(The following story is one I was asked to write down yesterday. Please forgive any errors. It’s as true of a story as you’ll ever read and one that sometimes comes to mind when I’m driving near Noel, Missouri.)
The Beer & Pantyhose Story
Years ago, Bill Qualls needed someone to help him move some timber off his cousin’s property, near a bend in Elk River, over by Noel, Missouri. Since no one else was available, he called me and came by to pick me up. For three hours, he watched in amused irritation as I did literally everything wrong. I broke out both taillights of his pickup and then managed to crack the rear glass of the cab. I reminded him that my labor was free and kept on piling the timber across the truck.
After I dropped the same piece of wood on his hand twice, Bill decided that we were as done as we were ever going to be, and that he wanted to go get a beer. (Later, after the night’s excitement, it seemed like he was trying to get me killed – or at least get me prominently pictured on the back of some milk cartons.)
As we took several obscure turns in increasingly dark tree-lined roads, we hit a dirt road that seemed to be about four feet wide. Bill turned down the static-filled a.m. radio and said, “Now X, you gotta be careful in this place. These are deep woods folks. Don’t be doing or saying anything weird like you enjoy doing. Just keep your piehole closed and listen. And don’t ask them to play any Vanilla Ice on the jukebox, either.”
I looked at Bill as if he had just accused me of offering to kill his grandmother. “Of course, Bill, I’ll be on my best behavior. You won’t even know I’m there.” Bill cut me a look of suspicion, as if I weren’t capable of being normal for five minutes.
Bill took a sharp left and drove off into a holler, or so it seemed. There was a deep, narrow dirt road leading to a dimly-lit cabin front. I could make out a long building, probably about 75 feet long. Where the front porch should have been was a large sign with mostly burned-out bulbs, indicating “Beer Here.”
“That’s clever, Bill. Is the competition called ‘Beer There,’ or ‘Friends in Really Low Places’ or what?” I giggled.
Bill said, “That’s exactly what I don’t want to hear once we go in there. Just keep it down.”
“Calm down, you worry too much. It’s all good.” I smiled. And then added, “I hope they have Perrier water, though.”
As we pulled up, I could see dark figures sitting on old stumps, smoking and drinking. Their voices seemed to be speaking some exotic language.
Within one minute of entering the bar, we were already in danger of needing our organ donation cards.
Let me back up a little bit, though. And it was probably closer to 20 seconds, anyway.
As we went inside, I started coughing. The air was so thick with cigarette smoke that it felt like I was breathing cotton into my lungs. I followed Bill, still trying to get some clean air into my body. I leaned over, trying to get leverage to stop coughing.
“Hey boy, get your damned hand off my pool table!” I looked up to see the meanest, ugliest imitation of a man-bear hybrid I’d ever seen. At the same time, I realized that I had leaned over and put my hand directly on the cue ball, interrupting the pool game already in progress.
I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but I blurted out, “Why are you so fixated on these balls?” And I kept coughing.
I heard a whoosh go by my ear and I heard Bill gasp in surprise. Bear-Man hybrid had swung his pool stick by the narrow end, attempting to hit me in the temple with the wide end of it. He missed, either from the fog of smoke or due to the quantity of cheap beer he had already drank.
But he did successfully hit Boss, another large ugly man standing to my left, who turned out to be both his cousin and uncle. The cue stick hit him solidly on the forehead. Boss grunted and started to fall. As he did, he grabbed me and started pulling me down. I held on to the cue ball I already had my hand on and threw it crazily pass Bear-Man hybrid’s face. The ball sailed past him and hit another monster of a man seated with his back to the pool table. I could see Monster’s head turn and come to the wrong conclusion that Bear-Man Hybrid had just him in the back with the cue stick. As I fell past the edge of the table toward the floor, Monster was already out of his chair, kicking it backwards, ready to fight. I knew that half the bar was going to jump in and fight anyone already standing up. In my mind, I was already planning Bill’s funeral – assuming I survived the encounter myself.
I heard Bill shriek like someone had just pulled his underwear so hard that his grandkids could feel it. I could hear glass shatter and then grunting. As I hit the floor, Boss’ hand came loose from my arm. He was out cold. I crawled under the filthy pool table and jumped out the other side, standing about 10 feet from Bill, who was now engaged in fisticuffs with another bar patron. I had the impression that said bar patron was trying to use Bill’s head as a human cymbal.
I turned to run back through the fog toward what I presumed to be the front door. Just as I did, Bill’s voice rang out with an odd vibrato, probably from just recently being hit like a cymbal by a fist larger than my entire head.
“Where are you going?” Bill hollered at me as I moved away.
“I gotta go put on some pantyhose!” I screamed, in order to be heard over the boisterous crowd
“What? Pantyhose? What are you talking about?” Bill stood up, ignoring the fist flying past him. Curiosity had taken over.
“You told me if I ever got into a fight and was gonna choke someone, I had to do it with pantyhose.” I thought this explained it all nicely. Words had always come easily to me, whether they made any sense or not.
The entire fight came to a complete standstill, and a couple of fighters literally stopped their fists in mid-air, with looks of incredulity on their faces. (Although if I had said the word “incredulity” at that point, most of the bar would have resumed trying to kill us and each other, mistaking the word for an insult. There probably was a county-wide ban on four-syllable words, anyway.)
For two infinite seconds, the bar was deadly silent. We could all hear the hum of the decrepit air conditioner struggling to run and cool the room.
As quietly as the oldest lady in church, Bill’s voice squeaked out: “No, you choke the guy WITH the pantyhose, not WHILE you have pantyhose on. That’ll give the wrong impression.”
Everyone turned toward Bill, still not quite understanding the confusion. Bill shrugged his shoulders and said, “X is from Arkansas. He’s not much of a fighter.”
The laughter erupted immediately and grew into a horrible crescendo of drunken mockery. Some of the guys who had been prepared to bite off noses and gouge eyes were doubled over, holding their stomachs, laughing like 8 month-old babies.
By the time Bill and I got out of that bar, we had bought 63 beers for our new friends. Bear-Man Hybrid actually liked the nickname I had given him, even though he told me his Christian name was Alfonso – which in no way matched his appearance. His cousin/uncle Boss showed me his library card to prove his real name was Beard. He wasn’t sure why I thought it was so funny that he owned a library card. It turned out that Beard loved reading Agatha Christie novels. As for me, I lied and told them my name was “X” thanks to the witness protection program.
As we drove away, we were both making promises to lead an upstanding life, having just come as close to death as would be humanly possible.
I asked Bill many times to take me back to that bar to relive old memories. Each time I did, he would mumble something about not having enough insurance to cover it and change the subject.