Dancin' at the Starlight

by Mark Reed

Photo by Mark Cunningham

“Jack, I’m going to Big Bend. You comin’?” Aunt Ruthie teased. This is how she asked me to drive her. “Don’t tarry, darlin’—I might die any minute,” she said with a good deal of mischief.

Ruthie was the only family I had left, although it was a mystery exactly how we were related or how old she really was. She was a fixture at the farm growin’ up and everyone called her Aunt Ruthie. That was enough to make her family. On weekends, after the work was done, we would clear the living room of furniture; friends and family would gather from all around, and we’d dance all night until the sun came up. I can still see her dancin’, a fiddle and a couple of guitars, coal-black hair a-flyin’, eyes full of stars. I grabbed my keys and headed out the door.

We were heading west, just past Del Rio, when we stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint. A dog gave our vehicle a once-over while Ruthie struck up a conversation with Agent Hernandez, a stocky young man in his thirties.

“I was stationed at the North Dakota border before I came here,” Agent Hernandez said.

“Do you like snow?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then why did they exile you to North Dakota?” Ruthie wanted to know what he had done.

“If you see me on your way back, I will tell you,” Agent Hernandez laughed from his belly.

“I guess I’ll have to make up my own story, Señor Hernandez,” she smiled.

The dog gave us the all-clear and we left the Border Patrol checkpoint. Agent Hernandez and Ruthie smiled and waved goodbye. We passed the miles in silence as Ruthie considered Agent Hernandez’s possible transgression. When she spoke, it had nothing to do with Agent Hernandez.

“Jack,” she stated, “you and I are the same age.” She said this as if it were true.

“What?” I didn’t believe her.

“Age is just time stretched thin, held together by memories.”

I considered what she had said for a moment.

“Are you high?” I asked.

“Oh, shut up!” she laughed.

Ruthie was good company.

When we arrived in Terlingua the sun was going down. Ruthie stretched her legs in the trading post. I lit up a cigarette in the parking lot. The years have been kind to her. Her once coal-black hair was silver now and brushed the shoulders of her tall, slender frame. I finished my cigarette just as she exited the trading post. She stood there with her hands on her hips and called out, “Are you hungry?” We walked the long porch to the Starlight Restaurant and Bar, where a string of colored lights lit the way. Folks were sipping something cold and spinning tales next to a long bench. We passed a tall, broad-shouldered biker with thinning gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Hey there, lady, you wanna dance?” he said. His grin went from one ear all the way to the other.

Ruthie kept walking.

“You don’t wanna dance?” The biker grinned. Ruthie stopped, turned around, then looked him up and down and smiled, “Be careful what you wish for, darlin’.” The bench broke out in laughter.

We talked and laughed over food and drinks as time stretched thin at the Starlight, and we told each other stories about people and places long gone: sad stories, funny stories, but mostly happy ones. When we left, the dark sky was open wide. Stars big and bright, like angels, filled the heavens. It took a moment to notice the biker standing alone in the parking lot.

“Ma’am, about earlier,” he said, “I meant no disrespect.”

“None taken, darlin’.” Ruthie smiled.

“Can I ask you something?” he said while looking at the ground.

“Sure, hun.”

“You wanna dance?”

Ruthie laughed. The biker grinned. And they danced in the parking lot of the Starlight Restaurant and Bar in Terlingua, Texas to some imagined tune. Silver hair a-flying, eyes full of stars.

I stood there with the angels and watched.

Mark Lawrence Reed has been traveling Texas with his wife over 35 years. He's worked on the kill floor of a packing plant, as a dishwasher, a guitarist, a pastor, and prison chaplain. In retirement, he writes and travels from South Dakota. He is currently working on a story titled "Shortcut Through Apache County" sparked by a trip through The Navajo Nation.

Mark's love of photography began when he received a Sears 35mm SLR camera as a freshman in high school. A few years later, he learned how to scuba dive and became an avid underwater photographer. He spent many years traveling to some of the world’s most exotic locales. His passion eventually led to him to open a camera store and one-hour photo lab where he enjoyed teaching his customers the art of photography. He sold the business after 17 years of operation and drifted away from serious photography as the digital age began to take over. Years later, Mark saw some beautiful Milky Way photos on the internet, sparking his interest again. He borrowed a friend’s DSLR camera, loaded up his dog, and headed out to Big Bend National Park to shoot the Milky Way for the first time. When that first shot popped up on the camera display, he was hooked and his passion was renewed.