"City Lights" has always been one of my favorite songs by RayPrice:
A bright array of city lights as far as I can see.
The Great White Way shines through the night for lonely guys like me.
The cabarets and honkytonks, their flashing signs invite
A broken heart to lose itself in the glow of city lights.
This story reprises some of the characters and the locale (Bandera, Texas) from my earlier story, "Hey, Joe!"
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
I pushed the plate with the remnants of my filet out of my way, and sipped on the half glass of Riesling, sighing as I realized I hadn't really enjoyed the meal. Hell, for a fraction of the cost I might as well had had hominy grits for dinner. Smiling at my folly, I remembered I hadn't had grits since leaving the ranch in Bandera so many years before. I'd been back to visit my folks from time to time, but at six-four and two-twenty I needed more than grits to fill me up mornings.
The waiter came by and cleared the table and brought me the glass of asked-for brandy. Taking a sip of the slightly warmed up Remy Martin, I looked out the window of the Tower Of Texas at the vast array of lights spreading out over the hot summer night. Tracing the lines of the river, I thought I should have eaten at one of the many fine restaurants lining the banks of the San Antonio River. I knew the coolness of the river would have mitigated the summer heat enough to make the dining out bearable.
The waiter came back by with the credit card receipt and somewhat hesitantly asked me, "Aren't you Big Jim, unh," he paused and looked at my credit card again, "Big Jim Morris?"
"Yeah, but that was back in my rodeo days. When I realized I wasn't good enough to make a living bulldoggin' steers I dropped the 'Big' part. Now I'm just Jim Morris." I wasn't called Big Jim for my size; I was about 5'10" and barely 150. I got the name 'cause I never lost in high school ... but then, now I was doing a fair share of losing.
"I was asking because I overheard my mom talking to her sister about you one time. The time they were talking about was before she married my dad ... from what she said you guys were close at one time." He added helpfully, "She was a champion barrel racer at the time."
I nodded and told him, "Well, say hi to her, okay."
He left and I added a couple dollars to the tip. I didn't want his mom, Candy, to think I was a cheapskate. I'd been pretty wild during my rodeo days, and there were always girls hanging around. I always did my best to see that they left with a smile on their face. Candy was different. We'd been talking marriage for a few months but that talk ended real fast when she caught me with her nemesis, the only girl that ever beat her. She had left me with some bitter words and had gone home to her folks in Cheyenne. She never did go back to the rodeo business.
At the end of that season I quit too and did just the opposite kind of work that my dad did: he bred bulls and horses for the rodeo and I bought them. I hardly ever did business with him the way it worked out. Buyers seemed to think I wouldn't do right for them if I bought from family.
None of the tables near me had been occupied, and I realized I had made a fine art out of being lonely. Down there, scattered around the city, the bars and honkytonks were flashing their bright neon lights as an invitation to loneliness – a loneliness I well knew. Suddenly tired of my thoughts I put the glass down and pushed back my chair, and left ... carrying my sadness with me, like a cloak on a cold winter night.
On the elevator down, I made my decision. My dad wanted to retire, but hadn't been able to find anyone to take over his breeding business. Mom and dad kept getting after me to take the business over, but I knew Holly wasn't interested. Well, hell. Holly damn well wasn't around anymore.
Dad also worked as a vet tech in my mom's large animal veterinary business located where the ranch road came off the highway. My mom, Angie, had already retired. She and my dad, Danny, had sold the business to a recently licensed young vet and leased the building to him.
When I got back to my deathly quiet apartment, I gave dad a call and gave him the news. The vet that had leased the building hadn't wanted the apartment so it was sitting vacant. It was small – two bedroom, two bath – but was done up quite nicely with paneling and hardwood floors. My mom had stayed there when she started her large animal vet business before she had married dad.
A month later, I was in my truck pulling a rental trailer that held surprisingly little stuff to show for ten years of marriage. Pain and suffering might weigh me down but it did nothing to fill the big trailer.
Lights that say "Forget her love, in a different atmosphere"
Lights that lure are nothing but a masquerade for tears
They paint a pretty picture but my arms can't hold them tight
And I just can't say, "I love you" to a street of city lights.
It was nice not having to travel all the time, though for the bigger rodeos like the Calgary Stampede I'd still ride along with the driver since that was the place to make good contacts. I got tired of sitting alone in my apartment so I took to going to the Silver Dollar Saloon on Friday and Saturday nights. My folks knew the owner well and it was a popular place. There were always good dance bands, sawdust on the floor and great beer. What more could a broken-down rodeo cowboy need?
One night several months after I'd moved back, I was sitting at a small table in the corner hiding behind my beer. Someone played "The Road of No Return" on the jukebox and the old Ray Price tune made me think of Holly ... something I tried not to do as much as I could. Except when it got to the part, "There were tears in her eyes as she told me goodbye." Holly damn well didn't have any tears in her eyes.
There were tears in her eyes as she told me goodbye,
Then she walked down that road of no return.
If it hurts to see her go a broken heart must never show,
For she walked down that road of no return.
I'd been on the road to Idaho and Montana for two weeks, and when I got back, she was sitting on the sofa with her coat over her arm and two suitcases packed by the door.
"Jim, I'm going on a cruise with a friend I met, Bill Hunter. He'll be here any minute to pick me up. Don't go getting all upset because it might not work out between us and if that's the case I'll come back home."
Now I'd always thought of myself as a quick thinker but I'm sure I stood there with my mouth hanging open looking dumb. I was having trouble processing what she had said.
I tried, "You mean you are leaving here with another man?"
"Jim, don't be stupid. I already told you that."
"Let me get this straight. You are going on a cruise with some asshole – what was his name? Oh, yeah, Bill Hunter. I assume you mean you'll be sleeping in the same bed?"
"Jim, you don't have to be crude. Of course I'll be sleeping with him. But, it might not work out. Who knows, two weeks in a small room cruising the Med might make us hate each other and then I'll come back home ... so don't get your balls in an uproar!"
Goddamn! Where did this woman come from and what did she do with Holly? Well, it didn't make any difference; Angie didn't raise a fool. I took her two bags and put them in the hallway. I went back and, grabbing her hand, I hauled her up and dragged her over to the door.
"Have fun, Holly, but don't worry about coming back home – I won't be here."
I pushed her out the door and locked it with the chain. Grabbing a beer, I sat where she had been sitting and tried to figure out what had just happened. A bit later, I heard her steps receding down the hallway with the hum of the wheels on the suitcase followed shortly by the ding on the elevator.
Sipping the beer there in our apartment, I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. I gradually got over it the next few weeks ... mostly. About a month after she left I received divorce papers in which she asked for damn little. Turned out the guy owned more oil wells than I had fingers.
So, I sat at the small table at the Silver Dollar thinking that maybe love wasn't all it was cracked up to be. When I first started coming here I'd picked up a few girls for one-nighters – I wasn't in any hurry for an ongoing relationship. After a few weeks of that I gave it up ... the emotional turmoil didn't seem worth the sometimes dubious reward.
After that, I just came for a few dances if someone caught my fancy – or I hers. I stayed away from the slow songs and made sure to escort each girl back to her table after one dance. I did like listening to the bands; they generally were quite good. I paced myself on the beer, maybe one every forty-five minutes or so. I got in the habit of peeling the labels off the bottles until one of the bar girls hinted that if I was going to keep making a mess on the table that maybe I should tip a little more.
For a few weeks – especially when I saw a girl that through her posture, her voice, her hair or something made me think of Holly - I'd try to analyze what had gone wrong. I finally conceded that maybe it was partly my fault with all the travel I'd been doing or maybe even it was no one's fault – it just damn well happened and so damn what?
I snapped out of it when a girl walked over and stood next to me. She looked down and finally asked, "Big Jim, you really don't remember me, do you?"
Well, it had been a long time since anyone not connected with the rodeo business had called me Big Jim, so I looked a little closer. I saw a gal about my age, mid-thirties, long blond hair and just shy of voluptuous. She was certainly nothing close to what I would call chubby but I sensed that under that tight red cowgirl shirt and those even tighter fashionably faded blue jeans there just might be a few curves on her curves.
I looked closer at her eyes, and was immediately transported back to my sixteenth year in the hayloft of Kelly Jensen's barn where we'd mutually taken each other's virginity. I remembered a beanpole skinny girl with the most brilliant cornflower blue eyes. They were of an intensity that had sucked that life out of an equally skinny kid that happened to be a foot taller than her. After that, we had dated through the rest of our sophomore year then her dad had died and her mom and two sisters had moved to Corpus Christi to live with her grandparents.
"Kelly? Kelly Jensen? That can't be you, but those eyes..."
She laughed, "Yeah, it's me. I've been trying to get up the courage to come over. I don't know why I was hesitant but seeing you sitting here looking a little on the blue side of lonesome made me hold back."
Remembering some semblance of manners, I jumped up and pulled out the other chair. "Sit down; please sit. Can I get you a drink?"
She nodded at my beer and I held it up so Mary, the bartender, could see it. I sat back down and stared at Kelly.
"So, damn, it's you, Kelly." I always was real smooth with the girls. "So tell me, what happened to you? Last I heard you were down Corpus way."
"Well, I was. Then I went up to Austin to school and met a real nice boy. He was from over to Medina, just west of here. We got married when we graduated and he took over his dad's feed business and helped on his dad's farm. We had a little boy and two years later a little girl."
She looked down to check the shine on her Justin's but I knew it was more than that.
She continued, "Then one night he was coming home a big semi with a load of hay blew a tire and hit him head on." With a tear in her eye, she added, "Damn it all – it was so quick. He was there one day and then ... gone. I never got to say goodbye to him. I took over the business – I had been doing the paperwork anyway – and I still run it.
"I've taken it pretty hard. That was five years ago and it's just been the last couple of months that I've started going out. So far it's only been with my best friend from high school – you remember Julie Garner, don't you?" At my nod she went on, "I haven't actually had a date so far. But it's good for me to get out and I do like the music and dancing."
The band had just started a new set after its first break, so I stood and offered her my hand. She looked a bit surprised but then smiled and put her arms out. They played a couple of two step dances and segued into a waltz. I started to walk her back to the table but she pulled back on my hand and put her arms around my neck.
We danced slowly for a bit then she whispered in my ear, "Do you remember that first time in my dad's barn? I was so skinny that I was afraid you would laugh at how thin I was."
"Well, if you remember, I was just as skinny as you were." We both laughed at that.
She whispered again, "I haven't been with a man since Gary died."
Startled, I stopped dancing and looked at her. She blushed furiously and said, "Damn! I didn't say that out loud, did I. Tell me I didn't!"
I started dancing with her again and looked over at the band, "No, I didn't hear anything. I think the bass player missed a chord and that's what startled me – he is usually spot on."
We danced a couple more numbers then went back to the table. We chatted for a minute then a tall redhead I recognized at once came up. I rose up and asked, "You must be Julie, right?"
"Yeah. Big Jim, isn't it? I saw you over at the lunch counter a couple weeks ago. I recognized you right off but I was with someone." She turned to Kelly, "You ready to go? I have to do inventory at the store tomorrow so I've got to take off."
I was just going to offer to take Kelly home when she pulled out her chair, "Thanks for the dances." She leaned a little closer, and said softly, "And thanks for the other."
She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and was gone. I realized I'd never told her about Holly and she probably thought I was married. Well, it was probably for the best ... I really wasn't looking for any entanglements.
The next morning, Sunday, I walked over to the ranch and let mom fix me breakfast. Our house was about a quarter mile back from the highway and the veterinary building. It was a nice breakfast of ham steak, eggs and some left over cornbread she had. I'd told her about Holly and she hadn't said too much. She was never one to meddle. But, I knew she would always be there for me whenever I needed it.
I drove down to King Ranch to look at a couple of bulls for adding to my breeding stock the next day and wound up staying a week. They were hell on wheels for hospitality. I went hunting several times with them and took back a couple of Rio Grande turkeys they dressed and froze for me. They were a little overstocked on bulls and had done business with my dad for years so I left with the bulls at a much lower price than I had expected I would have to pay.
Driving back, I found my thoughts wandering back to Kelly more frequently than I would have believed. The next Friday I went back to the Silver Dollar and saw Kelly sitting with Julie and two men I didn't know. I wasn't sure which one she was with. When I started to walk by Kelly stood up.
"Jim, come sit with us?"
I noticed the man gave her a dirty look but he didn't say anything. "Jim, this is ... I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
"Lowell." He said that a bit testy, like he had said it several times already.
"Anyway, Jim, this is Lowell. Lowell, this is Jim, my fiancé. Jim, why are you so late? You know we have a dinner reservation in a half-hour."
I looked at her with my right eyebrow raised a little when she smiled at me and jumped up, took my hand, and said, "Let's dance. We can get in a couple of dances before we have to leave."
I took her hand and walked her out to the floor. I didn't say anything but finally had to ask, "Fiancé?"
She smothered a giggle with her hand, "That guy has been pestering me all night. He thinks he's God's gift to women but I think he's a creep. You came just in time. Maybe I should get a ring I can flash."
"Okay, I guess we should go to dinner."
"Oh, Jim. You don't have to do that. Just give me a ride home."
"What? Being your fiancé doesn't even rate me a dinner?"
She smiled and said, "Well, you don't have to, but it would be nice."
After several dances, I took her back to the table. I shook hands with Julie and then with Lowell. At six four with a couple of inches of boot heel I can be intimidating. I told Lowell not to bother to get up and leaned into the handshake. He didn't exactly squeal but he did turn an interesting shade of white.
I drove to a steak house that was small and intimate. Around here, everyone fixed great steaks so I was looking more for the atmosphere. When we were seated, I asked her, "So, do you want a long engagement or a short one." I figured I'd yank her chain a bit for springing that on me.
"Thanks for being a good sport about it, Jim. I really didn't know what to do with that guy."
Trying to look as serious as I could, I asked, "What do you mean about being a good sport. Are you saying you didn't mean it about being engaged? You wouldn't do that to a guy that has always loved you, would you?"
As I said that, I realized it was somewhat true. I'd really liked her in school but one day she was just ... gone. I'd never had any closure on it.
"But, Jim! I was just ... I mean ... didn't you ... oh, Jim. I thought you were married to that - Holly something, wasn't it?"
Well, that popped my bubble. I deflated as quickly as a blown out tire. "Yeah, Holly. I'm sorry; I was just teasing you about the engagement thing." I gave a deep sigh and looked at anything but Kelly. "We broke up a few months ago – although to be precise I'd say she broke up with me. I'd rather not go into it now, if that's okay."
She looked sad and put her hand on mine, "Sure, Jim. I understand."
"The divorce won't be final for a couple of months. Maybe we should have a party then and celebrate," I said with some sarcasm.
"Jim, don't be cynical. I know it's hard but I understand what loneliness is all about."
She had a tear in her eye as she said that but the waiter bringing our wine saved us. After that, we both tried to be upbeat and kept it light. The dinner was good and afterwards I drove her home. She lived on a small ranch west of town not too far from where my parents lived. As we drove past the vet building, she made the connection.
"That's where you used to live, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Well, actually I still do. I live in the apartment in the vet building."
"Gosh, we're practically neighbors. The Adams family lives next to me about a quarter mile and their daughter Katie babysits for me when needed. My daughter Annie is eight and my son Timmy is six."
I pulled up in front of her house and offered to drive her babysitter home.
"Okay, come on in and I'll introduce you."
Since it was not too late, the kids were still up so I got the introduction to all three of them. Annie was a skinny replica of her mother from when she was young and Timmy was stocky and looked like a promising athlete. I had a cup of coffee while Katie Adams gathered her homework.
I was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek and a quick whispered, "Thanks for helping me out and being my fiancé for a night."
I dropped Mary off and drove the short two miles back to my place. I saw the lights were still on, so I went back and had a beer with my dad and talked business. He had retired but couldn't stay out of it. I didn't mind since he knew more about the breeding business than I ever would.
The next week I called Kelly to go dancing again, "If I'm there with you, you won't have to fight off Lowell."
She laughed at that but agreed to go with me. We both had a lot of fun and laughed frequently. A couple of times I noticed she seemed a bit wistful, like she felt guilty for enjoying herself. I understood and didn't say anything.
The evening was marred only by an ugly incident. I'd gone back to the restroom and when I got back, a drunken Lowell was there, jerking on Kelly's arm insisting she dance with him. He was a mean drunk. I felt like beating the crap out of him but I had been around the block enough times to know that wasn't the best way. I twisted his arm up around his back and called over to Mary behind the bar to get the bouncer.
Lowell was taken away screaming, "I'll get you, goddamn stuck up bitch."
After that, Kelly wanted to be taken home right away. I could tell it really upset her. When we got to her house I offered to come in for a while, but she said, "No, I just want to be with my kids for now. Could you take Katie home for me?"
I had her wait for a minute while I wrote my home and cell numbers for her. "Please call me immediately if you have any problems with that asshole again."
Sunday morning she called and invited me over for dinner. "It's just fried chicken and mashed potatoes. That what the kids like."
The dinner was quite good. Annie was very shy but Timmy was just the opposite. He was very mature for his age and had a self-confidence that belied his age. Both were very polite and as nice kids as you could find.