Short Story Friday

First Love

by Braden Davis

Seth was just slipping through Tucson, the borrowed Dodge pickup purring smoothly through the light traffic, when the horse on the Marlboro billboard winked at him. The Texas Tornadoes were waltzing through the stereo, the winter night just cool enough for the heater, and the moon round and bright behind the sparse Tucson skyline. The billboard sat tall on the right side of a slow bend in on I-10 and Seth had time to look at it for several seconds. About three hundred yards away the horse blinked his only visible eye and Seth opened both of his a bit wider while he smiled and said to himself, “looked like that horse just winked at me.” He watched the chestnut horse with the wild, flared nostrils, as he kept the Dodge humming between white lines and just as he was passing the billboard, the horse seemed to wink again.

“What the,” Seth began. His foot eased off the gas and he checked his rearview, seeing only the dark back of the big sign.

The Dodge moved on its own into the slow lane. Seth corrected with a slight jerk and kept the vehicle from moving onto the shoulder. He turned down the stereo. He always turned down the stereo when he needed to think. Tori hated that.

He looked at digital clock on the stereo, still flashing 12:00. Broken or just needing to be reset, he didn’t know, but it couldn’t be much past 10. Seth let the pickup continue its rightward pull and eased into the upcoming exit. “What the hell,” he thought. “Could use some caffeine anyway.”

A flashing white rectangle begged his attention to the right. El Conejo Lounge. Seth revised his plan and immediately visualized the next several hours. Soda, Beer, then tequila, in that order. It had been almost three years. He’d quit for Tori. Now Tori was in Houston. What the hell was the point? Somewhere down deep inside himself he felt he’d break down this trip. He’d thought he’d get farther than Tucson. Las Cruces, maybe, or somewhere in Texas. He imagined a little dive bar in a dusty Texas town. Somewhere close enough so that when he showed up at her mom’s she’d be able to still smell the booze. Give her an excuse not to come back. Here’s your damned truck.

But the winking horse beckoned a quick exit, not ninety-nine miles into the long trip. And the Dodge idled in park outside the painted brick building that alternatively glowed violet, white, then back to black, as the flashing sign did its work. Two young Mexican men stood talking outside, propped against a short wooden fence. The Texas Tornadoes dissonant with the heavy bass thumping from the walls of the tavern. Seth turned down the stereo again so the music from the bar would make sense. It didn’t. Loud and out of tune. The kind of bar band that sounded worse the closer you got. Seth put the Dodge in reverse. Bad music gave him a headache. He couldn’t start old bad habits with bad music. He hated bad music. He hated Tori’s music—thumps and frightful whistles, monotonic words he couldn’t understand. It all sounded the same.

He pulled the Dodge back onto the frontage road, intending to climb back onto the freeway. Construction detours confused him a little, and forced him farther down the line. He saw the unlit eastbound entrance sign too late and found himself crawling under the freeway and coming out on a frontage road on the opposite side from where he started. He headed east on the road, figuring to catch the next freeway onramp and get out of the construction mire. The frontage road ended and emptied into a dirt parking lot that sat under the florescent flush of a huge Motel 6 billboard, giving the smattering of cars, trucks and semis a yellowy glow. A square, grey, slump-block building sat on the other end of the lot, the words “Elmer’s Pub” painted blood red on the side. Once again, Seth put the Dodge in park and turned down the stereo. The muffled sound of a bass guitar walked a twelve-bar blues that seemed to bleed through the walls of the bar. It looked much like the other place, but the music was different. Seth’s music. He turned off the engine.

The place seemed more crowded than he could observe from the cars outside. Seth found an empty stool at the end of the long bar, not far from the door and felt his eyes burn as he squinted through the hazy din. That’s something he didn’t miss. A burly, bald man with a salt-and-pepper beard nodded at him and continued filling a handful of mugs with beer from the tap. Across the bar, in the corner, the band finished the blues song. A three-piece, and wow, was the guitar player good. He charged off on a song-ending stinger, wild, intricate and entertaining. Seth tried to watch the guy’s fingers, but he was too far away. Why bother anyway; Seth was just mediocre enough to recognize the people who were really good. The guy finally let go a last note that whined out at the end of a long bend. A few patrons clapped lightly. Oh, what they didn’t know.

A large knuckled hand was suddenly in his face and a deep voice behind it, “Elmer,” the bartender said.

Seth looked up into the man’s coffee eyes and absently offered his hand and they shook. “Seth,” he said.

“Whadya need?” Elmer asked.

Seth squinted, still getting used to the air of his past. Need? A good woman who could stand him, maybe? A good strong drink to make him forget, if only for an evening, the love of his life who did stand him, if only for three years?

Elmer waited, his hairless brows raised.

“Just a Coke.” Seth fished in his front jeans pocket for cash. He put two twenties on the bar. More than he’d need for a soda. He knew that and now Elmer knew that.

The band started again. The guitar guy started it with a whiney bend that sounded like a good steel guitar. How’s he doing that? Seth looked but couldn’t tell. The bass and drum then came in with a slow country shuffle and then the guitar guy was singing “I fall to pieces.” Patsy Cline he’s not. A rough, whiskey voice. Not particularly pleasant but Seth liked the song. At least the guy stayed in tune.

Seth looked around the bar. Locals mostly, it seemed, despite being a stone’s throw from one of the busiest interstates in the country. An older crowd, mostly couples. No one looked under 40 in this place. It felt comfortable even though Seth was a graze under 40 himself, though Tori always said that his tall thin frame made him look older. The place looked old—peeling pale green paint along one cement wall, the other too far away to see in the dark smoky din. The lacquered bar glazed smooth like an old river rock, pitted in places from scattered coins, glasses, and maze of yesterday’s memories. Seth ran his hand across the glassy surface, feeling the imperfections before he could see them, until every finger found a depression to rest within. It had taken Tori three years to find his imperfections. Less time than that, probably, but three years to dig at them until she was sure no amount of digging was going to get them out. The digging just made them deeper and more pronounced. Potholes that you know are there, but still jar you unexpectedly in the worst moments. Tori’s only blemishes, in Seth’s opinion, were her poor taste in music and her damnable ability to find his faults—laser lightening focus. She didn’t even cheat, as beautiful as she was and as many opportunities that probably came her way selling those Scottsdale houses. Seth had asked her if she cheated enough times that she finally said she wished she had. Seth imagined her with that guitar player, dancing near the front of the stage, watching his fingers. No, that didn’t fit Tori. She doesn’t like guitar players.

Elmer worked his way back to the end of the bar, sliding a cold glass of Coke into Seth’s hand and nodding, leaving the money on the bar.

“First one on me,” Elmer said, moving to fill a shot.

“Now you tell me.” Seth smiled. “I should have ordered champagne.”

Elmer grinned back, an eye tooth missing. “Then I wouldn’t have told ya.”

The band finished the Patsy Cline and moved right into “Six Days on the Road” without more than a hiccup of dead air. Several patrons whooped and the small dance floor filled quickly. Clearly, a crowd favorite.

Elmer moved back to Seth’s end of the bar, leaning on his elbows as if to take advantage of the brief respite. “Where you from?” he asked Seth without looking at him.

“I’m coming from the Phoenix area. Just driving through,” Seth answered, watching a stout, stiff legged man whirl a freckled blonde in a short denim skirt through a jitterbug, thinking the girl looked a little bit like Tori. A little bit.

“What made you stop here? Our reputation for free soda pop?”

Seth chuckled, “Yeah, that and the horse.” He took a long drink of the cold soda, still watching the girl move. Nice legs, curvy, a good dancer.

“What horse?”

Seth lost the denim skirt in the crowd. “The Marlboro horse.” That still seemed pretty weird when he let himself think about it, which he hadn’t. “The horse on the billboard just before the exit. It looked like it winked at me.”

“Sounds like you got a head start on your night before you even got here.” Elmer seemed to eye him a little closer.

Seth stopped looking for the blonde to dance back into his view and looked directly at the bartender. “Elmer, I haven’t had a drink in exactly two years, ten months and fifteen days.”

Elmer took the two twenties on the bar in front of Seth, folded them twice then stuffed them into the one front pocket of Ed’s white oxford shirt. “Then Cokes are on me until you leave.” He took Seth’s half-filled glass and topped it. “Where you headed?”

The blonde and her partner were back in view now and the guitar player was singing about how it’s been about a week since he’d kissed his baby goodbye. “I’m going to Texas.” He hadn’t kissed Tori in at least a month.

“Why you wanna go to Texas?” Elmer asked.

“Ah, my wife,” Seth answered. Maybe she was still his wife. He wasn’t sure.

“Then you don’t need to flirt with that gal you’ve had your eye on.”

“What?” The blonde twirled and kicked up one leg and he found himself watching again. “She looks a little like my wife, that’s all.”

Elmer grunted.

The guitar player launched into his second solo of the song—a spectacular frenetic fall that started high on the neck and brought the band back down to one last chorus. “Who IS this guy?” Seth asked.

Elmer looked toward the band and scratched at his graying beard. “That’s Guitar George.”

“He knows all the chords?” Seth asked, chuckling as he finishing the classic Dire Straits line.

“He’s my therapist and savior,” Elmer said.

“What do you mean by that?” Seth asked.

Elmer smiled and spread his long arms out as the song ended to loud applause and the crowd milled back with renewed thirsts. “You should meet him. Tell him about your horse.”

“Thanks folks,” George muttered into the microphone. “We’re gonna take a little pause for the cause. Back in a few.” He unstrapped the lime green Fender and leaned it against his amp.

Music started up through the band’s P.A., but it was too soft for Seth to make out clearly. The bar filled quickly and Elmer poured drinks and filled mugs, moving like a large cat. He filled up a large glass of what looked like orange juice and slid it toward the end of the bar in Seth’s direction.

“Thanks, amigo” George said as slipped beside Seth and collected his drink.

Seth turned to look at the guitar player, watching him guzzle the orange drink, noticing his thin, dry, talented, fingers, a cigarette burning between two of them, fitting in like an extra digit.

“I sure enjoyed your playing,” Seth said.

George stopped drinking and squinted toward Seth. “Thanks, man. Glad you like it.”

“I used to play a little myself, nothing like you. But enough to know that you’re something special.”

“Thanks, man.” George finished the drink, took a long drag on his cigarette, and slid the glass back toward Elmer who caught it with his right hand as he continued to fill tap beers with his left and nod at a older woman in a pony-tail leaning across the bar giving drink orders. Elmer pulled a carton of orange juice from under the bar, refilled George’s glass and slid it back his way.

George caught the glass again and tipped it toward Seth. “What kind of axe you got, man?”

“Me? Well, I used to have a Strat, pre-CBS, American made.”

“Used ta?” George asked. “What happened to it?”

Seth went into his familiar line, “Ah, the wife made me sell all my good toys.”

George shook his head as he squinted through the smoke around his face. “Crying shame, man.”

Crying shame that the fifteen hundred dollars he got for it—probably half the true value—was mostly used to pay Tori’s little sister to house sit and take care of her King Charles Spaniel while they took that stupid trip to San Francisco. A thousand bucks for a dog walker.

“That’s a ’68 Strat up there I’m banging on,” George said. “You wanna play it?”

Seth chuckled into his Coke. “What?”

George took another drink of his orange juice. “You don’t lose a guitar like that and not lose something inside you, man.” He took another drag from his cigarette and offered his hand. “I’m George.”

“Seth.” George’s hand felt rough, dry, and prickly like tree bark. “But, I can’t play your guitar.”

“Man, it’s like swimming.” George made a motion with both hands in front of his face, one holding the glass of juice, the other holding the cigarette. “The bike will move, man, you just have to jump in the stream.”

Seth chuckled at the mixed metaphors as Elmer put another Coke in front of him and nodded.

“Tell him about your horse,” Elmer said, before moving away to fill more orders.

George swung the cigarette hand in a wide arc, bumping Seth’s arm and dropping ash on his shirtsleeve. “Music is inside you, man. Just gotta jump back in and see where the river takes you.”

Most rivers he’s been in lead downhill, Seth thought. Fast, like waterfalls. He wondered what kind of rapids and rocks were waiting in Texas. Seth brushed at the fallen ash on his shirt and watched it disintegrate and disappear, leaving a freckled pale gray stain that would probably never go away.

George wrapped an arm around Seth’s shoulder and pulled him away from the bar and away from his thoughts of Tori. “Let’s go swimming, man.”

Seth protested as George led him through the crowd; most seemed oblivious, but two guys stood up from a small round table near the bandstand as they approached. The tall, dark-haired one looked like the bass player he’d seen earlier, though he seemed much younger than Seth would have guessed from a distance. The shorter, stockier man moved behind the drums.

“Really, George. I’m just a hack. I can’t play your guitar,” Seth said.

“Then let it play you, man.” George nodded at his band mates as he stepped up on the short stage, picked up his lime-green Fender Stratocaster and handed it to Seth. George reached behind his amp and retrieved a bright orange Fender Telecaster. “I’ll play the Tele.”

Seth held the Strat in his hands. It felt warm and alive, but the green paint on the body looked odd, uneven, and out of place, like a saguaro cactus in Houston.

“Painted it myself,” George said. “The Tele too.” He seemed proud of this? Probably lowered the value by half, in Seth’s opinion. He knew he was thinking like Tori. Practical. Purposeful. What did she call it? Pragmatic.

The bass player clucked his lips as he picked up a shiny, black Peavey five-string. “You should see what he did to his Martin acoustic.”

“Hot pink?” Seth asked.

The bass player and drummer laughed aloud. “Where’d you get this guy?” the drummer asked.

George threw the leather strap around his shoulder and hooked it to the Tele’s body in one seamless, smooth motion. Guitar George. He turned his ear toward the hollow body of the Telecaster and checked the tuning, adjusting the B-string slightly. He nodded to Seth. “You’re wireless, man, so jump in.”

Seth had the strap around his shoulders and his fingers on the buttery, rosewood fret board before he realized what he was doing. He couldn’t sit in with these guys. This was crazy. But he made the short step up to the bandstand and slipped between George and the bass man, feeling the hum of the amp tingle his skin as he held the lost friend in his hands. He felt fuzzy and happy, the foreboding Texas doom fading in the smoky haze of the bar.

George turned a knob and the music through the speakers disappeared. Another knob and the electricity of the stage heightened. Seth could see several bar patrons look toward the stage. George looked at the bass player and held up four fingers. He turned to the drummer and said, “a little 12-bar boogie.”

Seth looked at the bass player and whispered, “what are you playing?”

“I don’t know which song,” the bass man replied, “but four fingers up means it’s in E. Four sharps. Fingers up are sharps, down are flats.”
Seth felt confused, but he knew E. His fingers formed an open E chord on the Strat, waiting. Waiting for what? The next three minutes of his life held as much uncertainty as the last three years.

George leaned into his microphone as it crackled to life. “Like to introduce my friend, Ed.” A few people clapped lightly. “Just another cowboy the horse dragged in.”

“It’s Seth,” Seth whispered, but figured nobody cared anyway.

The drummer counted off, “One, two, three…”

The snare drum popped twice at four and then the bass started walking through the E chord as George stamped through a blues riff that sounded a little like Stevie Ray. Seth found a hollow place in their river of sound and strummed through the chord, remembering to dampen the strings with the heel of his right hand so they wouldn’t ring too loud and drown the lead. It seemed to work. It didn’t sound bad. George’s lime green guitar felt fluid and alive, the strings pulsing under Seth’s fingertips, sending a stream of syncopated infatuation through his body. It had been too long.

People shuffled toward the dance floor. They couldn’t resist either.

“Why do I need a woman,” George sang. He really didn’t sing very well, but his rough voice was soulful, more whiskey than orange juice.

“Tell me, why do I need a woman” he sang again, his guitar answering in a bluesy whine.

“Yeah, tell me why why I need a woman,” George grabbed the mic with his right hand, leaving his left to hold and hammer the Tele’s neck. He looked at Seth and winked. “When I got this old guitar.”