The night was still; completely silent. The dim light of downtown Tulsa cast only a slight glow over the living room, but what illuminated the darkness most was the moon. In the absolute peace of the moment, I was restless—it was almost impossible to sleep in the stifling, soundless hours of the early morning.
Already, I was too used to the sirens of New York, the shouts in the street, the J train rattling past my window. The city sounds, in their frantic, disturbing way were… soothing. The nothingness of the Oklahoma night was, for me now, little more than an anxious intermission. By the time the sun rose, I had barely slept.
Addie was alive in the morning; I needed coffee. We had met earlier that year in London and she’d invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Oklahoma—she was always on fire, one of the fastest women in Oklahoma (literally, the girl ran marathons like I watch TV), Addie put my urban lethargy to shame.
On the first day we drove out to the tall grass prairies and went on “safari” with the wild bison. They swarmed about Addie’s car and we tried to be quiet but couldn’t hold in our laughter when the animals would mount each other, moaning with an explicit wildness and thrusting lustily. When we learned that the bison could jump 6 feet vertically and horizontally, we closed the sunroof, scared that one might land upon the car, it’s thrashing bison legs stuck inside the cabin with us, beating about our faces.
Addie played Willie Nelson and when the sun was setting over the sun-burnt horizon I begged her to play Bruce Springsteen and we rolled down the widows and screamed “Born To Run” at the empty yellow fields we were flying through. The countryside began to invade my lungs and with each fresh breath I took in something of my own sun-burnt country, and the smells of grass and animal shit threw me momentarily back to Greece and afternoons spent motorcycling across nearly deserted islands. I began to feel at home in Oklahoma’s sprawling landscape, and I eased back into the car seat, feeling as light as a feather and drunk in the fading light.
On our way back to Tulsa we pulled into a small, one horse town: Barnsdall, Oklahoma. Addie wanted to go to the American Legion to drink with the veterans but it was closed, so we went to the only other bar on the meagerly populated strip of road. The bar was as I’d seen in movies about small town America—cloaked in mystery, a cement block with no windows, a heavy wooden door and a neon Budweiser sign blinking intermittently by the entrance.
Inside, we were confronted with the stench of dried beer. There was a fat Cherokee woman in sweats behind the bar, a tall Cherokee man occupying a table in the order of the room (he was standing by a raised bench, and was close to 7 feet tall, by estimation), and a younger man at the bar in a cap. Addie and I took a seat at the bar next to the man and each ordered a Bud. We paid $2 each and tipped an equal amount.
The man next to me was smoking and I turned to him tentatively. “Is it OK for us to smoke in here?” I asked.
He laughed heartily exposing several missing teeth, “sure thing, honey,” he drawled, pushing his lighter along the bar to me. I lit a cigarette and smiled at him.
“So where y’all come from?” he asked us in his deep Southern accent. I answered that I was from Australia and his whole face lit up.
“Hey ma!” he exclaimed at the woman behind the bar. “This young lady here’s all the damned way from Australia!” He looked back at me, his eyes flashing, “do y’all know the Crocodile Hunter?”
His mother laughed. “He loves the Crocodile Hunter,” she informed us as she leaned across the bar and gave him an affectionate clip across the ear. She walked around and took a stool next to him. “And where are you from, darlin’?” she asked Addie.
“Um, Tulsa…” Addie trailed off as the two stared at her in wide-eyed awe.
“Oh the big city!” the woman exclaimed, “aren’t you just a lucky little thing then?”
We continued to banter in this way, all of us laughing and learning about one another. The toothless man was 24 years old, and worked on the oil fields of Oklahoma. He’d never been as far as Tulsa, but he loved everything to do with Australian culture, and absorbed my stories with a childlike wonder. Soon, the bar owner came in, a moonlighter whose daytime job was Mayor of Barnsdall. He pushed beers into our hands and refused to have us pay.
“It’s not often we have Australians and girls from Tulsa ‘round these parts,” he’d say, offering us some nuts, another Bud, or a cigarette. Then he disappeared momentarily and reappeared, beaming, with a digital camera in hand. “Y’all stand together now,” he said, pushing gently into the man and his mother (who happened also to be the Mayor’s son and wife), “we’re going to hang this photo in the Mayoral office!”
And so we had our photo taken, somehow ceasing to be the tourists and instead becoming the attraction. Mom (by this stage we were a little bit tipsy and calling the lady mom, as did the others) invited “Big Tom” who was still in the corner drinking beers and reading a paper to join us. He grunted and waved a hand dismissively at her. “He doesn’t say much,” mom whispered to us covertly, “but we love him.” She dissolved into giggles.
Another man entered the bar at that moment. He was short and squat, fat as hell and about a million years old with deep wrinkles weaving chasms across his weathered face, and not a tooth in his gaping mouth. He breathed heavily and sat at a table at the back of the room. “Mom!” he called out, “bring me a beer!” Mom giggled and acquiesced.
“This is Uncle Tom,” she smiled, “he’s older than Barnsdall itself!”
Uncle Tom grunted at her and look at us searingly, “I’ve lived in Barnsdall my whole 65 years,” he proclaimed with a light but proud thump on his chest. “And I can tell you where all the trucking routes in America will take you, I’ve been truckin’ just as long.”
And so Addie and I started calling out numbers and Uncle Tom would tell us exactly where the route began and where in ended, and we fell into a sort of reverie.
When it was time to go we left reluctantly. We all hugged and made vague promises to come back, all the while mom laughing. “You girls aren’t gonna come back through these parts, but that’s OK! Just don’t forget us!” she said, squeezing my shoulder. They all stood by the door waving us out, and as we pulled into that still Oklahoma night, and raced though the pitch blackness to the modest lights of Tulsa, we didn’t say anything to each other at all; we just sat in stagnant darkness with our new secret, luxuriating in our own smiles.