Leo Martin was lost, driving in the mountains at four in the morning with the car rapidly running out of gas. While Bob, leaning against the passenger side window, his head back and his mouth open, was no longer just snoring, he was probably choking to death on his own tongue. At least that’s what it sounded like. Some weary beast on a parched plain, fighting desperately for that final breath. So, as an act of compassion but forgetting momentarily that Bob seldom wore his seat belt, Leo lightly tapped the brakes, throwing Bob face first into the dashboard.
“What happened?” Bob asked, struggling to speak with his crackling voice and parched throat. “Did we hit something?” He bent down to retrieve his glasses from the floor.
“I thought you were dying,” Leo answered, working on an alibi.
“What?” Bob was still groggy and didn’t notice right away that his wire-rimmed glasses were now bent out of shape and one of the lenses had fallen out. He put the glasses on and tried to focus. “I feel like I’ve been hit in the face, Leo,” he said, feeling his nose.
“You look like you’ve been hit in the face,” Leo pointed out. Bob checked himself in the rear view mirror.
“Jesus, what happened to my glasses? Where are we?”
“I guess there’s no easy way to put this, Bob,” Leo began. “But...ah...the truth is bound to come out sooner or later, so…."
“What are you talking about, Leo?” Bob whined as he searched for his missing lens.
“You were abducted by aliens, Bob, while you were
sleeping,” Leo blurted out
“You were abducted by aliens, Bob, while you were sleeping,” Leo blurted out. ”They just dropped you off. I almost hit one of-um back there.” Bob wrinkled his forehead and squinted his eyes.
“Okay …” he said slowly.
“They want you back here in six months for a follow-up probe,” Leo added. Bob finished rebuilding his glasses, put them back on and then made a detailed, panoramic inspection of their immediate location as they moved through the monotonous, winding darkness.
“And just what would aliens or anyone else for that matter, be doing out here in the middle of Greater Fucking Nowhere, Leo?” he pondered sarcastically.
“I think aliens prefer Greater Nowhere, Bob,” Leo offered. “Outer space must be a lot more rural than we imagined.”
It was 1972. Leo Martin and his friend Bob James were driving back to San Francisco after playing a gig in Reno at the Golden Tumbleweed Hotel and Casino. Leo played drums and Bob played electric bass. They worked the Tumbleweed Lounge for a week in a blues band called The Extravagant Bar Tabs. The Tabs consisted of Leo and Bob and a piano player from Houston named Wayne Talbert and featured the song stylings of Eddy "Stoop Down" Brown. Eddy also played harmonica but his chief talent as well as his weakness, at least there at the Tumbleweed Lounge, was his ability to impersonate a host of legendary blues artists -- most of whom no one in the audience had ever heard of. The Extravagant Bar Tabs were originally booked into the Tumbleweed for two weeks but after the first week, the lounge boss pulled the plug. Well, it wasn't like the band didn't see it coming.
"Just who tha-fuck is Hip Linkchain, anyway"? the boss wanted to know after the first night. He also wanted to know: "How come you guys don't wear sparkly suits?" After a solid week of indifference from the audience and open hostility from the Tumbleweed staff, Bob and Leo packed up their gear and left in the middle of the night, anxious to get home to San Francisco. Anyway, Wayne and Stoop Down had already gambled and lost whatever monies the band had coming, then split before Leo and Bob could organize a "Band Meeting" where grievances could be aired and blood could be shed.
Once behind the wheel, Leo had time to reflect on their quick departure. Maybe leaving in the middle of the night with little money wasn’t such a great idea after all. Leo must have blanked out and missed a road sign somewhere because now he was off the highway… lost ... the car almost out of gas and nothing open, not even a glowing light bulb for miles out on this empty, two-lane mountain road to nowhere. The only thing Leo could find on the radio were various humming noises, a lot of static and one desperate evangelist from Vancouver named Bible Smoot. Apparently, the Reverend Smoot was involved in some sort of holy real estate deal along with God (as a silent partner) and they were both short on cash. Eventually even the good Reverend faded away, leaving Leo and Bob riding on in ponderous silence with the gas gauge slowly sinking below the red line.
Bob was sitting with his back to Leo, staring out the window into the black night. His head slowly swiveled around and he looked over at Leo, his eye bugging and his mouth twisted in a hideous grin.
"Donner Party, your table is ready," he
announced with a mad giggle
"Donner Party, your table is ready," he announced with a mad giggle. Of course, Leo could have imagined most of that, considering where they were at the time. The road sign for Donner Pass sprang out of the night with a big arrow pointing the way to a fork in the road ahead. The Donner Party! The legendary wagon train full of settlers heading west in the eighteen hundreds ... they found themselves stranded in the snow and were driven by starvation to eat their frozen dead.
"Wow, Donner Pass," Leo remarked dryly. "Just how ironic can you get, huh, Bob? I mean, with us running out of gas and ... lost and all." He added with a nervous chuckle, discreetly eyeballing his friend's fleshy arm. Bob was looking relatively normal now though he did seem a bit agitated.
"This is not ironic, Leo," He snapped back. "If we were vegetarians then it would be ironic, okay? This is just spooky."
"Yeah, that's what I meant, Bob -- spooky." Leo agreed, his imagination wandering off in several morbid directions at once. But in fact, just the thought of having to eat any portion of Bob, even for the sake of survival, Leo found to be totally repugnant. Bob was a sideman ... I mean, come on. If Leo were going to eat someone, it would have to be at least a lead player ... as long as it wasn't guitar. Or perhaps, in a pinch, a vocalist. Also, Bob was a bass player and bass players are notoriously tough and stringy.
Whereas drummers, long prized for their tender haunches and hunted almost to the point of extinction in some areas, taste a lot like slow-roasted Buffalo hump.
“Leo!” Bob cried out, pointing up the road as the car rounded another curve. “Look at that!” Out of the deep darkness, two hundred yards ahead, a small cluster of lights glowed like The Emerald City.
“It’s what the old timers used to call civilization, Bob!” Leo explained. “It’s gasoline. It’s coffee. It's big bags of snacks. Moon Pies and Twinkies ... Ding-Dongs, Ho-Ho’s, Zu-Zu’s and Wam-Wams!
“Well, step on it, Leo,” Bob suggested. “I need to take a dump.” Sadly, at this point there was nothing left to step on. The car was sputtering out of gas and coasting. They had to get out and push the last twenty-five yards into the charming little town of Mercenary Bend.
As they got closer, Leo could see right away that this town wasn’t exactly a pulsing metropolis. He wasn’t sure if the place had a pulse or even qualified as a town. It was more of a rampant intersection with four rustic gas stations, one on each corner, clumps of old mobile homes with satellite dishes, pickup trucks and a lot of yapping dogs. As they pushed Bob’s great hulking station wagon up to Weldon's Fast Gas, they found the gas pumps chained and padlocked ... and the station closed. Further exploration revealed that all four gas stations: Weldon's, Duprey's Gas-Beer & Bail Bonds, Good Luck Gas and Last Chance Gas were locked up tight. However, behind each station was a convenient little motel, each with a big Welcome neon sign in the window humming: OPEN-VACANCY-FREE ICE.
“Let’s see if one of these places will sell us some gas,” Bob grumbled. “I’m not about to spend the night in this burg.” It was a reasonable plan but with one major flaw -- no one cared. Not one grain of sympathy, compassion or even a slight interest in the boys’ unfortunate predicament could be extracted from the sleepy motel clerks. The first three just stared at Leo and Bob as if they were a couple of circus pinheads. The clerks all gave the same reply: Opening the gas station at this time of night or turning on the pumps was, in their minds, unheard of, too much trouble and completely out of the question. Yet these same good people of Mercenary Bend were all willing to bend over backwards to provide Bob and Leo with the finest in overnight accommodations: a damp room with no phone, no TV, free ice, one towel and two single beds.
“One of-um’s got Magic Fingers, “ Benny, the night clerk at the Last Chance Lodge informed them with an odd wink.
"Gosh." Bob was underwhelmed but it did appear that the Last Chance Lodge was indeed just that.
"Yeah, you put four quarters in the box and the bed vibrates," Benny explained. "Just had-um installed last month. Check-out time's 9 AM with a complimentary Pop-Tart when you turn in your room key. Gas station opens at eight-thirty." So, that was the set-up in this pathetic little spider web of a town -- First you get the room then you get the Pop-Tart then you get the gas ... not to mention the magic finger....pretty sweet. Or as Benny philosophically put it: "In Mercenary Bend, the customer's got no choice."
In Mercenary Bend, the
customer's got no choice
With their fate on the line and a thin bankroll, Leo and Bob presented Benny with the same deal that the last three motel clerks had turned down: they would pay Benny the 40 bucks for a room if he would then unlock the pumps and sell them a tank of gas, all cash, no receipts, no witnesses. For Benny, the deal was not only doable, it was what he'd been waiting for all along -- a decent bribe! Even so, as soon as he had the station open but before he turned on the pumps, Benny insisted that along with the gas, Leo and Bob needed a flashlight, some batteries, an assortment of fireworks and a half pound of Benny's homemade squirrel jerky. He threw in a box of assorted, foul smelling, pine tree-shaped air fresheners for free.
"You got any lawn furniture?" Bob sneered but Benny was too busy counting his money to appreciate the sarcasm. After loading up on a power breakfast of coffee, sweet rolls and squirrel jerky, the boys climbed back into the station wagon and hauled ass out of town just at morning's first light. Once again out onto that open road. For insurance, Benny had been kind enough to sell them directions back to the interstate.
"You make a left down here just past the Beer-Guns & Ammo Store, go about 4 miles then hopefully you'll see a big sign that says: Interstate 80-West to San Francisco. If I were you, I'd follow that sign. After that, you're on your own ‘til you get lost again. Make a left and keep your eyes open.” That was Benny's directions ... the rest was just insults. But it didn't matter, they were in the car with a tank of gas and finally on their way home!
"We should be in the City before noon," Bob calculated.
"A walk in the park," Leo added smugly, tossing the box of sickeningly sweet- scented air fresheners (Benny's going away gift) out the window. This was just seconds before Leo hit one of the many radar speed traps located in and around Mercenary Bend and was pulled over for speeding.
Leo had been doing 50 in a 45-mile zone, the police officer explained in a condescending tone, then ordered Leo to follow him over to the office of the Justice Of The Peace where Leo could either pay his fine or suffer the indignities of incarceration. Leo obediently followed the police car down the back roads, dark dirt roads, through a gauntlet of twists and turns, dodging cows, angry dogs and the skeletal remains of rusted-out, abandoned vehicles before finally bursting from a forest of pine trees out onto a wide, brightly lit, two-lane highway. From out of a dream, set a gas station named the Hit It & Quit Market -- open 24 hours with adult video rentals in the back. How in the hell did Leo miss all of that? Clearly, this town was bigger than Leo ever imagined, with most of it hidden away behind dark hills and big trees. Another plausible explanation was that Leo had been driving all night with his head up his ass. Either way, it was an unfortunate twist of fate when, earlier, Bob and Leo coasted into the dark side of Mercenary Bend and were royally reamed by a nest of vipers. And clearly, it wasn't over yet.
Across the highway from the Hit It & Quit, in a gravel parking lot, set the office of the local Justice Of The Peace: The Honorable Mrs. Penelope Ann Dalrymple presiding. A fence of old truck tires buried halfway into the ground and painted red white and blue surrounded the parking lot. The courthouse was a gleaming bright aluminum trailer house resting on a concrete slab and accented with flowers blooming in old wooden whiskey barrels. The whole place had that Official Government ambiance with a tinge of Trailer Trash.
"Well, this is just precious," Bob said, as they pulled into the parking lot behind their police escort. The only other vehicles in the lot were a badly damaged truck cab from a diesel rig chained up and hanging off the back of an old, dilapidated tow truck. Inside Penelope Ann's courtroom, a half-dozen metal folding chairs faced a heavy wooden desk with a large upholstered office chair parked behind it. Leo and Bob were escorted in and ordered to sit next to two men in handcuffs sitting together at the back of the room. Another policeman stood behind them with a blank, bored expression, his arms folded across his chest.
The two guys in cuffs set quietly staring at the floor, their eyes glazed over, half asleep. Their clothes were torn and smeared with dirt and grease, their faces and hands bloody and covered with cuts and bruises. Both men gave off the strong smell of petroleum and whiskey. “What happened to you guys?” Leo whispered to the one next to him. The man turned to Leo and tried to focus his eyes. Leo could see that the man was seriously drunk.
“Well, Monroe here fell asleep at the wheel
and ran over a Dairy Queen”
“Well, Monroe here fell asleep at the wheel and ran over a Dairy Queen,” The man explained. Monroe shifted in his chair as his partner continued. “Then he flipped the truck and we lost our load of whatever the hell that bio-hazardous crap was and we damned near died!” He turned to give Monroe a slow burn.
“Shut up, Lyle,” Monroe said in the middle of a yawn.
“Both of you shut up!” barked the officer behind them. A door opened off to the side of the big desk and a thin, twitchy little man with horn-rimmed glasses and his pants hiked up almost to his nipples, entered carrying a small electric fan. After plugging it in, he set the fan on the desk, pointed it toward the empty chair, meticulously positioning it for optimum effect before turning it on. The man watched with genuine pride as the little fan began to slowly oscillate. He quickly snapped to attention when Justice Dalrymple threw open the side door and entered her courtroom carrying a folder of papers under her arm.
Penelope Ann weighed at least two hundred pounds and wore what Leo thought was a long judicial robe but, in fact, turned out to be a large black muumuu. Leo wasn’t positive about the size, although the term large muumuu seemed redundant. Once you’ve reached the muumuu stage, it’s pretty much one size contains all. Penelope Ann appeared to be in a foul mood as she trudged over to the desk in her orthopedic shoes and waited for the fan man to pull the chair out for her. The fan man, looking around the room, lost in a rare, private moment, ignored the woman’s looming presence and gnawed self-consciously on a hangnail.
“Louis?” she said calmly, shooting him a deadly laser glare. Louis almost ruptured a testicle racing around the desk to pull back Penelope Ann’s chair. After registering her deep disappointment with a subtle shake of her head, Justice Dalrymple sat down and began sorting her papers. Louis, an obviously licensed, fully qualified, groveling toady, stood poised at her side.
Louis, an obviously licensed, fully qualified,
groveling toady, stood poised at her side
“Mr. Leo Martin,” Penelope Ann said flatly, reading the name off the arrest report. She quickly looked up and let out an
exasperated sigh as the air from the fan made a pass across her desk, softly blowing her short black hair and rustling her papers. “Louis!” she snapped. “If I had wanted an oscillating fan I would have asked for an oscillating fan!” Risking further internal injuries, Louis bounded back around the desk and grabbed the fan with both hands, attempting to put an end to its insidious oscillation. He fumbled desperately and succeeded in breaking off the fan’s control switch. Penelope Ann gave up on Louis, suppressing her rage for the time being and went back to business.
"Mister Leo Martin!" she bellowed. The arresting officer jabbed Leo. "Okay," he said. "Let's go." The officer motioned for Leo to go ahead of him. As they approached the bench and Leo got farther away from the fumes coming off the two drunks in the back, he caught a whiff of another very strong and very familiar smell. What was it? It was something sweet and medicinal and growing more and more pungent with every step. As he stood there facing Justice Penelope Ann Dalrymple, Leo couldn’t help thinking that this regal officer of the court was wearing, undoubtedly, the rankest, most eye-watering, nostril-burning perfume available on the market today. (“Urinal Cakes” – from Calvin Klein.) Then Leo noticed Her Honor looking back at him, her faced pinched up into a sour snarl and apparently thinking the same thing about Leo -- Jesus, this guy stinks! Another officer reached over and placed a small cardboard box on her desk. The box was crushed and dirty and gave off the same foul odor. It was those goddamn air fresheners! Benny’s gracious parting gift for the gas station.
Leo’s arraignment was brief but entertaining. Louis continued to labor with the electric fan while pretending to ignore Penelope Ann’s contemptuous glare that threatened to bore a hole into the back of his brain. Meanwhile, the arresting officer is testifying that he and his partner witnessed Leo throwing this suspicious looking package out of his car just seconds before they stopped him for speeding. And taking the position that practically anything a civilian does can be viewed by law enforcement as drug-related, the officer proceeded to impound said box of toxic freshness as possible evidence in a potential drug bust that would finally blow the lid off this whole phony car-deodorant racket once and for all.
Penelope Ann declared the arresting officer an ignorant boob and ordered him to remove the vile package from her courtroom. She fined Leo forty dollars for speeding and said that if he didn’t cough up the cash, he was going to jail. Fortunately for Leo, it was here that the proceedings were delayed due to unforeseen complications. Poor Louis, stressed out, on the verge of a nose bleed and drenched in flop sweat so profuse that it puddled up in his shoes, got sick from the air freshener fumes and threw up into the fan. To make things worse, the fan’s faulty controls were stuck on high speed and maximum oscillation, causing the fan to spastically lurch from side to side, spraying Penelope Ann with semi-digested Egg McMuffin.
After washing up and changing into a fresh judicial muumuu, all the while bellowing away about how, once Louis finished disinfecting her courtroom, she could legally have him buried alive in a local land fill, Penelope Ann grabbed her gavel to reconvene her court out in the parking lot. While everyone stood around outside, waiting for Her Honor, Bob and Leo pooled their cash and came up with a couple of five-dollar bills and a two- dollar blackjack chip ... not gonna cut it! Benny had tapped them out back at the station. "What about a check?" Bob suggested to Leo. Since Bob himself had no bank account and had just given Leo his last blackjack chip, he was depending on Leo's financial stability. Leo had a bank account with a few bucks still available -- not many but a few.
In 1972 your average professional musician in a traveling blues band wasn't considered by most banks to be worthy and certainly not eligible for a credit card. Musicians were lucky if banks allowed them to use cash. “Will she take a check?” Leo asked the police officers, already knowing what the answer would be. "There's money in the account." Well, the officers all had a big laugh over that one, shaking their heads and grinning as if Leo and Bob were some sort of puppet show.
"I know you boys aren't from around here," the arresting officer explained. "But here, in this town, we don't take checks. We don't take plastic cards or IOU's ... or bushels of corn or precious family heirlooms. We take cash! You got any cash?" Another officer, an older veteran of the force, volunteered his own personal, homespun advice to Leo.
“I think, since you managed to dodge that drug charge,
your best bet is to just sit tight in jail while your friend here
arranges for somebody to send the money"
“No, son, I think, since you managed to dodge that drug charge, your best bet is to just sit tight in jail while your friend here arranges for somebody to send the money." Leo started to panic. My god! If this is what it’s like on the streets of Mercenary Bend, what’s it going be like in jail? Monroe and Lyle, the two drunk truckers, assured Leo that the local lock-up wasn’t all that bad. They’d been in there before. “You get Pop Tarts.”
Bob eventually saved Leo from that whole “men in chains” experience by presenting the boldest, most outrageous, fast-talking sales pitch Leo or the cops had ever heard. He started by convincing Leo that they could go across the highway to the Hit It & Quit where Bob would persuade them to cash Leo’s check. Worth a shot ... Leo went along, desperate to try anything that would keep him out of the slam. The mood out there in the parking lot was relaxed and jovial as they all stood around waiting for Justice Dalrymple to finish humiliating Poor Louis. Momentarily forgetting about Bob and Leo, the officers joked with the two truckers, teasing them about being a couple of congenital morons.
Bob and Leo were half-way across the empty highway, heading for the gas station before Leo snapped that he was still in police custody and now, technically, he was fleeing from armed officers of the law. Any second, Leo imagined, he could be gunned down into a crumpled, bullet-riddled heap. Leo froze in the middle of the road, his hands half-raised in a surrender reflex. Bob kept going. He wasn’t under arrest. What tha-hell did he care? He was almost to the gas station before noticing that Leo wasn’t with him. “Come on, man!” Bob called back to his frozen friend. “Let’s do this!”
The officers looked over at Leo standing in the middle of the highway. They hadn’t even noticed that he was gone. One of the officers finally ordered Leo to get his ass back over there and to stop fucking around. Bob rushed back to give the officers a condensed version of his Master Plan to obtain quick cash from total strangers. After the officers had another good laugh, they handcuffed the two truckers to the tow truck then escorted Leo and Bob over to the gas station to see with their own eyes, whether Bob could actually pull this off. These public servants obviously had nothing better to do.
Bob walked into that Hit It & Quit like he owned the place, fast-talking the sleepy clerk, explaining that Bob and Leo were obviously famous entertainers caught up in the somewhat embarrassing predicament of needing some quick cash -- “ Or else!” he emphasized, nodding toward the police officers. Bob rifled through the racks of Country Western and Heavy Metal tape cassettes on the counter, assuring the dumbfounded clerk that their new, chart-topping release was in there somewhere. “I guess you must be sold out,” he said finally, shrugging his shoulders. After ten minutes of Bob's relentless jabber, against all odds and all reasoning, the clerk finally bought it. Fifty dollars’ worth...cash! The cops were astounded by the clerk's irresponsible actions and told him so to his face. Leo figured the guy cashed his check just to mess with the cops and to get rid of everybody so he could go back to sleep behind the counter.
The police officers seemed genuinely disappointed that Leo wasn’t going to spend at least one night in their jail. Monroe and Lyle, on the other hand, were starting to sober up and couldn’t wait to be incarcerated just to get the handcuffs off and have a place to lie down for a while. Justice Dalrymple was eager to get the whole mess cleared away so that she and Poor Louis could leave for Florida and spend their vacation together, (at the taxpayers’ expense), performing their act on The Low Flying Trapeze for Billy Coen's Colossal Amateur Circus & Side Show, permanently based in Boca Raton.
Thanks to his friend Bob, Leo Martin’s debt to society had been paid in full with cold cash money. And both men managed to get the hell out of Mercenary Bend (at a reasonable speed). With wallets considerably lighter but heads held high, they stood at least a fifty-fifty chance of making it back to San Francisco. And if they got lost on the way, well, they could always stop at the next town.
George Rains © 2018
George Rains, has played drums with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Vaughan, Doug Sahm, Boz Scaggs and many others. He's famous for his Texas Shuffle.
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