issue 46: January - February 2005 

 | author bio

Wheeler County
Steve Earle

HARLEY WATTS looked down a long, flat stretch of Interstate 40 west of Shamrock, Texas, the way a man would size up an old acquaintance from across a crowded barroom. You know, that one ambiguous instant between the time you see them and they see you when you have to decide whether you're glad to see them or not. Actually Harley and I-40 were more than casual acquaintances.
      "This is where I came in."
      He realized he had spoken out loud just as the words died a quick, merciful death in the emptiness between asphalt and sky.
      "Ten years." Out loud once again.
      He wondered if his guitar was up to the sudden changes in temperature this journey surely held in store. The old Gibson had always passed the road test with flying colors, but that was before it spent a decade in a fairly constant climate. Hell, spent most of the past five years in its beat-up old case under Delores's bed. Not that Harley was a great guitar player – or singer for that matter. Every song he'd ever written bore a woman's given name as its title. Some of his best efforts had been retooled more than once, each time in honor of yet another object of his attention if not his affection. So let's just say Harley was no Bob Dylan, but he may have been a Woody Guthrie of sorts. For if Harley was wasting a god-given talent while lingering in Wheeler County, Texas, it was hitchhiking.
      More than likely God never woke up and decided he was going to make himself a hitchhiker, but if he had, it would have looked a lot like Harley Watts. Five feet eleven inches, 185 pounds. Shoulder-length brown hair. Brown eyes that always seemed to squint even though he had twenty-twenty vision. Indian eyes with premature crow's-feet carved by the last rays of hundreds of sunsets. Eyes that always seemed to be focused somewhere else. Someplace beyond here. On down the road.
      Ten years ago, almost to the day, a thinner, tanner Harley had stood on this very spot fresh from a four-hundred-mile ride in the back of a Chevy pickup, which was a good thing in hitchhiking terms if the weather was good. And the weather was great in the spring of 1978, somewhere out in the big-ass middle of West Texas. In fact, it had been pretty damn good since about Nashville, which meant that a pickup truck with an already occupied shotgun seat was the ultimate ride. Sun shining, wind blowing, miles rolling by at a magical clip without the distraction of feeling obligated to carry on a meaningless conversation with the operator of the vehicle du jour.
      If you'd hitchhiked as many miles as Harley, you could spot a ride a hundred yards up the road. The Good Samaritan behind the wheel of a big rig is a myth. Eighteen-wheelers are too hard to stop and besides, miles are money. By the same token, the blonde in the convertible is also a fantasy, a mirage concocted in the sun-baked brain of a hapless hiker or a lie spun in a bar to impress the gullible. In the sixties any road warrior worth his salt knew Volkswagens were a hitchhiker's best friend. Most rides were long cramped ordeals, chin bare inches from your knees while your benefactor rattled on and on about the Tibetan Book of the Dead or something you cared even less about. By 1978, however, even the venerable VW was beginning to disappear from the nation's highways as its owners settled down, opened futon stores, had kids named Dylan and Chelsea, and bought Volvos. And Volvos almost never pick up hitchhikers.
      So there he was, ten years ago, standing on the on-ramp, one foot on his guitar case, one thumb in the breeze, bound for California.
      Harley had been damn near everywhere in North America since he left his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1971, including Alaska and large chunks of Canada and Mexico. He'd even seen Southeast Asia courtesy of Uncle Sam, but the one prize that eluded him was California.... Land of Steinbeck. Crucible of Kerouac and Cassidy. Playground of Kesey and the Pranksters. Ground Zero for the Revolution and the Summer of Love. But every time Harley set his sights on the mother of all destinations, something always got in the way. Sometimes it was a woman. Well, OK, most of the time. Sometimes it was the latest in a long line of "opportunities" to make a "lot" of money with a minimum of effort or, more important, little or no commitment. Sometimes winter (or summer) came early that year. Sometimes Harley would just find a spot on the planet that suited him a little better than others for the time being, and he'd just hang.
      The latest obstacle to impose itself in Harley's path had been one Deputy Sheriff Arlon Ness. Arlon had spent all but four of his twenty-seven years, one year younger than Harley, right there in Shamrock. It was curiosity more than anything else that caused Arlon to stop on the overpass that morning ten years ago, just as ol' Harley stuck out that golden thumb of his. Here was an opportunity to get a good close-up look at something he'd only seen on TV, a real, live, honest-to-God vagrant. Arlon never intended to arrest Harley that afternoon. He only radioed the Wheeler County Sheriff's Department to tell Brenda, the dispatcher, about "this feller with long hair and a guitar standin' out on the off-ramp," but the sheriff happened to be standing right there in the radio room when the call came in. Sheriff Tommy Burke didn't like hippies any better in 1978 than he had in the sixties, and he grabbed the microphone from Brenda and ordered Arlon to "bring him in."
      Harley was charged with hitchhiking on an interstate highway and vagrancy. The vagrancy charge was the part that really chapped his ass. After all, vagrancy is basically the crime of not having any money. Before Arlon came along, Harley had money, a little over a hundred bucks as a matter of fact. After the sheriff and the magistrate got through with him, he found himself standing in front of the county courthouse staring down in disgust at four singles and a handful of change. California never seemed farther away.
      Arlon had sat across the street in his patrol car wrestling with guilt and watched as Harley fell back on a hitchhiker's last refuge – shoe leather. He struck out in long deliberate strides straight for the interstate. He didn't stop and ask for directions. He didn't have to. Knowing where the highway was at all times had become second nature to him. It was a matter of survival, an instinct like those of migratory birds. Arlon tracked Harley's every move with a level of interest he usually reserved for professional athletes or the quarter horses that run over at Ruidosa. Something deep down in Arlon's gut told him he was witnessing something special.
      By the time Harley reached Fuller's Texaco, he'd built up such a head of steam that Arlon actually clocked him at just over eight miles an hour as he followed alongside in his car. Even at that speed, with his head down, hell-bent for the interstate, Harley's built-in cop detector went off, and he suddenly stopped on the proverbial dime.
      Harley had done an abrupt left face on the shoulder of the highway and was shouting at the top of his lungs. He didn't like cops in general, and this cop had just cost him his road stake. A hundred dollars would carry a veteran hiker like Harley halfway across the country on his own terms. Now he'd have to scramble, sleeping under bridges for lack of the price of a lousy state park camping permit. And then there was the small matter of food. So Harley just snapped. With every step he took toward Arlon's vehicle, his voice got louder and his face got redder until he was standing on the passenger side, bent over at the waist, his head and shoulders inside the patrol car. For the first time in his law enforcement career, Arlon Ness had his hand on his sidearm, and he was seriously considering shooting Harley Watts, but self-control won out at the last second. Arlon turned off the ignition, grabbed the keys, and bailed out of the patrol car raising both of his hands above his head, palms forward, to show Harley that he meant him no harm. For what seemed like forever, they just stood there hollering at each other across the roof of the car.
      "Whoa, whoa, whoa! I just wanted to say I was sorry!" Harley stopped right in the middle of a colorful dissertation on Arlon's family tree. He blinked. It was the first time a cop had ever apologized to him.
      "At least let me buy you a beer."

Harley and Arlon sat facing each other at a back table in the AAA Icehouse. Actually, nobody ever called it that. The proprietor was Santiago Guitierras, the patriarch of a large family as well as "godfather," in the old-world sense, to all of Shamrock's relatively small Chicano community. So the locals just called it Santo's. The waitress brought the beer while the only two Anglo customers in the joint sized each other up. The conversation was a little slow getting started, but after a few beers the boys discovered they had something in common.
Private Harley Watts and Second Lieutenant Arlon Ness had each arrived in the Republic of Vietnam with their own perspectives on the war and the world. Arlon enlisted, operating on the theory that any place would be an improvement over Shamrock. He was twice named trainee of the month in basic training, where he was recommended for Officer Candidate School. Harley, however, was drafted after losing his student deferment in the aftermath of an arrest for possessing a minuscule amount of marijuana, and he barely managed to stay out of the stockade during basic. Although their respective tours of duty overlapped by some nine months, they never met. After all, they were only two of some two-hundred-fifty thousand troops that remained "in country" in 1971. They returned home to entirely different situations as well. Arlon went back to Wheeler County, where folks were generally impressed with anyone who had been anywhere. Most people in Shamrock had come to simply ignore the seemingly endless war on the other side of the world. Back in Louisville, though, most of Harley's friends – that is, the ones who had managed to stay out of the draft – were a little more judgmental. So Harley hit the road, and Arlon went to work for the sheriff's department and got married, and neither one talked about the war much. Even that night in Santo's, the subject merely passed between them like a secret handshake. There was simply no reason to discuss it further, especially in public. No one else would understand anyway.
      Harley let Arlon buy him several beers, the first few, because he was killing time while he formulated a new game plan; the rest, because that's just how beer is. Arlon, ever the helpful public servant and feeling even more guilty now that he discovered he actually liked Harley, suggested that he just might know a way that a man who wasn't scared of a little work might make a few bucks. The proposition of hitchhiking all the way to California on four dollars was becoming less attractive with every free beer, so Harley bought the last round while Arlon elaborated.
      One of the many irons in Santo Guitierras's fire was a small construction company.
      "Fair warning now, Hoss." Arlon called everybody "Hoss" after he'd had a couple of beers. "This ain't like any other construction job you ever had before. These folks work from ‘can't see 'til can't see.' None of this knock off at 3:30 and go to the beer joint shit. The upside of that deal is you'll make your money back in a couple days."
     So Santo was summoned to the table.
      "Don Santo. Por favor."
      The old man liked Arlon, mainly because he was the only gringo in Wheeler County who spoke Spanish. Besides, a man in Don Santo's position sometimes needed a friend at the sheriff's department. Even Sheriff Burke depended on their relationship whenever he had "trouble with the Meskins." Arlon introduced Harley as an "army buddy" passing through town and allowed how he would consider it a personal favor if Don Santo could throw him a few days' work. All of this was conveyed in flawless Tex-Mex.
      Santo glanced briefly at Harley and then back at Arlon. "Si, no problema." Then at Harley once again. "Five-thirty in the morning. Marshall Dillon here knows where."

Five o'clock came way too early. Harley woke up on Arlon's couch with a slight hangover, sat up, and struggled to get his bearings. Arlon and his wife, Donna, lived with their three preschool-age kids in a doublewide trailer on five and a half acres a few miles north of Shamrock. Harley could hear the couple whispering in the kitchen.
      "But what if he's a psycho or something?"
      "Honey, he'll hear you! What kind of talk is that anyhow? I'm a police officer for god's sake. Don't you figure I know an ax murderer when I see one? Besides, he's a vet."
      None of this made Donna feel any better. Nevertheless, she packed Harley a couple of salami sandwiches and a bag of chips for lunch and handed Arlon a thermos of coffee as they hurried out the door.
      The sun was just making an appearance when Arlon and Harley pulled up alongside Don Santo's old concrete-encrusted pickup. Harley gingerly climbed out of the patrol car and just stood there blinking in the half-light. It reminded Arlon of dropping a first-grader off on the first day of school. "Go on now."
      Then he backed out and headed into town to work the seven o'clock shift, leaving Harley and Santo to get acquainted.
      Don Santo was a general contractor, which means he bids on any kind of construction job that comes along. More often than not, out in West Texas, far from the influence of any union, he underbid the competition. He enjoyed the advantage of a steady flow of cheap labor, mostly relatives, mostly illegal, shuttling back and forth across the border on a constant basis. Not that Santo ever exploited his workers. On the contrary, he paid much better wages than any of the Anglo employers who hired illegal aliens. He coordinated the comings and goings of various cousins and in-laws with his uncle, Eusebio, who like Santo was a man of property and a patron of his people in their hometown in Chihuahua. Between them, they decided who made the long trip north to work and who went home to Mexico for a while. It was a typically large Catholic family, so the little construction business fed well over a hundred mouths at any given time. The very fact that Santo hired Harley, even temporarily, was a profound statement of his respect for Arlon.
      The job at hand was a new county elementary school. Santo had subcontracted to build the concrete foundation. This entailed grading and leveling the site (which in return he "subbed out" to his brother-in-law, who owned the necessary heavy equipment), building the wooden forms, and after the drains and the water and gas lines were roughed in by the plumbers, pouring the concrete. In short, backbreaking manual labor. The seven-man crew worked from about 6:00 A.M. until sunset. When they were behind schedule, or if there was a bonus to be earned, they strung lights and worked on past dark. Most of the crew had nowhere to go anyway. Their wives and children were far away, and the harder they worked, the faster the time passed until it was time to go home.
      Harley found himself in a similar if less permanent situation. The way he had it figured, a week's pay would make up for his losses at the courthouse and then some. By Sunday (the Mexican work week being six days, not five), he would be on his way west again, better off than he was before Arlon spotted him on the on-ramp.
      Santo introduced Harley to the job foreman, Cruz Morales. After a short exchange in Spanish, which went by way too fast for Harley, the old man climbed back into his truck and headed off to open the beer joint.
      Harley surveyed the construction site. The crew ranged in age from sixteen to about fifty. They paid little or no attention to the new man on the job. They were all far too busy. Granted, none of them had ever seen a gringo swing a mattock before. In fact, most had seen few gringos period. Their little village in hot, arid Chihuahua was not exactly a mecca for tourists, and here in Wheeler County their undocumented status forced them to keep to themselves. The little socializing that their Spartan existence allowed took place at Santo's place among themselves. It was simply none of their business who Don Santo chose to hire. Besides, in their world everyone had the right to work, to labor away the long dry stretches between the little pleasures in life.
      Lunchtime. It always came as somewhat of a surprise when Cruz whistled loudly, forcing the air between two fingers pressed tightly against his lower teeth.
      Cruz watched Harley unwrap one of Donna Ness's salami sandwiches while the rest of the crew made warm tacos from thermos bottles filled with carne guisada (beef tips in red chile gravy) and fresh homemade flour tortillas. He made a mental note to tell Harley that for three dollars a week, deducted from his paycheck, Don Santo's wife would make a little extra guisada and a few more tortillas each morning. Cruz was a firm believer in the necessity of a hot lunch for hard-working men. He spoke for the first time since work began early that morning.
      "You speak Spanish?"
      "Un poco."
      Harley had picked up what Spanish he had during a six-month stay in San Miguel de Allende, a town in the central Mexico mountains long known as an artist colony and a refuge for expatriate bohemians. He had followed a girlfriend there shortly after being discharged from the army. When she ran off to Mexico City with a Mexican actor, Harley hung around playing Dylan and Beatles tunes in the gringo bars for a few hundred pre-devaluation pesos a night. That is, until he became such a popular attraction with the rock-and-roll-starved American community that the local musicians union complained to Don Chucho Ybarra. Don Chucho owned all six of the bars frequented by the writers, painters, and art students who lived in San Miguel. The union's membership was largely comprised of young, well-groomed chicos who made their living playing "Besame Mucho" and "Celito Lindo" for the tourists and squiring aging American and Canadian women to various social functions. They perceived Harley as a threat to their livelihood. In reality, these musicians appealed to a totally separate audience. Nevertheless, the mariachis made their case to Don Chucho, who unceremoniously showed them the door. The union had no power in the little mountain town, and Don Chucho was enjoying a marked increase in business since Harley's debut. Three days later a group of five or six chicos roughed Harley up a little on his way home from the gig. Harley mentioned the attack to Don Chucho, and the next day the president of the union local, a gifted young guitarist, had both of his hands broken in several places. He never played again. Harley caught the next train to the border, and he never visited Mexico again.
      "Vamanos, muchachos!"
      Cruz was rousting the crew up from lunch, unknowingly dragging Harley back through the years and across the border to West Texas and the business at hand. He watched approvingly as Harley took his place alongside the others and set to work instantly, seamlessly becoming a part of the crew. Usually a new man needed time to get in the groove. Not this one. The other workers had never worked alongside Anglos before, so they didn't know what Cruz knew. Cruz was born in San Antonio and had built houses, apartment complexes, office buildings, and highways all over the Southwest and as far east as Chicago. Gringos didn't work like this. Even the most motivated Anglo worker lacked the fluidity, the poetry of motion Cruz saw and admired in his muchachos day in and day out. Cruz watched in wonder as Harley attacked the rock-hard Texas soil like a warrior, not a mercenary with his own agenda, but a soldier, an integral part of an army with a common cause - kill the day. Never simply let it pass but assault it, take hold of it, and wring the juices from it, drop by precious drop. You see, Harley Watts had been born with another gift in addition to his mastery of the highway. He also possessed an inborn ability to instantly home in on the essence of people, places, and things. It was simply not in his nature to take anyone or any experience for granted. Something reached out from deep inside of him. Touching. Tasting. Searching for the pulse. He didn't have it in him to just get by until payday, cash his check, and put Wheeler County behind him even if he tried. Harley felt what his fellow workers felt. He knew what they knew instinctively.
      In time, Cruz Morales knew what Arlon Ness knew. They had both borne witness to something they themselves could only dream of. Something they admired, even envied, although they had no name for it. They were compelled to be near Harley, to soak up the very atmosphere around him for as long as he graced their otherwise routine lives. Ironically, neither Cruz nor Arlon realized that as they lived vicariously through Harley, he in turn depended on their stability. They were now part of a vast network crisscrossing the country that was Harley's lifeblood. Without Arlon and Cruz he couldn't keep moving through their lives and on into the lives of other solid citizens like them.
      Payday came and went. Harley joined his coworkers at Santo's for a beer that first Saturday night. Arlon came in from the second shift at eleven to find Cruz and Harley grinning from behind a tabletop skyline of longneck beer bottles. The jukebox blared out equal doses of country and norteño music fueled by a steady supply of red dye-marked "house" quarters, courtesy of Don Santo. When closing time came, Harley and Arlon stumbled to the car singing "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud, Music." Harley remarked at the novelty of riding home drunk in the front seat of a police vehicle. Arlon, caught up in the moment, suddenly yanked the big Ford over on the gravel shoulder and locked up the brakes, throwing Harley into the dash with a bump.
      "You drive."
      "You drive. I'm gonna get in the back. No, really. I wanna see what it's like."

Donna Ness was ripped from her sleep by a siren screaming insistently, a few feet from her open bedroom window. She threw on her old terry-cloth housecoat and ran to the door with her heart in her throat, fully expecting to find Sheriff Burke standing there bearing some horrible news about Arlon. Instead, she was confronted with Harley Watts sitting behind the wheel of Arlon's cruiser, siren blasting, blue lights flashing, grinning like a shit-eating dog. The only sign of Arlon was his boots protruding through the back passenger-side window as he collapsed in hysterics on the floorboard.
      Donna wasn't amused. She hadn't seen Arlon this drunk since his first night home from the army. Oh, he'd stayed out late after softball games or at the sheriff's monthly poker party and come home a little lit, but ever since this Harley character showed up, he was somehow different. He whooped, hollered, and sang "Dim Lights" as she struggled to get him into bed. She cussed him out loud and warned of the dire consequences awaiting him and Harley if they woke the kids up. With all of the expertise of a good Texas girl with three brothers, she pulled off Arlon's boots and tucked him in with one leg hanging over the side, foot flat on the floor to stop the trailer from spinning.
      Meanwhile, Harley had literally crawled in on his belly, remembering to keep his head low just like he had learned in Nam, until he reached the couch and passed out. Donna stormed out of the back loaded for bear, only to find him sound asleep, still fully clothed including his now concrete-covered boots.
      "Well, shit."
      It never ceased to amaze her how much grown men resembled her babies when they were asleep. Almost angelic. She shook her head and made that soft clucking noise with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that all women learn as soon as they are married. She pulled off Harley's boots and covered him with her grandmother's Texas Star quilt.
      Any paycheck would have brought Harley back to even, but a series of events ensued, each delaying his departure another week. Every payday began with Harley's best intentions and ended with him and Arlon closing down Santo's beer joint. At first it was simply a matter of math. Harley would cash his check and begin buying rounds for his coworkers. Because he had no family and no responsibility, his income was disposable; he never allowed anyone else to buy him so much as a draft. At closing time, or more often the next morning, a quick accounting invariably revealed a shortfall, and Harley's trip to the coast was put off for yet another week. Then Cruz Morales, duly impressed with Harley's on-the-job performance, offered him a raise, hoping to persuade him to complete the school job. Harley reluctantly agreed, and one Saturday gave way to another and weeks matured into months.
      Arlon Ness, meanwhile, had appointed himself Harley's outfitter and co-conspirator in this quest of his, this journey into the wilderness that he himself could never make. He and Harley, by now inseparable, spent their evenings at the beer joint. Harley would sing and play his guitar, seasoning his repertoire with tales of the open road while Arlon made plans for Harley's long trek west. Arlon would decide that Harley needed a new sleeping bag or maybe one of those miniature propane stoves. Cruz and Santo would kibitz and generally concur. None of these amenities had ever been necessary before, but Harley always nodded and mumbled his agreement. Months grew up to be years.
      After a while Donna Ness gave up and began to join the boys at the beer joint on Saturdays. That is, when her mother or sister-in-law were available to baby-sit. She and Arlon would dance to all the slow songs on Santo's jukebox, play pinball, or shoot a game of pool. Over time she learned to like Harley, especially when after a few beers and some prodding from Arlon and Cruz, he'd unpack his guitar. It seemed that Harley knew every song that could conceivably be performed on one old flat-top guitar. Dylan, Beatles, Haggard, Hank, and "Here's one by Woody by God Guthrie." There was always a steady flow of requests from the regulars at Santo's. After a few months Harley even learned some of Cruz and Santo's Spanish favorites, which were usually performed in the wee hours because Harley's Spanish seemed to improve drastically when he was drunk.
      Donna privately observed that Harley had only to hold the guitar on his lap and he instantly became the center of attention. The songs themselves were merely interludes between the stories, the miles he'd traveled, the places he'd been, the people he'd seen. Donna and the others sat in rapt silence as Harley carried them with him to the far reaches of his range. New York, Boston, New Orleans, everywhere except Vietnam. Harley only included the miles he traveled under his own power in his musical travelogue. He viewed his entire tour of duty as an interruption in his normal life, as if some gargantuan unseen hand had scooped him up and deposited him in someone else's nightmare only to tire of the sport and drop him randomly back in his world to find his own way home. No one even knew Harley had been in the service except Arlon and Donna, and she knew better than to bring the subject up. She had lain in bed listening to Arlon crying softly in his sleep the first few years of their marriage. Then he simply stopped. Donna saw the same telltale trail of tears in the lines around Harley's eyes.
      Maybe that was the beginning of the "thing" between her and Harley that everyone including Arlon sensed, but no one, least of all Harley or Donna, ever talked about. They all shrugged it off and lived for Saturday nights at Santo's. And Harley played, and Cruz and Santo sang along out of tune, and Arlon and Donna danced. And they all drank.
      Donna was always careful to stay just sober enough to drive home, or maybe she was afraid of that one beer that might nudge her over the line and into the arms of Harley Watts. After Arlon was safely tucked in, she'd sometimes sit on the edge of the couch and watch Harley sleep for a while. Then she'd suddenly shake her head to exorcise the demons and kiss him on the forehead the way mothers kiss children and retreat to the safety of the back bedroom.

For the first year and a half or so, the Saturday night ritual was religiously observed. The regimen dissolved so gradually that no one even noticed. Cruz left Santo's employ the winter after Harley hired on, for a better job in Nashville, Tennessee. It seems a building boom in those parts had created a demand for skilled illegal labor and experienced bilingual supervisors. Harley accepted Don Santo's offer of the vacated position with characteristic reservation. Arlon was promoted to sergeant, which meant he was on call twenty-four hours a day. Harley maintained his residence on Arlon and Donna's couch for almost two years until one New Year's Eve when Arlon was called to the scene of a particularly nasty tractor-trailer accident on the interstate. He rushed off, blue lights flashing, leaving Harley and Donna alone and more than a little drunk. Nothing serious happened between them, but it was close. Too close for Harley. He moved out the next day and launched headlong into a stormy relationship with Delores Cantu, a fixture at the beer joint. He had spent the past couple of years politely refusing her advances, mainly because he had heard she was related to his employer. "I never shit where I eat," he informed Arlon. But Santo couldn't have been more pleased when Delores and Harley left the beer joint together for the first time.
      Delores was Santo Guitierras's grandniece. She was what Arlon called "a handsome woman" - attractive, if a little hard looking, and a few years older than Harley. When she was seventeen, she had married a young man from Mexico who worked for Santo. She had come under the old man's patronage when her husband was killed, along with the rest of his crew, when their truck stalled on a railroad track up toward Wheeler. Delores was pregnant at the time. The trauma prompted a miscarriage and, because of the incompetency of the emergency room staff at the county hospital, a subsequent hysterectomy. When she recovered, she went to work behind the bar at Santo's. After work she had no one to go home to, so she didn't. She merely took five or six steps around the bar, planted her butt on a stool, and proceeded to get quietly shit-faced. All of these factors combined to make Delores a virtual white elephant as a marriage prospect. Santo figured he'd always have to take care of her until a faint glimmer of hope appeared in the form of Harley Watts.
      Not that Delores and Harley rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. In fact, they rarely left the beer joint. Their frequent public fights became legendary. The thick smoky air in Santo's turned blue with shouted obscenities in two different languages. Beer bottles and ashtrays flew, always failing to find their mark, and observers were never able to determine whether to attribute this phenomenon to Harley's agility or Delores's lack of accuracy. This dance was performed over and over like some noncombative martial art, a kind of white trash tai chi. But the pair always kissed and made up before closing time, and Santo could only shake his head and deduct the damages from their wages.
      Eventually the planning sessions for Harley's trip west stopped. The camping gear that Arlon had accumulated gathered dust in a closet in Santo's office. After a while Arlon and Donna stopped coming to Santo's altogether. Saturdays had become too busy as the kids reached Little League and Boy Scout age. Besides, as much as Arlon hated to admit it, it was becoming obvious that Harley wasn't going anywhere. He felt sometimes that Harley had let him down, although he would never have said that out loud. Harley was still his friend if no longer his hero.
      In the winter of 1988 Don Santiago Guitierras died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. There was a bottle of antacid tablets by his bed. He evidently woke up believing he had heartburn, took a couple, and went back to sleep. Santo's younger brother, Victor, took over the construction business and the beer joint, but the sign out front still read "AAA" and everyone still called it Santo's. Harley was practically family by this time, so his job security was never in question. He and Delores still closed the joint every night, usually with an argument that could be heard in Las Cruces. The regulars had long since stopped asking Harley to sing and play or tell one of his road stories. Some of them weren't even old enough to drink when Harley first walked through the door with nothing but a backpack and the old guitar that now lay silent, entombed in its road-worn case under the bed at Delores's house. Harley was practically a local now and California was as far away as Vietnam.

Harley Watts looked down a long, flat stretch of I-40 west of Shamrock, Texas, hoping against hope that Arlon Ness would pull up alongside, just like he had ten years before to arrest him. But he knew better. The phone had awakened him just before 3:00 A.M. the Wednesday before. It was Donna. He still couldn't get over how calm she sounded. Arlon had made a routine traffic stop out on the interstate just before midnight. When he asked for the driver's license and registration, the stranger shot Arlon in the face three times.
      Arlon died alone at the scene and was found hours later by a passing motorist. His killer was never caught. Harley spent the next few days helping with the funeral arrangements and taking care of the kids. Donna held up like a trooper right up until Sheriff Burke presented her with the flag that had covered Arlon's casket. Harley drove her home and held her as she sobbed for three solid hours. When she finally stopped, she suddenly kissed Harley hard on the mouth, unbuttoning his shirt as they slid to the floor. The kids were at her mother's, so they made love right there in the living room. When Donna finally drifted off to sleep, Harley slipped one of the throw pillows from the couch gently under her head, covered her with her grandmother's Texas Star quilt, and drove to Delores's. Being just as careful not to wake her, as he was Donna, he packed and walked out the front door leaving his truck in the driveway.

The big rig shuddered as it geared down and finally pulled over onto the shoulder about fifty yards beyond the spot where Harley stood.
      "Well, I'll be damned."
      He took off running, arriving at the cab out of breath and suddenly painfully aware of how out of shape he was. He hefted his guitar and backpack up into the cab, pushing them back into the sleeper as he settled into the shotgun seat.
      "Where you headed, doll?" The feminine voice took Harley by surprise.
      The handsome blonde behind the wheel laughed out loud as she set the beast in motion down the shoulder and eased it back over onto the highway.
      "Well, this must be your lucky day."

© Steve Earle

This electronic version of  "Wheeler County" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and author. It appears in the author´s collection Doghouse Roses, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2001. Book ordering available through amazon.comamazon.co.uk

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author bio

Steve EarleSteve Earle is an alternative country singer-songwriter who has released more than a dozen critically acclaimed albums, beginning with Guitar Town in 1986. His latest album The Revolution Starts . . . Now (2004) has been nominated for two Grammys: Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance and Best Contemporary Folk Album; the awards will be presented February 13. Earle has also drawn praise for his short fiction, which appears in his collection, Doghouse Roses, Houghton Mifflin Company. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


issue 46: January - February 2005

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