Ronnie Thompson sauntered into the Honky Tonk Angel roadside bar. His red clay encrusted CAT work boots might as well have been boots of the finest Spanish leather. You don’t get many days like today, he thought, so live it up.
“Drinks for everyone,” said Ronnie
The few who paid attention cheered as well as tired old drunks could cheer. The meaty waitresses scowled at Ronnie. He talked too much and almost always had nothing worth saying.
Down the bar next to a flashing Budweiser sign with the B-U-D burnt out sat Earl Watson, a quiet man whose life had trampled over him since he could stand up. The sign above Earl read “W-E-I-S-E-R” flashed as if to mock him with its cruel irony.
Ronnie was a loudmouth. Earl didn’t like loudmouths, but how could he dislike a man who wanted to buy him a beer? Exceptions could be made.
Ronnie sat down beside Earl directly under the half-lit Budweiser sign, which still read W-E-I-S-E-R. The sign flashed again, but this time not in a mocking way—more like a knowing way.
“You are welcome Earl, how’s it hanging?” Earl didn’t reply, unsure of what to say.
"Okay Earl, since you are the only one who seems to care, let me tell you why I'm in such a great mood. I just got $150,000—that’s right, $150,000-- for my personal injury settlement, and I got the check today. But that's not why I'm so happy about it. I'm pleased, but something much better happened. Something I will never forget. A crowning achievement as them people on TV say."
"Yeah?" Earl stared incredulously. Every lawyer he had ever met was smart, especially "Buzz Saw" Billy Peterson, the divorce lawyer, who took 70% of what Earl owned and gave it to his ex-wife, Elma Lou. Buzz Saw happened to be screwing her at the same time.
Given all he knew about lawyers, Earl doubted Ronnie Thompson could outwit a lawyer.
“I’m going to tell you Earl, but you will probably laugh beer out of your nose so make sure you don’t take a drink before I deliver the punch line.”
Earl nodded in agreement.
“This lawyer took what’s called my deposition. That’s lawyer code for busting your balls. And this insurance defense lawyer—his name was Mr. Benjamin Dumas—that was really his name. Say it fast Earl. He had gone to Harvard Law School I heard him say to my lawyer. My lawyer went to Carolina. Hell, my lawyer’s a great guy.”
Part of Earl wanted to hear what Ronnie had to say, a feeling he never thought he would have.
“Let me tell you how it went.”
Ronnie leaned in to talk to Earl, a twinkle in his eye. Earl felt an unexpected surge of interest. It would be nice to hear about an asshole lawyer getting his clock cleaned, but he knew nothing would take the sting away of the whipping he took at the hands of Buzz Saw Peterson.
“Okay so I walk into the conference room. My lawyer just has his tie on and a white shirt. Harvard guy on the other side of the table has a three piece suit on.” Ronnie barks out a laugh that makes Earl jump.
Seeing as how he startled Earl, Ronnie laughs even more. “Hold onto your hat their Earl.” Ronnie waved dismissively to the barmaid for another beer. He pounded the bar with his fist, but the heavy mahogany didn’t move. She plopped down the beer, and ice from the bottle slapped Earl in the hand. It stung a little. I didn’t even do anything, thought Earl.
“The court reporter swore me on the Bible. Then she put this thing on her face. It looked like a cross between a CPAP machine and that bacta tank facemask Luke Skywalker wore after he almost bit the bullet on Hoth.”
Earl remembered seeing the Empire Strikes Back with Elma Lou in high school. He had been happy then, and he thought it would last. It didn’t. Now everything reminded him of that. Elma Lou had even gotten his large Star Wars memorabilia collection. Screw you Buzz Saw.
“So this is a weird situation.” Ronnie takes a sloppy sip from his beer, and the foam trickles down his chin. “That’s good,” he says. “Okay, back to it.”
Earl couldn’t stop thinking about the movie and Elma Lou, but he tried to focus on Ronnie. It was the least he could do give that the man bought him a free beer with a few more likely to come.
“I’m sworn in in the Bible, and the lawyer starts asking me questions about my life and crap. I feel like I’m talking to that shrink my ex-wife made me go to.”
Earl went to a shrink once, after Buzz Saw got done with him. It hadn’t helped a whole lot. In fact, it made him worse because he thought too much about what happened. Psychoanalysis didn’t work for some or so he’d concluded.
“He starts asking me about who was in the truck when the accident occurred. I tell him it ain’t no accident. It’s a wreck—my lawyer says there are no accidents, just wrecks.”
Ronnie finishes his beer and raps the bar. This time the bar shakes a little. The bar maid glares again, but she brings another beer. He gulps it. More foam down the chin. Ronnie doesn’t seem to care. Earl wishes he didn’t care about things too. Life would be easier that way.
“I say to Mr. Dumas, ‘Can’t you read the report?’ He gets all huffy with me and says, ‘I’m asking the questions.’ He objects and does what’s called a move to strike what I just said.”
Ronnie smiles and shakes he head. “I don’t understand the way lawyers talk. It is like Greek to me. It really is. They can take the simplest things and make them so damn complicated. Life shouldn’t be that hard.”
Lawyers—a lawyer—certainly had made Earl’s life hard. Ronnie was starting to make some sense. Maybe he wasn’t just a loudmouth.
“He asks about my injuries. See my lawyer told me to be truthful, but he also told me to complain. I don’t have any trouble complaining about things when it is necessary. I whine about my back hurting. It still does hurt, but this Oxy I’m on helps a lot. And when you mix it with this beer I don’t have a care in the world.”
That doesn’t sound good, thought Earl. Where were the police when you needed them?
Ronnie pounds the bar, seeing an old conquest, and shouts at her, “Hey there Glenda. Remember me?” Glenda turns away, disgusted.
“Oh come on now. Don’t be like that. Come hear my story. It’s a good one.”
No one else appeared interested in Ronnie’s story, and Earl was there by default. At least he was at first, but he was interested now. Ronnie did have his attention.
Ronnie gathered himself, his frustration temporary, the gleam in his eye appeared again, and he might as well have been a little boy at Christmas.
Back in the story telling mode, Ronnie began again, convinced his story was a tale to be retold, one that would last for the ages. “I tell him there wasn’t anyone in the car with me. This should have been his first clue. He disagrees with me on this point.”
Silent for the most part, Earl finally says something, “How could he disagree with you about who was there if he wasn’t there?”
Recognition flashed in Ronnie’s eye. He reached over and grabbed Earl around the shoulder and shouted to the barmaid, “Get this boy another Bud. He’s a gooooood listener. He should be a shrink, an interior decorator or something like that.”
Earl wasn’t sure if Ronnie was making fun of him. He used to never think people were making fun of him until Elma Lou left him. Then he felt like the biggest rube on the planet as if some vale had been pulled away from his eyes to reveal a world—his world—where everyone mocked and made fun of him all the time. He almost wished he was in the world before Elma Lou left him so he wouldn’t know the truth or what he perceived as the truth. Ignorance could be bliss sometimes.
“Mr. Dumas pulls out this thing called an Accident Report. I ain’t never seen something like this, but I’ve never been in a wreck.”
Earl wonders why Ronnie continues to mock this Harvard educated lawyer, Mr. Dumas. Maybe he was jealous of the guy. Maybe he was being what his 9th grade high school English teacher Leah Baker called “ironic”. Ms. Baker had legs that went on forever and the face of an angel. She didn’t last long, however, because she got kicked out of school for sleeping with the varsity football captain, Davey Andrews, who used to beat Earl up and stuff him in his locker.
“This so-called report is confusing. There are these pictures of what’s supposed to be cars. They look like boxes or cars from some Atari game I used to play as a teenager. I can’t tell which one is supposed to be my car or the turd who hit me.”
Ronnie gulps his beer. That has to be three beers in less than 15 minutes, thought Earl. Ronnie smacked his lips and let out an, “Ahhhhh.” Budweiser wasn’t 300-year-old Scotch, but Ronnie didn’t seem to know the difference.
“I look at the report and say, ‘It says I got hit hard.’ He actually agrees I got hit. Why would he do that? If I don’t get hit, then I ain’t got no case. Anyway, it was kind of confusing.”
Confusing, thought Earl, Ronnie didn’t seem confused.
“I figure he’s just messing with me. He’s using some mind freak or Jedi mind trick.” Star Wars, thought Earl. He really needed to quit associating that with Elma Lou. He really wanted to see the movie in 2015, and he couldn’t let one date with Elma Lou when they were young and dumb taint the movie for him.
“Then he sees a name on the report. The police officer listed a passenger in the car. I’m thinking maybe I forgot. Hell I had been drinking, but the officer never gave me a test. And the lawyer didn’t bother to ask me about if I’d been drinking.”
Earl was surprised the lawyer hadn’t asked Ronnie about drinking. Everyone who knew Ronnie knew he drank like a fish and not just any fish. He drank like one of those catfish in Cripple Lake people speculated could get as big as a Volkswagen beetle.
“My lawyer said to tell the dang truth. He said if the lawyer didn’t ask me about drinking I didn’t have to say nothing. He hadn’t asked it at all in his written questions.”
This lawyer don’t got no horse sense, thought Earl. Even a simple-minded man like himself would have known to ask about these things.
“He says, ‘Is it your contention no one was in the truck with you when you had the accident?’ I say, ‘No,’ because it was true. No one was in the truck with me—I don’t’ remember anyone at least. I can’t figure out what the heck he’s doing. I know he’s trying to trip me up, but I don’t know how.”
Earl didn’t know how either. Lawyers were crafty. You didn’t seem them coming a lot of the time. They were like those velociraptors from Jurassic Park. Damn good movie, he thought, and he loved how the lawyer got eaten by the T-rex while still wearing his $1,000.00 suit and $500.00 alligator shoes.
“So I’m getting a little nervous, which is unusual for me as I’m normally cool and collected.” Ronnie pushes back his scraggly hair out of his face, the callouses on his hands noticeable. He’d done a lot of hard work in his life. Lots of people like Ronnie and Earl had. Ronnie and Earl were alike in that regard. Some small part of him wanted Ronnie to score a victory because it was a victory for all of them.
“He gets real quiet like I was some damn kid called down in a class. I really am nervous at this point. He missed the alcohol point, so I thought maybe he had another method of attack.”
Earl leaned forward on his stool, nothing else audible to him other than Ronnie’s voice. Earl listened to that voice as if it were the voice of God calling out to him from the howling void, a voice that would tell him the truth, the secret to life that had eluded him during his short tenancy on this mad rock we call Earth.
Ronnie swigs his beer, and he starts to laugh. “I really am worried, and it seems so dumb now—but it wasn’t then. Then he asks me, ‘Who is Jack Russell then?’”
Earl didn’t know any Jack Russell, and he thought no one else was in the tuck. Maybe Ronnie had been wrong.
Ronnie tries to maintain himself, the laughter obviously getting to him. “I say he’s my friend. Then he says, ‘I thought no one else was in the truck with you.’ I tell him that’s right.’ He looks really confused at this point.”
Earl wondered why the report would say someone was in the truck if there wasn’t. Something didn’t add up here.
The W-E-I-S-E-R sign blinked rapidly or at least the E did. Then it went out. The sign now read W-I-S-E-R. As the E burned out Ronnie grew more confident as if the energy dying neon light had been transferred to him and suffused him with limitless energy and power.
Ronnie slammed his hand down on the bar again, but this time the bar jumped like a bull trying to throw a rider off before 8 seconds passed. “Get me another beer,” he yelled to no one in particular. Earl supposed Ronnie thought everyone would obey him now, but he didn’t know where this surge of confidence came from.
“I told him no one was in the car with me, but then he asked, ‘Then who was Jack Russell listed on the accident report?’ At first I thought he was kidding, but then I realized the fool was serious. So I played along.”
Earl thought, who is Jack Russell?
“He’s getting really pissed, but I am enjoying seeing him squirm in his expensive suit. I’ve got something on him.” The beer comes to Ronnie and, in one fluid motion, he opens his left hand, grabs the beer and swigs half of it easily. He may as well have been drinking water at this point.
“So I tell him Jack Russell was my friend—my best friend in fact.” Ronnie laughs and spits out some beer. The beer hits his boots and knocks off some of the mud on the ground.
“The lawyer is red faced now. He asks me if I know the penalty for perjury in this state. I tell him I ain’t lying. He doesn’t buy this.” Ronnie takes another swig, spilling more beer on his boots. And more dirt is washed off.
Earl is spellbound. Where is this going, he thinks.
“He then asks me how often Jack Russell and I’ve talked. I tell him he’s never spoken to me, not in 10 years.”
Ronnie straightens himself up as if he is a conductor directing the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. “He finally asks me, ‘Why is it you’ve been friends for Jack Russell for 10 years and you’ve never spoken to him?’” Ronnie is howling with laughter but still straight, and then he says, “I tell him, ‘He’s my dog!”
Redneck, Ronnie Thompson, waltzes into "The Honky Tonk Angel" to recount the his great victory to unsuspecting alcoholic Earl. He's never had much luck though this does not stop him from having a high opinion of himself. Ronnie tells the story of how he matches wits with a Harvard Law School trained lawyer. Will he come out on top and win at something for once in his life? This his chance to win one small victory in a lifetime of ass kickings, lost jobs, lost loves and debauchery viewed through beer goggles.