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
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 mystery—was 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 asshole—who I hated for having this powerful information—would 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 Pete’s offer down. No
reprieve—I 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
I took a quick inventory of my situation, found my boots—and 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 Rosa’s 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
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, Louisiana—a
small town along the Creole Nature Trail that I had visited more than once. What a
coincidence—I 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
restaurant—not 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 Paso—I 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 I’d 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 romantic—that 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 I’d 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. "What’s 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? I’d 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. Its an American
pre-requisite. I’d make him fight even if he bowed out like a gentleman. I’d 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 Paco’s. 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.