I craved a shot of tequila as I left the diner; I just didn’t know why. I had a sudden overwhelming urge, strong and singular, unmistakable yet odd; alcohol so out of character for me. It was as if I could smell the agave bush fermenting in the hot Mexican desert sun and longed for a thick shot glass in my right hand. I wasn’t a drinker however, not remembering the last time I had even had a beer. So after eating at the greasy spoon, sitting in the cracked red-upholstered booth, watching the occasional car speed along the interstate through the dirty windows of the diner, and observing fellow customers with their wide-brimmed Stetsons and worn cowboy boots, I picked up my tab and moved to the cash register. It was here that the thought began to plague me; irresistible and not going away.
I paid my 35-cent tab to the waitress; a quarter and a dime for a piece of surprisingly fresh cherry pie and a cup of black coffee; just a distraction as I drove the lonely highway somewhere in central Texas for a failing business. She was an attractive woman in a Midwest sort of way: long brown hair, tied up in a bun with a pencil through the side, kind dark eyes, and a pretty smile. I returned to my booth, leaving her a nickel tip, but the desire for that shot of tequila would not go away. On my way out, my reflection followed me in the mirror running the length of the lunch counter: jeans and an old brown leather jacket, worn to threads, looking better than I remembered. I stopped and just looked at the woman, then eyed my reflection over her shoulder, now realizing that I wore a goofy smile.
“Tequila,” I said silently to myself. I looked around the diner; the Lone Star, the National Beer of Texas sign hanging askew from a single nail the only indication that alcohol was served.
The waitress apparently knew my ailment, for she looked me calmly in the eyes and asked: “Can I get you something else, honey?”
I broke eye contact, and then followed her hands that were polishing the counter with a wet, worn-out rag. I heard a coin drop and a Billie Holiday tune, I’m Pulling Through, spun on the red jukebox behind me. Customers stopped talking; all eyes now on the waitress and me. I looked her in the eyes again with nothing to say, just shrugging my shoulders. She reached below the counter and produced a half-empty bottle of José Cuervo Tradicional, pouring me a shot in an etched-crystal shot glass, the delightfully clear liquid spilling over the cup’s edge like a cool summer waterfall at daybreak. She set the bottle down slowly on the glass counter. I stared at that shot glass for what seemed ages, shaking my head and wondering again, why tequila? Taking the glass firmly in my right hand, I downed it in one gulp, the clear liquid burning as it made its way to the pit of my gullet.
The waitress walked away slowly, looking at me in the mirror. She said over her head: “Why don’t you keep the bottle, honey. I reckon y’all need it.” There wasn’t much to say; somehow I knew she was right. She seemed to make nothing of me or my presence; acting too busy to really care. I took the bottle and left a “21” Morgan silver dollar for the trouble.
The bell on the door clanged behind me as I stepped down the weathered wooden steps to the pothole-lined dirt lot that encircled the diner and paralleled the highway, my bottle of Tequila concealed with the waitress’s worn-out rag. Grimy coupes and sedans sat randomly in any color you could imagine, if you only could imagine black; most missing the spare tire on the back. A '32 pickup truck was parked to my right with an empty gun rack in the back.
The single-lane highway swept away perfectly straight and disappeared over both horizons, the sun setting in a golden hue to the west. The wind had picked up, whipping dust and stinging my eyes. The sky suddenly darkened, cloud covering the sun, the only light now the incandescent bulbs in the diner behind me. I turned up my collar, a tiny shudder coming across me uncontrollably; a storm would soon be upon us. I lit a Camel; my hands surrounding the flame as a break to the strong wind. I drew in deeply as I moved to my own bucket of bolts, a '28 Ford panel truck, my employer’s failing plumbing parts business painted on the side in thick whitewash letters, Help You Flush. The bottle went into the glove box. With a push of the ignition switch, the Model A straight-4 fired awake, and I backed the wagon out quickly. I double clutched through first, second, and third gears, cruising towards the horizon at 45 mph.
Quickly the world was turned over and completely dark; the sun blacked out by billowing storm clouds. I switched on the single-bulb headlights hoping to light my way. I closed the front windshield window, two and a half turns on the dashboard crank, rolled up the driver’s side and right-hand windows as wind began to shake the vehicle like a toy. A twister appeared on the left, building in power and throwing everything in its path, a sharecropper’s shack directly in-line with the storm. There was a man trying to secure storm windows in his shirtless overalls; his life directly in the storm path, ready to give up everything to nature. Without a thought, I made pulled over, opened my door and ran for the man. He was down on the porch now, and hurt. It seemed as if he had been impaled in his left thigh by a flying mailbox post, blood spurting, the man frightened beyond belief. A pack of children poured out of the shack, surrounding us with crying and calls to “Pa,” their dirty faces dripping with tears. As the twister went over the shack, the building shuddered briefly and then was thrown down with a huge explosion-like sound; treated like the insignificant piece of architecture it was.
The man was bleeding and screaming, more concerned for his five children than himself. I looked at his wound and was overwhelmed, a cracked 4x4 thrown like a dart sticking deep into his thigh, the femur bone fractured and exposed like butcher’s fair. Mail was cast around, letters stuck to everything with the man’s blood. I looked the frightened farmer in the eye, and then moved to his wound. Taking my leather belt off, I fashioned a makeshift tourniquet and applied it as tight as I could around his thigh.
There was no mother, and so I looked at the oldest boy again, his name quickly yelled out as Seth. He knew before I did that the question in my mind was, “where the hell is a doctor.”
“Down the road a piece on the right, Mister,” the boy pointed as if he had just matured a decade. “He’s Doc Louis … He’s prone to the bottle though,” the young man said, with a worrisome tone in his voice.
With all the other children helping, we moved the critically injured man to the back of my panel wagon. The twister had moved on now, and there was even some peace reflected in the stars above. Inside that vehicle however, only mayhem, as each child crawled in screaming and yelling for their Pa. I reached across the cab, pulled the tequila bottle out and handed it back to Seth. “Pour some of this on your Pa’s wound, son.”
I parked in the drainage ditch beside the doctor’s house, an ill-repaired, green-and-white home with a raised, peeling paint porch encircling the building; a substantial structure some time in the past. On the door a sign in need of paint read: William Louis, MD; Doctor of Medicine. I opened the screen and pounded on the door, and realized that it was open. Inside, the living room was lit by a single floor light with a tipped-over lampshade, no one to be seen. I heard him then, a snoring sound coming from somewhere. Seth and I moved the couch away from the wall and revealed a broken, disheveled man, perhaps in his 60s, passed out on the floor. He reeked of alcohol, was extremely unkempt, with yellow and black teeth, tousled grey, greasy hair on a balding head, and a threadbare grey suit with a green-striped untied bowtie loose around his neck. I shook the man, receiving some response. He turned and tried to sit up with our help, vomiting on himself wtih the movement. The doctor was greatly disturbed, with glassy, jaundiced eyes, and remarkable shaking hands.
“Doc Louis,” I said. “I have a man who has been hurt in the twister.”
The doctor turned and looked closely into my eyes. “Twister?” He said, saliva dripping from his mouth. “Has there been a twister?”
“Yes, and this man is hurt bad. You are the only person who can help him.”
The doctor looked me in my eyes. He blinked several times and choked down an emesis before speaking. “Do I really look like someone who can take care of anyone? You must be insane,” he said with a small sarcastic chuckle.
He smelled awash of alcohol, and I turned my head to avoid it. Retuning to the doctor, I realized that he looked moved to tears. The man laid back down behind the couch, his extremities shaking uncontrollably.
“No Doc, we need you to see this guy. Please get up now,” I said, pulling the man upright. His hands were shaking, his right much worse than his left. “His left thigh was busted. There is blood, and bone. He doesn’t look so good Doc.”
With help the doc stood up shaking. He made his way across the room to a liquor cabinet only to find three empty bottles which he tossed on the ground. Talking to himself and looking at his shaking hands, he said: “I need a drink!” The man turned and wobbled away through a door and into the kitchen. Broken bottles were thrown around, chairs overturned, and shouts could be heard from the room.
In his absence, I looked at the wall in the living room, a tragic lost life illustrated before me. A huge yellowed diploma was framed on the wall, the glass of the picture frame cracked crossways and missing a chunk. It was a medical degree dated 1910 from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the William Abraham Louis, Doctor of Medicine highlighted in gold with the words: with highest honors. A photograph of a younger Dr Louis hung askew next to the diploma. Here he was dressed in graduation garb embracing an attractive young woman and carrying the gold-headed caduceus cane, representing the top class graduate. Sadness overcame me as I heard the man frantically looking for a drink, the resolution to what had begun as an outstanding medical career.
Dr Louis wandered into the room. He was shaking and fell across the couch. I moved to him. “Doc, we need you. There is a man who is beat up pretty bad. He needs you.”
The man looked up, his yellow sclera glistening, vomitus encircling his mouth. “Best take him to Odessa … I am no good for him,” the doctor said averting his eyes from me with shame. “Haven’t been worth a shit lately. Really never was worth a shit, at least since my lady died!”
The young boy Seth appeared through the front door. “What about this?” He said producing the bottle of José Cuervo wrapped in the dirty washrag.
A smile came to my face as the story pieced itself together. I took the bottle of José Cuervo, and fed a few drops to the doctor. Soon the man was sitting, not stopping until the bottle was empty, his delirium tremens diverted for another time.
And so we brought the farmer into the doctor’s house, ushering in the injured man surrounded by a hysterical ball of mayhem. The man eventually survived, the country physician doing well in the process. Sitting in the living room the scene began to slow. There was blood everywhere, covering everyone including the the gaggle of kids. My hands were covered with sticky clotted blood; the smell of death luckily diverted for the time. I took a deep breath, lit a cigarette, and looked to the ceiling thinking of God and his power.
The diner seemed a million miles away, the events of the day reaffirming my beliefs. Somehow I now knew why; thanking God for that shot of tequila.