Winston had been invited out for an evening with the Barley Boys. The invitation came in the form of a phone call from his school days friend, Jesse, and he actually welcomed it. Winston thought it would be fun to see good old Jesse again and go out and have a laugh and a few drinks.
The Barley Boys came with the package because that was the crowd that Jesse hung out with. A decade or more ago, Winston had himself coined the phrase "Barley Boys" although he wasn't sure if they knew it. The christening poked fun at the fact that they drank a lot of beer. Winston didn't really mind if they knew; they were good-natured enough, although a rougher, lower-browed crowd than what he was used to -- a bit like the bar Jesse had invited him to: it was very blue collar and rather beat-up. Winston drove by it to work every day and it was called the Hogan. Jesse said there would be a fun band playing there that evening.
"I'd be honored to bust barley with you tonight," Winston told him, and they agreed to meet at the Hogan at nine o'clock because that was when the band started its first set.
Jesse and the Barley Boys had made the Hogan their hang-out many years ago. The bar had a standard beer and wine license, and Jesse's only objection to the place was that he often had to sneak out to get a few "whiskey drinks" in some other place that had a hard liquor license. He liked to get a good and decent "edge on" whenever he was out on the town, and to do that he needed to increase the octane level of his beverages from time to time.
Winston arrived at the bar that evening a few minutes late. There were quite a few cars and pick-ups in the gravel parking lot of the bar, but he found a place to park easily enough and went in the front door. There was a three-dollar cover charge for the band.
Inside, he saw a square wooden bar. Every seat was taken. The floor and walls of the Hogan were made of pine and there were bridles and saddles and other cowboy tack hanging up on the walls. On one wall, was a poster that read:
Beyond the bar, Winston could see an open dance hall lined with folding metal chairs and tables. He reached between two older guys at the bar to order a beer, paid the bartender, and left a quarter tip. Then he walked in the direction of the stage where the band had started to play.
Winston spotted Jesse on the left side of the room by the wall. He stood by a flimsy metal table, an old Mexican thing with Corona de Barril painted on it. The chairs didn't match; they had Tecate painted on them. Standing with Jesse, along with several other of the Barley Boys, was Killer Dog, whose real name was something like Leonard or Louis. Killer Dog greeted him with, "Where the hell have you been you son of a bitch?" The rest of the Barley boys laughed.
The Cryin' Onions were banging out a rock number but almost no one was up dancing. There were two male guitarists, a string bass player, a drummer and a female singer who also had a guitar.
On the other side of the room were a number of girls and only a couple of guys. The girls were drinking beer and looking at the Barley Boys. The scene took Winston back to his first eighth grade dance where all of the guys sat on one side of the gym and all of the girls on the other until finally some guy had the guts to walk all the way across and ask a girl to dance. Jesse and Winston had gone to that dance together many years ago. He knew that Jesse would remember.
Also across the room, sitting on a folding chair, was a fat girl. A sudden and hilarious idea came to Winston. He giggled to himself and then turned to Jesse and grabbed him by the front of his shirt with both hands. "Jesse," Winston said gleefully. "Five bucks to dance with the fat girl!"
Jesse leaned back with a blank look. He was quite a bit taller than Winston. His face looked flat and expressionless. He made a slobbery puff of air with his lips, seemingly to pooh pooh the challenge. "I'll dance with her," he said.
Winston watched as Jesse crossed the floor and spoke to the fat girl. She got up from the folding chair and they walked to the center of the dance floor. There were only two other couples up there. The new song that started now was Roy Orbison's Blue Bayou, the rendition slow and smoochy. The fat girl took Jesse's left hand in her right and Jesse put his other hand on her back. He leaned away to be able to see her better and the two talked and smiled as they danced slowly in the center of the room. The song went on and the mutual smiles and talk continued for a long time.
The Barley boys looked on, smoking their cigarettes and drinking their beer. Some of them grinned but there was no titter, and Winston realized that none of them was putting the fat girl down.
When the dance ended, Jesse bent down and said what must have been some clever parting comment that he had dreamed up. Whatever it was, it made the fat girl laugh, and she playfully slapped him on the arm. Then she turned and went back to her chair. Her friend handed her a tall brown bottle of beer.
Jesse walked back and Winston handed him a five-dollar bill. Jesse looked at it for a second, almost as if he had forgotten the wager. Then, in a casual motion, he took it from Winston's hand. There was no glee in his expression. No sign of self congratulation.
Jesse's dance with the fat girl served to break the ice between the two sides of the room. Soon others were up and dancing and the dance floor filled.
The song this time was Fred Rose's 1930s swing tune Deep Water, an upbeat piece played doubletime that imposed its own character on the dancing. Winston knew that a swing tune would naturally pull the crowd away from the their standard twist-centered style appropriate to the usual rock numbers, lending sway instead to an offbeat motion and a different syncopation between partners and their steps to the music. The crowd seemed to like the challenge and it didn't matter that they weren't experts; it was fun, cool as anything, and easy enough to fake. Even if you flopped, it was good for a hoot. Winston looked and saw that the fat girl's chair was empty. She must have found another partner.
The tempo picked up as the song progressed, a common occurrence for any band in a live show. The drummer reigned in the guitarists and bass player, pulling them back to better timing by slowing the tempo with the swishing brushes on the snare. Winston looked on. It was a good band. The singer, a dark-haired young woman in a long red dress, played a sunburst arch-top. She could have stood in for the drummer with the standard swing chord-chunk! chord-chunk! rhythm that made her instrument as much like a drum as a guitar. Winston had never seen a girl play swing guitar as well.
When the music ended, there was the sound of laughter and a few drunken yahoos and the crowd all clapped just as if they had been at a real dance. Some stayed on the floor and others went back to their seats. Winston saw the fat girl walking back to her girlfriends who stood chatting and drinking by the folding chairs.
The band stayed in the swing mode, starting up again with their version of Willie Nelson's Crazy, its tempo really only suitable for slow dancing. The two male guitarists stood this one out, and only the singer, bassist, and drummer played.
Winston pulled up a chair at the Corona table and sat next to Killer Dog so he could enjoy the band. Winston had always been partial to a trio. He noted that the piece was in the key of G and that the singer played on her arch-top guitar a familiar swing progression: a 6th, a diminished, a minor seventh, and a ninth, each of her three or four-note jazz chords followed by a muted strum, a drum-like chunk! echoing the easy swish! of the brushes on the snare drum behind her. She sang beautifully, her voice wonderfully sweet and perfectly in pitch.
Too bad, Winston thought, that the intricacies of the music were lost on the Barley Boys. He remembered once long ago trying to explain some of it to them and how his explanation was met with a singular disinterest and how quickly the subject of the conversation had changed to something much more mundane. Perhaps the Barley Boys couldn't understand such things. Perhaps they just chose not to.
Winston felt the music and the alcohol mixing together to create a blissful euphoria and he was almost tempted to dance himself. It would be great to form a band like that, he thought. For a moment he began to daydream about the girl in the red dress.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of Killer Dog's chair banging against his own as the Barley Boy got up to cross the dance floor. Killer Dog was short, but because of the noise and music he still had to bend down a little in order to ask the fat girl to dance. She rose wearing the same smile with which she had welcomed Jesse's invitation. The two of them strolled to the center of the floor.
Once again, Winston witnessed the smiles and the casual talk and once again, the dance floor filled as he sat sipping his beer, listening to the band. The music certainly was good, he thought. Jesse had been right. It was a fun band. Winston sat and watched them play. A moment later, he looked back at the dancers.
Killer Dog had disappeared with his partner into the swirling crowd, but occasionally through the thick blue haze of cigarette smoke and the glare of the cheap stage lights, Winston could see him, both arms around the fat girl's waist, hers around his neck, the two of them cheek to cheek as they danced lightly to the music.