Sherwood Cryer turned left off of Spencer Highway and bounced over the tall weeds growing through the cracks. He stopped his old pickup, got out and stood gazing upon a vast concrete pasture. It was eight years, two weeks and a day after the largest honky-tonk in the western world closed for good. The wind was blowing through his white hair, and he seemed to be whispering to himself, remembering something kind of sweet. But -- ssssssss -- the old boy was just pissing on the ruins.
"Don't do no good to cry about it,'' he said, and he zipped up his coveralls and began pacing the wreckage of his kingdom.
Gilley's was named after his partner, Mickey Gilley, but Sherwood was the redneck king. "Hell," he said, "we were a redneck place." Just thousands and thousands of so-called urban cowboys "drinking beer, chasing pussy and living their dreams." This here was the original slab, he said, pointing down, and if you look at the cracks, you can see the other slabs and how the walls were pushed back every time business got strong. The mechanical bulls were bolted down into these holes, and "People rode them sumbitches regular.'' Gilley's was the place to be in Pasadena, and after "one of them damn dago boys, John Travolta,'' came down and made Urban Cowboy, Gilley's was so popular, it had its own beer, recording studio and national radio show. Sherwood met all the singing stars. He even met presidents Reagan and Bush. "Shook hands with them fuckers several times," he said.
Sherwood paused. All the ghosts disappeared. There were only acres and acres of absolutely nothing.
"I was a success," he said, "and then I let a singer wipe me out. Come on -- I'll take you and show you his house.''
He drove from one side of Pasadena to another and from nothing to everything. As his old truck turned onto a nice, private section of Lily Street, Sherwood looked like he'd come to mow Mickey Gilley's grass.
"That's his office there, and they're in there making money hand over fist,'' he said, pointing. "This is their bus barn. And this is his mansion on the hill.''
Sherwood sat in the truck, staring through the gates. It was a nice-looking house, considerably nicer than his own room at G's Ice House. There's an Olympic-sized swimming pool back there, he said, but you can't see it from here, so he drove around the block and into a subdivision where an empty lot was for sale. He got out again and marched through the wildflowers. At the back fence, he parted the bushes and pointed. There, he said -- that's the tennis court and his mother-in-law's house, and "if you look, there is a damn swimming pool that is a monster!"
It was just as he said -- eyeball proof that Mickey Gilley was living well. Sherwood trampled the flowers again. He got back into his truck and returned to his tin shack on the side of the highway.
"Son, old age is hell,'' his father, who is 93, tells him, but Sherwood said he really doesn't know. He once bit a man's ear off, and at 70, he hasn't mellowed. When a good customer recently conked him on the head with a cue ball, Sherwood picked up his own billiard ball and gave much better than he got.
Pasadena abounds with Sherwood stories, and they all have similar endings. If you don't follow Sherwood's rules, you become the victim of his terrible wrath. Sherwood Rule Number One: Don't take what Sherwood claims as his.
At Shell Oil, he used to enjoy milk and cookies on his break. One day, he discovered his Oreos missing. This continued to happen, until finally, a howl rang out. "You son of a bitch," said Sherwood, arriving on the scene: What those Oreos tasted like was exactly what was in them -- chicken shit.
No one ever stole Sherwood Cryer's cookies again.
He has made it a point to show thieves that stealing from him will cost more than retail. He has shot them breaking in, and he has shot them running away. "But I have never shot a man who didn't deserve to be shot,'' said Sherwood. "Of course, there's some needed to be shot I never got around to.''
The suit-wearing world would say Sherwood suffers from a lifelong disregard for the law and delicate human feelings. In his mind, though, he is the victim of two great thieves: Mickey Gilley and his own daughter, Cheri Sue Salinas.
He spends his days contemplating revenge. In G's Ice House, the one-letter remainder of the Gilley's empire, he said he's "hanging in there like a hair on a grilled cheese sandwich."
With refineries on the horizon, the land around G's somehow always looks like noon in the desert. Inside, in the shade of a dull afternoon, Sherwood leaned back, chewing off deliberate words, explaining how he'd been wronged by his enemies. He tried not to lie, he said, but he was an old man and maybe at times, his mind slipped. "Hell," he confessed, "we all lie when we're fixing to get whipped by a big old boy. You might lie just to save your ass.''
Pasadena, when Sherwood arrived after World War II, was "something right out of the Wild West, a wide-open goddamn place."
He came from the piney woods, a little East Texas town called Diboll, where he learned the conflict-management skills he would employ the rest of his life: "If someone called you a sumbitch," he said, "y'all whipped each other's ass till someone agreed."
Sherwood took a job as a welder with Shell and began assembling a rather complicated family life. Nothing was more important to him than family, he said, but he was always practical about it. His first child was born with cerebral palsy, and she couldn't walk or talk or show love, said Sherwood, "and I'd even considered killing this girl." Instead, he asked his wife to move the girl out of their bedroom, and when he was told that he could move out of the bedroom, he walked out of the house and never returned.
He took up then with a lady named Betty. She took off to Yankeeland after another old boy and left him her two sons to raise. Sherwood said, "People don't know how to deal with what they been dealt sometimes, and they do funny things." Many men might have turned to strong drink, but he knew he couldn't be a success and a drunk, too. Sleeping his usual three hours a night, he worked double-time and saved his cash. Eventually, the teetotaler began opening liquor stores and beer joints. He began to prosper.
Sherwood also kept working for Shell. His employment there didn't end until a strike, when he walked the picket line unbudging, and a scab approached in a truck. Sherwood gritted his teeth, stood his ground, and whump -- got run over. He wasn't going to let someone take his job; he gave it away when he didn't like the new contract.
In the early 1960s, Sherwood stood just as firm when a city worker informed him that he could continue to operate his businesses if he split the profits with members of city council. Figuring he couldn't shoot them all, Sherwood told a reporter who had been hanging around one of his joints. Gene Goltz won the only Pulitzer ever credited to the Houston Post. Sherwood got shed of some thieves.
He handled others by himself -- careening down Spencer Highway after some whiskey-stealing boys, banging his car against their car until whiskey, boys and blood all spilled out; waiting on a different evening as the door came smashing down and then unloading a .380 automatic and a shotgun into the bodies of those who would steal from Sherwood Cryer. Somehow, no one died then or ever, he said, but the bullet that traveled through one man's head was lodged in the door for many years.
Sherwood's heart never was completely tamed by Minnie Elerick, and he came to regret that he didn't allow it. She was another man's wife, and also she was Betty's sister. Sherwood put Minnie to work in a liquor store and bought a junkyard and put her husband to work there. Then Minnie began coming to work "with knots on her head regular." Sherwood put a gun to her husband, and that old boy got on down the road. When Betty came back, Sherwood told her to hit the road, too.
"Minnie and I had an association," Sherwood explained, "and we had Cheri Sue."
In every sense except the legal ones, Minnie became his partner. She had an interest in money, and Sherwood never really did. He was a dealmaker, and money to him was only the signal of a deal's success and the capital to start another one. He let Minnie tend the money and watch it grow. She shared his profits; he kept a room in her clapboard house. Cheri Sue was born without defects, and Sherwood brought her wildflowers every morning and hauled her around town in a beer box in his truck. He loved her, and Cheri Sue loved everything she knew about him.
Sherwood named his convenience stores after Cheri Sue, but for most of her childhood, she didn't realize her father was rich. He would never let people take his property, but he often gave them apparent possession. It was illegal to own both liquor stores and nightclubs, and for that and tax reasons, Sherwood always filed his businesses under the names of barmaids and good buddies and anybody hanging around. "All that was shifted around on paper to keep my ass out of trouble," he explained, and everyone knew better than to try to claim what Sherwood really owned.
Minnie wanted to be Sherwood's official partner, but his legal help advised against it, and he never married her. Without a contract, the terms of their relationship continued to expand. More property was listed under her name, and when Sherwood brought her two boys and said they were his sons, she raised them in her home.
Later, Minnie hired Debi Bailey, a pretty young thing, to sell T-shirts at Gilley's. When Minnie found that Sherwood had a child by Debi, they all continued working together. Sherwood said it was like Peyton Place at Gilley's sometimes, but "I always tried to hold my family together."
By the late '60s, Mickey Gilley had been singing in Pasadena bars for years and years. He had begun to accept that he would never emerge from Pasadena, but the rednecks liked him, and at the time, Sherwood did, too. "Why not take a chance on the fucker?" Sherwood thought.
He had a place on Spencer Highway where he thought business might explode with the right performer. He asked Mickey to become his partner. When Mickey visited, his first suggestion called for a bulldozer. Then he said a roof would be nice and air-conditioning and an even split of the profits. Strangely charitable, Sherwood agreed. He remodeled and renamed the place, and when Mickey saw it, he praised Sherwood as the only businessman he'd ever met who kept his word. True to Sherwood's instincts, from the night the giant arrow lighted up in 1971, Gilley's was Pasadena's shitkicker paradise.
The petrochemical workers may have dreamed of country living, but if they were going to love cowgirls and live like cowboys, it was nice to do it in an air-conditioned saloon. The bull was fake, and the punching bag didn't punch back, but it was real when the boys attacked each other. Then there was blood, and hanks of hair on the floor like clumps of grass.
Sherwood protected this property like all the rest. If a man drank Schlitz, Sherwood learned that he was generally a peaceable type, but "them Lone Star people," he said, "you kept your eye on them because they wanted to be challenged." He and the 20 policemen he employed for security used force of their own to end the fights. Cowboys who spat on the floor were subject to blows. Sherwood chased down one poor soul who tried to steal a light fixture, and right there at the front door, according to record, Sherwood punched him in the head three times, kicked him in the head once, emptied a canister of Mace in his face and said, "I ought to kill you right there where you lay, you chickenshit little thief bastard!"
He liked to promote the club as a place for the whole family, and he wasn't happy when he heard Johnny Lee, the other main singer in the club, rehearsing the song, "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw?" Sherwood asked him politely never to sing it again, and when he sang it again, Sherwood said, he took Johnny into a corner of Gilley's and, with the butt of his .38, slapped him down.
"Hadn't somebody got to be the boss around the place?" said Sherwood. The next time Johnny got out of line, Sherwood ordered the off-duty cops to whip his ass.
It was never necessary to whip Mickey's ass, because he was very grateful to Sherwood. He was there one day when Sherwood encountered a debtor and slapped him down, way down, and then reported the fellow for disturbing the peace. Mickey never looked at Sherwood the same after that. Sherwood would ask him to come along somewhere, and Mickey would reply, "We aren't going to harm anyone, are we?"
Both Sherwood and Mickey admit they were paying DJs thousands of dollars to play Mickey's records. In time, Mickey became a big national star. Gilley's, in turn, became such a monstrous redneck success that it attracted a writer from a New York magazine who wrote an article about urban cowboys that convinced producers in California to make a movie about them. After Urban Cowboy was released, Mickey Gilley and Gilley's became so hot that everything just kind of flamed out.
Playing in Reno and Tahoe, Mickey thought he saw the way things ought to be in Pasadena. Or at least that the place could use some urinals instead of "old troughs like to water the cows." And carpet on the floors. Luxury dressing rooms. Maybe even valet parking.
As Sherwood put it, Mickey had "just got above his raising." Sherwood told him to shut up and sing. With a national reputation to protect, Mickey told Sherwood he wanted out. He wanted the buses and trucks for his road show, the Gilley's offshoot in Nashville, and his name off the club in Pasadena. Sherwood declined, and in 1987, Mickey took him to court.
Sherwood told the press that "Gilley's will be there when Mickey Gilley is pushing up daisies," but it didn't work out that way. In order to win, Mickey had resolved to expose everything about the club. As Mickey cried on the stand and autographed pictures off it, Sherwood sat gritting his teeth. When Sherwood was asked if he had ever shot anyone, he replied, yes sir, he had -- to protect his property. And when Johnny Lee and others pointed at Sherwood and swore he had slapped them down, Sherwood was baffled that not even his own lawyers were interested in why.
"Sir," he said later, "I never whipped anybody didn't need ass-whipping."
The trial in Houston was news across the country, but Cheri Sue, now grown and married, was busy with babies. People had always said nasty things about her father. She had never listened, so she didn't watch.
There was testimony from Mickey that he had not received his fair split of the money; testimony from Sherwood that Mickey had put cash in his boot and then under the corn in his mother-in-law's freezer; an audit that found millions of dollars worth of T-shirts missing and unaccounted for; a management contract with Gilley so apparently forged that the judge described it as "original amateur hour"; and talk in the press from Sherwood about killing that judge.
The hick from Diboll didn't fare well in the big city. The jury awarded $9 million in damages to Mickey Gilley, and $8 million more just to punish Sherwood.
"For that no-good sumbitch to fuck me out of everything I had," Sherwood said, "how could he piss me off more?" Sherwood's first instinct was to grab for his gun -- "I'd shot many people for a lot less," he said -- but then a cop friend told him he was being watched, and that he would just have to let it go.
Sherwood filed for bankruptcy; his case was tossed out. He began shifting his property around on paper, shuffling papers better than he ever had. And when the courts began taking his property anyway, not even Sherwood could explain what happened after that.
He had been allowed to continue running Gilley's until a settlement was reached, but there were reports of theft at Gilley's, and then there was the burglary of the recording studio. Arriving just four minutes after the alarm sounded, the police found that thousands of dollars in sound equipment had already been disassembled and hauled away. The next day, when much of that was found destroyed in a Pasadena field, the judge ordered Gilley's to be shut down. On March 30, 1989, the cowboys were cleared out, and Gilley's went dark.
And then it began to glow.
"Gilley's Club fire is called arson," the Chronicle headline read on December 12, 1989. It was just a small fire.
"Fire labeled 'suspicious' guts Gilley's Club," the July 6, 1990, headline read. They blamed a kid.
"Gilley's finally bucks its legal hassles," said the September 13, 1990 paper. A settlement on the verdict left Sherwood his house. Nearly everything else was supposed to go to Mickey. The next day, the headline was, "Arson fire guts studio by Gilley's Club," and later, there would be fires in the Gilley's rodeo arena.
It was as though on that hot landscape, what had been Sherwood Cryer's property could not exist without him. When yet another club burned, the fire marshal asked Mickey, "Is there someone out there who doesn't like you?"
"Look," said Mickey, "how long you been here in Pasadena?"
Mickey hired bodyguards. He let them go when he realized he couldn't live his life wondering whether he would be breathing tomorrow. Still, every now and then, strange voices call him and threaten to burn down his house. Yeah, said Mickey, he's worried. "And everybody's worried for me, too."
He sat on the couch dressed in white pants and a blue sports shirt. He did not radiate star power. Where Sherwood was taciturn in coveralls, Mickey was giggly in golf clothes. Sherwood was a dealer, and Mickey was a climber. They were different kinds of rednecks, different kinds of opportunists, and it was easy to imagine how they would have gotten along, until the giggly one got uppity.
"I thought everything was gone after Gilley's, but it's crazier than ever," Mickey said, smiling. In Branson, Missouri, he sings his 17 number-one hits six days a week now, flying his airplane home for the seventh. His first theater was lost to fire in 1993, but the new one is even better, he said, and there's so much fire equipment in there, "you'd have to be a genius to burn it down." Next door is Gilley's Texas Cafe, and there's another in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Mickey's hoping to set up a country-western kind of Hard Rock Cafe, where he can sell his marinade, hot sauce and barbecue sauce. As for his Wild Bull Chili, "that was Sherwood's idea," said Mickey. "Yeah, I believe it was."
Without Sherwood, Mickey admitted, he might never have become a star. Without Sherwood, he wouldn't fear for his life. Thinking about that, Mickey said he sometimes wishes he'd never met him. "If I had someone to hold him," said Mickey, he'd like to sit down and talk with Sherwood, maybe give him a little credit and maybe take a little, too. If Sherwood made Mickey, well, Mickey helped make Gilley's. They made each other, and the accounts, as far as Mickey was concerned, were even. Mickey was sure that Sherwood has the T-shirt loot stuffed away somewhere, probably with all those Krugerrands he used to buy, those piles of silver coins he kept in the garage and all that money he must have saved living "like a bum." As for the riches that were to fall into Mickey's hands, it was mostly a paper victory, he said. When the lawyers finally caught up with Sherwood's property, what wasn't burned down had decades of back taxes due. Most of it was given up to the government.
"You never know what someone will do when he thinks you've destroyed his life," Mickey said, "but I didn't do it." Sherwood is where he is because he doesn't get up and go on. He got there because of the way he treated people, said Mickey. You should talk to his daughter, Cheri Sue.
"I mean, she lost her mother, and then she lost her father. I'm the closest thing to family she's got."
Sherwood wanted his enemies to believe he would always haunt his property, and he told Minnie that when he died, just bury his corpse in the backyard. If anyone came knocking, he told her, just say, " 'Oh, he's around here somewhere,' and you will not be lying."
The simplicity of that plan went all to hell in January 1993, when Minnie died first. Sherwood said she died of grief over losing all that money. Whether that was true or not, the estate she left was large enough for her family to fight over.
Despite the best efforts of $200-an-hour lawyers, Sherwood had salvaged from Mickey Gilley a fair fraction of his kingdom. This fraction was all in Minnie's name. She legally owned the vending company that also manufactured mechanical bulls and the liquor stores that also operated Cheri's Superettes. Just after the verdict, she had signed a long-term lease with Sherwood to operate a beerhouse, a liquor store, a restaurant, a check-cashing service and G's Ice House. Gilley's lawyers protested that Minnie was Sherwood's common-law wife, but Sherwood swore it wasn't true: This was just a deal between two businesspeople.
He admitted later they each had wills leaving the property to the other in the event of death. But at some point, without Sherwood's knowledge, Minnie amended her will to make Cheri Sue her sole beneficiary -- an attempt to guarantee there would be no sharing with Sherwood's other family. Anyway, said Sherwood, "there's where things got fucked up."
Cheri Sue describes herself now as a "domestic engineer." She used to sing at Gilley's, too, but she gave it up to have babies. If you call her, she's liable to hang up abruptly because, she said, "it's just very hard for me to trust anyone anymore."
She never suspected her father would do anything wrong. She gave him the will that she found in her mother's bureau, and she said he told her he would take care of it. He said he told her times were tight, and let's do it later.
Sherwood seems to have begun draining Minnie's estate then and consolidating his own. Foreclosing on all the back rent that Minnie's company owed his company, he sold for about $260,000 the contents of three Superettes and one liquor store. Forging Cheri Sue's name, he cashed two life insurance policies for $50,000. Sherwood explained that she was separating from her husband then and had asked him to keep the money out of her husband's hands. He said she got all of it. She said she got none of it. She wondered why, if it was done with her consent, it was necessary to forge her name.
"Hey dad, shouldn't we probate the will first?" she remembered asking the morning he began hauling bags of coins out of Minnie's house. "Well, gotta go," he answered, and he drove off in Minnie's Cadillac, the trunk so full that the rear end scraped the ground.
That night, Cheri Sue returned from her Jehovah's Witness assembly hall to find her father with a lift truck in the driveway, loading a safe the size of a small car. "Just getting this out your way," he said, and Cheri Sue told him she didn't know what he was doing, but she knew it wasn't right. Sherwood left without responding, and after that, she said, he stopped speaking to her.
He never negotiated with Mickey Gilley, and he didn't with Cheri Sue, either. She never wanted everything her mother left, only the life insurance money and the jewelry in the safes. After the stores had been sold, the policies cashed and the safes hauled away, it wasn't until she received an IRS bill for $152,000 that Cheri Sue went to the lawyers.
Boom: Sherwood's kingdom went up for grabs again, and again he declared full-scale war. Cheri Sue was his daughter, and he loved her, but "hey," he said, "how long do you get your ass beat on before you stop believing in Santa Claus?"
He really had no chance. With all his paper-shuffling, Sherwood had boxed himself in. His own attempts to save his property through the years cost him his property in the end. He tried to argue that the businesses were rightfully his because Minnie was his common-law wife. The lawyers reminded him that he had sworn she was not. He invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid perjuring himself.
When the paper claims on his property began arriving again, Sherwood refused to recognize them. In July 1995, Cheri Sue and her husband at the time, Pasadena police officer Kenny Peloquin, went with a lawyer and a court order to seize assets from Sherwood. He and his girlfriend Debi had moved into Minnie's old house. According to Cheri Sue's side, Kenny found a bag in the car, and as he and Sherwood began playing tug of war over the bag, Debi began slapping at Cheri Sue. Everyone was grunting and shouting, and then the bag broke and bullets spilled everywhere. The invading party ran for their cars with Sherwood racing behind.
Later, when Sherwood was absent, the troop returned with more police. In the driveway, searching for hidden loot, they found a machete tucked inside a bumper. Inside the house, those who didn't know Sherwood were struck most by the number of guns lying under the beds, on the beds and in lockers -- pistols and rifles and machine guns, dozens and dozens of them.
When Sherwood began losing the property, again the property was destroyed. After he and Debi were evicted from the house, the fuse box and all the wiring were discovered missing. The hinges and knobs had been removed from the doors, and even the peephole was gone. Someone had splattered paint on the walls. The gardenia bushes had been uprooted and thrown in the pool. Cheri Sue had always been fond of gardenias.
Sherwood's employees would follow the trucks that hauled away the property, and at least a dozen times, the locks Cheri Sue used to protect it were filled with glue. After Sherwood learned the lawyers were coming for Minnie's Cadillac, the car disappeared, only to be found in flames behind G's Ice House. And after the estate took over the beerhouse, it went up in flames too -- on the day, said Cheri Sue, that Sherwood cleaned it out.
Sherwood hired an expensive lawyer (with borrowed money, he says) and has filed three lawsuits against Cheri Sue. The one he seems most excited about is a federal case that also lists as defendants the Pasadena police department, the city of Pasadena and Kenny Peloquin. According to the suit, Sherwood "has been the innocent victim of a campaign orchestrated" by the defendants to deprive him of his constitutional rights, primarily through illegal search and seizure.
The accounting of events differs wildly from everyone else's, but the lawsuit is most peculiar for never mentioning that the property involved was in dispute. To Sherwood, it never has been, but the courts have a different view. His case has been delayed until the settlement of the estate.
Everything that Sherwood has taken so far -- including a "borrowed" $110,000 found above the ceiling tiles at G's -- has gone to pay other debts, and Cheri Sue has accepted that she'll get nothing. Having lost the family Sherwood built, she has begun assembling a new family from the people Sherwood has rejected. Though he only claims five children, Sherwood is rumored to have about a dozen running around Pasadena. Among his bastards, said Cheri Sue, "I've found I have a really nice younger sister." And among his enemies, Cheri Sue has embraced Mickey and Vivian Gilley. She visits them as often as three times a week.
She's trying to get on with her life, but three times a day, she gets silent phone calls. One day a year ago, she said, someone in the special crimes division of the district attorney's office called to say Sherwood might be trying to have her killed. Cheri Sue, in the end, lost faith in her daddy.
"He's not a nice person," she said.
Hire someone to kill Cheri Sue? It made no sense to Sherwood. She was his daughter -- he loved her! And besides, "I've always felt that if you want someone shot, you do it yourself. That way no one squeals on you."
He denied all crimes of vandalism and arson, and he swore there was no money stashed anywhere. He had a few regrets: Probably, he should have made Minnie his wife. (He recently married Debi.) Probably, too, when the Mafia offered $1 million for Mickey's contract, he should have sold. Mickey would be living up to it to this day, he'd guarantee that.
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"I'm glad to know he's wondering if I'm after him," said Sherwood, "but if I'd been after him, he'd have been gone by now."
Gilley's Club is still listed in the current phone book. It's spelled without the "e" and the number rings at G's, where out back, Sherwood is still making mechanical bulls. People from Argentina and Istanbul call to order them. The bulls are becoming the big thing in foreign places, but Sherwood knows it will never be like it was in America.
Outside G's, there was a big caldron on the fire, and just to give them rednecks something to live for, he said, they were having a crawfish boil that night and some titty dancers. He still had work to do. The lawyers have taken everything but G's, and he swore he has no money stashed. But what would he do if he lost the icehouse?
"Fuck," said Sherwood, "I'll just be like the goddamn grass. I'll grow up somewhere else, if I ain't too goddamn old.