What's It All About, Johnny Bone?
August 17, 1965
Willow Springs, Texas
The temperature had broken a hundred for twenty-three straight days. A hot south wind stirred up the dust. The sunset grew pink then deepened to blood red, masking the color of the bare red dirt surrounding the Voodoo Hut. The Hut was an illegal honky-tonk just outside Willow Springs which itself was little more than a fork in the road south of Emory. In the late afternoon, the outlaws would drift in looking for cold beer, whiskey and cool, dark comfort.
It was early, so the Hut was nearly empty. Jim Reeves crooned "Adios Amigo" on the jukebox. Alma Parker sat at the table nearest the dance floor. She was twenty-eight, slender, with a modest bosom, a narrow waist and sultry hips. She wore her brown hair in a sun-lightened ponytail.
"You're a fine lookin' woman, Alma." Ray Bob Duke stood smiling, holding a glass of bourbon on chipped ice. He held it casually, like an old girl friend. He had a thick head of coarse, black hair turning gray and blue eyes that never smiled.
Alma looked him up and down and settled her hard brown eyes on his boots. "What are those damn things, snake skin?"
"Hell no. They's lizard." Ray Bob looked down at his boots.
"That's too bad." Alma sipped on a gin and tonic. "I was hopin' they was snake."
"What else you hopin' for, Alma?" Ray Bob was still smiling, but his eyes narrowed. He dropped his cigarette into the sawdust spread across the floor and crushed it out with the heel of his boot.
"Hoping I can find a man that knows what a good woman's worth." Alma fiddled with the silver bangles on her wrist.
"Hell, give me a bad woman every time."
Alma threw her head back and laughed, deep and genuine.
Ray Bob pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, his left side leaning against the table, his legs crossed. His foot bobbed up and down, but in no particular hurry. "What'chu doin' all the way down here?"
Alma gave him a brief, sharp look. "Came down to check on all the outlaws."
Ray Bob smiled wickedly. "This here's a slow night. Won't be no real beatin', cuttin' or shootin' 'til the weekend."
"Hell, I may as well pack up and go." Alma put her cigarettes into her purse.
"Now don't be in such a hurry. Let me buy you a drink and light your cigarette."
"Ain't you chivalrous."
"Hell, didn't you know? I'm an old school southern gentleman, a defender of womanhood in general and motherhood in particular."
Alma laughed again. "I'll just bet you are." She fished out a cigarette.
Ray Bob slipped a Zippo from the pocket of his jeans. He snapped it open and spun the wheel on his thigh in one continuous motion. He held it just far enough away that Alma had to bend forward to get a light. Ray Bob motioned to the bartender. "Hey Eddie." He pointed at Alma's glass. "One more for the lady."
Eddie looked at Ray Bob for a moment.
Ray Bob held up his own glass and nodded.
A couple entered the honky-tonk. The man wore a black cowboy hat, eyes in deep shadow, mouth set in a perpetual, crooked grin. The woman had a pretty face framed in loose, auburn curls.
Ray Bob turned to see who it was. "Johnny Bone, is that you?"
Johnny Bone smiled and stepped to Alma's table.
"Who's that with you? Hey, Carla. Don't you look good." Ray Bob looked up from her white, spaghetti espadrilles and into her unsmiling face as he gave her a predatory smile.
Carla didn't smile back. Nor did she look at Alma.
Ray Bob turned back to Johnny Bone. "How's business?"
"Business is always good," Johnny Bone said through his crooked grin.
"C'mon, lets get a table," Carla said. "I'm thirsty."
"Catch you later," Johnny said. Johnny and Carla sat a few tables away, safely out of earshot, but still in view.
Ray Bob puffed out his cheeks and raised his eyebrows. He exhaled loudly and smiled at Alma.
"Here you go." Eddie placed the drinks on the table. "Tab?"
Ray Bob nodded. "Thanks, Eddie."
Eddie left to wait on Johnny and Carla.
Alma took a long drink. "Who's Johnny Bone?"
"Johnny Boone, people just call him Bone. Business associate from down Nacogdoches way." Ray Bob crunched ice.
Ray Bob dropped his smile and leaned back in his chair. "You know Carla from somewhere?" he asked. "She seemed to know you."
"She seemed to know you." Alma shook her ponytail and looked squarely at Ray Bob.
Ray Bob raised his hands in mock defense. "People think they know me, but they don't know me at all. How about you, Alma? People know you?"
Johnny Bone lit a cigarette and pushed his hat up with an uncalloused index finger. "What's eatin' you?"
"Nothing." Carla lit her own cigarette. The long string of hot days had begun to wear on her patience and shorten her temper.
"I'm glad nothing's eatin' you, 'cause if there was...God-Almighty."
Carla gave Johnny Bone a sharp look. "Ray Bob Duke is a filthy piece of trash." She broke her gaze with Johnny and looked toward the bar.
Johnny Bone raised his eyebrows and canted his head to one side. "You and Ray Bob go back."
Carla squinted her greenish-brown eyes at Johnny Bone. "Is there somethin' you wanna ask?"
Johnny held up his hands. "Hell no, but if there's something you need to get off your chest...so's we can have a pleasant evening...."
"We can have a pleasant evening...somewhere's else."
"Hell, we just ordered drinks." He put a hand on Carla's arm and looked softly at her. "It's just you and me tonight, baby; the rest of the world can go to hell."
Carla put her free hand over Johnny Bone's and smiled at him. Eddie came and left the drinks; each took a long swallow.
"Who's that with Ray Bob anyway?" Johnny Bone threw a glance toward Alma.
Carla threw her head back and sighed. She made a big production out of stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another.
"What'd I say?" Johnny Bone had lost his crooked grin.
"Nothing. That's Alma Parker."
"Who's Alma Parker?"
Carla laughed. It was a light little twitter with a trace of malice in it. "She's Old Tom Parker's daughter. Tom Parker used to be a deputy sheriff in Stone County. Had a nasty reputation." Carla glanced at Alma. "He never made an arrest that didn't result in internal bleedin' and he never ever let anyone off. He had a real stick up his ass."
"Ray Bob may be in over his head."
"He probably is, but not because of old Tom Parker. Old Tom met his maker five or six years ago."
"How'd he go?" Johny Bone threw a glance toward Alma.
"Got hit by a cattle truck while makin' a traffic stop...on 69 just outside of Laba. Had to scrape him up with a spatula."
"Maybe it's poor little Alma that's in over her head."
Carla took a slow drag on her cigarette and blew out a thick stream of blue smoke. Carla's lips shaped themselves into a lazy, wicked smile. "Don't you worry; poor little Alma can take care of herself."
"Sounds like you know her pretty well."
"We went to school together."
"Alma Parker has never had a woman friend in her life."
"I notice your friend keeps glancin' this way." Alma sipped from her drink.
"He's just jealous." Ray Bob sipped his drink.
"He's jealous of you?"
"I'm sittin' here with you, ain't I?"
Alma smiled. "And he's stuck with little old Carla Sawyer who hates your guts."
"You know Carla?"
"I had the misfortune of goin' to school with her. From kindergarten through high school." Alma laughed. "They used to make us take a nap in kindergarten, like a little kid needs a nap at ten in the mornin'. We had these little rugs and we'd lay on the floor. One day we all got up from our nap and there was this little, wet pile of crap on the floor. It had a little curved peak at the top, sort of like the cones you get at the Dairy Queen.
"Well, we all gathered round to get a good look. The general opinion was whoever done it should be sent to the principal's office. Did you ever get sent to the principal's office, Ray Bob?"
Ray Bob laughed and his cold eyes sparkled.
"Well after a few minutes, little Carla Sawyer all meek and sorry confessed to the teacher that it was her. 'I couldn't help it.' That's Carla Sawyer." Alma sipped her drink. "What did you do to her?"
Ray Bob was sucking on a piece of ice and he spit it back into his glass. "What men usually do with women, but she wasn't real good at it so I threw her back...sort of a catch and release thing."
"My, ain't you the sportsman." Alma put another cigarette between her lips and waited as Ray Bob put flame to it. "Carla always had a thing about rejection."
"Ain't that the God's truth."
"Don't be feelin' so high and mighty about yourself, Ray Bob."
Ray Bob raised his fingers in surrender.
"You and your business associates. You think I don't know?"
"There ain't nothin' to know."
"You do a little welding for Johnny Bone? Is that it."
"You know I'm in the weldin' business."
"I hear there's an ole boy who sells meat out of a refrigerated truck. Sets himself up at some crossroads and sells meat outta that truck. You ever wonder where that meat comes from?"
Ray Bob took a drink and sucked on a piece of ice.
"You thinkin' I'm my Daddy's daughter, ain't you."
Over the casual chatter and occasional raised voice, Ernest Tubb began walking the floor.
"I knew this little girl back in Nacogdoches. You wouldn't believe it, but her father was the pastor of the Baptist Church." Johnny Bone spoke through his crooked grin.
"I don't believe it," Carla said it flatly, said it just to annoy. She had finished her drink and was sucking on the ice. "Hey, are you gonna buy me another or read Scripture."
Johnny got Eddie's attention and held up two fingers. A few more people had filtered in and it took a moment to get Eddie's attention.
"I put on a clean white shirt, my best blue jeans, combed my hair and went a callin'."
Carla pinched his cheek. "I bet you was so cute."
"I rung the doorbell and this little girl opens up and she's buck nekkid."
Eddie placed the drinks silently on the table and collected the empties, picked up a five and made change. Johnny nodded.
"You're so full'a shit," Carla said.
"I swear." Johnny Bone put his hand over his heart. "And there's a point to this story."
"I'm guessin' that Alma Parker is a lot like the Reverend's daughter."
"A tease?" Carla took a big, long drink and Johnny Bone lit another cigarette. "Would you look at that." Carla was looking toward the entrance.
"What?" Johnny Bone saw a woman about Carla's age with an hour glass figure accompanied by a big shouldered young man, not more than twenty. "Who's that?"
"That woman whose fanny you're admirin' is Poppy Baker."
"Her husband's layin' at death's door down in the hospital at Tyler."
Johnny Bone became interested. "What's she doin' here?"
"That's a whole 'nother story."
"Who's the kid?"
"RL Cooper, the former star half-back of Quintana High and future All-American at OU."
"What?...that woman...and a high school kid?"
"Looks like it." Carla had a dreamy look.
"I've seen enough, let's go." Johnny Bone collected the folding money from the table and jammed it into the pocket of his jeans.
"No, baby, I want to see this."
Alma shook the ice in her glass. "A girl could die of thirst around here."
The Voodoo Hut was about half full and a waitress had come on duty, flitting through the blue haze of cigarette smoke like an industrious wren. Ray Bob raised his hand. It reminded Alma of elementary school. The waitress ignored others and came to Ray Bob's table. She was a small thing, in her late thirties. She wore a white sleeveless blouse and a very short, black skirt. It reminded Alma of the skirt on a cheerleader.
"Eddie knows," said Ray Bob.
"Eddie don't know dick," the waitress replied.
Ray Bob laughed and the waitress went to get their drinks. Poppy Baker and RL Cooper walked passed Alma and Ray Bob. Ray Bob watched as Poppy walked by.
"You got a thing goin' with that girl?"
"What girl?" Ray Bob answered in reflex.
The waitress returned with their drinks and cleared away the dead soldiers. Ray Bob pushed a five under her skirt and up her panties at the hip.
Alma canted her head in disapproval and caught Ray Bob's eye.
"Hey, I'm with you, ain't I?" Ray Bob took another sip of his bourbon.
"Well, you is and you ain't. You gotta make up your mind." Alma took another long swallow of gin and tonic.
"I just need a little help, you know?"
"No you don't. Do you want me to sit in your lap or not?"
"Of course I do."
"And feed you...what is that?"
"Bourbon on chipped ice."
"Bourbon on chipped ice?"
"You know I do."
"I don't see you makin' any room."
Ray Bob slid his chair away from the table and Alma moved gracefully onto his lap.
Carla threw her head back and laughed. "Would you look at that?"
"What?" Johnny Bone put out his cigarette. "You gonna sit in my lap?"
"Of course I will." Carla remained in her chair.
"Not now, I gotta watch this."
Johnny Bone lit another cigarette and signaled Eddie for another round. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
The waitress delivered the drinks.
"Johnny," Carla said. "Pay the girl."
Johnny dug a ten out of his pocket and handed it to the waitress.
"Look at that."
Johnny followed Carla's gaze through the smoky air to RL's table. He admired the full-breasted Poppy Baker. He looked back at Carla. "Does that lady know Ray Bob?"
Carla could tell he had asked with more than a little interest. "Poppy Baker? I doubt she knows Ray Bob Duke is alive."
Johnny Bone tilted his head and widened his grin. "Where do you know her from anyway?"
"We went to high school together."
"You got a class reunion goin' here." Johnny Bone watched Poppy Baker glance at Alma.
Carla kicked off a shoe and ran her foot up Johnny's pant leg. "Tell me what it's all about, Johnny Bone?"
Johnny sat up. "All about what?"
"What's the world's all about? What life's all about?"
"I don't know, what?"
"Love makes the world go round, Johnny Bone, and all this time you thought it was money."
"Damn straight it's money."
"Don't get me wrong, I like money. We all need money to get by, don't we."
Johnny Bone took a drink and stared at Carla over his glass.
"Didn't you ever wonder why we all try so hard to get by?" she asked.
"Because walkin' in the light and air is better than layin' in the cold, dark ground."
"Let's get outta here." Ray Bob caressed Alma's thigh.
"Not yet, I'm havin' too much fun." Alma put Ray Bob's glass to his lips and gently tilted it so the bourbon trickled into his mouth.
"You're havin' too much fun drivin' me crazy."
"Yeah, that's fun too."
"You're gonna have to pay the piper, you know."
"I always pay what I owe." Alma put her hand on his cheek, bent down, and kissed him.
Ray Bob shifted Alma and put his hand down his pants for a moment. "Sorry, had to straighten things out; they was gettin' a little cramped."
"Things straightened out now?" Alma gave him a wicked smile.
Ray Bob scooted her fanny on his lap. "You know they are."
RL and Poppy sat two tables away.
"Christ." Poppy cupped a hand gently to her temple.
RL looked at her with his eyebrows raised over clear blue eyes.
"There's Carla Sawyer," she said.
RL started to turn in his chair.
"Don't look. Carla Sawyer is the biggest gossip in Quintana. It'll be all over town tomorrow."
"Why would she do a thing like that?"
"I don't know." Poppy adjusted her chair so that her back was to Carla. "She was the cutest, sweetest little girl. We used to live two houses away when we were little girls."
"What happened?" RL swirled the bourbon in his glass. Patsy Cline was falling to pieces on the juke.
"Unlucky in love, I guess. She never found the right man." Poppy smiled. "Right men found her, she just didn't want them. She wanted the kind she's sittin' with now." Poppy followed RL's eyes expecting to see them examining the man in the black cowboy hat with the crooked grin. They rested on Ray Bob Duke instead.
"Why does she run with a man like that?" asked RL.
"I reckon she's just workin' out her frustrations like the rest of us. I went to school with Alma Parker, did you know that?"
RL shook his head no.
"She was in love with a boy named Lonnie Wright and I mean in love with a capital 'L'. He liked to think he was bad, but he wasn't really. It was just a pose, somethin' to be instead of just being nothin'. Then Lonnie run off or got run off. It hurt Alma."
Eight year old RL Cooper had once watched Alma Parker swim naked with Lonnie Wright in the pond on Billy Whitehead's wife's old place.
"But why don't she take up with somebody better?" RL was looking at Alma as he spoke.
Poppy smiled. "Somebody with a future?"
"Yeah." RL turned to Poppy.
Poppy's eyes searched RL's face. "You got a thing for older women, RL, or is it you just got a thing?" Poppy looked at Alma Parker, sitting on Ray Bob Duke's lap as she fed him iced bourbon, and then turned back to RL.
"If I wanted to have a thing I'd have it with you." RL looked into her eyes. "I promise." His hand stretched across the table for hers.
Poppy placed both of her hands over RL's outstretched hand. "Let's get outta here, baby." She raised one hand to touch his cheek. "Your mouth is makin' promises your heart cain't keep."
"Look's like all your fun is over." Johnny Bone nodded toward Poppy and RL as the made their way out of the Voodoo Hut. "Looks like one ole girl has had enough of another."
Carla flicked ash onto the floor. She looked at Johnny Bone and shook her head slowly. "You poor lost little lamb. Momma's gonna have to learn you a thing or two."
"I'm a fast learner," Johnny Bone said through his crooked grin. "Hell, I may know a thing or two myself."
Ray Bob watched as Carla and Johnny Bone made their way toward the door. "Let's you and me get outta here."
"Let me up. I'm tired of sittin' on your car keys." Alma had to push Ray Bob away to get up.
"That ain't any car keys and you know it." Ray Bob finished his drink. Johnny Cash was falling into a burning ring of fire.
Twilight had passed into night. The dusty parking lot was half full and dimly illuminated by a single light. It sprouted over the door and drooped down like a white sunflower, head bowed in shame.
Ray Bob and Alma made their way out of the Voodoo Hut. They swam through the heat that rose from the bare earth and engulfed them like stagnant water. "My truck's this way." Ray Bob pointed to a big red Dodge.
"I ain't leaving my car here." Alma made her way to a blue Camaro and Ray Bob grabbed her arm. "Let go of me."
Alma slapped him with her free hand, slapped him hard across the face. Ray Bob cracked a wicked smile and grabbed both arms. He kissed her hard on the mouth while she struggled to get free. He forced her up against the door of her car and pushed his groin hard into hers.
Alma bit his lip and Ray Bob released her. He put his hand to his mouth and pulled it away to look at the blood. "You shouldn't'a done that." He slapped her hard across the face. It sounded like a rifle shot. He did it three more times.
Johnny Bone was about to turn the key in the ignition.
"Wait a minute," Carla said. "Look."
Johnny Bone spotted Ray Bob and Alma. "Looks like she done teased the wrong man this time."
"She weren't teasin' nobody."
The dome light came on in Poppy Baker's white pickup and it caught Johnny's eye. "I think the kid's gonna come to her rescue."
"Rescue?" Carla turned to see Poppy Baker wrap her arms around RL's neck to keep him from getting out of her pickup.
The dome light threw harsh shadows across Poppy's face. "No, baby. Don't. You don't know what this is about."
"What?" He was incredulous. "Just look!"
Poppy turned and they both saw Alma Parker passionately kissing Ray Bob Duke. As they watched, Alma drew her knees up and wrapped her legs around his waist.
Carla and Johnny watched as the door to Poppy's pickup shut and the dome light went off.
"You sure you know what it's all about, Johnny Bone?" Carla reached over and stroked his crotch.
Johnny grinned at her. "Money."
Carla kissed him, kissed him deeply. "Let's go home, Johnny Bone. Mamma's gonna take you to school."
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