By John Thomas Tuft

It is a motel room like a thousand other motel rooms. The smell of stale air mixed with sweat and urine and a thousand different aftershaves and perfumes. Cheap carpeting, shabby furniture, a television bolted to a wall, a smudged mirror in the bathroom, a few towels near the glass doors to the shower. Carter has seen it all. There are no surprises. Such is life on the road for someone married to his music, songs of perspicacity written around a life of anything but. Dreams are for suckers and youngsters and Carter laid his to rest long ago and a million miles away. The suitcase lands on the stand at the foot of the bed with a thud. The guitar case is carefully placed on the other bed. He pours some Jack Daniels, swallows two Oxy, and lays down for a nap, an acknowledgement that age, as in all wars, is winning. He is not sure how many miles he has left in him or how many songs left to uncover. The melody is fading and the harmony rings hollow for an old music man going from bar to bar, town to town, playing for faces melding into a dim background.

As he drifts away he remembers that it wasn’t always like this. He and the band used to play medium sized venues, ride in a tour bus, stay in hotels—not the best ones, but hotels. He made enough to get a house in the valley, a nice car, get married and do what he loved most. Make music. He wrote one almost hit song, “For the Next Three Minutes.” It topped out at number 13 on the country charts, but that was years and years ago. Every time he sang it still, the audience joined in the opening line, “For the next three minutes, I will sing in the key of heartache. For the next three minutes I can still pretend that you are mine…” As the years passed, the guitar riffs got more difficult to play. But that didn’t change the fact that for forever his name would be on a song. Music and Lyrics by Carter Johnson, The Pony Cowboy. The pills kick in as he murmurs: “For the next three minutes I chase away the pain, For the next three minutes it’s still all the same…the next three minutes in the key of heartache.”

Loud knocking awakened him from his stupor. Morning sunlight streamed through the window, blinding him. “Maid service. Rise and shine!” Carter stumbled to the door and opened it. He tried to focus on the middle-aged woman with the laundry and cleaning cart, wearing a shirt that said “Gracie Cleans With a Smile” across the front and back. “Mmphh?” Carter blinked, confused. Gracie bustled inside and set to ‘ridding up.’ Coming from cleaning the bathroom, she spotted the guitar case on the other bed with its peeling letters, The Ponv Cowbov. “Oh my gosh, you’re not…? You can’t be him.” She reaches to touch the case, catches herself, embarrassed. “You don’t know, you just don’t know, Mr. Johnson.” Carter’s face registers tired bemusement. “Carter. Call me Carter.” Gracie’s fingers flutter across her cheeks. “Your music. You don’t know how much your music means to me.”

Carter opens the case with a flourish and takes out his guitar, rubs the stubble on his chin as he takes a seat. “All the world’s a stage,” he joshes, “for pickin’ and grinnin’!”  He notices his lack of attire, wearing only his jockey shorts. “And I’m the fool in the spotlight.” He pulls on his jeans, finally noticing that Gracie’s face is crumbling. “What is it, darlin’? Do I look that bad? Wait till you hear how worn my voice is nowadays.” Gracie can only shake her head, over and over. “I always wanted to be a singer,” she begins in a halting voice. She notices the empty whiskey bottle and tries to pretend she did not. Carter kicks it under the bed. “Life on the road gets hard,” he offers. Gracie nods. “Life gets hard,” is her refrain.

“I wanted to sing,” she tries again. “I won the talent show in high school. Saved up my money to go to Nashville even. I got there, too, before…” her voice trails off. Carter strums a bit, giving her time. “One night I was supposed to play the Bluebell,” she begins again, the story faltering over the words. “Bucky stayed back home with our baby. He decided to surprise me and bring Clara to hear momma sing. Drove all the way from Arkansas, trying to get there on time. A drunk driver came out of nowhere…” Gracie stops, trying to stop the trembling of her lip with her fingers. “Clara never had a chance. Bucky blamed himself and couldn’t ever forgive himself. I stopped singing, never went back. Bucky left me and now,” she waves a hand around at the setting, “years sneak by and here I am.” She leans in. “But your music got me through. I’d sit in my car listening to you, imagining myself up there next to you… Foolishness, I know.”

“There’s still singing to be done, Gracie.” Carter fastens a capo around the neck of the guitar and finds the opening chords. “There’s still music. Always… C’mon, sing with me.” He starts: “For the next three minutes, I will sing in the key of heartache.” He starts over and Gracie joins in, hesitant at first. But before long the lame and the lost, the blessed and the bedraggled are singing two part harmony, “For the next three minutes I can still pretend that you are mine…For the next three minutes I chase away the pain, For the next three minutes it’s still all the same…the next three minutes in the key of heartache.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.