I’ve lived most of my life within a few miles of Interstate-10, or la i-diez, as it’s also known around here. I’ve even lived a few months near the Santa Monica Freeway end of that same coast-to-coast road. As a rule, I refuse to give or take directions using numbers instead of names, with the important exception of Exit 0 at Anthony. It’s a place that might be Texas or might be New Mexico, but it is for sure where you can find Stella’s Barbecue.

The night of Friday, September 12, was a sad one, so I had to venture down the interstate toward El Paso in hopes of communing with certain spirits of the dead and gone. Stella’s sits way up the hill on the northeast side of Exit 0 and usually has a band on Friday nights. John, the owner, smokes the barbecue himself—juicy pork ribs, brisket, chicken, and fat, pink sausages, with sides of potato salad, black-eyed peas, baked beans, and dark green collards cooked till just tender. His wife, Stella, prepares the desserts—banana pudding, peach cobbler, chocolate cake, pecan pie, and peanut butter pie. The dining room has Formica tables and half-moon booths of brown naugahyde; Stella has decorated the walls with framed prints, black velvet paintings, and a fake Persian rug. They’re all portraits of John Wayne. If he likes you, John (the owner, not the Duke) will try to get you to put your hand inside a cardboard box with a scrawled warning: Danger—Baby Rattler. The place hasn’t been there long, at least not in its current incarnation as Stella’s. But somehow, it has aged outside of time.

The radio had awakened me early that morning with a booming, hard thumping guitar lick and a story I knew was coming and had dreaded in my dreams. Even at 3 a.m., it took no more than a split second to recognize the guitar lick; I didn’t need to hear the story. The train had come and rolled on around the bend; he’d walked the line and crossed it; the closely watched heart had stopped beating. Sometime around daylight, I screwed up my courage to leave a voicemail for my old boyfriend Steve, who never answers if he knows it might be me. But since he’d certainly have the phone unplugged at that hour, I just said to the machine: “I know you’ve heard this already, but Johnny Cash is dead; long live Johnny Cash.”

It still felt like summer in southern New Mexico, but that morning I dusted off my black boots to wear to work and spent the day in a weepy funk as I plotted my evening pilgrimage. Steve plays piano at Stella’s on Friday nights with this no-name, hard-core, country & western band (I like to think of them as the Side-Men). I figured I could sit in the dark, cry in my beer, and breathe in the dusty vibrations that swirl into a vortex at Exit 0.

You might think those vibrations are just the rumble and fumes of the 18-wheelers next door at the Flying J Truck Stop. But there’s something more to it. Stella’s is a red barn up on the hill where the pavement ends and the bare rocks of the Franklin Mountains begin and—well, it’s a place with no reason to exist, except to provide the music and the dark for a few sad and rather brave souls with the guts to get off the road at Exit 0 and thread their way through the pot-holes to one of Stella’s two front doors.

Unfortunately, the band’s drummer stood them up, so there was no live music. I told the guys that Johnny Cash did his best work with no drummer, but these youngsters are a lazy, dependent bunch. They got hold of Scooter, the AWOL percussionist, on a cell phone, just so they could fire him. The story was that he was not so far away—just in El Paso, hanging out with some woman. Steve figured that must have been too good for him to pass up. What a bunch of low-lifes, no?

I went outside and got some Johnny Cash CDs from my truck so we could at least hear something besides Garth Brooks and the other country-music-lites you hear on the radio and on bar jukeboxes these days. Sometimes you’re saved because it happens to be a day of mourning for one of the greats; or, if you’re lucky, there’s a live, no-name, hard-core band on a Friday night at a disappearing roadhouse like Stella’s.

There was this tall, blond guy who I’d seen in the library many times freeloading on our computers and playing in a string band around Las Cruces. (I love it when people show up out of context.) Anyway, he was asking if there was anywhere else he and his girlfriend might find some live music. We steered him toward the norteño bars of Anthony, New Mexico, with a warning that they could get a bit rough, especially for someone with his güero good looks. He swore he’d be fine as he’d spent many hours as the only white man in the zydeco bars of the Gret Stet of Lou-si-ana. I told him that was different, that I was from the Gret Stet myself and so I knew what I was talking about. Ends up he’s from Morgan City, Lousiana, the doomed little town at what will be the new mouth of the Rio Mississippi soon after the next big one wipes out what’s left of Army Corps’ earthworks in the Atchafalaya Basin near my home town. I told him I was from Maringouin—another I-10 exit, situated right at the eastern edge of the Atchafalaya swamp where that long, elevated stretch of road finally hits dry land again. He not only knew where Maringouin was, he also knew that it means mosquito. We are most likely cousins.

Oh, well, Steve and I sat in my truck after the bar closed. We watched a weary trucker scratch his belly as he wandered back to his sleeping cab. Dust swirled in the orange air over the Flying J as the wind picked up and we listened to some more good tunes. And we imagined a meeting in some afterlife where Mr. Cash gets to meet Mr. Beethoven. And what a conversation that would be. After all, they both had a way of transcending what everyone else was doing at the time. And they both changed music for all who came after them. It would make a good play, don’t you think? If you can just wade through the teardrops…

I walk and cry while my heartbeat Keeps time with the drag of my shoes The sun never shines through this window of mine It’s dark at the Home of the Blues

So if you’ve just lost your sweetheart And it seems there’s no good way to choose Come along with me, mis’ry loves company You’re welcome at the Home of the Blues

Just around the corner there’s heartache Down the street that losers use If you can wade in through the teardrops You’ll find me at the Home of the Blues

Home of the Blues, by John R. Cash, Lillie C. McAlpin, Douglas Glenn Tubb, 1957. BMI Work #579881

Molly Molloy is a reference librarian at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and lives less than a mile from another I-10 exit. And yes, Texas songwriter Steve Earle recorded a 1987 album “Exit 0,” but as far as Molly knows, it is not about the Anthony Exit 0 and he is NOT her old boyfriend.

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Published at 12:00 am CST