Saturday, September 15, 2007

HMH #8

Handmade Heart

Chapter Eight- Slow subs and chicken nuts


Agonizing would be the word I’d use to describe our progress. It had been slow at best and I felt like we’d just been euchred by the trump card of frustration. We managed, through stops and starts, to make it to the next cutoff where we found a small corner store. The engine spat and shuddered until in died again on the edge of the entranceway in a cloud of smoke. Doc and I had to push it in with doors extended like some wounded bird with no trajectory. I’d thrown my hands up in despair and stomped off to the restroom. When I returned Doc had the hood open and was examining the radiator, it was near empty and he had noted: it had more holes in it than a Chinese brothel.

“It’s an older car but it was running perfectly Doc. I swear. I don’t know what happened? Christ, nothing’s going our way. I can’t believe the rad just sprang so many leaks all at once.”

“They feel like punctures to me Sparky. Someone did this deliberately with a sharp object. I’m sure of it.”

“Must be damn kids. I’m surprised there isn’t a potato in the exhaust too.” I was disgusted. “What the fuck do we do now Doc? Shit! This of all weekends. We’ll never make it to Wally’s let alone the studio.”

“Settle down, Sparky old boy, we’ll get to Wally’s. I’ll be back in a jiffy. Stay here.”

“Where am I going to go huh? Where?”

Doc paraded away to the store in search of some magic remedy. His curly dark hair bouncing as he walked. His boots clomped on the boards of the porch as he disappeared inside to a woody apple smell. I knew nothing about cars, except that you got behind the wheel and they took you to your destination. The fact my car was now refusing to do so, only angered me more. It was as if I was being punished for my underhanded dealings in this whole affair. I suddenly wished I had told Alexander to, take a flying fuck, and brushed my hands of this ordeal. I wasn’t cut out for it. Wires should have seen the truth and just let me be.

Doc sauntered back with a loaf of bread under one arm and a carton of eggs in the other.

“What the hell? We need to fix the rad Doc, not have a picnic.”

“And fix it we shall.”

“I don’t understand?”

Doc undid the bag and started pulling out slices. He reached into the engine and shoved bits of bread into all the holes he could find. He unscrewed the top once it had cooled enough and cracked a few eggs into the open throat of the rad. “My Aunt Lucille Barlow used to, on occasion, do this to get the Edsil to the flea market on time. It had a rusty old radiator. It was forever springing leaks. It’s a temporary measure but it does work. Get some fluid Sparky and we’ll top this sucker up.”

Reluctantly I followed his instructions while continuing to complain about this, that and the other. Doc then called Wally to inform him of our problems and eventual delay. We were still forty-five minutes away and it was now a quarter past five. Wally assured us he would call a mechanic and have him ready to look at the problem.

Doc had done his best to take my mind off the car troubles while we lumbered slowly along back roads. He distracted me with an endless barrage of, Did you knows. “Did you know there are three thousand different types of lice? In fact there are about two million insects for each person on this planet. One in four, of which, belong to the beetle family. Did you know Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life time? That was to his brother. Did you know during the Second World War the first bomb dropped on Berlin hit the city zoo killing the only elephant they had?”

“How can you know that Doc?”

“My grandfather Captain Dwight Barlow flew in the mission. He dropped the bomb that blew the poor little bugger to bits.”

“Doc, elephants are like ten thousand pounds. How can it be a poor little bugger? And why do all your stories always revolve around a relative? How many frickin’ people do you have in your family tree for Christ’s sake?” As far out as some of Doc’s knowledge seemed, who was I to argue. The egg-bread patch job had worked and the rad held together with French toast would make it to Wally’s place at least.

We could now see our guitarist in the distance, and I felt as if we were a bowling ball rolling slowly down the lane but inevitably ending up in the gutter as it wobbles past the pins and out of sight. He stood at the end of the driveway waving his arms frantically like he was trying to navigate a plane into its hanger. Doc acknowledged with a shake of his head. “Probably thinks we’ll drive right by him at a crawl if he doesn’t flail about. The fool.”

“As long as he doesn’t take his shirt off,” I said, pointing to the hypnotic jiggling of his stomach underneath his bright yellow shirt as he bounced.

We approached and rolled to a stop with a cough from the engine. It sizzled a fresh brew or steam. Doc climbed out of the passenger side and chopped through some smoke. He stood gazing disapprovingly at our guitarist. “Wally, where the hell is the mechanic you promised?”

“Nice to see you again too, Doc. He’s coming. The closest auto-body is Bill’s Wreck Yard and that’s in Pawdash.”

“Pawdash? Where the hell is Pawdash?”

“It’s twenty minutes down the road off I-90.”

Doc rolled his eyes. “Oh that Pawdash. Of course. I have the travel brochures at home.” Doc looked at his watch: Ten after six. “You said you’d call the guy after I spoke to you almost an hour ago. So where is he?”

“I asked him to stop and get me something to eat.”

“Je-sus, some things never change. Can’t you think about anything other than your internal rumblings for one bleedin’ tick on the clock. Wally?”

“You guys are a lot later than you said you’d be. I got hungry.”

I pulled myself from the car in chin-up fashion and stood with hands on hips, arching my back. I tried to shake the stiffness of a long stressful drive under the early evening sky. “Doc’s right. There is a sense of urgency here. We’re supposed to be at the studio by now. We can’t afford to fall behind schedule when time is a precious commodity.”

“Hey if you’d rather I don’t come. I can walk up the driveway to the house and spend the weekend watchin’ TV. There’s a Green Acres marathon on ya know. Besides I don’t need Bill here to tell you it’s a leak in the rad.”

“We know that genius. We patched the damn holes with breakfast when I called you.”

We sat down to wait as the car continued to hiss like a kettle on the boil. Wally and Doc did most of the talking while I tapped my foot impatiently. The shadows slowly lengthened. It wasn’t the first time we were delayed when the meter was running.

***

Since we all had day jobs, we played when we could on the weekends and tried to co-ordinate our holiday time together for longer treks. Even though we had different vocations we were musicians first and emphatically maintained it to be our true profession. Our roadie Skids on the other hand, was going through an identity crisis and had drifted from job to job, in search of a new career, like the wind was blowing him. He’d been a stuntman, a sou chef, a private investigator, and an exporter of horse semen. He’d even done a stint as a minister trying to start his own religion; some Neo-Satanic-Voodoo-Christianity. It got as far as a few sermons, mostly revolving around parables, before the authorities shut him down. His current occupation had landed him some small rolls in a few low-budget films where we saw the back of his head mostly. To us, it was just another pylon on the long, life road. To Skids, he was a bonafide actor and was adamant he be perceived as such.

We were in the midst of performing a six in seven night swing. It would lead us over the border and upon our return we were greeted by the usual questions.

“What is your citizenship? Where you coming from? How long were you away? Anything to declare?”

Doc had already pushed the wrong buttons by responding, he’d declare he had a good time. Everything was going routinely until the border guard asked us our occupations. Like dominoes in motion we rhymed off one after another, “Musician.” Then it was Skids’ turn. He paused, turned his head to profile, looked up slightly, extended his arm forward like he was plucking an apple from a nearby tree and declared, “I’m an actor.” He even broke actor into its respective syllables with the inflection on ac-tor.

The rest of us melted our faces into our hands. It was easy to see what was coming next.

“Pull your vehicle into the second bay area gentlemen and go inside to the immigration desk.”

We did as we were asked and dejectedly shuffled into the building as two of the border patrol began their inspection of our vehicle.

“Some actor,” Doc scoffed. “You can’t even make a border guard believe you.” Doc shot his arm skyward in mimic. “I’m an ac-tor. Je-sus! Whatever you do Skids, please don’t tell them you used to export horse semen. I don’t want to be here all night.”

In we walked to the stoic atmosphere of bright fluorescent lights and the smell of sterile cleanliness. Once inside we were questioned one by one in a small room of peeling, pea-green paint sponsored by a ring of moldy wet decay in the ceilings corner. There was also a park-like bench of uncomfortable wood, with handcuffs dangling off the armrest and some unfriendly looking officers, with arms crossed, standing nearby. Contracts were examined, personal effects were perused, documentation was run through Interpol, all under the watchful eyes of glaring scrutiny as the hours passed.

Doc complained as he plunked himself down next to us. “They made me strip down to my undies and squeezed out my toothpaste in front of a chick officer. I was expecting Dr. Jelly-finger to walk in at any moment and check my prostate.”

Chas was led away for his turn at twenty questions.

Grub moaned. “I don’t stand a chance in prison. I’m too small.”

“Grub, we’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Yeah Sparky, but they always make you feel like you’re hiding something.”

Skunk needled him. “As long as you left the tea bags at home, we should be fine.”

Skids squirmed in his chair. “I have to pee.”

“You can’t.”

“It’s been twelve hours.”

“And whose fault is that?” Doc spat.

“Skids, these guys will probably send the Duty Sargent in after you and retrieve the urinal puck for analysis. Then we’ll be here another twelve hours waiting for the results to come back. I’m sorry, you just have to hold it.”

One of the border patrol who’d been searching through our vehicle approached. He was a burly brute with a brush-cut and handlebar mustache. He walked with his thumbs tucked tight into his belt which only brought further attention to his bulging gut, framed by his handcuffs and holstered firearm. He towered over us and his flared nostrils taunted us from above. “We’ve completed our search of your vehicle, and I found this under the front seat.” He plunked out his thumbs and removed a small baggy from his shirt pocket. “How do you explain this?”

“Looks like a twig from a tree branch.”

“Don’t be smart with me longhair. I could hold you here a hell of a lot longer for smuggling contraband.”

“Illegal horticulture. You’re kidding right?” Doc asked, as he squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

“This could be from a bud of marijuana. All you musician types smoke it. Don’t play games with me Weird Al.”

We were now joined by the Duty Sargent who had a buffed hairless head. It seemed to refract the light like a prism as he walked toward us. He also had a mustache except his was more of the push-broom type. Lip dressing must be standard issue? He held a ringed pad and flipped it open with a flick of his wrist. “I’ve looked over your contracts and I’m afraid I will need verification they’re legitimate.”

“Call the club.”

“I did. There’s no answer. I need the agent who signed them to come up here.”

“Alice?”

“She’s the one who signed?” He looked at his note pad, not trusting my response. “Yes, I need to speak with this....Alice.”

Reluctantly I called Alice to inform her of our delay and legal troubles. It took an hour before she blew in through the doors of the building. She went into the office, talked to the Duty Sargent and emerged twenty minutes later.

“They’ve agreed to let you go,” she said handing out our documentation like it was candy. We plucked at it greedily like enthusiastic trick-or-treaters. Skids danced around until he got his ID back then raced off to the restroom before he’d be known as Stains.

Alice continued. “Next time have the proper paperwork with you, H-2's, the work visas, whatever. I don’t want to do this every time you play outside the country.”

“My God, what did you say to them?”

Alice ran her fingers down the sides of her mouth like she had just served her country in more ways than patriotism.

“You didn’t?”

Alice laughed. The warmth of her smile was a shining beacon parting black clouds. “No, just told them what they wanted to hear, unlike you guys.”

“We really appreciate you coming on such short notice. Hope we didn’t inconvenience you too much?”

“I was on a lunch date when you called.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I was looking for an excuse to get out of it anyway.”

“That bad was it?”

“He brought me a pair of brown cords as a gift John.”

“Pants?”

“Yeah that would fit a twelve-year-old. Probably got them on sale.”

“Was he trying send you a message that he’s cheap, or a pedophile?”

“I don’t know. I won’t be seeing him again to find out. Come on, get in the truck. You guys are going to have to motor to get a decent sound check in before the next gig.”

We entered the bay area where we found our truck in disarray. Cases were open on the ground like little coffins, suitcases were unzipped, seat cushions and effects tossed askew. Panels inside the truck had been popped ajar, wheel covers removed, the glove box lay with its tongue out regurgitating maps, receipts, and parking tickets. Skids joined our association of disbelief.

“Skids since you’re the one who got us into this, why don’t you show us your acting skills and act like you’re putting the truck back together.”

***

Finally a distant dust cloud gave birth to an old chocolate brown, mud-covered Ford with a tow rig on the back. It had an undistinguishable red logo on the door, I assumed would tell me it was from Bill’s Wreck Yard if tortured with some soap and water. With squeaking wheels, Bill ground to a stop and crawled out of the truck ass first. He was a smallish man, in dirty, blue dungarees, who scuffed his feet when he walked in a bowel legged manner. His hair was stark white yet his eyebrows were black as two crow nests divided by a bulbous nose of considerable size. The outer edges of his boots were worn down and he looked like he was plodding down the apex of a sloped roof. He stopped and turned, quickly shuffling back to the truck. Reaching into the seat he pulled out a bag and a drink which he promptly delivered to Wally.

“Thanks Bill. You’re a life saver.” Wally set the drink aside and cradled the bag. He delicately opened it pulling out a sub and a small box with Chinese writing on it. He immediately opened the box and began popping the deep-fried balls into his mouth.

“Wally,” Doc reprimanded. “You sent the mechanic for a submarine– and Chinese?”

“I was hungry. And I felt like slow subs and chicken nuts.”

“Slow subs and chicken nuts?”

“The sub place is a little slow taking your order,” Wally assured. He sucked his fingers and wiped his mouth with his thumb.

“That’s why we calls it Slow-subs in these here parts,” Bill added as he looked into the engine. I went to shake his had but he showed me his grease-caked palm without looking at me, and I ceased my intent. Bill poked his head beneath the hood. “What appears to be the problem?”

“Rads overheating.”

He reached in and explored the rad with one filthy mitt of a hand as he gazed to the heavens. He looked like he was doing Yoga or Palates. “S’cuse me gentlemen while I practice my downward dog.” He felt around and pulled out a slice of soggy bread and looked disapprovingly at us. “No place to keep samiches.”

I cautioned Doc not to repeat the story about his Aunt Lucille and her magic Edsil. Bill continued his groping with a, “Uh huh? Oh Yerp that ain’t good.”

“What? What is it?”

“You gots some holes in yerrad.”

“We know.”

“It’s gotta be replaced.”

“Can’t you just patch it up so we can get to our destination? Isn’t there like some sort of stuff that will plug it up?”

“Fer small holes yup, but Boy you got some holes here the size of gopher teeth. I can’t just go and patch em. Besides it’s better to replace sumtin this damaged. I gotta pull the whole dang thing out.” He pealed another piece of bread off the rad and tossed it away. It landed with a wet slap on the roadside. He leaned further in under the hood until only his butt hung on to his dangling legs. The muffled voice emerged. “It has to be replaced. How’d it get this way anyway? These here holes look deliberate.”

“We know.”

“You sure you weren’t fooling around playin’ hackysacky or somtin?” Bill’s bum asked.

“Hackin’ sac with what, pointed sticks?” Doc groused.

Wally finished the last of his chicken nuts and turned lovingly to his submarine sandwich.

“So we go with a new rad. How long before it’s ready Bill?”

Bill pulled himself out of the engine and thought for a long hard minute. He even stopped to roll himself a cigarette and light up. Clicking an old flip-top lighter and tilting his head to meet the fire. I took a step back for fear that with all the grease on his hands the man might burst into flames before me. I was about to repeat Wally’s question when he blew out a huge cloud formation and snapped the lighter lid shut as he said, “First thing Monday morning.”

“Monday! Monday’s too late we need it today.” I said.

“Sorry fellers, I gots too much lined up. I’m the only mechanic in these here parts. Can’t get to her until at best Sadderday morning. Even then I only work half days. And I don’t work on the Lord’s day.”

Doc looked at me. “Maybe we can rent a car?”

“Wally is there a rental place around here?”

“Yeah Bill. He rents cars too.”

The bushy brows raised. “That’s right. Sept I don’t gots any left. A feller rented the last one s’mornin’ and I’m the only car rental in these here– ”

“– Oh great what do we do? We can’t reschedule. The clock’s ticking. We’re screwed.”

“No were not,” Wally clamored. He bit into the sub like it was alive and he had to kill it before it struggled free from his grasp, racing off into the underbrush. He tore off a chunk and mumbled through a mouthful. “We’ll take the Honey wagon.”

“Wally you’re crazy. We can’t go to the studio in that monstrosity.”

Wally swallowed. “What elks are we going to do, Sparky? You got a better idear? I’d like to hear it. You want to wait for Skunk and Grub? There’s no way we’ll all fit in one car with the gear.”

“Where are we going to put the instruments on the Honey wagon?”

“We can put the bags behind the seat and there’s a carryall where we can bungee-cord the instruments on the back.”

“Wally you are not using bungee-cords to secure my thirty-five hundred dollar keyboard.”

“I’ll fall off if I don’t, Doc.”

“It’s bad enough you are suggesting we drive into a state of the art studio in a truck full of human waste.”

“I can pump it out if you’d like, but it’ll take longer, and you guys are jumpin’ to get going.”

“God, is there no other way?”

“Honey wagon or Monday, Sparky. It seems like the only options.”

“Ok, If we have no choice– Doc it will be all right. We can stow the keyboard behind the seat and put some of the bags on the back.”

Wally brought the Honey Wagon to the end of the driveway while Bill maneuvered his truck in front of my car and hitched up the vehicle for a tow. We started our transfer of equipment and tote bags. When we were done, with a wave, Bill said he’d see us Monday and drove off. Wally waved back as he munched on the last of his sub.

Doc grumbled as he surveyed our new transportation. “Boy I bet the girls just love it when Wally picks them up for a date in this contraption?”

Wally looked at us. “What are you waiting for? Climb aboard. We don’t want to be any later than we already are.”

We mounted up, I in my depression, Doc murmuring in the middle seat, and Wally sucking the last of his drink through a straw. He turned the key to start an orchestra of a chugging diesel and rotating engine parts. Off we rolled once again. This time in a race to beat the setting sun.

Nothing was said. Doc continued to pout and I sat expressionless. We rumbled up the highway. After twenty minutes Doc finally spoke. “You don’t suppose it was that lawyer dude who punched holes in the rad?”

“Griffin Alexander?”

“No the other dude. The guy who gave you the creeps. You said it yourself, you felt like he was there to shake you down.”

“I don’t think so. Probably just kids. Little fuckers are always egging houses on my block.”

“Either way it’s led us to riding in this wretched bundle of bolts. Could things possibly be any worse?”

Wally responded. “You know I’ve been thinkin’– ”

“– Things just got worse, Doc.”

Wally paid me no notice and continued to speak like he was having a conversation with himself. “I’ve been thinking about this one song we’re supposed to write. I think I have a great idear for one we should take a look at. Maybe work on when we get there.”

“Dare I ask?” Doc mumbled.

“I thought we could write a song with a phone number in it. You know, for a good time call 91611 or something like that. Songs with phone numbers in em have done well on the charts over the years.”

“I don’t know about up here in tin can country Wally, but most phone numbers I know have seven numbers and that’s without the area code. Yours only has five.”

“Doc I’m just laying out the idear. Just listen. We could have a whole promotional campaign where we write the number on billboards and on bathroom walls and every time the number’s called people hear the song.”

“That is by far, the worst piece of nonsense, I have ever heard you spout from your mouth hole. I’ve heard some from the other end that were slightly worse, but as far as a means of communication, that ranks at the bottom.”

“Doc it doesn’t have to be complicated. Something catchy, but simple, stupid and mindless.”

“Then you’re just the guy to write it Wally.”

“I don’t hear you helping in the creativity department, Mr. Grumpy Guts.”

“Wally, I could blather away with the most asinine chatter about song ideas for years on end and only begin to scratch the surface of your lunacy. Je-sus, the Bulgarian national anthem would get more air play.”

“Maybe Wally’s on to something, Doc. We write something catchy, like a jingle, but with insanely bad lyrics. The kind people love to hate. Remember that guy? What was the name of the group? The Screaming Trudeaus or something like that. The band never got anywhere because they just weren’t very good but they wrote catchy songs with shit lyrics. The album gets released but it tanks and the record company loses a boat load. So after a few years the guy buys back the rights to his stuff. Then some DJ in Vegas hears the record and starts giving it heavy rotation. People hated it so much they kept calling in. It became a novelty. Next thing you know the thing’s got legs and crossover potential. Everybody from country stations to easy listening are playing it. It gets into the top ten on the Billboard charts with a bullet, and the guy is rich. He’s still getting royalties to this day. That’s what we need. A song like that stands the test of time, good or bad. So hear Wally out. Just think what getting played once a day, on one station in each city across the globe would generate? I’m no mathematician but that’s serious cash. Not to mention digital downloads, ring tones....”

“We’re getting way ahead of ourselves guys. We haven’t laid down one pass of a fart on tape yet, and you’ve got us in daily rotation around the world. I suppose we’d be doing a guest spot on the Tonight Show?”

“Just dreaming Doc. Isn’t that why we all decided to do this?”

“I did it for the women.”

“– and a lot of good it did you, Wally. Three times divorced.” Doc said.

“Who knows.” I said. “Maybe we are destined to write the next truly great song? Something that would be a welcome addition to any of the essential albums of our time. Who’s Next, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Crime of the Century, Pearl Jam’s ‘10', Nirvana’s ‘Never Mind’, Physical Graffiti, The Lamb. You know the classics, not today’s contemporary garbage with enough filler to make a pie. You had to listen to those albums from beginning to end— every song a gem. God damn it. You wouldn’t even stop to take a piss. You’d just scrunch into a tight dancing ball until the needle had finished its journey along the endless coil of black disc. And those were entire albums, all we need is one song!”

“If that’s so, it definitely won’t contain Wally’s phone number.”

Wally thumped him in the shoulder. “Fine Doc don’t listen to my plan.”

“Wally we’re talking about Bohemian Rhapsody not songs of gibberish. And Sparky let me tell you something. If we’re going to approach this with any seriousness, we have to reinvent, not repeat. Those were great albums I agree, but they’re in the past and we can’t look to it for what we have to do. It’s the only way any of us will connect with a new generation outside of an elevator.”

I hated to admit it, but Doc was right. Gone were the days of the classic album. Extinct were the discs of wax holding the aural sensation amid the pops and cracks. The streamers of cassette tape from busted cases, the eight tracks and their annoying edits in the middle of songs. Christ! Today’s youth didn’t remember any of those things, when Rock was in its rebellious infancy. Shit they wouldn’t remember a time when money didn’t come from ATM’s We had to be like Apples and Oranges always reinventing themselves and surviving amid the topsy turvy waves of an ever-changing business like Bowie, Madonna or U2. Great artists set trends, hacks regurgitated.

“I still think my phone number song is a good one.”

“Let it go Wally. Look If you’re so insistent, run your little idea by Skunk and Grub. Let majority rule. Right Sparky? Let’s just get to the damn studio. This day has been bad enough already.”

I finally spoke with an alarming realization. “No it hasn’t. Guys I don’t know how to tell you this. I forgot the map with the directions on it.”

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