Coast to Coast Truck and Trailer
It’s the end of summer, 1985, and I’m standing in the doorway of an old horse stall that I’ve converted into a rehearsal space. I got a black Ibanez Artist hanging on my shoulder and a bottle of Molson in my hand. The room’s dimly lit and smells of old carpet and stale beer. Empty cans and bottles are piled over the rim of a 50-gallon trash can, several are scattered on the floor. It’s a Friday night and I’m anxiously waiting for Uwe to get here so we can practice some new songs. 50/50 chance it’ll happen. I’m proud of this space I’ve made for the band. Put a lot of hard work into it. It’s not ideal, but it beats not practicing at all, and besides, we didn’t have much of a choice. I recently had a birthday and spent the first 24 hours of my 21st year in bed, sick from all the Kamikazes and Budweiser’s someone else was paying for. I drank ‘til my world spun off it’s axis, my legs folded and I literally crawled from the car to my bed in the guest room where I now reside. It used to be the birthday I dreaded. The number when things get serious. Real adulthood. I wanted to have some semblance of success in the music biz when I reached it. But I’m further away from that dream now than I was when I came out here. Deep down, I know it’s time to pack up and move on to a different town, maybe head back home, start over, before all my dreams vaporize into the fog and mist rolling in from the coast. Instead, I’m trying to spot the lights of Uwe’s Box-bed truck in the late rush hour traffic crawling up Highway 12. I look for the yellow lights above the cab, and the reflectors on each corner of the box. I’m obsessed. I’m excited. Because, when I play a riff and Uwe breaks into a beat and the sound causes goose bumps, laughter and sheer gratification, it’s the best high … ever. If there’s a chance that can happen, I’ll take it. But it’s getting darker now, and the horses are up from the pasture, hanging near the fence 20 feet from the door I’m standing in. Their shadowy silhouettes move against a cobalt sky, and their heads turn toward my distorted guitar riffs. It won’t be long before the moonlight’s shining on their backs and Sharon come’s out to tell me Uwe called, and he’s not going to make it. This is a typical weekend for me. Waiting for my band members to show up. At least one of them. So much for making it by 21 … tonight I’m playing for the horses.
If I had stared into the valley hard enough, and I had known what karma was, I probably would have seen it tearing up the road. You know, like in an old western where in the distance all you see is a cloud of dust slowly getting closer? Sooner or later it’s going to arrive at your doorstep and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. But I hadn’t a clue about such things. Didn’t know I set that dust cloud in motion. I’m sure everyone contributed a little bit to the dust cloud.
For about a year and a half, Leza’s house was the ONE headquarters. We practiced there off and on, and it was the weekend hangout.
Sharon enjoyed having the band around, and if the wine was flowing she didn’t mind saying what she liked and disliked about our personalities. “Jeff, you’re an egotistical son of a bitch, but I love ya.” She’d say, flicking her ashes, her eyes half open. “Kevin, you can be a bitch, but you’re the only one with any sense, and if Leza loves ya, so do I.” She got a kick out Mike’s self-assuredness, and admired Uwe’s grownup sensibilities. She adored all the kids and was easy to talk to. She’d sometimes offer up advice in a ginger manner, but you had to ask for it. Bert was okay with the band too, as long as we didn’t eat his chicken patties or drink his Coors, which we did half the time. He’d open the freezer and dig around, then slam the door and sigh. “What are you looking for Bert?” Sharon would ask. “Someone ate all my chicken patties again.” He’d say in a huff, walking back to their bedroom. “I’m going to the store today. I’ll get some.” Sharon would say, smoking and rolling her eyes.
On a Friday or Saturday night, Sharon’s favorite thing was playing Trivial Pursuit and drinking Chablis. No one ever beat her, at either one. She could be nodding off and mumbling, to the point where you thought she might fall from her chair, and name the biggest city on the South African continent. When there were people around she seemed to avoid going to bed. She’d stay up until her unsmoked cigarettes burned down in the ashtray and her chin sank to her chest like a sleeping cowboy’s, her hand loosely gripping her last glass of wine. Eventually Leza or myself would lead her down the hallway to bed. It was obvious that she was unhappy with Bert. I don’t know how long they had been together, but their golden days had seemed to pass. I never saw them embrace or smooch. There was the occasional night out to the bar at Lawson’s Corner about a mile down Sonoma Highway, where they’d go, along with Kevin from Heaven, and other friends to party out the second chapters of their lives. Sharon’s old car, a ’73 Buick Riviera, sat broken-down in the garage, covered in years of layered dust. She often talked about her love for the car and all the good times she had in it, threatening that one day she was going to get it running again and head down the road. The fate of everyone at Fisher Road was tied to that Riviera. I think for Sharon, being a caregiver and having Leza’s friends around, was a needed distraction from her unhappiness.
Speaking of getting down the road, during my dad’s visit to California he bought me a car. And a damned nice one. A sporty Izuzu with only 25000 miles on it. I came home from work and there it sat, sparkling blue, in the driveway. It was so fancy, that at first I thought it was Sharon’s LA friends up for a visit. It was the most futuristic car I’d ever seen. At night the interior looked like a cock-pit of a jet airplane. One time, Mike and I were ‘shrooming and did nothing but sit in the driveway staring at the lights. Leza had left to hang with her friends. When she came back she knocked on the window. “You guys are still sitting here? She asked. “It’s been 2 hours!” In a way, I resented the car, because the secret was out; I was no longer the mysterious wayfaring guitar slinger from Tennessee. I just looked like another spoiled rich kid … but I wasn’t. The car would symbolize a free ride, and become an object of contention within the band. Like when I berated Uwe for working 24/7 and never finding time to practice, he’d say, “some people have to work for their cars.” So it backfired on me and there was nothing I could say to that. But I knew the purpose of dad’s gesture was more than just a showy car to zip around in; it was for dependability. When I drove him back to the airport in San Jose, he said it plainly. “This is a good car, Kevin. If you decide you want to pack up and come home, or move someplace else … this thing will get you there.”
Dad was all business when he visited and his stay was brief. We didn’t get the chance to drive through wine country, go to the city, the coast, or anything.
We went to Stanroy’s Music downtown where he bought the band a much needed PA system for rehearsals. I was puzzled when he said we’d have to pay for it. After all, he was our manager and supposed financial backer. Oh well, I thought, at least now there was no excuse for Jeff not to show up for band practice. Dad got an appointment with a loan officer at Bank of America to see if we could get it financed. It was funny, and slightly embarrassing, to watch him try to disarm the stern loan officer with his usual brand of East Tennessee humor.
“Do you wanna be part of hist’ry?” Dad drawled.
“Excuse me?” said the officer.
“Well, my son here is in a band and they’re gonna be famous. Seriously now, they got some really good songs. And when you’re drivin’ down the road singin’ along to their hit, you can say, ‘hey, I financed their equipment back when they were nobody’s.”
I wish I could’ve read the loan officer’s mind as he sat looking at us half amused. It was no doubt his first encounter with a southern man. Me and my long hair and rock clothes, and Little Red Abernathy with his cigar and his Mayberry mannerism that I’m sure came across like some hillbilly jape. We didn’t get the loan … thank goodness. It was my job to collect the $25 payments from the guys each month and send him the money. Doing so was like getting blood from a turnip. Uwe and Jeff thought since dad was our financial backer, it was unfair to have to pay for the equipment. Here’s where I took another jab concerning my new ride. “I don’t get it.” Jeff said. “Your dad can buy you a sports car, but we have to pay for a rinky dinky practice PA?” It took me weeks to get the first payment. And after I finally collected the money, the 2nd one came due. The overdue payments piled up. By the time the 3rd one was due, I stopped trying. Dad was pissed and felt he was jipped again, and I felt fully responsible. After that, our partnership with him and our contractual obligation began to fizzle. Within in year it was like it never happened.
It was hard to tell the age of the disabled children of the house. Neither of their bodies grew to normal proportion. Angela was bound to her bed in the family room, and Jason to his wheelchair. Angela was 13, maybe 14, and Jason around 11; both were about the size of a 7 year-old. Jason suffered from a neuro-muscular disease which left him with minimal body movement. His mom, a tie-die wearing ex-hippie, dropped him off every other weekend. She’d wave from the doorway and hand his bag to Sharon, her eyes scanning the room of long haired rockers. Jason and Jeff got along well. Together they’d sing Jason’s favorite song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. He liked to watch Transformers and give 2 thumbs up like Fonzie. One of his favorite toys was a truck and trailer set that he’d roll back and forth on the small kitchen table. When he asked for it, or talked about it, he’d recite the entire title … “can you please get me my Coast to Coast Truck and Trailer Set by Tonka with detachable parts and 3 accessories?”. Although his disease left him slightly mentally challenged, he was smart enough tell a joke and laugh at one, or boss you around. He was easily annoyed by too much cajoling, which sometimes made his 2 thumbs up feel more like 2 middle fingers.
During parties, Jason got plenty of attention, rolling around, flirting with the girls. Compared to Angela’s condition, he was in fairly good shape, although, at times his helplessness could supersede everything. One night, I was home with Jason and a few of Leza’s friends. For some reason neither Sharon or Leza were there. I was in the bedroom playing guitar when someone came in and said, “Kev, we’ve got a situation.” Jason’s rubber and catheter that attached to his penis had come off and he was asking for help putting it back on.
“You’ll have to wait until Sharon gets home.” I told him.
“No, I have to put it on in case I have to pee. Can someone help me, please?” He pleaded.
He wheeled around holding up his special condom, asking everyone in the house, “Can you please help me put my rubber on?”, but there were no takers. This went on for several minutes. I finally took him into the bathroom, pulled his pants down and put the rubber back on and attached the catheter to his little member.
Angela’s quality of life was so heartbreakingly poor that it gave the entire household an underlying grievous vibe. Her hair and eyes were dark brown and her skin white as the sheets she lay on year round. The door from the kitchen to the family room was always left open several inches so we could hear if she was in discomfort. Angela’s parents were ex-hippies, too. Heroin addicts. It wasn’t clear if they were missing in action, or dead. At the time, I didn’t dwell on her and Jason’s condition. I never questioned god about it; never thought to not take life for granted, or that I was lucky or blessed in any way. I didn’t think like that. The word grateful wasn’t in my vocabulary. I just felt sorry for them.
Since I was making a little money hanging sheetrock, I could afford things. I bought a 4-track portable recorder and set it up on a table in the family room. Angela and I had become daytime roomies. Any time I was at home or not working, I was in there fiddling with the thing, laying down riffs and song ideas. Angela would moan and kick, making little noises that sometimes ended up on my recordings. I wondered if she liked having me around. Not long after, Sharon suggested the band practice in there too. I was surprised at the offer, and wondered if we’d be too loud. Sharon didn’t think Angela could hear very well, and said, “you know … she’ll probably enjoy it.” The room was large and antiseptic with the slight odor of sickness. There was a sliding door and windows that looked west toward the rolling horse pasture. Angela’s special crib-like bed was in one corner and Jason’s cot in another near the laundry and bathroom. I imagined that they talked during the night.
The band still didn’t have a solid rehearsal space, so we took up Sharon’s offer and moved into the family room. The first time Uwe hit a drum, Angela was startled and jumped, making her bed shake. We eased into the situation and played at a lower volume. It was unusual at first, but once we got a song or two in, we’d forget all about her and rock out. It didn’t feel wrong at the time. Years later it was something that I doubted, or chose to ignore. Funny how we can be skeptics of our own memories. As it turns out, guilt is the real fact-checker of the past.
Jason didn’t care for the racket the band made because it interrupted his TV time. Sometimes we’d placate his bad moods and give him a drumstick to let him bang on Uwe’s floor tom, or let him strum on my guitar. I’d play “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” while Jeff held the mic to his mouth so he could sing. But Jason was on to us, and when we started up, he’d cover his ears and wheel himself back into the kitchen.
I came home one afternoon to Sharon rolling Angela out into the driveway in her wheelchair. I’d lived there for over a year and it was the first time I’d seen her out of her bed. Angela being outdoors was kind of jilting, an inversion of something raw. Mollusk exposed during low tide. Her complexion was bright as sun shining on snow. She sat contorted like an ill-fitted doll whose plastic limbs were forcibly bent but not holding to the shape of a sitting person. Her head tilted left, her mouth perpetually agape, perhaps in awe of the environs. I walked toward her wondering if she recognized me. She squinted in one direction. Her lash-less lids held tight around her dark eyes, like it was the one reflex her damaged brain was able to sustain.
There was a dream I had about her that I remembered in detail for a long time. In the dream she was a regular teenager, candid and animated. In the dream, she told me of a dream. It was something like this:
I love the sunlight more than anything, Kevin. When Sharon took me outside it felt totally awesome. If it were up to me, I’d stay outside all day. You know, no one is aware that I have thoughts and feelings. I do. I can hear all the kids in the house during the parties. I wish they would come talk to me, but all they do is gawk and feel sorry. I know I was born damaged goods, but I’m not a freak. I wish so bad to be like the other kids.
You know, when Jason’s here we sometimes talk in the middle of the night. I don’t think he understands me half the time, because, you know, I’m fucked up. But sometimes we talk about escaping. It’s Jason’s thing. He’s very unhappy too. He told me his entire plan. And I guess I fell asleep thinking about it because I had the most vivid dream. In my dream, Jason said, tonight’s the night, we’re getting the hell out of here and rolled out of bed and climbed in his wheelchair. He lowered the side of my bed and pulled me on top of him. It took us a while to get situated. I was moaning and squirming and Jason kept ssshhing me. Then we got our things together and headed to the front door. He had hidden a key to the house. He taped it under the window sill in our room. That dude’s a genius. I sat across his lap and we rolled down the bumpy driveway. It was extremely rough and we bounced so much that I fell off the wheelchair. I lay there as helpless as I always am. But Jason’s hand reached down and pulled me back up as if he had great strength. It was like the hand of God. Not that I’m a believer or anything. I mean, what kind of God would let his children be born like this? Then Jason said, “Oh no, we got to go back. I forgot my Coast to Coast Truck and Trailer by Tonka with detachable parts and 3 accessories!” You and that stupid truck and trailer set, I thought. We bounced back down the driveway and he got his bag of toys. Later, we were on Highway 12 in the emergency lane rolling under the sparkling stars. I’d never seen so many of them, Kevin. It was awesome. The moon was shining on us, making our skin glow, and guiding us down the road. Oh I bet we were a sight to see. We took a left and went through a neighborhood and up and up a steep narrow road high atop of a ridge where the stars seemed closer and the moon even brighter. We sat in silence for a long time until the glow came from the east and the moon and stars faded into the light. And there it was, Kevin, peaking over the eastern horizon. It was the sun. I closed my eyes and felt it on my face. Then I remembered it was only a dream, and I had to wake up.
Her memory has always haunted me. It stays in a piece of old baggage I’ve carried place to place, and kept in the back of a dimly lit closet you only look into a couple times a year. What’s that back there? You forget and unlatch it, and out comes little snapshots. You try to reimagine it, or change the story and say, surely it didn’t happen like that. I picture Sharon putting earmuffs on her, or moving her out of the room. Then I close it back up. It’s baggage you wished you’d left spinning on the carousal, unclaimed. But when it came around you hung it on your shoulder with the rest. And you leave it in the back of the closet because no matter how much time passes, you can’t unpack it.
So we had a new PA system – and although it had to be in the daytime and on the weekends – a steady place to practice in the family room. Uwe broke up with Shelly, and had fallen head over hills for a girl named Donna whom he’d met at house party we played. He was crashing at her place on 4th Street in Santa Rosa, so we all lived in the same town again. Uwe was visibly happier and seemed to have a renewed interest in rocking out. He surprised everyone with a killer new drum kit. It was an oversized set of white Ludwig’s that Steve Smith of Journey had custom built for a previous tour. When I answered the door that Saturday, he came crashing through carrying the biggest kick drum I’d ever seen. The drums were so abnormally large that Uwe looked half his size when he sat behind them. I picked up some new microphones at Radio Shack and began experimenting with recording the band on my 4-track. The big drums came just in time. Our sound was getting a little heavier. We had recently played in the city at the Rock On Broadway, where a group of metal heads in black t-shirts flipped us off and called us poseurs the entire set. (I don’t think it helped the situation that I was wearing white parachute pants and a lavender sleeveless t-shirt). After that show, I began injecting a little more fire and fury into a few of our songs to compete with the thrash bands. But with all this going down; new songs, new drums, new PA, and the 4-track to record with, we still couldn’t persist as a foursome. It wasn’t long before Jeff was missing rehearsals again, and Mike started jamming with a band called Intense … A thrash band no doubt. They practiced at Matt’s, the guitar player’s house, who conveniently lived on Fisher Road, a stones throw from Leza’s. Mike would practice with us for an hour or so, and then slip out the sliding glass door of the family room, hop the fence to take the short cut over to Matt’s. I couldn’t blame Mike at all. We weren’t active enough for him. Between shows we wouldn’t see each other for several weeks. There was plenty of time to play in another band, but I thought of it as a betrayal and stuck with the plan. To this day, I don’t know why, but I truly believed that I would never find anyone as good as Jeff, Uwe and Mike. So instead of looking for another creative outlet, I turned into a rock and roll martyr. Too serious for my own good. Always trying keep everyone motivated. At least I had Uwe … for now anyway. It was just like the barn days again back in Rohnert Park. We were White Stripes without a singer. But while Jeff was flaking, I was sharpening my songwriting skills. One I was particularly happy with was called “Long Haired Boys.” It was part hair metal anthem, and self-mockery. (Again, “hair metal” wasn’t a genre yet. That history was being made 400 miles south). I got the idea from Uwe’s ex, Shelly, who was insecure and jealous of the band. She said, “I know how you guys are. Long haired boys get loose when they get high.” I took that line and ran with it, and it soon became our fist pumping theme song.
Jeff thought it would be great if Jason could introduce the band at our next show which was at the Pioneer Baseball Stadium, where we had opened for Night Ranger. He thought the gesture would help bring awareness and support to the American Disability Act which was dominating the news, and gaining momentum on the ground floor of Congress at the time. T-shirts were going to be printed and the local paper was going to write a story. Jeff loved kids and was super excited about the idea. But when he asked Jason’s mom if it’d be alright, she said no. It was bad timing. Apparently Jason had been complaining about the changes at Leza’s; the band practicing in the family room, the parties, the noise that interrupted his TV time, and the rubber incident. There was concern that Jason’s mom might report us to Child Services so we had to move our equipment out of the house. It wasn’t really Sharon’s fault. She was trying to integrate the household to where it worked for everyone. We were all the same in her eyes. Sharon said we were welcome to fix up one of the old horse stalls for a rehearsal space. I thought it would be a lot of work, but didn’t think twice. So my martyrdom continued, and I started bringing sheetrock scraps home in Kevin from Heaven’s van. In a few week’s time I accumulated a huge pile that I put underneath the lean-to. The horse stall was a total mess. There were rusty tools and tack hanging on studs, an antique mower, old buckets, rotten rope, and plastic feed bags buried in the dirt floor. When I opened the door, swaths of cobwebs holding ancient bug carcasses swayed in the rafters, and large spiders, disturbed by the sunlight, scurried and crawled on the high walls. I pulled the water hose up and went right to work spraying them down. Hundreds of the spindly legged things ran franticly down to my feet. Every cent I made working was spent on supplies. I remember going to the lumber yard, unskilled in the language of boards, and saying, “I need wood for a ceiling and floor.” Then the guy said, “pressure treated or not? 2×8’s, 2×12’s?” It took me a second to say something stupid, like, “Umm, I know I need 12 feet.” Mike helped me hang the rafters to lower the ceiling, other than that, I flew solo. I taught myself the basics of carpentry, asking questions and going on mental images from the construction sites I’d worked on. When I got to the walls, I cut and pieced the sheetrock scraps together like a jig-saw puzzle. There were hardly any straight lines, turning each wall into an asymmetrical wonder. Kevin from Heaven (a journeyman sheet-rocker) laughed his ass off when he saw it. For power, I ran an extension cord up from the garage, and plugged everything into one power strip. About 4 weeks later we had a practice space. When I think about it now, I’m amazed at the drive, determination and energy I once possessed. Who was that guy? I called it the “horse stall studio”. It served several purposes. I moved my 4-track and Leza’s stereo up there and woodshedded … literally. Because of the Child Services scare we couldn’t have parties in the house anymore, so everyone hung out in the horse stall. I even crashed there sometimes. It was chilly at night and we overloaded the breaker on occasion, but things in the house were peaceful and normal again. Jason stopped complaining and I’m sure Angela didn’t miss the racket. Luckily, we never got a call from Child Services. And then, Jason’s mom informed Sharon she would no longer be bringing him. That’s when everything began to change. When I think about what followed, it plays out in my mind like a sped up movie with MTV-type editing, or thumbing the pages of a picture book. I’ll try to slow it down.
After I’d told Leza I wasn’t in love with her the previous summer, we became the happy couple. I was a good boyfriend for almost a year, (a record for me back then). We did normal things like go to prom, the movies, and hung out with friends at the river. That spring we flew to Tennessee to visit my family where Leza got her first taste of country cooking and high humidity. We even drove down to Clearwater, where my aunt and cousin’s lived, and hung out on the beach for a few days. But by mid-summer we weren’t getting along and my ping-ponging between bad and good, went bad, for good. I was going back to my old unfaithful ways.
During my good boyfriend phase, I had also worked steady with Kevin from Heaven hanging sheetrock. We’d landed a full time gig at Fisano Drywall down in Sonoma. I still wasn’t fast enough, so Kevin hired a guy named Shane to help. When Shane came on board, Kevin’s drinking picked up, and on those pre-dawn rides to work, I’d be sipping coffee in the back of the van while they pulled Budweiser’s from the cooler. By lunchtime Kevin would be knocking just as many holes in the boards as his apprentice. After several poor inspections, Mr. Fisano gave us the boot. A few days later Kevin packed his one suitcase and moved out of Leza’s. I don’t think I ever saw him again. Sharon told me it was an unbreakable life pattern that he cycled through every 2 or 3 years, where his drinking went from manageable to unmanageable. I should’ve taken it as a sign, but, instead I thought how could anyone be such a fuck up?
After he moved out, and since Leza and I were broken up, I started sleeping in the guest room. That was until another old friend of Sharon’s named Rich moved in. Rich was short and barrel chested with the back of a gorilla. Looked like he could lift a car, no problem. He had a husky voice, and smoked Salem’s while he prepared unusual dishes of food. I watched Rich on more than one occasion scramble a whole dozen eggs in a large skillet, then add a 14 ounce can of clams in clam juice to it, put it on a plate and eat the entire thing while his cigarette burned in an ashtray next to his beer. He wore sleeveless t-shirts and jean shorts year round, and was one of the nicest dudes you’d ever meet. Rich worked on Sharon’s Riviera in exchange for free rent. I moved to the couch.
Like Uwe’s big white drums, the new practice pad gave the band a burst of creative energy. Right off the bat, we collaborated on a new song called “Does Your Boy Friend Know.” It practically wrote itself; maybe because we were living it.
Does your boyfriend know
That you’re out tonight
Do you think he’d mind
If you stayed the night
When the morning comes
You’ll slip out the door
You’ll go back to him
Just like you did before
It kind of sounded like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” which was a big hit that year. The song was straight ahead pop rock, but Uwe did a drum thing where the time signature changed before each chorus and Mike couldn’t figure out a bass part for it. What he was playing sounded fine, but he disagreed and got flustered to the point that he didn’t want to work on it. The same thing happened at the following rehearsal. I got the feeling Mike didn’t like the song because the subject matter was too close to home. We were all cheating and sneaking around. Everyone was guilty, jealous and suspect. It was art imitating life. The next weekend we were playing a party at a community center and we all wanted to debut the song … except Mike. Jeff put it on the set list anyway. When we got to the song that night, Mike said, “no, no, I’m not playing it. Don’t start it.” We started it anyway and right before the difficult section came, Mike put down his bass and ran out of the community center. After the song, I went looking for him but he was no where in sight. A friend of ours, Chris Olson, who played in a band called Micky Ratt jumped in and helped us finish the set. For several weeks, Mike didn’t come around or return my phone calls. I figured he was quitting, so I called up Chris, (whose nickname was “Ols,”) to come jam at the horse stall. Ols was head to toe rock and roll, a killer bassist and singer, but I missed Mike and wanted him to come back. Eventually, we made up and he starting coming around again. We agreed for the time being to nix “Does Your Boyfriend Know”. We ended the summer with a couple of kick ass shows at The Petaluma Am-vets and Pioneer Stadium. But Jeff got lazy again and Mike started slipping away. By the end of the year, he was back with his thrash band.
Feeling sad about Leza, I wrote a slow song called “Worlds Apart” that was just acoustic guitar and vocal. When I think of it now, I wince at how terrible it was. But there were parts of it that had potential. One night, a bunch of dudes were hanging at the horse stall, drinking beer and smoking weed. Mike asked me to play the new stuff I was working on. I was kind of embarrassed to play “Worlds Apart” because it was a ballad, and I didn’t have any confidence in my voice. I modestly downplayed it, and said something like “nah man it’s not that good, maybe later.” Mike was persistent, so I finally pushed play on the cassette player. I could feel my face redden when my singing started. Everyone stood there silently, staring at the floor and ceiling. I think they were surprised that there wasn’t an electric guitar on it. When the song ended I pushed stop, and for a second no one said anything. Then a voice from over in the corner said, “Damn, Kevin.” Everyone turned and looked. The group parted like a scene in a movie, and I was the camera looking directly at our friend John, who had tears streaming down his face. He wiped his eyes and took a sip of beer. “It’s a really good song, man.” Sniffle, sniffle … then … everybody laughed.
As I write this, I get a lump in my throat. Because that night was a defining moment in my life. It was when I realized the true power of a song. The next day, I secretly started calling myself a songwriter.
On Labor Day weekend, I drove up to Lake Tahoe to meet up with my parents and my little brother, Kip. They had begun planning their vacations with me in mind, traveling closer and closer to Northern Cal. We went on a 4-hour dinner cruise, and later watched the most amazing fireworks I’ve ever seen, shot off from the north shore of the lake, causing a reflection that danced on the water and dazzled my brain. The next day we checked out The Ponderosa theme park, then trekked over to Virginia City where my parents played slot machines in the old saloons, while my brother and I snuck off so he could smoke cigarettes. I’m sure my parents wondered what had happened to their son. I had changed inside and out. There was hardly a trace of southern accent left in my voice. My hair was extremely long, and my clothes rocker tight and faddishly ripped up. It was a fun visit, but I felt disconnected and without any longing for Tennessee. When they asked why Leza didn’t come, I lied that she had to work. I also lied that the band was making good progress, and that I was gainfully employed. But it didn’t matter if things were crumbling or not; Sonoma County was my home. I had cultivated a lot of relationships there and no longer felt like an outsider or the transient southerner. I had become a bona fide west coaster. When we spoke about music, I told my dad I was concentrating more on songwriting.
“Oh boy, look out Nashville!” he said excitedly.
“No way,” I said, “that’s a country music town.”
“Something to think about if you want to write songs.”
I drove back to Santa Rosa listening to cassettes of song ideas. I was thinking about Nashville and what it’d be like just to write songs for a living. Someone had told me that there was a husband and wife songwriting team who lived near Sebastopol, and that they wrote a song for Whitney Houston. There was a house on the way to the coast that I imagined the couple lived in. I thought maybe I should knock on the door and ask what I need to do to get into the biz. I envisioned myself on a new path, seeking out a publisher, living in a lakeside cabin with a notebook and an acoustic guitar. If I can make one person cry, surely I can make thousands cry.
But if ever I had a precognitive moment, it was when I rolled back into town from Tahoe that day. Right before I turned on to Fisher road, I was overwhelmed with a premonition that something bad was coming my way. I felt like a stranger driving into a strange town, and for a second everything moved in slow motion. I pulled into the driveway and everyone’s car was gone, including Sharon’s Riviera. I went in and put my bag down. It was quiet, except, Angela was coughing. I was unpacking my clothes when Leza walked in. She was chipper and smiley. She gave me a hug.
“Hey, where is everybody?”
“Mom’s at Lawson’s Corner. She training to be a bartender. She’s going to be working there a couple days a week.” She said
“Oh, cool. Good for her.”
“She should be home shortly. And … by the way, I need to tell you something.”
She took both my hands and we sat down on the bed. She had a serious look in her eyes.
“While you were gone, I got together with Dan.”
“Oh, okay.” I said
“I just wanted you to know. Okay?”
“He’s picking me up soon. We’re going out.”
On the back corner of the house, you could get to the roof via an old ladder that leaned against a little gardening shed. I climbed up there to sit and ponder things. Dan was a good friend and I knew it would be awkward if we had to talk. If Leza was moving on she couldn’t have picked a better guy. He was everyone’s friend. Well, at least they aren’t having sex, I thought. “Getting together” just meant, hanging out and flirting. Leza confirmed otherwise a few days later. For someone who “got together” a lot I was pretty damned naïve.
After a while, Sharon pulled up in her Riviera. It was odd seeing her driving a car. Then Dan picked up Leza in his Firebird. Their cheerful unintelligible conversation carried to the rooftop, familiar voices speaking in a new way. Instead of Motorhead or Exodus, a more date friendly “Sussudio” by Phil Collins was blaring from Dan’s windows. Bert came home from work, and Sharon left again shortly after. Only the horses could see me as I sat spying on my adopted family, watching them chase their hearts desire, making their zig-zags and figure 8’s and ending where they started. But soon the daily patterns will break and everyone’s direction will change. Angela’s cough worsened, and a couple weeks later she passed away of a lung infection. Sharon stopped coming home on the weekends and then for weeks at a time. If her car had a name, it was Freedom, because she was a smiley teenager again. While tending bar, she met a cowboy backhoe operator and eventually moved to his house in Rohnert Park.
The house became quiet and devoid of spirit. It turned into a dude pad. Crusty dishes piled up, and the floors were tracked with dirty foot prints. No coffee was brewing of the mornings and the kitchen TV sat picture-less in the afternoons. Leza was hanging with a new group of friends and was rarely home. She went to school and then directly to work. Sometimes she stayed at her grandmothers next door. Mike had turned 18 and moved out of his mom’s and into the guest room. I slept in Jason’s old bed. Bert fended for himself, leaving “do not eat” notes on his chicken patties and luncheon meats. “I don’t know what you all are going to do when the food runs out.” He’d say, every few days. Mike and I rummaged the pantry, eating canned soups, black beans, garbanzos, chicken broth and expired noodles. It was so rock and roll.
But eventually the blues caught up to me, and my shy guitar hero grin was hard to put on. I came home sloshed to an empty house. It was late and I started calling around to track Leza down. I was full of regret and jealousy. No one knew where she was. I went into a drunken rage and beat the phone receiver against the cradle about 10 times. I was cussing and punching the wall and throwing shit around. I went into the family room and buried my face in Jason’s bed and screamed into the mattress. Then the light came on. It was Bert.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Nothing. Leave me the fuck alone.”
I got up, grabbed the bed frame and flipped it over. Then I started punching the bathroom door. Bert came over and tried to grab my arm.
Hey, hey, stop it! You’re acting like a damned baby!”
“I’m going out to find her.” I said.
“You’re wasted. You’re not going anywhere. Besides, it’s 2 in the morning!”
“I don’t care.” I yelled.
“You know, you’re not the only who’s miserable around here. Sharon’s been gone for 3 weeks. Stop being so fucking selfish.”
All that was just around the corner, getting ready to go down. That dust cloud was getting closer. I lay on the shingles directly above the family room staring at a cloudless sky. I could hear Angela’s faint cough rising to the attic that she would haunt, long after developers divided the empty pastures and the ghost horses roamed the subdivision. I walked to the other side of the roof and looked out at Highway 12, thinking about what to do that night. Hanging with the regular gang wasn’t an option, not now that Leza and Dan were dating. I was feeling sorry for myself, and sorry for lying to my parents about how great things were going. I was staring at the evening commute when a white box-bed truck drove across my vision. I couldn’t believe it. It was Uwe. I totally forgot we’d planned to practice before I left for Tahoe. When he pulled in the driveway, I stood on the roof with my arms in the air. He climbed out and put his hands on his sides. “Calvin?” (He called me Calvin sometimes and talked with a southern accent). “Now, you come down off that roof right this minute, ya hear? I believe we got us some rockin’ to do.” If ever there was a sight for sore eyes. I couldn’t stop smiling. For now, anyway.