By William McCarter
“I woke up to the sound of pouring rain…” Not exactly, but that’s what was blasting out of John’s speakers as I slowly opened my eyes and struggled to recall just exactly what my position in the world was. My internal GPS satellite device was hazy at best and I tried desperately to get the dendrite snails of my mind to cleanse the filthy fish tank of my current perception of reality. Just as Sebastian Bach screamed out “I’ll Remember You,” on the stereo, Polaroid memories of the night before began to creep back into my memory.
“Look who is back from the dead,” John said as I walked into the kitchen, grabbed an old stained plastic Taco Bell cup out of the dish drain and poured myself a tall glass of Luzianne sun tea.
“Back from the dead,” I asked, not recalling and not really wanting to recall whatever might have happened the night before.
“Don’t you remember?” John said. “No, wait… of course you don’t. You were too fucked up. You need to thank me for rescuing your ass from the clutches of Salt and Pepper.”
“From where,” I asked, still trying to kick start the dendrite snail into removing the fish tank film and the magic mouth to blow on the Polaroid memory in hopes that I might develop a picture of reality a little bit faster.
“Salt and Pepper’s place,” John said. “They called me and said you were passed out half-naked in the floor of one of the bedrooms and they knew we had to go out on the road today.”
John was my oldest friend and I loved him like a brother, but I couldn’t stand it when he said those three words “On The Road.”
“We were born too late to be on the road,” I said. “We ain’t Huck and Jim out on the mighty Mississippi or Sal Paradise driving across the country. We’re just half of Empty Pockets and are going to be gone from this trendy little cabin in the woods that your landlord named “Katydid” for three days.
“This ain’t the Empty Pockets Summer of 1994 World Tour,” I barked, before taking another drink of sun tea, still trying to kick that fucking snail into overdrive.
“Look, they’re mini road trips,” John said, sort of backing off his On The Road statement, but still trying to emphasize the importance of it all. “But you gotta quit makin’ light of this. We’re a road band now. That’s all we ever wanted.”
“That’s not all we ever wanted. But I guess it’s about all we can hope for – a simulacrum of being, as you say,” and I held up my hands mockingly making a set of quotation marks in the air, “on the road.”
“Alright, you’ve been passed out cold for hours and are probably still drunk. Did you just make up that simulator word?”
“Simulacrum,” I said, purposely enunciating, “is a copy of a copy. It’s a parody of the original. All I am saying is there isn’t enough of whatever it was that ole Sal Paradise set out to find to even bother looking for anymore. Whitman’s America was long gone when Kerouac went looking for it and it’s definitely not out there now.”
“Where did you learn a word like simulacrum anyway?”
“Dennis Miller Live,” I said as I drank the sun tea, hoping that the caffeine would rush to my head fast enough to kick that snail in the ass so that I could fully reengage with the world.
“Billy, you gotta get it together,” John said.
I looked at him with my filthy fish tank eyes, swallowed a handful of aspirin, and said, “Did it ever occur to you that if I had it together, I might be doing something else?”
“Is that why you’re the singer in this band,” John asked, “because you can’t do anything else?”
“That and the fact that I can get more pussy doing this job than the guy who sells cancer policies to widows.”
“By the way, did any of those girls tell you if I got laid last night,” I asked as I walked across the floor of the kitchen toward the bathroom.
I heard John say, “You’re pathetic” as I turned on the water to the shower.
Gently, I lathered the soap up in my hands – that same soap that would wash off the funk of what remained of my latest dalliance – that little piece of a woman that you take with you when you leave – and the nebulous opaque and gray film of the Polaroid memories began to take shape. Once again, I began to take possession of my personal narrative:
Tricky Rick called yesterday afternoon and said that the sea hag had a bottle of Scooby Snacks for us. The sea hag was what we called our drug connection. She was like nearly all of the forty something white trash women in Piankashaw, Missouri – “Rode hard and put away wet,” the old timers called it – rode hard one too many times both by the men in their lives and the world around them. A broken soul left on the slag heap of history. She wasn’t the welfare queen in the Cadillac that you hear about on the news, but she was definitely a welfare dowager of sorts who, over time, had learned how to live off of what old Uncle Sugar sent her every month in the form of an AFDC check and food stamps.
Tragically, two years ago, her oldest son was killed by a drunk driver as he was walking across the highway to Snaggletooth’s General Store. As a result, the sea hag was on Medicaid and the doctor prescribed Valium for her anxiety and continued to give her refills to this day. I don’t think that she ever took a single pill. Rick and I had been buying them from her for well over a year now. These were no ordinary Valium either, they were the good ones – the purple kind – 10mg. Whenever she would get her script filled at the drug store, she would give Ricky a call. Uncle Sugar from Medicaid would giveth and Ricky and I would taketh away for twenty dollars worth of Bingo money.
As we backed out of the sea hag’s driveway, Ricky and I both chewed up a couple of V’s and decided to stop by Quantrill’s Bar and Grill to see Sweetback and James playing some music in the lounge. It was the 4th of July weekend in the Piankashaw Valley and I figured that nearly everyone would be down on the Piankashaw River, but somehow, Sweet and Jim convinced Mary Lou, the owner of Quantrill’s, to book them in there on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. They had a two-piece act with most of the background music sequenced on a synthesizer. That was how they managed to fit in the tiny lounge at Quantrill’s.
Empty Pockets was supposed to play out in the beer garden on Sunday the fourth. Helen Beck, our new manager and booking agent, got us the gig. That fact, alone, made me glad that we had this new management deal with Helen. Mary Lou was a bitch. Nearly all of the club owners I have known in my twenty three years on this big blue marble have been mother fuckers, but Mary Lou was the mother of all motherfuckers. I had a long and checkered past with Mary Lou and I was glad that Helen had to deal with her from now on.
From what I could remember, there were a lot of folks out at Quantrill’s for a Thursday night. Tricky Ricky and I rubbed shoulders with our fellow Piankashaw locals, drank lots of draft beer, and got pretty fucked up. Ricky took off just after the first set and about that same time, my cousin Roscoe, the bass player in our band, showed up with a gram of crank. We did a couple of lines off the hood of Sweet’s truck and it was some really good shit. The valium, the beer, and the speed had all mingled together in such a way that I was so fuckin’ high, I’d have to climb a flight of steps to scratch my own balls.
Miss Potosi – at least that’s what I always called her – I couldn’t even remember her real name – came by about midnight and I left Quantrill’s with her and went over to Salt and Pepper’s place. I think we fucked – because I was washing little dried smegmas off of my cock and they were running down the drain. I felt reasonably certain that I would remember the rest of the story eventually, but not right now, the Polaroid was still too nebulous and gray. Besides, the hot water felt good on my neck and shoulders and I’ve always been more interested in the experiential now than yesterday or tomorrow. Tomorrow can wait until I catch up with it and yesterday, well, it’s yesterday – nostalgia – more Polaroid memories that come and go, waxing and waning in the nebulous gray matter of the mind. Goddamn that hot water felt good.
After I got out of the shower, I was beginning to cleanse the fish tank of the mind and find my place among the shipwrecked fixtures with all of the other bottom feeders. Now that I had cleansed my body, it was time to give my soul a whore bath – you splash water on all the parts that smell, like feet and ass, and hope for the best. Today, I felt that my soul was bathing in the dirty sink of a truck stop – the greasy spoon attached to the Flying J along the interstate to the journey to the center of the mind.
I walked outside wearing my favorite pair of sweat pants, an old bootleg Billy Squier tee shirt that I bought at the Route 67 Flea Market, and a pair of Indian moccasins that Roscoe had given me because they wouldn’t fit him, and sat down on the front steps of Katydid, drinking my iced tea, and surveying the work that was going on in front of me. A.J, our lead guitar player, and Roscoe were loading their stuff up into the bandwagon. John was up front, checking the oil and the other fluids under the hood. Everyone was running around doing their jobs like a finely tuned machine and here I was, sitting on the front steps, running on two cylinders, backfiring like a motherfucker, and waiting for the caffeine to kick in.
My timing was off, so I lit a Marlboro – my first of the day – took a drag and exhaled as I quietly stared across the yard and looked reality in the eyes with a sense of wonder and disbelief. Our band, Empty Pockets, had been playing all the local roadhouses for months. Before that, we had each been playing in roadhouses for years, and now, we finally landed an artist management deal with Helen Beck, a former intern at Contemporary Productions. In a little more than half an hour, we would be leaving “Katydid” for a three-day, six gig road trip in Southeast Missouri.
Somehow, it all seemed so unreal, almost imaginary. I looked over at the converted ’69 Ford Ambulance that we affectionately called the bandwagon and it seemed even more unreal. Who tours Southeast Missouri, criss-crossing the state, barnstorming barrooms in a twenty-five year old customized ambulance? I’d always dreamed of stardom. The land, the band, the bandwagon, and I were all intrinsically connected to our own reality – we fit together. That’s why it all seemed to work – order in the chaos – the roadhouse where we got our start was Hard Times, our band was Empty Pockets – Hard Times and Empty Pockets – a ying and a yang – a perfect fit – a matching pair spun by the nous and you just can’t fuck with that shit. It’s pointless – hopeless. But that’s exactly what we were about to do. Empty Pockets and all our hillbilly hubris was about to embark upon a journey that would no doubt bring us a little too close to the sun.
I finished my cigarette as John fired up the bandwagon and said, “Lazarus, come forth.” Languidly, I walked across the grass and got in the passenger side of the bandwagon. John pulled out of the driveway and we left Katydid in the rear view mirror. Slowly, it faded into a Polaroid memory into the nebulous gray mind, disappearing through the doors of my perception. I looked at the plastic Joe Camel head that I glued to the dashboard and thought, “Yeah, Joe… I know we are all a bunch of blind men from Thebes, but it’s better than being a hopeless one in our sleepy little Piankashaw Valley, so let the wheel of fortune spin.” I thought I might have seen him nod, so I looked at him and thought, “Joe, are you ready to wrestle with the gods and smite the sounding furrows?” Joe Camel just sat in silence, staring back at me through a pair of lapis-lazuli wayfarer sunglasses and quietly smoked a cigarette.
Johnny pulled into the parking lot of a little piece of Americana on the old Route 67 highway. At the corner of Old Route 67 and Old Route 72 in Fredericksburg, Missouri, is The Pig, a one of kind drive-in restaurant known among the locals as one of the best places in the country to get a pulled pork barbeque sandwich. Directly above our heads, right next to the menu, there was a hand-painted sign that read “The Pig Since 1948” and featured a painted logo with Porky, the mascot of The Pig. Porky looked very close to the old Piggly Wiggly pig. In fact, the only substantial difference between ole Porky and ole Piggly is that Porky was sporting a Rebel uniform complete with the gray kepi of the Confederate soldier and ole Porky’s portrait had a Confederate flag for the backdrop.
Places like The Pig were small restaurants and cafes that represent the best of the golden era of America’s roadside restaurants. Once upon a time, The Pig was located on some prime real estate at the crossroads of Route 67 and Route 72. The Pig came of age with the automobile. In fact, other than the car dealerships in town, no one has a closer affiliation with the car, in and around Piankashaw County, than The Pig. In the mid 1960’s, they built the new highway 67 through rural Fredericksburg and when the new highway took the place of old Route 67, The Pig went from being a restaurant on a major highway to an old anachronism condemned to a life on Yesterday Street.
Before John had a chance to shut off the engine, the car hop, order pad in hand, came walking out to the bandwagon. Ordinarily, I would say that it was a capital offense to pass through Fredericksburg without stopping off for a pulled pork sandwich at The Pig, but I was still tired and hung over and every time I thought of one of The Pig’s pulled pork sandwiches, I thought of that scene in Weird Science when Wyatt’s brother Chet, played by Bill Paxton, asked him if he wanted a nice, greasy, pork sandwich and I felt like throwing up. Sometimes, when we would stop by The Pig, Johnny would often say the lines from the film. We had seen it a million times over at Bubba’s house. Back in the days before even poverty came with cable television, we had to watch movies on the VCR when we were bored. Weird Science was Bubba’s favorite cure for boredom – next to porn.
Since a nice, greasy, barbecued pork sandwich on a poppy seed bun wasn’t particularly appealing to me, I figured that while AJ, John, and Roscoe were waiting on their food, I could slide across the street to the gas station/ liquor store and pick up a bottle of whiskey. I figured, “Fuck it, I’ve been working diligently for a couple of hours to clear my head up. Since that didn’t seem to work, I might as well just fuck it up again — a little hair of the dog that bit me.”
I had a little bit of cash on me and knew I would be getting paid later on that day, so I decided to splurge on some real whiskey instead of the asphalt stripper that I usually drank. “I’ll have a bottle of 1843,” I said to the clerk as I tossed a ten-dollar bill onto the counter. After the clerk gave me my change, I walked into the bathroom, washed my face and ate a couple of the Valiums Ricky and I had scored the night before. I opened up the ’43, took a large pull off the bottle, and then felt the slow burning of the amber fluid in my throat and on down into my belly. The first shot always went down a little rough. I had to shake my head a few times just to get through it. I took my third pull off the bottle as I was walking across the street toward the band wagon. Soon, I began to feel almost like one of the living and for the first time that day, I thought I was actually going to enjoy it.
By the time I got back into the van, the carhop had already brought the food out and put it in a little metal tray on the window. Even the trays had ole Porky’s face on it. Chuck Berry was playing “Maybelline” on The Pig’s jukebox. There were a few booths inside where you could drop a quarter in the table top jukebox and play just about any hit from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. On the weekends, the antique car collectors would party at The Pig and, on occasion, they would even have bike night for the motorcycle enthusiasts. The Pig was like one of those picturesque icons of 1950’s America – all ducktails and poodle skirts. The very image that the conservatives like to conjure up when they start talking about where America went wrong. It was almost sacrilegious for me to be sitting in the van drinking whiskey, waiting for the drugs to kick in.
In the jukebox of our collective American dreams, The Pig was everything that was right with the world and everything that was right could be easily explained with a barbecued pork sandwich topped off with cole slaw – Memphis style. In actuality, it was an American anachronism caught like a deer in the headlights of the dawning of the twenty-first century. When we stop off for a visit at The Pig, we know we are living in an age that is somewhere between progress and the world we used to know. When we are at The Pig, we are out here on the Americana borderlands where the bikers and the wanna be bikers on their motorcycles, the hippies and the wanna be hippies with their long hair and dope, and the farmers and the wanna be farmers with their pearl snap shirts, cowboy boots, and Wrangler jeans can all come together under the banner of the Confederate flag and celebrate the fact that we are all anachronisms, caught somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow.
“I’ll drink to that,” I said to myself as I took another pull off the bottle. Out the window, I saw a young, drop dead gorgeous pair of legs and then a pair of cut off jeans cut right up to home plate, climbing out the window of a red Camaro. I never liked people who drove Camaros. There was this unclean bourgeois aura that Camaros seemed to give off – an aura that said, “If my owner had more money, I’d be a Corvette.” I hated just about everything that had to do with the bourgeois middle class, but of course there were exceptions to every rule and I was gawking at one when I suddenly realized that those gorgeous pair of legs belonged to none other than Helen Beck, our new manager.
“Sorry I’m running late, guys,” Helen said, laughing carelessly, smiling a stunning Colgate smile that sailed across the bandwagon right into the empty recesses of my soul, as she sat gracefully down on the milk crate that often served as an extra passenger seat in the bandwagon.
“Who are you supposed to be, Daisy Duke?” I asked as I looked down at a pair of honeydew legs coming out of her tight short-shorts.
“Are you talking about my shorts or to the fact that my car door is broken” she asked.
“Both,” John said.
Helen laughed and said, “Well, I guess you could say I’m wearing the mask today.” Without hesitating, Helen moved quickly into business mode and gave each of us a copy of our itinerary: We were at Annie Batiste’s in Cape Girardeau tonight, the Fredericksburg Freedom Festival tomorrow afternoon and then, in the Huzzah Valley on Friday and Saturday night. Finally, we would wind up back in Piankashaw for the Battle of the Bands followed by a two hour set at Quantrill’s Bar and Grill.
“You guys had better get going,” she said. “You have to set up before happy hour at Annie Batiste’s because of their dinner crowd.”
“What’s up with that,” Roscoe said, “Is this a fuckin’ restaurant gig?”
“If you mean a steak house,” Helen said, “no, it’s not a steak house. It’s the hottest blues club in Cape. They have national touring bands in there, but they also serve Cajun food in their restaurant.”
“Cajun food kicks ass,” Roscoe said. “I can’t wait to eat in that motherfucker.”
“I got them to comp you your meals after you set up,” Helen said. “Think of it as an early birthday present.”
“How’d you know it was my birthday,” Roscoe asked.
“I’m your manager,” Helen said affectionately. “I’m supposed to know these things.”
“Besides that,” I said, “last weekend, after the show, when you managed to beat your personal best in vodka, you only told all of us fifty fuckin’ times.”
I smiled at Roscoe and took another drink of whiskey. Helen reached over and grabbed the bottle from my hands, playfully took a drink, and said, “I don’t want to be responsible for you drinking alone.” She wrapped her full lips around the mouth of the bottle slowly and then took a sip.
“I’m never alone,” I said, “I have a whole host of ghosts and personal demons hanging around all the time.”
“I just love his cynical melancholy personality,” she said, looking over at the rest of the gang. “If we could just somehow manage to tap into his knack for being a smart ass, he would be a publicist’s dream.”
“Yeah, and our worst fuckin’ nightmare – next to Roscoe on a twelve hour whiskey drunk,” John said.
“What the fuck is melancholy,” Roscoe asked.
“Someone that eats watermelons and farts,” John replied. “That’s why it’s called melancholic.”
Roscoe looked startled for a moment and then said, “Fuck you, Bon Johnny.” Roscoe had a knack for integrating celebrity names into his little arsenal of insults. When John and I were in high school, he used to like the band, Bon Jovi, and as a result, Roscoe started calling him John Bon Jovi. Somehow that evolved into Bon Johnny and Roscoe never stopped calling him that. I had a whole slew of insulting nicknames, but Roscoe had grown attached to his latest one – Leo.
“Are you guys always like this,” Helen asked.
“Yes,” John and A.J. said in unison.
“In that case,” she said, “You could all be a publicist’s dream,” Helen said as she got out of the van and walked toward her red Camaro. “I gotta go. Good luck tonight.”
Helen climbed into the window of her car, pulled out of the parking lot and drove back toward Piankashaw. While the rest of the gang finished their pulled pork sandwiches, I tried to get comfortable on the top of our speaker cabinets so that I could get some sleep. The valium started kicking about the time that John put the bandwagon in gear and started backing out of The Pig. “This is about the closest thing to On The Road as we are going to get,” I thought as I watched The Pig disappear out of the back windows of the bandwagon. “We’re leaving one piece of the past behind us as we drive down the highway chasing another one.” Slowly, I drifted off to sleep, feeling confident that when I woke up, I would be sitting outside the loading zone of Annie Batiste’s in Cape Girardeau.
Copyright McCarter 2012