right. He caught her just at the front of the automobile, just at the Indian head emblem. He lifted her onto the hood. She ‘pretend’ struggled, attempted to get away. She laughed out loud.
“You have to be on bottom,” she said. “I’m not gonna do it with the rain in my face.”
Warren didn’t care much one way or the other who was on bottom. “I never did it in the rain,” she mouthed the words.
Stella laughed, moaned, sucked in her breath in a co-mingling outburst, lowered herself onto him.
“Stella!” The eruption came from the back of the house, the kitchen door, the small stoop. “Is that you, Stella?”
She went suddenly rigid. “Oh, god. Oh, shit. … He’s home. He’s not suppose to be home.” She rolled off Warren, off the hood of the car, landed hard in the wet grass. “Run … run.” she admonished Warren, a loud whisper.
“They’s somebody out here,” the drunken husband stumbled down the steps, out into the rain. “I heard somebody out here.”
Warren, his ‘shucked’ jeans in one hand, crouched behind the off side of the car attempted to open the rear door.
“What the hell are you doing?. ” she asked.
“My guitar. I gotta get my guitar.”
“ … He’ll shoot you. … Forget the guitar.”
Later Warren would remember the chaotic scene that followed. Some nights after playing too late, drinking too much he would wake up in a cold sweat, the images having flashed across his brain, behind his eyes:
The brutish, drunken husband catching Stella by the hair … dragging her, then leaving her on the wet grass. The image of the man coming, searching for him.
The game of cat and mouse with Warren coming almost within arm’s length of the man and his knife, luring him away from the down and desperate woman … dashing away at the last second. The man cursing him, taunting him as a coward. Questioning his manhood, his heritage.
Red’s words came at him from that long ago night in Beaumont. I ever see knife scars on you again, Strings, they better be on yore back. … Ain’t no future gittin’ cut in the front.
The image of striking the man on the side of the knee with a stick of stove wood, knocking him to the ground.
Remembered telling the man, ‘The woman’s leavin’ … I’m leavin. Don’t git up.’
Remembered the man struggling to his feet, the knife in his hand. ‘Ain’t no Arkansas hussy and no guitar boy gonna tell me stay down.’
The image of the blow behind the ear when the man wouldn’t quit, wouldn’t stay down.
And, finally the image of himself against the side of the house, sliding to the ground, vomiting, watching the shaking of his hands.
The beat of, the chill of, the night increased. Warren pulled himself from the side of the house, found the woman.
“I think he’s dead,” he told her. “He ain’t movin’…”
“ … Good,” she said.
“He ain’t movin’,” Warren repeated. “I checked.”
“Go,” she told him. “ … Jus’ go.” She struggled to her feet, reached inside the car for her clothes.
“What are you gonna do? ” he asked.
“I’m goin’ … ”
“ … Where? ”
“ … Won’t nobody find me where I’m goin’, ” she said.
The West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff stood in the small alley between the two shotgun houses. “Man got killed last night, you didn’t hear nothin’?” he asked the neighbor.
“Rained pretty much all night,” the neighbor answered. “ … Thunder now and then.”
The sheriff walked to the back corner of the house, looked out across the tiny yard. “Must ‘a been a hell of a fight. Blood all over.”
“He beat her pretty bad sometimes,” the neighbor said. “Come home drunk an’ beat her … She’d scream somethin’ terrible.”
“But you didn’t hear no screamin’ last night?”
“ … Well, it was rainin’, ” the man answered.
“Don’t go nowhere,” the sheriff eyed the man. “I might wanna talk to you again.”
“Been right here seventeen years,” he said, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere jus’ now.”
“You think she had some help?” the deputy asked.
“I don’t think she whupped ‘im by herself. … Even him drunk an’ her with a stick ‘a stove wood …
“He come to me for a job once,” the sheriff re–lit his cigar, “ … Then come back an’ cussed me when I didn’t hire ‘im.” He threw down the match. “Let’s go.” He turned on his heel.
“Looks like she run the car right over his feet comin’ outta that driveway,” the sheriff’s deputy observed, them leaving the scene.
“I noticed that,” the sheriff answered, blew cigar smoke out the window. “Broke ‘em up real bad. … Call over to Baton Rouge, tell ‘em we on the lookout for the man’s wife. We’ll let ‘em know if we find anything.”
“Wanna stop for some breakfast before we head back?” the deputy asked.
Warren ‘Strings’ Jennings of Cut Bank community, Ashe County, Mississippi was driving north–west toward Nacogdoches, Texas. He stopped for gas in DeRidder.
Sometimes it didn’t go well at all.
Tom Honea is a true son of the Deep South. He grew up in the 1950s on a working dairy farm in Magnolia, Mississippi. There were no paved roads or telephones, but there were storytellers a-plenty, on front porches in the summer and around the fireplace in winter. College and a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps followed, as did a number of years as a football coach and teacher in Florida, North Carolina and Memphis. For the past 20 years, Honea has been owner and manager of a marble/granite fabrication company in the western North Carolina mountains. This is his first published work, although he has completed a novel and is deep into a second work set in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, region during World War II. He is an ongoing member of the Great Smokies Senior Writers group and part of the University of North Carolina Creative Writing Program.