“Violence and the vote“ are huge issues for modern America. But how does The Last Sheriff In Texasthis story of a sheriff’s election in Beeville, Texas, in 1952, provide a metaphor — an explanation — for Trump’s America?

In both instances, voters baffled expectations by putting a highly controversial figure into office, splitting their communities into angry factions, neither able to understand the other. Trump made no secret of his divisive intentions, but he was elected. Sheriff Vail Ennis, despite the fact that he killed seven men, was voted into office time after time.

fb2Do you really live next door to Bette Midler?

Well, kinda. She owns some ranch land here and it backs up to my house. I think Bette grew up in Oahu and she’s dedicated to not letting the land get overdeveloped. She leases it to a local rancher so I guess it might be more accurate to say I live next door to some cows on Bette Midler’s land. But I’d love to have a beer with her sometime.

 

So how does a priest get assigned to Hawaii?

By the grace of God. Here I am, Lord, send me.

KatCandler_PhotoCredit_PamelaGentile

Please explain what just happened.

We just released our poster and trailer for Hellion into the cyberspace and my mom emailed me to say she couldn’t stop crying. Moms rule.

 

texas-road

“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.

Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.

In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.

 

What is Holy Ghost Girl about?

It’s about growing up in the early nineteen-sixties traveling with Brother David Terrell, one of the last of the big time tent evangelists. He started off as a folk hero who was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan for allowing blacks and whites to sit together under his tents. The white southern establishment hated guys like him and often trumped up reasons to shut them down. The book chronicles Terrell’s rise and eventual fall: womanizing, the abuse of money in later years and his evolution into a leader of an apocalyptic sect.

What I imagine you’re thinking right now is, “Sure. This kind of thing happens to all of us. We’ve all made a porno, we’ve all watched it with our mothers, and we’ve all practically forgotten about it, because of how completely common and universal an experience it is.”

Right? That’s what you’re thinking? You guys?

Well, if that is not what you’re thinking, then I guess this one is for you–the minuscule fraction of the population that has yet to experience the joy of watching (on a giant screen, with your mom) your peers get naked and pretend to make sex.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Forget about the Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton. This is a story about Denton, Texas’ most hardcore annoying-people flipper-offers.

 

Generally Speaking, Shut the Fuck Up

I moved back to Texas in 2005, after the death of my father. At first it was temporary–I had planned to take three months off from, well, everything. I drove from Seattle with just enough belongings to get by for a while and the idea that I’d help my mom get through Christmas and a move to a new house, and then allow whatever emotional breakdown I had been postponing to takeover for a bit.

But three months became four, became six and all of a sudden I was a Texan again. I began dating a guy I knew from college and doubting whether Seattle was the right place to be. I considered coming back to New York, but I knew I didn’t want to move there without a job or place to live already lined up. I had done that twice before, and didn’t feel the need to pay those dues again.

I started working for the Dallas Observer, writing blurbs about upcoming local events, and blogging for Comedy Central–both jobs bringing in just enough money to pay for beer, cigarettes and the gas I’d need to get them. I was in my mid thirties, living with my Mom, hanging out with my friends from college and in a relationship I knew was going nowhere. It was time to get serious, get a job, get a place to live and get my shit together. So I did.

I settled in Texas because I had to do something, not because it felt like home.

Even though I lived and worked in Dallas, I spent every weekend in Denton–the college town that serves as my “hometown”, for lack of a real one. I’d sleep at my mom’s and drink with my friends, play poker on Fridays and see a band or a movie on Saturdays. It was a comfortable rut that I looked forward to all week long.

But there were times when I felt out of place. I felt like I was standing still while the rest of the world moved forward. I didn’t know why I was in Denton, but I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to go. Nothing I was doing felt particularly special, and I thought I might be disappearing.

One night I went to a bar called Hailey’s just off the town square, to see my friends’ band, The Baptist Generals. Hailey’s isn’t my favorite place to see shows, but it was full of familiar faces and I was having fun drinking and catching up with old friends.

The Baptist Generals play music that is often melancholy and quiet, emotional and intimate. So intimate, in fact, they sometimes set up off stage and play on a large area rug in the middle of the dance floor. They were headlining that night, so the rug came out around midnight, after three other bands had performed. The crowd had ample opportunity to pour two-too-many drinks down their throats and were gathering around the band as they set up their instruments, talking loudly over the background music coming from the sound booth.

When the band started, a lot of us got quiet. For the record, THAT’S WHAT YOU DO. Etiquette dictates that if you want to keep talking or keep drinking or check your phone, you move to the bar or another room or outside or fucking Hell for all I care. It’s considered extremely rude to stand in the middle of a crowd of people trying to listen to a band and chit chat at top volume. Contrary to what some of you may think, the playing of live music is not a Being Loud Contest between you and the band.

Some bands are often too polite to mention this to a chatty crowd. The Baptist Generals are not. After the first song, the band’s front man joked about the conversations going on around them. After the second song, he wasn’t joking anymore. In the middle of the third song he put down his guitar and announced to those of us who were listening that they were leaving.

But they weren’t leaving us, they were leaving them; they were leaving the people who preferred to drink and talk and check their phones. Knowing that they couldn’t bring alcohol out of the building, he announced that the band would set up on the street outside and finish the show for anyone who cared to see it. And with that, the band picked up their instruments and walked out.

A few minutes later, a crowd of forty or so gathered in the street to watch one of the greatest indie bands of this decade play a set filled with compelling and raw and heartbreaking and beautiful music on a dirty sidewalk next to a dumpster. There was no bitterness or anger at the folks who remained inside–if anything we were all grateful they didn’t come along. The banter was lighthearted and funny–I remember laughing a lot. And I fought every impulse to take pictures, choosing instead to live this moment rather than record it.

I also realized that, at least for the time being, I was home. I was where I was supposed to be. I was in Denton, Texas, surrounded by familiar faces, and nothing had ever felt more special.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today is a big day. It’s the halfway point! I’ve written 15 stories in 15 days and I can see a light at the end of a very long 15-more-days tunnel! Thanks for coming along with me this far. Please do not leave me now, because I am afraid of tunnels–even metaphorical ones.

Today’s story is all about teen angst and high school hijinx and how intelligent discussions about s-e-x are avoided at all costs.

It is, as always, absolutely true.

 

Reformed Schoolgirl

Did you know that the press is not allowed on public school property without permission from school administrators?

That’s what I learned my senior year of high school, after alerting the local Channel 12 news team about a newsworthy predicament I thought needed some attention. I called on behalf of a group of students who felt abandoned, unfairly punished and unnecessarily censored. And I had no idea how much trouble I would cause with one tiny little phone call to one tiny little local news station.

Okay. I had some idea.

It all started in rural Texas, of course. I lived in a lakeside community out in the country, and attended a nearby school in a town with a population just under 200. I had moved from the bustling-metropolis-by-comparison Palm Springs, California, to what seemed like the middle of nowhere–a town with a gas station, a feed store, a couple of Baptist churches and not much else. There were 38 other kids in my class; the entire student body was barely enough kids to earn a Swarm badge on FourSquare.

Not that there was a FourSquare. It was 1989–before the internet, before cell phones–Hell, it was even before Super NES. Our Nintendo was decidedly un-super!

Back then, in Texas schools, your football-coach-to-kids ratio was pretty high. I’d guess a third of the faculty spent part of its time coaching some athletic team or another. But they also had to clock time as teachers, which is why my Geometry, Chemistry, Journalism, US History, and Health teachers were all referred to as “Coach.”

The coach who taught my Health class was a first-year teacher, really young and good looking and generally regarded as “cool” by the kids in his class. For example, I once bet him he couldn’t stop drinking Dr. Pepper for a week, and when I caught him with a can in hand, he lived up to his end of the bargain and removed 10 tardies from my permanent record. (Ok, haha, I know. Remember when having a “tardy” on your “permanent record” was a big deal? But it was a big deal then, which is why it was cool of him to remove mine in bulk, as the result of some silly bet.)

He didn’t stay cool for long.

Coach had assigned us a project for health class–something vague and wide open with possibilities. We were supposed to create some sort of presentation that incorporated what we had learned throughout the year. I was a drama nerd and an overachiever, so I came up with the idea that I would put on a play–a play about sex. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I thought about how I could take a shot at directing, and how we could perform it in front of the whole school, not just the other kids in Health class, and how it was going to be so much fun and slightly scandalous and that this was going to look so good on my college applications!

The play I found was called “Dolls” and is described as “a face-to-face telling of young people’s stories to young people by young people.” Honestly, it’s a little pro-lifey for my tastes, but I knew it was a safe bet for school administrators who may be afraid of parental outrage. It was frank without being graphic; safe, while still addressing sexual consequences in a meaningful way.

And there was no denying that the kids in my high school could use a little extra sex ed. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a big city school represent a tiny fraction of the student body. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a class of 39 represents half the Student Council. And you can pump your kids full of all the small town family values you want, but after all the cows have been tipped, there’s not a lot to do in the country, which makes drinking and fucking the top two ways for kids to spend time together.

I made my pitch to Coach and he thought putting on a play was a fantastic idea–he even offered to be in it. He became our official faculty advisor and attended the first few rehearsals as I put the cast and crew together. He also let me bring in my drama teacher–also a young, first-year teacher–as an additional faculty advisor who could help me learn to direct. Both teachers were still under the impression that enthusiasm and creativity should be encouraged among enterprising students. Both were about to find out otherwise.

I developed a short presentation for the principal, with hopes that I could convince her to let us perform the play for the entire school. She dismissed the idea, arguing that without parents’ permission, we wouldn’t be able to expose the students to any kind of sex education outside the approved curriculum, regardless of how reserved, how timid or how compelling. The next day I returned to her office with a stack of permission slips I had typed up myself and asked how she would like me to distribute these to the parents. Unprepared to respond, she sent me to the school superintendent to solicit his permission, knowing he would never give it and I would subsequently leave her alone.

The superintendent seemed overwhelmingly disinterested in anything I had to say, but didn’t say “no,” which gave me hope. He mumbled that he would take a look at the play and get back to me.

Two days later, I had gathered the cast after school for a rehearsal. This thing was finally coming together! Then Coach showed up with a look of concern on his face. He told me that he would no longer be able to be in the play, so I would have to recast his role. He went on to say that while I could go ahead and continue my rehearsal, the “powers that be” had decided no one would ever see us perform. End of story.

He seemed pretty sympathetic when he saw the dejected look on my face. He offered solace in the form of good grades–telling me that my work up to this point had earned me an “A” on this assignment.

“Big fucking deal,” is what I wanted to say. “This play is important. It’s crucial. It’s a really great opportunity to make an impact–to actually teach kids something that could save their lives,” is what I wanted to argue. And I really believed it. All the work I had done trying to sell the idea to our principal and superintendent had convinced one person (me) that performing this play was vital to our very survival.

Keep in mind this was the late 80s. AIDS was a very real threat, and yet most of my classmates felt immune–partly because we were seventeen and immune to everything, and party because (in rural Texas, at least) AIDS was still widely-believed to be a disease that only gay people could contract, like being a good dresser or listening to Erasure.

Coach said he’d work on changing the superintendent’s mind– at least to let us perform the play for the other students in Health class. Then he left me to deliver the bad news to the rest of the cast. After discussing the possibility that all our hard work would most likely be wasted on an audience of one, we decided to power through. Who knows what support we might find over the next couple of weeks? Maybe we could address the school board at its next meeting! Maybe a petition would change the superintendent’s mind! We had not at first succeeded, but we were damn sure going to try, try again!

About an hour later my Drama teacher arrived to crush whatever hopes remained. She told us that not only would we be performing the play to no one, but also that she and Coach had been “asked” to resign as our faculty advisors and remove themselves wholly from any further involvement. Without any faculty support, we’d no longer be able to use school facilities for rehearsal or anything else.

In short, it was all over. As a small consolation, she allowed us to have the rest of the evening to figure out how to proceed and left us to our own devices, alone at the school.

We were angry–really angry. We felt oppressed, misunderstood, belittled, and disregarded. We became even angrier at the thought of our cool, favorite teachers being threatened or bullied by the administration. We were sure that Coach and Miss Drama had fought for us–would fight for us–had they been able to do so without losing their jobs.

We talked about how important this play was–how much our school needed it. Our homecoming queen was married and several months pregnant, and she wasn’t alone. Girls got pregnant all the time. And one of the most popular guys on the football team had been accused of date rape by more than ten girls. How could they say we didn’t need to talk about sex in our school? How could they dismiss us out of hand like that?

We decided we had a pretty powerful story on our hands: Small Town School Takes Small-Minded Approach to Sex Ed. We decided to call the press.

I guess our thought was that after they saw it on the news, parents and other members of the community might support us in our cause. And if other adults brought enough attention to the matter, the superintendent would be forced to rethink his decision.

We also decided to stick together–no matter what. I would make the call, but we’d all be party to the decision. The blame would not fall on my shoulders alone, and we would not back down, no matter what the consequences. Our only hesitation was in creating trouble for our “cool” teachers who we believed had been on our side all along. We wanted to distance them–shield them from any of the repercussions.

So we did two things. First, we used a pay phone at the school to call the local TV news. I unloaded the whole story to an interested reporter.

Second, I went home and called our teachers. I told each of them that the cast and I had decided to take action, to fight for our right to sexually educate our peers. I wouldn’t give them any details, but assured them no laws would be broken. I felt that for their own protection they should know nothing more–it was important for them to have plausible deniability.

I don’t know exactly how long it took the “cool” teachers to sell us out, but I’m guessing it was a matter of minutes. They both called the principal at home to inform her that we had some devious tricks up our sleeves.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office just after the first bell. Coach and Miss Drama were waiting with her, and I spent the better part of first period being yelled at by the three of them.

They wanted to know what we had planned. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They threatened to suspend me, expel me. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

I tried to defend myself. They didn’t want to hear it.

They told me that my actions would likely result in getting good teachers fired–ruining their lives forever. I cried. I believed them. I felt guilty. But I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They finally dismissed me and I went back to class, teary-eyed, red-faced and already exhausted. Ten minutes later they called me back into the office and asked me why the Channel 12 news team was calling for an interview. What did they know? What had I told them? Was I an idiot or just determined to get everyone fired?

I was told to “call off the dogs” or face a stiff punishment–one that would make detention seem like Spring Break. My principal watched as I dialed the Channel 12 newsroom again. I was openly bawling at this point–I had become an emotional basket case, and the basket was full of guilt and humiliation. The reporter was unavailable because, as I found out later, she was waiting with a camera crew just outside school grounds to try to get this story. So, after some more yelling, I was sent back to class.

At lunch, the cast and I gathered in the auditorium. They had heard my name called over the loudspeaker all morning, and seen me walking around the halls like a crying zombie. Some of them were pissed at me for crying. They thought it was a sign of weakness–that I had buckled after promising we wouldn’t back down. Others defended me, saying that even though we were all supposed to stick together, I was the only one being screamed at in the principal’s office all morning.

That changed when Coach found us and marched us into a classroom. Miss Drama stood in the corner of the room as Coach sat us down and gave us the talking-to of our lives. He marched back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, then purple, then red again. He treated us as if we had set the school on fire. There was no sympathy for our cause. There was no “thanks for the heads up last night.” He just paraded around the room, screaming and calling our actions stupid and reckless and irresponsible and indefensible.

Man, I hope he never finds out about Columbine.

I stopped crying and I got angry again. But this time it was a quiet anger. A Clint Eastwood anger. You know? It’s a cold, detached anger, with a calmness that terrifies. It’s the anger that comes with understanding. I was finally realizing that the people in charge were not on our side, and never had been. The adults who we had been so concerned about and whose jobs we had been so prepared to fight for–had turned on us at the first sign of trouble. They had probably never been our advocates–never pushed back in any way for our benefit. They weren’t being bullied by the administration. They were the bullies. And Coach’s red-faced rage-filled ranting was proof.

It’s not like we got caught drinking or doing drugs or cheating or ditching class. It’s not like we had vandalized the school or started a food fight in the cafeteria. It’s not like we had allegedly date-raped more than ten teenage girls.

We just wanted to put on a play. We wanted to be heard. We wanted to make a positive impact on the people in our community.

I sat perfectly still, unmoved, until Coach finished his rant and dismissed us. And then I was called into the principal’s office one last time.

That’s when she informed me that the press is not allowed on public school grounds without permission. The Channel 12 news reporter I had called would not be allowed on campus. There would be no big story on the news that night.

We had failed.

But it felt more like she had failed me. The school had failed me. And the “cool” teachers had failed me most of all.

I put it all behind me when I graduated. I left town and never really looked back. There are certainly teachers from high school that I remember; ones I admired, who inspired me and pushed me to achieve. But the rest of them are just an unpleasant smudge on my permanent record.

Ocean’s Banana

By Slade Ham

Humor

Texas is vast.  It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate.  That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east.  A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities.  Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.

“Howdy,” says Texas.  “This ain’t Rhode Island.”

As a comedian I have traveled the entire state.  Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of.  Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms.  There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway.   Then there are the Big Three.  Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

And we pretty much hate each other.  The three cities couldn’t be more different.  Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader.  Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her.  Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.

The comedy scenes are quite different as well.  Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics.  Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg.  Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.

I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club.  Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy.  Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined.  As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.

“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says.  His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source.  “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news.  He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell.  I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much.  That would be the story they decided.  People would buy that.

“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend.  Then Spacey calls his assistant.  Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night.  The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…”  Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.

“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”

And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange.  After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night.  Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.

Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike.  Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).

I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning.  “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser.  As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.

“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.

Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks.  Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him.  I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there.  I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.

“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down.  “The Rasta Banana.”

“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”

And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.

A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before.  Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly.  I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them.  “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.

“Why?  You’re not driving my car.”

“Of course not.  I just want to, um, look at them.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.

It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us.  That was a math problem.  I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again.  Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though.  I had bigger problems.  The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside.  I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions.  He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.

Rob’s job was the girl.  I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message.  Get karaoke chick out of here.  Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her.  We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency.  No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana.  He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs.  It was perfect.  I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.

“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters.  “Shots on me at the bar.  You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside.  Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight.  It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.

I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses.  The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit.  Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle.  I dropped a twenty on the bar.  “Enjoy the shots!”

“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.

We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus.  It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants.  I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.

The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it.  Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night.  “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better.  Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it.  Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.

“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed.  It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized.  This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts.  It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later.  As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.

What is your earliest memory?

Living in the dry, flat desert of the West Texas countryside.My grandfather raised me and I would wait for him to come home from work.He would always have some treat or food for me, which meant the world to me at four or five years old.

If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you choose?

I actually wanted some sort of job with NASA. Ironically, I guess I would be out of a job now as well, with the space program losing interest.I’ve always been fascinated with the stars and space travel.

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

Becca, my girlfriend’s roommate, sprung it on me the day before I was going to drive back home to Texas.

I’ll pay your gas if you drive me to Alabama, she blurted out while me and her roommate got in some last minute canoodling.

My girlfriend knew what Becca was up to and she promptly filled in the blanks. Going to Alabama meant going to the state prison, to death row. How could I say no? When I asked her if she drove stick shift, Becca offered me the straightest face I’d ever see her make. Yes, she said emphatically, I can. Her bags were already packed. I knew a little about her Alabama death row pen pal, but the knowledge was stowed behind too many bottles of the Shiner Bock I’d been living off of back in Austin.

Becca found him in the back of some liberal-minded magazine, the part where they used to feature personal ads. A sense of commitment to the downtrodden and abused made her answer. But something else had sprouted. Bryan, the inmate, wrote wildly entertaining stories, then backed them up with wildly passionate odes, and so, his letters zoomed into Becca’s heart. It began to thump the familiar cadence of love whenever a letter from her prison baby arrived.

Austin was a different kind of Texas than I had previously gotten to know. It had a metropolitan sway, a verifiable scene to get caught up in. At night I parked the truck off of Sixth Street, mapped out my location so when I drunkenly readied for home, I’d be able to drive myself there. Ridiculously dangerous, and immature, but true.

Even still, loneliness, an increased alcohol intake and a new to me pickup collaborated, and like that, my first cross country road trip came to life. I needed the experience. So I drove the twenty-three hours to see the girl, through a snowstorm mostly, amped up on road coffee and white crosses. Before leaving, I’d even secured a few days off from the busboy job a friend of the family gave me.

Real experience had eluded me since I’d finished a get-your-shit-together summer working on my godfather’s ranch five years before. Now, Becca, offered it up in spades.

We split the next morning, after hugging my girlfriend goodbye, and chugging the home made fresh ground coffee, we tucked our bags behind the bench seat of the blue pickup, and hopped in. I’d stacked a bunch of wooden packaging pallets in the back, to keep the rear end heavy enough to travel through the storm. They banged around until we got to the highway.

Becca and I were pals before I ever met my girlfriend. Some days we’d sit on the bench outside of the gourmet goods store, and talk in strange accents. She was fun in ways I never dreamed of, completely unselfconscious in a sea of awkward puerility. And yet she also retained a total awareness of self. She studied dance. She listened to advanced classical music and silly Midwestern punk bands with the same concentration. Naturally I was drawn to her. Those very qualities were what made me say yes to the proposition in the first place. That, and her offer to pay for gas.

Once we hit the highway, the two of us kept talking, and the tapes I’d set aside for our trip never did make it to the deck.

We flicked our cigarettes out of the windows. We spilled Mountain Dew on each other, and laughed out loud until we couldn’t laugh anymore. Suddenly, we had driven eight hours. She said she’d take over once it got dark. In retrospect, neither of us had really clocked the trip, and I suspect she said that hoping I’d just keep going until we got to Alabama, because it turns out, Becca couldn’t drive stick shift at all. After gassing up I switched to the passenger seat. Becca grabbed the stick shift like she’d probably seen her Dad do. She never let on that she didn’t know how. But when she completely ignored the clutch, and the truck popped forward, and stalled out immediately, like a teenage boy in the hold of his first bedroom visitor, it was pretty obvious.

My Dad had refused to teach us to drive, correctly predicting my brother and I would make the bizarre requirement to learn on stick. Dad had long since given up on stick shift vehicles preferring the blissful ease of automatic transmission. An old classmate of his, down on his luck after years of boozing, turned out to be my driving teacher, and Dad would laugh at the prospect him teaching me. The blind leading the blind, he said. Becca exacted that driving instructor’s revenge upon me.

We were somewhere in Tennessee. Night was approaching. The gas station doubled as a truck stop, with the trucks parking at the north end and a long parking lot that angled downward, to the south.After about an hour of facing the truck downward, getting Becca back behind the wheel,delivering a rudimentary course in the five gear locations of the shift box, we were on our way. My stubbornness was showing. I wanted to watch the country go by. I’d never been to Alabama. And soon we would move deep into repressed poverty of the state. Thankfully, the State Prison of Alabama in Atmore wasn’t our first stop.

Becca arranged for accommodations, and gave me directions. I pictured a Motel 6, a Travelodge, a Best Western in the near future. Becca arranged something else.

I took over driving, knowing Becca’s concept of the gear ratios would splinter soon as we entered stop and go traffic. We were on the other side of the tracks, literally, having crossed an unmarked trestle as the neighborhood became a shambled mess of shanties and too small plots of grass.

I don’t think that Atmore had any neighborhoods that looked and felt and breathed with the warmth of a different, economically more structured South, but if it did, we did not see them. Beccabooked us a room through the inmate network. Here it is, she said, looking out the window at what looked to me like a shack to store old lawnmowers, a little bigger, but by not much.

Our host was named Amanda, or Brenda, or Linda. She was as big around as she was tall, freckled, strangely delicate, and kind. Her house was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. And everything on that street seemed like it had lived there since long before I’d been born. Paint chipped off of each house. Rusted cars sat on wood and cinder blocks in each yard, and the grass grew weedy and high.

Our host showed us to our room, and having been through the ritual enough times already, let us be.

I have never slept in a bed that drooped on springs as creaky as that before or since. Each time one of us squirmed the other let out a quick laugh, but we clung to our sides of the mattresses like our lives depended on it. Before we finally fell to sleep Becca whispered the particulars of Bryan’s case. They each were on the last of their appeals, she said quietly. Then she announced that Bryan was innocent. As she said it her head came up so she could see into my eyes, the springs barking like over active hound dogs underneath of us. Her eyes burned fiercely, having told too many other over privileged snot noses the story of her death row inmate. I read the fury of her eyes, and quickly stifled that same reaction. Yeah, right he’s innocent, I thought to myself. But I also noticed she did not mention Ed’s innocence, immediately understanding her stance on that situation. Ed and Bryan had befriended a white girl, who may or not have been a prostitute. They got loaded, hung out for a little bit, but when the girl got mouthy, Ed took her for a walk, and when he came back alone, Bryan let it go.

A week later, the two transient men were picked up for the woman’s murder. Neither had money for an attorney. At the end of the trial, both received guilty verdicts. Bryan was unwilling to rat out his best friend. Ed was unwilling to cop to a crime where there was no material evidence. The lack of material evidence, however, made much less difference than the color of their skin, versus that of the dead woman’s.

Good night, Becca said, exhausted from the drive, from the information she just outlined.

The Atmore prison had towers. The towers had gunmen. When I parked the truck in the lot, the gunmen watched us, their weapons ready. I kissed Becca goodbye and started to make my escape. She tugged my wrist. You can’t go, she said, you have to come in and visit with Ed so he can get out of his cell.

It was an irritating favor to ask at the last minute, but I couldn’t deny the urgency splashed across her face. I looked back at the closest tower guard, sunglasses hiding sharpshooter eyes. Do it for the experience, I told myself.

Death row inmates don’t get to have regular visitor hours with the rest of the crew. They spend most of their time in their cells. Their prison community consists solely of other death row inmates.

In Alabama, the inmates wore white. As we made our way to the visitor’s area- a large glass wall encased room that resembled a public school cafeteria – the inmates appeared from behind a sliding steel door. Under the harsh purple neon light, their uniform lack of pallor from having little to do with sunlight was grotesque. Bryan and Ed were black. The vampiric lighting didn’t give them that ghoulish glow.

Becca grabbed a corner table, and we crowded around it. When you meet killers it’s unnerving how natural they are. How regular. How absolutely normal and likable they seem. A few years later a drinking pal of mine, a man I sometimes turned to for advice, revealed he was, for all intents and purposes, a murderer on the lam. We were sitting at the bar when he became a little wistful and announced he hadn’t been back to Florida to see his family for many years. Why, I kept asking- two drinks, three drinks later. By the fourth round, he could contain himself no more, and shrugged. I killed a guy, he said. He looked at me the same way Becca had the night before. I knew it was true.

Bryan was affable, and I quickly found the same charm Becca swooned over. He regaled us with tales of what each inmate was in for. See that one, he said pointing to a guy who looked like a car salesman, or a chaplain. He killed his wife for the insurance money. That kid, he said pointing to a stringy teenager pockmarked by acne with a black shock of hair, he killed his ex girlfriend, strangled her in her sleep.

Ed was opposite of Bryan. Reserved, quiet. A do-er not a thinker. Lost in naivete ( or the knowledge that I could get out of there) I asked Ed was what he did for fun. He played along, and talked about basketball. He could shoot hoops an hour a day, followed the NBA religiously.

I hated basketball. But I didn’t tell that to Ed. Instead, I asked him about his teams, mentioned I came from Maryland, and we talked about Len Bias, the Celtics and Michael Jordan. I’d gone to a sports camp as a teenager at UNC, and I told Ed about Michael Jordan visiting his alma mater after being drafted by the Bulls. He didn’t exactly light up the way Bryan and Becca did at sight of each other, but the story made him easier to be around. He told me what his day to day life was like, and I, in turn, told him about bussing tables for assholes, and spending afternoons in bookstores dreaming of something better.

Yeah, he said, I know what you mean, man. I dream of something better every night.

Becca and Bryan’s ministrations could have disgusted me. And after a few hours, I’d run out of things to talk with Ed about, and I knew I was going to leave. They knew it, too. But they still went through a few more hand jives underneath the table.

Becca got up and hugged me. Have a safe trip, she said. I was stunned. I assumed she would leave with me. No, she was staying to the end of visitation, and was going to spend the night, and come back the next day, too.

Ed shook my hand. A guard led him away. Bryan spoke up then.

Ed can only hang out when he gets a visitor. No visitor- it’s back to his cell.

He was trying to guilt me into staying, but it didn’t work. I wanted out of there. Another guard escorted me to the gate, and then I was walking on the pavement of the lot staring at the armed tower guard staring back at me. In the truck I grabbed a warm beer and guzzled it.

Then I was out driving down highway 65, past Negro Lake, past Satsuma, Saraland, and Mobile, where I picked up the I-10 and headed west to Texas, where I still felt I belonged, where dining tables waited for me to bus them.

Eventually, I found out the truth. There’s no escape from death row. I was subject to my own demonic possession, in regards to drugs and crime and jail stays. Summer of 2000, I cleaned up. A year or so later, as the chemical fog lifted, I remembered that drive to Alabama, to death row. After a couple of months learning how to explore the internet, I discovered what happened to the two men who shared their lives with me for four hours one lonesome spring day in 1992.

After that last appeal was exhausted, Ed was executed in 1996. Bryan three years later. Every time I think about them, now, I realize, had they been white, they’d likely both still be alive. In prison probably, but alive.

I saw Becca again right after moving out to Los Angeles about seven years ago. We watched a movie projected on the side of a cemetery mausoleum, oddly enough. When I asked her about that trip she brushed it off, immediately changing the subject. I had only brought it up in order to thank her for giving me an indelible experience. Maybe a cemetery doubling as a movie theater was the wrong spot.

 

I spent my teenage years getting thrown out of a few different schools. Authority stuck in my craw. By sixteen, I’d made it to public school, but I skipped as much as I showed up.

That was the year I ditched finals and rode around with another delinquent visiting a couple of private girl schools during lunch breaks. One school had blue skirts, the other, green. I liked the green skirts best, but Doug told me not to over specify.

You don’t want to miss anything, he explained. Blue is just as good as green.

He had a point.

Doug also had this German car, and drove so fast our hair blew back like that old Maxell ad with a guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses sits in a chair, the music blows hurricane force down upon him. We’d crank up Cure songs, too stoned to remember our names. One time driving out to the country, where yet another girls school was located, Doug lost control and we ran off into a field of immature corn. The engine mounts broke on the one side. On our way back into town, every bump sent the engine slamming into the hood. It didn’t matter much to me. I was happy to regally lose myself in juvenilia, blowing smoke to the brit pop beat as Doug screamed through red lights and did donuts in half empty grocery store parking lots.

Johnny Unitas had a restaurant in Towson, and we’d sometimes sit in the lot across from it drinking beer. Other times we’d land down the hill from the Country Club, where the last of the town’s grass tennis courts sat. I’d watch girls with perfectly brushed hair chew gum and memorialize summers spent in Nag’s Head, or Gibson island. They smoked Marlboro lights, and drank diet Coke, and that was the smell of victory.

What I hadn’t recognized was a need for discretion. My parents had split, and I had managed to manipulate them when bad news came. If only life hadn’t been so tumultuous. If only I wasn’t the product of a broken home. But, I got in a LOT of trouble. Car crashing kind of trouble. You won’t manipulate a grown up out of pains in their wallets as easy as you do the ones in their chest, or their mind.

So I rode bitch, and rarely had money of my own. I skipped back and forth between my old man’s apartment and my mom’s house. Not by choice.

Somewhere in there, I started dating a nice girl. She’d been a debutante, or could have been. Anyway, her dad was my step-dad’s business attorney, and that meant she was a good girl. No one thought I was a good kid. More than one expulsion, and you lose that sobriquet.

Things headed further south the day I came home to see my mom waving my report card like a cleaver.

They say you’ve stopped showing up to school.

I turned around and walked out. The old man wasn’t any happier to see me.

Since the divorce, they had  devised a simple plan of communication.

Tell you father you need new clothes, mom would direct me.

In response, my father would grimace.

You tell your mother I work hard for my money.

But this time, they’d each actually gotten the nerve to phone each other. And they hatched the plan of plans: send me to Texas for the summer. Not to lounge on the Gulf of Mexico, but to work on the ranch of a family friend.

I was oblivious to the idea. Doug and I hung out at his house most of the time. I’d ride my bike over, and lock it to a bus stop sign, walk the last few blocks. Coming by bike seemed uncool. Wandering over nonchalantly, my mode of passage unexplained was much cooler. Of course, every night I’d have to wobble that bike back home, up one vicious hill and down another, which lead to feverish acts of cowardice in the face of near death collisions, sometimes with cars, but usually with shrubs, and street signs. I was drunk all the time, and not yet seventeen. Life was one giant dare I sometimes took, and other times crumbled in the face of.

Just as summer started to gear up, mom broke the bad news. But not until after she’d broiled a steak and made the red roasted potatoes she knew I loved, a Caesar salad on the side. This was the meal I’d have asked for if I was ever convicted for a heinous crime. I didn’t even see the bad news coming. To me, a meal like that, well it seemed like she was finally back to her senses. We were going to get along just fine. She said it as calm as you’d tell someone their horoscope.

Your father and I have decided to send you to work on a ranch in Texas this summer.

I remember desperately trying to handle the information like an adult. But I couldn’t finish eating. I couldn’t look her in the face. I mean, didn’t she understand, this was a popular girl I was seeing. She even said so herself. The girl wasn’t going to wait around while I worked on some fucking ranch in Texas. That kind of thing dazzles only adults, not teenaged bathing beauties. But I managed to scramble out of the house before I said anything terrible.

The upside of it all was that my parents immediately relented on the string of curfews and punishments that had been issued in the past few months. To spite them, I ran as wild as I could, rifled every purse and pocketbook and wallet attached to either of them. I interacted with them as little as possible, eating microwave dinners, skipping out before they came home from work. I spent as much time at Doug’s as I could.

There was a convenience store in between their houses, where Lake avenue met Falls road. A grassy area behind it. I’d hang out there, waiting for friends to arrive, buy their cigarettes and mixers, and plot the night. Laying in the grass watching the clouds blow across the sky as night descended, I hoped to have the same chance to do this again, with her, or someone like her, after school was over, and college finished, before any children came. Just lollygag in the green grass, our imaginary fingers clutched each other the way only a teenager can envision his future self doing.

And in those last moments of summer and freedom, drunk on cheap beer on the outskirts of the city my parents grew up in, I could scrounge up a bit of respect and grudging admiration for the two of them stranded permanently from their monumental love by disagreements that took the form of untruths and rabid tempers. I couldn’t acknowledge any pride in being their offspring, but I did drunkenly embrace the memories of trips to the Chesapeake where they would sail my brother and me out with them into places I’ve come to remember and cherish just the way you memorialize a beautiful youth. That is, just the way they intended me to remember them.

But the next morning, devoid of that drunken emotion, I’d see them as the broken people they appeared to me to be, with no future to bank on whatsoever. And as Texas loomed in the forefront of my horizon, as each second wound down to an unknowable summer of endless hard work, I raided every medicine chest south of Ruxton hoping to blot out the revolting future in store for me. Because I wanted to lay in the grass, I wanted to smoke cigarettes, I wanted to read French symbolist poetry -Life is the farce which everyone has to perform!- I wanted to go to the independent movie theater and drink and snicker at witty subtitled films from around the globe. What I did not want to do was ride around on horses till my ass chapped, hang barbed wire fence line till my fingers and my palms blistered and bled.

Had I behaved with some modicum of restraint, and humility, had I exhibited even a bare minimum of respect, it’s clear my parent might well have relented, and cancelled that trip to Texas. My older brother was patching up his transcript in summer school. The focus that usually lay directly on my misbehavior had been eased. But I knew no restraint, or humility, and certainly didn’t operate on a level of trust. So I blew through those last few days the way an unrepentant sinner scours the earth in the time leading up to Judgment Day. But what was Judgment Day anyway? Nothing but a flimsy set of punishments fancified by power mad religious zealots.

Suddenly, it was two weeks till my departure. Then a week. Then three days.

I was a virgin, too. Yeah. I’d planned on doing something about that this summer of summers, along with the stolen radar detector ring Doug was masterminding, throw in some druggy self exploration for good measure. The radar detectors would keep us in money, the money would get us drugs. And the drugs would provide the kind of entertainment aimless youth is prone to seek. I had never committed an actual felony up to that point. When I told Doug, he skipped past the philosophical leap, and went right into the actualities.

It’s easy, he, said, snugging the barrel of a BB pistol into the lower left hand corner of the windshield of a new Saab.

One, two, three, he counted, and pulled the trigger.

The window splintered into spidery veins.

Hit it with your shoe, Doug said.

I took off my sneaker and slugged the windshield with it, and like that, it came away and Doug reached right in, and grabbed the radar detector.

That was my introduction to anonymous crime.

Some days we’d follow five or six cars home, note their address, their parking spot, and return around midnight grab every last one of their radar detectors. Doug would sell them back to a Jeep dealership in Timonium. He didn’t mind sharing that secret with me. He knew I was headed out of town. Hell, he wouldn’t have minded either way. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a BB gun.

At least I’d gotten some criminal action, in lieu of all the kissing what’s her name and I’d gotten into, we’d been separated from anything more by my beer drinking. There had been one session in the basement of her parent’s house, but she stopped me, not because anyone was home, but because they were going to be home, any minute now, or so she said. Who cares? She did.

So with three days left, after a day of reckless driving with Doug, I sipped on a can of Natty Boh a couple of blocks away from my old man’s apartment. Within an hour fifteen of us were frolicking in the endless pool at Darcy’s parents house. An hour after that me and my virginity parted ways while I stared at what’s her name’s ass bobbing up and down in the mirror on the ceiling. I thought that kind of thing was make believe, fodder of over stimulated minds of the writers for Penthouse forum, but no, there was a mirror up on the ceiling, and I couldn’t hold back. Two minutes in, and that was all she wrote. I love you, I love you, I love you, I said, but whatever she said in response is lost.

Then, I was in Texas.

Texas differed so totally from back east I wilted. Not just from the heat. I wilted in the face of all the expectation, of the loss of my sure thing. Had I been able to focus clearly, maybe I would have known this wasn’t anything but lust, amped up teenage lust rioting through my system. But I knew nothing of nuance, and when a strong emotion hit me, it had two places to go, love or hate. Having not yet learned the delicacy of the grudge fuck, lust was still filed under love.

Then, everything started happening in Spanish, and I charged back into the interior of my head to resurrect my high school Spanish classes. So for the first few days I can’t tell you much of what happened.

But once memory returned, I spent my days furiously trying to fight off blisters on hand and foot. I wore gloves, a hat and button fly jeans because I knew it was important to look the part. Every couple of days another rig arrived, and they’d pull me off of whatever cleaning job to help load the cattle. To do this, they utilized axe handles, baseball bats, tire thumpers, and cattle prods- real electronic prods that zapped a current into the steer when you touched it to the animal and pulled a trigger. ZAP! The cattle were so scared, so full of strange antibiotics, pain and electricity they shat all over you. They’d rip your leg out from under you if you weren’t sanding in the chute right, so I learned right quick how to position myself. The other hands were all Mexicans. And those Mexicans laughed a lot. The work was hard, too hard sometimes, but they kept smiling. I fucked up a lot, and they would laugh at me, even while they fixed whatever mess I’d made. They were constantly moving, laterally, up and down, however you moved, they did it, too, only faster, and with a better economy of flow.

At night I ate with the family in charge of the operation. Ranching Baptists. The prayer before the meal, something I’d long given up, took a while. We thanked God for his son, Jesus, the bounty of the world, for Mexico, our neighbor of the south, for the ice in the iced tea, fuck we thanked him for the leather in the boots on all of our feet.

They gave me a car for my own use. The man of the house pressed the keys into my hand in such a way, staring down the great beak of his nose, he wanted me to know he trusted me more than I did myself. I knew that was bullshit. I didn’t trust anyone more than me. But I took that Ford LTD out for a ride soon as the meal was cleared. Don’t stay out late, he said, but I couldn’t have if I wanted. After eight p.m., my eyes were half slits, by nine, my brain shut off, whether I wanted it to or not.

I found a dirt road beer store that would sell to me. Then I found the spot on the ranch where I could sit and watch the mute indian train the horses occluded from sight of the main house, so I could suck down beer after beer. I’d buy a six pack each night and drink every last one of them, whether I wanted to or not. Some nights the only other American cowhand would come and watch with me.

Right when it got good, right when my personality began to leak out between jobs, after hibernating behind the blisters and the sore ass, and the absolute exhaustion, they told me they were sending me south to Zapata, a border town. Each night I had written a letter to the girl. She had one of those Presbyterian whitewashed names, and I’d say it in my head over and over as I scribbled off another mash note to her. She even wrote back once or twice. I hung on the idea of her letters. Moving south just about crushed me. The real stinger of it all came when I asked the Baptist Rancher to forward my mail. Oh, you ain’t got to worry about mail there, he laughed. There’s no post office. The border runs right through the place. But we will send any of your mail back to your folks.

If I’d tried to argue with him it would have been useless. Who cares about teenage self indulgence? Only self indulgent teenagers.

The ranch was filled with tumbleweeds. A few shacks with weathered wooden slats stuck in place with rusted nails. My bed was a mattress roll on sagging springs. It creaked when you looked at it.

A cowhand named Les was in charge. He pointed to a scoprion nest under the porch of where we’d be staying.

Check your boots in the morning.

Ok.

Got a couple of ponies over that way, he said, by way of explanation. My heart sank even further, until I realized he was kidding. The two horses were full grown, adult sized animals.

Those aren’t ponies.

It’s a euphemism, he said. I shook my head.

No it isn’t.

His head tilted at my challenge.

You God damn right it is.

Nope, I said, and smiled when I pushed the hat back to let him see me grinning at him.

Ok, college boy, what is it, if it ain’t a euphemism?

It’s just plain wrong, I said.

That won Les over. That and the admittance that I’d only recently lost my virginity.

We’re gonna have to do sumpin’ about that.

About what, I told you I already lost it.

That’s true, you can’t unring a bell. But listen, there ain’t nothing sadder than a kid who knows what it’s like and ain’t got the chance to perfect it. See what I mean?

Ten days later we had fenced and posted and blasted the scrub out of that place so it resembled and honest to God workable cattle ranch.

We’re gonna paint the town, Les said.

It was a Friday. He drove his truck and I followed in the LTD. Outside a run down dance hall, a friend of Les’s appeared. He had curly hair and the hinky personality I’d later come to associate with coke heads.

Les tells me you ain’t got much ex-purr-ience.

I slugged Les the same spot where my brother used to ding me with dead arms. He didn’t even flinch. I pulled back to punch him again. He grabbed my fist in mid air. Then dropped it with a laugh.

Now hold on, kid. I’m doing you a solid.

He held out his other palm to reveal a handful of different colored pills. Take these. He handed me a beer. I scooped ‘em into my hand, and started to take them.

Wait. What the fuck is this?

The hinky guy spoke up.

We ain’t aiming to do nothing to you. They just make it so you get your money’s worth.

I didn’t know what he was talking about but I swallowed the pills and downed the beer. I was old hat at taking drugs I didn’t know the effects of. For years I’d spent the better part of houseparties going from bathroom to bathroom in search of that particular pill bottle bliss known as rubber legs. I remember holding up a bottle to my friend Chip. What’s tetracycline do? What the hell is Estrogen? He always answered the same way.

I don’t know, take a handful, see what happens.

My whole life up to that point could be described as such. Take a handful, see what happens.

I headed for the LTD. If the pills came on too strong, I wanted to at least be near a bed I was familiar with.

Where you going, Les said grabbing my collar.

We got someone we want you to meet.

His friend giggled like a little boy. Out of nowhere came this leather skinned woman all of five feet tall. Shaped like a beer keg.

We got you a hooker.

My heart plummeted.

No, I told you guys I already lost my virginity. There’s a girl back home. I got a girl.

Mr. Hinky spoke up once again.

She ain’t got to know word one.

I walked away got in the car and tried to get away, but the keg shaped hooker hopped in before I could lock the doors.

Listen honey, she said, her voice thickly accented, they already pay, it’s cool.

All I could think of was that this was as far away from cool as you could get. Before I had the chance to say anything she went to work on my pants. I tried to push her away, but she was a real pro. Hands, then lips, suction and all.

I don’t know if it was shame or her skill, but I got carried away and arrived at the destination she charted before you could say my whole name. She sat upright in her seat, and smiled at me.

Out you go, I said ever the gentleman, opening the door, and she looked at me bewilderedly, that same God damned head tilt. She got out, though, and I hit the gas and let the force of acceleration shut the door.

She smelled like stale sweat, menthol cigarettes and vinegary tequila. The whole car smelled like that. And it wouldn’t go away.

A few days later, Les and I had finished up on the ranch. The damn car smelled the same but I was ready to go.

You’re gonna go home a real man, I tell you what.

Yeah, why?

Because you got yourself some ex-purr-ience.

I tossed my bag in the back of the LTD’s trunk, next to the full sized spare, a jack, and a miniature fire extinguisher. Les wished me well and raised a can of Pearl. About a mile out of town I pulled over. I had a deodorant stick of Mennen and started rubbing it all over everything, the roof, the passenger door, the floor mat, but mostly, on the seat where the hooker had nested. Over and over and over again till the bar of Mennen was a nub.

I lit a cigarette, and accidentally dropped the match on the seat. The deodorant on the seat caught fire in an instant and flamed up into my face.

I leapt out of the car, instantly remembering the extinguisher in the trunk. I grabbed it, and sprayed the fire which, luckily, went out. The windows were down the whole time. Most of the smoke had blown free of the car. A family drove by in a station wagon. A little tow headed kid watched me put the fire out. Burnt a whole clear through the seat the size of two basketballs.

The car was drivable. Hell it was salvageable. Only the passenger seat was ruined. I drove most of the way back to Lytle clutching the extinguisher, one eye watching the seat to make sure it didn’t catch fire again.

Once I got to town, I dawdled at the dirt road beer storedowning a tall boy for courage, then hit the ranch where I dropped the keys off with the maid. While I packed my bags, the Ranching Baptist appeared in the doorway.

Got a good report from Les, he said, pleased this little experiment the adults had cooked up worked out well. I looked up, and realized I shared nothing in common with him. Any fear I’d had about the hole in the LTD’s seat evaporated then and there.

I had a little trouble with the car.

Happens to the best of us, son.

 

When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”

What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison!  I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.

More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks

“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”

Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.

I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.

I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.

Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been  instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it  still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.

The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.

The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.

As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.”  Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.

I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in  this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.

Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.

I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in  a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.

Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.

Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.

See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.

The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.

Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.

So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.

I want to go home.

Please explain what just happened.

Just finished listening to “The Mood” on Kid Cudi’s new album.

 

What is your earliest memory?

For some reason I don’t have a lot of memories earlier than age 6… but I distinctly remember missing the school bus on the first day of kindergarten.  My parents told me specifically, “Only ride home on Bus 88,”  which later ended up breaking down.  All of the passengers were told to simply board a new bus, but I refused to accept the change of plans!

 

If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you choose?

An owner of a vending machine company, or maybe I would choose something less glamorous, like crime fighting.