There was always a poker game going on in the front bar, on one of the shaky round tables – Jack Daniels in his shiny vest and shirtsleeves and three other guys of interminable flannel garb funnelling a collective six hundred and forty grams of finest Kentucky virgin tobaccy into the omnipresent, old-man-smelling fug in the Shitsville saloon. One afternoon – about 2 pm, still an hour til the whorehouse opened – I was in the game with my heels up, and winning by a mile. I had developed a system by which I could always win – enjoying the fruits of my genius; there was a nice heap of papers on my left, enough to float the next six rounds. At the other end of the saloon the girls were on stage smoking in French fashion with the fags dangling from the side of their mouths and occasionally stretching one calf or the other as though to justify their track pants, while someone out back plinked the piany – tho apparently not to tune it.
Suddenly old toothless Jeffrey jumped up. Jeffrey is that old codger in a rocking chair and long-johns with the seat out. He wore tiny brown laced-up brogues and a collar made of coon skins that had never been properly cured so they were rotting round his neck. All afternoon he’d been arguing with a woman in his mind’s eye and making sudden violent attempts towards calling down heaven on her loose womanly ways by clicking the spittle inside his cheeks and schucking his tongue around his last remaining tooth, a black molar. Then he was at the window with his pointed nose up against the glass tittering like a ravenous ‘coon what could smell warm badger cunt, saying, “Someone’s a coming!”
Beside him the friendless Baptist pamphleteer raised his little mole like head from the pages of his bible. Since his wife had dispatched herself to Jesus ahead of him with a mighty shotgun he was in there every day with his tambourine saying “Come Lord Jesus!” and that sort of shit. He peered through the bit of green glass in the window which formed the OO in ‘Saloon’ and began to intone:
“And lo – The Angel Michael – with his fiery sword descended upon the lands to separate the righteous from the damned on that final day–”
“Who is it, Jeff?” said Jack Daniels.
“Dunno. Lookee like a stranger.”
“Verily it is written, Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen!”
Verily we all remembered the day when one of the sheriffs from the county office had come into town and tried to make a thing out of state taxes.
“Let me handle this, boys,” I said, throwing down a pair of queens and pocketing my tax-free dues. Then I headed on over to the door – the light coming in through the slats showed all of the dust in the air moving like searchlights – and then I stepped out onto the porch (the doors swung screek screek behind me).
The long afternoon sun cast the town in perfect luminous gold so for an instant while my eyes adjusted you couldn’t see the cracks and the crap and the Mexican rats and the ruts in the road and the paint shedding in metre-long strips like tree bark or old man’s skin to show the asbestos building materials underneath. Instead everything was suffused with this incredible marigold light that was coming in low from the West behind the stranger. He cast a very long shadow forward.
There was a breeze now and for the first time in a week the stinking heat that was plastered over Shitsville like second-hand gum all peeled back and the scent from the lemon trees drifted across the road from the whorehouse, while the magnolias were all nodding and swinging like bells and dropping petals across the way. The stranger was in a glowing white jacket and chaps which had long tapers of fringe that floated out across the road, and the floating shadows of his sleeves played on the road ahead of him, as beautiful as a song.