Highway to the End of the Night

“Take the highway to the end of the night;

End of the night, end of the night.

Take a journey to the bright midnight;

End of the night, end of the night.

Realms of bliss, realms of light;

Some are born to sweet delight;

Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to the endless night.”

-Jim Morrison, The Doors. “” 1967.

It was late May in the Ozarks, a magical time, then, in the early 90s, when the place was still a town of 35,000 or so and not the 85,000 person city it is today — part of the 525,000 population that make up the “Northwest Arkansas” megalopolis. The “city” has changed a lot since that summer of 1992, and in my mind, not for the better.

The sad, stark and ironic truth is, the 85,000-population Fayetteville is a shell of what it once was when it was half that size, and it can never go back, despite what some Johnny-come-lately travel journalist might write in Forbes. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can never go back. The old Fayetteville is gone, and it’s gone forever. Everyone who has lived there for some time knows what I’m talking about. And I know. Because I was there. I lived it.

But I digress. For now.

I was spending the summer — or that period of time between semesters that passes for summer — in Fayetteville for the first time, taking two classes and working some part time jobs, just to pay the rent for my apartment and a few bills. The now paltry-looking sum was also gas money for my beater, and the Taco Bell value menu, which I and any sane, poor, struggling law student at the time leveraged to the hilt on our meager wages. This was back when the bean burrito was still 99 cents, and you could feast for five bucks.

It was the first summer of my life in which I had successfully untethered myself from being dependent on my parents and having to live yet another summer under their roof in my old high school bedroom. I spent my entire undergraduate education playing Division 1 college sports, and this fact, along with mysterious and ridiculous NCAA rules, prevented me from doing any work to make money to support myself during the summers. To be sure, one could work during the summer months when classes weren’t in session, but the funds accumulated from these low-paying jobs were all but expended by the time the following summer rolled around.

But in the spring semester of my first year in law school — that vaunted “One L” year — I had resolved that I wasn’t going home to Houston during the summer of ’92. A close friend and I pooled the meager cash we had on hand and rented a small, 2-bedroom apartment on North Leverett Avenue in Fayetteville — at that time, the far northern edge of town beyond which stretched only seemingly endless farmland, the Northwest Arkansas Mall perched up on a little ridge about three miles distant, and further north more scattered new housing developments, until one hit the town of Springdale. Our apartment cost us $395 a month, and we lived at the end of the road; it literally dead-ended at our complex.

After only two weeks, my roommate, who had girlfriend problems, left to spend most of his weeks back in his hometown of Dallas. This left the place mostly to me, and after a few weeks, I had my own little retreat from the world. I would come home after work, spend a few minutes cooling down from the incessant, 90-degree heat in the empty pool, and go back to the apartment. I would prepare whatever small meal I could, learning to cook without recipes or directions through trial and error, and plop down in the living room to watch whatever Major League Baseball game might be on that night. But sometimes, having just come off of the biggest break up of my then-still-young life and in a sort of meandering time before I met my wife about a year-and-a-half later, I eventually discovered that the apartment was no place to spend all my free time.

I was alone, sorely alone, and I felt it.

I didn’t realize it yet, but the unfolding summer of 1992 would become a seminal point in my development, indeed, in my life; it was the starting point from my delayed transition from adolescence to adulthood. The period only lasted for about three months, but much would be packed into that time, and I would change in many ways it would take me years to understand. I can look back today and recall events and things that happened, things I did, things I experienced, that I can now point to as transformative moments.

Back then, late spring rains and thunderstorms would roll in off the Oklahoma plains and up the west side of the Ozark Plateau like ocean waves colliding and collapsing onto a shore, unleashing their energy in torrents. In their wake, they left behind gleaming rainbows, pristine creeks and streams rushing and brimming with the just-fallen rain, and air tinged with the scent of fresh honeysuckle.

The town had emptied out of students, and the population — at that time — dropped down to about 25,000 people. The streets were empty, the sidewalks clear, the school year weekend cacophony was now quiet. One could move around, and think more clearly.

As soon as classes let out, I started some new experiments. I grew my hair out longer than it had ever been before just to see what it would feel like. By the end of the summer I was wearing a rolled up bandana as a headband to keep my hair out of my eyes. I started mountain biking and road cycling. I kayaked lakes and rivers. I hiked the hills and forests around Fayetteville. I wanted to go down some paths I had never walked before. In many ways, I’d lost interest in many of the things I used to do. I wanted to get outside my comfort zone into something unfamilar, to test my limits, to press out beyond what I had known.

And I started writing. I still have all the notebooks I filled up that summer. And they have given me a bevy of ideas for stories. I had begun to fill these notebooks with musings, observations, poems, and little vignettes. I did it during my lunch break at the apartment, and in the evenings while watching the baseball games. I started carrying a notebook with me wherever I went, because I wanted to be ready if the urge hit me to write something down.

I was able to finagle two different jobs that summer, both as law clerks at two different places. I worked the mornings from 8 to 12 at one of the law firms up on the square, then I would rush back to the apartment for some Ramen noodles, a two-minute instant rice meal, or a ham and mustard sandwich made on 88-cent budget bread. Then in the afternoon, I would head over to the County Prosecutor’s Office and work from one to five. In both jobs I made something modestly above minimum wage. So any trip to the local grocery store was brief; I might have a budget of 20 dollars when I was “flush.” This was my daily routine for the first two weeks, and I began to get a little restless when I left work after five. As stated, the apartment was no place to languish away a pleasant, early-summer evening. Finally, on the third Thursday of the summer break, I ventured out; not to run or go to the gym or the bookstore. I just headed out.

When I arrived at the outdoor, open air, beer garden at George’s Majestic Lounge after running back to my cheap apartment and changing, I took a seat out there alone. This was back when the outdoor beer garden still existed behind the establishment. It was an enclosed area open to the sky, filled with picnic tables and ringed with some trees that provided shady relief from the late afternoon sun. At one end stood a stage where bands played most Fridays and Saturdays, and at the opposite was an outdoor bar. But there were no bands on this Thursday. I picked a a table in the shade of a willowy crepe myrtle and sat down with my gear and got set up.

Within a minute a cute girl about my age came out to get my order, a basket of George’s finest free popcorn and a Miller Lite, squarely within my post One-L summer budget and just what I needed on that languid, late May afternoon. The pretty girl that I don’t think I ever saw again after that night turned sweetly and went to get my order, and I was left alone with my notebook and pens, the fledgling writer and my nearly empty summer journal, the journal of that summer of ’92.

What to write?

The author at the scene where it all began in the summer of 1992, outside the venerable George’s Majestic Lounge, summer, 2017

I sat there for a while wondering what to put down. It was difficult in those first days. I think most people are capable of writing, but those who think about doing it often never start, and they never really start because of fear. Fear of writer’s block, fear of not being able to do it right, and most of all, fear of what others will think. Fear of rejection. I didn’t suffer from any of these afflictions because at that time I had no intention of showing another person anything I was writing; this was my secret hobby, a new avocation to fill the time and make a record of that summer. But still, what to write?

I don’t know exactly what I wrote on that day because I didn’t date the pages back then. But if it was consistent with my normal subject mater that summer, I probably wrote of hills and valleys, the intense, diverse shades of green I found in the verdant forests around Fayetteville, pretty girls and dreams, and the freedom of being independent and poor — acutely poor — in very late May in my 24th year, a young man in transition from two decades of all that had gone before and the wonder of what might come next.

In this station, I spent about two hours alone eating the salty popcorn and sipping Miller Lites and writing about girls and hills, and forests, and rivers, and the mysteries of each. I had the entire place to myself. And it was magical. I was so deep into my craft that I was startled when someone would seemingly appear out of nowhere to ask if I needed another basket of popcorn or another cold beverage. I wrote little dispatches and observations, and poems. Some of it was pretty good, and I’m pleasantly surprised when I read it now. Some of it was bad, and I cringe when I read it today. But that was okay then, and it’s okay now.

At last, the sun was setting and it was time to leave. I paid my tab, thanked the staff, and went to my car. I turned out of the lot to head back to the apartment, but something stopped me; I didn’t feel like going home yet. So I thought I’d drive up the hill to the square and see what one of my friends and law school classmates was up to. He managed one of the establishments up on the square, and I figured I’d stick my head in there and burn a few more minutes before heading back home.

The summer sun was sinking slowly into the western horizon now, and its late afternoon light reflected off the glass in the few tall office buildings around the square. It shrouded everything up on the square with a hue of pale, golden-orange. The light would soon turn a shade of reddish-blue, then violet, then the colors would finally dissolve altogether into another Ozark summer night, punctuated with an infinite number of stars overhead. I parked and walked around the square to the front door of The Field.

Let’s just say The Field was an “eclectic” establishment; to call it a “bar,” or a “pub,” or a “pool hall” alone would’ve been both incorrect and unfair, because it was all of those things, but a lot more. To try and call it a “club” would’ve been a stretch. If it had been located on the outskirts of town, one might’ve called it a roadhouse. The place was much like a chameleon that can change its colors to adapt to the current environment on any particular night.

If a bunch of cowboys came through the door, for instance, it could immediately transform into a country and western bar with Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash playing on the electronic jukebox. On the other hand, if a big group of sorority girls arrived, it could metamorphose into a dance club of sorts with Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Go’s, or the B-52s taking over the sound system, and the girls dancing around with each other while trying not to spill their fruity cocktails. And in those early days of the new alternative rock music suddenly roaring down without warning like a storm out of the Pacific northwest, the place could even turn a little bit grungy; kids decked out in tattered jeans, flannel shirts with the long sleeves cut off, and old combat boots or Doc Martens would appear out of nowhere, wanting to create a mosh pit on what passed as the dance floor before the “muscle” — as it were — had to step in to calm them all down.

As I walked through the door, I met my aforementioned friend and fellow law school classmate, whom I will call Jim. He sat right at the entrance on a barstool behind a sort of podium with a desktop. It had a small lamp and open logbook on it. “Well, what brings you in here on this fine night?” he greeted, offering his right hand as we shook.

“I’ve got nothing better to do,” I admitted. He laughed. “Well, if you’re coming in here for some entertainment, it’s moving at a snail’s pace tonight.” We engaged in some idle chatter, which included the topic of my general boredom after I got off work at five. “Well, what have you been doing on Thursday through Saturday?” “Not a whole lot,” I observed. “Let’s take a walk. You ever been in here before?” he queried. “Maybe once,” I told him.

We walked around a short partition that separated the entry foyer from the rest of the building and he gave me the grand tour. The place wasn’t that big, but it had several tables scattered around the lower level with a small dance floor over in one corner. We took a seat at the bar, and he introduced me to the head bartender, Craig.

Jim continued. “So here’s the deal. I don’t have the time to manage this place and work the door. I need someone who is level-headed and I can trust. If you want to be the doorman I can pay you 50 bucks a night. I know that’s not much, but it’ll give you something to do and you can learn the business. And if you like it, you can keep doing it when school starts up again in the fall.”

I was hesitant. “What does doorman do? Just sit up there and twiddle his thumbs?” I asked him. He smiled. “No it’s a little more involved than that. The biggest thing is you check everyone’s ID to make sure they’re legal. You’ll learn to spot a fake because in this town with the college kids there are a lot of them. Even if they’re 21, you still decide who comes inside, you make sure they pay the cover charge if we have one on that night, you stamp their hand, you keep out the undesirables. And if necessary, you assist with removing people. But only if the other two guys can’t handle it. You will also help out with other stuff before we open and after we close.”

“I decide who comes in? How does that work?” “This is a private business. We reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone for pretty much any legal reason, meaning we are not discriminating. But you have enough sense to look someone over and make a judgment call regarding whether they come in or not. For example, we don’t need or want drunks in here. People who are too intoxicated aren’t coming in. People who don’t fit the dress code aren’t coming in. You know, you have to have on a shirt that has sleeves. You have to wear shoes. You have to be clean. It ain’t rocket science. You think you can do that?” I pondered it for a minute. “Yeah, I guess.” He laughed again.

After this, he introduced me to the “muscle,” which consisted of two other guys that I’d become really good fiends with, Mike Thomas and Joe Torrance.

Mike Thomas appeared and presented a considerable figure, standing very tall and imposing, built like an oak tree with a narrow waist and sprouting wide near the top with thick, gnarled branches. He was about 6’ 8”, 240, and had reportedly been a tank driver in the Army. I had a hard time picturing or believing that. “How the hell did you fit in a tank dude?” “It wasn’t fun,” he told me. Apparently, Mike didn’t like driving a tank very much because he left the Army the day his first enlistment was up and went back to grad school. He was studying art. All 6 foot 8, 240 pounds of him. But I never once teased him about it. Everything about Mike was incongruous, I would learn. But as I would discover, everything about the summer would turn out to be incongruous.

The other guy, Joe Torrance, was a former Navy SEAL who had seen action in Panama and some other garden spots around the world, and he was now back in school getting his masters in Arabic. Joe, like most SEALs, was a wiry 5’ 10” 195, built like a fire hydrant, ripped, and at times, a humorous counterpart to Mike. Joe always carried a book with him, and when the nights were slow, he would sit alone at a table or the bar downstairs and be headlong in his reading. He was an intellectual thinker, and we ended up spending long hours discussing weighty issues like national security, history, and writing. Once he found out I was writing, he expressed sincere interest and asked to read my stuff, and I obliged. He was complimentary and offered some keen insights. In pure military fashion, he would also diplomatically call me out if he thought I had been lazy with something. “You can do better with that one,” he would say with a wry smile. “You’re better than that; I think you need to rework it.” I appreciated his input.

After taking the job as the doorman, I would peer around the corner from time to time to see what they were up to and see them standing together with arms folded across their chests, Mike and his long, Ted Nugentesque hair and beard, towering 10 inches over Joe, who still wore a military style haircut, close cropped. They were an interesting looking pair to say the least, the ultimate odd couple.

Mike typically wore long sleeve button down shirts and jeans with black combat boots every single night, no matter how hot it might be in June or July, while Joe wore t-shirts, shorts and running shoes. It was a contrast to put it mildly. But Joe’s shirts were always tucked neatly into his shorts, and both shirt and shorts were snug and form-fitting, but not ridiculously so. He looked like a big Olympic gymnast or a fullback you didn’t want to mess with.

And so the summer of 1992 commenced in such fashion. I took my classes. I worked my two clerking jobs. I hiked, ran, and biked the hills and forests around Fayetteville and paddled its lakes and steams. And I began working every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at The Field with Jim, Craig, Mike, Joe, and the other small staff. We opened at 7 and closed at 2, and I sometimes didn’t get home until 4 a.m. Most nights were relatively uneventful. But on occasion, some very memorable things would play out on our collective journey to the end of the night.

To be continued.

Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.