Judging by the sunlight through the window, I had slept very late. And judging by the way it slammed through my retinas and hammered on my brain like a blacksmith, I had had a lot to drink the night before. And judging by the alarm clock disconnected from the wall and thrown against the same, both of my previous observations were accurate.
I had always thought that Jack Daniels went exceptionally well with brownies, and, knowing this, Uncle Jack had brought me a nice bottle which, among the four of us, didn't last very long.
No regrets, I told myself. Moaning, I tumbled out of my bed and stumbled into the kitchen for a little fix-me-up. The coffee was cold, but I poured myself a cup and downed it black. Then I started some more. As it brewed, I sat at the table and lay my head upon it.
My thoughts went to the rainy day I first met Terry. I was hung over then, too. I was also soaked from head to toe and dirt broke.
I had woken up in an alley, with the sun battering at my brain. I had used my guitar case as a pillow, and I scrambled around for my bag. After awhile I remembered I had lost it. Brushing myself off, I picked up my guitar and trudged on to the next chapter of misery.
The ground all around was wet, and by this I deduced that it had rained the previous night. Thankfully, the spot in an alley in which my body had chosen to give up trying to battle against the alcohol in my blood was under an awning and I had escaped the downpour for the most part. I took this as a good omen and decided to be of good cheer despite the howling pressure in my head. This was much easier to decide than to actually do.
I walked out of the row of buildings that had been my drunken shelter and up to the highway. This is one of those towns that's not on road maps; one of those towns you stop in only to use a grimy, smelly restroom on a long trip. But apparently long trips were out of style today, if the lack of vehicles on the highway was to be of any indication. I put my guitar case down on the side of the road and sat on it. Now begins the daily routine of thumbing rides to nowhere in particular. I tried not to question the point of all this. I wasn't in a state to argue with myself this morning. Or afternoon, or whatever it was. My watch was gone, too.
The sun's reflection in a sizeable puddle a few feet in front of my makeshift seat laughed at me and my situation, blasting me with unfriendly heat and sharp pain. I blasted him back with the bird, but he didn't desist. I considered moving further down the road to sit in wait of passers-by, but puddles were too numerous to escape. Suddenly I felt like a lone soldier surrounded by enemies. The only soldier left after a hopeless slaughtering. Tattered uniform, empty magazine, missing helmet, water all in my boots, heck I might as well take off the boots and warm my feet on the shadeless asphalt because I deserve to spend my last moment in comfort instead of in soggy, clammy socks before these puddle-fiends with their teasing smiles and torturous laughter bring me to my humiliating doom. So I took off my combat boots and threw them at the advancing army, and I threw my rifle at them too, only after taking out the magazine and throwing it at them, and I took my soggy, clammy socks off and threw them, and then I threw my fists in fury at the army closing in on me, and if I'm going down, I'm taking as many as I can with me, and I put up a good fight before they tied up my arms and legs and carried me off to their puddle-fiend camp where untold sunny horrors would await me.
And then the sound of an advancing automobile brought me back to reality, and I removed my head from off of my knees and underneath my arms and stood up, tried to fix my hair a little bit, picked up my guitar and held it next to me with one hand, and stuck out the thumb of the other. I also tried on a sunny smile... poor choice of words? Or maybe I thought I shouldn't look so suspicious amongst a crowd of blazing puddles, like a penguin amongst flamingoes, but I suppose I'm the only one who would have looked at the situation in that light. Another poor choice of words.
The SUV seemed to move in slow motion, torturing my anticipation, and my heart pounded with my head. Pleasepleaseplease nice lady, guy, whoever's driving, please pull over, please don't leave me here to be sizzled to death from the inside out by this host of puddle-fiends...
They did slow down, and it was a lady, and I'm no aura-reader, but she sure seemed nice. She rolled down the passenger window and smiled. She wore bright lipstick and big, square sunglasses. I advanced somewhat slowly, trying to assess the situation. At first glance she looked like a lawyer, the kind of woman who goes to the mall and walks out with at least two bags from every high-fashion store but carries them with surprising skill considering the size of her heels. I almost blanched, but even in my state I caught myself. I blinked, and on second glance, she looked like a young mom, casual haircut to her shoulders, wearing blue jeans and a blouse, nothing fancy or expensive, and with this I realized that even her fashionable shades were the kind you get at Walgreens for ten bucks.
"Well, you sure look like crap," she said with a smile; not a condescending smile, but a genuine smile, like a mother gives her young child who brings her a drawing as a gift, awaiting approval, not realizing that he had defaced an important business paper. Because a one-of-a-kind gift your child gives you is more important than a business paper, dig? And that's how I felt: this kind woman was helping me out, not because she felt sorry for me or so that she could reprimand my obvious hazardous drinking, but because that's what decent human beings do. In any other situation I would have felt shameless and tenacious; after all, it's my life and I can do what I want, and you don't even know what a bummer of a day yesterday was, and it's not like I'm hurting anyone else, and I don't need you to tell me how to live and all that jazz. But with the compassion of this young-mom-with-cheap-shades-and-bright-lips radiating towards me and softening the rhythmic blows of my hangover and warming my soggy, clammy feet, I suddenly felt unexpected shame and humility, and I smiled back an equally genuine smile, climbed into the car, and burst into tears.
"Oh, honey," she said, not knowing how to respond. Of course, you're a young mom, you haven't dealt with hung-over teenagers yet, you don't know what to do or say, and that's why I'm here, young-mom-shades-and-lips, so I can prepare you for the nightmare of raising teenagers, and when Johnny starts sneaking out at night and partying it up, you'll know just what to do and you'll be the envy of the young-moms-shades-and-lips circle and all the other young-moms-shades-and-lips will ask you how you did it, and when Johnny grows up and goes to an Ivy League school with his hair combed neatly to one side and makes himself the pride of the family, they'll still be asking, though by then they'll be middle-aged-moms-shades-and-lips, and you'll just smile with your brightly-coated lips and give all the credit to your guardian angel who appeared to you hung-over on the side of the road one all-too-sunny afternoon.
Except for one thing: I'm not helping her; she's helping me. For once the coolest chick around is asking for help from a young mom with big shades and bright lips. For once the cover of a girl collected and together is blown by the gentle breeze of a compassionate woman in a shiny SUV. For once the young rebel who yells at her parental figures and crudely and openly questions all of her elders in general is being assisted by a lady not too much older than herself, though quite a bit older. For the first time, the feet, at one time warm and dancing, of this weary traveler, once cheery and mirthful, were soggy and clammy, and instead of dancing down the sidewalk they were staggering into a strange vehicle with a sweet and compassionate strange lady. Boy, does pride come before a fall. I think I heard that in Sunday School when I was little, and it's funny how you don't recall proverbs you've heard until it's too late. Is late better than never? I can't say.
So this young mom fished around the general car clutter for a package of tissues that I could soak up my humility with, and I sobbed a thank-you and proceeded to dry my pathetic eyes and cheeks and chin and neck and blow my pathetic nose. This resulted in my feeling much better, and I thanked her again, this time with discernable words. She patted me awkwardly on the shoulder and quietly said something like "no problem" or "no big deal" or "no worries" or something. Whichever one it was, I sure felt like a problem to this nice woman, and I felt like picking up hung-over strangers on the side of the road sure was a big deal to this young mom, and as for worries, I wouldn't have guessed her to be bearing any, but I felt swallowed by another wave of shame at the thought that I sure was a worry to her. Shame, shame, shame on me for dragging other people into my pitiful scenario and dumping my extensive list of problems on them like a rich brat with a Christmas wish list that reaches to the floor. Shame on me for making this sweet lady worry about a straggling wanderer, and a hung-over one at that, in the middle of what could have been, for all I knew, anything from an important business trip to the long trek home to see her young child and neatly-groomed husband after a long, stressful weekend of planning her mother's funeral.
I made useful another two or three tissues then, this nice lady all the while saying comforting phrases such as "it'll be okay," and "I'm here for you," the kind of things she probably tells her young child when he falls down, and her neatly-groomed husband after a long day at the office. Eventually I got ahold of myself and apologized and thanked her again and apologized again, and she just patted my shoulder and said comforting things like "hey, no, don't worry about it," and "no, oh, it's okay, it's perfectly alright," and I apologized again and then thanked her again and then apologized one more time.
"I feel so bad bringing this on you," I said.
"Now, bringing what? What do you mean?" she said so sweetly.
"This, I mean, me, I mean, I'm a total mess- I mean, you're right I look like crap. And I feel like it too. And that freaking sun has just been laughing at me from the moment I woke up and what did I ever do to provoke it?"
She just chuckled then, and started to pull back onto the highway.
"Rough night, huh?" she inquired.
"It started long before last night, if you catch my drift."
"Well, you can't change the past."
"Hey, you're right. Thanks, Timon."
She laughed. I laughed.
"What I mean is," she clarified, "there's no use feeling bad about what you've done, or feeling sorry for yourself for what's happening to you, or feeling discontent with the way things have turned out, or wishing it could be different."
There was quiet for a moment.
"Hey, you sound like this old geezer I used to know," I said. The expression on her face said she didn't know how to take that. "No, I mean, he's so cool, he's totally down, he's like my only real friend." She smiled.
There was quiet for another moment.
Then I said, "But I don't totally agree with that, because, like, you're right, like you can't change the past. But as for wishing things were different, I think that makes things begin to change. I mean, like, if you never want something to change then you'll never change it. Like obviously change can be good or it can be bad, and sometimes you think you want one change and that it'll be good but like it turns out to be bad, but if you don't make things different you'll never know what could have been. Like if it's a good change, yeah, that's groovy. But if it's a bad change, then you start a new branch of like reality and you continue this pattern of not changing the past but trying to change the future. I mean reality could be like a tree and you make the branches, but if there are like other scenarios that could have happened, you may never find them out, but you can find out one outcome out of all the possible outcomes, or you can sit at the base of the tree and never see where it goes..." I kind of trailed off and looked out my window. I didn't know if she was following, or if she thought I was a lunatic. Or both.
After a moment, she said, "Do you mean like parallel universes?"
A smile crept over my teeth and I turned to look at her.
"Yeah, sure." I said.
"Okay. So what you're saying is basically that you have to keep pressing forward and don't look back?"
"Right, right. 'Go with the flow.' That's what my old geezer friend would always say."
"'No regrets,'" she replied. "That's what my mom would always say."
This chick digs, I told myself. Sure, this is gonna be a fine day, if I can get past the battering ram in my skull. No regrets. Sure. A serene smile stretched out and took a nap on my jaw.
Some time went by. So did endless highway and landscape, here a farm, there a gas station.
"So," she said, "are you trying to get anywhere in particular?" When I didn't answer right away, she said "I'm sorry I didn't ask sooner... I guess that's what you're supposed to do when you pick up hitchhikers..." she gave a nervous chuckle.
I smiled and said "Oh, it's okay. I'm not really going anywhere in particular, as long as it's not back."
"Go with the flow?"
She smiled. I smiled.
"Well, I can take you into Grafton. That's the next real city." She paused. "But, if you need a place to stay, I mean right now, I've got a guest bedroom, it would be no-"
"Oh, no, no," I said, "I appreciate that a whole lot," I said, "That's really cool of you," I said. That's what I said, but what I thought was What'll it be? Deal or No Deal? This could be that good decision you were talking about. Come to think of it, it probably is. How could it end up a bad decision?
I would find a way, I told myself.
No regrets, right? myself told me.
Shut up, I told myself.
And then I finished the obligatory thanks with "I'll be okay, I'll find a place. I, you know, like to wander. Like, spontaneous and all that jazz. Life's more fun that way."
"Oh. Okay," she said, not convinced that I would be alright on my own.
"I mean but thanks, that's so cool. Maybe another time." Yeah, right.
She smiled, trying to reassure herself that nothing terrible or gruesome would become of me, and I just thought Lady, I've faced the ferocious puddle-fiends, and hung-over, at that, so don't you worry about me, I've got it all figured out.
Almost an hour went by when we reached Grafton. The residential area was pretty run-down. Lots of old, old houses, probably from the civil war or whatever, and quite a few mobile homes. She tried to talk me into letting her buy me one night in a hotel, but with a bit of courteous arguing, I refused the offer. She wouldn't, however, let me off without giving me some cash, for which I was very grateful, being that I had spent the last of mine on booze the night before. She dropped me on the edge of a little downtown area, full of very old buildings, some of which looked like they had been saloons not too long ago, some of which were now restaurants, bars, or boutiques, some of which had been converted quite nicely into office space, and, further downtown, there were much newer, bigger, shinier office buildings.
After thanking her over and over again for everything, we bid each other fare well, good luck, godspeed, be careful, stay out of dark alleys, yada yada yada, and I grabbed my guitar and strolled down the sidewalk, pretending to know exactly where I was going and why.
Worn out Chuck Taylors, cut-off shorts, baggy Led Zeppelin tank top, lucky necklace with bells and Indian beads and one bear claw, leather headband around my forehead, charm anklet, and a ring on every finger except my left ring finger. A guitar case in one hand and a couple of Andrew Jacksons in my back pocket. This is all there is to my name, and I was quite a spectacle. I had no clue what time it was, but it must have been mid-afternoon, because there weren't many people walking around and traffic was very light. Or maybe it was just a Podunk town. Isn't Texas full of just Podunk towns? Just little towns with bar-and-grills that are more bar than grill, and everyone lives in a mobile home with a window unit and a little front porch littered with beer bottles, and everyone buys all of their clothing and furniture at either Wal Mart or Goodwill, and everyone drives a pickup truck and listens to Tim McGraw and Dolly Parton? Well, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't know, because, though by now I was in the very middle of the looming Lone Star State, I hadn't paid much attention to it so far, or I had been drunk, and what I had perceived, I didn't care for. No, I didn't like Texas so far, and who's gonna do anything about it? Sick your pit bulls on me or throw your empty beer bottles at me or spit your dip at me or run me over with your pickup or whatever it is you do here.
But that's not really how I felt deep down inside; I just lash out at everyone when I'm hung-over. Except for kind ladies with big shades and bright lips, of course. Anyway, I didn't look at Texas this way for much longer. It didn't take more than my first almost-sober afternoon to begin to learn what "southern hospitality" means.
The first place that caught my eye was a record store with a sign in the window reading "CLEARANCE: EVERYTHING MUST GO!" Jackpot!
From the moment I stepped in I adored the place, and thought what a shame it was they were going out of business. Looking around, there were some real treasures: autographed concert posters of ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a bunch of country singers I didn't know of. Some really old and beautiful guitars on the walls, too, and old vinyl records. A lot of boxes were stacked, and it was clear this place was closing pretty soon. As I was fingering through the records, a voice asked if I was looking for "anythin' in par-TIC-ular."
I spun around nervously, smiled nervously, and started to say "No," nervously, but then recalled that my traveling companion and livelihood was suffering a couple broken strings and more than a few stripped tuners.
"I can help you out there, for sure," he said as I handed him the case. This cat was old and gray, with a long beard, a bandana around his head, worn blue jeans, and a T-shirt that had been purchased at a Lynard Skynard show. He immediately brought to mind my old geezer friend.
Holding my breath, I watched as he opened the case and gingerly removed the shiny, unscratched 12-string Taylor with a sense of care that reassured me into taking up respiration again.
He asked what kind of strings I wanted, and when I told him that I was on a budget, he waved as if to say "don't worry about it," and grabbed a set of somewhat pricey ones.
Sure, this day is just fine, just totally groovy.
"Well, this body looks like it was just bought yesterday," he said as he worked, "but by the condition of the strings and tuners I'd guess you were playing it every day for almost half of your life."
"Bingo," I said, a smile trying to find its way through the pendulum obstacle course of my brain and onto my face. By now the headache had let up a little, but it still had a ways to go.
I began to walk through and inspect the stacks of records.
"Half your life, huh? How old are you, twelve? Twelve and a half?" he said with a sarcastic smile.
I smiled sarcastically back. "Hey, seventeen. Hey! Don't Be Cruel," I exclaimed as that grooving bass line that laid down coats and palm leaves for Elvis's majestic voice came from some speakers and pumped into my veins like the alcohol from the night before and I couldn't stop myself from dancing my best impression of the King, which is not bad at all, if I do say so myself.
Okay, I'm starting to think that I can grow to thinking about growing to dig this place.
He stifled laughter, and I wasn't ashamed. I live to entertain.
As he worked and as I scanned piles and stacks and crates of records, we talked a little bit, just friendly banter, most of which I answered vaguely, for my own reasons.
It started with "You're not from around here, are you?" to which most people respond with their entire life history as far as homes go, but to which I respond with a simple "Nope."
I guess he took that as an "I don't intend to discuss it," which is more than I can say about most of the people I've met since crossing the state line. Anyhow, I sure appreciated it.
He moved on to "How are you liking Texas?" to which most people respond with either genuine compliments about the people/food/scenery/gas prices, or a general courteous comment which really meant they either had yet to be impressed or had been thus far impressed in a bad way, but to which I responded with "I didn't care for it up till I walked into this store."
He seemed tickled by my blunt honesty and way of avoiding petty small-talk.
"Well, where have you been so far?" to which most people would describe their route and the kind of eateries and rest stops they had experienced, but to which I said, "I dunno really... I think I was pretty drunk most of the time."
"Yeah, uh, lots of bars, I know that," I added.
"How are you getting into bars at twelve and a half? Oh, wait, seventeen, you say?"
I gave that sarcastic smile again, that which was my favorite smile, and which I use only when I'm truly enjoying myself, and which I had missed very much.
"I don't always get in, per se. I mean, whether I'm actually physically IN the building or not, I manage to get some old, obese, slobbering redneck to supply my fuel."
"Wait," I said, mentally slapping myself, "that sounds awfully trampy. But I mean it's not like that, I'm not that desperate. I guess it's just that I've been kind of bored with Texas from the first day I got here, and I drink when I'm bored." That's not exactly true. I don't drink when I'm bored. I get completely inebriated.
"Anyway," I went on, "starting here, there may be more to see and do, so maybe I'll try sobering up a little bit."
"I hope you do," he said encouragingly as Creedence Clearwater Revival put a spring in my heel. "There sure is more to see and do than just drink, especially if you're underaged." He didn't say this in the Listen-to-me-I'm-your-elder-I-know-better-than-you way that I so hate and am so used to, but in a You're-better-than-that-you-can-do-better-you-deserve-better way which also reminded me of my old geezer friend. For the third time today I felt shame fall around my ears like a hat too big for me and pull down my head and turn my cheeks a little redder, though that wouldn't be noticed underneath the numerous floggings I had by now received from the Texas sun and its malicious army of puddle-fiends.
So I turned casually-or at least I hoped I looked casual-and started digging through a stack that had me with my back facing him.
"Yeah," I said with a hint of a sigh, "I think I'll try it out. Sure."
"Good," he said with a smile that I could hear even with my back turned to him. "This town sure ain't nothin' glamorous, but there is a nice movie theater with a bowling alley and arcade, and some nice places to eat, especially if you like fine barbecue or Mexican, and hey, if you play real good, you might try one of those places that holds Open Mic shows in the evening." This sure caught my attention, and I spun around, curiosity reading on my face. "Sure, let me see, I think Parker's Bar and Grill has 'em on weekends, and Sandy's Sports Bar might, too. Then there's a little coffee shop that has kids like you performin' every night. Green Brew, or something like that. Perfect place for your type."
"Kids like me?" I raised an eyebrow. "My type?"
"Sure, you know, little boho wannabe hipsters or whatever," he replied, almost winking.
"Hey, whoa, back up," I said, pretending to be deeply hurt by this comment, a smile giving me away. "Hip-sters, whoa, nuh-uh, ew, gross, greased-back hair, plaid shirts, skinny jeans, Toms shoes, ugh, big fat ugly fake glasses, nasty freakin' earholes bigger than the rest of their earlobe? Please, ew, gross, nasty. Ouch. Right in the dignity."
Now he was really laughing, having to pause his work for it. I just crossed my arms and tried a serious face, a smile still betraying it from the corner like the protruding foot of a child hiding underneath a blanket.
"Then what do you call it, huh? Those shoes cost five times now what they did when I was your age," he said, pointing to my Chucks, "and jeans nowadays come cut off, and for twice the price as a full pair of pants, and don't you buy that head gear and jewelry from expensive boutiques, and those shirts from the mall? Hey, I see kids your age all the time wearing the name Led Zeppelin, but when I ask what Zeppelin songs they like, they always say either Stairway to Heaven or Dazed and Confused, right? And don't you sit around in expensive coffee stores and play your expensive guitars for tips which are really just for an ego boost, since they don't touch your weekly allowance?" He said all of this in obvious jest, and I don't know how much of it he meant, but even if he had been serious, I enjoyed his company too much to let it upset me.
So, with a finger waving in the air with every emphasized syllable, I educated the man. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," I started. "First of all, I bought these shoes at a flea market. Yeah. And I cut the jeans myself, thank you very much. As for the head band, I bought it at a music festival, and maybe it was a little pricey but it was all in support of local musicians, and there's nothing wrong with that." He nodded approvingly. "And the charm bracelet was a gift. So was the necklace. And these rings, sure that's a lot of rings, but each one has a story. They're like my own children. As for the shirt, I bought it online from someone who made it. Again, I'm supporting artists, here. And as for 'kids my age,' they don't know what they like, and my favorite Led Zeppelin song happens to be No Quarter." At this he nodded even more sincerely, and allowed a slight smile of approval. "And on the topic of coffee, I love coffee, sure, but I never buy Starbucks, if that's what you mean. I try to only buy from local coffee shops. And now my guitar, that's just a line you don't cross. That was a gift from a very dear friend, and all the years I've had it I've taken care of it as if it were a precious jewel, and it's the only thing of value that I own, and I think that's just fine. And I don't have an allowance. Never have. I don't even take unearned money from strangers, except today from a really nice woman who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer; I play for tips and I mooch, boy do I mooch, but I don't take money I didn't work for. So call me a wannabe, sure, I'm used to it, just because I wasn't born until after Jerry Garcia died means I can't be a Dead Head, right? But I am and I know that I am and I don't care what anyone else thinks about it, or about me or anything about me, and that's how it is."
"Hear, hear," he said, shaking his head in amazement. I bowed my head and blushed underneath my sunburn. "Alright, you win, and that last bit sure proved yourself." I took a theatric bow. He started again on the tuners. "Yeah, I see kids all over the place who at first glance remind me of my hay day. But when you take a closer look you just see phony. All of it's phony, and it's kind of disgusting. They miss all the important points."
"I know," I said with exasperation. "I so know. Totally. So I guess I understand if you assumed the same of me." I went back to thumbing through records as I spoke. "But I don't even associate with those kind of wannabes. Sure, in a way I'm just copy-catting a whole generation, but the way I see it, everybody's copy-catting somebody, and you might as well find something worth copy-catting, if you get my drift. I mean, the fact that I copy-cat for different reasons than the wannabes who spend hundreds of dollars on their shoes alone-which totally defeats the purpose, am I right?- that makes me real, I think. It's more than the way I dress, ya dig? I don't just dress and talk this way because it's cool. I shop thriftilly for the most part, and if I'm gonna spend big bucks on something, I'm gonna make sure it's going to a good cause. I refuse to help feed the machine of megacorporations that destroy local arts and businesses." I paused, then added: "And I'm not a vegetarian, because that's just dumb."
A moment went by. Then: "So, you like the Dead?"
So we spent the time he was reviving my guitar discussing music, all kinds of music, from The Grateful Dead to Led Zeppelin to Moby Grape to Arlo Guthrie to Billy Joel to Pink Floyd to The Monkees and everything in between.
When it started to get dark outside, he announced that the instrument was back in full working condition and placed it gingerly back in its case.
"Hey, thanks." I said quite sincerely. "Hey, how much do I owe you?"
"Don't worry about it," he said.
"Hey, no way, don't even kid like that, man, come on, how much?" But he wouldn't give. Even when I pulled out the cash young-mom-shades-and-lips had given me, he resolutely crossed his arms and refused to be paid. After a few minutes of coaxing, I gave up with a sigh.
Shaking my head, I said "I guess I'll try that hip wannabe coffee place, then."
"If they don't kick you out for being too authentic," he said with a wink.
I smiled. "Hey, well, there's no rest for the weary, I guess. Thanks for all this. I sure needed some decent company."
Smiling back, he said, "And don't you go getting drunk. Not tonight. Try one night sober, and you'll see this town ain't all that bad. And be sure to come back some time. Well, I won't be here too much longer, but if you're still in town in a few weeks, don't be shy to drop in."
"Sure, sure," I said, nodding. "Okay, one night sober, I guess I'll try it." I turned around and headed for the door, hesitant to leave. As my hand made contact with the door, he said "Hey, wait a minute."
I turned around and he forced a record into my hand. I recognized the winged sun disk, skull and cross bones, and obscure script at the bottom, at first glance a bunch of scratches with a scarab beetle in the middle, but my wise eyes read "AOXOMOXOA."
"Whoa." That was all I could say for a moment. The thing was already in my hands and I knew he wouldn't let me leave without it. "Whoa. Man, I can't take this from you. Come on." He shook his head slowly, still smiling. "I mean, come on, I can't... I mean..."
Myself convinced me that there was no use arguing. The fellow was obviously going out of business whether or not I paid for the tune-up or the record or the hours of chatting which added up to an extensive therapy session. So, with I sigh, I opened my guitar case and tucked the record into the pocket inside.
"Thanks again," I said more sincerely than ever before.
"My pleasure," he said very courteously. "Take it easy." Then he flashed the peace sign, and I the same.
I finally left and headed further downtown. Now my headache was almost gone and I wore an effortless smile quite a ways down the sidewalk. It has been a good day after all, I admitted to myself.
Just as I finished that thought, I heard a honking behind me, some gruff yelling and whooping and swearing, and turned around just in time to have one of those abhorrent puddles thrown square over my head and in my face as if someone had deliberately dumped a huge bucket on me.
"Dirty hippie!" some guys in their early-twenties yelled from the window of a pickup truck, waving beer bottles.
"There's you a bath you dirty hippie!"
"Get a job!"
I flipped the bird. It was all I could do.
I'll show you FREAK, sure, I'll FREAK your freaking face in, freaking loser, freaking freak, I'M the freaking FREAK, huh? Freaking losers freaking redneck losers freaking dirty pickup truck, I'M dirty, huh? Freaking cow-wrangling hog-tying freaking farm boys take a freaking shower yourself and get a freaking life.
But I just held my head high and kept truckin' on, guitar in hand, heading for the Emerald City, Come on, Toto, don't let that Wicked Witch upset you. We'll make it, just you and me, off to see the Wizard, lalalalalalala.
That's me, for sure. Endless courage, like George Washington meets Jim Morrison. Crossing the Delaware and exposing myself all the way. Well, maybe that's a little tiny bit too extreme. But this was an extreme situation, alright. Extreme situations call for extreme self-confidence.
So I marched on, head held high, yes, quite sure of myself, quite confident, nothing can stop me now, not a truck full of drunken, inbred rednecks, nope, I'm not afraid of-
That is, until the truck full of drunken, inbred rednecks turned around with a squeal of tires and sped straight for me. Then General George Morrison left and with him all of my cocky courage and confidence, and I was reduced to Simba running from the hyenas-but, Zazu, I thought you said they were just a bunch of slobbering mangy stupid poachers-and the chase was on, and Mufasa was nowhere to be found.
You always speak too soon on the rare occasions you have something positive to voice, myself told me.
Oh. You don't say, I told myself.
No regrets, right?
Shut up and run.
Eyes wide, I turned right around and ran the way I'd come, turning left at the nearest intersection, and then into a small space between two of those old buildings, one a printer, the other a florist, and stealthily stashed my precious cargo behind a trash can, vowing on my life that I would come back and rescue it if it was the last thing I did cross my heart hope to die stick a thousand needles in my eye. I had just enough time to exit that space and continue running as if I hadn't stopped, and hoped the inbred idiots were too drunk and angry (and inbred) to wonder why I had a guitar a minute ago and didn't now. I ran.
The drunken idiot driving the truck slammed on the breaks and several drunken idiots jumped out, one still holding a beer bottle, one holding a baseball bat, and all of them with high school football muscles, because heaven knows that in Texas, high school football matters much more than academics, but this wasn't a time to make jokes about it, because right now those muscles could mean my fate, and what I wouldn't give to be back on the side of the highway surrounded by puddle-fiends.
I decided my best chance was to try to get inside a building, though by now most of the business downtown would be closed. I hoped and prayed otherwise, and made a mental note to get a watch as soon as I could, if I ever got out of this.
So I backed towards the closest door behind me, which was the Florist guarding my pride and joy, and all I could think was that I would never be able to spin to St. Stephen and Cosmic Charlie, and that nice old cat in the Lynard Skynard shirt had sacrificed such a gem for nothing, not to mention all the hard work on a 12-stringed beauty that may not be rediscovered until the Jetsons were zooming around in their hover-cars, and by then it would definitely need another tune up.
The drunken idiot not bearing a beer bottle or baseball bat grabbed me by the throat and pressed me against the wall of the Florist shop.
"You think you're funny don't you?"
I heard a click and felt cold metal on my neck.
The other two drunken idiots beat their weapons into their enormous, calloused palms and approached me with borderline psychotic grins. Suddenly one had make-up like the Joker and the other had goggle-eyes and sharp teeth like Boris the Animal. Looking back at the one directly in front of me, I realized he had a hockey mask, and the blade on my neck was not your normal everyday switchblade, but instead a huge, menacing machete. Now I found myself wishing I had saved my wet combat boots and my rifle with its empty magazine, because these villains were much more dangerous than a bunch of bright white puddles.
Some more slurred insults and loud laughs had been vomited from these mouths full of rotten teeth and putrid breath, but I had missed whatever had been said in the devastating moment when I realized what kind of villainy I was up against; these things straight out of Hollywood, and here I was like helpless little Princess Peach, always getting herself into trouble, and I would at least rather be Princess Zelda, but sure enough I glanced down and was embarrassed to see myself in a frilly pink dress.
The machete loosened from my neck ever so slightly, and one of the drunken idiots thrust his fist into my gut. I lost my breath. Then the machete was up against my naked neck again, and harder than before, and there was snickering and definitely a little bit of blood drawn, and a hand reached into my back pocket, and I wondered how long they would draw this out, and where was the Bat-Signal when you need it?
And so I came to terms with my pitiful demise and embarrassing garments and, worst of all, the fact that I would never be able to spin to China Cat Sunflower, I would never spin ever again, and suddenly I wished I could listen to The Dead at all, even if I couldn't spin, even if it had to be Go to Heaven, and it's times like these you finally learn to appreciate Go to Heaven like never before, and I may be going to Hell in a bucket, but at least I enjoyed the ride, and then a door slammed open and an old man, very old, older than the cat in the record store, but taller and bigger, and much, much, taller and quite a lot bigger, in fact I'm pretty sure he was The Juggernaut, and I blinked and sure enough, he was The Juggernaut, his head all in an upside-down bowl and he's just slamming the drunken Hollywood villains away from me and yelling and I'm falling to the sidewalk and my head is spinning and I swear I blacked out for just a second, and when that second was up, The Joker was just a drunken idiot with a beer bottle in one hand, and Boris the Animal was another drunken idiot with a baseball bat being wrenched out of his hand by just an old man who proceeded to wave it threateningly, and Jason was just a drunken idiot with a bloodied nose, collapsed on the sidewalk much as I was.
So the three drunken idiots were climbing back into the truck without their weapons and the drunken driver floored the gas before all the doors were even closed, driving up to the end of the street and pulling a U-turn that nearly tipped the vehicle, and zoomed off into the night, and the old man who was very tall and very big, but certainly nothing out of X-Men, threw the baseball bat in rage and turned around to help me up.
"Are you alright?" he said as breath finally found its way back into my lungs, and I gasped hungrily to get my heart pumping blood back up to my head which felt strangely light. But at least my hangover was almost gone.
I nodded, not able to speak yet, and he assisted me into the store.
"Lucky I hadn't headed home when I meant to," he said sincerely, because, if anything, this place sure is full of sincerity, good and bad.
I nodded again.
He retrieved a first aid kit and cleaned the scratch on my neck, assuring me it really was just a scratch. He asked if I had a place to go, and I lied, and he sent me on my way, reminding me to be careful, yeah, NOW you tell me, and I thanked him and shook his hand and pretended to head for home.
In reality I just fished my guitar out of its hiding spot, completely untouched by drunken idiot hands, and headed on the same way I had been running.
Now I was soaked from the puddle, my headache was back, I was tired, I still didn't know what time it was, and with a gasp I reached into my back pocket only to find... nothing. So I was broke, too.
Back to square one. Broke, soaked, hungover, lonely, lost, still don't know what time it is.
No regrets, right?
The sound of an engine brought my attention back to the street, and I almost instinctively jumped for cover when I saw it was a pickup. But I did my best to summon General George Morrison, and, well, it didn't work, General George Morrison has left the building, folks, good-bye and good night, but here's me, and I may not be the general of an army or the shameless singer of a rock and roll enigma, but I'm sure not some pink frilly princess always getting kidnapped by a freaking dino-turtle and waiting to be rescued by a fat plumber with an unappetizing mustache, so I held my head up, at least, and kept walking. But the truck slowed to a halt and the windows were down and I was fully intending on continuing my march without so much as a glance of acknowledgement until I heard none other but the Golden God himself howling out about how his woman wants to ball all day, and the kid driving the truck called out to me and said those words that just seem to be the basis of my very entity:
"Hey, you look like crap."
So I turned on my heel, guitar in one hand, the other on my hip, and I just laughed, because sometimes that's all you can do.
"You don't have any place to go at all do you? You're like wandering. That's not cool. Hop in, my mom's making late dinner."
If there had been any resistance left in me, it would have dissipated with the word "dinner." Images of mashed potato mountains with flowing rivers of gravy and green lettuce grass with Caesar dressing lightly blanketing it like morning dew and flowers of cornbread with butter in the middle instead of pollen and broccoli trees and a graham cracker road leading to a cheesecake beach with a blueberry ocean and marshmallow clouds took over my vision and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a strange vehicle again, but instead of a young mom with big shades and bright lips, here was a kid not much older than myself with long hair and a beard and cut-off shorts and a Led Zeppelin shirt, not the kind from Hot Topic, but a worn, torn and faded one that was actually bought at an actual concert one day many years ago, and this car smells really, really good.
I almost fell asleep imagining an edible paradise, with Robert Plant singing me a bluesy lullaby, but the kid asked me where I was from, and it struck me that he was all too inviting. I mean, what kind of guy tells a young girl, soaked from head to toe and with nothing but the clothes on her back and the guitar in her hand, to come home with him because his mom's making dinner? But my exhausted mind decided without much argument that I didn't really have anything to lose, and I kind of had everything to gain, and this car smells nostalgic and wonderful.
Still, my instinctively inquisitive personality wouldn't leave it be, and I wasn't about to answer his question anyway, so instead I turned it on him and said "What's your incentive?"
I expected him to reel, but he stayed totally cool and said "Hey, I give rides to everyone who needs one, and I invite anyone for dinner who needs a meal."
"And what makes you so sure I don't have a meal?"
"I don't know, man, like, I just know, ya know?"
Patchouli, that's what the smell is. It always makes me more comfortable. Ed Gein himself could coax me into a car if it smelled like patchouli.
"Yeah, actually, I know." You help a brother or sister out. You see a long-haired freak on the side of the road, you pull over. I've seen Easy Rider and Dazed and Confused, I've read The Drifters, sure, I know all about that stuff. Oh, and I've done it myself from time to time. It's a cosmic connection.
And an undertone of weed.
"Okay, cool then, we're like on the same page, good. You want a toke?"
"I mean, it's real good stuff."
"Okay. So, like, nice shirt."
Had he even looked at my shirt? I didn't think so. "Yeah, you too." Had I looked at his? I don't remember examining his threads, so how did I know he was wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt too?
"Okay. So, are you into a lot of like, classic rock?"
"Okay. So, do you like, play that pretty well?" He gestured to the guitar in the back seat.
"Okay. So, are you into like, all that Free Love stuff?"
So, there it is. "Uh, no."
"I mean, I've tried it. It's overrated. And generally I find that anyone who buys into it is just in it for what they can get out of it." This was meant to offend.
"They're only interested in the 'free,' not the 'love.'"
That caught me off guard. "Uh. Yeah, basically."
"Good, then we agree."
"Good." I think.
We had been driving down a stretch of highway similar to the stretch young-mom-shades-and-lips had driven me down, and were turning onto a dirt road. I started to remember how hungry I was, and I started to float off again.
I woke up when the engine turned off. I almost jumped, it startled me so. But I regained my cool and opened the door.
"Hey, I'll just leave my guitar in here, and like, you can take me back into town later," I said somewhat awkwardly.
"Back into town?"
"Yeah, I mean, like, I just need, grub, I mean, some drunken idiots took all my money, but, like, I can find a place to stay..."
"You already have."
"I mean, I don't want to be an inconvenience..."
"Good, because you're not."
What is it with people in this town? They all go out of their way for complete strangers and won't take 'no' for an answer. I'm gonna end up being sacrificed in some psychotic cult ritual.
He grabbed my guitar for me and carried it in.
This little house in the woods looked, smelled and felt like home all over. Not at all like any home I'd ever known, and yet, this was more home than any place I'd ever been. Well, I sure wouldn't mind winding down a day or two here. Maybe even sober.
I followed him in through a creaky front door with paint peeling off from age, into a small, clean kitchen which smelled exactly like my previous visions.
"Hey, mom, we have a new sister," he called.
Then the sweetest-looking lady I'd ever seen in my life walked into view, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She looked so meek and hard-working at the same time. She looked small and shy, but strong and wise. I took to her even sooner than I had to the record store.
She smiled and it was as if a million butterflies of every color fluttered up from her teeth and cheeks and dimples and lit the entire room with vibrant colors and wild vibrations.
"Oh, that's so good. What's her name?"
"Hey," the boy said, "What's your name?" as if it had been his question to begin with.
"Pollux," I said.
The woman nodded, still smiling, but not like Barbie who never stops smiling even with her feet stuck in high-heel mode and her every career and her waist that couldn't support a full meal. More like... an angel. Plain and simple. She seemed so full of pure joy. She walked into the next room.
"Cool," he said. "Like Polydeuces?"
"Cool," he said. "So can I call you Polly?"
"Okay, Polly, cool."
"So there's like this guest room over here..." he totally ignored my protest, even though I knew he'd heard it.
I followed him into a small, modest room with a decent bed, a bookshelf, a dresser, and an adjacent bathroom. This was the nicest place I'd stayed in since crossing the state line.
He set my guitar down gently on the bed and went back to the kitchen. I followed him again.
"Okay, so what's your name, then?" I said.
"Then," I smirked "can I call you Terry?"
"I've beat you to the chase, kid, nice try, but everyone calls me that." He smirked back. "You're not as clever as you think you are, Polly."
"Well, no, I'm not even gonna answer to that, Terry the Turtle."
Then his mother pulled a beautiful roast from the oven, and I could see it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.