Steppin' Out

Girl leaves the grind behind for a li'l two-stepping where the dry turns wet

The lady with the lilac eye shadow laid on thick all the way to her eyebrows can only venture a guess as to what's wrong with Gary. The gatekeeper to Hoots Honky-Tonk, she is perched behind a rectangular hole cut through a wooden wall, but she does not know precisely what's happened to the man whose name is plastered across an illuminated sign by the road: OUR PRAYERS ARE WITH YOU GARY.

"I think he was about 52," she speculates, checking my I.D. "I think he had a heart attack and died." I fork over the $9 cover charge for my two girlfriends and me. She takes the cash and adds, "I don't know if that's the same Gary out there, though."

Bad time to be a Gary in Burleson, I guess.

The band churns through the last chords of "Mustang Sally" as we swing through double doors into the sprawling club. Cowboy hats and teased bi-level haircuts turn our way. The music stops. Rowed up on stools with their bottles of Bud and glasses of whiskey sweating on the bar, the locals give us a not-so-cool looking-over. Eyes squint, peering through the smoky haze at these three 20-somethings clad in completely ironic Western wear.

Hoots is not the kind of place where the word "irony" gets tossed around too much unless someone's talking about a particularly well-pressed pair of Wranglers. We are grade-A jerks, I think, and they all know it.

Shielded with Miller Light, we find an empty table and three plastic padded chairs near the dance floor. On the jukebox, there are the usual suspects--Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Merle Haggard--and then, Fats Domino. Would that Fats could find the time to record a rendition of "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."

Bars such as Hoots, situated on two-lane highways just outside city limits, are often the first available watering holes for miles. They are havens for the poor souls unfortunate enough to live under the teetotaling thumbs of upright citizens who don't want children dwelling among the boozing riff-raff, lest they all become drunkards by the sixth grade. Good thinking. I don't know a 10-year-old who wouldn't really take to a smooth pull of Wild Turkey.

With the plight of these long-suffering folk in mind, I headed south last weekend to check out these border bars and observe their natural fauna--anything to escape the rampant douche-baggery of the Texas-OU crowd sure to be invading my usual Dallas haunts.

At Hoots, the polite thing is to stay in your seat until an agreeable song starts up, then lead your partner onto the well-worn wooden rectangle. I'm happy to sit and stare since I get mixed up if I try to chew gum and two-step at the same time.

Women wear sleeveless denim shirts embroidered with Looney Tunes characters. A guy with a well-coiffed rat-tail sports a pair of red flashing LA Lights sneakers. It's not long before we're approached by a grey-haired guy in a straw cowboy hat.

"My friend here's just learning to dance," he says, yanking up a middle-aged guy from the next table wearing a University of Texas visor. "Would one of you girls give him a dance?"

My friend Lauren's never met a stranger. "Ah will!" she drawls, taking Ralph by the hand. Lauren can, it seems, cut one hell of a rug with her new jean-shorts-clad gentleman friend, much to the chagrin of his date, left pouting at the table. As the band breezes through the Hank Williams Jr. classic "Family Tradition," the bitter jealousy also wells up inside my soul, only to be squelched when a woman with spiky bleach-blond hair pulls me onto the dance floor for a turn with her brother Todd.

With a single bead of sweat dripping from his left temple, the rotund man teaches me to do a dance in which I pretend to ice-skate across the floor backward before I am thrown willy-nilly from one pudgy Todd arm to the other. His efforts are futile; I suck.

It is a couple of advanced age and petite stature who put every dancer in Hoots to shame. Sitting side by side sipping Bud Light, grandma and grandpa wait for the right moment to own the dance floor. They must be well over 75, but they glide across the wood in perfect unison, gloriously unimpeded by polyester britches pulled up to chest level. There is hope for true love, I realize, and it is at a honky-tonk in Burleson.

We depart Hoots after getting no further with the Gary mystery. Neither the two bartenders nor the waitress who carries an ashtray on her serving platter knows what's befallen Gary. Last week, the bearded barman tells us, prayers were with Dottie. No word on what became of her, either.

Next stop: Millie's Oasis. The white, wooden cracker-box structure has been sitting on the Arlington-Mansfield border for as long as I can remember. Tonight, the parking lot is packed--a relief. The area has been inundated in recent years by casual dining establishments with private club licenses that allow Chili's to pour margaritas and Applebee's customers to enjoy beer on tap. Millie's refuses to fall victim to this recent gentrification.

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