by Cody S. Decker
It was the morning after I tied one on down at Randy’s Place. My head hurt no matter which way I turned and my breath mocked the smell of a week old ashtray. The coffee brewed and I sat on my couch trying to piece together what all happened the night before. I was pretty sure I’d made a fool of myself but couldn’t quite put a finger on it. With the new crowd that’s been finding their way into Randy’s, it was safe to assume I’d gotten into some sort of altercation. They’ve become somewhat second nature. These young “country boys” like to stomp their way up to the bar, order a Fireball shot and try to play DJ all night. There are two things wrong with that. For one, we all know Fireball isn’t the same as whiskey, it’s a cinnamon flavored liqueur. It’s all a show. Second, if you’re in a well known Honky Tonk bar, you don’t take over the jukebox unless you’re going to play some good country music. Their selections are more times than not, far from good. No Waylon, no Hank, no Willie, no Hank Jr., no Johnny Cash. Just that cool, hip stuff they hear on the radio today. Needless to say, we don’t always see eye to eye on the jukebox selections.
I was starting to get an idea as to what my argument the night before was about. But the more I tried to think about the details, the more my head hurt. So I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind and poured myself a much needed cup of coffee.
The rest of the morning went by as usual. Shower, shave, and some other business. I got dressed for work and grabbed my iPod on the way out the door. Turned on the car and started scrolling towards my favorite tunes. On mornings like this particular one, I like to start out with an old favorite “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. To my surprise, when I scrolled through my playlist, it wasn’t there. Hmm. I didn’t think much of it at first. Weird stuff happens with these things all the time. So I hit next, hoping for the usual Conway Twitty tune to play. Nothing but silence and a blank screen. Next again, nothing. My first rational thought was that my outdated music machine had finally kicked the bucket.
By this time, I had just pulled in at work and didn’t think much of it for the rest of the day. After all, I work in retail for a living. A busted iPod was the least of my worries. The real mess started once I got home that evening.
It was one hell of long day. I decided to take the edge off by pouring a glass of bourbon and putting on a record. My Hank Jr. Greatest Hits record, to be specific. In hopes to put a little pep in my step. I laid the needle down gently and anticipated Family Tradition blaring from the speakers. Much to my surprise, there was nothing but the cracking and popping sound of a record that needs to be flipped. When I stopped the player and took a good look at the record itself, it was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. The other side was too. It was as if there had never been any notes etched into it at all. Strange. So I grabbed my George Jones album to play. Same thing. Smooth as silk. I grabbed another. Same. And another. Nothing. Every single one of my country albums were unplayable.
I poured myself another bourbon and sat down on the couch to try to wrap my head around what was going on. It didn’t make any sense. What in the world happened to those records? The silence of thinking became too much to bear. I pulled out my phone and went to YouTube to play some tunes. Given my situation, I typed in “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”.
Youtube quickly informed me that there were no results for my search. So I tried “All My Rowdy Friends”. Nothing. “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair”. Nope. “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.” Doesn’t exist. “Whiskey River” had apparently run dry because it wasn’t there either.
By this time I’m starting to freak out, just a tad. Is it just some odd coincidence that all of my stuff messed up at the same time? Or has all of the music I love just vanished? If it had, why? After another drink and many minutes of uneasy toe tapping, I decided to head down to Randy’s. That WAS the last time I listened to some good music. Maybe he would know what happened.
When I got there, the room wasn’t thick with smoke as usual and the regulars that tend to always find themselves atop a stool and hunched over a half drank Pabst weren’t there. I ambled towards the bar where I found the only familiar face in the joint. Randy was wiping down a glass when I took my seat.
“Whatta ya say, slim?”
“Not much, Randy. It’s been a hell of a day.”
“Oh yeah? Want me to pour ya a shot and we’ll talk it over?”
I didn’t pay any attention to what he poured because he always knew what I want. Old Fitz on the rocks, two ice cubes and a two finger pour. I grabbed the glass and took a sip. A sharp sting of cinnamon with a hint of whiskey tortured my tongue. I choked it down.
“What was that, man?”
Randy looked at me surprised, “You wanted a shot. I figured you wanted whiskey.”
“Well yeah. But not that stuff.”
“Bub, that’s the only whiskey I got.”
Although baffled and somewhat angry I decided to not ask anymore questions. After the day I had, it wasn’t worth it. So I ordered a beer. Didn’t care what kind as long as it wasn’t that horrible stuff I just drank.
“Here ya go,” Randy said as he slid it to me.
It wasn’t too bad, it was watered down and reminded me of my college days, but it was drinkable.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“The Good Stuff,” Randy said, “It’s been iced up all day.”
“The Good Stuff? What the….”
About that time, I heard a feller laughing from across the room. I turned to look at him and he was looking at me. I tried to break eye contact but couldn’t. He finished his chuckle and made his way towards the empty stool next to me. He seemed so different but so familiar at the same time. He had a good hearted look in his eye, with a devilish grin. But I still couldn’t take my eyes off of his. I was stuck watching him all the way til he made himself comfortable beside me.
“I’ll have a shot, Randy,” he said.
“You got it, Johnny.”
“…and another beer for my friend here.”
His friend? Did I know this guy?
Randy sat our drinks down in front of us.
“You boys had quite the night last night. Glad to see you gettin’ along.”
“What’s he talking about? Did we get into it last night?”
My “friend” smiled, “Yep. But we settled our differences over a game of pool and a little bet. Nothin’ but water under the bridge now.” He took his “whiskey” shot and slammed his glass down with a sense of unearned pride.
Still fishing for memories in a blur, I asked, “What happened last night?”
The guy ordered another drink and boasted a cocky grin, “Well my friend, I put my money into the jukebox and played something to liven up this old joint. You know, some good Luke Bryan stuff. About the time the chorus hit on my first song, you hopped up off this same stool you’re sitting on tonight and said you wanted to kick the teeth out of whoever played that trash in “your bar”. Now me, being the reasonable one I am, talked you down out of your little fit you were havin’…and offered you a deal.”
“A deal?” I asked.
“That’s right. If you were to beat me in a game of pool, I’d never show my face in here again. You’d never have to hear me play my good country music. But if I won, you’d never hear YOUR good country music again. At all. Not in here. Not anywhere. And this old run down bar would change to better suit the new country crowd. No more of that outdated booze you fellas had been drinkin’ before.”
I still didn’t remember any of this taking place. And I didn’t want to believe a word he said but I was staring at the bottom of a second empty beer glass and my doubting muscles started to lose their grip.
“So you mean to tell me, a bet between me and you is the reason I haven’t been able to listen to my music all day?”
“Yep. Why don’t you go check the jukebox?”
“I will,” I slid down off of my stool and started flipping through the selections. I started to get a cold feeling in my stomach. With each flip it just got worse. There was nothing but bro-country plastered all over the pages of this music machine. Not one good old honky tonk song to be found.
I turned to make my way back to the bar and Johnny was blocking my path.
“Believe me now?” He looked at me as if he could see past my eyes, into my soul.
“Hell, I don’t guess I have a choice, do I?”
I moved by him and ordered another glass of the “good stuff”. Trying to make sense of this all but failing miserably. He sat back down and laughed again.
“You wanna rack ’em up again? We’ll make it double or nothin’.”
I downed about half my beer and decided what the hell. I stuck out my right hand, “Deal.”
He met my hand with a shake that was so hellishly hot that it was cold at first touch. I jerked my hand away and he smiled a big, confident smile.
“Deal,” he said. “If you win, you get your music back and you won’t see me around here again. But if I win, everyone loses your sobbing, whining, Jack Daniels soaked country music. It’ll be the same as if it never existed. And you, my friend, will owe me your soul.”
“My soul? You’ve gotta be kidding?”
“If I was kidding, I wouldn’t have shook on it already.”
Now, if I had been in my right mind, I would’ve taken this guy a little more seriously and likely left without looking back. But, at the time, I thought he was full of bull. So, I downed the rest of my beer, grabbed a pool stick and headed towards the only empty table….
With a snap of his fingers and a flash of flames, the table was racked and ready.
“You break,” he said.
I tried to keep my fear from showing but my hands trembled as I set the cue ball. I lined up my shot. CRACK! I let out a sigh of relief. Aside from the fact that the eight ball was about an inch away from dropping into the corner pocket, it was a pretty good break. I sank two balls. One stripe, one solid. I chose to stick with stripes since the majority of the solids were congregated around that eight ball.
I walked around the table, sizing up my next shot. When I raised my eyes off the game, I noticed that everybody in the place had their eyes on us. I tried to not let any more pressure ride on my shoulders than there already was and not think about anything other than sinking the fifteen ball in the side pocket. I took a deep breath, lined up my shot….and missed.
“Let me show ya how it’s done, bud.” He leaned across the table sank his first shot without any effort. Then he made another. And another. He was going to run the table on me. What in the hell was I thinking making a deal with the devil? Of course I was going to lose, because when the devil makes a bet, he always wins. I started looking around the place, scanning for a quick exit, but there was no way out. The crowd was huddled in tight to watch my dance with the devil.
He was down to one ball left. The green 6 ball was next to the same corner pocket that the eight ball was still lingering around. The devil didn’t seem to mind. He eased his stick down, a couple inches above the table and lined up. All he had to do was sneak the 6 past the eight, tap in the eight, and he’d have himself another fool’s soul. The whole place was silent.
He pulled back….
Just before he struck the cue ball, a voice hollered from over at the bar. “What the hell? You call this whiskey?!?! Back in my day….” Some shaggy headed feller with a goatee was giving it to Randy up one side and down the other. He was too far away for me to make out who he was but I knew I heard that voice somewhere before. The devil was startled just enough from all this ruckus that it threw off his shot and I watched as the cue ball rolled past the 6 and hit the eight ball with just enough to drop it in the pocket.
I couldn’t believe it. I stared at the table and felt my heart beating a mile a minute. I had just beat the devil.
I caught the slightest smell of cigarette smoke and it broke me from daze. I looked up and the whole place was different. The stools were full of old timers drinking Pabst and Jim Beam had taken back his spot on the back wall of the bar. The devil was gone and that shaggy haired feller that I owed my soul to was nowhere to be found. He had vanished just as quick as the devil himself.
I walked up to Randy and ordered the usual, still not sure what to make of all of this. Still wondering if I’d just made it all up, when someone cranked up an old Waylon Jennings song on the jukebox.
I almost spit up my drink.
I KNEW I’d heard that voice before.