Friday, January 11, 2013

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down

Now I've been all around this whole wide world
Down to Memphis, Tennessee
Any old place I hang my hat
Looks like home to me

The story goes that when Walker Burke got drunk that night, in the back of Malone’s saloon, he brought down his beer bottle so hard the bottom busted.  It was said around town that the sound could be heard for miles.  Woke up the cows.  Caused the fish to swim upstream.  Cats jumped.  Walker just laughed and Malone the bartender frowned and cut him off.  No more drink for you, boy.  Boy? Walker’d said.  Who you calling boy?   Malone, used to this sort of thing, put out his hand.  Easy there, no sense in gettin’ riled up.   

The crew from the late shift at the textile mill fell back, giving him some room, some rope, just to see what he’d do with it.  How far he’d take things.  Walker pushed back his barstool, wobbling a bit.  Tom O’Connor, the muscled late-shift foreman slid off his barstool and slunk forwards menacingly - a shock of red hair curling over his forehead.  Little Pat Dupree’d edged over and put his arm around Walker’s shoulder.  Everyone thought Walker’d shrug off Pat’s arm and start throwing punches.  That there’d be a fight. 

“I only keep you on at the mill as a favor to your old man.  He at least knew how to put in an honest days work.”  Tom said.

Walker moved towards him, pointing, repeating himself -  “Did you hear me? I’m not going back in them damn mills.”   What happened next is a bit in dispute.  Even now, the shape his face was in when he staggered out of there depends on who’s telling it and when.  The only thing everyone agrees on is that the boss laughed to himself the whole time.  Turned and muttered to the bartender – “Don’t he know?  In the end, everyone has to go back.”

Walker told the story, the one about the beer bottle busting, the bartender cutting him off, and the blood on the floor, just so he could get to the part about never going back.  He told it at campfires and behind meeting tents and while on stage, between songs.  He told it in Memphis Tennessee and North Carolina and Virginia and New York City and plenty of places in between.  So many places that eventually it slipped into legend.  Did you hear about that Walter Burke?  Never going back!  Folks’d say it on their way into the job.  Punching the time clock.  Waiting for the dinner whistle, then the final blow.  They’d say it and crack up grinning.  Then they’d say it again, under their breath, wistfully.

There were plenty of people who’d claimed to have been there and seen the whole thing.  More than could fill all of Malone’s saloon.  Trouble was it wasn’t true.  There was a Malone’s saloon all right and Walker’d been there plenty of times, but he never busted open a beer bottle there.  Truth was he’d slipped away one night - dead quiet, stone sober - with a knapsack and a banjo case slung over his shoulder.  Pat Dupree by his side.

Walker could do that to you, set the truth so close to the lie that they leaned into each other – forming an arch that only he could squeeze through.  And when his voice slipped into a pleading moan, the arch became a doorway, slung open to the world and the truth was only as real as those who heard it wanted it to be.  They could make their own truths – slip out of the mills or mines or fields on Walker’s shoulders, grinning and tapping their toes the whole time.

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