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Keith's Song

To feel a part of his town, he would do just about anything—pick up trash, post flyers, get drunk. But all he had to do was sing.

by Christian McPhate

It’s just after midnight on a Saturday, and the monthly dance at the American Legion Post 198 will be ending soon.

Keith Harrelson stands in the corner of the room, alone, waiting for his chance to step behind the microphone. The bandleader has told him that after one more song, he could join the country-and-western group on stage. That was 30 minutes ago. So Keith busies himself, clearing away beer bottles and plastic cups, and if no one is paying attention, draining what’s left of their contents.

The Saturday night dance is a monthly tradition in the small North Texas ranching community of Archer City, a rowdy gathering of beer-swilling, boot-scooting two-steppers — cowboys and cowgirls, roughnecks and truck drivers who party as hard as they work. Keith can’t afford the cover charge, but tonight is no ordinary dance. New Year’s Eve has come to town a few nights early to accommodate those folks who will spend the first day of 2014 on the back of a horse, on top of a drilling rig or in the seat of a semi.

Tonight the writers from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference are returning to town to hear him sing — writers who treat Keith differently than many of the townspeople, who make him feel special by listening to him and the songs he’s written. Keith hasn’t seen them since summer when they spent a week at the Spur Hotel, a gathering place for storytellers who immersed themselves in Archer City’s culture, combed the town searching for stories to tell, and shared their work, their lives, their brokenness — and included him in their sharing.

Ever since the legendary Larry McMurtry published his 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, which was set in Archer City, book lovers and writers have been traveling to McMurtry’s hometown, hoping to soak up his creative spirit. They take photographs of one another in front of the Royal Theater, The Last Picture Show incarnate. Many try to get a glimpse of McMurtry himself, who at 78 spends less and less time in Archer City where he owns a massive store of rare and used books. Not long ago, the bookstore boasted a stock of nearly half a million titles — by far, the biggest literary enterprise in this part of the country. But in 2012, he decided to reduce his inventory and auctioned off 300,000 titles.

McMurtry, the author of some 40 novels and screenplays who once bestrode Archer City as a national icon, a sort of Mark Twain on the prairie, is hard to find these days. Advancing age, fading health and changing times are overtaking him — as they have overtaken Archer City, as they have overtaken Keith.

Keith has been talking about the New Year’s Eve dance for weeks now, staring at the flyer announcing the dance as he’s walked past the poster dozens of times. Several years ago, veterans at the post made him an official member of their brotherhood, although many seem weary of him now, hardly tolerating him. Yet Keith considers the post his second home. He cleans up the parking lot, picking up cigarette butts and beer bottles, thinks about the people dancing, the band playing, about singing a favorite country song — one he would only sing in his apartment, a rundown wreck of a place where he belts his heart out. The only time he stops is when his next-door neighbor bangs on the wall. Music’s all he’s got to ward off the loneliness.

Not so long ago, it was Keith’s job to hand out those flyers. He’d walk to Center and Main, past the vacant lots and the boarded-up storefronts, posting them in antique shops, the bank and in Archer City’s few remaining cafés. It might take him several hours, especially in the summer when the temperature soared into triple digits. He only earned a few beers for his troubles, and the Legion would sometimes waive his $10 entry fee to the dance.

He didn’t mind working up a sweat for the sake of the brotherhood. He sweats a lot anyway. Stumbling and sweating and stumbling again, with the left side of his body mostly paralyzed. “It’s like lockin’ a door you can’t open,” he says. A teenager had barreled into his mother’s car when Keith was 5, hurling him across the backseat and slamming him into the passenger door. Doctors didn’t think Keith would walk again, but he surprised everyone. Now, at age 33, Keith is still walking, but in a manner some locals can’t bear to watch.

To keep his balance, he tucks his withered left arm close to his body, puts pressure on his right leg and drags his left, his head bobbing as he steps. He stops long enough to dip snuff, pick up trash or pull up the basketball shorts he wears all summer. Keith’s been tottering down the pot-holed streets of Archer City for so long, his feelings about it have worked their way into the lyrics to one of his songs.

Walkin’ on this ol’ road seems to get old
Sometimes just tryin’ to get from one place
     to another
just won’t ease my mind
tryin’ to get from my house down to the school
just ain’t what it seems to be
Walkin’ the streets of this old town
     is just killin’ me.

Tonight, Keith’s destination is the stage at the American Legion post, where he’s determined to sing a country cover song. With his handlebar mustache, long and dark, and his cowboy hat, gray and pulled low over his brown eyes, he blends into the corner’s shadow near the bar, going unnoticed if not for his slight sway as he shifts his weight from bad leg to good. He wears an old gray suit jacket with food-stained lapel — the one he picked up at a thrift store in Wichita Falls — the one he’s real proud of. It’s missing a couple of buttons, but he still fastens it, making one side higher than the other. It’s still nice enough to distract from the rest of his clothes — faded T-shirt, worn-out jeans, beat-up tennis shoes.

Keith has spent most of the evening waiting in his apartment, checking his wristwatch for midnight to strike. That’s when the folks who charge admission at the dance stop guarding the door and pack up their cash box. Not long ago, the Legion started charging Keith admission to its dances. It was an added expense he couldn’t afford. His disability check barely covers his necessities: rent, utilities, frozen pizza, cold beer. Their intent seemed clear: to keep him away.

But that isn’t going to happen tonight. A few couples leave the dance floor and enter the bar area, close to the corner where he’s standing. His smiles and nods largely go unanswered. He tries not to bother folks, but if he sees someone he knows, which is just about everyone in town, he can’t help but start a conversation. He can sense though when the “brothers” would prefer to hang out with other brothers—those who actually served in the armed forces. If he lingers too long, they know how to make him move on: Slip him a few bucks for a beer.

“Go enjoy yourself,” says one, patting him on the shoulder. Keith stutters a “thank you” and heads straight to the bar. He grabs a beer, looks for someone to talk to, but no one returns his smile. His grin disappears, his head drops and he withdraws to his same corner, waiting, forever it seems, for the band to finish its last country song.

A country song was playing on the dashboard radio that morning in 1985 when a teenager’s car sped through the stop sign and slammed into Keith’s mother’s Chevy Impala. The impact crushed the driver’s door and tossed Keith from one side of the backseat to the other, the blunt force nearly impaling his head on the door lock. When the paramedics arrived, he just sat in the car motionless, staring off into space. With no blood pouring from an open head wound, no one realized the extent of his injuries. “I thought he was fine,” one paramedic told the Times Record News.

Twenty-eight days later, Keith awoke from his coma in a crisis unit at Wichita Falls General Hospital. Despite the doctor reassuring his mother that Keith could hear her voice, he didn’t recall much while in the coma. There was this one monster though who came to him in a dream. He had long brown hair, a long mustache, fangs and dry painted skin. He might have been more menacing if he hadn’t been a guest at his aunt’s house for Sunday brunch. The monster left when Keith awoke, but his brain injury remained.

That injury left Keith paralyzed at first, unable to walk, speak or hold a fork. It took months of physical therapy before he could stand on his own, and several surgeries to unclench his left hand. Nearly three decades after the car crash, his fingers still curl like a deflated hook.

The accident shocked Archer City. A sign on the courthouse lawn asked people to donate money and offer prayers to the Harrelsons in their time of need. “We are so thankful to the Lord for Keith’s miracle of life,” his father told the Record News. Keith’s kindergarten class made him a get-well card and held a bake sale to help with medical bills. More than 2,000 people from Archer and Wichita counties bought blue wristbands with the words “I’m Backing a Fighter” printed in bold letters. Each wristband sold for $20. Pop singer and Easter Seals spokesman Pat Boone even helped solicit money. Keith became a poster child for the organization, which targets children with disabilities. Despite these efforts, the funds raised only covered a fraction of the medical expenses, but the outpouring of support seemed a neighborly way for the town to care for its own.

The Harrelsons had been living in Archer City for generations. Keith’s grandfather was a retired city employee. He ran heavy machinery, checked the water meters and made repairs. Keith repairs things, too, but not for the city. Recently, he bought a busted TV for $10, took it back to his apartment and tinkered with it until the sound came on.

Keith’s father also worked for the city; he was a watchman for the pump house at Archer City Lake. He would often take his son and his old acoustic guitar to work, strumming a country song during his downtime as Keith moved his head to the beat. But that was before the accident.

After the accident, Keith went to physical therapy in Wichita Falls, driving the 25 miles with his father, listening to the same country songs on the radio that his father would play on his guitar. But that was before the money for therapy ran out.

Keith suffered from “distractibility” as well as “organize affective syndrome,” a common symptom for people with a bi-frontal disturbance, according to his psychological evaluation. “He reacts to all things with a lack of filtering ability,” wrote Dr. Vincent A. Escandell, a Wichita Falls psychiatrist. “His performance will be as mature as the last act he witnessed. His morals and judgments are based on the most immediate need of his impulses. Situations that are new or require novel responses will be in the impaired range. He requires routine and structure for almost all successful performances.”

In Keith’s life, country music provides that routine and structure; he uses it to recall memories that might otherwise be long forgotten. George Strait, Garth Brooks, Alabama, Jerry Jeff Walker, Merl Haggard, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., these aren’t just heroes plucked from his childhood, they are the connections in his brain that help him recollect. He knows the lyrics to every popular country song, not just every word, but also every nuance, beat and twang. But when he sings, he doesn’t just mimic their sound, he transforms it into something heartfelt and soulful, as if his loneliness “walkin’ the streets” bleeds through each song.

Elementary school also offered Keith the routine and structure he needed. He learned at a slower pace than his peers in a special-needs classroom located in a small shed behind the building that housed the town’s elementary and high schools. Keith was mainstreamed in high school and gained a certain notoriety as the equipment manager for the football team. But after graduation, Keith’s life stood still while other students left to attend college or work in the oilfields. While his days would be spent walking around town, his nights would be spent in his bedroom at his parents’ house singing with Willie and Waylon and the boys.

His father, whose relationship with Keith had deteriorated since the accident, was ready for him to move out. He found a cramped one-bedroom apartment for his son at Robin’s Gardens, a fixed-income community. Keith had never cared for himself and knew little about cooking or cleaning. His mother would check on him weekly, but over time, her visits grew less frequent until she finally stopped coming altogether. Keith said he didn’t mind. He was a “Freebird,” he would say, like the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. On his white walls, he hung a cardboard cutout of two models — a blonde and a brunette — wearing Budweiser bathing suits, a clock advertising chewing tobacco and a few signs he’d collected walkin’ the streets of Archer City.

And each day, he followed the same routine: walking by day, singing at night, writing songs that explored his confused, solitary life — a life of loss and longing for love and acceptance. Few friends visit him. The church member who came to clean his apartment quit months ago. So Keith sits in his sparsely furnished living room and sings his cover songs and writes his own lyrics with titles like “This Ol’ Cripple Boy,” “Girl That I Knew” and “State of Confusion.” One year, he picked up an old karaoke machine from a friend and recorded a CD of cover songs. He sang tunes by the Beach Boys, the Oakridge Boys and, of course, Alabama. He’s thought about recording his own songs, but he hasn’t found the right music to accompany his lyrics.

Occasionally, Keith may visit his Uncle Carl, who lives a few blocks away and keeps beer in the fridge and in a cooler. Last year, Uncle Carl bought an old fire truck, intending to restore it. He promised to take Keith cruising down Main Street, even said he would let him blow the siren. Keith is still waiting for him to restore it, but took a photo of the truck in the meantime. He’s shown the photo to people at the gas station, the library and the American Legion. Sitting in his apartment, he’ll look at it and smile. It’s a good picture.

Keith got his first taste of singing beyond the confines of his apartment in early 2000, when the bandleader at the American Legion dance said he could join in for a song. Keith took the stage and grabbed the mic — didn’t feel nervous at all, cuing the band to begin, just like he’d done a thousand times in his living room. As he made his way through chorus and verse of “Unwound” by George Strait, people began to dance, spinning and twirling, two and three-stepping.

He didn’t officially join the Legion until 2008, when Curtis Nelson, the post commander, told him he could become a brother as long as he had a family member who’d served in the military. It was enough that his grandfather had been a mess sergeant in World War II. Keith received his membership card in the mail two weeks later, the first of seven he keeps in his wallet. He’ll pull them out sometimes, showing them off as though he’d received a combat medal.

Last year, a Legion post in Wichita Falls gave him an old motorized wheelchair. He shined the torn seat, dusted the armrests and fixed the footrests. He fired up the red machine and cruised slowly down the street — made it as far Allsup’s gas station a few blocks from his apartment. That’s when it died. Now it just sits on his back porch, the casualty of a bad battery and no money to replace it.

The only money Keith makes is when someone pays him to clear trash from a business parking lot or a city park or a remodeled home under construction. He’s pretty good at cleaning up after people—that, and singing.

He can recall meeting Larry McMurtry only once: Keith was in high school. It was late in the afternoon, and he was walking toward the golf course when McMurtry stopped him. “We had a little conversation about our own lives,” he says. “McMurtry told me about his son, James, who’s a singer-songwriter, and I told him I wrote songs. We chatted for a few minutes, and we went about our own way.”

It’s because of McMurtry that Keith met a contingent of writers — graduate students and professionals who attended the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and each year made a pilgrimage to Archer City. Like an expectant father, Keith awaited for their arrival at the historic Spur Hotel where they stayed during a weeklong seminar.

His Uncle Carl, then the mayor of Archer City, introduced him to the group in 2004. But Keith had trouble understanding them as they talked about the elements of nonfiction storytelling. He had no trouble drinking beer with them, never knowing when to quit, or joining them on their back road adventures across Archer County. Over time, he began to mimic them, keeping a journal the writers had bought for him— but rather than write on its precious pages, he would paperclip scraps of paper inside.

It was late July 2012 when he met Kensy, a down-to-earth grad student who could brighten up a room, said Keith. “Don’t you think she looks like one of them Budweiser models on my wall?” They were at the bar in the Legion hall, and Keith admits it wasn’t his finest moment. He wore his blue basketball shorts, a stained T-shirt and a bruise on his right eye the size of a man’s clenched fist. Keith denied someone took a poke at him, said he’d run into the bathroom door, fell flat onto the floor. Either way, Keith couldn’t take his eyes off Kensy, whose gesture of a simple hello sent his imagination spinning. Attractive women never paid attention to him. Oh, he’d claim he had girlfriends in high school, but when he broke it down, they were just girls who would talk to him when their friends weren’t around.

Keith spent the week hanging out with the writers, even when they went “backroading.” That’s when they would pull to the side of an old dirt road, hunker down in the beds of their pick-ups and drink lots of beer. And then, for the benefit of their writing, they explored their own personal narratives, sharing their painful stories: a grandfather who murdered a grandmother, a daughter who felt confined by her religion, a father who was found dead.

Keith listened intently, then shared his own tragedy about the accident, the coma — how at 5, he woke up as some “ol’ crippled boy,” disabled for life through no fault of his own. As he listened to the others, all these people with their sad stories, stories just like his, it made him feel like he wasn’t so alone, like he belonged.

On the last night of the seminar, the Legion held a dance and invited the writers. Keith arrived early after trading his faded T-shirt for his Hawaiian one, his blue basketball shorts for his red basketball shorts. Several pieces of tissue covered the cuts on his face from shaving; he’d even brushed the snuff from between his teeth. He wanted to be with Kensy, but she was already drinking and playing pool with a few cowboys who congregated around her — moths drawn to a flame. Keith tried a game of pool, but it was too hard to balance the pool stick with his emaciated left arm. Instead, he headed to the dance floor, waiting for Kensy to dance with another cowboy.

He didn’t mind that he couldn’t dance with her; he just enjoyed watching her two-stepping across the floor and imagining he was spinning her around. He waited for those few moments when she’d glance his way, smiling as she twirled by. The bandleader interrupted Keith’s stare when he called him up to sing. He wouldn’t start until he was sure she was watching him. Then he began to sing “London Homesick Blues” by Gary P. Nunn, and she began to dance, splitting her attention between the cowboy in her arms — and him.

After the song, Keith joined the writers at their table, and Kensy came up and patted him on the back. “Wow, Keith, good job,” she said, heading to the bar where the cowboys awaited her arrival. “Hey, did you hear that?” Keith told the others. “She liked my song.”

Kensy didn’t show up for the New Year’s Eve dance like Keith had hoped, but he was pleased two other Mayborn writers arrived from Denton to hear him perform. It’s past midnight when the band finally invites Keith to join them. Even though his suit jacket still looks awkward, he manages some swagger walking toward the band. His head bobs once, and he takes his place behind the microphone, bright stage lights bouncing off his face, as if God himself has finally taken notice.

Keith turns to the band. “All right, boys.” And with that, the acoustic, electric and bass guitars kick in, and then the keyboard and drums join the fray. A few heads start to move with the beat of the band as Keith begins his rendition of “London Homesick Blues,” Kensy’s favorite song. His deep voice tinged with sadness washes over the small crowd still nursing their last few beers.

“When you’re down on your luck, and you ain’t got a buck, London you’re a goner,” Keith croons. “Even the London Bridge has fallen down and moved to Arizona.” He looks at the guitarist and smiles, mimicking the way his hero, Gary Nunn, smiled at Jerry Jeff Walker when they performed the song back in 1992. Then the band joins Keith’s vocals: “And now I know why.”

Keith shakes his head, grins and continues the first verse, hitting all the notes just like his hero: “And I’ll substantiate the rumor that the English sense of humor is drier than the Texas sand. You can put up your dukes, and you can bet your boots that I’m leavin’ just as fast as I can.”

As the band plays a short instrumental bridge, Keith sways to the music, no longer looking like a broken character from the pages of a Larry McMurtry novel. He commands the stage, and the band gladly follows as he leads them into the chorus:

“I wanna go home with the armadillo. Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene, the friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.”

As the band picks up the tempo at the end of the second verse, most of the people lingering at the tables or standing at the bar don’t understand what this means to Keith. They never pay much attention to him anyway. “And of the whole damn lot, the only friend I’ve got is a smoke and a cheap guitar.” He turns his back to the crowd, again smiling at the band. “My mind keeps roamin’, and my heart keeps longin’ to be home in a Texas bar.”

Tonight, Keith doesn’t mind the near empty dance floor or that some people are talking through his song, or that only two of the 10 writers who promised they’d come showed up at the dance. He’s happy both are sitting at a table, tapping their feet, and feeling the urge to sing loudly, drunkenly, as he hits the chorus again. “I wanna go home with the armadillo. Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene, the friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.”

For these three minutes while Keith sings on a cold December night, it doesn’t matter that Archer City is becoming a forgotten wisp of a town on the North Texas prairie. Or that Kensy is living out of state. Or that Larry McMurtry, for all his renown, will probably not write many more books. Or that McMurtry’s bookstore, with all its allure, will someday go the way of The Last Picture Show.

For these three minutes, Keith forgets his loneliness and loses himself in his song. No longer does he feel like an outsider in his own town, a “crippled boy” who drinks too much for his own good. He is Keith Harrelson, whose body no longer betrays him, but instead, through his soothing sounds and mellifluous melodies, feels as though he belongs.

To feel a part of his town, he would do just about anything—pick up trash, post flyers, get drunk. But all he had to do was sing.
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