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"I first ran into Stoney / in a bar downtown..."
I see Stoney's, the place unpainted in forty years, windows boarded up with black painted plywood. It is right smack in downtown Crawfordsville, on Main Street. I'm told it's the toughest bar in town; when the name comes up in conversation at the plant I'm working at there is laughter, and telling looks. Don't go in there, I am told. Or if I do, "Ask the waitress Mabel to show you her tits. She'll do it for anyone who asks." I know I must go in there, and not for any voyeuristic indulgence. I must go in there because I have an old favorite song entitled, 'Stoney.' My plan somewhat simple: I will go into this hard-ass bar, ask who is the meanest, craziest bastard present, and ask him to tell me his craziest story. A simple plan.
"...said c'mon get your bag boy / come with me sun's up time to roll / know there ain't no better time than early in the morning / to be out walking the road..."
Inside Stoney's is, well, is. The last improvements were poorly performed, and made prior to the outside being painted. I think it's wallpaper on the walls; a twenties-looking fade, a countryside scene sparsely spotted with evergreens. The ceiling is checkered and newer, Donald Duck, Goofy, ads for something, a note about veterans stenciled in them. The chairs are dying, bleeding, cut, hanging threads of former upholstery. Round oaken tables and a bar crowded with ten men and three women, Moses with ponytails, tattoos, battered hot buttered rum refugees from the drugs wars, and worse. I see homicide, fratricide, insecticide in every glassy stare. I see the consequences of knawing lead-painted windowsills, and the lead's kicking in. Big, dumb, heartland look. Faces not just weathered but glaciated, the low end frowns, the terminal marriages of awkward, faltered life. Angry, assassin eyes, all of them telling a silent, solemn story, and telling it poorly. One sitting alone in a cold corner, wordlessly weaving worries and wounds, embracing the dignity of silence. The bartender is short, wiry, with slicked back 50's hair and glassy blue eyes. A shorter, less handsome Paul Newman. I approach the empty space at the bar.
"Budweiser," I say.
"Beer!" the man shouts at me, approaching and placing his hands on the bar. "Beer! We have beer!" Now, I'm a big guy with vein-wrapped hands, if somewhat swollen by middle age. The bartender makes up for any size difference by accentuating his hold on the bar.
"Budweiser," I say more clearly, eliminating any New England accent, as if that's the problem.
"Beer! We have beer!" the man shouts. I glance left, receive a 'Yeahhe'sfuckinwidja' nod-grin from one of the Moses. The bartender turns to retrieve a dark, red and white labeled bottle from the ancient, large, white reach-in cooler behind him, calling as he goes, "You wanna glass widdat?"
"That'll be four dollars," he says, bending down into the cooler. There's not a joint within a hundred miles that charges more than a couple bucks for a Bud, and this place should give it away. When he gets no reaction from me he plays to his audience, who silently, grinningly, are enjoying the show. "It'd be less without the glass," he says with a wink to one of them. He pops my beer and glass down on the bar, and hands me three dollars in change - much to my relief - and when I toss a buck for a tip he calls out, "A dollar! A dollar! Sit right here, this chair's yours!"
I sit instead at one of the round, oaken tables in a front corner. Paul Newman comes over to the adjacent jukebox, plays Hank Williams. I decide not to engage him in conversation. I check the music out after he's gone. No one alive is on the jukebox. As the saying goes, they have both kinds of music here - country AND western. No one alive, that is, unless they've been born again. I know country music pretty well, and there are names I've never even heard of. When Paul Newman's shift is over the calls ring out from the Moses along the bar as he walks out the back door: "See ya asshole!" He raises his right arm over his head and waves, without looking back.
"...gettin a hold of another day beginning / instead of rushing on by / it would be like some Mr. Independence, son / taking our own sweet time...time as we know it..."
I decide not to seek out the craziest bastard in the bar. It's not that I'm intimidated, I just can't be bothered. Alternative: I'll think of my own craziest story. I sit and think of Jerry Jeff Walker's song 'Stoney,' which is really what brought me in here. The disconnect, the disassociation. It is one of those songs...an old favorite, nothing special but meaningful to me because of a simple sentiment conveyed, one of a time of freedom, of a time before family and marriage and worries and work, a sentiment Jerry Jeff nails.
It reminds me of long ago and far away. We were trudging down Nauset Beach on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in Orleans, Massachusetts toward one of the old shacks that line the dirt road over the dunes. A three mile November jaunt late, late one evening back in those, uh, magical days... Five, maybe six of us trudging along, skirting the moving tide trying to keep to the wetted sand, which is easier to walk on. Bracketed by a brilliant night sky, the rhythmic pouring of water upon the shore to our left, the dunes to our right, and the sparkling, phosphorescence sand. One of us a friend who had spent several years with a cast on a leg who had recently had it removed. He was valiantly trudging ahead, trying his damnedest, but I sensed he was struggling. We had all night, we were young, we hadn't a care in the world. There were no mortgages, or utility bills. There were no children, no life insurance, no equity loans. There was no keeping up with the Jones, because all our Jones had nothing. There was just us in our youth on sparkling sand, with a yearning in our hearts for all that life could offer, for all that lie ahead. I stopped my friend.
"What's the matter?" I asked him.
"I'm trying to keep up," he replied.
"Hey, we have all the time in the world," I said to him, "all the time in the world." We paused for a few minutes and laughed at the stars, pulled a bottle from a rucksack and tilted it north. We soon continued toward the shack and the warmth of torn out snow-fencing in the cracked brick fireplace it promised. We were far behind the others, but we didn't care. It didn't matter. Just two old friends making our way through the starry, starry night, with time as we knew it.
"...but we were that free then / just walking down the road / never really caring where that highway goes...where that highway goes..."
Long ago and far away. And there I sat, a stranger in the bar at a cold corner oaken table. If the waitress I observed was indeed Mabel, I wouldn't be requesting anything of her. At one point I caught myself gesticulating with my hand; and there I sat, I realized, wordlessly weaving worries and wounds, embracing a silent dignity in onomatopoeic overload. I found what appeared to be the appropriate words in the air, captured them for this travelogue, and jotted them down on my beer coaster. I needed two of them. I started singing under my breath: "I first ran into Stoney, in a bar downtown..."
I finished my Budweiser and got up to leave Stoney's. I know my own craziest stories. I acquire a bemused smirk when I realize the progression of my own worst story to the one that occupied my thoughts. I strode across the creaking boards toward the back door, but none of the Moses called out as they had to Paul Newman.
They didn't know me well enough.