On June 23, near the end of TPAC 2010, Simon Smithson and Zara Potts made their way to Dallas to meet fellow TNBers Slade Ham and Richard Cox.  Like most of their other visits, the friends from Down Under had never met their hosts in person before, and they were eager to see how reality matched up with the online presence of their two friends. What follows are selected excerpts from a transcript each of the four wrote about their experience.

And there might just be a bit of a surprise when you get to the end.  We’ll get to that in a bit though.

For now, enjoy.


* * *

 

Slade Ham: I have four rules for kids. Don’t get them wet, keep them out of sunlight, never feed them after midnight, and keep them out of planes. So when I got on the plane to Dallas and I saw a two-year-old sitting and staring at me, I knew, man. I knew there was a chance for trouble.

And this kid knew it, too. He had that look that kids get when they can see through your eyes and right into the back of your skull. He was like, “If my apple juice doesn’t get here right on time…”

So I telepathically sent this kid a message and made him a deal. I focused my thoughts and beamed a transmission across the plane cabin to him. “If you’re good,” I said, “I’m going to get my friends the Wiggles to play a concert at your house.” The kid’s mouth, which had been so ready to fall open, locked shut, and stayed that way for the rest of the flight. And when we got off the plane, I sent him another message.

“Lesson One, kid. Don’t trust adults who send you telepathic messages on plane flights. I’m not friends with the Wiggles.”  I walked out of the plane, and behind me, I heard the crying start.

That’s what you get for bringing a baby on a plane.


Richard Cox: It was already past noon when I finally left Tulsa for Dallas.

Still, I figured I’d be there in plenty of time to meet ZaraPotts and Simon Smithson, who were coming from Baton Rouge and probably dead tired and running late. Even the road construction and traffic didn’t concern me, at least not until Zara called and told me, in her impenetrable accent, they were already entering Dallas.

“What a load of horseshit,” I thought, since I was till two hours away.

“Where are you, Richrob?” ZaraPotts asked. She’s been calling me “Richrob” ever since she mistakenly addressed me as ‘Rob’ in a comment on The Nervous Breakdown. Apparently she had been thinking about Rob Lowe at the time, but I’m not sure I believe that. I mean, has Rob Lowe been relevant since 1989?


Simon Smithson: I found his work in Thank You For Smoking to be excellent, thank you, Richard.


Richard:  Put a sock in it, Simon.


Zara Rose Potts:  Shut up both of you! It’s my turn.


Simon and Richard: Fine.


Zara:  Dallas appears suddenly on the horizon, like a shimmering mirage. It is a gleaming skyline of sunlight on glass buildings but I do not care.

I am tired and the traveling has almost defeated me.  Not just me. Us. Simon and I both are exhausted from the miles of concrete road we have traversed.

Fortunately for him, he is only required to lie comfortably in the passenger seat and ponder why the rear-vision mirrors don’t work the same way here that they do at home.

Our hotel is blue and yellow. There is only one bed in our room, but we are not concerned. We are just happy to be at rest.

It is only five in the afternoon, but already I want to fall asleep in that single, simple bed. Simon receives a text. Richrob and Slade are just now leaving the airport.



Simon: As this was our first foray into the Lone Star State, Zara and I expected to share the highway with cowboys on horseback. Or at the very least oil barons driving vintage convertible Cadillacs with the tops down. Instead we found more of the same-semi trucks, pickup trucks, and SUVs. Finally we made it to Dallas, and after a few phone conversations with Mr. Cox, who arranged the accommodations, we reached our downtown hotel. Slade’s flight from Houston was scheduled to coincide with our own arrival, but as luck would have it, the plane was running late. As was Richard, who was driving in from Tulsa.  We had time to kill, it seemed.


Slade: Richard was waiting by the flight desk, hitting on one of the stewardesses. I heard him as I was walking up.

”And the sexy thing about particles,” he was saying, ‘is that it doesn’t take much for them to bond. Just a little flicker of… electricity.”


Richard: I didn’t try to pick up a girl talking about physics.


Slade: Well, that’s the show going on in MY head.  You write your own version.


Zara: Was it Amy, Richrob?


Slade: Why didn’t you dance for her?


Richard: We haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet and you guys are already embellishing it.


Slade: Because it’s hilarious!  Anyway, as I was saying, this girl was levitating out of her chair. There was a clear two inches of space between her feet and the floor. Her eyes were locked onto his lips like there was a secret tractor beam in his mouth. That’s when I slapped my boy on the shoulder.

“Yo, Richard Cox!” I said. “Slade Ham!”

Cox? Blocked.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Richard: Enough.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Slade: Richard is like the male equivalent of the chick from Weird Science, if she were a dude. He’s tall, and tanned, and good-looking and one charming motherfucker. And he’s so pleasant he’d make Mr. Rogers look like Freddy Krueger.

“Hey, Slade!” he said. “Nice to meet you, man. Simon and Zara are already at the hotel; they must have driven three hundred miles an hour to get here so fast.”

“Screw those bitches,” I said. “Let’s go get drunk. Nah, I’m kidding. Let’s go meet them. I hope they don’t suck.”


Richard: You didn’t actually say that.


Slade: Still my version, Rich.  Plus, I was thinking it.


Richard:  Eventually, I made it to Dallas and called ahead to let Slade know I was close by. He’d flown in from Houston and was at the airport waiting for me, but as soon as I got off the phone, traffic came to a complete stop and it took me forty minutes to travel five miles.

There wasn’t time for introductions or pleasantries because we were already running late. But it didn’t seem to matter, because for some reason I already felt like Slade and I were best buds. Finally we reached the hotel. I figured Slade and I would have time to put our luggage away and change clothes before we met our overseas friends, but as soon as we entered the lobby, we were spotted by Simon and ZaraPotts, who were already enjoying many glasses of champagne.


Zara:  Shit. Maybe I did drink more than I thought I did.


Richard: You did.


Slade: Total lush, actually.


Zara:  But not as much as you did Slade. Or you Richrob. Want me to tell them about Peaches?


Richard: You’re going to, anyway. I’ve already read this post.


Simon: Let’s get on with this, shall we?

You never know what to expect when you meet online friends. When our Texas visitors finally arrived, they strode into the hotel lobby talking like old friends. I honestly thought they were, and then we learned they had only met twenty minutes before at Love Field (which, before you get any strange ideas, is a nearby airport.) Slade and Richard were both taller than I had imagined, but more than that they carried a certain presence that made them seem even larger.

Zara and I walked over to greet them, and it was if we all had known each other for years, like we were old friends seeing each other after a long time apart. It’s difficult to explain, really, why we would feel that way. Of course many of us have conversed on TNB, or exchanged emails…but still, when you’ve never met someone in person you expect a certain awkward moment of moving a relationship from the online world to the real one. But with Slade and Richard it wasn’t like that at all.


Zara:  I decide on a glass of champagne. It bubbles and pops golden in the glass as I upload pictures from the last leg of our trip.

An hour passes, then two. I am certain that I will never like them enough to make up for having to wait this long.

The doors to the hotel slide open and they walk in. Simon notices them first. They are giants. In a Texas way. A good way.

It’s strange how quickly they run over to us, and we to them.  We hug in the lobby, happy to see each other again, or for the first time.  Already the line is blurry.


Slade: OK, so Simon and Zara. I like these guys.

Because as soon as we met, it was like we’d all known each other for twenty years. Simon said the same thing about me and Richard – he figured me and Rich were old pals, because we already had that easy kind of rapport. Same thing with Simon and Zara, except they talk weird.

So we went over to the counter to check in, and the desk clerk looked at us, looked at the ledger, looked back at us, and said “Sure. Sixth floor.  The room with just one bed.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Just one bed?”

Richard just glared at me. “I swear I didn’t know,” he said.


Richard: I didn’t.


Slade: Now, I don’t know if Rich knew or not…


Richard: Really, I didn’t.


Slade: …but Zara didn’t understand what the problem was.  “Why can’t you just share a bed?” she asked.

Simon got it.  “Two guys,” he said, and he exhaled, real slow. “Two guys can’t share a bed. What if, in the middle of the night, one of them… slips?”

Exactly.


Richard: Have you ever had that feeling when you meet someone, that you feel like you’ve known them forever? That’s how it felt meeting Simon and Zara. It felt like we were greeting old friends who we hadn’t seen for years. I noticed details about everyone, matching them with the images I already had of them in my mind.

Slade was funny and generous with both his laughter and conversation.


Slade: And really good looking.


Richard: Simon was as tall as I thought he would be, though he seemed to have more physical presence than I had imagined.


Simon: It’s probably because I’m so handsome.


Slade: Thief.  I just said that about myself.


Zara: He did say it first.  Both you are being insufferable.


Richard: Zara was beautiful the way I knew she would be. And she smiled and smiled.

We sat down to talk, and as the conversation progressed I noticed the ease Simon and Zara felt with each other. They seemed like sister and brother in the way they interacted with both themselves and us.


Simon: Once the two of them had put away their luggage and changed clothes, we sat for a time in the lobby talking. About our trip, about theirs, about TNB and Dallas and how goddamn hot it was. We kept pointing out that we should go find something to eat, since we were all hungry, but no one seemed ready to make a move. Finally we left on foot and went to find a restaurant, no particular destination in mind, and finally Richard suggested Mexican food.

We ended up on the roof of the Iron Cactus. The restaurant commanded a spectacular view, and the live music was a solo guitarist who played everything from 60s rock to Radiohead. Richard wouldn’t stop raving about him. I don’t know if it was the music or the margaritas that put the smile on his face. Either way, the setting for our TNB dinner would have been perfect if not for the oppressive heat.

We ordered our various dishes and immediately Slade began to hit on the waitress.


Slade: Just because I have flirty eyes doesn’t mean I was hitting on her…


Simon: You were totally hitting on her. I don’t remember her name, but Slade certainly did…


Zara:  Are you sure about that?


Slade: Yeah.  It was Jillian.


Simon: …and he used it liberally as he queried her about possible local bars to visit after dinner. She suggested both the City Tavern and the One-Eyed Penguin, and when Slade asked her to join us, she told him she might just do that.

“I get off at eleven,” said the waitress, and Slade just smiled. I imagined him thinking, “We’ll see about that.”


Zara:  Upstairs on the rooftop, I order a mojito and dip crispy chips into a bowl of fresh red salsa.  The mingling tastes of cilantro and mint and salt make me smile.


Slade: That would be you drinking again, Z.



Zara: An acoustic guitar strums a few tables away from us and Richrob recognizes every song played.  Our conversation dances effortlessly from writing to food and back to the music.

The heat and humidity would be unbearable were it not for the drinks. Perspiration builds on the sides of our glasses and leaks onto the table, the trickling rivulets running suicidal towards the edge.

Slade finally takes off his sunglasses as the sun dips below the skyline.

He’s also managed to catch the attention of our waitress. Her name is Erin, or something else young and waitress-y…


Slade: Jillian, goddammit.


Zara:  …and their eyes flirt as she returns with another tray full of drinks. I slip downstairs for a quick cigarette, and when I return Slade has already talked Erin…


Slade: Fucking Jillian!


Zara: …out of the names of a few of her favorite bars.


Slade: I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun just with dinner and hanging out. We ate Texas Mexican at a rooftop restaurant and the waitress, JILLIAN, came over and started talking to us about sleep cycles and The Nervous Breakdown. She recommended a bar called The One-Eyed Penguin for us to go to afterwards.

“They got this one-eyed penguin suit,” she said. “Sometimes people wear it.”

We all turned and looked at Zara.


Zara:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Lucky for you.  You were two mojitos away from looking like an extra in Happy Feet.


Simon: When dinner was over we headed downstairs and into the street. By then we were all a bit drunk and no longer concerned with the heavy heat. Zara convinced Richard and Slade to swear into the camera as she shot video of us. “Motherfucker” seemed to be the American word of choice. I took random pictures of the nearby buildings and smiled. Slade and I fell into an easy conversation, like brothers, and Richard escorted Zara, gentlemanly positioning himself between her and the street.



Zara:  The night air is no cooler than the day here. It is as thick as seawater, but our laughter cuts through it like a ringing bell.

Simon and Slade share a story behind us while Richrob moves to my other side – the Southern gentleman thing to do – so that I do not have to walk closest to the street.

I am impressed. How could I not be?

Slade and Simon could be brothers. We all could be for that matter.

This is how things are supposed to be.


Slade: We’re really sucking up to each other in this post.


Zara: It’s because we’re all amazing.


Richard:  It was now time to unleash the Kraken, a black spiced rum that I had discovered quite by chance a few weeks earlier. I was determined that our visitors would taste the awesome power of this terrible drink, but the bar we went to didn’t know what I was talking about. Absurd.


Slade: I agreed to a shot of this rum begrudgingly.  I had done a wonderful job of keeping to my strictly whiskey diet.


Simon:  Hey, has anyone else noticed our interjections sound like director’s commentary on a DVD?


Zara:  Has anyone else noticed Richrob’s absurd use of the word absurd?


Slade: Has anyone else noticed that we’re about to get totally hammered?


Simon:  So we stopped first at the City Tavern, which was a tavern in every sense of the word…lots of dark wood and comfortable booths and a long bar populated by regulars. By now Zara was only sipping on her drinks, but Slade and Richard and I were kicking into another gear. We began to imitate each other’s accents. Richard picked up the Australian lilt fairly well, but Slade struggled to divest himself of the English accent he spoke so well. We took some great photos there, including this one in which a stray bartender decided to liven things a bit with his outstretched arms.




Richard:  And there was the hot, young blonde talking to some old fat dude that we thought must have been a blind date or something even worse. Instead he turned out to be her husband.


Zara: God. What is it with men and their constant checking out of women?


Slade: I know. What a mismatch, right? Anyway, we left the City Tavern in search of the Kraken. If you’ve never had it, you’ve never had a spiced rum named after a sea monster, and you’re probably better off for it. It turns out you can get it at the One-Eyed Penguin. Be careful though, because it also turns out the One-Eyed Penguin is a karaoke bar, which Jillian the waitress had neglected to mention. Here are my rules for karaoke:

1. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you had better not look like Peaches.

2. If you’re going to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, you had better know the words. Seriously, how does anyone in the world not know the words to Bohemian fucking Rhapsody? Kim Jong-Il knows the words to that fucking song.

3. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you can’t sing Vanilla Ice later. You just can’t. We’ve suffered enough.

And the One-Eyed Penguin broke all of my rules. But at least we got whisky.


Richard:  We walked up the wooden stairs and then we saw it: At the entrance to the One-Eyed Penguin was a poster advertising the Kraken.

I asked a girl to take our picture up against the metallic Kraken poster. I thought she was cute, blonde hair and blue eyes, or maybe that was just the alcohol talking. Her name was Amy.

Even though this was supposed to be a night for the four of us, I decided to ask Amy to come sit with us. As long as my new friends didn’t care.

“Amy? That took our picture?” Slade asked. “She should definitely come and sit with us. I’m sleeping on the floor anyway, right?”

As Slade, Zara, and Simon sang Bohemian Rhapsody,off-key even, I went and found Amy and brought her back to sit with us. She was a hairstylist, she said. She seemed interested in science, so I explained a particular theory to her.

After a while, Amy went back to the bar. For some reason I followed her, Finally, I realized I was being selfish, standing…


Zara:  STANDING?? I don’t think so, Richrob…


Richard:  …STANDING at the bar  while my friends waited for me in the back by the pool table. I traded phone numbers with Amy and rejoined Slade at the pool table.

Slade is seriously good at pool. He wiped the floor with us.



Slade: I did.  But enough about me.  Back to your “standing”, or whatever lie you’re telling…


Simon: At the One-Eyed Penguin there was a human-sized penguin suit that bar patrons could climb into for photo ops, but despite our best efforts, Zara wasn’t willing to humour us.


Zara:  I still have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Stop changing the subject!  I want to talk about Richard dancing!


Simon: The rest of the evening was a blur of billiards (Slade as a team of one defeated Richard and me), terrible karaoke, and Richard approaching a cute blonde girl at the bar named Amy. He even brought the fair maiden to meet us, which must have been strange for her, meeting a couple of people from down under and a comedian from Houston…all of whom had met each other for the first time this same evening. To her credit, Amy was a good sport, and after Richard exchanged phone numbers with her, we drifted into the street again.


Slade: Look, I’m thrilled to talk about my pool skills, but RICHARD WAS DANCING!


Zara:  Ok, I’ll get to it.

The thing I remember best about the One-Eyed Penguin is the karaoke.

Someone butchers Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and Freddy Mercury resurrects himself from the dead just so he can kill himself.

And there is Richrob, at the bar, moving to the music.  Simon, Slade and I sit and watch.

Dance, Richrob, dance.


Slade: Finally!


Richard:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Zara:  Richrob started dancing.

“If I can just dance enough…” Simon says, and Slade falls out of his chair.

A large woman waddles rhinoceros-like to the stage. Her skin tries to hold all of her inside, a task that seems impossible.

She gyrates and slobbers into the microphone.

“Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me, callin’ me.”

Her friends clap as we watch Richard from across the room. Never stop dancing, Richrob. Ever.

“Suckin’ on my titties.” She flicks her tongue like a fat frog as she repeats the words.

I will never scrub this image from the surface of my mind.


Richard: The bar was closing and while we were all fairly drunk by now, we were also aware that Simon and Zara were leaving the next morning. We walked back to the hotel. On the way there, Zara pulled out her camera and requested that we curse for her.

She tried to tell us that she hasn’t been drinking but this was bullshit. She’d had four mojitos in an hour but had conveniently forgotten that part of the evening. I started to curse and somehow ended up showing the camera lens my teeth.

“Focus on my teeth, motherfucker,” I said.

“That was amazingly aggressive,” said Slade.


Slade: I did say that.  It was quite aggressive.  He really wanted us to look at his teeth.


Zara:  We enter the hotel loud and happy.  We will meet for breakfast in the morning. We all embrace. It takes months to get to know people this well.

Dallas must be made of magic.



Simon: I felt like I had just spent the night with three of my best friends, and I didn’t want it to end. But, alas, the hour was late. Zara and I had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we all retired to bed. I imagined Richard and Slade sharing a bed together and laughed myself to sleep.


Zara:  It is coffee instead of champagne that sits in front of me this morning, though the table is the same. The elevator doors chime and open, and the two of them come out to meet Simon and me.

“So who ended up on the floor?” I ask.

“We were too tired to care,” Richrob says. “We shared the bed.”

“But neither one of us slipped,” Slade says quickly.

His admission is shocking to me. “Neither one of you slept?”

“Slipped,” he says. “Neither one of us SLIPPED. You need to learn to pronounce your vowels, Zara. It changes the conversation dramatically.”


Richard:  I think she was doing it on purpose.


Slade:  I’m pleased to be able to report that the next morning, Simon had his first ever breakfast burrito, even if we did spend twenty minutes walking around Dallas in the morning sun to find a place that could serve him one. And no one was hungover, which meant that no one got to experience the magic powers of a good breakfast burrito, but that’s okay.

Next time.


Simon:  The next morning we all met downstairs for coffee. Everyone looked fresher than I imagined they might. Once again we ventured into the streets on foot, and eventually located a breakfast restaurant that served wraps filled with eggs and sausage and bacon (Richard insisted upon calling them breakfast burritos). We watched a bit of the World Cup, cheering for the Kiwis, and reminisced about our perfect night.

Finally, Zara and I bid our Texas hosts goodbye, hopped into the car, and headed west. But we didn’t even make it out of the city before we were on the phone, texting them, already reliving the amazing hours we had spent together, wishing we could go back and do it all over again.

I have never wanted so badly to live in America as I did on that morning.


Slade: How did I spend a full day with you guys and I still don’t know what “Brew” means?


Richard:  We decided to go for breakfast before we all hit the road again. We walked for blocks, and eventually found a café that served breakfast burritos. Simon and Zara had never seen these and took their time ordering.

When we said goodbye, it felt entirely too soon. One night in Dallas was not enough. Simon and ZaraPotts bid us farewell and started their long drive back to L.A and Slade and I began the drive to Oklahoma City.

We spent the drive practicing our Australian/New Zealand accents. We had them down perfectly by the time we hit Oklahoma.


Zara:  Ha Ha Ha. Sure, you did. Almost as perfect as your dancing.

We eat breakfast and watch the World Cup in a little café down the street. Slade and Richard are leaving for Oklahoma in the morning so Slade can perform, and Simon and I are continuing our journey West.

We linger in the restaurant and then again at the hotel.  We should already be gone, but I do not want to go.

We make plans.

Plans to return to America and plans for them to visit us at home.

We exchange phone numbers and decide that one day we will build a compound and hire a bartender and take over the world.

But not today.

Today we must leave.

“We miss you guys,” the text message says, and I show Simon.

We haven’t even reached the Dallas city limits yet.


* * *


Now, if you’ve read this far, it’s only fair that we make it worth your while.  I mentioned a bit of a surprise earlier.  The truth is that we didn’t write what it looks like we wrote.  Each one of us chose another member of the group and wrote as them.  Your job now is to determine who is responsible for who (Or whom. I always screw that up.)

So yes.  A bit of a game.  We hope we did as well as we think we did at writing as one another.

To make it worthwhile, the four of us have agreed to throw in a bit of prize: a foldable “Fuck You” t-shirt from Slade, one of Richard’s books, a bit of Australiana from Simon, and something inherently Kiwi courtesy of Zara.

Certainly there are, buried within our attempts at impersonating each other, errors that will tip you off as to who is responsible for what.  Best of luck with your guesses.  It was a fun adventure.

We wish more of you had been there.


**UPDATE**

Drum roll please…  Starring, in order of appearance:

Simon Smithson as the Comedian, Slade Ham

Zara Rose Potts as the Dancer, Richard Cox

Richard Cox as the Australian, Simon Smithson

and

Slade Ham as the Kiwi, Zara Potts

Winners will be posted in the comments below.



Please explain what just happened.

Well, I just got back from shooting a Lions football game… took off my shoes and came to the computer… terribly exciting!

 

What is your earliest memory?

I remember sitting on my living room floor with huge headphones listening to the Annie soundtrack on record for hours. I was probably two years old.

 

If you weren’t an actor, what other profession would you choose?

I actually wanted to go to the Coast Guard Academy and be an oceanographer. I couldn’t get in because of screws in my ankle.

Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.

Please explain what just happened.

Revolution, in my mind.

Dear Texas,

Georgia O’Keeffe, the vaunted painter of periwinkle vaginas, once remarked of your landscape, “It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” I read O’Keeffe’s words and, Texas, I think she’s got you pegged.

From your Gulf Prairies and Marshes, that moist welcome mat for countless pirates, tycoons and explorers before me—to your tangled, pubic Pineywoods and fetid Savannah, I ache for you, Texas. Your Rolling Plains, your Edwards Plateau…Mmmmm. I can virtually run my finger down your vast belly. Although you are awfully big and grotesquely frustrating to get a handle on.

Why is this, Texas? Perhaps it’s because you’re always changing. At one moment, you’re a beacon of warmth and naked, Bacchanalian invitation a la Laredo Boys Town 1998, the next, you’re like the Summit in Houston. How so? Let me explain.

Like the Summit, sometimes, you are an arena filled with hope, Van Halen with David Lee Roth. You evoke nostalgia for Akeem Olajuwon dunking over The Admiral and you inspire memories of being eleven years old and chased on a scooter by Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on The Block after pelting him and his bandmates with rocks for stealing our would-be girlfriends,

Other times, you become frustratingly similar to Joel Osteen’s faith-toaster, Lakewood Church, a veritable Six Flags Over Jesus where the destitute stumble in to put money in your capacious G-string, with only a hint of a lap dance and no champagne room in sight. I’d pick up my sling shot and my rocks again, but I fear Mr. Osteen may be equipped with more than a scooter and a entourage far more intimidating than Jordon, Jonathan, Joey and Danny.

Texas, you just don’t seem to know what you want to be. Do you want to be the bisexual travesty of nature Tila Tequila of Houston, or the homosexual travesty of nature Rick Perry, of the Governor’s mansion? You’ve gotta let me know. Do you want to embrace Dallas and Ft. Worth, the bloated, silicon titties of your Cross Timbers or showcase your fertile NASA mind? You know you’re capable of sending men and women into low-Earth orbit, then bringing them down with a septic splash after an exhausting interstellar session of toggle and yaw. You did say you were doing post-graduate work in aerospace engineering at nights. Was that all a lie, Texas? Or maybe you said it was medical school. Texas, what’s it going to be? Sometimes I feel like I’m sucking from the proverbial hind tit, here, Texas, a dying lone star, a black dwarf, like Emmanuel Lewis, without the cute cardigan.

Sometimes with you, I feel like a 10-year old boy, road tripping to Amarillo with my parents in 1984 to see Twisted Sister at the Civic Center. My teeth sweat with anticipation. “Ama-fucking-rillo!!” shouts Dee Snider. Then cops, then show’s over, with nary a chord struck. Cock tease. I protest in agony that we’re not gonna take it, but in the end, I always do.

Maybe this is why I’ve left you so many times. Well, I’m back now, Texas. And I’m hoping you’ll have me, if not forever, then for just this one night

I’ll finish up with another line for you from Georgia O’Keeffe: “There was quiet and an untouched feel to the country (that’s you Texas) and I could work as I pleased.” You and Georgia must have come across each other much earlier, because I certainly don’t get an “untouched feel” with you, but I do always believe that I can work with you pretty much as I please. It may seem crazy that I’m starting and ending these sappy scrawls to you by channeling Georgia O’Keeffe. But it really all comes down to art. And while Georgia creates her art with easels and acrylic, brushes and canvas and you create your art with an ill-fitting thong and a pole at the Yellow Rose Gentleman’s Club on weekdays from noon to four, you both serve as infinite inspiration for me. Well, that and of course, you’re both named after States.

Cautiously,

Tyler

Before the ground war started, we hunkered behind berms, firing shots at targets built from crumb rubber, careful not to shoot the Bedouin and their camels when they appeared on the horizon. We stood in jeeps and flashed the Saudis on the highway, making lewd gestures with our tongues and fingers at the Saudi women sitting in the back of their husbands’ Mercedes, because only men can drive in that country. We fought the Gulf War for them, and for their fat white business partners in Texas. We were hired guns, sleeping in prefabricated bunkers built years before the Ba’ath party rumbled over the oil fields into Kuwait.

The first memory I have of my father is my earliest image of anything, a thunderous voice demanding I finish some long-forgotten meal. I was still in a high chair then, and the world was binary, black and white, yes or no. Mostly no. If you were uncertain about whether a particular action was permissible, you didn’t have to wait long to find out. The loud voice made the world exceedingly simple.

But while I often feared the consequences of my questionable behavior, I was never afraid of my father. To be honest I don’t know how he pulled that off. Maybe the secret is I’ve always known where I stood with him. I knew generally what was right and what was wrong, and I knew I would always be treated fairly. I also knew my father loved me.

Like if I was sick to my stomach at three in the morning, crouched over a toilet on the other side of the house, somehow he was there with a cool washcloth on my forehead. Or when I wrecked my bike and cut myself so badly I still have the scars, there he was washing my wounds, so proud of me for not crying. Or the way he constantly reminded me how he never earned the grades in school I brought home with ease. I wasn’t so sure about that, since I believed my father to be the smartest man in the world, but I appreciated him saying it anyway.

He was raised on the red, desolate plains of north Texas. In small towns like his, there was nothing to do and everything to do. He grew up hunting and fishing and working. He spent several summers on a harvest, twelve hours a day of backbreaking labor under a sweltering sun. After high school he made a stab at college but not a very serious one. He knew his own strengths and where he might find success, and it wasn’t between the covers of a textbook.

So he married my mother, took a job for a treating company, and began a nearly forty-year, zig-zag journey through the oilfields of the central United States. He drove a treating truck, sold oilfield chemicals, took jobs in places other sales reps wanted no part of. Together with my mother he saved our family from repeating the modest upbringing of their rural youth.

To my brother, sister, and me, the stories of my parents’ gritty childhoods were mythological, something you might read in a Larry McMurtry novel. In fact McMurtry himself grew up less than fifteen miles from my mother’s house…and yet I had no idea there was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist nearby until almost ten years after he won the award.

Why? Because though my father instilled core values that will always be part of me, and though he taught me many important things, he reads sparingly. If he read any novels at all during my nineteen years at home, I never saw them. I, on the other hand, was an insatiable reader. In my teens I burned through books like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451.

Considering the amount of hours my father put in at work, that his wife and three children were waiting to pounce when he walked through the front door every evening, he probably had little time to read. More importantly, literature has never been part of his world. He spent his youth outdoors, on his feet, and can barely sit still long enough to watch a film, let alone read a novel.

But even though literature wasn’t necessarily important to him, he never tried to separate me from it. I suppose he might have been frustrated to see me sprawled across my bed on sunny summer days, engrossed in a book when I could have been outdoors, but that didn’t stop him from purchasing me a typewriter for Christmas when I was 18. I think he first asked if I wanted a shotgun, and I would have been happy with one for sure, but he knew what I really wanted. And though he never asked what sort of projects I was working on, the Christmas gift was an unspoken message of support I’ve never forgotten.

In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. The course of her disease changed the course of my father’s life. He intentionally altered his upward-moving career path to make things easier on her. We lived closer to family, we moved to climates kinder to the disease. Eventually he arranged to work from home so he could he spend more time with her.

Retired now, my father is very nearly a scratch golfer, as well as an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but he’s never left my mother’s side. The two of them have changed their diets (based on a book, no less) as a possible way to slow the progression of her MS. And believe it when I say that watching my conservative, hard-nosed father wander through the aisles of a whole foods store looking for gluten-free products was one of the most surreal and impressive experiences of my life.

Though he never recommended a novel to me, or had any idea how to land a literary agent, my father was as instrumental as anyone in my quest to become a published novelist. Maybe he would have preferred for me to study petroleum engineering or even medicine, but the most important lesson the elder Richard Cox ever taught me is this: Don’t give up. As many times as I was rejected as a young novelist, as inept and uneducated as I felt trying to break into the world of publishing, I never once considered quitting. Fully aware of my modest storytelling and compositional skills, I worked hard to improve them, and though I’ve now published two novels, I still have a long way to go.

But I would never had made it this far without him.

So Dad, I thank you. And on behalf of my brother and sister, we thank you. For making sacrifices on our behalf, for standing beside our mother while she has fought a terrifying disease, for adapting your own strongly-held views to our divergent cultural and political beliefs, we all thank you. If I ever have a child, I will pass along your lessons to him or her with pride.

However…if my son requires assistance on how to knock down a mourning dove with his .410 shotgun, I might have to ask you to lend a hand. I’ve never been as good a shot as you.

But I could use another lesson.

-R