The Gods Will Grade Us
/ by Brian Delano

 

     Betty the band van traipsed her way down an open stretch of highway somewhere near the middle of her route between Austin and San Angelo. She was born in Detroit in the early eighties and on this bright Central Texas afternoon in early 2010, she was turning middle aged. At least that would be the case if she were human. As it stood, she was an American model passenger van and by that metric she was an old hag of a machine and very ready to be put out to pasture in front of a trailer park somewhere. Her deep copper skin, once the height of fashionability and the standard of a time, was now a mark of her years and peeling at the seams. She stood out in stark contrast to the newer model, bright white cargo trailer she towed.

     The bomb strapped on top of her (a dummy, donated by a former band member and ex-drill sergeant), creaked against its tie downs and against the roof as the eastbound breeze met the northwestern wake Betty cut through the wind; the result was turbulence. The band the van currently bore clearly chose aesthetics over aerodynamics 75 percent of the time.

     Within the bowels of Betty sat a motley crew. Manning the helm was Shannon, the bassist; A late 20s, bisexual punk pixie princess with more than her fair share of scars (physical and otherwise) born of a life lived on the searing edge of adrenaline. She was most alive in situations that would stop my heart cold. Betty was technically Shannon’s, but the man in the passenger seat, Paul Tylar- Lead Singer/songwriter, lorded over that vehicle and the direction of all in it like a leather clad Loki, Norse god of chaos. Paul was an interesting head case. His legal last name was much more Jewish; it, along with most other aspects of Paul’s personality, changed drastically when Paul discovered he could wail and scream his way to social acceptance and out of a cocoon of awkward nerdiness sometime at the end of his high school career (roughly 10 years earlier). Mr. Tylar was Paul from The Wonder Years, given an impressive cocaine habit, dropped at a Sex Pistols concert, forced for months to travel with the band and learn their ways, then whisked away by the gods of Rock to the current era (there was more than likely a brief stop in the late 80s; Paul loved his makeup and insisted we doll ourselves up hours before any show). Behind Paul sat Sterling Ridings, professional chef and rhythm guitarist. Other than having a name that should have landed him a legitimate career in pornography, Sterling was an explorer of the furthest reaches of human emotion as fueled by his powerful love of whiskey. I once watched Sterling punch himself to sleep and wake up refreshed. Behind Sterling was Staci Grimm, our drummer. Staci had just developed an interesting Robitussin addiction (I would soon coin his condition as “Riding the Badger”) that prioritized him on the list of factors which could turn any band outing into a police chase. Staci, slight of build and generally elven in appearance, was once referred to as the prettiest girl in the band, he didn’t take offense. Next to Sterling and in front of Staci sat I, our lead guitarist, the youngest band member and a voyeuristic polyanna in the face of the wondrous debauchery that was Trashy and The Kid, our band. Oh, and Lindsay the merch girl was curled up on the floorboards all the way in the back, but she doesn’t really bare mentioning. She wasn’t even in the band. She didn’t even have a seat.

            There had been silence in the van for the last quarter hour. Every passenger had given in to staring out the dirty windows at the flowing emerald of Central Texas in early Spring. Somewhere in the middle distance, the green corridor of trees and bushes was beginning to give way to the sepia toned grasslands that marked the start of a transition to West Texas desert. Shannon, at the wheel, had been nervously eyeing the gas gauge for the last 10 minutes.

“Uh… hey… anyone need a restroom break?”

“What, why?” Paul whipped his attention away from daydreaming and aimed his overly concerned gaze straight at the side of her face.

“Well, we need gas.”

     Paul looked annoyed. “Didn’t you say we wouldn’t have to stop? That we’d be fine until San Angelo? We’re on a tight schedule here. We’ve gotta check in at The Dead Horse in less than 2 hours. No time for bullshit.”

     Shannon took her eyes off the road long enough to give Paul a hard glare. “We’ve been over this, man. I’m longtime friends with the owners. Rex and Lonni aren’t gonna freak out if we’re a little late.”

     Sterling’s eyes narrowed. He’d been moonlighting a physical relationship with Shannon for the past few weeks, much to Paul’s disapproval, and he knew the nature of this ‘friendship’ with the owners meant an evening’s departure from what they’d started. He stirred in his seat and leaned forward between the two. “Paul, chill the fuck out. I’ve gotta piss anyways.”

     The water tower we’d recently passed had announced our arrival in Melvin, Texas. Shannon steered Betty into the first gas station we approached. Melvin appeared to be a fairly small Texas town. Going by the gas station unit of measurement, it was recently demoted to a one pump town. The Chevron stood in dusty triumph before the gutted corpse of its only apparent former challenger, a dumpy looking Texaco. Shannon brought the van and trailer around to a clean landing in front of the pump. We all stretched and mustered ourselves for the challenge at hand.

     There are certain rules any seasoned band plays by to stay out of unsought trouble. Way up near the top of the list is recognition of the fact that small towns hate you and want you dead or gone as quickly as humanly possible. As far as the concerned, conservative tenants and patrons of the Melvin Chevron convenience store knew, the black clad, eyeliner smeared punks that had just pulled up were there to tarnish their women, pillage their valuables, and rape their livestock. We were obliged to play it cool and show unprecedented amounts of gratitude and friendliness to any and all townsfolk encountered during our stop, else be chased out at gunpoint or lynched.

     I had gritted my teeth and throttled my Mexican Coke as I stood in line behind Sterling. He hadn’t liked the condescending manner in which the uni-browed, ‘rubenesque’ cashier had drawled her way through their transaction. This was apparent in the sass he threw on his parting “You have a fine day, ma’am.” Damn! He’d riled the bull and jumped aside; now there I was in her sights.

     “Hello,” I said as meekly and non-threateningly as dignity would allow. “This will be all, thanks.” I was met with a curled lip and icy stare. She grunted something in response, below the threshold my music weathered hearing allowed for.

“Uh.. I’m sorry?”

“Buck fifty, you deaf’r somethin?”

“Um yes, of course. Here you go.”

     I paid and caught Staci out of the corner of my eye as I made my way to the door. He was perusing the cough syrup selection.

     Shannon had finished fueling up and moved our rig further back in the parking lot, closer to the abandoned Texaco. I practiced strutting as I passed over the dusty terrain, feeling the weight and power of my black leather cowboy boots like I was an extra in Tombstone. Lindsay was still using the no-doubt horrifying ladies room, so I had some time to practice looking extra cool while nurturing my newfound addiction to clove cigarettes. My evil ex-fiance of 6 years had dumped me the previous New Years Day and lighting those beautiful black tubes of tobacco and aromatic herbs had been my coping mechanism as well as my rebellion against her anti-smoking policy. Unfortunately, I still choked and gagged too often while inhaling to be convincingly badass.

     Staci was halfway to the van when he yelled out “What a mongoloid bitch!” The smirk on his face had us all concerned. “She didn’t want to sell me Robitussin!” He pulled a bottle out from his waistband and threw it through Betty’s open sliding door.

     Paul frowned. “Well then where’d that come from, Staci?”

     “The convenience store, I pulled the old ‘bait and switch’.”

     Paul’s frown deepened. “I don’t think that’s what that m…. never mind. No more trouble ok? Lets get out of here in one pi….”

     Staci, wild eyed, cut Paul off by darting in the direction of the abandoned Texaco. “Oh man, I need that!” He hollered, while scurrying through a gap in the chain link fence.

     We all stared at each other. Sterling broke the silence. “What the fuck, Staci?”

     Staci, approaching the fence again from the other side, cradled the giant red C like it was an awkward, boxy toddler. “Look at this, man. What a score!”

     I spoke. “Staci, if they were giving away chunks of signage, wouldn’t they be on the other side of this fence?”

     “They’re just gonna throw it in some landfill! We’re just taking trash off their hands, man!”

     “Ok, fair enough, but it might be a principle thing with these people. Fence laws are serious shit in Texas. You can still legally be executed by hanging for being caught trespassing while in possession of fence cutters in certain parts of this crazy ass state.” I was usually the bearer of weird, pseudo-factual knowledge in band conversations.

“Whatever man, help me strap this baby in!”

     I was staring at the three foot tall, bird crap spackled, fire engine red C that now sat between me and Sterling, contemplating the deeper metaphorical implications of coming into partial ownership of such a bizarre object, when Lindsay hopped through the sliding door.

“Hey guys! ….What’s with the C?”

     Paul looked back and rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask.” We all grinned and Shannon started Betty.

     We had been back on the road for about five minutes, clear out of Melvin proper, when the red and blue flashing lights appeared behind us. The whoop whoop of the sheriff’s cruiser cleared any disbelief from our collective minds and dropped the bottom out of every gut in the van. Trashy and The Kid was now in store for what could only prove to be an interesting conversation with the local law enforcement. Shannon obediently pulled to the side of the highway.

     “License and registration… er, ma’am?” The sheriff loomed in the driver side window, looking every bit the part. The pleated, pressed amalgamation of the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket and the antagonist in Smokey and The Bandit stared sternly at Shannon. I assume he was staring at her, no one could tell through those mirrored aviators and I’m sure that’s the way he liked it. Stepping out of my horror for a moment, I was attempting to sum up just how ‘routine’ this stop was by the expression on his face. What a poker face; I had been bested.

     Shannon handed him the appropriate paperwork and he walked back to his cruiser. As he faded from earshot, we collectively lost our shit in whispered tones. No problems were solved in those words, but I imagine it had a certain musicality to it; punctuated and given rhythm by Staci’s thrumming “oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck… ”.

     The sheriff reappeared in the driver side window, accompanied on the passenger side of Betty by an equally wooden faced deputy. They were multiplying…

“Ma’am, is that device on top a this… vehicle, active?”

     “Uh, oh… no officer. It’s a dummy.” Shannon seemed a little shaken, this was cause to worry. Paul saw an opportunity to save the day.

     “It was gifted to us by a former member. He’s a drill sergeant up at Fort Hood.” It came out a little pandering, a little pitchy, but Paul was above neither shortcoming during a performance.

     There was more silence and presumed staring through aviators, now mirrored on both sides of the van. The sheriff let his mask fall a smidge, his grin sent a chill through me.

     “We’re gonna hafta ask you folks out of yer vehicle. Routine warrant check n’ all.” Visions of the most disturbing portions of Deliverance now danced through my mind like pig squealing demons. All settings had been changed from river banks to small town jail cells and my heart was beating so violently it was about to clear my throat and occupy my sinuses.

     Of course there was a third officer standing in the grass outside Betty’s sliding door. This one seemed taller, with an even more pronounced cocksuredness about him. A quick inspection of his uniform revealed why; his badge read “Texas Ranger”. Still, only one squad car. This was most curious and unravelling the mystery was a welcome preoccupation as the sheriff ran our information to see if we warranted further torment.

     By listening very carefully to the conversation between the deputy and the ranger, I managed to gather that he was a guest of the sheriff for the day. Together they had been touring the county roads around Melvin and talking shop. I felt a little relieved. I’d been struck by a revelation on the true nature of law enforcement. They were a group, bound together by an act, given obscene amounts of power during critical moments, and just as rehearsed in their roles as any one of us hooligans were. In short, they were a type of band, too. Their costumes were a little less cool, their haircuts weren’t anywhere near those of our scene, and the only instruments they carried were the large caliber rhythm section strapped to their hips, but still- they were a band!HHh

            The sheriff handed back our licenses, wrote Shannon a fix-it ticket for a broken turn signal (later revealed to be absolutely not-broken), and handed Lindsay a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.  Was our roadside horror show really about to end with no deeper repercussions? Was that another smirk on the sheriff’s face?

            “Oh, one more thing. Did ya’ll folks happen to pick up anything at that there gas station back the road a bit?” Until that moment I had never had cause to be aware that anxiety could buckle a man’s soul. We were a band of deer in the headlight of a freight train, and that cow catcher grinned wider as it drew nearer.

            Sterling, proving himself most unshaken in the turbulent storm of self-awareness and adrenaline, managed to croak out “Yeah, a big red C from that shut down Texaco. It was outside the fence, so we figured it was trash.”

            The sheriff’s smirk inverted. What Sterling had said was a master stroke. There was no way to prove our C had been inside the fence, and there was now absolutely no way any of us would claim otherwise. Sterling had rewritten reality and saved us all.

            I stared out Betty’s smoked back window as the deputy struggled to fit the C in the trunk of the cruiser. In the end, he resigned himself to strapping it next to him in the back seat. There was something very Sesame Street about the scene as the sheriff maneuvered the squad car across the freeway and back towards Melvin. C is for cops, children, don’t you dare forget.

            The show went off without a hitch. We hit the stage, the lights hit us, the sound hit the audience, then we hit the road. The post show routine then followed: whiskey, Waffle House, whiskey, motel.

            That night, lying awake in bed at the San Angelo HoJo, surrounded by my snoring compatriots, I tried to wrestle some meaning out of our lost alphabetical brother. What had the C meant? Did it have to mean anything? I came to the conclusion that it was a manifestation of my current reality. I would turn 25 two weeks later; on tour in Manhattan. I would be broke, due to a horrible craigslist roommate (another product of the recent breakup) stiffing me on two months’ rent, but my band would have my back. They would buy my booze, and hold my shoulders as I screamed insults towards the buildings on the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets.  Everyone needs a band at some point in their life; the instruments are optional.

     The infamous ethnobotanist, Terrence McKenna, once pseudo-famously said that in his envisioning of reality, the universe dispensed every being two goods for every bad. According to him, the ratio applied to everything. Days, years, girls, gigs; everyone was supposed to get two goods per bad. During those days, in that band, I felt my percentage was riding a bit higher. I was sitting pretty; somewhere near a solid C. The gods had tested me. I felt at peace with, and grateful for, the grade they had given.