As the Rodeo Swooners built toward their encore, Lester Booth tried to figure how many girls he’d laid. The thought would occur to him off and on when he was on the road. If he laid all of them head to toe, how far would they stretch? One mile? Three? He tried to bring himself back to the music, lest he mix up the lyrics.
The Rodeo Swooners were a honky tonk band, and they led honky tonk lives. Carl Sanders, the lead guitarist, was a functioning heroin addict. He’d played guitar to feed his habit for nearly 20 years, and his arms were covered with tattoos to hide his tracks. Billy Sniff on pedal steel drank. He was just 32, but looked fifty-five. The drummer, Johnny Strike, smoked a quarter pound of grass each month. It was a wonder to Lester that he could still keep time. Jimmy Cox, the bass player, had been a gambler. He lost his home, then his wife. More recently he’d given up horses for religion. Lester stayed clear of booze and dope. He had women to keep him occupied.
The opening stanzas of “You’re Just a Flower” crescendoed. Sniff shot the pedal steel up to a high C and slowly crept down in triplets to the D. Sanders joined him on the triplets, bending the first note of each set, complimenting the pedal steel’s vibrato. At a glance from Lester the rhythm section joined in a lilting waltz beat. Lester joined in, slowly strumming out time on his black Ovation as he stepped to the microphone. “You’re Just A Flower” was on the country charts a few years back, cracking the top ten for three weeks running. It was the first and only hit the Swooners had ever enjoyed. As the country craze swept the nation, Lester watched performers with half the Swooner’s talent rise to stardom. The Swooners seemed destined to obscurity, but their small following, owning more to relentless touring than to radio play, was enough to fill the roadhouses they played across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee.
“All the girls, all the girls,” Lester thought as Carl took the solo between the chorus and the second verse. Carl gripped the upper frets of his Telecaster, tucked his pick in the crotch of his thumb and brushed the strings quickly with his fingernails to make a mandolin-like sound, so high and pensive that Lester closed his eyes and sighed. There had been black-haired ones and brown-haired ones, blondes and redheads, a few with rainbow-dyed mohawks and more than one blue-haired grandma. Girls with huge breasts and little flat-chested ones who he thought he’d bust right through. A few were pretty and most were not. That didn’t matter to Lester. It was only for a night, and he made that clear enough. He was a single man out on the road and there was no room for a steady woman. Some thought they could tame the Rodeo Swooner, but it never happened. If a woman tried to give him things or tell how her daddy had balled her when she was eight, Lester stopped listening or excused himself to go to the bathroom. He couldn’t cope with attachment. He was committed to an independent life.
Lester Booth was not a handsome man, but there was something about his eyes that women found appealing. They were large and glistening and bore a look of sadness and longing. The qualities of his best songs. Lester never approached women when he stepped off the stage toward the dressing room or the bar for a shot of Wild Turkey and a long-necked Bud. They always came to him. That was one of his rules. Only go with a woman who comes on to you. They want it, they’re asking for it, and they only get what’s coming to them. There was no guilt, no longing. Lester needed to be wanted, but was determined not to want.
A number of lovers and lovers-to-be clung to each other on the dance floor, enough to show that “You’re Just A Flower” was worth postponing love-making for another five minutes. When the song ended with a sweet pedal slide back up to the C, a few couples continued to sway, lost in reveries of the song and what the night might hold. With their garish urban cowboy clothing, they resembled wilting tropical plants in the smoky, dim light of the bar.
Lester slowly bowed to the crowd as the other Rodeo Swooners straggled off the stage. The bow was Porter’s cue to come on. A year before a friend of Lester’s in Oklahoma City had introduced him to Porter. He was a hunchback with thick black hair and one eyebrow that stretched across his forehead to give his face a permanent scowl. Porter was less than five feet tall, hunched over as he was, but his bowed arms and legs were powerful. “Porter here,” the friend said, slapping Porter’s bunch, “would like to see some of the country. Been in Oklahoma all his life. You Swooners──you and Sanders, anyway──are getting a little old to be toddling back and forth across the dustbowl. You might save yourself a few years, were you to get someone to lug your gear around. Porter’s got a fine ear for music. He’s strong as an ox, and he’ll work for next to nothing.” Lester knew his friend had good judgment──better than his own, at least──and he’d absorb Porter’s salary from his own cut of the take to be rid of all the hauling. That was too much like the wildcat oil work his father had done. He and Porter quickly came to terms; Porter would room with Jimmy Cox, take his meals with the band and be paid $125 a week. As an afterthought, he gave Porter the title of Equipment Manager.
Porter did his job well, and he minded his own business. He got the Swooner’s equipment on stage and off and kept Lester’s stage guitar polished and in tune. Moreover, he seemed to genuinely appreciate the Swooner’s music, more so at times than the words or the band itself. He would stare off at nothing as they played with a dreamy expression that gave his ever-scowling face a look of peace. After an exceptional performance he would shake each musician’s hand as they left the stage. When Lester approached, he would get up on his toes and whisper “Such pretty flowers” in Lester’s ear. Lester would think of Porter’s praise some nights, particularly after a good lay. He wanted to believe he had another ‘Pretty Flower’ inside of him, another shot at the big time.
After a bad gig, Porter would skulk around behind the speakers, waiting for the band to leave the stage before taking down the equipment. It was as if he were embarrassed for the Rodeo Swooners and didn’t want them to see him that way.
Porter was at the edge of the stage to meet the band as they hobbled off. He vigorously shook Sander’s hand, then Strike’s and Sniff’s and Billy Cox’s hands. The Swooners were indifferent to his congratulations, as they were indifferent to their performances. It was a job, like selling insurance or assembling toasters. When Lester approached, Porter clutched his hand. Instead of the customary “Pretty flowers,” he said, “My little sister is here tonight. She’d like to meet the Rodeo Swooner.” Lester was exhausted. He found it hard to breathe in the smokey bar. He just wanted a quick beer and to go to sleep. Alone. But Porter had been a good worker. He owed Porter that much.
“Love to meet her, Porter,” he said, glancing at a cluster of fringe-vested honky-tonkers, the kind of chain-smoking middle-aged women that talked him up and bedded him down after gigs.
“Good,” Porter said. He led Lester by the women to a small table at the back of the bar. There sat a young woman with big soft brown eyes and black hair that hung to her shoulders in tight curls. There was a gypsy look about her, Lester thought. She was cuter than he expected any sister of Porter’s to be.
“This is Alex,” Porter said. “It’s short for Alexis.” Alex said, “Pleased to meet you,” and stretched out her hand. Lester smiled and said, “Same here.” Her hand was soft as he took it in his. Before Lester could excuse himself, Porter was gone. There was nothing to do but sit down.
“I have your record,” Alex said, looking steadily into Lester’s eyes. “The one with ‘You’re Just A Flower’. It’s my favorite song.” Seeing that Alex was Porter’s sister, this was no great surprise. He smiled. It made him happy to hear that someone liked his songs.
“I’m glad you like it. I think it’s my favorite too.” He added, “Though I always hope the next song will be my favorite.”
“Have you been writing lots of songs?” Alex asked as Porter returned. He carried a beer for Lester and a glass of rose wine for his sister. “I’m gonna start taking things down,” he said, looking back at the stage. “Behave yourselves,” he said, winking at Lester.
“When I get the chance,” Lester said, waving at Porter. He began to forget he was tired. Exhaustion gave way to a quiet sense of relaxation. He took a long drink from his long-neck and Alex daintily sipped her wine. There was no tension here with Alex, no anticipation. Porter’s little sister could have been his little sister. It was a novel way of seeing a woman, and Lester found it safe and pleasing. He felt expansive.
“So you been running around Oklahoma City a long time?” he asked, tilting the beer back and leaning back in his chair. Alex looked away, then smiled.
“All my life. Went to Houston once and Memphis once, but that’s it. Always wanted to go to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry.” She took a sip of wine. “Rodeo Swooners ever play the Opry?”
Lester hesitated. Had it been someone else, he might have said what she wanted to hear. But there was nothing to gain with Alex, no intrigue. “When ‘You’re Just A Flower’ was on the charts, they invited us to play. It was short notice, and we were way out in Austin with another gig.” Lester took another draw on his beer and looked off toward the bar. “I was all for heading back, but the other guys said it was too much. Would’ve had to drive all night. Plane fare would’ve busted us.” He drank off the beer and set it down on the table. “The Grand Ole Opry doesn’t ask you twice. It could’ve been our big break. We were thinking too small.”
Alex put her hand over his. “I’m sorry,” she said. Lester cleared his throat and smiled. “It’s nothing. I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Alex sipped her wine and a few drops dribbled down her chin. She wiped it away with her hand. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Do you think──I mean, would you mind walking me home? They’re so many crazy people around. Even in Oklahoma City. Would that be alright?” Lester looked around the club. It was deserted. He hadn’t realized how late it was. The honky tonk women and the bartenders were gone. Porter was nowhere to be seen. Only a janitor in a brown jumpsuit was left, and he was looking at Lester like he was the only thing standing between him and a few hours of sleep.
“I didn’t realize,” Lester said, more to himself than to Alex. “I’d be happy to. Let’s go.” Lester got up and began walking for the door at the back of the roadhouse. He looked back when he reached the door. Alex was propped up against the table, fitting a small pair of metal crutches to her arms. Her legs were stunted. She wasn’t more than four feet tall.
“Let me help you,” Lester said, hurrying back to the table.
“I’m okay,” Alex said, gritting her teeth into a smile. “Slow but sure,” she added, dragging her crutches slowly across the floor. Lester adjusted his gait to match hers and held the door for Alex as they left the club. “Some girls don’t like to have the door held for them,” she said. “But I don’t mind. Especially if it’s by the Rodeo Swooner!” She laughed.
Lester was thinking about Alex’s legs. They were like twigs sticking out from below her flower print dress. Next to nothing, he thought. It’s a wonder they can support her at all. Porter had a hunched back, Alex had withered up legs. It was a shame. Quite a hardship for their parents. Two freaks.
Alex read his thoughts. “My legs were bad when I was born. They just came out that way. My parents took me to doctors. Physical therapists. There wasn’t much that could be done. The physical therapists showed me how to walk with crutches. And how I could strengthen my arms so I wouldn’t get tired as easily. See? “ She held out her right arm and made a muscle and motioned for him to feel it. Lester reached down and took it in his hand. The arm was thin, but she had a solid little bicep. He closed his hand around it and squeezed. It felt good to hold on to that little knot of muscle as they walked along. Lester could hardly wait to tell Porter how well he and Alex had gotten along. Like brother and sister.
They walked on for a few blocks. Alex turned into a short cul de sac and pointed to a small, single-storey cottage halfway down. “That’s it,” she said. They walked to the door on a concrete path through yard high grass. Lester took his hat in hand and turned to plant a kiss on her forehead──the way he pictured a father kissing his daughter at bedtime. Alex turned away. “Could you come in? Just for a second?” She peeked up at Lester. “I have an old guitar. It’s so beaten up, it’s out of tune. I can’t make any sense of it. Could you….”
“Sure, sure,” Lester said, shading his face with his hat to hide a smile. The picture of Alex strumming a guitar struck him funny. After all, a regular guitar was nearly as tall as her (she?). He thought of a movie he’d seen once where a little girl runs downstairs on Christmas morning and opens a big box and pulls out a guitar. It’s taller than she is, but she sits right down under the tree and starts strumming away. She’s making a helluva racket, but her father and mother are there with a home movie camera recording it for eternity (posterity?).
Alex opened the door to a tiny living room. There was an old sofa against one wall, a chair and desk against another, and a big heavy wooden coffee table in the center. The table was littered with music magazines. Some were fan magazines, the kind with lots of gossip and glossy pictures. There were also trade magazines, the kind working musicians might read on the road. There was a Grand Ole Opry clock over the desk and magazine pictures of singers scotch-taped to the wall over the sofa; a Patsy Kline, a couple of Tammy Wynette’s, a Kris Kristofferson and one of the Rodeo Swooners. Lester wondered if she had taped that one up earlier in the evening on the chance that he and Porter would visit. In the corner, next to a stainless steel walker, was the guitar. It was a child’s guitar, not much bigger than a ukelele. It had nylon strings and plastic tuning pegs. The kind of guitar someone would buy for a son or daughter on a whim or when they insist on having a guitar, but the parent doubts they’ll stick with it. Lester walked over and picked it up. He let his hand fall across the strings. It had a hollow sound, but wasn’t badly out of tune. The top E string was just a mite flat. Poor Alex! She couldn’t even tell if her guitar was in tune or not.
Alex leaned on her crutches in the middle of the room as Lester fiddled with the E string. “Now that you got that guitar in your hands, why don’t you play me a song?”
Lester laughed. “Come on Alex! It’s been a long night of singing already. What about the neighbors?” Lester glanced at his picture, then over to the clock. “Lord!” he said. “It’s nearly 3 o’clock. And we’ve got to be on the bus by nine to make Memphis for tomorrow’s show.”
“Please Lester,” Alex said, her voice catching slightly. “Just one song. Just ‘You’re Just A Flower.’ Just for me?” She toddled on her crutches. Her eyes were bright, glistening. Lester thought she might cry. He didn’t want the evening to end like that. What would Porter think if the Rodeo Swooner made his little sister cry?
Lester closed his eyes and cradled Alex’s guitar against his thigh. He slowly strummed the chords. “This guitar’s never sounded so good,” he thought as he crooned the opening chorus. “You’re just a flower, a gift of the spring/I want your love more than anything.” As he worked through the bridge to the first verse, he heard a sharp metallic crash. He opened his eyes to see Alex’s crutches splayed out on the floor at right angles. She was moving across the floor with tiny, wobbling steps. Lester thought she would fall. Her eyes were bulging, her mouth wide open, gulping for breath. It occurred to Lester that Alex could be having a heart attack. As she reached him, the look on her face became clearer.
“Don’t stop singing,” she said, fixing her little hands firmly on his belt. A wave of electricity passed through Lester. The guitar fell to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, blushing red. “I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t stop singing,” Alex repeated, fumbling with Lester’s belt buckle, a turquoise and silver number fashioned in the shape of a bucking bull. The buckle and belt joined the braces and the guitar. Lester’s head swam. “I’ve got to go,” he started, but his speech trailed off. The Grand Ole Opry, Tammy Wynette and his own image swirled before his eyes as Alex pulled him down, down in her arms, to her crumpled legs, to her dream of becoming the Rodeo Swooner’s lover.