Luke Stone pulled his Martin D-35 guitar out of its case and settled onto a chair. His gaze took in the walls of the redneck double-wide trailer house he’d put together from bits and pieces of nothing over the past fifteen years.
Funny, but it seemed he’d been doing that all of his life, taking scraps and turning them into treasures. He couldn’t help being proud of his accomplishments.
He’d worn many different hats in his sixty-five years of living. But one had never changed for as long as he could remember. He had been born to write songs and play music.
With the guitar tuned, he strummed a chord and relished the ring of the strings.
The year 2000, the year doomsayers predicted the world to end. Luke couldn’t buy that, although he never dreamed he’d live to see a new millennium.
It had ended for his friend and spirit brother, Roxy Gordon, a couple of months back when he died from cirrhosis of the liver. And yet through that ending came another beginning for Luke. Another chance to pull his guitar out of the closet and revive the deep passion he had for music.
He turned his attention to the words of the songs that played through his fingers. Halfway through the third ballad, he looked up as Darlina, the queen of his heart with sparkling blue eyes that saw only the best in him, waltzed through the door. The bright sunlight reflected off her auburn hair seconds before the door closed and his breath caught somewhere deep in his chest. How was it possible that she could still do that to him after fifteen years of marriage?
He stuck the guitar pick between the top two strings and rested his beloved Martin on a stand. He wanted nothing more than to fill his arms with her warm tender spirit.
By the time she tossed her purse and keys onto the table, Luke stood beside her.
“Hi, baby,” He inhaled the flowered scent of her hair.
“Hi, yourself.” She turned her face upward to receive his kiss. “You didn’t have to stop playing just because I came home. You know how I love to listen and how happy I am that you finally brought your guitar out of hiding.”
“For the life of me I can’t figure why, but for you I’ll keep playing.” Luke let his hands slide to her rounded bottom before letting go and walking from the den into the kitchen, arm-in-arm.
Back in his chair, he reached for the Martin, his eyes never leaving Darlina, as she opened the refrigerator and turned on the stove. He thought of how she’d believed in him when he could find no reasons left to believe in himself. For the millionth time, he wished they’d met sooner. Maybe then he could have avoided wasting fifteen long years in Leavenworth prison.
She’d been a breath of fresh air when their paths crossed in Abilene, Texas in 1970. Barely nineteen, naïve and trusting, she was entirely different from the women who hung around the bars and honkytonks where he played. But, it was too little, too late. The die had been cast.
He shook his head as if to clear the memories. That was then and this is now. Thirty years had changed him from the arrogant, rebellious King of the Honkytonks to a man with purpose. He’d happily hung up his neon dreams to be a worthy husband to Darlina and father to two little blond-haired blue-eyed girls who were now successful and strong young women. Being given a new lease on life, on the music he loved and on the woman he adored far exceeded his wildest dreams. He damned well intended to take full advantage of it every day for the rest of his time on earth.
“Play something you wrote.” Darlina’s voice brought him back from the reverie. He looked up to see a wide smile.
He chuckled. “Okay. Here’s a new one I’m workin’ on. It’s not finished yet.”
“Perfect.” She turned back to the stove.
He thumbed through a tablet and landed on a fresh page. He cleared his throat, sipped from his tea glass then strummed.
“I think it’s over and then memories set in
Ah, but it’s dying bit by bit
While I cling desperately to it.
Slowly, the last love dies
Lingering after echoes of final goodbyes
Slowly, oh slowly last love dies.
Sometimes love seems forever
Sometimes it is pleasure
Sometimes love is slow
Sometimes it’s fast
But one thing for certain I know
Someday some love will be the last.”
He continued to play and hum, stopping to write on the tablet now and again.
Finally, he stopped. “Well, what do you think?”
Darlina joined him and draped her arm across his shoulders. “I think it’s good, but sad, sweetheart.”
Luke sighed. “Not everyone has happiness in life. Lord knows I’ve only found it in the last fifteen years.” He laid his callused hand on her soft one.
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head.
He carefully placed the guitar back on its stand and pulled her onto his lap. “I mean it, honey. I’ve had a lifetime of hardships and sadness. I’ve been a tough guy, played on big stages all across the country, had lots of women and drank lots of whiskey. But, nothing is better than what I have right now in this ragged ol’ pieced-together trailer house with you.”
Darlina rested her head on his shoulder. “I’ll never forget how scared I was when Dr. Robertson told me you’d had a heart attack and needed open heart surgery. Somehow I just couldn’t let myself believe that we’d waited so long to build a life together only to have it ripped away after three short years.”
“And now look at us, almost twelve years later and I’m still here. As long as I have a breath in my body, I’ll keep building and working for us.” Luke stroked her hair.
Darlina sighed. “I’ve always been a believer in miracles and now for you to be writing and playing music again. Well, it’s just another of those miracles I hoped for and believed in.”
“Yep, you and me both.” Luke twitched his nose. “What’s that smell?”
“Oh shit! I forgot I was cooking.” She jumped off his lap and made a beeline for the kitchen.
Luke laughed out loud.
“It’s not funny. You may be eating a sandwich for supper.”
“Hell, I don’t care as long as I’m eating it with you.”
Darlina grabbed the pan from the stove and plunked it into the sink. “It’s your fault, you know. You made me forget what I was doing.”
“And I intend to do that every chance I get.” Luke chuckled.
Just then a knock came on the side door and before either Luke or Darlina could open it, Judy Gordon entered with a tall, slender man close behind her.
“I hope I’m not interrupting y’all.” Judy said, laying her purse on the table.
Darlina hugged her. “Of course not. Come on in.”
Luke stood and embraced Judy. “What are you up to, sugar?”
“Luke, Darlina, this is a friend of mine and Roxy’s, Frank Cambert.”
Luke shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Frank. Can I offer you guys something to drink?”
“Got a cold beer?” Judy asked.
“Of course. Frank, can I bring you a beer too?” Darlina wiped her hands on a kitchen towel.
Frank smiled and nodded.
“Have a seat.” Luke moved to his recliner.
Judy sat on the sofa and Frank chose a chair across from Luke.
“Judy’s told me a lot about you, Luke. I’ve known Roxy and Judy since the days they lived in California. I just got word of Roxy’s death and made a trip to see Judy. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Luke shook his head. “I know, man. I can’t either. I think about him every day.”
Judy accepted the beer Darlina handed her and popped the tab to open it. “You and me both, Luke. I don’t know how I’m going to live without Roxy.” Tears filled her eyes.
Luke leaned forward, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We’ll help you, Judy.”
She sniffed. “Luke, would you play some music for Frank? He wants to hear some songs you wrote and maybe you can tell him a story or two from your days on the road.”
“Aw, Judy. I don’t want to bore him.”
“Truly, it wouldn’t be boring, Luke. I sincerely want to hear some of your music and I know you’ve got tales to tell.”
“I hate to interrupt, but I was making our supper and burned it, so I’m going to put together some sandwiches. Have you guys eaten?” Darlina asked.
“No, but we don’t want to be any trouble. Y’all go ahead. I just want to drink a beer.” Judy’s hand trembled as she brought the can up to her lips.
“It’s no bother. We’ve got plenty.” Darlina turned back to the kitchen while Luke reached for his guitar.
“Any requests?” He slung the guitar strap across his shoulders.
“I have one,” Judy said. “Play Den of Sin.”
“I’m going down to where they call me Goodtime Charlie
To drink all my troubles away
To the place where my good times all started
But they’re over because she’s coming home today
Den of sin, den of sin, for us this is the end
No more staying out and laying up all day.
I’m not crying because my baby left me.
I’m crying ‘cause she’s coming home to stay.”
Once the song came to an end, both Frank and Judy applauded.
“That’s a tear-jerker in reverse,” Luke drawled. “He ain’t cryin’ ‘cause she’s leavin’. He’s cryin’ ‘cause she’s comin’ back.”
Frank chuckled. “Nice twist.”
“It’s the only number one song I ever had. It made it all the way to the top of the charts in Denmark back in the 60s.” Luke chuckled. “I figure Denmark’s about the size of Coleman County, but, they liked my song.”
“How many years did you work the road?” Frank asked.
“Oh lord. I got on stage for the first time when I was fifteen. I was a big ol’ dumb farm kid, but I had a by-god guitar and I wanted to sing. It was out here at the Coleman City Park. There were some older guys that my mom and dad knew and they asked me to get up and sing. Hell, my knees were knocking together so hard, I could hardly hear myself. Somehow I got through it and didn’t stop until I got carted away to Federal Finishing School twenty some-odd years later.”
“Judy told me about you going to prison for robbing banks. Now, that’s the kind of thing country songs are made of.”
Luke laughed. “That’s me, a walkin’ country song.”
“What was your musical influence?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I think it was born in me. My mom played piano and guitar, my brother Bobby played piano, and I had some aunts and uncles that played, so music was common in our house. My first music memory is Jimmie Rodgers on an old wind-up Victrola. My mom said that before I could talk, I would try to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers.”
“I’m a huge Jimmie Rodgers fan. Woody Guthrie, too.”
The two men seemed oblivious of the women as they continued. Luke stood and put his guitar back on the stand. “I’m about ready for a Beam and Coke. Want one, Frank?”
“No, this beer is fine for me. But, I hope you aren’t done playing. I’d like to hear more.”
He noticed Darlina putting the final touches on a sandwich tray. “Let’s eat a bite and I’ll play some more. Do you play, Frank?”
“Nah. I can play the radio real good. I am what you’d call a true lover of music.”
“Come on, you guys.” Darlina called from the kitchen.
Frank followed Judy into the dining room and the four sat around the long table.
Conversation continued while they ate.
“You know, when I first got to Leavenworth, I was mad, bitter and rebellious. I knew I hadn’t done what I’d been convicted of and I was gonna to show ‘em how pissed I was.” Luke paused to take a bite. “It took over three years for me to figure out I wasn’t big enough or bad enough to change prison. I cursed music and blamed the lifestyle that went with it for the predicament I was in. But, it was my own ignorance and arrogance that landed me there, not the music.”
Judy reached for the pickle jar. “Me and Roxy were living in New Mexico when we heard of Luke’s arrest. We couldn’t believe it. We’d followed his music since we were kids in high school. We even saw him and Dean Beard walking down the street one day in Coleman, but were too shy to approach them.”
“I can’t imagine you being shy, Judy,” Frank teased.
“Like I said, we were just kids. I got over being shy. Roxy never did.”
“Judy tells me you played with some of the greatest artists of our time. Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Bobby Bare, Red Foley?”
“It’s true. I played with all of ‘em. I’ll never forget the day my booking agent, Sam Gibbs, called me from Wichita Falls and said Bob Wills needed a band to back him and would I be interested. It was right after Bob had sold the Texas Playboys name. I didn’t ask how much the gig paid or anything else. I just said, when and where? Playing with Bob Wills was the highlight of my life. We were booked as Bob Wills and the Boys. I’d love to run across one of those old posters.” He reached across the table for Darlina’s hand. “The other highlight was meeting this little girl.”
He noticed Darlina blush.
She fidgeted. “I was a young girl when I met Luke, only nineteen, and fresh away from a holy-roller home. I had no idea about life, but I was ready and anxious to try it all.”
Luke leaned back and wiped his mouth. “She was go-go dancing in an after-hours club that had lost its liquor license for serving to minors. I thought she was about the prettiest little thing I’d ever seen with her long legs, blue eyes, auburn hair and sexy little ass.” He grinned and winked. “Still do.”
Darlina picked up the story. “I hung out at that club because I wasn’t old enough to get into the real ones. Then the owner, a lady from Czechoslovakia, took me under her wing, taught me how to dance and let me wait tables for tips. I loved live music and bands played there every weekend. When Luke and his band came in one night to eat, the whole place stirred. I was curious and traded with another gal to wait their table.” She flashed Luke a smile. “The rest is history.”
“Well, you two seem like a story-book couple. I’m envious. I’ve been married a couple of times, but can’t really say I loved either of them. I just got in heat.” Frank pushed his chair back.
“Oh, we’re just like everyone else. We don’t always see eye-to-eye, and especially when we were raising our girls. Darlina thought I was too hard on them and I thought she was too soft.” Luke took a swig from his glass.
“Still, we never stopped loving each other no matter what.” Darlina finished the sentence. “We waited too long and went through too much to let anything destroy us.”
Judy nodded. “Frank, besides me and Roxy, these two love each other more than anyone I know. And, I wish we had time, I’d love for you to see their antique store next door. You saw the Saturday Store when we drove up. Some of Grandma’s dishes are on consignment in it.”
“I do love antique stores, but that will have to be another visit.” He turned back to Luke. “Were you guys married before you went to prison, Luke?” Frank finished his beer.
“No. In fact, I was still married to my second wife when I met Darlina. I hadn’t lived with her in years. We couldn’t get along at all, but we had a mess of kids and I supported them. Until Darlina came along, I had no reason to think about a divorce. By then, it was too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was already knee-deep in the shit that sent me to prison, so I figured the only honorable thing I could do was get Darlina away from me and out of what was coming down.”
“So, he said ugly things and told me it had been fun, but he was tired of a kid. He needed a real woman.” Darlina’s voice faded.
“I hated like hell to do it, but that was the only way I could get her to go away. She didn’t deserve to be caught in the middle of that shit.”
“Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought he didn’t love me anymore. I’d have gone to the ends of the earth with him.”
Luke continued. “I knew that and my conscience couldn’t let that happen. We got married a week after I got paroled.”
“Wow! That’s quite a story. You guys ought to write a book.”
“Nobody would believe it if we did.” Luke stood. “Let’s go back to the living room.”
“I’ll help Darlina clean up.” Judy pushed her chair back.
“How about another beer, Frank? Judy?” Darlina stacked plates.
“I’ll get it.” Judy carried an armful of dishes to the sink.
Back in the living room, Luke sat his whiskey down and reached for the guitar. He played Wynn Stewart songs, Marty Robbins’ ballads, Ned Miller tunes and wound it down with an old Jimmie Rodgers standard.
When he wiped the guitar down and put it in the case, Frank pushed his lanky frame up from the chair. “We’d better be going, Judy. I’ve got a long drive tomorrow.”
Luke stood and slapped him on the back. “It was great to meet you. Hope I didn’t bore you too much with my tall tales.”
“Oh hell no. I’d love to hear more, but, I’m driving on to New Mexico tomorrow.”
Luke hugged Judy.
“Well, if you’re ever back this way, stop in.”
“That I will do.”
“Bye, you guys.” Darlina and Luke stood under the carport until they backed out of the driveway.
“That was unexpected.” Luke closed and locked the door.
“Sweetheart, I think you better get ready because folks are going to start coming out of the woodwork when they hear you’re playing again.”
He pulled her into a crushing embrace and buried his face in her hair. “I love the opportunity to tell everyone I meet what an angel you are. I don’t mean to embarrass you, I just want ‘em to know.”
Darlina raised her head. “I suppose we do have a story that people find unusual. To us, it’s just the way our lives went.”
“I don’t know many women who would’ve stood by a worn out, broke down convict musician for so many long years, holding on to a dream. But, that’s what you did, and your dream kept me going when I had no other reason in the world.”
Darlina sighed against his chest. “It kept me going too. All I ever wanted was to be your wife. It just took a long time to get there.”
“Everything I am, everything I have, is all for and because of you, princess. Don’t ever forget that. If I die tonight, I’d have no complaints.”
“Well, if you die tonight, I’ll have lots of complaints, so let’s don’t even talk like that.”
The two walked arm-in-arm through the rooms, turning out the lights.
“You know the sand in my hourglass is going to run out one of these days, baby,” Luke murmured.
“Then we’ll face it when that day comes, but today isn’t it.” Darlina pressed her slender body against his.
“No, today isn’t the day.”