The original Dutch Curridge short story, written in 2006 and included in the first edition of the novel DUTCH CURRIDGE.
Bob Wills Is Still The King
by Tim Bryant
It was New Years Eve, 1950, and I had two tickets to see Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys at the new Ranch House over in Dallas. The Musicians Union had declared a moratorium on recording in '48, and the band had spent most of the time since then in Oklahoma, so we'd gone a long spell without hearing much from them.
I showed up early, wearing a gabardine jacket and a hand-painted tie. Nobody likes to spend New Years alone, so I brought along a gal named Ruthie Nell. She worked out of the just-reopened Stockyard Hotel, where I kept a room about half the time. Ruth was standing in for my second wife, who had moved back to Arkansas with the baby.
Fading mental pictures of that unseasonable evening show Ruthie Nell in an Esther Williams-style swimsuit with a cape and long skirt and seamed stockings. I'm not clear about anything but the stockings. The pictures wouldn't reveal it, but I also recall her trying to psychoanalyze me all night long. I let her talk; it made less work for me.
The show was scheduled to kick off at nine that night. At 8:45 they came out and told us that Mr. Wills had suddenly taken ill. All tickets would be refunded on the spot, but we were welcome to stick around and ring in 1951 anyway. The way I figured, I now had ten more dollars in my pocket, so I might as well invest it in my future. Off to the bar we went.
Ruthie Nell was going on about Carl Jung's theories of the inner child, and I was sending little care packages down to mine when I noticed Leon McAuliffe slumped in a corner, knocking back glasses of whiskey two at a time. I told Ruth I hadn't seen a fallen angel up close in a long while, so I ambled over. "Too bad about the show," I offered.
"No shit," he said, looking kind of broke up through the bottom of the glass, "I guess, ya can't beat 'em, might as well join 'em."
Alcohol tends to bring out the social butterfly in me, so I said I'd probably be happy to enlist too, so long as I knew what I was joining. Leon called for another round and told me and Ruth that if we wanted to file a formal complaint, the guilty party was passed out on the bus out back, drunker than a Mississippi sheriff.
"You go tell the King I have a message for him from his daddy," I said.
Milton Brown raved like a mad man that last week before he passed on. Blamed Bob Wills for trying to sabotage his career and, not being content with that, trying to rub him right off the face of the earth. The official records show that a broken rib punctured his right lung, which brought on a case of pneumonia that did him in. This was 1936; the age before antibiotics. Still, no one expected him to buy the farm at age thirty-two. He sat in Harris Methodist Hospital in downtown Fort Worth and yapped at everyone within earshot all week, looking more like a man on vacation than on his death bed.
"It was two in the morning, and we just left the Oasis Club," Milton said. I shifted in my chair so that he had my good ear, pulled a flask of Wild Turkey bourbon from the inside pocket of my coat and pressed it to his cracked lips. Remembering the folded envelope in my breast pocket, I tapped a few pills out and we watched them drop silently into the liquid. A little trick called Been-A-Dream that my doctor prescribed to ward off hangovers, I told him.
"An ounce of prevention," he said with a smile.
His hair was so heavy with tonic you could taste it, and his head looked like a map of the Texas Hill Country. He was wearing a not-so-white cotton hospital gown that didn't exactly compliment his figure, and I was trying my damnedest not to catch a glimpse of whatever might be dangling from it.
"I was gonna drop that little girl off at her house and make a beeline for home," Milton said. "I must have been doing forty— forty-five tops— when I rounded the curve."
"And you're absolutely sure it was Mr. Wills you saw," I added, giving him the courtesy of ignoring the part about his underage accomplice. We'd been over the story before, so I knew what was coming. Mr. Bob Wills, leader of the Texas Playboys, standing in the tall grass off the shoulder of Jackson Highway, with a shotgun raised to his shoulder. I pictured him in his Stetson, chomping on a cigar, and barely suppressed a snort.
"Bob played with me in the Light Crust Doughboys for three years. I know him better than I know my own mama," he said, twisting toward me on the bed and wincing. "It was him and Leon. I'd stake my life on it, Dutch."
My name isn't Dutch. It's Alvis Rollin Curridge Jr. I prefer Alvis, but somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be cute to call me Dutch. I've learned to live with it.
Leon McAuliffe, suspect number two, was Mr. Wills' steel guitar player. His "Steel Guitar Rag" was yet to be released, but he was already well-known around Dallas/Fort Worth for his work with the band. I nodded and scribbled the name Leon down on the pad of paper I was carrying. I circled the name Bob Wills again and drew an arrow from it to Leon.
"Anything else you remember now?" I asked, and sketched a couple of faces while I waited. One was smiling, the other frowning something awful.
Harris Methodist was like a big sedated Goliath. You could hear pumps and machines going off up and down the colorless halls, to let you know its heart was still beating. Otherwise, you'd have thought there was no life there at all. I glanced at my watch. It was 3:30 A.M. and my mind was still on the nighttime side of things.
I'd been out for a night on Cowtown and had just come home an hour or so earlier; home being a room at what was then called the Exchange Hotel. I was staying there while I contemplated my next move. I also had a wife sleeping in my old house on the south side and a Tarrant County judge's strong conviction that I should stay away. Gave me more time to work, which was the only reason I'd taken the late night phone call.
"I took the Musical Brownies to New Orleans last month," Milton said. "Decca paid us to cut forty-nine sides in three days. We were on fire. Had Cliff Bruner playing fiddle. Wasn't nothin' we couldn't do, and nobody could touch us. It was gonna change everything."
I nodded appreciatively. I'd heard Bruner play around town and knew he could saw with the best of 'em. I added Cliff's name to my diagram and made a triangle.
"The last night, we headed over to a club off Basin Street to blow off some steam. We'd heard the Boswell Sisters were singing, and one of my boys was pretty hot and heavy on Connee."
"No big mystery there," I said. My wife liked the Boswell Sisters, and although I failed to share her enthusiasm for their singing, I could stare at pictures of Connee all day long.
"We show up en masse, nine or ten of us, and commence to havin' a natural good time," he said. "Somewhere along about midnight, a ruckus gets started out in the street, and I high-tail it out there, figuring one of the boys had a little too much, got caught squeezin' sombody's old lady or somethin'."
"But that wasn't it," I said. I've learned to pick up on little cues and say things like that. It makes me feel like I'm a step ahead in the game.
Milton grimaced. "I didn't get out the front door good before someone cold-cocked me from behind. Woke up on the bus, halfway back to the Texas state line. Nobody would say a damn word. Tried to act like they hadn't seen a thing. More like they'd seen something that scared 'em to death."
"Who you think did it?" I asked with genuine interest. My eyes were getting dry and part of me felt like lying down on the bed next to him, but, for some reason, I was suddenly leaning forward.
"Don't know who done it, but I reckon I know who had it done," he whispered, as if there were anyone around to eavesdrop.
"Let me guess."
"I've been a marked man ever since, Dutch. My time is nigh."
"Sounds awful Biblical to me," I said with a grin.
"How well you know your Bible?" he asked, looking right past my attempted levity.
"I went to Sunday school as a kid," I said. "I suppose I remember most of the good parts."
He went into a little riff about Lucifer being the leader of the band up in Heaven, but that he got the big head and left, taking a third of the other angels along with him. I didn't remember that part, but I nodded all the same. I suddenly felt like I had as a boy, when the pastor of Weatherford Methodist would drop by our house unannounced.
"I'm one of 'em," he said, after an uncomfortable silence.
"One of who?" I looked up from my doodling.
"The fallen angels. Nephilim. There's whole bands of us. Go out to the Crystal Ballroom. Place is swarming with us. Some good, some bad, most just caught in the middle and tryin' to work their way back where they started."
"I know the place," I said. The Crystal Springs Dancing Pavilion, out on White Settlement Road, was one of the rowdiest nightspots in all of Fort Worth. They handed out a free cake of soap to each patron at the door, just to prove how clean they were. I went often enough that I never had to buy soap, but neither did I buy their cleanliness routine. The biggest bands played there, rubbing shoulders with troublemakers like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and God knows who else. I couldn't see what a bunch of angels, dirty or not, would want with the place.
"It's a fine story you're tellin'," I admitted, "but it don't really speak to why Mr. Wills would decide to take up arms against you. You comin' to that part?"
"He's rebellin'," Milton said, sounding agitated that I hadn't connected the dots. "Tryin' to take away that what's rightfully mine. He who has ears, let 'im hear."
I told him there wasn't a thing wrong with my hearing, at least in my good ear.
"They been callin' me the Daddy of Western Swing in places a whole lot bigger than Fort Worth," Milton huffed. "Everybody knows I invented it. Bob knows it better than any. Now he's callin' himself the King of Western Swing. King of Western Swing, can you believe it? Well, I tell ya, even a king has a daddy. Even a king. Ain't that right?" He laughed one of those laughs that don't have anything at all to do with being funny and made a face that let me know it hurt plenty to do it.
He was convinced that within a year, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies would all but be forgotten. Mr. Wills would be doing Milton Brown songs, and nobody would even know the difference.
"That's what you woke me up out of bed at three in the morning for," I cracked. It was a lie designed to lighten his load a little, or maybe add to it. I'm not sure.
"It's a war out there," he said. "Devil's music, God's music. Blues and gospel. They're carving up the pie. It's a battle for souls, on the dancefloor just like real life. There's things comin' that'll take the world and shake it by the ears. You'll live to see it, even if I don't."
I tried to think of something smart to say but came up shy. All that talk about devils and angels was beginning to work me over pretty good. I swung my writing tablet closed, stretched my eyelids and tried focusing on my watch again.
I was stoned, but not so much that I failed to notice the catch in McAuliffe's throat.
"Milton who?" he asked, pulling his face out of his glass.
"That's right," I said. "Milton Goddamn Brown, the fallen angel hisself."
McAuliffe tumbled into standing position, begged our pardons, and took off through the kitchen like a chef with a burning soufflé. I smiled at Ruthie Nell and just nodded, as if to say, "that's the way you get things done."
"Tell you what. I'll swing by the Crystal on my way home, Milt. See if I can shake up any leads on that assault. Any idea who was playing tonight?" Sunday morning was inching into what was left of my field of vision, but I knew that Saturday night could outlast it up there. There'd likely still be a few drunks staggering around the place and a musician or two as well. Just enough time for a nightcap before heading to bed. It sure as hell beat waiting around and going to church.
"New guy from down south," he said. "Next big thing, gonna take the world by storm. Adolph Hofner, something like that." I considered scratching the name down, but didn't feel like opening the tablet back up.
"Don't have much of a ring to it," I said and stood up to leave.
I don't rightly know what Leon McAuliffe told Mr. Wills on the bus that night, but at 10:45, the King packed his Texas Playboys, with all their matching duds and musical paraphernalia, into the building and commenced to burn 1950 right to the ground. Ruth and I shagged, shuffled and sashayed into a whole new year, with her yapping into my bad ear the whole way. By midnight, I couldn't tell her voice from the steel guitar.
Appraising the situation as everything spun 'round and 'round, I noted to myself how the dancers all seemed to hover ever so slightly above the waxed floor, which began to glow like a coal furnace. As the band moved from "Never No More Hard Times" into "Show Me the Way to Go Home," I realized that old Milton had been right about at least a couple of things. The Playboys were doing one of his goddamn songs. And there were fallen angels everywhere.
"Bob Wills Is Still The King" was originally published in REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters; The Literary Journal of East Texas.