Nine pm on a Saturday night in an English seaside town, Eric and I eat in Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips restaurant across from the seafront. We’re just like the other couples sipping large glasses of wine (the English equivalent of a “small glass” is a half pint) and tucking into their cod and chips and mushy peas, only Eric doesn’t drink, and told the waitress “no mushy peas”. (I tried the mushy peas and agree they belong only in a color photo or black and white film.) We’re just like the other couples making occasional conversation while the overhead speakers dotted in among the modest chandeliers play the type of music good old Harry would have liked back in the day.
“And he gave it all up for a girl – from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania” a male and female ensemble croon in a chorus repeated often enough to sound like a threat.
We’re just like the other couples, only we’re not. We’ve just finished five weeks of touring together, Eric playing in my trio, driving all over England and before that the northeast US. We’ve loaded in, soundchecked, rocked, talked, loaded out, found hotels or friends’ houses; somewhere to eat, somewhere to change clothes; decent coffee, bad coffee. We’ve listened to music or silence, or each other, or the drummer. We’re just another couple but we’ve lifted amps, packed guitars, unpacked guitars; wadded dirty clothes back in our suitcases, shared deodorant, shared Manuka honey and echinacea, waited patiently while the other did interviews on the phone.
Maybe the other fish and chip couples are ambulance drivers together. Maybe they’re doctors or own their own fish and chip shops and them coming to Harry’s is like us going to see Loudon Wainwright or Television.
“One bill or two?” the waitress asks. “One’s good – we’re married,” I say. She seems surprised. What did she think, this was a Tinder date? The least romantic second date ever? A business meeting? It’s Saturday night on Easter weekend – who goes out looking for love, or makes deals, then?
“Ah, you married.”
Walking back to the hotel along the seafront, we remind ourselves to slow down and do our best to stroll given the wind, the rain and the temperature. We come up behind another couple a decade or two older. They amble along side by side in their overcoats. He’s wearing big white gloves. Almost gardening gloves. The gloves glow through the mist against his dark coat, attracting the moonlight.
I am transifxed by these gloves. The man strolls in his overcoat, appearing comfortable next to a woman who’s got to be his wife, they are so similar in height and gait. But his hands in the gloves are doing a ballet. Behind his back, he clenches, he flaps, he flattens one palm and circles one wrist with the other.
“He’s signaling us, Eric!” I say. “He’s sending messages of distress: Help, I am being held against my will. This woman is not my wife. Alert the authorities. Help. Me.” He is so solid, so secure as he strolls along, but his hands say otherwise. Maybe it’s not distress – maybe it’s pure self-expression. He wishes he could be out on the seafront in a ballgown or a tutu, on a skateboard or smashing up stuff, but he can’t, so he takes his hands in their white gloves out to play.
The hands flatten and flap again and I revise – definitely distress. The couple turn into a building entrance and climb the steps. The hands flutter – we should follow them! She’s taking him to a dungeon. I mean, they’re going up stairs but there’s probably steps going down somewhere in the building…
See how I can do this? I can go off on an imaginative tangent, just like Robert Christgau. When he writes a review I’m not sure if he’s the man in the white gloves signaling what’s really going on with him, or whether he’s me trying to interpret the man in the white gloves and getting it all wrong. All I know is that it was fine when he’d conjecture about me as a single mother, my work, my songs, hell even my breasts. It was fine cause I was hungry then – I wanted what ever any critic would say about me as long as it felt sort of like a compliment.
But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t want his praise that feels like a put down. I don’t want him talking about me in terms of my first husband who, bless his heart I have not been married to for twenty years. I don’t want him praising while panning and damning my partner, my husband, by saying he’s kept me too busy to do much work on music when he’s done nothing but encourage me to work. I don’t want him dismissing my hardworking husband for taking the easy way and living on the past when he’s done nothing but try to outrun the past.
I don’t want his readers thinking something’s a rave review when it feels hurtful and personal and dismissive.
Sure he can say what he wants. But I don’t have to feel complimented when I really feel angry. I don’t have to wear floppy white gloves to express myself. And I don’t have to follow the older guy in the floppy white gloves. I write my own story, thank you.
This is it – the day six months ago I willed, begged, prayed/made happen (with a lot of Eric’s help). My record release. Thank you God. What does it mean to me to get this record out? Everything. I knew it had to happen when I was artist in residence at a college music class. “When did you last put out new music?” one of the students asked. I groped back in time and mumbled a year: 2012. “That’s five years ago!” one of the kids said. “I wasn’t even in high school yet!” And that was a record me and Eric made. What kind of artist was I?
Going out to play is just getting started and so nerve-wracking. With the record you did everything the best you could but what about playing music for people? That has to happen now, every night.
The first show – the hometown show – I am flying. I’m always afraid to play in the place where I work because I see the people there every day, but the show is like part of an ongoing conversation only I have a guitar, an amp and a microphone, Eric on bass and Jeremy on drums. I refrain from straightening books and wiping things down with a bar rag. We all celebrate.
Brooklyn is another homecoming, to a place I left almost twenty years ago but that will always be part of me. I realize with a twinge of sadness that upstate feels like home now and the city feels like the past – the great love who changed me forever and made me who I am, but my restless soul said I had to move on. (It’s not for nothing I still think Freebird is one of the greatest records ever.)
Lenny Kaye joins us. Hearing him sing and play is decades of music history compressed into his elegant frame and wacky presence. When he rocks alongside us, I can’t help it, I feel like Patti Smith for two seconds.
When I start an old song, people cheer and it stuns me. I add a reading which feels good because I’ve spent so much of the last decade writing and being around books. When the show ends I see a couple of my brothers, old bandmates, friends from the past. It is all over too soon.
At home I pack and ship CDs and booklets. When will the LPs arrive? Probably when I’m away and they will end up buried in snow.
I play a few shows just me and Eric. It’s weird cause together we’re the old band. But it’s comfortable too and helps me get myself grounded a little. In a Harrisburg wine bar, we’re pretty shambling, but it brings me down to earth. I think the first two shows I was kind of in a daze, like opening night of a play but without a script or a director. Pace yourself.
That first hotel mirror at two in the morning is always a shock. Already road-weary. Oh my god, that’s what I look like? You get used to seeing yourself at home, surrounded by your own stuff. By the third hotel room, it’s easier: “oh, I look like that.”
In Pittsburgh, my true hometown, the place I was born and grew up and left at seventeen, we dine at a cool downtown restaurant with my brother Pat and his wife Karen. I look at the wall of bottles filled with whiskey and rye, brisket burgers, tattoed bearded waiters. It doesn’t seem possible this place has caught up with the rest of the world – in Pittsburgh, it will always be somewhere around 1975.
“Where’s the Brass Rail?” I ask my brother. “Remember old Tom who used to cruise (our brother) Michael when he was waiting for the bus home from Isaly’s?” Kaufmann’s became Macy’s was boarded up for years, is becoming condos now. Things change.
“The low spark of high-heeled boys,” says a big, older ponytailed guy sitting behind me in a Pittsburgh coffee shop. I turn to see who he’s talking to. He is on his own. Some things don’t change.
I say hi to my old friend Lonesome Bob. I knew him in New York and then Nashville and now he lives here. His voice shakes the room downstairs which I can sense from the dressing room is not so full. Three rave reviews/articles in the local hometown papers – the music writers love me in Pittsburgh. Things change – that was the title of one of Lonesome Bob’s albums. But I still can’t get more than twenty-five people to come see me play in Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia threatens to be a shitshow – the aftermath of a snowstorm, a neighborhood bar on a bill with a six-piece band, no time or place to change clothes, but ends up a triumph. One for the books, one of the best shows of my life. Wires, wood, beer bottles, cables. People. Funny how some nights the combination just works.
Cambridge, a Sunday night, Oscar night, the aftermath of a snowstorm. I do a radio interview in a guy’s car parked outside of the club – holding a mic with a big ball pop shield, sitting in the front seat of a newish Ford Focus. I get choked up talking about stuff and wonder what a passerby would think at the sight of my radio host and I. Look at the nice retired couple playing radio show: I am Rupert Pupkin, I think to myself. I am Alan Partridge. We blast through the set for a warm crowd. I tell the story of my early band Last Roundup coming here to audition for Rounder Records. How we opened for Sleepy LaBeef, the great rockabilly legend. I remember thinking “Poor old guy! He’s got to be at least fifty!”
How many years have I been coming to this town? Our friend Norma hangs out after and I watch her walk off into the Cambridge night, back into her past, to find her car. We drive the few hours home, staying awake reading a ridiculous Facebook thread on whether Eric Clapton is or is not a decent rhythm guitarist. “Bollocks,” says Eric. Next morning we say goodbye to drummer Jeremy who has work commitments.
I do too. The LPs arrive at Spotty Dog just before my Monday shift – the guy unloads that pallet right into the back of my car. Working behind the bar is almost like a holiday: I show people the record, pour beer, stay off the phone and computer, play music (“Play us your new album!” a nice person says. Uh, no.)
Pack and ship. Pack and ship. Rehearse with drummer Doug. Another snowstorm.
New Haven in the snow. Load in includes Eric shoveling the sidewalk. It’s a quiet night in New Haven, Frank Pepe’s AND Sally’s Apizza have closed due to the weather. But Cafe Nine is great – Paul the owner is a sweetheart – and Shellye and Dean who open are always wonderful. Kid Congo shows up and we play Sex Beat and then Joey Ramone to the small crowd. And in the end Modern Pizza is good – they’re the newcomer in town, only been around twenty five years.
Pack and ship, pack and ship. Phone interviews. Another trip to the post office. I have a pair of jeans I need to hem but my eyes feel too tired and threading the sewing machine seems impossible. I roll the hems for now.
Northampton we have dinner with Byron Coley and Lili Dwight in a local institution burger place. Eric makes Byron laugh. Eric makes us all laugh. I never know what to expect in Northampton but Parlor Room is full and they are all with us. I always feel like I could live here, I guess we found a more New York version down in Catskill and Hudson. It’s over too soon with Doug drumming.
Pack and ship, some more interviews; rehearse with Steve Goulding. Steve played with me some back in my New York and Nashville days, but he and Eric haven’t played together since: the recording of Whole Wide World in 1977. That is amazing music history. I quickly decide these two should have their own segment of my show, where they sit on a couch and talk about Brinsley and Nick and Lene and all the stuff we all want to hear about those heady prehistoric days. They are delightful and entertaining in the van.
Asbury Park is its own thing and always will be, thanks to Scott Stamper who’s been running the Saint forever. It’s a proper rock club, but with chairs this time. I love playing here. The Boss is still on Broadway so there’s not that tension wondering if he’ll show up to give his blessing – phew (but consider it implied). We stand around and talk after the show while the pretty door girl vacuums the stage and mops the entire club. Our lodging after is an Ocean Grove guesthouse with giant teddy bears in the parlor. It’s one block from the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s so cold and windy I don’t get anywhere near the beach the next morning.
My winter coat has become me. When I see it hanging on a dressing room coatrack, I feel like I’m looking at myself. When and if it ever becomes warm enough to go outside without a coat, will I still exist?
Jammin Java outside of DC. From the dressing room I hear lots of laughing and talking – “Is there a busy restaurant right next door to here?” I ask Steve. When Grahame and Ann from the Crowd Scene play their opening set, I hear clapping and cheering. The place is full. I always feel so moved playing in this place, I don’t know how everybody finds their way here.
We stop in Guitar Center in Fairfax, on the way to Richmond. Beltway Warriors looking for Excalibur – one guy seems to have every amp and pedal in the store arranged around him like Stonehenge. White shirt, chinos, his coat and tie cast off – he shreds towards nirvana, or maybe his wife just doesn’t let him do this at home. He does it for love, not glory. Okay, maybe a little Guitar Center glory.
It’s a last minute gig in Richmond but it sounds great in the Sound of Music studio and some people do show up. On the way here I started getting messages that Fresh Air was running a review of my album. Even my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother emails me congratulations. I remember what a great drummer Steve is, the Richmond folks are in awe of Eric and Steve – true legends in their midst. And there they are doing my bidding ha ha ha! My cousin Ceci takes us to the wine bar where one of her sons works – the food and beer scene in Richmond is exploding. It was an early show so there’s actually time to eat and drink something besides a granola bar off the floor of the van. We stay up way too late drinking wine and talking with Doyle, Ceci’s husband, joining us.
A day of more shipping, coffee drinking and barbq eating, and then we’re off to drive to Mountain Stage. It’s recorded in front of a live audience in Charleston, West Virginia which is about four hours from pretty much anywhere. It’s an honor to be invited to play this long-running show they broadcast on a couple hundred stations. Host Larry Groce, musicians and crew have all been here since the early eighties. It’s intimidating – I’ve stood next to Ricky Skaggs on this stage, and Alison Kraus. It’s a little hard getting the band sound happening on the carpeted stage with a baffle in front of the drums, and scary to play The Old Guys for a mountain crowd raised on bluegrass. They like my words and humor but I want to be one of the pickers too.
The other acts on the bill this night are a hip Welsh trad outfit, a New Orleans jazz quintet, the beautiful and talented singer Shannon McNally and Niger prog folk Afro pop Tuareg group Tal National who I’ve seen kill at the tiny Half Moon in Hudson. An odd assortment, it really does feel like A Mighty Wind with a voice coming through the old-fashioned loudspeakers backstage: “Ranky Tanky , ten minutes to the stage, Ranky Tanky – ten minutes to the stage.”
Showbiz existing in its own small universe. I’m proud they consider me part of the family. The session airs around April 20.
Drive nine hours to drop Steve off in Brooklyn and then another two and a half upstate. I was packing for England yesterday, trying to stay calm and not look at the frightening state of our house, my car, my clothes, hair and skin. The backyard with fallen trees – I’ll deal with it all in April, I keep telling myself.
Something about a snowstorm approaching. I finally have a chance to talk to my daughter on the phone after a week of occasional texts. Stop off at the bookstore to put in an art supply order. Pack and ship, pack and ship. Accept a delivery of the second printing of my booklets. Eric’s CDs arrived, his record release just two weeks away. Mail some posters. Cook dinner.
A text from the airline says our flight today’s been cancelled. We fly tomorrow AM, after the snow. I feel relief. Time for more packing and shipping. I’ll push the UK shows (will we really be playing in England in a few days? With our friend Ian Button on drums?) from home for a day. I might even pick up the guitar. Remember Guitar Center guy. Love, not glory.
“Facing your fears about success or failure has become a pressing concern lately. Only your self-doubt is standing in the way.” AQUARIUS, week of February 17
There was a moment a few days ago – a perfect moment. I’d picked up some art supplies at Spotty Dog and helped out a co-worker who was struggling with no internet and a bar full of customers. I’d gotten a rare hug from Earl, a local painter, and found a piece of cardboard in the garage for a desperate artist trying to frame something. I felt almost saintly. I told a favorite shopkeeper about my album and how long it had taken and how hard we’d worked (I have to keep mentioning how much time and effort Eric put into this record) and how excited I was, no matter what happened. She congratulated me on the creative success of getting new work together and just about launched into the world and I said “that’s it – no matter what happens, I did something.” But do I really mean it? If nobody’s interested, will I still feel that way?
As I spun down the street in my Subaru, I saw another friend walking her dog and I rolled down the window and shouted and waved. Some opera was playing on the car radio and I sang along like I was in a Woody Allen movie when it was still okay to like Woody Allen movies. I thought “This is happiness.”
I’ve been working so hard and so long to get all the pieces together for this record to come out. It’s been busy, it’s been nuts and now – it’s totally quiet.
The calm before the storm? Or is this the storm? Was the storm last week? Have I already been as busy as I’m going to get and the rest is all downhill?
An older couple in the store yesterday said “You look just like Mary Steenburgen. You know, she’s married to Ted Danson?” I nodded – I have heard that since the eighties. “You could sign up for one of those doubles agencies,” the man said. “My cousin does it – he looks like Sean Connery. Old Sean Connery. They hire him to show up at parties in a tuxedo and pose with a martini. You could do it too.” I make a note (Old Mary Steenburgen) and file it away with other backup plans.
I got an email notice that the CD version of the album was coming via UPS yesterday – seven large boxes. I was looking forward to the knock on the door and the same UPS guy who drops off book orders at the bookstore saying “hey sign here” and joking about more books for the store and me saying all proudly “no it’s my new album.” But somehow the truck came and went and there were seven boxes stacked neatly on the front porch, no signature required.
I got an email from Amazon: “Based on your browsing history, we thought you might be interested in this” and it was a listing for my new album. I hope I’m not the only person who got that message?
A customer I’ve served for six years at the bookstore/bar said “I heard your voice on the radio. They were playing your new song, about The Old Guys? Sweet. Hey, how much is this book?”
I want to send my most precious critic the new album to listen to, but I’m scared. Her opinion means so much to me. At the same time, I don’t want her to feel required to have an opinion of work I do. Is there any show biz mother who doesn’t have Diana Scarwid as Christina Crawford’s scathing “I am not… one of your FANS!!!” from Mommy Dearest lurking somewhere in the corridors of her mind? Being a proud parent comes easy and natural, but expecting pride or even acknowledgement from your kids feels like asking too much. At the same time, as I press send on this download link to my darling brilliant daughter, I only hope she’ll think I did something good.
We went to see Loudon Wainwright last night. Seventy-two – still writing, performing – making me laugh and cry with his words, a certain chord on a guitar and his wit and world view. A new record is a moment. But it’s part of this – a lifetime of words, chords; making something that wasn’t there before. I want this.
The Old Guys comes out February 23. Tour dates and other info here.
There was this shampoo a Nashville hairdresser turned me on to about a dozen years ago: Pureology Pure Volume. Designed to lift fine locks like mine, it was truly worth the exta money it cost, when I could find it. I hunted it down when I went to Nashville or New York and imported it to France when I moved there.
One time on tour I left a just-purchased bottle in a Days Inn bathroom outside of Rochester. I remembered a few hours down the road and called the front desk of the motel to plead with them to send it on to me in Chicago. “You don’t understand,” I practically cried over the phone. “I need this stuff…I’m – I’m an -ENTERTAINER!”
“Oh I know that brand quite well,” the desk clerk huffed. And then, a little too bitchily, proving his guilt: “Anyways, we don’t steal expensive shampoos here.” I could hear his hair thickening and lifting through the phone line; smell the botanicals. No Gideon bible ever changed a life quicker. Internet searching helped me find another bottle in a mall outside Wheeling.
When money was extra tight, I’d try and skimp with John Frieda or some drugstore brand but there was no comparison. Good hair equalled confidence – and Pureology equalled good hair.
I saw the writing on the wall when I learned the small company had been bought by L’Oreal. The packaging stayed the same but suddenly it was a lot easier to find. Still smelled the same, still worked.
Until – it didn’t. My hair turned to straw. It was agony getting ready for gigs and even worse, looking at photos people would post after the shows. I knew, but I searched the internet anyway to find confirmation they’d changed the formula. “HOW COULD YOU? BRING BACK PURE VOLUME ORIGINAL FORMULA!!” mild hysteria registered on beauty forums (yes there are such places).
L’Oreal buckled. For a while they reinstated the old formula, calling it condescendingly the“Extra Care” version. Until a couple months ago, when they stopped. The website says Extra Care is Discontinued. How could they? I have a new album to promote!
This is how it is then. I will soldier on.
I lost a piece of my nose a few weeks ago. It’s the second time I’ve had to have Mohs surgery for skin cancer, and in terms of symmetry maybe it’s best – left side, then right side. The doctor’s office was full of eighty year olds who all seemed to know each other from previous surgeries. Oh great, I thought. Do I have to join this club? Will I be back, again and again, to this (very competent) doctor’s office across the street from a bagel place in Fishkill? I texted my brother Patrick, who’s been through a Mohs procedure or two of his own. He texted back, “On my way in for Mohs today,” he wrote.
We went back and forth all morning, sending each other pictures of our bandaged faces. They got us both pretty good, worse than expected. It always is, I think. They downplay the procedure – “you can return to work in the afternoon!” Yeah, right. Not until I curl up trembling into a ball for a few days. The discomfort and distress had me way down. I mean hair products are something I have a little control over (not enough though: “BRING BACK PURE VOLUME RECHRISTENED EXTRA CARE FORMULA – NOW!”) but these little bits of ourselves that get chipped away, what can you do? At a low point I picked up my guitar and played and sang and it was like a miracle: pure volume for the soul. I was myself again.
All as a roundabout buildup to promoting my new album. I’m excited and proud and thankful to Eric who really pulled me through the studio process. It took a while but it feels like it all fits together. And with limp hair and battered nose, I look forward to getting out there and playing for people and having a chance to do something I really love to do. It’s too late to stop now.
You can pre-order The Old Guys here. Tour dates below with more to come soon
If getting older is leaving childish things behind, and if Christmas is one of those things, this year is about the furthest point I’ve ever been from childhood. Of course every year we’re older. But isn’t that partly the point of holidays, to keep us moored to our younger selves? A box of ornaments we move from our parents’ home to our first apartment, to apartment, to house, to a storage space, to another house. Hanging up a faded glass Santa, you circle back to check in with who you were and how far you’ve come. Having kids you get to rev the whole time machine up again.
But some years are for throwing off the red and green paper chains of Christmas past and just going with what is. You’re unmoored. This year is one of those. Eric and I are in England, the most Christmas-y of places, but his mother is in the hospital and so it’s been Christmas behind glass in our travels back and forth to visit her, glimpses of other people in festive sweaters raising holiday pints through pub windows or hustling along dressed-up sidewalks with packages in their arms.
We arrived last week fully intending to buy gifts, put up a tree and make a nice dinner with Dorothy, Eric’s mum. She’s been in and out of the hospital so much from falls and just being frail, we thought it’d simply be a matter of showing up and taking her home from the hospital. It took about a day for it to sink in she wasn’t coming home any time soon or at all.
So this holiday has been sitting with her talking about things real and imaginary, and trying to figure out what her future is. It’s good we came over – no gigs like the last three out of four Decembers – we need to be here. We get to visit Eric’s daughter and grandkids too, and that is wonderful. My mother died years ago and my dad is hale and hearty so I’ve never been through this and I don’t know how to help Eric work his way through it except to be here.
Did I mention our rental car is candy apple red – with a spoiler?
Every day we drive to Worthing (well, Eric drives – I have yet to work out manual right hand driving) and park in the ridiculously tight hospital car park. Eric parks in the same spot out of superstition. Our hideous red car in that spot holds everything together. We walk past the car park pay station and the hospital restaurant which was called Shoreline (Worthing is right on the sea) when we previously visited Dorothy here, but has now been renamed insultingly ‘the spice of life’.
“Ha ha ha,” I said the first time we saw the new sign. “That would really be the end of all hope wouldn’t it, having to eat a meal in ‘the spice of life’.
Eric promptly renamed it The Bland of Death.
The Bland Of Death became a marker in our twice daily visits to the hospital as we tried to get Dorothy to hold on to the idea that we hadn’t come to spring her and that the hospital staff weren’t likely to bring us all a tray of sandwiches no matter how nicely she instructed them to, as Christmas got closer and Eric and I made a pact with each other we’d get festive another time.
Christmas Day we showed up later than we had the previous few days and one of the nurses said sharply “She was asking for you all morning!” making us feel extra guilty for finally succumbing to jet lag and just sleeping as late as we needed. There were nurses in antlers and they gave the patients a nice Christmas lunch. Eventually we went out for a walk at the beach, which gave new meaning to the word ‘brisk’ – I have never experienced strong winds like that. It wasn’t cold, just punishingly intense. I think we enjoyed being pummeled.
Of course it made me hungry.
“Eric, we need to find a sandwich or something before we go back to the hospital. There’s a BP Station-“
“We’re not having petrol station sandwiches for Christmas! Let’s try to find something better.”
“There’s an Indian restaurant there.” It looked grim.
“What about the Harvester pub?”
“I’m not eating in the Harvester pub.” Understood.
“I hate to say it but – there’s a Toby Carvery over there,” I said, not holding out much hope as I know how Eric feels about the words “gastropub” and “carvery”.
He didn’t disappoint: “We are not going to a TobyfuckingCarvery!”
I can’t even have the satisfaction of being mad at him because I know he’s right. Imagine the dullest Denny’s at four AM on some desolate stretch of highway in Indiana or even Wyoming and you’re talking more joy.
Another grim Indian and a promising looking lit-up Co-op Supermarket that was in fact closed and surrounded by tempting food donations brought us back to the vicinity of Worthing Hospital. We pulled the glaring red car into our usual spot in the car park (Free Parking Christmas Day!) and it was unspoken or maybe one of us had to say the inevitable: we were aiming to eat Christmas dinner or at least lunch in the Bland of Death.
“Oh please let it be open, please let it be open,” I prayed. I said that I thought I might cry if we couldn’t have something to eat in the Bland of Death, and I kind of meant it.
It was four thirty in the afternoon. The cafe had closed at four.
I didn’t cry, I laughed weakly. We ended up driving back to Dorothy’s house, where she’ll probably never live again, to cook our Christmas duck breasts (they cook fast and were delicious) and then drove back to the hospital.
Dorothy was happy to see us. The woman two beds down threw her special Christmas sausage rolls across the floor. Edna in the next bed cried out endlessly for a pair of knickers lost sometime in the 1940’s. Through the darkness we could see our red rental car across the car park, across from the parking arm raised high, waving FREE PARKING FOR CHRISTMAS.
“I imagine you wish you had a different mother-in-law,” Eric’s mother said in a lucid moment.
“Excuse my language,” said Danny the Subaru mechanic, “but sometimes you need to drive the shit out of this car. Cause you’re not really a driver, are you?”
I felt hurt. I drive! I drive a lot. I love driving!
“Just take it out and really put the pedal down – don’t, y’know, endanger yourself or anybody – and don’t tell the police I told you but – in a straightaway, just get it up there fast and really blow it out…”
I’m not a driver…I’m not a driver? I WANT to be a driver. I don’t want my car sputtering and gapping because I don’t have what it takes to be a DRIVER.
When I paid the bill, Danny’s wife Amy (our conversations are usually along the lines of “Hi Amy, it’s Amy. “ “What can I do for you Amy?”) said sweetly, “Just drive the shit out of it once a week.”
So I did. The first time I felt sheepish and found myself looking over my shoulder. I thought ‘this is a job for my husband.’ He’s always putting the pedal down and has the speeding tickets to prove it. I’m kind of cautious. Sure I’ll drive seventy-five on the highway, when everybody else is, but I don’t want to get in trouble. Not that I can’t be rash. But I felt like I was trying on a new personality the first time I shot up a road not too far from our house.
It felt good. And the car started driving better. I was telling it what to do. I started looking forward to the straightaways.
* * *
“I want to pick up my product,” the man said when I asked if I could help him. He stood by the register of the bookstore/bar towards the end of a quiet Wednesday shift.
“Your product? What kind of product – something you ordered?”
“My product,” he said, already sounding exasperated. I was worried he sought something requiring discretion – hair color, an aid for erectile dysfunction, lacy panties (not that we carry any of those things) so I aimed for discretion in return.
“Kelley the owner knows I was coming in for it,” he said. “It’s a product to sell in the store that you don’t want to carry. I’m picking it up.” He started moving around to the side of the register, craning his neck to look at the shelves.
“If you could tell me what I’m looking for- “
“A product – it could be in a bag, or envelope. It’s a product I made.” He was starting to get on my nerves. We sell books. And toys. And beer and cider. Art supplies Herbal remedies. Was it animal, liquid, vegetable or mineral?
“How big is it?” I didn’t think it was rude of me to ask. “Is it hard, or soft; round or flat? It would really help if I knew what I was looking for.” I told him I’d text the owner and see where his product was.
“You do that,” he said. As I was texting, he asked if she’d responded yet.
“I’m tired of this,” he said. “You people!” He started coming around the register – “I think I see it there, I want to get it.”
“You can’t come back here, I’m sorry, just tell me what you’re looking for!” He kept coming, moving behind the bar. “You have to stop!” I cried. “I’m patient with everybody, but you’re really trying my patience, now tell me what it is you want from back there and I will get it for you.”
“You’re an asshole!” he said.
Now I’ve been called some things (not a lot of things, but a few): a slut, a tramp, a bad mother and a dilettante. But I’ve never been called an asshole. I don’t know how to be an asshole. Except for writing songs and some impulsive decisions, I’ve lived like I drive. I wish I’d learned to get angry. Sometimes assholery is required.
It’s never too late to learn.
“NO – YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE,” I said. “I’ve been trying to help you, but you won’t tell me what you’re here for. You can’t come behind the counter. Now get away,” I said, as the bar patrons suddenly started looking on, interested. Blake my co-worker stopped his conversation and came over to see what the fuss was. He handed the man a stack of colored squares like post-it notes. I heard a woman saying he’d brought them into the restaurant where she tends bar too. $40 fridge magnets.
“This place is awful!” the man was shouting now. “It’s the worst. You’re awful. You’re all awful.”
“We’re all awful?”
“Yes, you’re terrible! You’re the worst!” He was grasping his product now and backing out of the store, shouting all the while. I remembered him coming in for art supplies on many occasions, how I went out of my way to be friendly to the jerk and never even got a polite nod out of him.
“You’re an asshole!” he had to say it again.
“NO, YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE.” So I had to say it again.
“I love you, Amy,” one of the regulars said as he pushed out the door hopefully never to return.
“Amy’s nice to everyone,” another customer said.
Somebody else came up to give me a hug.
At least I hadn’t started to cry. That’s the hardest thing – when instead of being mad, instead of righteous, productive anger, the tears come. Like the sputtering of a Subaru.
I clocked out and got in my car. I’d planned to stop off for some cheese and wine to bring home. But I needed to drive.