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.

Bella Pilar

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.

The two blond bartenders are stone-cold suburban foxes in tight faux-vintage Target tees. There will be no lonely gentlemen weeping into their whiskeys at this bar. Instead, the 50-something set stare unabashedly over bushy mustaches at the fresh young cuts from south Arlington and Mansfield who demand tequila shots over their shoulders.

Again we find cushy plastic chairs near the dance floor, a tiny corner of parquet that, if it could be embarrassed, would blush to be seen next to Hoots' spread.

Stuffed into a corner, the house band plows through what are almost recognizable as Rolling Stones songs. Platform flip-flops are alive and well at Millie's, their foamy soles supporting old and young women alike, bumping and grinding to "Honky-Tonk Women." Suddenly, my view is impeded by a white-haired man with a crazy eye. He extends his hand to me.

I have three major fears: faulty roller coasters, large dogs and crazy eyes. I am terrified of offending people with wayward eyes by looking into the wrong one, and here was a tall stick of a man asking me and, apparently, the chair next to me, to dance. "I don't know how," I protested lamely. Next thing I knew, Mike and I were swaying across the dance floor to a painful rendition of "I've Got a Feeling."

Seven escape attempts and seven songs later--two of which left us as the only couple on the dance floor--I'd learned that Mike wanted to write for The New Yorker. He only partied on weekends, he said, and if I liked this band, I should come out and see them at the El Arroyo restaurant on Cooper Street on Saturday nights. Eventually, I am released.

"Thank you for dancing with me, young lady," Mike says. I smile. Most people I'd told about this assignment warned me to watch my back. Those "redneck" bars and dance halls were rough places, surely. But Mike and Todd and Ralph had been nothing but gentlemen. Millie's and Hoots were far more civilized than any big-city dance club. There, you can only hope not to be unexpectedly violated by a techno-fueled wand'ring member sneaking up from behind with a presumptuous grind.

No wonder so many people are praying for Gary without knowing precisely why. He's probably a nice guy. Chin up, Gary. There might be an uncoordinated city girl waiting for you at Hoots once you get better. Unless, of course, you had a heart attack and died.

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