Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Horrors; the Horrors

Originally posted Thursday, May 24, 2007

Our hands were clasped, and we gazed deeply into each others' eyes. We had run out of breath, our hearts were thudding with the passion of the moment. We heard music, and we were compelled at that moment to kiss.

We were barely sixteen, and a kiss like that seems like it lasts forever. But it didn't. We heard the crash of a door slamming open behind us, and we whirled around to face the one who had discovered us...

* * * * * * * * *

On the twenty-third day of the month of September, in the middle year of a decade not too long before our own, a young man was chosen to be the heroic lead in his high school's musical production of Little Shop of Horrors. In case you aren't familiar with this show, the "heroic lead" is not exactly heroic; he's more of a poorly dressed, awkward geek/dork/loser. And I was typecast in the role.

I'm not complaining; after all these years, I still love the part. I can still sing it, and could probably remember much of the dialogue. No, it was a blast, and I loved it. The whole cast did: Rick Marcus as the sadistic dentist; Keith channeling Levi Stubbs as the voice of the man-eating Plant; Paxton as Mr. Mushnik. Stacie, Julie, and... I don't remember our other girl, but Stacie could remind me... as the Brooklyn Greek chorus. And don't forget the band, tighter than any metaphor I could use in a high school setting.

But you may have noticed I didn't mention my female lead, yet. And that is because Alison, my girlfriend's best friend, was cast in the role of Audrey. Let us pause for a moment while you get all of your Jerry Springer associations out of your system, and talk about my high school romantic life.

If you recall an earlier blog entitled "The Monkee", you will have a good idea of what my love life was like during freshman year. Sophomore year looked to be a little better, as one of my choir mates seemed to take an interest in me. As thick-headed as I was, she eventually convinced me that I felt the same way, and we began an awkward, but very sweet, young relationship.

Along with this new girlfriend came something I had never had before, having grown up outside of the school district and attended a small church: a circle of social acquaintances. Suddenly, I was spending time outside of school with people my own age... and I liked it. But I came to notice that I wasn't nearly as into the relationship as the girlfriend was, and this presented a problem, since all of my new found friends were actually her friends.

What to do? I did what any socially awkward boy in my situation would probably do: I acted like a jerk. But this didn't seem to work. All it did was bring out the "concerned friend" in everyone around me, cautioning me that I wouldn't want to lose Her - the One Good Thing In My Life.

And then came the play. Being cast opposite Alison was no big deal to me, at first. I hadn't really read the play that closely. So, imagine my utter shock when I learned that we would have to kiss at the end of our big duet.

"You mean, we have to like, lean real close and just pretend, right?" I asked.

"No," said our no-nonsense director, "you are going to put your lips together and kiss for the last two measures of the song."

Everybody indulged in an "aw, cute" moment as Alison and I glanced at each other in horror. Everybody thought they knew why we were so floored, but I don't think they realized that the real problem was that I had not yet kissed my own girlfriend. Yeah, yeah, sweet sixteen and all that... I had a horrible choice to make. I had to move my relationship (which I didn't really want to be in) to a new level of intimacy that I didn't want to move to, or get my first kiss on a stage in front of who-knew-how-many people.

Alison was not enjoying the situation too much, either. You couldn't even call it a proper love triangle; I don't think it would even make a polygon. But in the end, I either summoned up courage, or I caved in to pressure (depending on how you look at it), and I kissed my first girlfriend after school one afternoon before play rehearsal.

It's hard to describe the weeks leading up to the show. My new found social status was building, and my budding romance was booming, and yet underneath it all, I was growing more and more unhappy about it all. I couldn't break up with this girl; after all, she was incredibly sweet, and loved by all. Not only that, but her life seemed to be a scary mess compared to the idyllic boyhood full of Star Wars men and long, solitary bike rides through the desert that I had grown up with.

It seemed every time I worked up the nerve to tell her that I thought we should end it, something would happen; her mother lost a job, her grandmother died, her alcoholic father came back to live with them... one thing after another for months on end. The only real escape for me was the play, where I was part of a team, doing something that we were increasingly proud of.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Which brings us to the dress rehearsal.

If you've never been in a theatrical production, you can't imagine the value of doing a "real" run-through, just to shake out all of the bugs. This is where the mistakes become apparent, and fixes can be made before opening night. For Alison and I, this was the moment of The Kiss. And for numerous reasons that I came to loathe later, our director had decided to make it an "open dress rehearsal". She wanted as many people as possible to come and watch, to see how we would handle the pressure of an actual performance.

How would you handle a "first kiss" in front of a jury of your bored peers?

We sang our hearts out, and we built that final note. Our hands were clasped, and we gazed deeply into each others' eyes. We had run out of breath, our hearts were thudding with the passion of the moment. We heard music, and we were compelled at that moment to kiss.

We were barely sixteen, and a kiss like that seems like it lasts forever. But it didn't. We heard the crash of a door slamming open behind us, and we whirled around to face the one who had discovered us... Mr. Mushnik.

Remember what I said about "bugs" in the production? Here was one: Mr. Mushnik's mustache. Paxton had insisted all along that he could grow a mustache for the production. He stopped shaving, I'll grant you, but after six weeks of rehearsal, he had only the barest whisper of hair fuzzing the vermilion of his lip. His lower lip. And so, come the night of dress rehearsal, Paxton showed up with a false mustache, and a bottle of spirit gum.

The spirit gum worked great through the first act, but after our big number, Mushnik & Son, perspiration overtook inspiration. What Alison and I did not know as we stood locked at the lip during the finale of "Suddenly, Seymour", was that Paxton had gone in search of an alternate solution to the false mustache. Thus, when he crashed through the door, startling our hero and heroine in love's stolen embrace, we whirled to find Paxton standing before us... with a "Charlie Brown" zigzag drawn on his upper lip in brown dry erase marker.

Alison was lucky; her part called for her to run offstage in tears, which she apparently found very easy to do. I, on the other hand, had to face Mr. Mushnik and look "scared", when what I really wanted to do was drop to the stage and roll around in gales of trouser-soiling laughter.

It gets worse.

Paxton's next bit of dialogue leads to the "ah-ha" moment, where Mr. Mushnik accuses Seymour of doing in the dentist, and cries "...I found THIS!" as he pulls the dentist's blood-soaked smock from a nearby trash barrel.

Instead, Paxton cried "...I found THIS!".... and frowned into the trash barrel for a moment before saying, "I must have left it in the other barrel," and dashing backstage to find his prop.

And there I stood, onstage, every emotion my hormone-riddled body could evoke, fighting for it's chance to surface. The music kept vamping -- a four-bar repeat of the "Oh, dear" music -- and I started to make stuff up.

I have no idea what I said. Something like, "Oh, dear! Oh, me!/What can it be?/What kind of evidence could he have on me?" Like Shel Silverstein on Tin Pan Alley. I was actually told by some kids who were there that when they saw the official version of the show later that week, they were disappointed that part wasn't in there again!

But the point is that, like all awkward moments, this one passed. I kept my head, somehow, and managed to survive it. The show, the kissing, the inevitable break-up... as difficult as it seemed at the time, all of it eventually worked out. Sure, it could have gone better, but then, it was all a kind of dress rehearsal, wasn't it? I like to think I did better in the "Real Show" because of it.

And the moral of the story, of course, is one that anyone with an ounce of common sense will tell you without going through all of the pain and agony: if you can't grow it yourself, you're better off without a mustache.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

On the Road, Again: Driving Man part II

Christmas came, and I was dropped off in Phoenix for a couple of days with the family, while Tom pressed on back to northern California. My four weeks straddled the holiday quite nicely, two weeks on either side.

Truth be told, I spent most of that time battling some kind of horrible stomach ailment. (I had recovered from the Great Burrito Incident; this was something else.) My one stop in Phoenix, and I was spending that being violently ill. Neither of us said it, but it was one more strike against this career choice. But we couldn't afford to quit. The Plan was to tough it out, soldier on, and give it one year. We would stick to the plan.

And just as I was feeling strong enough to get up, and maybe see the kids... back out on the road I went.

Tom was excited about his Christmas present; some newfangled thing called a "satellite radio". Up to that point we had gotten by with his plain old AM/FM tuner (some of you kids might be old enough to remember those). That guy had programmed in every Classic Rock station west of Denver, and it never failed; every morning, someone was carrying the "Bob & Tom show". Whether it was "The Thunder" or "The Eagle" -- or one odd swath of countryside presided over by "The Beaver" -- I must have heard "Barracuda" and at least one Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin song in each state I passed through. (If I never hear "Dream On" again, it'll be way too soon!)

"Next time we stop, I'll have to figure out how to hook this up!" he would crow, and then he'd dive under the dash and tinker while I took us on up the road. I kept offering to help... after all, I always had a knack for wiring up sound equipment... but he insisted on keeping me driving. "You need the practice!"

And practice I did. I hauled 45,000 pounds of paper down from Albany, OR, to the LA Times plant in Olympia, CA. I found my way through Oakland, where the streets were so narrow, the building almost touched at the roof tops. We must have crossed Mt. Shasta at least three times, each time with a different kind of weather system: once with rain, once with snow, and once with fog so heavy, you couldn't see the drop-off on the other side of the guard rail.

I learned when to use the jake-brake, truck stop etiquette (saying "no thank you" to the "lot lizards"), how to plan my fuel stops so I could get the free showers -- always a top concern -- and how to best pass the time when you arrived at the dock and found yourself in an hours-long line to load or unload.

It was hard work, separated by enormous stretches of potentially deadly boredom. The intimidating thoughts of failure or catastrophe began to ebb, though every goof-up I made would bring them roaring back. At one point, passing through Los Angeles, I managed to wipe out one of the back tires of our trailer without noticing it!

But that had been another "forgivable mistake"; we just swapped out trailers at the lot in Fontana. Things were getting better, on the whole. I hadn't screwed up any paperwork since that first load, and had kept up on my DoT timelogs faithfully. I was almost starting to feel good about things. And I wanted to tell someone.

I had to wait a while before we came to rest long enough to worry about calling home, and it happened that we hit a good stopping point just before New Year's. I got a shower, and a phone card, and went to call my sweetheart. I couldn't wait to hear her voice, and let her pass the phone around. So I dialed, and...

You could tell right away she was crying; I asked if everyone was alright. She said yeah, but something was wrong. I tried our usual in-joke. The one I used throughout her long pregnancy with Number Three. He was something of a surprise, and at least once a day I found a reason to look shocked and cry out, "You mean you're pregnant??" It was especially funny in public, when she was in the third trimester and looked like she was ready to deliver right there. Guaranteed laughs!

But this time she just burst into tears. "How did you know?" she wailed.


I came to the table just as Tom finished ordering. The waitress was one of those fading beauties you see in places like truck stops; Tom dutifully flirted with her, and said to me as she flounced away, "Hey, did you check her out?"

"I don't dare look... I'll probably get her pregnant," I muttered. I told him about our news, but didn't tell him all of it. I left out the horrible time my lovely bride had been enduring; the kids catching whatever I had during Christmas break, her getting sick and not being able to contact anyone in the family for help, the bills looming if I couldn't graduate and start driving on my own. Tom thought it was great.

"You'll have four, now?" he said, over and over. "Good thing you won't have to be around for the tough parts!" Good thing? I didn't think so.

After that, it all seemed to come clear to me. I did alright, but I still couldn't do it by myself. The only time I successfully parked was a delivery in Twin Falls, Idaho, where we only had to pull up level with the side of the building. From there we got word that we were "deadheading" (driving an empty trailer) back down to Phoenix.

We cut down through Nevada on state highway 95. I ate the best pizza I've ever tasted in Elko. Whore-houses line the 95, it seemed, female voices on the CB offering "free showers, conversation, and NO obligation." One place was celebrating a 25 year anniversary with discounts for "club members". Another offered a "frequent visitor card" with some oddly worded perks.

"They're calling you, Tad!" Tom would hoot from the back of the truck. He imagined the little "smoke fingers", like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, reaching out of the radio and leading drivers by the nose into these places.

But we drove on, not interested in the dubious goods being advertised. We pressed through the neon over-load of Las Vegas; through the deep, desert dark of Parker, Arizona, and down highway 69 through Wickenburg until we passed my childhood home.


We arrived back at the terminal, and Tom shook my hand. "Hope to see you out on the road," he said. "It was a pleasure driving with you. I hope the next guy does as good a cleaning job on my truck!" We laughed, and he wandered off to do whatever it was he did.

I went on to the last stage of my apprenticeship: the big test. One of the dispatchers climbed up into a cab with me, and had me drive around to put me through the paces. We hooked up to a trailer, went around the block, came back and maneuvered around the lot. Back up, turned around... all the usual everyday things a driver needs to do.

And I failed.

"Don't worry," he said, "We can keep you on at student pay for a few more weeks and let you practice. You'll get it." $300 a week. For a few more weeks? I thought about what I was doing. Thought about the risks... of damage... of death... and even under the best of circumstances, of simply being gone while a baby came and my kids slowly got used to me being gone.

"No thanks," I said. And, even though I had spent the better part of the last year learning to drive... I walked away.