erasing clouds

The Gambler

by Robyn Ratcliff

There's that brief pause, the second or two that it takes the jukebox to change CDs. The absence of music provides for the enunciation of the other barroom sounds: pool balls knocking into one another, some minimal conversation from my friends and our 15 or so fellow drinkers, tennis shoes and boots slapping the hardwood floor, glasses clinking. It is a moment of anticipation for me, as I try to remember the order of my jukebox selections -- nine songs for two bucks, a pretty good deal if you've got the cash.

This pause is taking forever, at least in my head. Tonight I have a secret: there are new records in the jukebox -- the jukebox we all know so well we can quiz each other on disc and track numbers. No one's paying much attention, but then the first bars of music pour forth, and heads look up all over the room. People smile, they chuckle, they grin. They look at each other and nod in recognition.

"Who the hell played this song?" the bartender bellows as her eyes zoom around the bar in search of the offender.

I shrink down in my chair, cover my face, stare at the wall, and try my damnedest to vanish. Everyone else's eyes are roaming the room as they thank God that they didn't play the song and search for the guilty party.

"Perhaps," I think to myself, "I should head for the restroom right now. Or maybe one of these trophy deer, elk, or fish would be kind enough to tumble from the wall onto my head and render me unconscious." She's about to realize it's me. My friends are all staring at me, some snickering, some just looking scared.

"Robyn?" she calls, staring at me so hard that I can't look back. "Get up here." As I walk from our table to the bar everyone is looking at me. The whole place is silent, that is, except for Kenny. Kenny is singing to us from the speakers on the wall. "You've got to know when to hold `em, know when to fold `em, know when to walk away, know when to run." Running sounds like a good idea right now.

I've reached the bar. The nasty bartender shakes her finger in my face and says through a lockjaw like grimace, "If you ever, ever play this song again, I'm going to make you get up on the bar and dance in front of everyone. Do you understand?"

I must not be entirely sober because I decide to protest. "But it's a funny song! I used to listen to this when I was a little kid!" She says nothing for a second, but Kenny sings, "Son, I've made a lifetime out of reading people's faces -- knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes." The bartender is still shaking her finger at me. She can see I'm out of aces. If I'm going to play this game, I guess I'll have to learn to play it right. I hang my head, she skips the song with her master-behind-the-bar-jukebox-controls, and I wander back across the room to count my money while I'm sitting at the table.

To me, and I think to a lot of other people, there's something exciting about listening to music like "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers. When that song came on in the bar, almost everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up, acknowledging a blast from the past, remembering a different time, a time when country music had a more honest soul, before that soul was altered, tainted by the likes of Shania Twain and Travis Tritt.

Now, I'd be willing to bet that almost no one in the bar that night would claim to be a Kenny Rogers fan. They do not own his albums. They would not go to see him in concert. But, they, like myself, will indeed pay the quarter toll for a drive down memory lane.

When I was a kid my mom loved Kenny Rogers. He was the only non-religious musician she would listen to. Her albums are still in our basement, somewhere. And nearby are the pictures she took of Kenny Rogers when she traveled to a mall 80 miles away from our house and waited in line for almost four hours to see Kenny and get his autograph. She put the pictures, about seven of them, in one of those collage style picture frames with the different shaped windows. She had him autograph a copy of his photography book and gave it to my dad for Christmas.

When I hear "The Gambler," I return to my father's art studio in the basement of my childhood home. This is where we kept the record player, a big, wooden cabinet-style-thing with sliding doors on the top. In the basement studio of my memory, my brothers are still small enough to beat up when they cheat at floor hockey; my parents still do my laundry in a mustard yellow washer/dryer combo. I guess it's what you would call a nostalgic experience. I look at a simpler past, a time that made sense, country music that didn't suck.

When we hear a song from the recent past, a song were member but haven't heard in years, something highly stylized and easily recognizable, there's often something really funny about it. It's like Americans who are old enough to remember have a common ground, an-oh-my-gosh-do-you-remember-this-one kind of experience. We can say to each other, "Remember when this was hip?" and mock the absolute un-hipness of our collective cultural past.

The Kenny Rogers-hating bartender later confessed to me that her anger and absolute antagonism towards my musical taste was actually in response to the fact that, since the disc had been installed that morning, she had already heard the song at least ten times and was suffering from a hideous dose of too-much-of-a-good-thing. But for us, my friends and I, it was a brief and somewhat scary experience with the past. Nostalgic obsessions are common in older folks, but when we heard "The Gambler" I think our twenty-ish selves realized that we're getting old enough to have those feelings, too. Our memories are no longer confined to childish toys and cartoon television. We've got Kenny to remind us of our bad taste in styles, and our good taste in music.

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