Desert Places, Same Faces & The Finger

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby Raymond Alexander Kukkee  
Writing the Old Way

Writing the Old Way

“That’s it, let’s blame the  weather”, he says. “It was stifling hot.”

In the refractory  heat of any warm August summer night, just out past the dusty, chugging  cement plant and fire-brick  factory on Highway 21,  you’ll find it, a nice cool place in the desert. You have to see it to believe it, but Charlie’s Roadhouse & Emporium  will win you for life.  It has air conditioning.  You might even  become a permanent fixture there, like Grimsby the mailman, you already know him, he keeps  company with old  Charlie and  his orange juice in the back,  their heads close together while they solve the world’s problems.   Charlie owned  the place , but now he just  keeps a close eye on things to make sure it’s being run just right. “ Friends are always welcome at Charlie’s, but if you’re the unfriendly type, the regulars  might encourage  you to stay away or make you wish you were never born” he says. Grimsby nods his head vigorously in agreement . “Don’t kid yourself.  It’s a rough and tumble joint, some might even call it a dive with a diner, cold beer and a great jukebox full of oldies,” he says, “ always was”. “Like you, Grimsby” Louella chimes in from the dining-room door. The two men laugh “It’s Super-Snoopy herself” Grimsby whispers loudly,  “she’s like Patty, she hears everything.” “I heard that, boys!”.  Louella pokes her head around the corner and wags her finger at them. The men shrug and laugh. The building squats firmly on an acre of dusty sand and  has two separate pairs  of identical double-wide entrance doors, fine, strong doors,  albeit  placed a bit strangely, like eyes too close together.  One of the doorways  is chained with two locks and a chain heavy enough to pull a Mack truck. The white stucco on the highway side sits on a  few rows of  red bricks laid with droopy mortar.  Silvered clapboards patiently hold up  the rest of the  place including the flat roof,  a white picket fence and an open-air patio with six red and white umbrellas.  The hot summer wind  carries  the  dust from the desert, but also the giggling, -at  times raucous laughter too,   usually that of the younger set, all the way out to the highway. Everyone notices the artwork    Painted in fluorescent orange right by the entrance door, you can’t miss it, right there on the white stucco – a mural of  a large right hand with one middle finger pointing way up there in the sky.  The regulars don’t have to speculate what the finger is pointing at.   Casual visitors  think it points  out the ‘Moonlight  Gallery’  as it’s called . You can’t miss it.  The mural is 20' high. To enjoy  the full effect  you have to study  it diligently from a distance in the moonlight.   Stand back and ponder the state of the universe and wave at the  girls giggling away up there while you’re at it. “Well, would you look at that, George,  they  made the hand  point up to that sweet  little  patio and antique car!” a little gray-haired lady said only yesterday. “It’s so cute, and a good idea, too!” That attraction was controversial at first, upsetting the ultra- religious as most things do, but it retained some dignity in the fact it  was a door prize in an attendance draw for the Grand Opening.  Second prize was a  steak dinner for two at Charlie’s Dining Haven,  the back dining room  where Louella cooks for anyone brave enough to eat, and it even included  gratuities for Sammie, the pretty   waitress.  For those interested, third prize was two six-packs straight out of the old wooden cooler behind the bar. The Grand Opening draw  was clearly a one-time opportunity for  fame;  create or choose  a one-of-a kind design to be painted  on the front of the roadhouse.  No slap-dash  barn door paint job, it was to be installed gratis by a professional artist, right beside the main entrance- and in the colour of your choice, yet.   A simple hand-drawn facsimile of the proposed artwork was all that was required , graffiti of the offensive kind not allowed either on the drawing or the mural itself. It worked.  Today the slightly faded and- sand-blasted mural shows the winner was  clearly female; not hard to deduce since  the giant fingers also display faded  purple fingernails, something like Louella’s.  Imagine that. Once inside the dark, cool quiet of Charlie’s, if you happen to  comment on the decor,  unique brick job or question the extra doors, don’t  be surprised if the place breaks out in laughter. Everybody shushes  to listen for the answer. It’s a ritual.
 “That brick wall was installed  so careless  folks running late  won’t drive in through the walls to get served”.   The owner always grins sheepishly  when he says that.   Everyone laughs, but cautiously, especially  when they see Louella peeking around the corner from the dining room.
No wonder, Big Jake Butler  was the first and only person to ever drive right up to the bar in  his own tavern  –on the day of the Grand Opening, yet.   His best intention was  to greet the crowd, unlock  the doors  and offer ice cold air conditioning and free beer to all comers, old and new alike.  That took place on a hot August evening a few years back. “That’s it, let’s blame the  weather”, he says.  “ It was stifling hot.” Jake was running  late and driving across the parking lot at excessively  high speed toward the tavern’s front door  trying to be on time and  stay cool too, but  the brakes on his 1976 Gremlin two-door  failed.  He missed the screaming girls in the frightened  lineup that jumped clear of the oncoming traffic, but opened the place in style.  The crowd  clapped and cheered when the car came safely  to a safe but dusty  dead stop just about half way through the wall. Reportedly a  line of mule-skinner invectives emanated from the overheated interior of the Gremlin. Jake couldn’t get out of the car, the doors being blocked by broken boards and such,  and the clapping, whistling, and   cheering got the best of him,   so he offered  a one-finger salute, which started an endless debate as to whether he was  pointing at the Moonlight Gallery, you understand. “Watch out!” he yelled, jamming the stick-shift in reverse and backing  out, smoking the tires.  He honked the horn and revved the engine. “Watch out!”  The women screamed. Dry two-by-fours flew and clapboards crunched and  split as he  drove the Gremlin slowly the rest of  the way through the wall like an International bulldozer. Right  up to the bar he drove,   tables, chairs and accessories being pushed every direction imaginable. He laid on the horn.
 “Beer’s on the house!” he yelled, climbing out and  kicking the front tire of the badly mangled car.   Not minding the fact the entrance door remained locked, his cheering, cooperative customers cleverly and happily   followed him in through the hole in the wall, lining  up for the free beer advertised on the big white  highway banner.   Someone put a quarter in the jukebox, Claude King started to sing,  and the girls started to dance.
“They say don’t go on Wolverton Mountain,   If you’re lookin’ for a wife..... ‘Cause Clifton Clowers has a pretty young daughter....., He’s mighty handy, with a gun and a knife........ Her tender lips,   are sweeter than honey but Wolverton Mountain, protects her there.....” The jukebox wailed forlornly into the night as  Jake clambered busily  back and forth behind the bar, handing out drinks as if nothing happened, just as promised. “I like the door  better here anyway, we’ll fix’er up”   Charlie yelled, inspecting the newly installed  entrance.  “Needed  a fix-up  anyway.” “This place will really be packed tomorrow night” Jake smiled crookedly.  Jake’s  broken smile  reminds us of grim, darker days at the roadhouse when Charlie  was still the owner. He became consumed  in some inexplicable fit of new-found bravery, and refused  the mandatory  protection service offered by the Devil’s Hogs biker gang. Big  Jake’s  first attempt to rescue Charlie  occurred in the ensuing battle  but he met the wrong end of a lead pipe early in the fracas.    He woke up a couple of days later asking if he was dead yet, requiring major jaw surgery including some # 18  wire, screws, and  a new set of teeth. “Am I dead yet?”  Louella laughed. “When the pain-killers wear off you’ll want to be” she said, winking at the doctor.  The cops chained the front door pending the  investigation and the bank double-locked the chain  for unpaid loans; one  four-foot length of  double-link chain with  two big bullet-proof  locks was all it took to keep the place quiet for quite some time, giving Charlie lots of time to reflect.
 You might want to ask about the perfectly restored and shiny 1976 two-door  Gremlin on the roof too;  it  arrived mysteriously on the premises,  hoisted up there  courtesy of Bob’s Crane Service and six hundred dollars donated  by  local merchants.
Reportedly, the old place did undergo renovation only one more time after that.  A handful of the vengeful bikers took on Jake in the worst altercation in the history of the tavern. “Enough is enough!” Jake roared, jumping over the bar savagely as one of the thugs manhandled old Charlie, demanding money. Driven by  revenge  enhanced by a renewed awareness of lead pipes and reinforced with a wired jaw and a lot of  missing teeth,  Jake  wasn’t one to fool with when he declared war, as each of the stud-decorated,  leather-covered Devil’s Hog Riders discovered, much to their dismay. “It was just a rematch” one of the regulars comments.  Jake won, hands down. After all was said and done, the county cops and medics hauled off  no fewer than seven damaged and semi-conscious leather-covered patients,  a baseball bat,  a spiked fighting chain, a pair of brass knuckles , one switchblade, two hunting knives and a pair of bent  lead pipes. The shiny custom-made black ash bat with 4" chromed spikes driven through the business end was especially worthy of note.   Jake said the  Amazon-sized  female of the group always carried it on her Harley for decoration  but insists  she didn’t  hurt a soul in the fracas.  Instead, she came to Jake’s rescue, and right on time, too.  You probably heard of her, - Louella,   she’s Patty Winchester’s sister –she cooks in the dining-room in the back  and still rides a big Harley-Davidson around in the desert on Sundays  too. “I was real lucky she was on my side” Jake recounted.  “ She just kissed me the night before, we were getting along just fine at the time, Louella and me”. Fact was, good thing she had the hots for Jake; for love is a wicked weapon.  A section of broken counter top,  with bat,  chromed spikes and all  - is bolted  securely,   high  up on the wall as a permanent declaration of peace,   a demonstration of their love, and a signatory to their partnership in the Emporium.   The tavern was closed for a few weeks while Jake recovered from a few cuts , and Louella  shipped him down to the tavern to help Charlie. “You get down there and give him a hand fixing things up” she ordered. “I like the dining room, and we owe Charlie for wrecking  the place”. “This here’s my new partner,” Charlie started off easy and winked at Jake. “Now you know how quickly I  got caught up on the payments already,  and  he’ll put his car up for collateral –the insurance company is complaining the  roadhouse ain’t   in any condition to protect their equity adequately, so we need money  for remodeling, we’re even gonna put bricks on front” Charlie said carefully.  The nervous bank manager cleared his throat and nodded, studying  the men sitting on the other side of his polished oak desk. “Sign here” he said, without even blinking.  “You want cash?” It didn’t  take much to figure that one out “You forget about the  loan,  I’ll take care of it”  Jake said as they walked  the door.   Fact was, big-hearted  Jake signed  for the loan all by himself and gave Charlie the cash as a down payment.  With the help of some handy regulars, he and Louella remodeled the broken place in no time, the  few bricks, lumber, paint  and other necessary supplies required  being hastily donated by appreciative merchants freed from desert tyranny. Charlie’s Tavern & Emporium is  a calm,  peaceable establishment now.  It’s  civilized.   “No Preachers, Inebriates, Devil’s Hogs,  or Drugs Allowed”,   the sign says over the bar.    There’s half of an old green canoe complete with a  hand-carved cedar  paddle mounted high on the wall, with Charlie’s name written  on it in bright yellow. A couple of sets of mule deer horns and a saddle  are  mounted up there along with hub caps,  bent motorcycle wheels  and a  collection of studded leather jackets . If you look closely, you’ll see  couple of them are decorated with  nasty  spike holes. “Hot-weather leather” Louella calls it, and winks. One wall is covered with  license plates too.  Jake decided it’s best to let her collect them. “Keeps Louella  calm when she’s not out on the Harley ” he says, smiling at her as he screws yet another out-of-state plate on the rough pine boards. After the big fight Jake hauled a couple of slightly damaged and donated motorbikes  up on the roof too.  They  keep his perfectly restored Gremlin company .  Fact is,  they weren’t good for much else after Patty Winchester drove her old Ford half ton truck over them during the big fight anyway. Charlie’s  is quiet tonight.  “Come see  for yourself. Have a beer.  Try the 6% Canadian.  It’s quite a place. Say hello to Jake and Louella, and don’t forget  Grimsby and Charlie. There are  lots of pictures to look at,  too,  there’s even a picture of  a real  island  down in the Carribean, the one with Nevis Peak.    See?  There’s a picture of the  ‘ Hat Man’,  a.k.a. James Johnson, one  all of our old  friends**.   He told us he used to hike up there.  This place kind of grows memories, doesn’t it? Outside in the warm desert breeze, the  purple-nailed fluorescent orange finger points at the  moon. Glasses clink quietly up on the patio as the drone of a single,  passing motorcycle pauses, then fades into the night. ## * "Wolverton Mountain" is  a song recorded by Claude King (1962  ) ** In memory of the late James Johnson, a smiling, creative writing friend  that lived in the Caribbean.  James, the "Hat man" loved birds, flowers, animals and people, and generously shared his island life with us. He climbed Nevis Peak.    Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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