Friday, June 08, 2007

"And if drinkin' don't kill me, her memory will..."

The Record Store had its share of wonderfully odd and colorful customers, and we had our share of assholes and shoplifters. We had deadbeats who special ordered hard-to-find imports and ephemera and then failed to pick up said items when they arrived, and we were blessed with some truly awesome music-lovers. Nevertheless, the majority of our customers were average folks who liked a certain song or artist and just randomly stopped in to our store hoping that we had it in stock after they'd already struck out The Mall. There were a few, however, we couldn't even classify as "customers."

Such was Mr. Dougherty.

In all the years he shuffled in, I can't ever remember him buying anything from us. He'd ask to look at cassettes, usually old school country artists like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but he never bought them. He'd hold the cassettes in his quaking hands and scan the track listings, musing out loud about this song or that. Sometimes he'd sing a few lines in a hoarse rasp, asking if we knew what it was, and other times he'd remember a title and ask us to look it up, because he could no longer remember who sang it. He seemed to always inquire about the same songs and artists, forgetting from month to month that he'd already been given the answers to those questions.

I say month-to-month because we only ever saw him at the first of the month. After he'd taken receipt of his disability check, Mr. Dougherty would turn up in a taxi with a wad of green bulging from the pocket of his polyester trousers. Sometimes he arrived so early that The Beer & Wine Emporium next door wasn't even open yet, and so he'd kill time with us, leaning heavily on the glass showcase at the front counter, his long, grizzled fingers flexing to keep the tremors at bay. Every five minutes he'd ask what time it was, and then ask what time they opened next door.

All the while the meter was running.

Mr. Dougherty was a drunk, plain and simple. Even if the stale reek of day old booze permeating through his pores hadn't given him away, the watery eyes, bulbous red nose and quaking hands certainly did. And while most of the staff tried to steer clear of him when they saw the taxi pull up outside, I usually stuck around and helped him, even though I knew he was just wasting time until he could get his fix next door. Perhaps it was because he reminded me of my own drunken uncles, rather than altruism on my part, but I always tried to see him in the way that he wanted to be seen, rather than the way he actually was. And so I saw a young man full of promise and potential, instead of the pathetic, weaving wreck in the wrinkled western shirt.

There was a time, long ago, when Mr. Dougherty had been somebody, and he loved to bend my ear about his days amongst the Nashville elite. He had played poker with Hank Snow, hauled luggage for Patsy Cline, and chauffeured George Jones in his tricked out Cadillac. For Mr. Dougherty had been The Mechanic to The Stars.

Returning home after the Korean War, he found that small town life no longer appealed, and set off for the bright lights of Nashville to put to use the mechanic skills he'd perfected during the war. To hear him tell it, he was a real wiz-kid, and before too long found himself working for a company that provided exclusive automotive services to the cream of the Nashville crop. Mr. Dougherty might not have been able to remember conversations from one month to the next--possibly even one DAY to the next-- but 40 years later could still recall what the inside of George Jones's stretch Caddie looked like. He could remember, and describe in loving detail, the smell of Tammy Wynette's perfume mingling with the AquaNet she sprayed on her well coiffed hair, as Mr. Dougherty drove her around town. He never tired of retelling the story of eating fried chicken with Chet Adkins and his band at some little dive in the deep south, when he drove their tour bus. He claimed it was the best fried chicken he'd ever eaten, and wished he could taste it just once more.

He'd regale these stories in succession, his watery eyes momentarily coming alive. "I had it all," he'd claim with a wry smile that split his face into a million little creases, "I certainly did." He told of meeting and marrying "the most beautiful girl in the world," and how she took to the road like she'd been born to do so, and how they made a great team. She was his right hand man, so to speak, reading maps and making sure their privileged passengers were well taken care of. He drove the busses, fixed breakdowns, and hauled luggage, while she cooked meals for the bands, did their laundry, and made sure they always looked their best. In his eyes, she was a goddess among goddesses. Throughout the golden age of country music, the duo rubbed elbows with nearly all the big names: Loretta Lynn ("a beautiful lady and a saint, she put up with a lot"), Johnny Cash ("a godly man, but filled with the devil"), Dolly Parton ("sweetest little thing you ever did see") and his favorite, George Jones ("they called him No-Show, but he always got there when I was a'drivin'.")

Somewhere along the way the bottle got to Mr. Dougherty. His stories seemed to end in the mid-70's, so that must have been about the time his goddess took off with another man. Maybe she couldn't take the drinking any longer, or maybe she was the reason he took to drinking, but the two incidents are forever entwined, and with his long thin face in his quivering hands, Mr. Dougherty would openly sob at our front counter, telling me that his life just wasn't worth living without her. I'd seen the vicious circle all too often in my own family: a spiraling descent between the bottle and lost love.

Embarrassed by his open display of raw, drunken grief, I'd try to comfort with a pat on his bony arm and empty words, saying "it'll be all right, it'll be ok," when I knew that it wouldn't. Mr. Dougherty knew it too, and with sad, sunken eyes pleading, he'd ask me to play his special song, the one he'd ordered once upon a time but just couldn't bring himself to buy. I kept the single filed away where no one could buy it, and played it whenever his cloak of heartbreak became too heavy to bear.

"He said I'll love you 'til I die
She told him you'll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall
Went half crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she'd come back again

Kept some letters by his bed
Dated 1962
He had underlined in red
Every single I love you

I went to see him just today
Oh but I didn't see no tears
All dressed up to go away
First time I'd seen him smile in years

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they'll carry him away
He stopped loving her today…"
As the song neared the end he'd bury himself in an old handkerchief and again ask for the time, misery in his gravely voice. And at the appointed hour, he'd hobble slowly toward the door-- his sad, empty eyes moist with the anticipation of obliterating the present, and erasing the past.

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