My wife Lala and I have a game we like to play. When we hear songs from our childhoods on the radio, we list the bands we'd brave the crowds to go see today. Her tastes lean toward a screaming Ted Nugent, mine in the more hummable direction of Bad Company.
Growing up in the West, Lala also had always had Kenny Rogers on her list, which is how we ended up driving south toward Route 66 Casino Hotel on a Saturday night. We'd been asked to attend a benefit dinner on the same date, which is what Lala believed we were still doing—even though the dinner was in the opposite direction. She chalked up our surprising route as another mistake from her hapless husband.
"I knew it wasn't in Tesuque," she said, putting her feet up on the dash. "You always get these things wrong."
"Guilty as charged," I said.
As we drove, she kept trying to guess the benefit dinner's locale. First, it was on the south end of town, then a restaurant she knew even further south in an even smaller town, then it was at The Range Café in Bernalillo. Her final guess, before we hit the spasmodic neon lights west of Albuquerque, was the zoo, as if monkeys had recently evolved into fascinating dinner companions. I guess I should have been excited that her night with The Gambler had been kept a complete surprise for 75 minutes, yet her willingness to go along also meant that she thinks me a major-league idiot.
Lucky for this idiot, the Kenny concert was sold out, and the casino had replaced all his signs and billboards with those of a long-nailed psychic who looked a lot like a tranny with whom I once shared a cab in Manhattan.
"Wait a second," Lala said when she spotted the lines snaked around the one-armed bandits. "What kind of dinner is this?"
I tried to peer through the haze of cigarette smoke. "Most of these people belong in the ICU."
Old folks with walkers were followed by those in wheelchairs. A few were so bent over that they could see the people behind them through their own knees. Except for a pair of stoned college kids, Lala and I were the youngest by decades.
"I'm taking you to see Kenny Rogers."
"No way." She hit me in the arm. "The coward of the county?"
"Indeed. We've got tonight, babe. Why don't we stay?"
The show was delayed a half hour, which fans chalked up as a conspiracy to get us to gamble more. During that time, Lala and I counted the Kenny Rogers look-alikes, and marveled as an unstable man in a black hat worked himself into a lather by reciting lyrics into a mirror. Every one of Kenny's fans had needs, and most of them were special. When the doors opened, I whisked Lala to stage right, as I had finagled passes to the meet-and-greet. Kenny no longer possesses the face of the man who stars in any of the five Gambler movies, nor does he gambol like Dolly Parton's duet partner. But he was daytime friends to everyone he met—including this idiot and his wife.
Hearing all those old hits in a row carried me to the backseat of my parents’ Ford LTD station wagon, where I once dreamily listened to the AM radio. Between songs, Lala reeled off all the products that Kenny had endorsed, including hip-huggers, cowboy boots, belt buckles, and silver wigs and beards. But mostly, we sang along to ballads about longing for love, being there for a loved one and “walking through love’s door,” the kind of lyrics you don’t hear much anymore. Modern couple or not, we let our good friend irony drift away to the bar, and pulled nostalgia from her electric wheelchair for one last spin around the dance floor.
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.