Chapter Four - Shoulda got a large
“So you see, it’s because of Apples I found you Wally. No one else knew where to start looking. Doc said you just wandered off. ‘Walked into the wilderness like Man-Mountain-Dean,’ he said.”
Wally listened as he started to unzip his way out of his dirty overalls. We stood next to our respective transportation in the parking lot of a greasy-spoon diner named Ethyl’s. Even in the daylight I could see the neon E blinking and hear the intermittent surge of electricity.
“Running into Apples was mere coincidence Wally. Blind luck. I hadn’t seen him since the disastrous showcase. It has to be ten . . . twelve years ago . . . at least. It’s miraculous Wally. Like thinking winter’s never going to end and then suddenly . . . ,” I paused. “ . . . the strong cold clutches lose their grip to the warmth of a spring thaw.”
“God! That’s awful Sparky! No wonder you’re not published.” Wally smiled- more of a smirk really. He rolled his work clothes into a ball and tossed them on the driver’s seat of his truck. He was now dressed in tan Bermuda-shorts and a grey checkered shirt minus a button at the belly. He must have lost a little weight because the buttons seemed less stressed of losing their second in command. In all, his appearance had improved dramatically, even with the sweat stains under his armpits.
I looked at the diner. “You sure it’s safe to eat here?”
“Ethyl’s is where I come for my shore lunch when I’m out fishing.”
“Shore lunch? I don’t see any lake.”
“Come on, Sparky. I’m hungry.”
The interior of the restaurant looked like a collection agency for junk. The walls were covered with licence plates from all over. Trucker hats of various colors and logos hung from the rafters like New Year’s balloons. There were also dusty, mite infested, busts of dead animals from moose, to deer, to bear, to beaver, in various corners. It seriously made me question my desire to continue as a carnivore. I mean come on. Who mounts the head of a beaver? There was a thick fried smell in the air like gristle remnants of French-fries long since dead and a glossy sweat of grease glistening from the kitchen walls.
Wally motioned for me to sit and I plunked myself down at one of the many wooden tables with red, checked, plastic covers. They were nothing more than picnic tables really, still streaked with the wipe-down tang of vinegar and water.
Wally grabbed two laminated menus from their holder on the table and tossed one across to me. He buried his face deep into his, as I continued to glance around at this living time capsule. Technology seemed to miss the great leap out of the twentieth century as evident from the diner’s log cabin interior. The jukebox in the corner had visible 45's and the faded yellow placards of Country’s finest. There were dirty hand prints on the men’s washroom door where it had been shoved open repeatedly, and the wooden pillars sported thousands upon thousands of business cards. Yet, other than Wally and I, an old woman doing a crossword in the corner, and a short-order cook who simultaneously picked at a scab on his chin and flicked at flies with a dish towel, the place was empty.
I looked back at all the business cards and thought about Apples’ card being up there in the labyrinth. One tiny billboard lost in the business card jungle of traveling salesmen, fertilizer manufacturers and haulage entrepreneurs. An unnoticed paper brick shouting out to the ho’s that would never come and the local clientele that couldn’t give a damn.
“Lot of business cards for not having much business.”
“You should see this place on a Tuesday . . . packed.”
“Two for one moose burgers and all you can eat wings.”
“I guess that explains the moose head on the wall . . . but where’s the chicken’s? What’s with the dead animals in the corners anyway?”
“North, South, East, and West, Sparky. I’m surprised as a wannabee writer you didn’t pick up on that?”
“Oh yeah? Which direction is the beaver supposed to be?”
Wally looked up at me and tilted his head slightly as his lips pursed and his eyebrows raised.
“South,” I said, answering my own question. “I get it. Sorry I asked.”
Wally coughed his wheezy laugh again and we started to rehash our past together. We were interrupted by the old woman and her cheap perfumed fragrance. She had traded in her crossword for an order pad.
“What can I get ya’s?”
“My usual Mable.”
“And for you?”
“Cheese burger, hold the scabs, and coffee . . . black.”
“What gave it away, the cheese?”
“No, the smart ass comment.” She flipped her pad closed and gave me a stern look of disapproval as she meandered toward the kitchen. I heard her voice bellowing out the order, “Earl, we got one to run the gauntlet and an outa towner special with a side of mud hold the road salt.”
“Outa Towner Special? Christ, they’re not gonna spit on my burger are they?”
“No they’re good people. Besides you’re with me Sparky. You gots nothin’ to worry bout. It’s just...well... they don’t take kindly to city folk. Probably just want to put a little fear of God into ya.”
“You know me, Wally. I’m not much for the whole God rigamarole. Although, this place is the perfect venue to sit down and talk. It’s like being on the road again.”
“Except back then you couldn’t afford to order anything.”
“I’ve got news for you— I still can’t.”
“Hey remember that restaurant in the Midwest— ?”
“Yeah— oh, what was it called? The waitress looked like Nancy Reagan . ”
“— and Doc kept calling the cook Dabney Coleman.”
“That’s right, and when the waitress asked you what you wanted, you said, ‘hard core porn’.”
“— Except she was hard of hearing and thought I said, ‘hard cardboard’, and brought me a plate of it cut up, covered in gravy.”
We both laughed. “Oh man Sparky, Those were the days huh?”
“Now they are, but they weren’t at the time.”
As we waited for the food to arrive, we continued our conversation of the past, right up to the day Wally had quit the band. I remembered it well. We were playing a little hole in the wall called Stranko’s, also blessed with many a hole in the stage. In fact, my leg had gone through one, on an over zealous charge onto it to do an encore for the seven people who had showed up to see us perform. I’d fallen flat on my face.
The club owner, had not been pleased with the turnout and vowed we’d never play his place again, like he did every time we played there. Good thing for us, he didn’t have much of a memory. We’d change the name of the band to something else absurd and would be back again next month, but tonight would be the last performance of Gilligan’s Eyelid in more ways than one.
After the gig I had sat nursing my wounded appendage when Wally approached me. He dropped his guitar case at my feet. “I’m quittin’ Sparky.”
With those three words everything had stopped, suspended in time. I could see our lead guitarist Skunk and her unmistakable plume of black hair with a white stripe down the middle sitting with a few friends at the side of the stage. I could see Doc pestering our new baby-faced, drummer Grub at a table behind us. All traffic outside ceased; all noise sucked into a vacuum. No clinking of liquor bottles, no murmur of undistinguishable voices, no steaming swish of beer mugs on their assembly line through the dishwasher. There was only Wally telling me, he was quitting the band. The punch of the exclamation point imbibing the breath from my lungs. Slowly the world began to move again. Sound and motion.
“What? Wally you can’t.”
“I can too.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I meant, we’ve done so much work. Six months of writing and rehearsing with a drum machine up on that damn farm of yours next to that creepy cornfield. We just found the right drummer for Christ’s sake. We even have someone interested in managing the band. Why quit? Why now?”
“It all sounds the same to me now, Sparky, and I’m not sure this is what I want. I don’t know if I could stand being . . . ya know . . . well known anyways?”
“We’re a long way from reaching anything resembling famous, Wally.”
“I know but I like my life like it is. I don’t want the speculation. Am I gay? Do I have sex with barn yard animals?”
“Well do ya— ?”
“— Don’t you judge me ” He smiled. “Look . . . you guys don’t need me for one. Skunk can handle all the guitar work. And I feel we’re going nowhere fast. As it stands now, we’ve got no management, no agent, no gigs outsida playin’ in this dump once a month. Just a bunch of songs no one wants to hear because they want to see tribute bands. I’m tired, Sparky. I’m tired of people yelling, Guns N Roses and Aerosmith at us all night. I’m tired of playing under stupid band names other than the Oral Blondes. Tired of hauling my gear up on the stage to play for six people and the money we get from the door.”
“Actually there was seven people tonight and the door guy didn’t show, so we played for free.”
“Whatever. I’m tired.”
I could hear Doc behind me starting to run through his knowledge of coffee with our new percussionist. Grub tried his best to look interested. He had passed the audition with us, without playing a beat. We had all been fatigued by the parade of drummers and what seemed like, endless days of auditioning them. We were more intent on watching Grub’s father do magic tricks. He had driven our soon-to-be drummer to the tryout and had pulled several coins and one egg from behind Wally’s ear to our communal awe. Thank God, Grub could actually play the drums.
Wally continued. “I’ll be twenty-nine next week, Sparky. Now I know that’s not old but it’s old enough to start making decisions on what you should be doing with your life and I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I could hear Doc rhyming off, “Chicory, Mocha Java, Espresso . . . A lot of people call it ex-presso but they’re wrong . . . ” Grub sat silent, listening to him.
“Maybe one day you’ll feel differently Wally.”
“Sparky, remember when we first started this? We stopped at that café near the farm to get coffee. We all get regular sized coffees and then this guy walked out of there with this giant cup. Well . . . I shoulda got a large.”
“What’s that got to do with you leaving the band?”
“I want the large. I don’t want to settle for the regular anymore. It’s the grass is greener effect if you’d like? I’m afraid I’ve wasted too much time and money already. I’ve got a wife to think about now.”
A waitress approached Grub’s table as Doc finished up. “Ahhh and the succulent aroma of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. You really should start drinking black coffee little grub man.”
“Last call. Can I get you guys anything?”
Grub spoke at last. “Tea please.”
“Is there anything I can say to change your mind Wally?”
“OK, then I wish you well. Go get your large if that’s what you really want. You have my blessing. Just be happy wherever you end up . . . But before you go I have something for you. I know your birthday’s next week, but who knows when I’ll see you again.” I gave him his gift. “It’s from all of us really.”
“Is it what I think it is?”
“Open it and see.”
Wally opened the red gift bag. Inside was a white chocolate rabbit. The pink candy eye had long since fallen off and still rattled around inside the package. It had become a bit of a joke or, perhaps tradition in a good luck omen sense of the word? Wally had bought the thing in the middle of nowhere on the last gig we’d played while touring with the old band before we quit to form The Oral Blondes and had never eaten it. Christmas had come and being hard up for money he’d simply presented the rabbit to Doc as a gift. It was a selfless act considering Wally and his boundless love for food. Doc in turn, had wrapped it and given it to me on my birthday. I had handed it off to Skunk on Valentine’s Day, (nothing says I care, like five-year-old chocolate). Skunk had slipped it back to me on Easter. Now I was completing the circle by giving it back to Wally.
He smiled as he looked at the critter still encased in plastic. “I guess we won’t be passing this around anymore.”
“That’s up to you Wally. I hope this one last gesture will bring a change of heart?”
“Sorry Sparky, my minds made up.” He grabbed his guitar case. “You’ll tell the others, won’t you?” He turned and left.
Wally had been right. Skunk did an admirable job of filling the vacancy and somehow his departure gave us renewed vigor. Things pressed forward falling slowly into place. However, he was still Wally and he was missed.
“Hey whatever happened to that white chocolate rabbit? You had it last. Did you every eat it?”
“It got eatin’. But not by me.”
“Really? Who the hell was bold enough to attempt feasting on that?”
“My brother Glib gave me a dog as a weddin’ present . . . the second marriage I think. Anyway, damn dog snagged it off the kitchen counter one day when I was at work— dumb old hound. Probably thought he was out huntin’?”
“Fuck, that chocolate had to be ancient? Nero probably fiddled over it?”
“It was. Didn’t agree with him much. He dragged his ass all over my nice black carpet. White lines of chocolate crap everywhere, Sparky. It was awful. It caused my third divorce don’t ya know.”
“I thought you said the dog was a wedding present for you and your second wife?”
“It was. And that damn hound wrecked that marriage too, but I wasn’t tossin’ a perfectly good carpet. I guess I shouldn’t have told my third wife that story? — Don’t worry, I finally did get a new rug.”
I laughed as Wally sunk his teeth into the roast beef sandwich. It had come after the fish and chips and had been the chaser for the black bean soup. He now eyed the wedge of cherry pie as his next target.
I looked at him fascinated as I might at a sharp shooter piercing the paper heart on a target range with four consecutive shots. “So that’s running the gauntlet? Or does the term apply to later when all the shite has worked its way through your system? Maybe your dog was trying to tell you something? Come to think of it— I’m not sure your new carpet’s safe either, Wally.”
“Good old Sparky, forever the funny man. Well I know you didn’t come here just to talk about the past with me and make jokes, or tell me how much you hate brown fruit. You said you had a purpose or idea?”
“A mission Wally.”
“Mission . . . whatever. Let’s hear it.”
I told him the plan. The potential studio time. The one song and how it wouldn’t cost him a damn thing. However, everything else depended on all the players agreeing to get back together.
“Let me ask you Wally, what keeps you from doing what you want with life?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of fear, but ex-wives will do. Don’t you see this is a second chance for you? For all of us. It’s the look into the river below. The rush of the water and you’re frightened to jump in Wally. I know. We all are. But to take the step . . . to feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins . . . the emptiness in your balls . . . in your stomach as you surrender to the air. Then . . . the cold purge of water drawing you in. The deafening crush of
churning on your eardrums. But you come up and you can breathe. You suddenly realize the jump wasn’t as far as you thought, the water wasn’t as cold— ”
“— You can’t swim and you drown. Yeah, yeah. You made your point Sparky. Just do me a favor OK?”
“Don’t try to write any more books.”
“Then you do me a favor Wally. Think about what I said. I’d hate for you to miss out on the high of doing something with your life. Pull the shit out of your own outhouse for once, instead of everyone else’s.”
“So much food for thought yet, I’m still hungry.” He plowed a fork into his cherry pie. “This is an awful lot to digest Sparky.”
“What I’m telling you, or what you’re eating?”
“Har Har .... I don’t know. It’s not like I’d be needed. You guys didn’t miss me when I left.”
“You were missed Wally. It’s just that you weren’t there to see it. Believe me when I tell you now. It’s with you, or not at all. Everyone is waiting for your response.”
“Why do you have to know this minute?”
“Because it’s a time sensitive issue Cinderella and you’re already starting to look like a pumpkin. A limited time offer Wally that’s all I can say. You’re in, or you’re out. If you’re in . . . alert the media, I’m the happiest guy in town. If you’re out . . . then it was a long drive to see a dear old friend, chat about the past, and eat a shitty cheese burger.”
“I’ll think about it Sparky but I can’t say you’ll like my answer.”
“If you had one opportunity, one shot, Wally, wouldn’t you take it? Shit, listen to me. I sound like Eminem.”
“What’s chocolate-covered peanuts have to do with this?”
“Look! Everyone else has said yes. It all rests with you.” I dropped my business card on the table. “Give me a call one way or the other before you put it up there on one of the pillars next Billy Bob’s Bug Busters and Clem-a-doodle-doo’s Chicken Ranch, will ya?” I tossed some money on the table and got up to leave. “Whatever you decide, it was good seeing you again.”
Wally looked at the card and then back up at me. “And all this is because of Wires?”
“Yup. It came up when I was talking with him. Met him...oh...a couple of years ago now. He was doing really well for himself. Asked about all you guys. Urged me to seek you all out and give it another try. He’s the reason I’m here Wally.”
“And it took you two years.”
“I’m such a procrastinator. You know that.”
“Damn it! Fine! I’ll be there, but I’m not making any promises beyond the studio.”
“That’s great! I’ll tell the others.”
“So, is Wires joining our little party? I know he must be a busy man and all, but he’s the one to push you into doing something.”
“No Wally, he won’t be there. Wires died two weeks ago.”