It was one of those nights; the freaky snowstorm that never comes but once a comet’s pass here in this part of Texas. The car breaking down in the back of beyond in Travis County, the slippery trudge on the shoulder of the Ranch Road through three inches of snow. The first time we had a winter storm in this part of Central Texas was in 1978, and coming upon a roadside beer joint, thrown up conveniently where years later it was likely going to be torn down for a 7-11, a strip mall and a row of condos and faux food joints.
Yet, that was the future, and for now the beer joint served as our oasis, and for a cold and wet Alan and me, this was to load up on coffee while hoping for either help with the car, or for a ride back into Austin from some kind stranger who wasn’t creepy or a serial killer.
We staggered through the door, trying to look as pathetic as possible without leaving an impression as too fucked up and wearily made our way to an empty booth.
We took a look around, while waiting to order. The beer joint was one of those dreary southern affairs with the walls adorned with the requisite number of Pabst and Pearl beer signs, interspersed with softball teams going back to the mid-70s and fish fry winners, and after 10 minutes we figured out one of the customers had a thing for Barbara Mandrill, judging by the incessant plays on the jukebox.
The roadhouse reminded me of my only acid trip. Tripped alone again while lost in a colored haze—but in reality, this is a figment of one’s own imagination that you could have pulled off with a little effort with concise thought.
I ended up with a headache and a sense I am someone else for three days. You have to realize that things don’t run as you want, but you have to understand that things are not as bad as they could be.
The walls were painted a greasy yellow, with cracks and lights that just made it look worse, kind of how an archeological dig at old Carcosa would probably have looked like. The booths were a tan vinyl, patched up here and there with grey electrical tape, which matched the Formica tabletops, which I thought startling. The floor was once a black and white checkerboard turned into the plains of Nazca, chipped and stained, missing panels revealing a soft gray under board. The bar was not in too bad shape; the red top did not match the rest of the roadhouse, but since this place looked so sleaze central, it served as a counterpoint signature, a clean dotted I on an otherwise sloppy flourish.
The customers matched the décor. So nondescript, I almost mistook them as the furniture, but after a while I understood there were individual traits in each that did set them art from the Formica and fading signage and photographs. The man in the booth in front of us wore his loser’s face under his red Chevy cap, and his funky green hunting vest resembled a lifejacket. He had nothing going for him, as well as his wife, or girlfriend next to him. She had the bleached mannequin thing going on.
After we sat down, they seemed to fade into the décor. In retrospect, I wondered what they thought of our conversation, if they were even paying attention, or if they saw us as nothing as I saw them.
The guys at the bar lolled on their stools, none of them had noticed our entrance or pretended not to. All of them lamely putting on a tough face in the onrush of adversity as their lives were unknowingly sinking into the earth. Like, tough man, getting their farming and ranch subsidies cut out from under them by Reagan, then voting for the bastard en masse because he was bringing America back.
I thought, smooth thinking, move up to the head of the class so I can laugh my ass off behind your back. “Oh my, how the mighty have fallen, oh yeah, have the mighty fallen,” I’d say, knowing their way of life is passing in front of their blinded eyes.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I was raised country. In fact, my first fifteen years were hunting squirrels on the side of a mountain in the middle of Nowheresville, North Carolina before I moved down to the bright lights, big city of Austin. I actually have grown to despise the city as much as the backwoods, but in the country, there aren’t any decent record or bookstores.
So, in the city I shall remain. Anyhow, I treat people with equality: everyone is a jerk as far as I am concerned, though where you are coming from just gives a basis in the facts I see when I observe the individual or group.
While I appraised the sum total of the place in pesos, Alan ordered coffee and two Falstaffs from the waitress. I added another coffee, feeling this was going to be a very long night for us if we couldn’t cage a ride before the bar shut down at two.
We looked around for a television so we could catch the Saints game, but there was not one, but didn’t mind since they would have lost anyway. We also began to suspect that our unacknowledged entrance would make it extremely difficult for us to find a good Samaritan to get us out of our predicament and away from this place.
In the meantime, I drank my coffee, while letting the Falstaff sit for a bit before I felt ready to drink. It was only 8:30 so there was plenty of time. I looked through the window to see snow was beginning to slow down, a very good sign, indeed.
Alan and I passed the time talking. We made a good pair of Jacks, been through a lot together since high school, and remained on speaking terms, a fact that shocked the others in our social circle.
We do, however, have our differing personalities. Alan was raised in Houston before moving to Austin in junior high, and is usually quiet, unassuming, with a sentimental manner—the kind of guy who is great around children and drunks while I am a fiery cracker from the sticks, with nary a kind word for much or many, and an arrogance that a teacher back in high school was positively ChurchillIan. That certainly showed itself in college, where I lazily planted myself for the past six years, sort of floating along, taking just enough classes not to be threatened with probation, though keeping a three seven five grade point average since the day I entered. Alan graduated and is taking a break before graduate school.
We are both outcasts, both where we grew up and here in Austin that held our friendship together. That and also we had managed to work out the delicate intricacies of the art of conversation. We talk up a hell of a storm. Fifty years ago, we would have made a great comedy team, nowadays we’re able to sometimes disgust or amuse, but always catch the attention of our friends and acquaintances with our endlessly relentless flow of words.
We share many interests, such as obscure German novelists, music—mainly old rock and roll and blues—tastes in certain types of modern art, television shows, politics, sports, history, sociological theories, Jungian psychology, but most of which in all our glory expound upon the peeves, prats and peccadilloes of our friends, enemies and the unknown every person who happened to cross our path with oratorical skills that would shame Daniel Webster and slapping one-liners on the table like we had the winning card in a high stakes blackjack game.
In a word, we are assholes.
So, we annoyed everyone within listening until his Amber, Alan’s wife arrived to fetch us from the storm.
Amber, was high. Very high, and excitable. She majored in modern dance and painted. I ended up shotgun, because Alan was well into his cups and was snoring by the first downhill curve back into town.
I was buzzed, but with Alan out of commission and Amber on something psychedelic and babbling nonsense, I felt more than a twinge of terror as we drove through the snow flying sideways against the windshield. I kept my eyes on the road, and that wide expanse of light ahead, my hands gripping on the dashboard, determined to survive.
She talked about a book titled The Rose Cross and the Goddess, and it was hard to keep up with her banter about universal symbolism, side references from Jung, and how wisdom can be found in a tomb decorated with a phoenix. It was hard for me to keep up, even sober.
Amber sure liked her Sun Ra. Plutonian Nights was playing, which normally would be pleasant, but Amber kept talking over the music. Either rambling about the revealed mysteries of Isis, saying things, like “go man go,” like she was a 1958 Beat at a Greenwich Village coffee house listening to Ginsburg, Kerouac and Corso reading. I sort of liked Corso, but other two were too unhinged and thus off the margins for me.
But Sun Ra was cool. Just wished I could enjoy the smooth time changes, but Amber was in Technicolor mode and I had to focus on the highway, which came up and down like a rollercoster through the Texas Hill Country.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Amber asked why I didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Well, it isn’t like I’m not trying,” I said, not wanting to touch on the subject.
“I know somebody! Do y’all want to meet?”
“Sure.” I looked to make sure she was keeping her eyes on the road. She was, but her brown eyes were severely dilated, and I remained concerned until we finally hit the suburbs.
From that point, it was hoping she picked the correct traffic light while acid dreaming. She did, and we arrived at their house.
I thought about taking a cab, but instead asked to crash on the couch.
Woke up to Rip It Up by Orange Juice playing somewhere in the back of the Craftsman house Alan inherited from his grandparents. Still kept up, but they weren’t into mowing the yard.
I dumped my shirt on an original Eames chair with a broken back. That came from Alan’s parents. The father was a mucky muck at Chevron. The chair broke during a party where my old band played in the back yard. During a cover of Say I Am by Tommy James and the Shondells, if I recall.
I liked waking up to the music. The album is also from a while ago—evoking nostalgia. Orange Juice was summertime at the lake and beers over breakfast tacos by the tamale stand. Remembered listening to it in Alan’s dorm room, around the time he met Amber in a Classical Philosophy class.
After taking a shower I passed the kitchen. Amber was at the table, complaining of a headache.
Alan was making migas. Deadpan, he said, “Microdot is cut with strychnine. No wonder you have a migraine.”
Amber moaned in response.
“Baby, you haven’t been this sick since you ate the train food in India,” Alan said.
“I still see that chicken in my dreams,” Amber said.
While dressing, I contemplated the things they have because of money. They can do stuff like travel to India, live in a house gifted by grandparents, and own a broken Eames chair used a coat rack in winter. Yes, they are different from me, but not enough to have commonalities in what we deem important. Such is the complicated job of being human, and friendship in particular. Class is relative, at least until it is not.
Dressed, I entered.
“Sit yourself down, man,” said Alan. “Coffee is on the counter. Migas are on the way.”
“I think I am approaching functional,” said Amber. She wore shorts and a chopped-up Julliard t-shirt. She spent a year there before transferring down here.
“Denise is coming by,” she said. “The drummer.”
“Cool.” She was in a couple of bands I didn’t like very much, but she was good at it and certainly far better than the idiot I played with in my former band. Wasn’t interested in playing again, though. I wanted to be a writer and focused on writing record reviews and the occasional feature for the local weekly while waiting tables to make the rent.
There was a knock on the screen door. “C’mon in, Denise.”
I looked over. Denise didn’t look a drummer, but she sure as hell was. Orange-red dyed hair, cut in a pixie, wearing a vintage plaid green dress with a Peter Pan collar and black ballet flats. When she entered the kitchen I instinctively stood up. I was raised by old school Texans. Proper etiquette was pressed on me from toddler to adult.
We all sat down to eat. Still coming down from the aftereffects of the microdot, Amber stared at her food while we ate.
Out of the blue, Denise asked me. “Who taught you how to eat?”
I was taken aback. “Um, my grandmother.”
“You eat like a gentleman,” she said. “Guys I know wolf down their food like stray dogs.”
“Well,” I said. “I am different.”
“Just raised right,” Denise said. Her voice had a West Texas twang that evoked Bob Wills songs and small town teachers and preachers. Soft tone, but affirmative. It was attractive.
We talked about bands and respective jobs. She had a gig working in the university registrar’s office. She knew I wrote and complimented me on a review I wrote on The Replacements latest release.
Alan got up and put Lives of Angels on the Nakmuchi cassette deck on the counter.
“I like them, but not the drum machine,” Denise said.
“Never heard of them, but I like the sound,” I said.
“Good for mornings, though. Laid back.”
While the music played, we all did small talk until finishing breakfast. Amber excused herself to lay down, mussing with my hair ss she passed.
“Do you still play? I’m jamming over at Dwight Keeley’s house. You’re welcome to come over.”
“Sorry, I can’t. I have a shift at the restaurant. Working noon to eight.”
“Maybe next time. I hope so.” Denise smiled and dug into her bag, wrote out her telephone number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. Her hand hesitated and pressed her fingertips into my palm. Our eyes met. She had the softest green eyes.
“I’m done at eight,” I said. “Want to do something?”
“I can stop by when you’re done. We can go out for ice cream,” she said.
I folded the paper into my wallet. In the meantime, Alan switched the tape to Neu! Hallogallo filled the room.
After Denise left, Alan gave me a thumbs up.
“Glad we survived,” I said. “I gotta go. I have just enough time to drive home and change clothes.”
“Good luck,” Alan said.
Rising from my chair, I responded. “Thanks. She’s a good drummer.”
Mike Lee is an editor, writer and photographer in New York City. His stories are published in Lunate, Ghost Parachute and trampset.