What About Your Place?
So what do you do after a show when you’re in a town you’ve never been before and you can barely afford the gas to get you to Albuquerque? You find a willing host--preferably with a carpeted floor, a magnanimous sense of hospitality (remember the body odor, the squabbling?). Or maybe just a floor, period. Being on tour means constantly oscillating between your own standards of comfort. After a few weeks, lazy-boy couches look like the presidential suite. A linoleum floor covered in Maine coon hair is still better than a cold night out in the van, right?
Through this sort of home-hostel system, I’ve made some wonderful friends on tour, friends who I make a point of seeing whenever I return to their cities. But every so often, the tour-hostel-program goes awry. It’s risky business, like taking the Fung Wah bus between Boston and New York. You have two choices: take the Acela train for $60, or take the $15 bus. What you lose in comfortable amenities or assurance you make up for in your wallet. Maybe the bus won’t show up on time, maybe it will catch on fire or be busted in a drug sting on your way to Manhattan. It doesn’t matter. You’ve saved yourself $45—you and the Fung Wah company are both fully aware of who’s swindling whom.
A couple of years ago, we were driving a few hours from Los Angeles. The town we were due to play will remain nameless. We had booked the tour entirely on our own, and many of the shows had been unpredictable. When we arrived to this town, the promoter of the show ended up being a guy named Jerry* who was young, wearing a Tour-de-France bicycle hat and plugs in his ears.
Jerry seemed sort of squirrely and anxious. There was no one inside of the café where the show was supposed to be held, save for a middle-aged couple sipping Gen Mai Cha from a pink teapot. The sun was beginning to fall behind the ticky-tack mesas on the outskirts of town, and the whole town seemed abandoned. A few doors down from the café was an abandoned barber shop, the windows smashed in and vinyl chairs ripped up. It was a really quiet place—and up until we saw Jerry outside of this café, we hadn’t seen any people wandering around.
“Duuude—I should have called you guys…no one’s coming to this show. There’s a football game going on tonight across town. Show’s cancelled.” He shifted around his hat and played with one of the rubber stoppers in his ears.
We were 3/4 of the way through this tour, my friend Liz was in her first trimester, and collectively we were all pretty exhausted. You could hear a small sigh from each of us, half in perturbed defeat, half in relief. Like the sound of a fat guy giving up just before the finish-line of a 12K race, maybe a bit premature, but understandable.
“We could stop by the store and get some vegan foods to bbq with. It’s a shame to have you come all this way…” He lingered on “way” like somebody trying to turn a word into chewing gum. He got into our car, and took us to a Safeway store to get some hot dog buns, then back to his house.
Jerry lived in one of those southwestern-style condo complexes on the outskirts of town. The whole place seemed deserted. Down the street there was a Borders complex and a giant stretch of railroad tracks that disappeared into the mesas. The cargo trains hurtled past the condos at night, and because they were about as well-constructed as a house made out of playing cards, the walls would rattle, prompting bits of dry wall to crumble out from the ceiling.
He opened the door to his one-room apartment, and I heard Liz gasp. It didn’t take more than a glance to see why—the apartment was a top-to-bottom mess. On the floor there was garbage, big teeming piles about three feet high of papers, wrappers, empty cigarette cartons, used razors, old food. At first we couldn’t see the futon couch, but when Liz gingerly brushed aside a heap of old Boca Burger boxes and banana peels, sure enough—there it was. Stuck to the plywood waines-coating walls were crude drawings, little scrawls of punked-out women in the nude, a few Megadeth posters.
I kicked aside a copy of “Arabic for Dummies” and a Rosetta Stone: Chinese edition to get to the bathroom. “So, you’re into languages?” I asked.
“Well, my girlfriend is half-Chinese, so I’ve been picking it up. It’s really not that hard.”
The living room was just a prelude to the horror show that lay in the bathroom. There was hair everywhere—big black tufts of it stuck to the vanity mirror, the toilet seat, and the shower tiles. There were medications labeled in Russian all over the floor. The shower curtain had a blossoming crust of mildew and rust all along its bottom hem. The doorknob was inexplicably sticky.
“Do you live alone?” I inquired. I noticed now that Jerry had a funny way of not looking anyone in the eye when he spoke.
“Me? Uh…yeah, I do now. My roommate moved out. Left all her stuff…don’t know where she went.” Jerry shuffled a handful of knives sitting out in the counter of the kitchenette and started slicing onions. The side-effects of Liz’s first trimester was an extreme aversion to the smell of onions. I noticed her blanche a little bit over by the futon. Our friend Dylan looked kind of freaked out, too.
“How long have you lived here?” Liz asked.
“About two years, now. I was living in Missouri—but I had to leave. I was on the lam from the law.” At this juncture, Jerry bit his lip a little and smirked. We couldn’t tell if he was joking. “A friend of mine and I had a little falling out, was all. I don’t want to get into it.”
Dylan cleared a little patch for himself on the floor, right next to some gum stuck to the carpet and a pile of water-stained Russian Vogues. Just like when we had stayed in Omaha while some roommates of our host upstairs did crack, all Dylan had to do was put in some earplugs and curl up in his sleeping bad. Liz fell asleep on the futon, and Jerry was nice enough to give me the bed.
“Thanks—but don’t you want to sleep in your own bed?” I said, looking for the sheets to put on the bare mattress. Maybe they were hidden under the mounds of books or half-eated candy Hostess wrappers?
“No, I’m a night-person. I don’t really like to sleep much. In fact, usually I sleep on the floor, if anything.” Jerry had been playing with his cell-phone all afternoon, constantly checking it, as if waiting for a call.
I rummaged to get everything off of the bed, when I felt my hand brush up against something sharp. I pulled out the machete sitting open on the twin-size mattress and asked him, “Is there a sheath for this?”
Liz tried not to bolt out of bed, and Dylan peered out from the safety of his sleeping bag. I held the machete in the air, not knowing how or where to put it down. Who the hell keeps an open machete just sitting out in his tiny one-bedroom apartment? Is he thwacking sugar cane? Clearing the mess with it?
“Oh, I keep it out to practice with it,” Jerry said, so nonchalantly that, for a minute, I paused to think that maybe it’s not unusual for someone to be honing their machete-wielding skills. One could compare it to knitting or wood-carving. Maybe it’s a nice household centerpiece, like a Dadaist coffee-table book. What did I know, anyway? “Here, I’ll show you.” Jerry took the machete from my hand and whipped it overhead like a helicopter propeller. I ducked down.
“WHOA! CAREFUL!!!” I was really scared at the point, and huddled next to the bed. I imagined Liz’s unborn child cowering in her womb. I decided if anything happened from there on in, it would be my own fault.
Jerry laughed, with his pudgy head cocked to one side. In doing so, he looked a little like a pirate. He put down the machete with a flourish, and rolled up the sleeves of his black Addidas jacket. “Why don’t you guys get to sleep? If my phone rings in the middle of the night, don’t worry. It’s a friend of mine.”
He went outside to smoke, and I whispered across the room to Liz. “Are you guys okay?”
Liz nodded. “Where are we anyway? Who IS this guy?”
“I don’t know, but I think we should get out of here before he wakes up in the morning.”
“But he said he doesn’t sleep. He’s an insomniac.” Liz countered, her eyes wide and serious.
“We need to get out of here before dawn, we don’t want to make him suspicious of our suspicions.” In my head, I had already devised a plan. But before I could say anything, Jerry came back into the apartment. Liz and I pretended we’d been asleep the whole time, and sleeplessly waited for him to pass out on the floor.
Turns out Jerry was a heavier sleeper than he thought he was. Around 7 in the morning, I crept out of bed. I tried soundlessly to gather my things, but it was hard not to rustle the garbage snaking across the floor of his apartment. Liz was already awake, fully dressed. Dylan grabbed his things, and together the three of us made a mad dash for our van. We shoved everything into the trunk, and as Jerry wiped the sleep out of his eyes from the porch, he called out “Hey, where are you guys going?!”
But it was too late: we were already on our way to the next town.
*=name changed for his own protection.
-- Casey Dienel, White Hinterland