the limits of respectability
chapter thirty-one - macaroni and mustard soup
Journal entry- Day 63- So it is, we are approaching the inescapable, the gig from hell none of us hoped to play. I guess you can only dodge the bullet of inevitability for so long? There hasn’t even been much in the way of scenery to look at as our trek nears the end- barren, sullen, downcast, much like our spirits. This is perhaps the end of the road in more ways than one, yet I feel, I, and maybe Wires and Doc, are the only ones who sense it completely. Everyone else either hangs to the slivers of hope, or wallows in the infertile mud of indifference.
The Ghost rumbled forward, seemingly hitting every pothole in sight. The trailer pitched and swayed behind us but continued to mimic the truck’s path without incident. The road had changed from pavement to dirt, twenty miles back. We would have taken another route except, there wasn’t one. This was the only road leading us to Flap Jack’s, and it ended there. We crossed a solitary layer of train tracks leading into Bugtussle. They had not been used for some time. There was a rusted switch and rails short of a few ties. It was overgrown, and submerged in places where the tracks had sunk into the ground much like the mining industry in these parts which had kept it alive. The rest of the miss-use and ill repair was hidden by clumps of snow. The only signs of life were the occasional zigzag patterns of some animal followed by the sliding tracks from a pursuing snowmobile. The climate had become much colder as we had snaked our way north again, to this much maligned destination. During the last eight hours, the truck’s heater had sputtered and quit forcing us now, to huddle together in a synergy of shivering.
“No money! No food! No heat! Damn that Murphy and his law,” Spike howled.
Wally inquired. “What’s the law of averages got to do with us?”
We all groaned.
“What can go wrong, will go wrong, Wally,” Doc corrected.
“I thought that was Newton, the guy who invented the fig bars?”
Again more groans.
Wally added. “What? You ever taste a fig bar? Not the greatest.” He still had no clue.
After a long silence Doc spoke. “He was a lefty you know?”
“Newton. He probably would have made a great pitcher in the major leagues with that south-paw?” Again there was a long silence. Again it was broken by Doc’s words. “Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Jack the Ripper, Ringo Starr . . . all lefties don’t ya know?”
Space sniped. “Are you trying to make a point, Barlow?”
“No. Just passing the time. Keeping my mind off the fact we’re all slowly freezing to death and the real questions springing to mind?”
“Like ?. . .”
“Are we even going to be able to play when we get there?”
“I’m sure they have electricity Doc.”
“I’m not questioning whether they have electrical power Space. But surely the hamsters running the treadmills to generate it, couldn’t possibly survive in these temperatures? Je-Je- Je-Je-sus I’m barely surviving.” It was the most Doc had said to Space in a week.
“Let’s just get there. Get warm. Do the gig and get out. Ok?” Space riposted through
chattering or clenched teeth. I couldn’t decipher which.
“What? You think Walden’s going to miraculously give us a string of dates after this one?” I said, annoyed with the cold, annoyed with Space, annoyed with my underwear now creeping up between my butt and somehow seemed embedded there. “I think he’s abandoning us in this godforsaken hell-hole. Why else would he put us in Sleezyk’s club? He knows he’s the agent we screwed over to go with him. Surely Sleezyk knows who’s performing in his club this week.”
“You don’t know for sure Sparky.”
“...and you don’t know for sure he doesn’t, Space.”
Wires hadn’t said a word for the past hour. He hadn’t even smoked, or chewed tinfoil, a true testament to how pissed off he must actually be. It was the only vote of confidence I needed. He could sense it: the finality, the end. It was conclusive.
“Look guys we have to maintain a positive attitude. This is a minor set back, that’s all. It’s a test, and Gary wants to see how we conduct ourselves under the circumstances.”
Doc mused. “What circumstances? See if we can still perform after we’ve frozen to
Space took no notice of him and continued. “It’s the only way we’re going to get back into his good graces.” Feeble words from our drummer who, just a week ago, was expressing a strong desire to hang em’ up himself. He’d been ready to desert us all here, a good two days drive from home. Perhaps he was talking to save his own ass with Walden?
Spike was quick with a response. “Dream on Space.”
“As long as you have money, I guess it’s easier to see the bright side. But look around fearless leader. Everyone here is not exactly going to be eating much this week. We certainly can’t dine on positive attitude.” What Doc said was true, the last two weeks had left us drained financially and emotionally. All the remaining money had been used on gas to get us to Bugtussle. Beyond it, we were in deep doo-doo.
Space pleaded. “Can we not, do this now?” He must have felt he was losing control fast. The real truth however, was he’d lost control long before this moment. It had just not been evident to him.
Wires brought the Ghost to the edge of town. In appearance it reminded me of Nasty Tree, only smaller in scale. Regardless, it wasn’t a comforting thought. This town had an antiquated and rugged exterior, kind-of-like Glib had been to Wally. We could probably use someone like Glib on this outing to translate Back-woods-ease. It’s not like there were successful real-estate agents moving people to Bugtussle in droves. Space should have made him road-manager. Only to suggest such a scenario now, would be deemed as a low-blow bordering on heresy, especially after Doc’s money comments.
“That must be the place up ahead?”
“What, the place that says, ‘Flap Jack’s,’ Wally? Whatever led you to such an astute conclusion? Maybe we’re playing at the other Flap Jack’s across town?”
A gray structure of brick and wood loomed before us, as if its builders could not decide between the two construction materials. The wooden marquee, with the painted red letters of its namesake, angled out from the roof. It was secured at either end by rickety, triangles of 2 x 4's, and a cord of yellow rope running from the center of the board to a metal post in the middle of the roof. I was sure, a good gust of wind was the only thing necessary to blow it clear off the shack and onto the main street below as it would lazily shift to-and-fro with a sudden icy blow from the elements.
We pulled around to the back, down a narrow alley, and parked by the loading dock
where two loose doors rattled in the wind. I pulled my scarf up tight around my neck and zipped my coat up even higher than it had been. Out we stepped from the frosty interior of our vehicle into the relentless cold and a blustery west chill. We were greeted by Bronson who had gone in through the front to open up our entrance way. The doors unfolded directly onto the stage.
This is just great! I thought. Now we can perform and die of hypothermia at the same time. How convenient.
We loaded in as quickly as humanly possible, partly due to the sub-zero temperatures outside, and partly to appease the screaming insults of the afternoon barflies. “Close that god dang DOOR!”
“What do these people do for entertainment when they can’t yell at city folk?” Doc
mumbled at the entourage of locals decked out in the indigenous uniform of checkered flannel underneath parkas decorated with the fur of various dead animals.
Music for me had always been about peeks and valleys. The small victories had always been the glue holding me together through the harsh realities of a cutthroat business. This tour, at times, had been a peek, but it had come screaming downhill, on one ski, into a valley very unexpectedly and the valley was filled, seemingly, with drunken yahoos. And these Yahoos who would sooner see us dead than have there Monday darts interrupted.
We set up and opted to collect our room keys in place of doing an adequate sound-check to further enrage the natives from their ritual of exchanging wompum for firewater. Once again I was rooming with Wally and Doc— the cold comfort of an old episodic TV show where the ending finds you back at the start. I felt perhaps Rod Serling was going to step out from stage right at any moment, to explain it all. “For your consideration. A man has reached his breaking point. His vicious circle, in a sinking swamp of his own madness. Treading water in the Twilight Zone.” Even the rooms looked strangely familiar, through the maze of filth, as our trio stood by the open doorway surveying the damage. It was the usual dull, drab, crusty surroundings of fist holes in the walls and a light fixture hanging from a wire in the middle of the ceiling. In a corner, a wooden, three-legged chair was leaning on a knife-etched desk for support. Two single beds, sat near a cot guarding a night table with a phone with its cord unceremoniously ripped from the wall. A cracked window covered by a layer of plastic made a farting sound with each gust of wind, as the cold from outside still seeped into our domain.
Doc listened to the plastic flatulence. “Well at least Wally will feel at home.”
“Six glorious days in squaller,” I stated. “Guess I should have payed more attention to the travel brochure?”
Wally spoke with a touch of melancholy. “Well it was nice while it lasted. Where’s the bathroom?”
“I think it’s down the hall, Wally?”
Wally’s eyes bugged out in disgust. “We have to share it?”
“I believe everyone else should be worried about the prospect of sharing a toilet with you Wally. Not the other way around.”
“At least they don’t frown on the bands writing on the walls here,” I said, looking at the various graffiti.
“It should be mandatory in a place like this, Sparky. Like notching the passing days on a prison cell wall.”
I began to read some of the statements and view some of the artwork from the bands
who had come and gone. Some, I had never heard of, some I knew of, but were no more. They were morose whispers from the past long since disbanded. There were drawings, (of the female anatomy mostly), and declarations of, “Bugtussle sucks!” and, “Sleezyk’s a fag!” Even without the palisade literature, we were very aware we’d be in tough for the week.
“Well, there’s no mistaking this is one of Sleezyk’s bars, is there? God! You awake from the dream to find yourself back in the nightmare.”
“But what happens when we wake from the nightmare, Sparky?”
“I guess either way, we shouldn’t expect a mint on the pillow.”
“After what it says on these walls, I think we should be glad we don’t have defecate on our pillows,” Doc said, bringing notice to the stained yellow pillow cases and sheets. The blankets actually made a crunching sound as we pulled them back. I half expected to see cockroaches scattering for the corners and the unmistakable hammering from Spike’s room as he chased them down with his trusty mallet. Either way, I felt I’d probably have a sounder sleep at ground zero on a bed of cinder blocks, in a septic tank of waste.
“What you got left in the food trunk?”
“Not much, Wally. Some pasta, a few condiments, a quarter jar of peanut butter....Things were going so well, I never replenished it. I thought . . . you know . . . with Walden in the picture— ”
“We all thought, Sparky,” Doc concluded. “But he’s an agent. What were you expecting?”
“I mean the reason I have the trunk is for emergencies such as this, and now look at me. Old Mother Hubbard had more. Christ!”
“At least we get free coffee and soda in the bar.”
“Great Wally, We’ll just drink all week until we’re full. I mean Je-sus just look at Sparky. He’s lost so much weight he’s almost thin.”
I took a glance in the cracked mirror above the dresser. It felt as if I was staring at my reflection in a fun house distorting my true image, giving me the appearance of being svelte bordering on gaunt. Doc was right. I had lost a considerable amount of weight. If only Badd Kredytz could see me now through their busted-up faces.
“I’d heard horror stories from other bands about this place, but it’s much more depressing when you’re actually here. What the fuck are we doing here? Megan’s gone now, doesn’t Walden know?”
Doc scolded. “You don’t get it do you, Wally? It’s over. The ride is over and so is the tour. Even if we do come back out this way again, it can never be as Bitter Romance.”
“Space will think of something. Walden will have a gig for us. You’ll see.”
“I think we’ve given Space and Walden too much rope as it is. Nothing left to do but hang them both with it.” Doc grabbed the hot plate out of his bag, slammed it on the desk and plugged it in. He snagged a pot from my food trunk. “I’m going to go get some water and we’ll cook up the last of Sparky’s pasta.”
“The sink, not the toilet,” I reminded, as I continued to admire my new physique.
“Hey, do you think I’m Wally?”
Wally smiled. “One day Doc . . . I’m going to think of a really good comeback and you’ll be sorry.” He sat down on the edge of the cot and appeared unscathed by Doc’s comment. I guess by this time he was used to the ridicule. The cot suddenly collapsed under his weight leaving him prone on the floor. “Ow! My ass,” he said. I helped him to his feet as he rubbed it gingerly. “Everything’s falling apart, Sparky.”
“I know, Wally. What I don’t understand is how you appear to be gaining weight while
everyone else is losing it.”
“Just wait until the end of the week Sparky.”
Doc returned with a full pot and set it to boil. He shook his head at Wally trying to repair the broken cot. I poured the last of the macaroni into the water and Doc and I went down stairs to get something for us to drink while Wally stayed behind to watch over our food. When we returned, we were horrified to find Wally had dumped the last of the mustard into the pot and the macaroni now bubbled away in a rolling yellow liquid. Wally seemed quite pleased and exclaimed triumphantly. “I fixed my cot guys.” He had turned a chair onto its side and propped up the broken end of the bed with it. It was now on a slight angle but usable. Doc wasn’t concerned with Wally’s sleeping arrangement. He gazed into the pot of ruined pasta.
“What the fuck did you do that for, Wally? Je-sus, Mary and jumpin’ Ja-hosa-phat! My mother’s cat’s got more sense.”
“I was just adding some flavor to the macaroni.”
“You’re supposed to wait until it’s cooked you fool! Now look at it, it’s soup. Macaroni and mustard soup. Shit! I thought Glib said you were ‘the smart one’?”
“Don’t worry I’ll eat it.”
“Oh yeah! And what do Sparky and I eat Wally? Your good intentions? The sheets? They look appetizing enough but I thought I’d leave them for dessert.”
I looked into the near emptiness of the food trunk and plucked out the last of the peanut butter. “Looks like we’ll have to settle for the last thing on the menu, Doc. You’ll have to find something to eat with. All I have left is one plastic butter knife.” Doc looked around the room and dug through his bag as hunger started to take a foot hold. He emerged from the depths of his suitcase with a comb.
“You’ve got to be kidding?” I said.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where the playing cards are. I’ve got no choice.”
“Then you have to wait til I’m finished. You can use your fingers for all I care.” I started into the jar, digging my knife in, scraping bottom. When I felt I had eaten my half, I handed the remainder to Doc. Wally sat with a bowl in hand, alternately blowing on his soup to cool it down and slurping the mustard and macaroni right from the dish. Doc dug his grooming instrument into the thickness and I savored the last of my dinner from my plastic knife. There was a knock at the door. It was Wires.
My tongue fought to remove peanut butter from my palette. “Iz oben,” I yelled. The door swung inward and Wires entered. He almost laughed at the ridiculous sight of Doc and I eating, a jar of smooth peanut butter sitting on the bed between us, and Wally, standing next to the cot drinking his soup. He glanced at the chair under the cot and into the cyan, colored, lumpy, liquid in the pot and smiled. He pulled his cigarettes from his pocket. “Wally’s been busy again has he?”
“Why Wires, what gave you that idea?”
“Ahhh, Doc, always answering a question with a question,” Wires said. He grinned
weakly and popped a white stick of tobacco into his mouth. “You guys hard up, or what?”
“For food? Does it look like it?”
“I meant for utensils,” Wires said, as Doc dug his comb back into the jar. “I’ll bet it works better on your hair than gel.”
“...and I’ll bet you get some funny drawings from this scenario,” I added.
Doc huffed as he licked his comb. “Well I don’t want to see them when they’re done.”
“Actually, I’m here to tell you we don’t have to play until later tonight. Something about Monday Night Football and they don’t want us to block the big screen.”
“The one hanging behind us on stage?”
“No Wally, the one behind the bartender. Jesus! You’re so observant,” Doc cursed. “Must be all the yellow brain food you eat?”
“I said I was sorry, Doc. Geesh!”
“So we have most of the night off?” I said.
Wires nodded affirmatively.
“Great! Sparky and I can go back to our original plans of watching the paint peel and our bodies waste away.”
“Any word on next week?”
Wires looked suddenly pallid and haggard. “Not yet, Wally, and I’m not holding my breath gentlemen. I’ll leave you to your meal. Enjoy.” Wires turned and closed the door behind him, cutting a lingering ribbon of smoke in two. Doc returned to the jar, I sucked the knife clean and Wally continued to eat the macaroni and mustard soup, every last bit of it.
By the time we hit the stage it was a quarter past twelve and most of the bar had cleared out. It was an absolutely horrible set. The doors behind us clattered and clanged in the wind throwing Space off time several points during the set. It also dislodging the parachute which knocked over some of the flood lamps. The temperature on stage was freezing, forcing us to play with coats on, and in Wally’s case, mittens. The instruments constantly went out of tune as the heat from the lights slowly changed the temperature around us from life threatening to less than bearable. In all, we sounded like some hack garage band— a far cry from the well rehearsed, oiled machine we had strived to be. By the end of the night, dejected, Doc, Wally and I, sat with Wires and Bronson watching the only working TV in any of the rooms. It just happened to be in theirs. Wires sat at the desk next to the TV drawing and occasionally watching the movie between puffs. Bronson sat at the foot of his bed with his legs folded and I had my back to the bed-board, hugging a pillow with brownish stains, for warmth. Doc lay on the bed with his feet stretched out, his parka still on and the hood up. His red leg-warmers and the bottom of the white doctors coat he wore on stage were the only evidence it was actually him.
“What a god-awful night,” I lamented, as Steve McQueen hopped aboard a motorcycle in The Great Escape.
Wally sat on the floor with a mug of cocoa he’d snagged from the kitchen downstairs and cupped it lovingly. He still had on his homemade mittens. “I’m so hungry.”
The parka spoke. “Should have saved some soup for later then. Don’t worry, Wally, the human body can go three weeks without food before you die of hunger. You only have to go five more days.”
“Three weeks? I can’t go three hours. Where did you read that?”
“It’s the standard rule of three, Wally. Three weeks without food, three days without
water, three minutes without air.”
“Really?” Wally took a deep breath and held it.
“What about sex, Doc? Is that in there?”
“Why, Sparky? You planning to be celibate from here on in?” Bronson laughed.
Wires smiled as he drew in his sketch pad and Wally continued to hold his breath. On the screen Steve was jumping fences on his bike as he tried to outrun the Germans.
“This really sucks ass. I think I’m going to die of boredom before the hunger gets me. There’s only so much time you can spend in the general store looking at chainsaws and mining tools. You know what I mean?”
“I hear ya, Sparky.”
The television started to go fuzzy. Without taking his eye off his drawing, Wires reached over and banged the top of the console with his fist. The picture cleared. There was Steve again, weaving back and forth as the enemy closed in. Wally’s face was slowly changing color as his cheeks puffed out and he began to shake slightly.
Doc praised. “Wires, he can fix anything.”
I continued my rant. “By the end of the week my stomach will have shrunk so much I
probably won’t be able to keep down ice-cream.”
Doc added. “Just as well, Sparky, Wally would only put mustard all over it. “Wally shot Doc an angry purple look and gave him the finger for good measure. “Good comeback. I love you too, Wally.”
Steve made one more desperate attempt to jump the last fence. He slid his motorcycle into the barbed-wire and wiped out. The Germans were on him. He was captured once again.
There was a thud, as Wally, still trying to hold his breath passed out, mittens and all. Doc without missing a beat said, “Three minutes! It’s supposed to be three minutes, Wally.”
“At least he didn’t have so far to fall this time,” I said.
Wires looked thoughtfully at Wally laying peacefully with his little chocolate mustache of cocoa. He turned the page of his sketch pad and began to draw a new picture.