In the newlywed years of our marriage, my husband and I went on Saturday night dinner dates that often ended with a stop at Borders, where we’d part ways to browse alone for an hour or two. Inevitably, I’d find myself in the music department. On one of these evenings, I stopped in front of a station displaying George Jones’ 16 Biggest Hits. Jones, whose long nose and beady eyes earned him the nickname “The Possum,” gazed from the cover of his newly-released CD. I studied those eyes, and thought of my dad.
Scanning the back cover’s list, I didn’t recognize “Bartender’s Blues,” but the title snagged me, made me wonder how I’d never heard it before. Jones was one of Dad’s favorite country singers, if not his very favorite. Unfailingly, his eyes would become damp whenever “He Stopped Loving Her Today” came on the radio, and in certain moods he’d blast Jones’ music from the tall living room speakers. I knew a handful of these songs by heart, especially the ones about drinking: “Still Doing Time,” and “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).” The year was 1998 and I lived in Orange County, thirty miles down the freeway from my parents’ apartment, and I missed my dad, though I’d already spent half my life missing him.
For most of my life, Dad was a bartender, the occupation he listed on my birth certificate. Despite forays into other jobs (and a side gig as a secondhand dealer of vintage glass and pottery), throughout my childhood and young adult years, he always returned to bartending, the role that defined him. Decades spent in bars, working in the thick secondhand smoke of cigarettes, along with his own lifelong smoking habit, contributed to his eventual diagnosis of advanced emphysema. While working toward my college degree, I’d moved back home again, and spent nights in my old bedroom cringing as I listened to my night-owl dad in the living room, hacking into wads of Kleenex in the blue glow of midnight Law & Order reruns.
In the bookstore, I fit the bulky headphones over my ears, pressed the digital display to call up Track 6, and closed my eyes as the song began. Almost speaking the lines, Jones introduced himself: “Now I’m just a bartender/And I don’t like my work/But I don’t mind the money at all.” In his hillbilly yowl, he stretched the word “money” into four or five syllables, and it was there my breath caught in my throat, stoppered by shock. The few lines summed up the entirety of my dad’s working life.
As it played on, the song worked on me like those spinning carnival rides where the bottom falls away and only centrifugal force keeps you pinned to the wall. Against the almost comically twangy guitars, Jones’ delivery enumerated all the clichés of a bartender’s roles: a lighter of customers’ smokes, the master of repartee and witty jokes who knows to laugh harder at yours, the therapist who’s seen and heard all the sad faces and cases yet casts a harsher eye on his own foibles, and understands he needs the four walls of the joint to keep him from blowing away.
Jones sang about closing up the bar, gassing up his car, and mailing in his keys. Too often to tally, my dad would disappear without giving notice to either his employers or family, sometimes for forty-eight hours, or for months at a time, leaving us grim with worry. Whenever a combination of money and drinking problems spun my dad too tightly, whenever he felt the walls of consequence closing in, he would snap and spin off in wild directions behind the wheel of the most reliable of my parents’ used cars. Sometimes the spin was brief, taking him across the freeways and boulevards toward his usual haunts of Bellflower and Long Beach and other cities around southeast LA. Other times it took him skittering far across interstates 10 and 40 until he reached some private stopping point and found himself behind yet another bar, though often hundreds of miles away—a lakeside lodge in rural Oklahoma, or a resort on the Florida coast.
Jones’ bartender recounted burning his bridges and sinking his ships: “Now I’m stranded at the edge of the sea,” he wailed. I thought of my dad’s unending struggle to find some kind of contentment, as he kept returning to the same destructive behaviors. How many jobs, women, friends, and paychecks had he burned through over the years? Only he knew, and I was sure he’d long ago lost count.
George Jones was a country music legend and master interpreter of sad songs, but he wasn’t a songwriter. After that evening at Borders, I looked up “Bartender’s Blues,” and was dismayed to learn it was written by James Taylor. I liked Taylor and his reedy, folksy style well enough, but he didn’t strike me as having earned the credentials to have written that song. I associated Taylor with the kind of East Coast elitism that ran contrary to the blue-collar, hard luck world of men like George Jones and my daddy. Yet I knew enough of Taylor’s history to begrudge he was no stranger to inner demons and dark places, knew he’d battled depression and heroin addiction and spent time in Massachusetts sanitariums. I understood that Taylor was a gifted writer, with a talent for characterization and storytelling—even when it wasn’t his own personal story.
Along with being known as “The Possum,” George Jones also earned the nickname “No Show Jones” for the many missed and canceled tour dates due to heavy drinking. An infamous story recounts how he once tried to drive a ride-on John Deere lawn mower to the closest liquor store after his second wife hid his car keys in an attempt to keep him sober. Jones’ third marriage to singer Tammy Wynette was a creative but tumultuous union that ended after five years, in large part due to his drinking and carousing. Despite the hard living, despite his excesses, George Jones managed to live to eighty-two, aided by the love of a good woman (wife number four), who kept him sober in his later years. And so both James Taylor and George Jones suffered, yet their private struggles only burnished their reputations, added to the glow of their public personas, and contributed to the bodies of work that transcended their addictions. Such are the perks of hit records and a loyal fan base.
My dad tried to save himself, to right the wrongs he’d inflicted upon himself and our family. He attended multiple rounds of AA meetings and voluntarily checked himself into treatment programs, one of which was on the grounds of a large state-run mental hospital (that happened to be across the street from another bar where he’d worked). But the treatments and programs never took for longer than a year.
In the end, it wasn’t the love of a good woman that kept him home and slowed his drinking, but his increasingly bad health. Dad wasn’t a legendary singer with younger artists paying him tribute and keeping his name relevant; he was legendary only within a small circle of home and extended family. When he died at sixty-four he left behind not a body of work, but a garage full of dusty Arizona Highways and boxes of old books, pottery, and Depression glass, most purchased online with the intent to resell someday. It took years for my mother to sort through it all, to dole out the items to Goodwill, the junk collector, and me. As for my dad’s story, those long nights and months of my adolescence were all reduced to anecdote, boiled down to a phrase my mother still repeats: “It was never boring,” she likes to say.
Many nights waiting for Dad to come home, when he was late from work, an AA meeting, or just inexplicably gone, we tried distracting ourselves with other activities. Our second-floor apartment was on a busy street in a southeast LA suburb. Most of the windows faced the street, with a city view of streetlights sprawling south to the oil fields of Santa Fe Springs and on toward Long Beach. This was the direction he’d be arriving from, if he arrived. My mother would pace a sort of widow’s walk across the wide dining nook windows, sometimes popping into my bedroom, or my younger sister’s, to peer out the windows that offered a slightly different angle. While she walked, masking her worry behind sharp jokes and barbed comments, I did my best to ignore her, even as we breathed the same charged air. She needed to keep moving, but I sat on my bedroom floor, my arms wrapped around my knees, listening to music on my headphones and imagining movie-of-the-week melodramas about the devastated, guilt-ridden relatives of a drunk driver who’d wiped out a happy young family.
Most nights, his car—usually some long boat of an American model with sagging shocks—would eventually appear and he’d dock beside the curb. I’d wait for the jangle of his keys in the front door, though it seemed to take him forever. In those long minutes of collecting himself before making his way through the metal gate, into the apartment courtyard, and up the stairs to our door, my mother would turn off the lights and TV and go to bed. She had to be up early for work, she said, but I knew that despite her relief at his return, anger had quickly replaced her worry. She’d rather go to bed then confront Dad. In the morning, I’d wake to a quiet house and find him snoring on the couch or sitting hangdog in his garage, listening to the radio and smoking his budget GPC cigarettes.
These episodes of sudden leavetaking, and worried evenings that went unmentioned in the daylight, occurred too often to make one single incident into a “story.” Rather, this was how our days and years unspooled: it was never boring, our life of waiting, of breath held in anticipation of news or tragedy that never arrived. Eventually I had to exhale and move on.
“I’m going to miss you,” Dad whispered into my ear on my wedding day. I was a few years from thirty, and both of us knew it was time for me to be something beyond a Daddy’s girl. Still, I’d felt a throb of guilt at his words, as though our roles had reversed and now I was the one abandoning him.
“Bartender’s Blues” came to an end, and I opened my eyes to the retail glare and chattering customers in the bookstore’s cafe. No one glanced my way. Returning to solid ground was a jolt, like the one I experienced each time I caught a self-conscious glimpse of myself in the midst of the new life I was building—wife, homeowner, graduate student—in contrast to the girl I’d left behind in my parents’ apartment, where there was drinking, overdrawn accounts, banged-up secondhand cars.
I hung up the headphones, left the music department, and wandered the maze of bookshelves and displays to Fiction. In my hand, George Jones’ “16 Biggest Hits” CD was like a relic, heavy with a song calling up parts of my family’s history as vividly as old photos in a family album.
After perusing the paperbacks and new bestsellers, I made my way toward the front of the store, knowing I’d find my husband with a stack of computer magazines in hand. Somewhere in my stroll through the tables loaded with stationary supplies and coffee mugs, I set down the CD and left it behind. I didn’t need to take it back to my new home, to sit on the couch and put myself through repeated listenings. I didn’t need to relive those three and a half minutes of aching steel guitar, the moans from George Jones’ throat, the sweet pull tugging me back to my most familiar sorrows.
Kelly Shire’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, The Coachella Review, and Full Grown People, among other publications. A native of Southern California, she continues to live in the region with her husband and children. “Bartender’s Blues” is from her work-in-progress, a memoir of family, music, and road trips.