Big Bill Dean, the manager of Dot’s Bar and Dance next to the A-OK Motel in Fordyce, Arkansas was not too pleased with the band he’d hired that night. There was a time when half the county would show up at Dot’s in their crisply ironed western shirts and colorful summer dresses, the parking lot so full of freshly washed pickups that late comers had to park half in the ditch on both sides of the road. Lewis, the bartender back then, claimed that country star George Jones rode his lawnmower in one night after they took his license for drunk driving. Most people knew Lewis was a damn liar but they liked his stories anyway, plus it was good for business. But that was then. Now Big Bill was lucky to get a dozen cars on a Saturday night, mostly Toyotas. Hell, even the pick up trucks were Japanese.
He held back one hundred dollars of the agreed fee for the band and felt fully justified in doing so. After all, it barely covered their bar tab. They were a raggedy-ass bunch who looked like they hadn’t had a decent meal for weeks. They didn’t even have matching outfits and barely acknowledged the few old farmers and their wives on the dance floor. The Flint Hill Bluegrass Band wouldn’t be making a return engagement at Dot’s anytime soon if Big Bill had his way.
The beat up former church bus with a blue mountain painted on the side was the only vehicle headed south on Farm Road 49. The night was black as pitch and the cicadas buzzed continuously from the treetops. Davey the fiddle player sat up near the driver counting out damp bills into five separate piles, cussing the whole time.
“God dammit, Gordon, why do all the bills from these shit-hole bars always smell like beer and piss?”
“Cause they are in the business of turning beer into piss, Davey. Why do you think I only drink whiskey?”
It was Gordon’s turn at the wheel and in two hours he would hand it over to Davey, who as usual, was the only one awake at 3AM. Jim, Randy and Bo were lying in the back of the bus among the instruments, beer cans, dirty laundry and amplifiers, sound asleep, wheezing and snoring like hibernating bears. Gordon couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was wrong. The overall sound that night had been flat. No bounce at all. The mix was okay but something was off. The big red-neck manager could have held back more. The guys might not agree, but Gordon knew they were lucky it was only a hundred. Even with four new songs added to the set list they just weren’t kicking ass like they used to. They would have to talk about it when they got to Texas. If Gordon was the unofficial leader of the band, it was not only because he played three instruments, banjo, pedal steel and dobro, but that he had gone to college. All the lectures and hours of theory and composition hadn’t prepared him for life on the road but he was determined to make the best of it.
After travel expenses, everyone got an equal cut. The one-nighters were sometimes two hundred miles apart, making sleep hard to come by and requiring a pharmaceutical boost now and then. The next one was in Mesquite, near the rodeo, which for some reason was televised on ESPN in the wee hours in places like New York City. After the slow crawl through Texarkana in a long line of exhaust-belching big rigs, Gordon turned south to pick up route 71 for a little fresh air. He had fished with his father near the town of Purley when he was five or six years old. If the lake were still visible from the road he would pull over and take a look. From behind the wheel the landscape looked the same, just somehow older. Davey had moved up to the seat behind Gordon, ready to finish the final leg into Mesquite. They both saw the nose of the police car in the bushes as they passed, but it was too late. The big Ford swung in behind the bus with all the lights going.
“Aw shit, Gordon!”
“Cool it Davey, give some gum quick!”
“What kind you want?”
Davey was the high priest of vending machines.
“Anything man, just do it!”
Gordon popped a stick of Juicy Fruit into his mouth and chewed quickly as he pulled the bus to a stop. He could see the fat trooper slowly approaching in the side mirror, walking like his boots were too tight.
He placed one hand on the bus fender, the other rested on the butt of his pistol.
“You boys are up early. You goin’ to church?”
“No sir, we are on our way to Mesquite for a job.”
The fat man spat and grinned.
“You don’t look much like bull riders to me.”
“No we sure don’t, we’re a blue grass band.”
“You any good?”
“They pay us to play, so I guess we are.”
“Well ain’t that something. Now I guess you could have missed that speed limit sign coming into Purley that says 35, but I clocked you doing 50 so here’s what we’re going to do.”
He pulled a letter-sized envelope from a back pocket and held it up so Gordon could read it.
“Now you can see this is for the Purley Sheriffs Department, it even has a stamp on it. You need to put one hundred dollars cash in here and seal it up.”
Gordon took it and pulled five twenties from his jeans and made a show of licking the flap and sealing it up. He handed it back down to the fat man.
“Nah, don’t give it to me, I need you to walk up to the next corner and drop it in that big blue mail box and come on back. I’ll be watching.”
Gordon climbed passed Davey and shoved open the door. It was already getting hot and the gum had lost its flavor. He approached the mailbox and spat the gum into his hand, pressing it against the envelope. He pulled down the lid and turned to show he was doing what he was told. Gordon let the lid clang shut and returned to the bus. The trooper tried to stick out his chest but his stomach beat him to it.
“Now you boys take it slow, you hear?”
Gordon and Davey watched the Ford kick up gravel and head back the way it came.
“Go get our money Davey.”
“What do you think the gum was for, man? It’s stuck on the lid.”
Davey sprinted to the mailbox. Bo stumbled up the aisle half awake.
“What the hells going on Gordo?”
Gordon started the engine and watched Davey run back to the bus, grinning and waving the envelope.
“Nothing going on Bo, be a pal and bring me up a beer. We still got a ways to go.”
Gordon savored his breakfast beer and smiled to himself. It tasted like victory.