The Western Saloon’s half-gate doors swing and creak. The air is powdery with the dust of legends. Dimly at the far end of a very long and empty room loiters the bartend, a middle-aged lady brewmeister who looks like the unsmoked half of a two day old cigarette. Slow country music pumps out of a full-display jukebox, amber and chrome, cradling a burning hell-light within. I get a large scotch straightaway, neat, after a long day of hikes and wildcats. In my palm, too, in the dying light, there’s a crystalline reflection of damnation. I feel the burning tongue of my Unmaker when it goes down like glue from the tube.
Another patron wandered in by the time I was down to my last dreg of firewater, looking like Witch Hazel and bearing a tied-together suitcase, and a second, very small suitcase–or so it appeared to me. She cackled and traded a joke with the crusty barkeep whose costume jewelry was peeling from gold to a chewed-gum color underneath. Hazel put the smaller suitcase up on the bar, and I could see now that it was a dented and travelworn Planet of the Apes lunch box festooned with brocade and appliqué gems. This object caught Hillary’s eye, and she introduced herself with a question about the little box’s manufacture. To me, it was only fit to be a New Orleans’ coffin for the family rat, and any further purpose was stewed hypothesis.
“Oh, I done made this myself,” Hazel reported, her odd eyes filled from corner to corner with solid color. “Look what’s in it!”
What appeared to be a tan handful of religious brochures spilled out onto the bartop. Hillary politely turned one over. “Wim of the West. Seven Poems of Heartache, Bars, & Redemption.” Hillary looked at me over her shoulder, “Gregg, I knew you’d like this place.” I ordered another round all round. “I’m Wim,” Hazel said with a broad wink of her strange eyes.
Hillary unloaded all of our change into the jukebox, making a run to her truck for the last of the treasure. She punched the numbers for every classic punk cut that she could conjure from “the cloud” that fed our squat bandstand. “Sonic Reducer,” “Gimmie the K-a-s-h,” something from the Saints. Hillary addressed herself to the pulsing light and began a bewitchment of hips and nodded-out head rolls; all her moves were compelling, unique, sassily sexed, with a mighty side of unhinged.
For me, the whole business had a kind of time-machine Doppler effect. I was catapulted back to the dirty punk clubs of the 80s; every individual in clashing gear, and no two faces decorated the same. Every song hit my ears like a drunken bird’s soliloquized invention–half threnody and half fuck-you.
Wim and I debated poetry politely, then angrily, then with hoots of cool laughter as the next round arrived. Wim was persuaded to huff out a few of her lines: “When I was, / a semi-young girl, / I had me / this cowboy….” Her face contracted a moment, then grew sly and happy. “I shoulda called him an Ow-boy! Oh, boy.”
The music wore us down. Wim went back and forth on her barstool, twisting in her fringed leather coat, tight at the armpits, with grinning gaps in the tassels. She tapped her shop-new boots, beaten silver tips and heels that rang like change whanged against a Mercedes when she twirled to show us the Nevada reel. I wound up dancing too, of course, going solo with my wild Indian high-step around the four corners of the pool table.
“Buck it, y’ ol’ white bronco, buck it!”
It was only later, leaning against the pickup’s open door to catch my breath, that I saw, as I strewed my belongings along the narrow bench seat, that on the back of Wim’s pamphlet was a muscular, laconic horse’s ass.