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40 Greatest Stories

Billy Bob’s Honky-Tonk Angel

Waiting tables at the biggest, baddest bar in the world.
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Editor’s Note: This story was first published in a different era. It may contain words or themes that today we find objectionable. We nonetheless have preserved the story in our archive, without editing, to offer a clear look at this magazine’s contribution to the historical record.


Sticky rivulets of Weller, gin, and Jack Daniels washed down my lower arms and then to the floor through my fingers. The cocktail napkins scattered on my serving tray dissolved into white splotches of wood pulp. They looked frothy, like mini-icebergs stranded on a carbonated sea of spilt whiskey and Coke. Embarrassment and self-pity engulfed me as I was batted about by drunken members of the crowd. I wasn’t used to this. I wanted to roll up in an old horse blanket and die somewhere. Somewhere dry. Even the floor felt swampy, ready to gobble up my wobbly ankles and feet.

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My only hope was to reach the waitress station — a dimly lit alcove the size of a utility room — before the smoke and sound smothered me completely. I made a determined dash, wiggling under elbows and over many different sets of legs, gaining incentive by mentally measuring the diminishing distance. At 25 yards, I could see the silhouettes of the other waitresses. At 30 feet, the girls began to wave. Finally, I jogged up three steps, almost tripped from my own recklessness, then realized I was safe. And there.

The biggest honky-tonk in the world was packed. There were 8,243 undulating torsos (that’s 1,743 beyond what the fire marshal has declared to be legal capacity), crammed rafter to rafter, wreaking havoc, celebrating mayhem, all standing on their chairs to get a better view of ZZ Top.

The band was throbbing its earthshakingly amplified tribute to man’s primal motives:

I’ve got a gal; she lives on the hill. She won’t do it, but her sister will…

Seven of us, all waitresses, huddled hip to hip. The situation was clearly getting out of hand. One of the girls shouted: “Don says not to go into the center of the crowd. Do not go into the center.”

She do the boogie-woogie, baby. Boogie-woogie all night long…

“What?” said one of the others. Through the smoke of the cigarette she was holding, I could see bits of sweat beading on her nose and brow. We were all tense. We had to shout to be even faintly audible to each other.

“Don says not to go into the center of the crowd. A waitress has been knocked over and hurt.”

“Who? Who?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Just fell down or got pushed. Don sent her home. I think it was one of those two from Albuquerque. She hit her head.”

“Oh, my God.”

“So what’re we s’pposed to do?”

“Don says serve people up and down the aisles. Up in here, see. But don’t go into the mob, okay? It’s not worth it. There’s lots of money to be made up these aisles.”

I chucked the soggy cocktail napkins into the trash, placed my cork-lined tray on an empty beer case and turned to Tammy, one of the 12 new waitresses — 13 including me. Tammy rolled her eyes and gave me a contemplative look I couldn’t interpret. The corners of her mouth were tight. Then with the fastidious and slightly apprehensive mannerisms of a domesticated raccoon, she took all the money out of her cash caddy and quickly crammed it into the front pockets of her jeans.

The trash bin was leaking again, and the floor of the waitress station was like a reflecting pond with wildly varied highlights glistening on a thin pool of stinky beer. I waded over to Tammy.

“Making anything?” This, I had learned, is the way cocktail waitresses initiate conversations.

“Eeeeeeh. Not really,” she said. Then, in a whisper: “Screw this. Let’s get outta here, listen to the band. We can see the show!”

I’d been surprised when Tammy told me she was 19. She seemed older. I liked her, admired her really, for being able to quit for the night and call everything off so effortlessly. I followed suit.

I felt as though we’d slipped out of school. The crowd was going crazy now, and there we were — unsupervised! People loomed out of proportion from the height of their chairs. The shadowy figures swayed like dandelion stems, their faces aglow from the golden stage lights. Everywhere the air was white and rank, heavy with the smoke of several thousand cigarettes. Tammy and I trudged on, our heads at the level of their hips, until we found some people willing to spare a chair. I found myself standing next to a raggedy-toothed young man drinking bourbon from the bottle. Behind us, people were passing a reefer rolled as thickly as a Cuban cigar.

I could just barely see the tops of the heads of the men on stage. The guy next to me yelled “Lift you up?”

“What?”

“Want me to lift you up?”

“No, no.”

Then I fell into a trance. It was the first time I’d felt my real personality coming back to comfort me. I’d been so caught up in the spilt drinks that I’d forgotten to remember that this place, for me, was only temporary. I was not really one of these people. I told myself: “Don’t worry. This will be over soon. You’ll get out!”

Then I realized that the people in the audience, the people with whom I’d just resumed my rightful place, also saw Billy Bob’s as temporary. Even the waitresses come and go; they stay until they realize that life’s too short. It’s temporary.

Author

Amy Cunningham

Amy Cunningham

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