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Slade Ham SLADE HAM is a stand up comedian. He has performed in 22 countries on four continents. When not on stage, he drinks Irish whiskey on the rocks and listens to rock and roll much too loud. One day he hopes to finish his book, host a travel show, and continue to trick the world into paying him to do the things he loves to do. Slade is also an Editor for The Nervous Breakdown's Arts and Culture section. He keeps a very expensive storage unit in Houston, TX.

Recent Work By Slade Ham

Ocean’s Banana

By Slade Ham

Humor

Texas is vast.  It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate.  That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east.  A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities.  Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.

“Howdy,” says Texas.  “This ain’t Rhode Island.”

As a comedian I have traveled the entire state.  Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of.  Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms.  There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway.   Then there are the Big Three.  Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

And we pretty much hate each other.  The three cities couldn’t be more different.  Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader.  Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her.  Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.

The comedy scenes are quite different as well.  Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics.  Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg.  Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.

I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club.  Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy.  Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined.  As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.

“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says.  His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source.  “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news.  He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell.  I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much.  That would be the story they decided.  People would buy that.

“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend.  Then Spacey calls his assistant.  Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night.  The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…”  Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.

“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”

And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange.  After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night.  Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.

Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike.  Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).

I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning.  “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser.  As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.

“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.

Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks.  Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him.  I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there.  I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.

“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down.  “The Rasta Banana.”

“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”

And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.

A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before.  Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly.  I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them.  “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.

“Why?  You’re not driving my car.”

“Of course not.  I just want to, um, look at them.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.

It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us.  That was a math problem.  I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again.  Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though.  I had bigger problems.  The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside.  I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions.  He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.

Rob’s job was the girl.  I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message.  Get karaoke chick out of here.  Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her.  We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency.  No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana.  He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs.  It was perfect.  I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.

“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters.  “Shots on me at the bar.  You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside.  Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight.  It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.

I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses.  The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit.  Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle.  I dropped a twenty on the bar.  “Enjoy the shots!”

“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.

We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus.  It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants.  I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.

The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it.  Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night.  “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better.  Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it.  Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.

“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed.  It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized.  This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts.  It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later.  As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.

I live a charmed life.It wouldn’t work for most people I don’t think, but for me it is a skin tight glove, molded and designed to fit perfectly.My schedule is hectic.There are planes, and hotels, and stages, and radio stations, and studios, and rental cars, and so many different skylines that the whole world begins to bleed together like a chalk drawing in the rain.

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.

This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.

You just never know.

I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.

We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.

Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.

The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.

The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.

I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.

“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.

He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”

“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”

“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”

“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”

“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.

“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone must be broken.”

“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.

Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.

Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.

“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.

So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.

I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”

“They fried it.”

“I’m serious.”

“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”

“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”

And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.

“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.

“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.

“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.

“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”

The Dogs of War

By Slade Ham

Humor

Character is what we are in times of crisis or when no one’s watching or some other strange set of criteria. For the last week I have been plagued by visitors in the night, sent to attack me and me alone, determined, I believe, to watch me in action and see how I respond. It feels like a psychology experiment gone bad, like the Milgram Experiment or that Stanford Prison thing. Maybe not that bad, but I still feel as if I’m being toyed with.

I lay in bed at night and I hear them coming. Whispers and clicks in the dark, the invaders peer through the inky black and wait for exhaustion to drag me into an uneasy sleep. They organize and plot and look for the perfect opening, and then they come for my socks.

These fucking squirrels.

But it’s not just the squirrels. The entire animal kingdom seems out to get me. Whether it’s rabid cats, mercenary mosquitoes, or obnoxious birds, I’m like the opposite of Dr. Doolittle.

I moved in late summer to a garage apartment, a perfect little spot for a constant traveler. It’s big by apartment standards and comfortable. There’s a place for my car and my motorcycle and all of my stuff fits exactly as it should. My bookshelf is full of the volumes I’ve collected in the last year punctuated by a thousand trinkets and memories from my travels. My desk sits on one side of the living room, my dual monitors surrounded by speakers. This is a place I can get stuff done. My bedroom faces south so the sunlight is constant. I opted not put up blackout curtains so that it would jar me out of bed and into productivity on most mornings. My brilliant plan to surface at eight or nine has been preempted though.

My apartment sits isolated from my neighbors in the middle of four intersecting backyards and one of those backyards is home to a rooster. A rooster, a rooster, a ROOSTER, inside the loop in Houston, Texas.

It’s more elusive than one would expect a rooster to be, too. It is borderline ninja and I know this because I’ve tried to kill it. I have a really hard time contemplating hurting an animal. I’ve never been hunting and I’m a total sucker for the animals of any sort. I could cause harm to a human much more easily than I ever could an animal, but it’s not a human standing in the backyard cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5:00 am, seven days week.

The woman that owns that house is bat-shit crazy. She won’t answer her door for me or the police. For all I know she could be dead herself. The wooden fence around her yard is painted with bright red hearts and catchy little hippie phrases like Animals Are People Too! and One Planet, One Love. The sign on the door that I have beat on every morning for the last month reads I maintain this house for the comfort of my cats. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with me. She places the welfare of these animals above my own, and for that I hate this woman. She is a hopeless PETA-head, and that is why I bought the slingshot.

I’ve collected a good number of small rocks (ball bearings would look too much like evidence) and from my bathroom window I can see into her backyard. The rooster prances up and down a particular path, hidden almost entirely behind the branches of a low-hanging tree. It knows it is safe, but that hasn’t stopped me from rifling pebble after pebble through the leaves in an attempt to hit him. He of course knows this, and waits until I have shut the window and given up. Then he runs up to the fence and lets out another mad cackle before darting back to the cover of the brush. THWOP, THWOP, THWOP. Three more rocks rip through the air and hit nothing. “Goddamn bird!” I yell. “I’m gonna shoot you in your little rooster face.”

I want to drag its carcass to the hippie’s doorstep and bang away until she’s forced to answer. “Looks like people can be animals, too!” I’ll say, with wild eyes and chicken blood running down my arms. What criminal mind houses a yard full of birds and a house full of cats with such disregard for others? Probably the kind of person that would raise an army of attack squirrels. I bet my invaders are the product of her animal friendly lifestyle as well. She probably hand fed them and took them in, and now that she has sixty-three cats they need a new place to hang out, hence the velvet rope and the bouncer outside the squirrel dance club that my attic has become.

And now I am not safe inside.

A few days ago I woke up to the morning crowing and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Bleary-eyed and headachey, I poured my first cup. As I started to gain my focus I noticed a sock hanging out from under the counter. “Did something happen last night that I don’t remember?” I think to myself. “Why would I take my socks off in the kitchen? Did I try to put them in the cabinet? How drunk was I? This makes no sense.”

Pulling the sock out from the opening underneath the base board, I noticed that it had several holes in it. “Squirrels,” I growl. I’ve known they were here for a while. It’s an older place and there are plenty of openings that allow them into the attic. I hear them constantly but I’ve remained unconcerned. Once I knew that they weren’t mice or rats – the piles of nuts in the attic and the sight of actual squirrels hopping from the power lines onto my roof cinched that – I just resigned myself to being a winter refuge for the fuzzy little things.

But now they’re taunting me. They’re literally stealing my socks – as if my clothes dryer wasn’t already doing enough of that. They are strategic. To get my socks requires some investigation. While I will occasionally leave a pair lying in the living room (one of the perks of bachelorhood), they usually end up in my bedroom. None of my other clothes are touched, nor are the dish towels or the beanie I left laying on my desk or the bag of Cheetos Puffs on top of my microwave. They’re selective little creatures. I mean, it takes determination to say no to those Cheetos. Cheetos are delicious.

They seem content to only drag the socks as far as the holes under the cabinets too. They don’t take them all the way inside, but leave them hanging out just enough to let me know they were there. It’s a form of counting coup, I’m afraid, and this is why I feel I’m being experimented on. It’s as if they know that I am incapable of simply trapping them or killing them. They want to see how I’ll react.  They know that boredom will entice me to fight back. I have moved anything cloth-like to my bedroom now and I make sure the door is shut when I leave. Then I place one sock strategically in the middle of my dining room floor before I make my exit or turn in for the night. I have to know if they come, and come they do, but never when I can see them.

I sit on my couch and stare like a child waiting for Santa. Unable to stay awake, my eyes finally close, only briefly, and then snap open again to find the sock tucked neatly in its little cubbyhole under the sink. “How the hell did you do that?!?!” I yell. Somewhere a squirrel rolls around on the floor laughing and high-fiving his friends. I rip the sock out from the hole and throw it back on the floor. “I’m going to bed, you bastard!” I yell at nothing whatsoever. “Come get your stupid sock if you want it!” Then I wake up the next morning to find it sitting exactly where I left it. It’s no fun for them if I don’t care, it seems.

So I have to formulate a plan before I go out of town again. I have to get rid of them. I don’t know if I am up against one rogue animal or a hundred. In my mind, my walls and my attic are now one big Squirrel Kingdom. Buttons and thimbles and scores of socks line the halls of a Secret of NIMH world. Will taking one of these creatures out be enough? Should I trap one and leave it bound in the middle of my kitchen floor as a warning to other squirrels? Should I poison a sock? Buy an owl? I don’t know what to do exactly.

I know that the gauntlet has been thrown down though. They started this, this thing with the socks. “Cry Havoc,” I say, “and let slip the dogs of war!” And maybe that’s the answer – actual dogs. Or a fox. A fox would eat the squirrels and the rooster. I want to put on face paint and get a ghillie suit and hide with my slingshot. I want to set up a box and a stick with a string tied to one of my socks. I want a jet pack and some rocket skates and I want to paint a fake tunnel on my wall like Wile E. Coyote. I want to put the squirrels and the rooster and all their little friends in one big bag and toss it into the ocean – and then blow up the ocean.

I want to win.

Maybe I should focus on the flower child in the house behind me, maybe point my slingshot at her instead. Cut off the head and the monster dies, right? Maybe she’s like the Other Mother in Coraline. Who takes their animals that seriously? Seriously. These things are interrupting my lifestyle and her desire to protect them only makes me angrier. Now I want to cook steak with my windows open so she has to smell it. And I want a fur coat. And I want to beat a baby seal to death with an endangered penguin. Her “Save the animals” mission has clearly had the opposite effect on me.

But for now, I will continue to type, stopping every sentence or two to pause my music and glance into the kitchen and try to catch a glimpse of the cocky little rodent as it mocks me. Because right now I am clearly not winning. Right now I am losing.

And badly.

I can hear the squirrels flitting back and forth on the roof even now. I can hear the rooster too, cluck-cluck-clucking just feet outside of my apartment. I cut my eyes across the desk to the slingshot. “I could go outside and kill them all right this second,” I think.

And I would, too, if only I could find a pair of socks.

“So the Death Star is the woman?” Sam asked.

“Yes!Finally!Someone else finally gets it.I’ve been trying to say that for half an hour,” the stripper said.She had to be a stripper.I had been passively sitting at a table in the back room of the Laff Stop, sipping on a Jameson and watching this nuclear winter of a conversation for the past twenty minutes.

Hard Eight

By Slade Ham

Memoir

Las Vegas would probably make my head explode.  I’ve been hiding in my hotel room as much as possible, huddled away safely distant from the blinking lights and the clanging bells of the casino floor beneath me.  I walked to the showroom earlier to see the layout, and then out to the pool to avoid the mile wide marketing ploys of my temporary employers, but now I have to go back down there.  I have a show tonight at one of the Choctaw Nation’s properties in Oklahoma.  The flashing neon flytrap I have to walk through to get to that show brings me mixed emotions.

Despite my own penchant for risky behavior, I am not a big gambler.  Blackjack amuses me because it offers the most control but poker is my only real temptation.  Even then, I prefer to stay out of the casino poker rooms and would much rather shuffle my chips amongst a group of friends.  It’s just such obviously orchestrated bullshit, the casino experience as a whole.  My job tonight is to make no bets at all.  Tell jokes, collect a check, soak in the hot tub, and go home.

It’s hard though.

Maddening patterns on the carpet floors keep your head up and moving.  Just when you focus on one thing, another thing blinks or pops out of the corner of your eye.  Look at this!  No this!  No that! Ancient, wrinkled women and men lie propped up, possibly deceased, against rows of slot machines.  The bars spin and stop, another loser.  Occasionally a distant bell signals a big winner, prolonging the myth of victory and encouraging the living dead to feed another twenty into the slot.  Somewhere a grandchild goes without college.

A man and woman pass me in hallway.  He is furious.  She is staring blankly ahead.  There aren’t enough lights in the world to distract her now, and even if they could, she has just cleaned out their bank account.  I know this because the man just said, “You realize that you cleaned out our entire motherfucking bank account, right?”  This poor guy.  God, have I been there.

He must be new at this.  He obviously hasn’t gone through it enough times yet to keep a separate, hidden account.  She still has access to his money.  You’re dating an obsessive gambler, I want to tell him.  You can’t share finances with her.  You have to hide your cash like Anne Frank at Oktoberfest, you dummy.  Believe me.  I know.

* * *

My ex was the queen of the casino.  Beaumont, Texas is a little city thirty minutes west of the Louisiana border.  Louisiana law makes it easy to gamble.  As long as a casino isn’t on actually land the government allows it so, scattered throughout the state are riverboats, perched inches away from shore and welcoming anyone that wants to lose a few dollars inside.

Table games are forced into the waterways but video poker is allowed everywhere.  There’s not a gas station or restaurant in the state that doesn’t have a series of eight-liners against one wall or another.  Brittany found them all.  She bet just to bet.  It was a compulsion.  She had VIP player’s cards at every one of the major casinos and the pit bosses all knew her by name.

I went with her for a while in the beginning, before I realized she had a problem.  I quit going the first time she bit me.  She had run out of money and thought she could somehow win back the six hundred dollars she had just blown – if I would only give her a twenty.  When I refused she leaned in and bit me, violently, then pickpocketed me while I inspected the wound.  She went on her own after that.

She would walk past security like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven.  I don’t remember if that ever happened in the movie or not, but I imagine it did, and encourage you to imagine it as well so my comparison will make sense.  Guards waved at her when she sauntered by and you could actually see wind blow through her hair in slow motion, even indoors.  Music played.  Employees greeted her by name.  She strode past the patrons at the five and ten dollar tables.  The common folk.  The riff raff.  Back to the high roller room, the casino staff practically carried her on their shoulders.  She wasn’t there to lose small amounts, dammit.  She was there to lose it all.

And this wasn’t a girl with a trust fund to squander or someone with a lawyer’s salary and a pricey vice.  Brittany was a waitress.  She took a week’s worth of tips and spun it into gold… before spinning it right back into nothing again.  It’s the gambler’s dilemma, not knowing when to stop.  Brittany was good.  Very good.  She just couldn’t quit while she was ahead.

My cell phone rang one morning at 8:00 am.  She had been gone for two days and was finally calling.  “I’m coming home,” she said.  “And you’re not going to believe this.”

She pulled up to the apartment in a shiny new black Chrysler Sebring.  “What happened to the Escort?” I asked.

“I left it at the dealership when I bought this one.’

“You bought a car?  At 8:00 am?”

“Yep.  Told the guy I’d give him a hundred bucks if he’d unlock the door and sell it to me.”

“So you won then?”

“Thirty-five thousand.  Blackjack.  It took a while and I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  ‘Night.”

“Goodnight?  It’s morning,” I started to say, but she was already inside.

No wonder they loved her there.  She partied with reckless abandon, flinging hundred dollar chips around like quarters and almost certainly out-drinking and out-cussing everyone else at the table.  When she was on, she was on.  She never played it safe.  Blackjack, three card poker, craps, it didn’t matter.  Pass line?  No thanks.  Put it all on hard eight.

She fell asleep for a few hours and was back on the road to Louisiana almost immediately.  She shouldn’t have gone.  She should have quit.  Forever.  She had thirty-five thousand reasons to stop, yet twenty-four hours after her nap, she had not only lost every dollar from the day before, but an additional twenty thousand that the casino had given her as a marker.  She threw the money away like a crack head mother tossing out an unwanted baby.  It couldn’t have been gone faster if she’d put it directly into a dumpster.  It was staggering.

Casinos put signs up displaying a phone number to call if you have a gambling problem, but no one ever calls them.  It’s a drug, that feeling of victory.  Doubling down and getting your ten.  Splitting aces and watching them both hit.  Seeing the dealer draw to a bust.  It’s an incredible endorphin rush.  But it is still a drug.

Brittany would bet on just about anything.  That was almost the only way to get her to not go gambling – to bet her that she wouldn’t stay home.

* * *

So yes.  As I pass this girl in the hallway, I recognize the look.  The empty stare painted on the face of this now penniless zombie scares me a little bit.  It sends a ripple of goose bumps up my arm as I walk past.

“What are we going to do about Tommy?” she asks the pissed off guy walking ahead of her.

I don’t know who Tommy is, but I’m guessing he was relying on a portion of their bank account for something important.  He might be their son or her brother or a loan shark with an itchy trigger finger.

“Fuck Tommy,” says the man.  “We don’t even have enough gas to get home.”

As the two of them make their way down the hall to the exit, I turn my gaze to follow them.  Are they really just going to go stand outside by the car?  Maybe they’re going to walk home.  Maybe he will sell her into slavery for gas money.  I want to be sympathetic, but that guy has to learn his lesson sometime, doesn’t he?

Right now, I have my own set of problems.  I have to go into a room full of shattered financial dreams and empty wallets.  I have to stare at seats filled with broken souls taking advantage of a free show, probably the only thing they can still afford, and somehow figure out a way to make them laugh.

The casino wants the show clean, too.  I don’t work that dirty to begin with, but I still hate having the limitation thrown on my shoulders.  “Our customers have high moral values,” the manager tells me.  “They don’t use language like that.”  I laugh on the inside.

I can see them through the curtain from backstage.  The disappointment drips silently down their faces like frustrated molasses.  Arms crossed, they sit in the showroom, waiting.  We’re out of cash, their eyes tell me.  We’re beaten and we’re broke.  Now make us laugh, Chuckle Monkey.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even the holiest of these people have uttered the word “fuck” once or twice in the last few hours.

I don’t particularly want to walk out there right now but I have to.  My opening act just said goodnight and I’m about to be introduced.  The music is playing.  They can’t be that bad, right?  This show is going to be fine, I tell myself.

And then my subconscious answers me.  “Wanna bet?”


*While Lenore Zion found the retarded kind and Megan DiLullo stumbled upon the sexy type, I only got the violent one.*

I’ve been punched in the face a lot in my life.  My mouth has often made promises that my body wasn’t quite prepared to defend, but that my ego wouldn’t let me back out of either.  A dangerous grouping those three, the mouth, body, and ego.  They never seem to agree on anything.  Not mine anyway, hence that punching in the face part.

I have a list a mile long of things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have, and that list is only slightly longer than the one of stuff I still do that I shouldn’t.  None of the good stories have ever come from playing it safe.  Not one, which is why I’ve always been so quick to leap into the fray haphazardly.

But those are the actions of the young and invincible, I tell myself.  War should not be waged in the physical ways of my youth, but with intelligence and maturity now.  A cleverly crafted phrase, I try to convince myself, is far more effective than a strong right cross.

And yet somehow, despite the best of intentions, I can’t quite shake my former tendencies.

Like that one night, when I may or may not have beat up a midget.

In my defense, the midget did start it.  I was hanging out after a show late one Saturday night with my regular opening act on the road, a stocky black guy named Sam.  The clinking of ice signaled that we were empty, and we ordered another round of James and Jack and got change for another five.  He and I have had an ongoing competition for years now, feeding dollar after dollar into the mechanical punching bags that bars began installing once they realized that alcohol and testosterone were worth a fortune when combined.

Basically, for fifty cents, a little leather bag drops from the machine and registers how hard you punch it.  It is mindless fun and a matter of bragging rights amongst the guys.  With a healthy buzz, I fed another buck into the machine and swung.  As I connected, I heard a voice behind me say, “You hit like a bitch!”

I immediately turned around.  Maybe it was tunnel vision or maybe I simply didn’t look far enough down, but when I spun to look, no one was there.  I turned back around to swing again, and I was interrupted mid-stride by the same high pitched voice.  “You gonna hit it harder this time?  Pussy.”

That’s when I saw him.  Four foot tall on the dot, there stood the most confident midget I had ever seen in my life.  I leaned forward with my hands on my knees and I looked down at him, squinting at him like I was trying to make out fine print.

“What, bitch?” he said, and threw his arms out to the side.  The stubby limbs hung there, taunting me.  Beckoning me.  Challenging me.

“You can’t do it,” Sam said to me, shaking his head.

“Can’t what?”

“You can’t beat up a midget.  You won’t win.”

“You don’t think I can kick a midget’s ass?” I fired back.

“That’s not what I mean,” he said.  “It’s just that even if you do win… you still kinda lose, man.”

“Brilliant,” I replied, suddenly happy to have been saved from the embarrassment of beating up a midget.  “So what then?”

“You have to be the bigger man.”

“Did you seriously just say that?”

Sam laughed.  “C’mon, man.  Let’s go.”

As we turned for the door we pushed past the angry little dwarf, who wasn’t as content to let things slide as we were.  He pushed his little midget shoulder into my leg and threw down the gauntlet.  “Yeah, you better leave, motherfucker!” he yelled up at us.

“What?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“You better leave before you get your ass kicked. Because- “

Now, this is probably where the night turned sideways.  I couldn’t even begin to guess what this little creature’s explanation was going to be for how he planned to hurt me.  His “because” seemed to hang in the air forever.  The only thing I could imagine was that he was going to suddenly pull back a curtain and reveal an entire midget army armed for battle; a thousand tiny goblin soldiers poised to attack with spikes on the tips of their boots and their teeth filed into fangs, while David Bowie sang about a baby.

“Because why?” I asked.

“Because I’m in the UFC,” the midget finally said.

“Unless they paint a number on your chest and the ring girls hold you over their heads between rounds, you’re not in the fucking UFC,” I shot back.

Now you’re allowed to fight him,” Sam said.

I lunged forward, and the midget shot for the door.  I don’t know if you know this or not, because few people do, but midgets are supernaturally fast and they click when they run.  Click click click click click.  Like a beetle.  Click click click.  You can Google it.

“He’s getting away!” I shouted, and pushed my way through the crowd after him.

“Throw your shoe at it!” Sam yelled to me.

“What?”

“Your shoe!  You never saw Leprechaun?”

“Huh?”

“The movie?  With Jennifer Aniston?  Whatever.  If you throw a shoe at a leprechaun, they have to stop and polish it.”

Ridiculous, I thought.  I wasn’t going to beat this thing with mythology.  I didn’t need rumor and folklore; I needed fact.  I had to find a way to do some real damage to this midget.

We made it out through the front door to find the little elf clicking off and away down the sidewalk.  I took off after him on what was, in my drunken mind anyway, a straight line, but was more than likely one of those Jeffy’s dotted line moments from Family Circus.  All I know for certain is that I eventually caught up with him.  As I drew near he turned around and growled at me, little midget juice dripping from its fangs.

“Rawr!”

The midget’s claim to have a background in mixed martial arts was at least partially true.  In MMA, when an attacker shoots in for a takedown, a standard defense is to “sprawl”, or flatten out forward so that your legs can’t be wrapped up and controlled.  As I got to the little creature, it did just that, except I was in no way actually attempting a takedown.  I just sort of stood there while he dove forward and landed on his bulbous skull like a weeble-wobble that didn’t make it all the way back up.

My gut told me to jump up and land on his head, because everyone knows if you do that gold coins come out.  I remember reading that as a child somewhere.  Maybe the Bible.  Then, I remembered how lopsided and misshapen midget heads can be and thought better of it, lest I turn my ankle.

There’s honestly not a lot you can do with a fallen midget.  It’s a sad truth, really.  You can either watch as they try to pick themselves up, which is like watching an upside down turtle struggle, or you can attack.  It seemed unfair to kick him so I dove on top, twisting his leg into an impossible lock.  A leg lock might not sound that impressive, but consider first how hard it is to actually locate a midget’s knee, and the degree of difficulty becomes much more apparent.

By this point, the bouncers had arrived and begun to pull me away.  As I turned to wrestle with them I saw Sam tee off with a vicious right uppercut to the side of the hobbit’s head, easily lifting him three feet off the ground and knocking him backwards.  He landed with a thud and then, beyond all explanation, popped right back up and ran off.

Click click click.

The only explanation is magic.  Midgets can do magic.  Sam’s punch would have knocked a rhinoceros unconscious.  A forty-eight inch man-child couldn’t have survived it, yet somehow he did.  And as that mystical little man clickety-clacked off into the night, my only recourse, since I could no longer reach him physically, was to throw a final verbal blow.

“I hope-” I yelled after him, “I hope you get eaten by an owl!”

Sam and I shook the dust off and made our way back inside.  “I can’t believe I let myself do that,” I said.

“What?  Get in a fight?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I thought I was grown up enough to walk away from it.”

“Well, look at it this way.  At least your last shot wasn’t a physical one.  You gotta start somewhere.”

“I didn’t think of it that way.  Baby steps, right?  Maybe I’m growing up after all.”

“Nah,” Sam said.  “You did just beat up a midget.”

“Shut up and give me a dollar,” I said.  “It’s my turn.”


On June 23, near the end of TPAC 2010, Simon Smithson and Zara Potts made their way to Dallas to meet fellow TNBers Slade Ham and Richard Cox.  Like most of their other visits, the friends from Down Under had never met their hosts in person before, and they were eager to see how reality matched up with the online presence of their two friends. What follows are selected excerpts from a transcript each of the four wrote about their experience.

And there might just be a bit of a surprise when you get to the end.  We’ll get to that in a bit though.

For now, enjoy.


* * *

 

Slade Ham: I have four rules for kids. Don’t get them wet, keep them out of sunlight, never feed them after midnight, and keep them out of planes. So when I got on the plane to Dallas and I saw a two-year-old sitting and staring at me, I knew, man. I knew there was a chance for trouble.

And this kid knew it, too. He had that look that kids get when they can see through your eyes and right into the back of your skull. He was like, “If my apple juice doesn’t get here right on time…”

So I telepathically sent this kid a message and made him a deal. I focused my thoughts and beamed a transmission across the plane cabin to him. “If you’re good,” I said, “I’m going to get my friends the Wiggles to play a concert at your house.” The kid’s mouth, which had been so ready to fall open, locked shut, and stayed that way for the rest of the flight. And when we got off the plane, I sent him another message.

“Lesson One, kid. Don’t trust adults who send you telepathic messages on plane flights. I’m not friends with the Wiggles.”  I walked out of the plane, and behind me, I heard the crying start.

That’s what you get for bringing a baby on a plane.


Richard Cox: It was already past noon when I finally left Tulsa for Dallas.

Still, I figured I’d be there in plenty of time to meet ZaraPotts and Simon Smithson, who were coming from Baton Rouge and probably dead tired and running late. Even the road construction and traffic didn’t concern me, at least not until Zara called and told me, in her impenetrable accent, they were already entering Dallas.

“What a load of horseshit,” I thought, since I was till two hours away.

“Where are you, Richrob?” ZaraPotts asked. She’s been calling me “Richrob” ever since she mistakenly addressed me as ‘Rob’ in a comment on The Nervous Breakdown. Apparently she had been thinking about Rob Lowe at the time, but I’m not sure I believe that. I mean, has Rob Lowe been relevant since 1989?


Simon Smithson: I found his work in Thank You For Smoking to be excellent, thank you, Richard.


Richard:  Put a sock in it, Simon.


Zara Rose Potts:  Shut up both of you! It’s my turn.


Simon and Richard: Fine.


Zara:  Dallas appears suddenly on the horizon, like a shimmering mirage. It is a gleaming skyline of sunlight on glass buildings but I do not care.

I am tired and the traveling has almost defeated me.  Not just me. Us. Simon and I both are exhausted from the miles of concrete road we have traversed.

Fortunately for him, he is only required to lie comfortably in the passenger seat and ponder why the rear-vision mirrors don’t work the same way here that they do at home.

Our hotel is blue and yellow. There is only one bed in our room, but we are not concerned. We are just happy to be at rest.

It is only five in the afternoon, but already I want to fall asleep in that single, simple bed. Simon receives a text. Richrob and Slade are just now leaving the airport.



Simon: As this was our first foray into the Lone Star State, Zara and I expected to share the highway with cowboys on horseback. Or at the very least oil barons driving vintage convertible Cadillacs with the tops down. Instead we found more of the same-semi trucks, pickup trucks, and SUVs. Finally we made it to Dallas, and after a few phone conversations with Mr. Cox, who arranged the accommodations, we reached our downtown hotel. Slade’s flight from Houston was scheduled to coincide with our own arrival, but as luck would have it, the plane was running late. As was Richard, who was driving in from Tulsa.  We had time to kill, it seemed.


Slade: Richard was waiting by the flight desk, hitting on one of the stewardesses. I heard him as I was walking up.

”And the sexy thing about particles,” he was saying, ‘is that it doesn’t take much for them to bond. Just a little flicker of… electricity.”


Richard: I didn’t try to pick up a girl talking about physics.


Slade: Well, that’s the show going on in MY head.  You write your own version.


Zara: Was it Amy, Richrob?


Slade: Why didn’t you dance for her?


Richard: We haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet and you guys are already embellishing it.


Slade: Because it’s hilarious!  Anyway, as I was saying, this girl was levitating out of her chair. There was a clear two inches of space between her feet and the floor. Her eyes were locked onto his lips like there was a secret tractor beam in his mouth. That’s when I slapped my boy on the shoulder.

“Yo, Richard Cox!” I said. “Slade Ham!”

Cox? Blocked.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Richard: Enough.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Slade: Richard is like the male equivalent of the chick from Weird Science, if she were a dude. He’s tall, and tanned, and good-looking and one charming motherfucker. And he’s so pleasant he’d make Mr. Rogers look like Freddy Krueger.

“Hey, Slade!” he said. “Nice to meet you, man. Simon and Zara are already at the hotel; they must have driven three hundred miles an hour to get here so fast.”

“Screw those bitches,” I said. “Let’s go get drunk. Nah, I’m kidding. Let’s go meet them. I hope they don’t suck.”


Richard: You didn’t actually say that.


Slade: Still my version, Rich.  Plus, I was thinking it.


Richard:  Eventually, I made it to Dallas and called ahead to let Slade know I was close by. He’d flown in from Houston and was at the airport waiting for me, but as soon as I got off the phone, traffic came to a complete stop and it took me forty minutes to travel five miles.

There wasn’t time for introductions or pleasantries because we were already running late. But it didn’t seem to matter, because for some reason I already felt like Slade and I were best buds. Finally we reached the hotel. I figured Slade and I would have time to put our luggage away and change clothes before we met our overseas friends, but as soon as we entered the lobby, we were spotted by Simon and ZaraPotts, who were already enjoying many glasses of champagne.


Zara:  Shit. Maybe I did drink more than I thought I did.


Richard: You did.


Slade: Total lush, actually.


Zara:  But not as much as you did Slade. Or you Richrob. Want me to tell them about Peaches?


Richard: You’re going to, anyway. I’ve already read this post.


Simon: Let’s get on with this, shall we?

You never know what to expect when you meet online friends. When our Texas visitors finally arrived, they strode into the hotel lobby talking like old friends. I honestly thought they were, and then we learned they had only met twenty minutes before at Love Field (which, before you get any strange ideas, is a nearby airport.) Slade and Richard were both taller than I had imagined, but more than that they carried a certain presence that made them seem even larger.

Zara and I walked over to greet them, and it was if we all had known each other for years, like we were old friends seeing each other after a long time apart. It’s difficult to explain, really, why we would feel that way. Of course many of us have conversed on TNB, or exchanged emails…but still, when you’ve never met someone in person you expect a certain awkward moment of moving a relationship from the online world to the real one. But with Slade and Richard it wasn’t like that at all.


Zara:  I decide on a glass of champagne. It bubbles and pops golden in the glass as I upload pictures from the last leg of our trip.

An hour passes, then two. I am certain that I will never like them enough to make up for having to wait this long.

The doors to the hotel slide open and they walk in. Simon notices them first. They are giants. In a Texas way. A good way.

It’s strange how quickly they run over to us, and we to them.  We hug in the lobby, happy to see each other again, or for the first time.  Already the line is blurry.


Slade: OK, so Simon and Zara. I like these guys.

Because as soon as we met, it was like we’d all known each other for twenty years. Simon said the same thing about me and Richard – he figured me and Rich were old pals, because we already had that easy kind of rapport. Same thing with Simon and Zara, except they talk weird.

So we went over to the counter to check in, and the desk clerk looked at us, looked at the ledger, looked back at us, and said “Sure. Sixth floor.  The room with just one bed.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Just one bed?”

Richard just glared at me. “I swear I didn’t know,” he said.


Richard: I didn’t.


Slade: Now, I don’t know if Rich knew or not…


Richard: Really, I didn’t.


Slade: …but Zara didn’t understand what the problem was.  “Why can’t you just share a bed?” she asked.

Simon got it.  “Two guys,” he said, and he exhaled, real slow. “Two guys can’t share a bed. What if, in the middle of the night, one of them… slips?”

Exactly.


Richard: Have you ever had that feeling when you meet someone, that you feel like you’ve known them forever? That’s how it felt meeting Simon and Zara. It felt like we were greeting old friends who we hadn’t seen for years. I noticed details about everyone, matching them with the images I already had of them in my mind.

Slade was funny and generous with both his laughter and conversation.


Slade: And really good looking.


Richard: Simon was as tall as I thought he would be, though he seemed to have more physical presence than I had imagined.


Simon: It’s probably because I’m so handsome.


Slade: Thief.  I just said that about myself.


Zara: He did say it first.  Both you are being insufferable.


Richard: Zara was beautiful the way I knew she would be. And she smiled and smiled.

We sat down to talk, and as the conversation progressed I noticed the ease Simon and Zara felt with each other. They seemed like sister and brother in the way they interacted with both themselves and us.


Simon: Once the two of them had put away their luggage and changed clothes, we sat for a time in the lobby talking. About our trip, about theirs, about TNB and Dallas and how goddamn hot it was. We kept pointing out that we should go find something to eat, since we were all hungry, but no one seemed ready to make a move. Finally we left on foot and went to find a restaurant, no particular destination in mind, and finally Richard suggested Mexican food.

We ended up on the roof of the Iron Cactus. The restaurant commanded a spectacular view, and the live music was a solo guitarist who played everything from 60s rock to Radiohead. Richard wouldn’t stop raving about him. I don’t know if it was the music or the margaritas that put the smile on his face. Either way, the setting for our TNB dinner would have been perfect if not for the oppressive heat.

We ordered our various dishes and immediately Slade began to hit on the waitress.


Slade: Just because I have flirty eyes doesn’t mean I was hitting on her…


Simon: You were totally hitting on her. I don’t remember her name, but Slade certainly did…


Zara:  Are you sure about that?


Slade: Yeah.  It was Jillian.


Simon: …and he used it liberally as he queried her about possible local bars to visit after dinner. She suggested both the City Tavern and the One-Eyed Penguin, and when Slade asked her to join us, she told him she might just do that.

“I get off at eleven,” said the waitress, and Slade just smiled. I imagined him thinking, “We’ll see about that.”


Zara:  Upstairs on the rooftop, I order a mojito and dip crispy chips into a bowl of fresh red salsa.  The mingling tastes of cilantro and mint and salt make me smile.


Slade: That would be you drinking again, Z.



Zara: An acoustic guitar strums a few tables away from us and Richrob recognizes every song played.  Our conversation dances effortlessly from writing to food and back to the music.

The heat and humidity would be unbearable were it not for the drinks. Perspiration builds on the sides of our glasses and leaks onto the table, the trickling rivulets running suicidal towards the edge.

Slade finally takes off his sunglasses as the sun dips below the skyline.

He’s also managed to catch the attention of our waitress. Her name is Erin, or something else young and waitress-y…


Slade: Jillian, goddammit.


Zara:  …and their eyes flirt as she returns with another tray full of drinks. I slip downstairs for a quick cigarette, and when I return Slade has already talked Erin…


Slade: Fucking Jillian!


Zara: …out of the names of a few of her favorite bars.


Slade: I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun just with dinner and hanging out. We ate Texas Mexican at a rooftop restaurant and the waitress, JILLIAN, came over and started talking to us about sleep cycles and The Nervous Breakdown. She recommended a bar called The One-Eyed Penguin for us to go to afterwards.

“They got this one-eyed penguin suit,” she said. “Sometimes people wear it.”

We all turned and looked at Zara.


Zara:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Lucky for you.  You were two mojitos away from looking like an extra in Happy Feet.


Simon: When dinner was over we headed downstairs and into the street. By then we were all a bit drunk and no longer concerned with the heavy heat. Zara convinced Richard and Slade to swear into the camera as she shot video of us. “Motherfucker” seemed to be the American word of choice. I took random pictures of the nearby buildings and smiled. Slade and I fell into an easy conversation, like brothers, and Richard escorted Zara, gentlemanly positioning himself between her and the street.



Zara:  The night air is no cooler than the day here. It is as thick as seawater, but our laughter cuts through it like a ringing bell.

Simon and Slade share a story behind us while Richrob moves to my other side – the Southern gentleman thing to do – so that I do not have to walk closest to the street.

I am impressed. How could I not be?

Slade and Simon could be brothers. We all could be for that matter.

This is how things are supposed to be.


Slade: We’re really sucking up to each other in this post.


Zara: It’s because we’re all amazing.


Richard:  It was now time to unleash the Kraken, a black spiced rum that I had discovered quite by chance a few weeks earlier. I was determined that our visitors would taste the awesome power of this terrible drink, but the bar we went to didn’t know what I was talking about. Absurd.


Slade: I agreed to a shot of this rum begrudgingly.  I had done a wonderful job of keeping to my strictly whiskey diet.


Simon:  Hey, has anyone else noticed our interjections sound like director’s commentary on a DVD?


Zara:  Has anyone else noticed Richrob’s absurd use of the word absurd?


Slade: Has anyone else noticed that we’re about to get totally hammered?


Simon:  So we stopped first at the City Tavern, which was a tavern in every sense of the word…lots of dark wood and comfortable booths and a long bar populated by regulars. By now Zara was only sipping on her drinks, but Slade and Richard and I were kicking into another gear. We began to imitate each other’s accents. Richard picked up the Australian lilt fairly well, but Slade struggled to divest himself of the English accent he spoke so well. We took some great photos there, including this one in which a stray bartender decided to liven things a bit with his outstretched arms.




Richard:  And there was the hot, young blonde talking to some old fat dude that we thought must have been a blind date or something even worse. Instead he turned out to be her husband.


Zara: God. What is it with men and their constant checking out of women?


Slade: I know. What a mismatch, right? Anyway, we left the City Tavern in search of the Kraken. If you’ve never had it, you’ve never had a spiced rum named after a sea monster, and you’re probably better off for it. It turns out you can get it at the One-Eyed Penguin. Be careful though, because it also turns out the One-Eyed Penguin is a karaoke bar, which Jillian the waitress had neglected to mention. Here are my rules for karaoke:

1. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you had better not look like Peaches.

2. If you’re going to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, you had better know the words. Seriously, how does anyone in the world not know the words to Bohemian fucking Rhapsody? Kim Jong-Il knows the words to that fucking song.

3. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you can’t sing Vanilla Ice later. You just can’t. We’ve suffered enough.

And the One-Eyed Penguin broke all of my rules. But at least we got whisky.


Richard:  We walked up the wooden stairs and then we saw it: At the entrance to the One-Eyed Penguin was a poster advertising the Kraken.

I asked a girl to take our picture up against the metallic Kraken poster. I thought she was cute, blonde hair and blue eyes, or maybe that was just the alcohol talking. Her name was Amy.

Even though this was supposed to be a night for the four of us, I decided to ask Amy to come sit with us. As long as my new friends didn’t care.

“Amy? That took our picture?” Slade asked. “She should definitely come and sit with us. I’m sleeping on the floor anyway, right?”

As Slade, Zara, and Simon sang Bohemian Rhapsody,off-key even, I went and found Amy and brought her back to sit with us. She was a hairstylist, she said. She seemed interested in science, so I explained a particular theory to her.

After a while, Amy went back to the bar. For some reason I followed her, Finally, I realized I was being selfish, standing…


Zara:  STANDING?? I don’t think so, Richrob…


Richard:  …STANDING at the bar  while my friends waited for me in the back by the pool table. I traded phone numbers with Amy and rejoined Slade at the pool table.

Slade is seriously good at pool. He wiped the floor with us.



Slade: I did.  But enough about me.  Back to your “standing”, or whatever lie you’re telling…


Simon: At the One-Eyed Penguin there was a human-sized penguin suit that bar patrons could climb into for photo ops, but despite our best efforts, Zara wasn’t willing to humour us.


Zara:  I still have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Stop changing the subject!  I want to talk about Richard dancing!


Simon: The rest of the evening was a blur of billiards (Slade as a team of one defeated Richard and me), terrible karaoke, and Richard approaching a cute blonde girl at the bar named Amy. He even brought the fair maiden to meet us, which must have been strange for her, meeting a couple of people from down under and a comedian from Houston…all of whom had met each other for the first time this same evening. To her credit, Amy was a good sport, and after Richard exchanged phone numbers with her, we drifted into the street again.


Slade: Look, I’m thrilled to talk about my pool skills, but RICHARD WAS DANCING!


Zara:  Ok, I’ll get to it.

The thing I remember best about the One-Eyed Penguin is the karaoke.

Someone butchers Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and Freddy Mercury resurrects himself from the dead just so he can kill himself.

And there is Richrob, at the bar, moving to the music.  Simon, Slade and I sit and watch.

Dance, Richrob, dance.


Slade: Finally!


Richard:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Zara:  Richrob started dancing.

“If I can just dance enough…” Simon says, and Slade falls out of his chair.

A large woman waddles rhinoceros-like to the stage. Her skin tries to hold all of her inside, a task that seems impossible.

She gyrates and slobbers into the microphone.

“Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me, callin’ me.”

Her friends clap as we watch Richard from across the room. Never stop dancing, Richrob. Ever.

“Suckin’ on my titties.” She flicks her tongue like a fat frog as she repeats the words.

I will never scrub this image from the surface of my mind.


Richard: The bar was closing and while we were all fairly drunk by now, we were also aware that Simon and Zara were leaving the next morning. We walked back to the hotel. On the way there, Zara pulled out her camera and requested that we curse for her.

She tried to tell us that she hasn’t been drinking but this was bullshit. She’d had four mojitos in an hour but had conveniently forgotten that part of the evening. I started to curse and somehow ended up showing the camera lens my teeth.

“Focus on my teeth, motherfucker,” I said.

“That was amazingly aggressive,” said Slade.


Slade: I did say that.  It was quite aggressive.  He really wanted us to look at his teeth.


Zara:  We enter the hotel loud and happy.  We will meet for breakfast in the morning. We all embrace. It takes months to get to know people this well.

Dallas must be made of magic.



Simon: I felt like I had just spent the night with three of my best friends, and I didn’t want it to end. But, alas, the hour was late. Zara and I had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we all retired to bed. I imagined Richard and Slade sharing a bed together and laughed myself to sleep.


Zara:  It is coffee instead of champagne that sits in front of me this morning, though the table is the same. The elevator doors chime and open, and the two of them come out to meet Simon and me.

“So who ended up on the floor?” I ask.

“We were too tired to care,” Richrob says. “We shared the bed.”

“But neither one of us slipped,” Slade says quickly.

His admission is shocking to me. “Neither one of you slept?”

“Slipped,” he says. “Neither one of us SLIPPED. You need to learn to pronounce your vowels, Zara. It changes the conversation dramatically.”


Richard:  I think she was doing it on purpose.


Slade:  I’m pleased to be able to report that the next morning, Simon had his first ever breakfast burrito, even if we did spend twenty minutes walking around Dallas in the morning sun to find a place that could serve him one. And no one was hungover, which meant that no one got to experience the magic powers of a good breakfast burrito, but that’s okay.

Next time.


Simon:  The next morning we all met downstairs for coffee. Everyone looked fresher than I imagined they might. Once again we ventured into the streets on foot, and eventually located a breakfast restaurant that served wraps filled with eggs and sausage and bacon (Richard insisted upon calling them breakfast burritos). We watched a bit of the World Cup, cheering for the Kiwis, and reminisced about our perfect night.

Finally, Zara and I bid our Texas hosts goodbye, hopped into the car, and headed west. But we didn’t even make it out of the city before we were on the phone, texting them, already reliving the amazing hours we had spent together, wishing we could go back and do it all over again.

I have never wanted so badly to live in America as I did on that morning.


Slade: How did I spend a full day with you guys and I still don’t know what “Brew” means?


Richard:  We decided to go for breakfast before we all hit the road again. We walked for blocks, and eventually found a café that served breakfast burritos. Simon and Zara had never seen these and took their time ordering.

When we said goodbye, it felt entirely too soon. One night in Dallas was not enough. Simon and ZaraPotts bid us farewell and started their long drive back to L.A and Slade and I began the drive to Oklahoma City.

We spent the drive practicing our Australian/New Zealand accents. We had them down perfectly by the time we hit Oklahoma.


Zara:  Ha Ha Ha. Sure, you did. Almost as perfect as your dancing.

We eat breakfast and watch the World Cup in a little café down the street. Slade and Richard are leaving for Oklahoma in the morning so Slade can perform, and Simon and I are continuing our journey West.

We linger in the restaurant and then again at the hotel.  We should already be gone, but I do not want to go.

We make plans.

Plans to return to America and plans for them to visit us at home.

We exchange phone numbers and decide that one day we will build a compound and hire a bartender and take over the world.

But not today.

Today we must leave.

“We miss you guys,” the text message says, and I show Simon.

We haven’t even reached the Dallas city limits yet.


* * *


Now, if you’ve read this far, it’s only fair that we make it worth your while.  I mentioned a bit of a surprise earlier.  The truth is that we didn’t write what it looks like we wrote.  Each one of us chose another member of the group and wrote as them.  Your job now is to determine who is responsible for who (Or whom. I always screw that up.)

So yes.  A bit of a game.  We hope we did as well as we think we did at writing as one another.

To make it worthwhile, the four of us have agreed to throw in a bit of prize: a foldable “Fuck You” t-shirt from Slade, one of Richard’s books, a bit of Australiana from Simon, and something inherently Kiwi courtesy of Zara.

Certainly there are, buried within our attempts at impersonating each other, errors that will tip you off as to who is responsible for what.  Best of luck with your guesses.  It was a fun adventure.

We wish more of you had been there.


**UPDATE**

Drum roll please…  Starring, in order of appearance:

Simon Smithson as the Comedian, Slade Ham

Zara Rose Potts as the Dancer, Richard Cox

Richard Cox as the Australian, Simon Smithson

and

Slade Ham as the Kiwi, Zara Potts

Winners will be posted in the comments below.



My love for world music is not a secret.While my default setting will always remain rock and roll, tribal rhythms and drum beats never cease to move me.I am inspired by the naturalness of it all, not always adhering to the Western verse/chorus/verse approach, and not always in a language I understand.It is pure energy captured by instruments and vocal chords.

I wish sometimes that I were capable of producing sounds like that, but I possess zero musical talent myself.None.At all.I own three guitars and can’t play any of them.I can play G, C, and D, and I fake the C because it’s too hard to play the right way.My friend Kevin once brought me on stage to play the tambourine, and we have since struck an unspoken agreement that we should probably never, ever do that again.I apparently have the rhythm of a broken metronome.It’s for the best I suppose, as I’d hate to find out that I possessed a talent for such an instrument.

I would feel obligated to pursue a gift like that.

Uninvited

By Slade Ham

Humor

Twenty. That’s at least how many families have been paraded through my bedroom over the weekend. I’ve lived in this house for a year and a half; my roommate has been here much longer than that. The landlord has just filed bankruptcy, however, which puts my living situation in jeopardy. A trustee takes over the property and hires a real estate agent, who then proceeds to book appointments at her leisure, unconcerned by the fact that at least one person actually works out of this house.

Me.

And that’s unfortunate for her. I wouldn’t even give the real estate agent in question a name if I didn’t plan on including dialogue. It’s hard to write a conversation without a character having a name though, so I’ll settle for saying it rhymes with Janet Webster.

See, I am not in any way the beneficiary of a quick sale of this house. I like it here and, unless the new owners are simply buying it as a rental, I will have to leave once the transaction is complete. I’ve never tried to sell property – I’ve never tried to sell anything really – but I would imagine that like most sales people, realtors are heartless sacks of no-soul that are pretty much just after their six percent as quickly as they can get to it.

This one is anyway.

* * *

I came home on Friday to find the front door unlocked, the curtains over my bed slung haphazardly to the side, my shower door open, and my sandals kicked under my bed. Apparently the house was shown to a family of drunken ogres. I kind of wish I’d been there to see it. Instead, I got to come home and clean up after them. I called Janet to express my unease at having people go through my things and to see if we could somehow work out a showing schedule that allowed me to be there when strangers were wandering through my house.

“I do not have to ask your permission to do anything,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I replied. “I live here.”

“For now. I’m in charge of selling the house though, and you can’t stop me from showing it.”

“I’m not trying to stop you. I’m trying to work out a better arrangement.”

“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I can show the house anytime I want to until eight o’clock at night and you’re going to have to deal with it. And when it sells? You and your roommate are going to have to move, most likely on very, very short notice.”

“Ma’am, I wasn’t starting a fight. What if I slow it down for you? I just… don’t want people… here… unless I am.”

“I am not going to be talked to like a child –“

“Then stop acting like one.”

“- and I will not be dictated to by some, some, arrogant tenant who–“

“You’re acting like a child again, Janet.”

“I am showing that house whether you’re there or not.”

“Well, now I don’t think you understand. I live here. I can be here all day if I need to be, and now it looks like I need to be. I was trying to work this out, but I can be a difficult motherfucker to try to show a house around if I’m not in the mood to play nice. So here’s what I suggest. I suggest you take your wittle bitty sign and you wittle wock box wit the key in it, and stop acting like an uppity bitch.”

“I am not going to be talked to like that!”

“Yes you will. Look, see? I’m doing it right now.”

CLICK.

Then I immediately dialed her boss.

“I have never been so insulted in all of my life,” I said. “She told me that I couldn’t stop her, and if I tried to call someone and complain she would say that I said all kinds of horrible things. I’m not like that! This really, really hurt my feelings.”

“I’m sorry sir. She can be brash sometimes, but that is totally unacceptable. I apologize on behalf of our company for her –“

“It’s not your fault. I look forward to an apology from her. Thank you so much for your time.”

* * *

The doorbell started ringing at noon yesterday, as I expected it would. I ignored it. If they’re going to come in anyway, I might as well not do anymore than I have to. I sat with my feet up on my desk, a cup of coffee in front of me, and Rage Against the Machine cranked as loud as my stereo could manage. My bedroom was going to be an uncomfortable place to hang out.

From over my shoulder I heard a voice yell. “Can we see this room!?!?”

I glanced backward to see an Asian couple and what must have been two or three of their friends following the real estate agent. I immediately changed songs as I waved them in. As they crossed my room to the bathroom, Blue Oyster Cult erupted from the speakers.

Oh no, there goes Tokyo!
Go,go Godzilla!

The agent snapped her head at me and I took another swig of coffee.

The pattern continued through the afternoon, the doorbell ringing and me causing what havoc I could. One couple was cautioned not to open the pantry door because I didn’t want the rat to get out before I could set a trap. Why couldn’t I turn down the music? Because I was making an old school mix tape, that’s why. Later in the day a middle aged woman walked in with another agent. “Is that the hooker?’ I asked. “You know I don’t like them that old. Take her to the back though, I suppose. I’ll get to her in a minute.”

A half hour later my phone rang. “What do you think you’re doing?” Janet yelled through the phone.

“Exactly what I said I would do.”

“You don’t have the right –“

“I do have the right. Until it sells I maintain all the rights that my lease provides me, including the right to the ‘quiet enjoyment’ of my property, and just so you’re aware Janet, I’m enjoying this very much.”

“Can we talk about this?”

“Nope. We could have talked about this yesterday, but someone didn’t want to have a conversation. Remember? So I am going to spend my day the way I want to, and that way doesn’t include a bathroom full of Japanese people.”

* * *

There are more appointments today and I’m not feeling too thrilled about it. My days are meant to be spent with caffeine and music in perfect solitude. These are my days. And while I inevitably can’t do much to stop the sale if it happens, I can take whatever lemons life gives me and throw them at this Realtor’s car.

I think I just heard the doorbell…

The Gulf Coast of the United States is a self-contained biosphere. The selection of things you can do to entertain yourself is as unique as the culture, and boats piloted by Cajun sea captains are as abundant as the restaurants selling etouffee and crawfish. Frequently trips leave the Louisiana shores on expeditions out into deep water where adventurers hunt for yellowfin tuna hiding below the waves.

A few years ago I left on one such voyage out of Venice, Louisiana. Unknown until the recent BP oil spill, Venice is a bit removed from the regular, beaten path. If you’re unfamiliar with its exact location, it is seven hours east of Houston and two hours south of New Orleans. From there, you drive to the end of the world, go through a frozen sea, past the dead floating bodies of pirates that have lost their way, and over a giant waterfall.

Venice is eleven miles past that.

My grandfather was an avid fisherman his entire life and instilled the love of the sport in me. From the day I could walk, I can remember standing on jetty rocks and throwing my line into the deep. A cooler full of redfish and speckled trout would accompany me and my grandfather home, where my grandmother would fry them up. My childhood is a collection of Saturday afternoons filled with the smell of hot oil in the air and a pan full of freshly cooked, cornmeal covered fish on the table.

I cannot begin to count the nights that I’ve spent on one beach or another, stoking a fire to burn away the dark’s chill and waiting for the first fingers of sun to reach over the horizon. Mornings spent waist-deep in the ocean with a fishing rod in my hand have always been the most peaceful, even if not necessarily safe. When you’re in the water, it is seldom efficient to walk back to shore with every fish caught. A stringer tied to a belt loop will often suffice, with each fish added to the string until you hit your limit. I vividly recall having had that string hit by a massive force and jerked out towards deeper water before the pressure released. Pulling it in, the half of a fish dangling off the end is all that is needed to remind you that sharks are quite present. They’re usually black-tips though, and I have shared the water with them my entire life.

As teenagers, we used to fish specifically for them, swimming out to the second or third sand bar with a fishing pole and a piece of bloody meat attached to a large hook, casting from the shallower water, and then swimming back with the pole to wait for an indication of a hit. Swimming with blood-drenched chunks of flesh through the murky gulf probably doesn’t rank high on my Brilliant Things I’ve Done list, but it is exhilarating.

And though I’ve spent a lot of my life on the water, I had never been offshore to fish. I knew only of the tales of snapper and tuna that my friends brought back with them when they went out. Venice would change that.

My brother Jeremy called me to meet him at the last minute. We needed a break, he said. He and his friend Scott had chartered a boat and the other two people going with them had suddenly backed out. Our cousin Marshall and I had been called in as replacements. I, though, was the only rookie on the tour. Offshore fishing was a regular pastime for Jeremy, Scott was a lawyer that owned his own boat and went frequently out on the Gulf down in South Texas, and Marshall had worked as a hand on a vessel for most of his life. It was the perfect crew, as long as I could manage to hold myself together.

“You’re gonna get sick,” Marshall said. “It’s okay though. Everyone does their first few times. Just make sure you throw up over the side.”

“And you may want to take it easy on the alcohol tonight,” my brother added. We were sitting on the deck of the house boat at the fish camp and I had just poured another massive glass of Jack Daniels, sans mixer. I’ve always found it disrespectful to the whiskey gods to add anything to it but ice. The three of them had been there for a day already and were well rested. I had just driven in from Texas.

“I’ll be fine,” I said confidently. They chuckled together at my ignorance, then Scott began to brief me on what to expect aside from the inevitable sea sickness. The weather had been bad he said, but a hole was opening up in the morning and that was when we were going. It was January so it was going to be cold, but worth it. On top of it all, he’d found the perfect captain and the perfect boat. Money can’t buy a better trip, he swore, and then he was interrupted by the skipper himself.

Though Scott was a bloodthirsty demon of a fisherman himself, he had gone to great lengths to find a captain that was even sicker than he was. Captain Al was the kind of guy that went spearfishing for mako sharks in his down time; just him, a pointy stick, and five-hundred pounds of muscle and teeth in the water at the same time. I had always considered myself somewhat brave for swimming with the black-tips, but this man chose to virtually French kiss the fastest fish in the ocean for fun. He was a young version of Captain Quint.

“I don’t want anyone in this goddamn boat that doesn’t want to kill stuff!” he began. “You got that? This isn’t a goddamn pleasure cruise! We’re coming back with fish, and if we can’t catch ‘em and reel ‘em in, then I’ll stick raw meat in my pockets, jump in, and bite them to death myself. I’m serious here, people. We’re going to war!

I know where they are, and if they’re not there, I know where they’re hiding. We will hunt these fish down and we will kill them. We’ll kill their families. We’ll kill every one of their goddamned fish friends. We’ll even kill other fish that might owe them money. Nothing is safe out there! I swear to God, if I have to put hooks in my face and swim down there and wake ‘em up, we’re coming back with fish. Now get some sleep. We leave at 6:00 am.”

With that, he slammed a double shot of Jack and went to bed.

Following his lead, the four of us retired as well. Final advice was given to me as we drifted off in our bunk beds. Scott’s multiple offshore trips a month qualified him to brag and explain his strategy for soaking up the sure-to-come excitement of the next day.

“No cameras. That’s the first rule,” he said. “There are a lot of things that not everybody gets to experience and this here’s one of ‘em. I don’t carry a regular camera and I don’t carry a video camera and I don’t carry any of them other kinds of cameras. You gettin’ what I’m sayin’ here?” He was drunk, and his Texas accent was getting thicker.

“I don’t neeeeeeed a camera ‘cause I keep all the pictures right here in my head. Right here.” It was pitch black, but I assumed he was pointing at his head. He continued. “You can’t print it, because it’s all in my head. There’s a lot of stuff up there that no one will ever get to see. Places I’ve been. Fish I’ve caught. Memories that will never go away.”

There was a long pause.

“A lot of fat girls in there, too,” he finished.

We drifted off to sleep with perfectly justified high expectations for the next day, and then somewhere through the night, Murphy’s Law stepped in.

We awoke the next morning to find Captain Al storming up and down the dock and screaming into a cell phone. As we made our way out of the house boat he finished his call and informed us that our plans had changed.

“Someone stole my goddamned gear in the middle of the night! I don’t know who it was yet but I when find that sick sonofabitch I’m gonna cut him the fuck up, eat some of him , and feed what’s left of his ass to the goddamned pelicans! But don’t worry. I got everything under control.”

Not only had all of his equipment been stolen, but the weather was deteriorating as well. Still, Al had arranged a replacement boat and a new captain to take us out in his stead. It was up to us to decide whether we were going to attempt to salvage the trip or not, and like any group of testosterone driven, still slightly drunk males, we did.

The four of us climbed into the new boat and headed fifty miles out to the Midnight Lump, a salt dome in the Gulf of Mexico that is legendary among deep sea anglers. The three of them laughed a bit more at me, satisfied that I was going to lose what little food I had eaten somewhere on the ride out. I wasn’t very confident myself. I had never been this far out on a boat before. I had driven seven hours, slept very little, and eaten even less.

It was forty degrees outside before the spray hit, and when that happened it dropped to absolute zero. The water temperature would not have been an issue had it been avoidable, but the seas were anything but calm, as if Poseidon had been up drinking the night before as well, perhaps playing quarters with Davy Jones. The 2-4 foot waves we had been expecting quickly turned to fifteen foot swells which we were hitting at 140 miles per hour. That may be a bit of writer’s embellishment on my part, but still, 4-6 foot waves in a fast boat sucks.

If you haven’t done it, do this instead. Crawl into a rock tumbler, put that in a clothes dryer, get someone to push the whole thing off a mountain, land on a trampoline, and bounce into the side of a moving train.

While you have to pee.

Charter services usually provide bean bag chairs so the passengers can flop down on the ride out to deep water. They do it because the bags absorb a lot of the impact as the bottom of the boat smacks the surface between swells. That, and who doesn’t love bean bags? I rolled over in mine to see my brother’s face buried in his rain slicker. He looked slightly green. Weird, I thought. I feel fine.

I pulled myself up to the center console to watch the waves as we hit them. As I did so, I noticed my cousin attempting to hang his head over the rail. Every time he tried to throw up, he was launched backward and away from the side. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“I will be. Gimme a bit,” he replied, groaning.

“So when does it get bad?” I asked. “Because this is awesome so far!”

He rolled his eyes upward at me from the deck. “You. Shut. Up.”

Scott was in a similar position on the other side of the boat, retching violently into an even more violent sea. The grey rain ran in ice cold rivulets down his brow as he turned to me. “How the fuck… are you… not throwing up?” he managed to ask, and then his head flopped forward again.

I didn’t have an answer for him. It was a bit disturbing to find that my body didn’t consider any of that abnormal enough to react. Then again, where was the difference between being out on that water and any of the other things I’ve forced my body through over the last two decades? Years of riding rivers, climbing rocks, jumping out of planes, combat landings and sideways helicopters and a million other things probably made my body feel like it was on vacation bouncing around in those waves.

I held onto whatever I could find, savoring every moment of it. The butterfly feeling hit my stomach and left again, only to return as we launched off another wave. I let go of the rail for as long as I could, only to be tossed haphazardly back onto my beanbag, and then I clawed my way back up to do it again. “Wooooohoo!” I yelled as the spray washed over my face.

If there was a letdown at all, it was finding out that you can’t catch big fish without a boat full of people working together. With the sport of it over, I was left to soak up the rollercoaster ride by myself as we headed back in.

“We’ll have to do this again when the weather is better,” my brother said as another plume of icy water broke over us. “It’s way more fun.”

“I don’t know how it could be,” I said. “This was amazing.”

I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.

I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.

I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.

Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.

“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”

“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.

A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.

“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.

“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.

Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.

She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.

“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.

“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.

We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.

“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”

“Thrilling,” I replied.

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.

“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.

“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.

“It’s cool. Just wait.”

* * *

The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get in one amazing show at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerrilla show in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.

I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.

So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.

You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.

* * *

Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers next to you in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.

As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.

* * *

We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.

Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.

There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.

We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.

This was not one of those.

The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.

* * *

Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.

“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.

“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.

“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.

“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.

“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”

“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.

Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”

As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.

“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.

“You’re welcome!” I yelled.

We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.

At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.

I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.

You Can See That Here

* * *

We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”

“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.

“That means it hit you.”

Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.

Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.

Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.

I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.

A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.

There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.

I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.

Hooah!

For the last few months, everything obscure that has popped into my mind has found its way into reality.A conversation about an old neighbor from twenty five years ago led to an unsolicited email in my Inbox from that neighbor’s son a few days later.When I couldn’t remember my third grade teacher’s name, I asked my Mom, who promptly ran into her in a mall parking lot a week after our conversation.I think of things, and they happen.

Before I got on the plane for the Middle East this past week, Joe Daly sent me a playlist for my iPod – a playlist that included Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules (my absolute favorite track from the Dio-era Sabbath).In the spirit of the song I started a Facebook conversation taking pot shots at the singer on another friend’s page.I’ve never disliked Dio, but it is hard to deny that he is easy to make fun of.And so we did.As a few of us took turns skewing his lyrics, I had to listen to more and more of his music for research, and as I did so, I found myself singing it in my head.Holy Diver, Man on the Silver Mountain, Rainbow in the Dark… it was the soundtrack as I trekked through the desert all week.

I was sitting outside at my favorite coffee shop; one of the last times I would do so before I moved away from the sleepy streets of Beaumont for good. The man sat across the patio from me at a cluttered table in a puddle of sunlight and his own eccentricity. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am a divining rod for insanity. I can spot it in a crowd, and in some instances I am even magnetic. It doesn’t wait for me to find it, but instead fights its way to the front. I’ve seen a lot of crazy people.

This guys though, this guy was a rare gem. A trucker’s cap covered his balding head, which on its own would not have been unusual. He was also wearing a fanny pack and a tube top, however, and had eight mountaineering clips attached to his belt with nothing on them.

And he was carrying a record player.

It wasn’t my first encounter with this man either. He was the non-athletic type, and I somehow imagined that he lived as a stowaway in his mother’s basement, occasionally trying on her clothes when she went to work and exploring the inner workings of his turntable. The first time we met, he cornered me on that very same patio and proceeded to discuss with me the different types of solder. It was more of a monologue on his part than an actual conversation.

“We used to use lead based solder back when I was on the inside. Lead. Lead is good. Now everything’s lead-free and useless. It’s better they say, but it’s not the same thing. It all depends on what you want to join. Sometimes I just put things together to see if they’ll stick. Did you know you can’t solder something to a mouse? Won’t work. Not even with 18 gauge rosin flux. It just runs. The mouse I mean, not the solder. Ask me anything about solder, and I can tell you.”

I’ve learned since then to simply keep my earphones jammed deep in my ears whether I’m listening to music or not. It buys me the freedom to observe without participating. That day I watched, intrigued, as the man alternated between tasks, sometimes rolling cigarettes, sometimes strategically arranging the napkins on his table, and sometimes taking a moment to run his tongue along a lighter shaped like a deer’s head.

The latter was deeply disturbing.

Years ago I used to make a habit of randomly picking up homeless people and taking them for fast food. I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories. I’m a collector, and the vagrant population has more than most. You won’t get an earful of inner-office drivel from them. You’re not in danger of having to listen to them prattle on about their misbehaving children or how the neighbor’s dog won’t stop tearing up the flower beds. Their stories are never that mundane.

It was never unselfish. I in no way ever felt like I was doing some great service to these men. At best – even if they were in fact starving to death – I was only buying them one more day, and it was unlikely that they were going to figure things out in those twenty-four hours. Still, a Sonic burger in exchange for the chronicles of another human being always seemed like an acceptable trade to me.

More than anything, I grew curious as to whether or not these people were truly unstable and wild or if some of it was just an act. One I remember particularly clearly was named Big Chief. Over tater tots he regaled me with tales of having removed himself from the grid on purpose. Crow’s feet and thick lines cut their way through his face as he talked, making him look like a living Fredrick Remington sculpture and his Native American roots came through audibly as well, his voice possessing the broken, yet soothing, cadence of his people.

“They are watching,” he said. He glanced repeatedly in the sideview mirror as he talked. “If they knew where I was I would be dead, and you too most likely. If I can be on a different car every night, they cannot catch me.”

“You hop trains?” I asked.

“It is better that way. In 2002 the world will end, and only the ones of us with places to hide in the jungles will be safe. I have gold buried across the country, so when the economy falls, I will be ready.”

“Gold?” I was a bit incredulous.

“And jewels.” He pointed to his pocket, where I saw the metal spiral of a small pad of paper sticking out. “It is all in here. When I worked for the Secret Service I saved every check they gave me. I was there when they shot Reagan. Every dollar I made went to buying precious stones and metals and only I know where it is all hidden.”

The world didn’t end in 2002, however, and I never saw Big Chief again. I imagine him sometimes though, hiding in the forest on the outskirts of some sleepy town as night falls, burying nuggets of gold and marking their locations in his tattered notebook.

When I was eighteen I worked at a grocery store. A homeless man named Redbeard frequently hovered outside one of the entrances, begging quarters from soccer moms as they wheeled carts full of food to their SUV’s. It was a brilliant ploy, accosting these people with assertions of hunger when they couldn’t possibly argue that they had nothing to give. I never understood why these customers were so quick to go to their purses rather than hand the man a bag of chips or some lunchmeat from their carts.

We called him Redbeard not just because of his matted red beard, but also because of the invisible parrot that sat on his shoulder and gave him advice. There was a pizza place next door to the store and one day I invited Redbeard to join me on my break. Over lunch the imaginary bird miraculously disappeared and a much saner man emerged.

I grabbed another slice of pizza. “You don’t really believe there’s a parrot on your shoulder, do you?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “But I do kinda look like a pirate, don’t I?” It was true. He did.

“Honestly?” he continued. “They won’t give you anything if they think you can help yourself.”

There was some obvious logic to his argument considering that he was sucking down slices of pepperoni on my dime. That encounter though has forced me to take a longer look at the crazy people I come across, which is what I found myself doing on that coffee shop patio with the man I knew only as The Record Player.

Like the vagrants in my past before him, he somehow ended up with a name like a Batman villain. They should have had their own line of action figures. Legitimately crazy or not, I could envision a metropolis filled with them; a world where Redbeard and Big Chief knocked off banks while The Record Player scrawled cryptic riddles on construction paper and left them behind to confuse the cops, as they all idled away into the night in the back of a boxcar. If they were ever captured, their insanity pleas would be airtight.

My own past is not exactly devoid of crazy moments, and I can’t help but wonder if I, too, have been labeled the same way by much saner people somewhere in the past. Crazy is such a relative term anyway. What right did I really have to sit there and judge this man? Maybe he continued to cross my path for a reason.

Perhaps it was even Life’s way of keeping me humble. “Don’t get cocky, Slade. Regardless of what you think about yourself, you’re still two tables away from a guy licking a lighter.”


Leave No Trace

By Slade Ham

Humor

We piled into two vehicles, loaded down with supplies and towing a trailer full of canoes. Six of us were headed across the state of Texas to spend a week paddling through Boquillas Canyon, hopping across rocks, and sleeping under the stars.

It was an eclectic group. I was traveling with two former Boy Scouts, a pothead, his girlfriend, and a hippie type named Allison. Allison was a friend of a friend. Formerly a waitress, she had just recently returned from a three month stint living in a forest. “Oh cool,” I said. “You stayed with a friend who has a house in the woods?”

“No. I actually lived in a forest,” she replied.

“Like a squirrel?”

“No. Like a person, just without a house.”

“So, like a squirrel.” I was very confused.

I was then given the canned anarchist speech about the shackles of societal life and the evils of government in general. I started to comment on the concept of social contract, but was met with the glazed-over eyes of someone that clearly had no interest in a real conversation. “All I know is that I don’t want to work anymore,” she said. “I just want to go back and live in Florida with the rest of the Rainbow Family.”

To be more specific, she meant The Rainbow Family of Living Light. It’s basically nothing more than a large group of homeless gypsies; think Burning Man without the burning man. In their own egalitarian way, they have removed any sense of lower, upper, and middle class, and instead all just choose to live in poverty. They build tent cities in the middle of our national forests, filled with beggars and runaways and, amazingly enough, families with children.

“Children?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And some of the children were so bad. It was unbelievable. One time a six year old called me a ‘fucking idiot’. At six!”

“Well, he was dragged into the woods to live with crazy people. I can see how he might have seen you that way. You’re a grown woman that lives in a forest.”

* * *

After ten hours on the road and a few hours of uncomfortable napping, we finally pushed the canoes into the current of the Rio Grande. Emery was the trip’s leader. He had been a Boy Scout for as long as they will let you be a Boy Scout and had brought another formerly dedicated Scout friend with him. Though I have grown to love the outdoors in my adult life, I never did any of that type of thing in my youth. I was a baseball and soccer player. I couldn’t build a fire with a flamethrower.

In Scouts they teach you a few core ideals. In addition to things like doing your best and being prepared, Scouts are taught to leave no trace when exploring our nation’s wilderness. This was a tradition that was briefly mentioned to me and one I agreed to casually.

“It’s a Leave No Trace trip,” Emery said to me over drinks a few days before we left. “You cool with that?”

“Sure,” I replied, and then took another shot of Jameson. I only admit to agreeing now because he told me that I did. Still, “no trace” sounded somewhat simple to me. We won’t leave any trash. Yay, look. No trace.

What I did not grasp was the fact that they intended to leave nothing whatsoever. Trash could not be burned; it had to be packed out. If you had to pee, you had to walk 200 feet away from the river and find a spot devoid of plant life. Fires had to be contained, and the ashes brought with us when we left. I couldn’t imagine being in possession of a sack of ashes. “What’s in the bag?” someone might ask.

“A phoenix,” I would be forced to reply.

There could be no leftover food either. If it was prepared, it must be eaten. I was having difficulty by the first night. “I’m not eating your stupid fucking pudding, Emery!”

“You have to. We all have to do our part. Those are the rules.”

“Those are your rules. I’m going to dump it in the river, Emery. I am. Watch me.”

“Dude, that’s not cool.”

“No. What’s not cool is making ten cups of vanilla pudding for six people that don’t like fucking pudding. This is gay.”

“Give it to me then,” Allison chimed in. “I’ll eat some of it.”

“Of course you will,” I fired back. “You’ve been homeless for the last three months.” We were not off to a good start, and there were still four days ahead of us.

* * *

Boquillas Canyon cuts its way through Big Bend National Park, winding some twenty miles as it separates Texas from Mexico. As you approach the canyon, its walls tower ahead of you. The rocky ledges are home to mules and semi-wild horses, as well as what the guidebook refers to as “both friendly and not-so-friendly Mexicans”. That is a direct quote.

The friendlier ones made our trip amazing. As our canoes drifted along the lazy river current, all sorts of characters surfaced. It was a very convincing recreation of Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but with less drinking pirates and more drunk Mexicans. Instead of “yo ho ho” a man wrapped in a poncho sang “ay ay ay,” and then peeled off the next few verses of Cielito Lindo. The sun hovered unthreateningly in a brilliant blue sky and for a moment I forgot that I wanted to drown the hippie girl.

The most wonderful part about camping for me has always been the sky at night. My fascination with the massive expanse of outer space is always amplified when I am removed from the constant glow of city lights. In the back country, the sky begins to resemble a ceiling. You don’t feel like you’re outside at all, but instead lying underneath some richly gilded canopy. The longer you stare at the sky, the more stars appear, and before long you almost become hypnotized.

After eating an entire gallon of lasagna against my will, I would pull my bag out of my tent and find a secluded spot away from everyone in which to gaze out into infinity. Sometimes at dusk bats would flit through the dimming sky, capturing the orange of the firelight on their wings and lighting up just briefly before fading away again. The water trickled and rushed off to one side of me and lured me to sleep in the perfect night air.

Each morning found us breaking down our campsite and piling everything back into the canoes. I was sharing paddling duties on mine with another of the former Boy Scouts named Walt. Walt proved to be an exceptional canoe mate and eventually my co-pilot on our trip back home, but he also was in possession of a lot of useless knowledge. He created crossword puzzles in his spare time and had thus come into contact with several facts that he was more than happy to share with anyone that had ears.

When Allison turned down seconds after a meal one night, she said, “I’m not used to eating this much. I usually eat like a bird.”

Walt saw an opening. “You know, technically a bird can eat more than half its body weight in a single day, which is due to its high rate of metabolism and the amount of energy it takes to fly. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that you ate the weight of a bird instead of like a bird. Some birds –”

“Walt?” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up, Walt.”

* * *

We carried on like this the entire week. Emery would prepare insane portions of food for the six of us, and then continue to dump it onto our plates until it was gone. Walt could explain the food’s origins. Allison thought it would be better if we grew it organically like they did in the forest. “Well, we grew the mushrooms and the pot,” she said. “We would beg or dumpster dive for the rest.”

The other tagalong on our journey was Von, and Von brought his girlfriend Ashley. Von was, unknown to me at the time, bringing a plastic container full of hash on the trip. His little foil pipe and Tupperware box made their appearance around the fire every night, unnoticed by me because I was busy fighting with his girlfriend, who stood in solidarity with Allison in their hatred for all things civilized. “Stupid fucking drug laws,” she said. “We live in a country that is set up to keep us down. Pot is not dangerous at all but the government hasn’t found a way to make money off of it yet so they keep it illegal. It’s all run by corporations and I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”

“What about things like schools and roads? You drive, right?” I asked.

“Only because I have to. There should be no laws at all, but the government should still have to take care of our basic needs.”

“Are you actually listening to your own words?” I tried.

“Whatever. I would happily live in the forest with you, Allison.”

“You know there are some trees right over there,” I said, pointing a mile off into the distance. “You two could go practice.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Ashley said.

“I know. But you’re a Communist.”

Their desire to take more than they gave weaved its way into our daily regimen. They were both conveniently absent when it came time to break down our camp in the morning, or to set up at night. They both sat in the front of their respective canoes and pretended to paddle, somehow still finding a way to point out that they thought my canoe was lighter than theirs.

“He’s not working as hard as us!” they yelled.

“What? How can I work less than zero?” I yelled back. “It’s impossible. I can’t negative paddle. Even if I were paddling backwards, I would still be doing more work.”

Had Von not been high, he might have felt the need to defend her. As it stood though, I just fell into synch with Walt’s paddling, and we drifted out ahead and away from them. Walt’s voice appeared behind me, “You know that in the Bushi region of the Congo women aren’t even allowed to speak at all in public and for that matter –“

“Hey, Walt?”

“Yeah?’

“Shut up, Walt.”

Despite my career standing in front of massive groups of people, I am not a social creature. I prefer isolation and time alone. I happily contribute my share to any group effort, but all in all, I am not a fan of communal living. I took every chance I could to scramble off amongst the boulders and cliffs along the way, losing myself in the sand and shadow along the river’s edge. It was cathartic and freeing, regardless of the tension between me and the girls on the trip. Night after night, a glimmering strip of sky hung between the canyon walls, daring me to reach up and run my fingers through the starlight. It was remarkable.

* * *

We packed up the trucks after the last day in the back country. Loaded down with equipment and canoes, we began the long trek home. We had left the river in immaculate condition, in some places even cleaner than when we had arrived. We were good little Scouts, all of us. No trace at all. Emery offered to drive first, and with Allison and Walt in the other vehicle, Tom and Ashley climbed in behind me. “I really have to pee,” I heard Ashley say as I drifted to sleep in the passenger seat.

“Too late now,” Emery told her. “You’ll have to wait until we stop.”

Sometime later, I heard a voice I didn’t quite recognize. How long had I been asleep? I cracked an eye open to see the fuzzy outline of a militant looking Border Patrol agent standing at the driver’s side window. I pulled myself up straight in my chair.

If Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglourious Basterds had a Latin cousin, I’d found him. Nothing was out of place on this man’s uniform. It was spotless and polished, and he carried one leather glove that he rhythmically slapped against his open hand. His accent was thick and cocky, but he still looked like a cartoon Mexican Nazi.

“I need zee four of you to step out of zee vehicle,” he said. We all complied, and then watched as Walt and Allison drove past us and on down the interstate. Certainly Walt was telling her all about the history of the United States border with Mexico, while she inquired about the right to live in the deserts on the other side of the Rio Grande.

“Zee reason I have detained you is because our dog has detected, how you say, zee smell of drugs in your vehicle. Now, vee can do this zee easy vay, or I can have my people take your entire car apart and go through all of zee contents until vee find vat vee are looking for.”

Ashley was doubled over as he spoke. “Sir, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“I’m so sorry. You vill have to vait until vee have sorted this out.” He smacked his gloved and paced in front of us, trying to determine who was responsible. His apathy to her predicament was obvious.

So Ashley peed on herself.

The puddle widened at her feet while she stood as stoically as she could. “Vat exactly are you doing?” the Agent asked.

“I told you I had to go,” she said.

“But zat is crazy, to just, how you say, go on your pants like zat?” As he spoke, I sat down on the ground. I was laughing uncontrollably. He smacked his glove again as he walked over to me. “Is it you? Are you on zee drugs? Is zat vie you are laughing like zat?”

I was dying. I gasped for air as I tried to find words. “She… I mean, I. No… you. Pee. Everywhere. Stop. I can’t… breathe.” I cackled like a maniac as I rolled over onto my back.

“It’s mine,” Von said suddenly, possibly because his girlfriend was soaking wet. “They didn’t know anything about it.” It was a respectable move, and the truth was that no one did know he had carried his stash with him this whole time. I assumed he had finished it long ago, and even if he hadn’t that he would have ditched it before we got to a border check station.

“Vell,” said the Agent, “Vee vill have to put you in, how you say, zee holding cell until vee get zee sheriff on zee phone. Zee rest of you, come vith me.”

We were escorted into the station and held while they went through the car. Von sat in a cell in another room while Ashley, now in a fresh pair of clothes, continued to complain. “This is the problem, man. Stupid fucking laws like this. That’s why I don’t want to live here anymore. See?”

“I totally agree with you,” I said. “This is a stupid law. You know what else is stupid? Bringing drugs through a Border Patrol station. And guess what? The minute they let us go, I’m leaving him here.”

“It was pretty dumb,” Emery said, cutting his eyes at her. “And you peed on yourself. Don’t forget about that. That was awesome.”

We sat there for five hours until Von was taken to jail by the Sheriff and we were released. With no cell phone service, we pulled into the city of Marathon, Texas, proud population of 600. There was only one business open and it was a bar. Walt and Allison were sitting inside as we walked in. Apparently they had befriended the bar owner who had offered them dinner and arranged for them to stay at the bed and breakfast across the street.

“I think I might just stay here for good,” said Allison. “They have an organic garden in town where I can grow things and there is a hostel where I can live.”

“You’re just going to move here after five hours?” I asked.

“I think so. Where’s Von?”

Emery answered her. “We can’t get him out until morning, so I guess we’re just going to stay here until then.”

I, however, was not. “I’m driving, Walt. Give me the keys.”

“Shouldn’t we –“

“Walt?”

“I know. I’ll shut up.”

It was almost midnight when I pulled the trailer full of canoes away from the curb. Walt was asleep in the passenger seat, drunk and snoring, and as the lone light in Marathon faded behind us, I couldn’t help but smile a little bit. It really was like we were never there.

Emery made it back with Ashley and Von a day later, and aside from dropping off a gypsy girl to live in West Texas, we left no trace that we had even passed through the area at all.