I didn’t end up going straight back to San Antonio though.
I was still in Michelle’s dad’s roomy slacks, and when I was
putting my braided leather belt back on I’d missed a loop so that it
was softly sawing into my belly, making it ragged and red. Full of
the same ideas as a priest with a thorny whip or a teenaged vampire
with a razor blade, I left it there.
After a day of travel we had an hour and a half stop in Columbus,
Georgia. The food cart was only selling bone meal so I
decided I’d explore the surrounding city, try the local cuisine and
pick up another bottle while I was at it. The whole area around the
bus station was pretty industrial and I had to walk for over twenty
minutes before I came across a street level window. I passed a
burnt out pizza parlor and a do it yourself carwash before I found
a little Mexican place called Maribelle’s.
Since I trust just about any restaurant named after somebody,
I went right in and ordered cheese enchiladas and a Corona. The
enchilada sauce tasted like Spaghetti-O’s, but what do you really
expect from a Mexican place in Georgia. I wasn’t planning on dessert
until the waitress said, “Sopapiallas.” I hadn’t had a plate of
sopapiallas for many, many years so I ordered some.
I sat there nursing beer number three, looking back from time
to time over my shoulder at the clock in the juke. Twenty minutes
went by. My bus was leaving in fifteen. I called her over. “Any idea
how much longer it’ll be?” I asked.
She checked with the kitchen, came back and told me they
were changing out the oil and it would be just a little longer. I sat
there and waited. Soon I realized there was no way I was going to
make it back to the bus station in time. And I truly didn’t give a
shit. I just wanted my dessert.
The sopapiallas came out ten minutes later and were well
worth the wait. Big, crisp bubbles of dough fried in virgin oil, even
the steam was sweet. After I paid the bill I lingered there so the
waitress could see the big tip I’d left her. “Dear,” I said, “Could I
trouble you for directions to the nearest liquor store.”
For some kind of consistency, I drank the same brand I was
drinking in the Lamp Lighter. I started following my feet around.
I walked on air. A pair of dark and scabbed hands asked me for
two dollars and I gave them three.
The next time I looked up I found myself in a nicer part of
town. It was dusk. There were several tall buildings with poured
concrete columns and an unusual number of young people about,
many with their noses in books. It was college—a campus. I was
exhausted and thoroughly drunk so I found a birch tree and slid
down its papery trunk for a nap.
I was awoken by three whooping young men, two of them
with shoulders as wide as oxen yokes. “Hey dad, hey dad,” they
said, thrusting a bottle into my hands, to my lips. One’s shirt was
printed with symbols from another time and place. They were fraternity
brothers, and I linked my arms with theirs and stumbled
into the night. First they bought me a shrimp po’ boy and then
they brought me to a house party.
As we walked away from it all swollen fulla cheap beer and
mirth, one of them asked me, “Where’re you staying?” And I said,
So they brought me home to their worn-down old craftsman
with letters from the same dead alphabet mounted across
the porch. One laid me out on the giant sectional while another
shouting “Geronimo!” threw blankets and pillows from the second
I didn’t leave that couch for a month, maybe longer. I’m not
quite sure how long it was I stayed with these fortunate sons in
drunken incubation. My time there was all blurred and blotted
over. Any kind of clarity came along with a big heap of anxiety
now, so any time it rose up I’d just hammer it right back down. I
was riding one long bender and these muscular boy-men encouraged
it from every angle. It’d been a long time since I’d been able
to impress anyone with my drinking and it felt good to be able to
do it again. “Way to take it down, Dad,” they’d say, instantly supplying
They called me dad because they said that’s what I’d been
mumbling when they discovered me at the birch tree. I guess if
I couldn’t hear my own son saying it then these boys would have
to do. Even then I could never remember what they called themselves.
Betta Kappa Omega? Maybe there’s more than one kind of
family I thought to myself, resting out on the splintery front porch
with their wet towels and drip-drying beer bongs.
I don’t know how they managed all the drinking while working
on their various college degrees. Maybe college was easier than
everybody was always making it out to be. These frat brothers sure
made it seem that way. Every day as soon as the sun began to set,
those without evening classes started playing drinking games that
lasted late into the night. I was always losing at these games, which
seemed like winning since it meant you got to drink more. Drink
was all I had, and as I pounded my red cup for a refill, no patience
for the ping pong ball to drop in, I shouted it at them. “This is all
I’ve got, you fucks!”
Of course the jokers joked me some, but I’d hardly call it hazing.
One morning one of them served me a giant cheese omelet
with a green string bikini cooked inside. They all laughed like jackals
when I discovered it, louder even when I cleaned my plate.
Though I was mostly just a silly and temporary sort of mascot
to these guys, there were a few remaining optimists that actually
thought me wise. I guess with my age they couldn’t help but imagine
the face of a sage behind the graying beard and big, greasy
glasses. Sometimes when they were sunk deep in hangovers they’d
seek me out, slide into the hot tub across from me and ask me
questions about life and love. And when I didn’t answer they’d
stare into my face like I was hiding the answers somewhere in my
befuddled expression. I’d shrug. I’d say, “I don’t fucking know, man.
Don’t ask me.”
The afternoon of my last day there they spray-painted one of
the dining room chairs gold and fixed a bunch of plastic jewels
to a Burger King crown and stuck it down over my head. Then
they seated me in the chair, lifted it up high onto their shoulders,
and carried me around the house in a ramshackle sort of parade
singing, “Dad, Dad, Dad.” It hadn’t been meant as a sendoff but
that’s what it ended up being. There was a guy banging some kind
of drum and a banner stretched between two broomsticks that I
couldn’t read since its back was to me. “Dad, Dad, Dad,” they sang.
Across the street a woman around my age with a small white dog
tethered to her wrist stopped and watched me go by. The next time
we came around she was gone. Somebody came and wrapped a
long flag around me. Somebody else handed me a bottle of beer.
The next morning I awoke at the bottom of the front steps. I
couldn’t remember anything from after the parade, but from the
awkward position of my body and the aching of my vertebrae, it
seemed like I’d been dragged out here. My glasses were gone and
there was a gash between my big toe and the next. And when I got
up and walked into the house, a young man was sitting there waiting
for me with a chair placed directly before him. He was one of
the smaller guys, unusually well-dressed in an Oxford knotted tie,
and holding a long, antique walking stick painted like a barber’s
pole. I think this meant he was in charge. Even with my glasses off,
I could see that the living room was a mess.
“Sit, Dad,” he said.
I sat in the chair and he leaned forward and handed me something.
“Look around,” he said.
I put them on and took in the details of the severely trashed
room. I saw several fraternity members ducking in and out of
doors and hallways, one peering from the kitchen with a spoon
in his mouth.
“Do you remember doing this?” The boy asked, gesturing
about the wreckage with his stick.
“No,” I said.
“Do you remember the names that you called us?”
“Okay. Well, I’m not going to repeat them, but let me just
tell you one thing, Dad. And I want you to remember it. Life is
hard for everybody. Wherever you come from, life is hard. I’m sure
you’ve got a tough road to hoe, but so do we.”
“You don’t have any idea what kind of pressure we live with.”
“No I don’t.”
He nodded, pushing the walking stick into his bottom lip. By
the way he handled it, I was convinced that it was some sort of
powerful Greek totem. My canvas sack was neatly packed and sitting
on the couch. He nudged it with the stick. “We packed your
bag for you. It’s time for you to leave.”
“Okay,” I said. And when I reached for it, the young man intercepted
my hand and shook it with the cold hand that was destined
to become a chairman or politician’s. This was like a practice
firing. “Goodbye,” he said.
As I walked away from the fraternity house, I looked back
just once over my shoulder. Now that the hostile agent had been
removed, the place was full of life again. Like ants, the fraternity
brothers were working together to put the living room back to-
gether and making quick work of it. I don’t remember any one of
their names. Probably a Jeff in there somewhere. Maybe a Ben.
Somebody friendly must have packed my bag for me, because
there were several new bottles at the bottom with a note that read,
“For the road, Dad.” I drained half of one down, stumbled out
to the mouth of the greater highway and tried to thumb a ride.
Nobody was stopping and soon night fell. I turtled up into my
flannel and kept at it. A police man threatened me with his siren
and lights, and I ran off into the brush.
Two days later the fuzz made good on their threat. I was arrested
for public drunkenness after collapsing into a public fountain
and splashing some babies. I spent three nights in a stinky
little parish jail before I was carted over and loosed on the eastern
edge of Ladonia, the next town over. They’d loaded me and a
whole other bunch of bums into a paddy wagon. As they unshackled
us they told us never to return to Columbus. “My grandma
lives in Columbus,” one guy kept saying, but the cops didn’t even
“Where are the nearest railroad tracks?” I asked one of my
“Looking to hop a freighter?”
“Looking to take a nap and get flat.”
We all dispersed, some in groups of two or three, myself alone.
That night I found the little main drag, a liquor store. I cupped my
hands against the tinted glass to spy where the beer cooler was in
relation to the clerk. I dashed in, grabbed a twenty-four pack, and
dashed right back out.
I ran into the nearby town square, slid in under some holly
bushes, and started slurping them down. I thought I was in the
clear, but about an hour later a small posse headed by the clerk
came around stomping their boots and shining their flashlights
everywhere. They were whistling, big voices booming, “Where you
at? Where you at, thief?”
It scared the hell out of me.
The next morning I found the Western Union, called Guy and
told him that I was stuck in Ladonia without a cent.
He told me they were out of money too.
“What about Uly. You think Uly’d help us out.”
“Uly and I,” Guy said. “Uly and I aren’t in contact anymore.
I had a similar idea, and yeah, the kid was all talk.” Then, after a
pause, said, “Just hold on. We’ll get some money for you. Don’t
worry. Just hold on.”
Five hours later the money came through—enough to fill my
gut and get me back on a bus. Two days later I was back in San
Antonio, and twenty-five steps off the bus, back in Guy’s truck
and riding back to New Braunfels.
“It’s a good thing you came back,” Guy said. “Joe and I should
not be left alone together.”
“Nothing particularly noteworthy. Just a mood I guess.” He
turned to me. “What I mean to say is that we’re glad to have you
“I’m glad to be home,” I said.
This is an excerpt from “The Blue Bourbon Orchestra.” You can purchase the novel in it’s entirety at carsonmell.com