I met this girl in a Hollywood bar. My brother and I had dinner there, then a couple of drinks. We retired to the backroom as the joint began to fill up. She was sitting there with her girlfriend, both of them with beautiful shampoo ad hair. I tossed off an unmemorable line as I ordered my round of beers and the girl to my rightto my delightresponded.
To a guy like me the ease of conversation with this stunning Californian was miraculous. We were on the same channel and in the same mood almost immediately. We tossed the remotes over our heads and relaxed into the show at hand. Her girlfriend, though, was a pumpkin after midnightno magic leftso much for double dating. My brother would need a carving knife to get her to smile, and even then all he'd be left with would be a scary jack-o-lantern that wasn't going to give him a ride. He was resigned and I was relaxed.
As the moments eased by, our conversation yielded these important facts: My name was Gordon and I was passing through L.A. with the Joe Cocker tour, working as merchandise manager, and she was Shelly Brandtwaiting to meet up with friends from the law office on the eve of her returning home to El Paso, or was it Houston.
When I guessed her age by the smoothness of her skin, I was thinking of the Snake in the Chinese horoscope. "You are 28 years old." "That's right Year of the Horse," she said, reading my mind. Why was she thinking of Chinese horoscopes? It didn't matter that Id gotten the animal wrongI guessed her correct age and she comes up with "Year of the Horse." I loved that about her. So I proposed to her. I didn't expect an answer right away and I didn't get one. I didn't bore her with a quick list of the reasons we were made for each, I figured she already knew them.
We were truly connecting. My brother saw it too. As we stood arm in arm in front of him, waiting for his blessings, he smiled and said she was good sister-in-law material. It felt like something was happening. It felt like it was our turn.
Shelly's friends started showing up and reserved a table outside by the patio bar. She excused herself promising to return. Her eyes reinforced her lips when she said, "I'm very flattered, I've never been proposed to before." I was intoxicated. Half an hour later when she bounded back to our part of the bar she seemed so proud of herself for keeping her word. My faith in our bonding she wanted to reassure. I whisked her away to a neutral corner to seal our friendship with a hug and a kiss, and to say good-bye. By morning I would be in San Diego and she would be in Texas. We agreed that if we were to be, we would see each other again, somewhere. She had my card. I hit the road.
For the next month and a half I zigged and zagged my Ryder truck across the continent following Joe Cocker from one old vaudeville theater to the next. Encounters like the one I had in L.A. happen often enough in a life like mine soon all the faces and names settle themselves deep in the palm of my heart or brain, only to resurface when I scratch those places in loneliness. The name Shelly Brandt of El Paso never would settle though. It floated lightly and lovely and gently on my mind, keeping me company around the country. Making me smile.
When I took time out to stop in on friends, I couldn't help but drop her name. I felt that the story was not over. At one point near Dallas, Texas I got up from dinner and called the El Paso directory assistance lady and she assured me that there was no Shelly Brandt listed. I asked her to give me any Brandt (fate being what it is, maybe Id luck into a relative). So I dialed Terri Brandts number and casually asked to speak with Shelly, and Terri said, "Hold on, Ill get her." I love fate! There was no mistaking it-- the voice on the other end of the phone was not my Shelly Brandt. Oh well, it had been worth the cheap thrill. For those few heart stopping moments, the usual order of things had been upended and it suddenly became my turn again for a minor miracle.
As the Joe Cocker entourage moved out of Boston, I was reassigned to work the eastern leg of the Tony Bennett tour. Driving south through New York State toward my parents house on Long Island, my childhood home, I became uncharacteristically nostalgic about the place. Symbolic metaphors around the meaning of "going home" were swimming behind my eyes and making me weepy. But I was in a great mood. For no reason at all, I was feeling good about myself and my life. Spontaneous euphoria is sometimes the byproduct of highway driving.
My imagination was in overdrive and wouldn't let me continue the midnight ride. I kept pulling myself off the road to write down scenes for a screenplay that was threatening to write itself. I wanted some control because it's autobiographical starting in my future. A new theory occurred to me in a Motel 6 room back in Kansas City: I now believed that I could create my own future by remembering how Id always imagined it would be (in the days before Id become cynical and defeatist). I could have the exotic foreign adventures, the epic modern romance, the serious talks with artistic friends over Turkish coffee and baba ganoush in a hookah bar in New Orleanswhatever the hell I wanted. The stuff that got into the screenplay would be the things that would actually happen! I would make it so.
This is the closest Id ever come to feeling like the master of my own destiny. The possibilities of my life finally gained enough in weight and stature to fit into an adult suiteven if it wasn't the same style of suit I was brought up to desire. Where had my confidence gone, and how did it find me in the middle of the night on the New York Thruway?
When I finally reached the shores of my home the euphoria had strangely not ebbed. My mood was consistently elevated. Reality refused to sink in. There was one Tony Bennett show left to do in Hartford, then I would have to join up with Julio Iglesias for three shows in the round. After that I was free. The company would supply me with airfare back to San Franciscoa Sausalito houseboat floating around the bluff from the Golden Gate Bridge was my current home.
My parents, older brother, and sister-in-law welcomed me back and allowed me to regale them with endless war stories from the road. I told them about Shelly Brandt in Los Angeles and how she sized up to be their future in-law. I only joked about flying out to El Paso to find her, but in back of my mind I was figuring out a plan of action. When my movie hits the screens there will be a fabulous scene where our kids ask Shelly and I how we'd met. If I could get myself to El Paso and actually find herwell that would be the most titanic love story those kids would ever hear.
The next day I got the company travel agent on the phone and had her book me a round trip ticket to El Paso. Ten days in Texas and home again for Passover. My folks started to look at me funny when I shared my plans with them. I remembered that look from the time I declared, while still in college, that I was taking off a semester to explore Africa; and when after college I let them in on my plans to walk across Reagans America to support global nuclear disarmament. I was already used to that look, and too old to care.
As I got off the plane in El Paso, I tried to muster up some of that giddy euphoria, that fueled this journey. The mood pendulum had finally tocked it away. I guess daytime plane trips have the opposite effect of late night, highway driving. I pulled out the little Radio Shack micro recorder that would be my conduit to my progeny. There were many sprouting "what if" questions that needed weed whacking if I was to gain view of the road back to that better mood. What if her name was Shelly Brent, or Braham? The bar was noisy, what if I heard it wrong? What if my brother was right he remembered her saying that she was from Houston. What if it really was El Paso, but she decided to go back to L. A. after a week? What if she was lying about the whole thing? What if she has a boyfriend who wants to punch me in the nose? All those "what ifs" were finally vetoed by: What if I find her and she leaps into my arms and says, "What took you so long, stranger?"
So I ambled over to the El Paso information booth in the airport and asked, "Where do the artists hang out in this burgh?" The information lady and her friend resembled my folks when they said, "Huh?!" "Where's the Greenwich Village of El Paso, there must be something similar." Again that funny look and again a chorus of "Huh?!?" "Well, is there a youth hostel with some funky people " I hit pay dirt with that one. They spread out some local bus maps and schedules and after saying "Huh?!" a few times myself, I was on my way.
My plan was to get a room, get out the phone book and ask all the Brandts in the area if they knew Shelly. I could have saved time, money and face by doing this from New York, but I couldn't bare the thought of coming up empty handed; or worse getting Shelly on the line and hearing her say, "Gordon, who? Huh?" In the movie of my life I will only be disappointed on location, not long distance.
The hostel turned out to be El Pasos oldest hotel with lots of charm and a well worn hall carpet from the guest rooms to the toilet. Within 20 minutes of my arrival I had exhausted the phone book plan. Not one lead. I had my tape recorder at the ready to document my elation when the party on the other end was to say, "Shelly's my cousin, you must be Gordon. You're all she ever talks about. Hold on Ill get her." It never happened. Now I had ten days to kill in El Paso.
Plan B came quickly and naturally. Since we met in a barby gism--Ill have to visit every tavern in town till I find her. I walked out into the dusk and got loaded on one Texas sized mug of Mexican beer. Then I headed back to my room, feeling defeated.
Another brain storm occurred to me back in the hotel lobby. I had Tim the clerk tell me where the live music was going to be jamming this evening. He suggested taking a bus two miles up Mesa passed the University to Big Wally's or the Surf Club. I figured, Shelly had been living in LAshes bound to gravitate toward the action. I still don't know where my optimism was coming from but you don't look that kind of horse in the mouth, you just kiss it once on the lips for good luck and go catch your bus.
Out the window I saw bright lights and colorful signs go by so I signaled the driver to let me out. As I walked back toward Mecca, I noticed a San Francisco style coffee shop called Dolce Vita pumping and heaving with activitya wine splashed art opening of some kind. I checked my vibe outside the door, and felt a little like a dip stick with no oil on it. I needed a quart. The place was packed. But lo and behold in the midst of all the folderol was a beautiful creature with Shelly Brandts features. Steady boy. It could be her. The last time I saw her was in a dark drunk bar two long months ago. I began to realize that her image had faded from my memory where her essence always lingered.
I settled at a bilingual couples table with my dry cappuccino and watched "Shelly" blithely negotiating the crowd gracefully offering glasses of red wine. I caught her eye and sensed no recognition My staring must have offended her, she avoided my table and I missed out on the free alcohol. Not a good sign, if you believe in that stuff. I obviously do. Then something nice happened when I walked to the counter for a large cup of coffee.
The young lady behind the counter seemed open to conversation so I let it spill what I was doing in town. She was all over it. She grabbed a napkin and pen in one gesture and made me dictate to her all the particulars of my quest: My name, Shelly's name, where I could be reached, what she looked like at that I just pointed to the wine girl. Samantha Spade followed my finger with her eagle eye and smiled brightly, pulling me in confidentially, "She looks like Xosha? Ooh, cool, she's pretty!" I liked this Anna, and thought about postponing my search for Shelly. But then she snapped into action, asking all her co-workers and friends if anyone knew Shelly Brandt, "the girl that this guy flew all over creation to find. He's from New York City." No leads were generated from these efforts, but plan C was taking shape. And a cute one at that.
Plans D and E were formulating and reformulating just as quickly. I assumed that if worst came to worst I could scare Shelly up with some strategically placed endearing little posters, or I could run an ad in the free weekly's classified section. Later that night, I even left a message on a telephone dating service saying, "I'm only looking for one girl, called Shelly Brandt, if you're not heroh well." I couldn't see my adventure turning into something pitiful and cliché. I've read other peoples ads my whole life: "We had a great conversation on the chair lift at Squaw last weekend. You were wearing a sexy yellow ski outfit and we spoke about Seinfeld and white fudge." My love affair demanded more elegance of circumstance.
The following morning I moved into a cheaper motel on Mesa one mile closer to Dolce Vita, Big Wally's and the Surf Club, and I shaved my head. Then I moseyed back up the street to the coffee house and hung out in the window seat doing my bills and feeling stupid. I felt exponentially more stupid when another Shelly Brandt potential walked up the wheelchair ramp with her hands in some guys front pockets. They stopped in front of the door to smoke cigarettes from each others mouths. Now what the hell am I supposed to do? Interrupt their storefront humping and say, "Hi, remember me from L. A.? I proposed to you, we were drunk, and I flew out from New York to see if you were also pining away for me." That practiced look, the one my folks have perfected, was making too much sense. My bubble was bursting. I was praying she didn't see me sitting there amongst my insurance and phone bills, with no hair on my head. I was praying I was invisible.
Some god heard my prayers. She didn't notice me. She mingled with friends while her boyfriend went to order drinks. I was screwing up the courage to put an end to the mysterywas this Shelly or just another imitation? I couldn't do it. My life was a farce. I could fly out to El Paso and spend all the dough, but when push started shoving, I didn't have what it took to close the deal. Ouch.
Even after they'd left an hour later, I thought to ask one of her friends if she was Shelly Brandt, but the guy seemed like an asshole. I rationalized that I had failed so miserably that this assholewho I hated for having this powerful informationwould somehow become the master of my shrinking soul. I even sat at a table next to his and talked to him briefly, then pitifully left the cafe with my tail shoved up between my butt cheeks. I couldn't get the words out. I was afraid his answer would be, yes. I was too weakened to hear that news.
I thought about getting a bus to L. A. or LA. I thought about digging a hole in the desert and crawling in. I thought about getting drunk in Juarez, Mexico across the Rio Grande. Instead, I watched a lot of T. V. and smoked a lot of cigarettes. Only eight days left to while away in the west Texas town of El Paso.
The next morning my mood lifted--slightly. I checked my voice mail and discovered that the company had some work for me in San Francisco. It was my last-second reprieve from the governor. My chance to save face. If anyone asked how it went in El Paso, I could glibly avoid the details and say, "I was hot on her trail but the damn office called me off the hunt. Oh well. What are you gonna do?"
When I called Pete to see what kind of work he had for me the news was grim. Warehouse work for two days, maybe a week. If I were to accept, that would mean passing on Passover and probably the New Orleans Jazz Fest as well. I hadn't missed either spiritual tradition for years. I turned Petes offer down. No reprieveI chose execution by lethal depression. If I was to survive this trip to hell I had chartered for myself, it would be up to me to face my demons and not run away.
I took a quick inventory of my situation, found my bootsand pulled myself up by their straps. It was time to make lemonade. I decided that I was in El Paso for a reason. All that was left to do was to hang around and see what revealed itself to me. There were places to explore, hills to hike, Felinas to meet in Rosas Cantina, and there were words to write. I lit out to find the meaning of the day. But I didn't go back to Dolce Vita. I saw no need to return to the scene of my most recent spiritual blood bath. It's one thing to face my demons during one of their frequent visits, why bother calling on them uninvited?
I plopped myself down outside at Big Wally's and ate store bought cappuccino yogurt, and sloshed down pitchers of ice coffee in the burning sun. A song about El Paso started writing itself while I held the pen. I was happy to have left my tape recorder and my quest back at the motel. If Shelly Brandt wanted a piece of my action she would have to at least meet me half-way. My sense of humor was fighting its way back. I was relaxing.
After a few hours, the song finished writing itself just as an exotically beautiful woman passed my table looking like Cleopatra on her way to the bar. It was my cue to go in and fake a leak. Time now to switch from solitary iced coffee, to Long Island iced tea for two.
Cleopatra was reading the want ads at the bar by herself. As I made my approach, a young lady grabbed the strategic seat next to Cleo. Damn luck. What would Caesar do? Recalling the sound advice of CSNY I chose to love the one I'm with. Maybe the mighty mighty one had put her there for some purpose. Illogically, I was still relying on some voodoo magic called fate. So I struck up a conversation with her instead. Did I punk out? Should I have stayed the course, and tried my luck with the queen-goddess, rather than settling for what was convenient? I don't know how everyone else deals with these moment by moment decisions, but I'm a Pisces and this is what I do.
The young lady turned out to be Sunny Beauchamp from Hackberry, Louisianaa small town along the Creole Nature Trail that I had visited more than once. What a coincidenceI was on to something here. I told her about my love affair with Louisiana, and she told me about working in the restaurant supply business. I had once worked in a restaurantnot a direct coincidental hit, but in the ball park. She told me about the opera club and about the two kinds of air conditioning available in El PasoI was losing my bearings, we had nothing in common. I should have stayed focused on Cleopatra, who by now was making time with the guy to her right.
In an effort to rein Sunny back into my conversational orbit, I told her about the Cajun restaurant Id noticed across the street from Dolce Vita, called Crawdaddys. Then I kept going, telling her about working on the Joe Cocker tour, and about life on the road. She told me what kind of car her boyfriend drives, and about going to college in El Paso in the eighties. Oh, Cleo, why wasn't I more ambitious, more romanticthat could be me with his hand on your knee, buying you drinks.
I looked from Cleopatra back to Sunny and squinted into her face trying to see something that wasn't there. She sipped her seven and seven and ignored my strangeness. I went for broke and told her about what a romantic failure I was. About what lengths Id go to just to prove it. I told her about meeting a fantastic Texan like herself when I was in L.A., and how I flew out here after several months on the wings of a hunch that we were made for each other, and our meeting again was meant to be. To my mind, I was being pitiful in a charming way, like a character in French movie. She wasn't impressed, but she humored me. "Whats her name?" I told her, and she said that Shelly was her college roommate.
Like a volcano erupting in a tornado during an earthquake just as the tsunami hits. I was in the midst of a wholly new human sensation. Like getting smacked in the back of the head with Babe Ruth's bat and not flinching. Some part of me was stampeding over the center field fence, with the shell of me sitting on a bar stool in El Paso keeping up a conversation. There couldn't have been enough of the real stuff of me left on Earth to keep my body inflated, and yet there I was listening to Sunny placidly describe the Shelly Brandt she knew in school. The Shelly Brandt who just recently moved back from California. The one who used to work in a law office. The Shelly Brandt who's been living with her boyfriend, Paco, ever since she got back.
I don't even care. She could be shopping for wedding dresses tomorrow. What is a mere boyfriend going to do in the face of two worlds colliding? Id be a good sport, he could come to our wedding. No hard feelings. What are you going to do, it just happened. Hell, even if I had to fight this guy, that's the stuff of legendary romances. It's an American pre-requisite. Id make him fight even if he bowed out like a gentleman. Id be ashamed not to. My mind was spasing out, I don't know what my mouth was doing. My ears were filling up with Sunny-speak.
She was saying something practical about her address book sitting by the key dish in her kitchen by the can opener. I saw her scribbling on a matchbook cover. I tried to focus hard on my instructions. I was to call her at this number in an hour, and she'd give me Shelly's home number at Pacos. As Sunny parted the sunset gleaming through Big Wally's patio door, I think I smiled and waved like I was saying bye-bye to Santa going back up the chimney. I looked at the matchbook that my hand somehow held, and there was my future.
TO BE CONTINUED...part II