Aimless in America
by Tim Keller
The sun has been up only minutes. My wife Christina is sitting where she was late last night, by the wooden barrel planter of herbs on the front porch, bright with slant sunlight now. She is both fascinated and concerned, fixed on a small caterpillar, green, yellow, and black, which she thinks is destined to become a monarch butterfly. There are four of these caterpillars living on our dill plants. At dusk she watched three eating voraciously. Those three are asleep now, Christina says. But this fourth caterpillar is small, stunted. As the others ate greedily last night, this one clung lethargically to a bare dill stem. She pulled some fragrant dill fronds from another plant, looping them around the stem in front of her dull caterpillar. When I went to bed, she was on a chair under the porch light, watching her caterpillar. She’s there again. Though the others are asleep, her little ward has moved and shows signs of life. She thinks hopefully that it will succeed in making a chrysalis and emerge as a full-fledged monarch butterfly to complete its summer here in the remote high plains of northeastern New Mexico before journeying south to winter in Michoacan, in the mountains of central Mexico.
Such help is not always available. You make it on your own. Or you don’t. How you find your Michoacan is a mystery – instinct and fumbling intuition. If you fumble long enough in one direction, you finally get there.
At seventeen I moved into a college dormitory, just 25 miles from home. If you’d asked me, upon arrival, who I was, what were my passions, you would have confused me. Pressed, I might have said I’m a surfer. I used to play baseball, I used to be a Boy Scout. I learned I’m a hard worker when I took a summer job working on a ranch with my grandpa. If you’d asked for my opinions – on school integration, say, or the Viet Nam war – you would have stumped me again. And what did I want to be? No idea.
Three years later I could talk to you about any of these but the last. I’d had a black roommate. I resisted the draft. I’d wanted to be lawyer, perhaps helping farm workers through California Rural Legal Assistance, but then I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I was searching. I didn’t have a clue.
At twenty, I did two things wholly new and unexpected. I started writing poems – the same singsong couplets my high school students write today – and I bought a guitar from my brother Terry. These were surprising because, except for Terry’s guitar-playing, there was no evidence of a creative branch – or even a twig – anywhere in my extended family tree. Furthermore, if my new pursuits led me to explore emotions, as they might, it would be uncharted territory. Mine was a well-balanced family with an unspoken belief in keeping everything on an even keel. The key word in the last sentence is unspoken. Waves were to be avoided. Life was lived happily on the surface. Only later could I look back to see that I’d now outgrown my chrysalis, that I was grasping for a means of expression. Christina has thought of herself as an artist as far back as she can remember. In college, I had developed an unforeseen and unconsidered need. I would spend years – decades – coming from behind, finding my way, yearning.
A black man from Mississippi throws oddly jagged and percussive notes from his steel guitar, wringing them from the strings with the glass neck of a whiskey bottle sawed off at a finger’s length. He is singing a song called “Death Letter.” The next song is called “Grinnin’ in Your Face”. My date, pert and pretty Chris Seidel, is as mystified as I am. Mike Hagoski suggested The Ash Grove when I asked him where I could take a girl on a cheap date that wasn’t a movie. We are seniors at Palisades High School, along the beach between Santa Monica and Malibu. The music might as well be from Africa, or Mars. The singer is sweating profusely, as though he’s laboring in cotton fields. His name is Son House. He is 66.
Three years later I am in the college library in Northridge. I’m on the four-year degree plan: if I fall behind that pace by even one credit, I’ll be quickly drafted and sent to Viet Nam. After two years of pumping gasoline, I’ve landed a job at College Records, on Reseda Boulevard, where I’ve bought most of the popular music that’s interested me. I’m curious. I’ve learned through interviews in Rolling Stone magazine that many of the musicians I admire have immersed themselves in blues and old country music. Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles – British bands led me to the college library where I’ve enclosed my ears in bulky headphones to hear a blues singer from Mississippi. Robert Johnson recorded twenty-nine songs before being poisoned to death by a husband who had good cause to be jealous. I’m reminded how strange and elemental music can sound; I’m reminded of that man Son House. Johnson’s music is haunted, intense, brilliant, weird: when he sings “Squeeze my lemon, baby, till the juice runs down my leg,” I laugh out loud. Everyone in the quiet room turns.
I change my major from math and P.E., to history and speech. Today my courses would earn a degree in American Studies, but that field has not yet been created. I study the American South and the lives of its people. I’m fascinated by the intersection of white music and black music in this rigidly segregated world. The music leads me. I discover Woody Guthrie. I learn that Hank Williams recorded his great “Cold, Cold Heart” on the day I was born, which takes on meaning to me; it’s a connection. A new group releases an album simply titled The Band. It’s contemporary but sounds old; album portraits show five darkly-bearded figures who might have been discovered in the lost Catskill hamlet abandoned by Rip Van Winkle. The lyrics hearken back to the earlier America I’m studying.
Fumbling in one direction, I buy my brother’s Yamaha guitar for $100. Awkwardly, I start writing songs.
Upon graduation from college, I took a two-year sabbatical. Skillfully balancing unemployment with underemployment, I cooked in a natural foods restaurant; I worked in another record store. In my 1960 VW van, with a camper interior I’d built, I zigzagged between mountains and sea, up the west coast from LA to Canada, reaching Jasper and Edmonton before returning south through Montana. I was thrilled to finally get out of the city. Working on the ranch years earlier had turned me to the rural life, the life of my grandparents, and soured me on cities. The draft had incarcerated me, making me stay put in the city. Now I refused induction into the armed services, awaiting arrest, then Nixon ended the war and the draft, letting me off the hook. My girlfriend totaled my van, giving me the wreck to salvage and just enough money to get out of LA for good, 500 miles north to the wine and redwood country of Sonoma County. I rented a two-room cabin in a grove of Gravenstein apple trees. I didn’t know a soul. I read more books than I had in the whole preceding four years of college. My primary occupation, though, was learning music. I bought songbooks with guitar chords pictured over the lyrics. I taught myself to play. Dogged, or dumb, I never in my life took a guitar lesson. I filled spiral notebooks with hand-copied songs, hundreds of songs, veering from singer-songwriters toward old traditional songs. What I lacked in talent I made up in breadth. Playing songs felt good. I thought of music day and night.
I also thought about jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, prominent in news coverage as it approached its five-hundredth suicide. It scared me every time I drove across it. I had made no friends and was estranged from much of my family. I’d lost all sense of usefulness. I applied for the teacher certification program at the nearby state college, then waited in desperation for their decision. When they accepted me, I felt saved; after I started the one-year program, my depression vanished. As an undergraduate I’d wanted to save the world, from war and racism and poverty, but saving the world turned out to be beyond my abilities. In teaching, I discovered that I could make a real difference. I mattered. I made a new friend in the program, too. Jim Robinson owned a large wooden sailboat with an unclothed mermaid carved prominently into the bow. He also had a banjo and a dulcimer. We started playing weekly in old folks’ homes, where the traditional songs worked better than the singer-songwriter material. When I completed the teaching program, I put my books and records in storage to travel east by train to southern West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian music. I’d become a VISTA volunteer.
On weekdays I helped create Windy Mountain Learning Center, an alternative high school still in operation more than thirty years later; on weekends I drove a county car around the state to various music gatherings, folk festivals, and fiddlers’ conventions. I couldn’t play the fancy leads so I learned old style backup guitar – listening closely to records by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers – but that grew boring. For variety I introduced songs by contemporary songwriters, but no one else was interested. The musicians were strictly focused on tradition, to the exclusion of the present and the new. When my one-year commitment ended, VISTA gave me $600 for resettlement. I peeled off some twenties, bought a Greyhound Ameripass – one month of unlimited travel – and headed west.
I board the Greyhound off I-81 in Wytheville, Virginia, taking an empty seat two-thirds of the way back, on my right. A young woman is splayed asleep over both seats across the aisle. She sleeps through southwest Virginia and on into Tennessee. Then she wakes slowly.
“Where are we?” she asks me.
“We’re almost to Knoxville.”
“Oh, Jesus,” she reacts.
She waits in line for food at the stop, carrying it back onto the bus. She can’t be over 19.
“Do you mind if I sit here for a bit?,” she asks me.
“No, feel free.”
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday.” She reaches and drops her purse on her things across the aisle.
“Where you coming from?” I ask her.
“Is that where you’re from?”
“Well, sort of. Or it was. Until yesterday.” Her accent might be Texas. I’ve never been there. VISTA offered me Texas and I turned it down.
“I’m sorry, my name’s Sara. Sara Johnson. People call me Angel mostly.” She sips from a Styrofoam cup. “Where are you headed?”
I give her the short version, twenty-five words or less. Her skin is pale. Her hair is the color of mahogany, touching the shoulders of her loose-fitting shirt, but it would benefit from a good shampoo. “And where are you going?”
“I’m going to Dallas. My brother lives there. We’re from Odessa. I haven’t seen him for three years.”
“Oh, man – it’s kind of a long story.” She takes a bite of bus station food. “I ran off when I was 16. I met a guy. Before I knew it I was in Florida working in a topless joint. Big mistake. Got me in with some bad people. I been in New York and lately D.C.”
“That’s not working out?”
She laughs. “No, not hardly. I guess you get what you pay for. My boyfriend got busted night before last. Guess I’m runnin’ off again.” She drinks from her cup. “He’s not really my boyfriend.”
“People call you Angel?”
“Yeah, that’s my stage name. Got that right away in Florida. Most people call me that.”
“I like Sara.”
“Yeah, it’s different.”
She is sweet, vulnerable rather than hardened. Before we reach Memphis she is asleep across my lap and I have a spiral notebook balanced on her shoulder. I write a song called “Angel”, making up a melody in my head. She wakes up an hour past Little Rock and I sing it for her. Clearly moved, she gives me a kiss on the mouth. In Dallas she gets off and calls her brother, who comes to pick her up. I wait with her for an hour, sitting on the sidewalk leaning against the station. She holds my hand. Then she’s gone.
Two weeks later I receive a letter at my parents’ house in California. It’s from Sara. She’s gone south to San Antonio to work in a downtown club. When I ride the Greyhound back toward West Virginia to accept a job at Windy Mountain, I get off to spend a day in El Paso. That night, instead of continuing east, I decide to ticket myself south to San Antonio.
The club Sara named is a strip joint two blocks from the bus depot, open for business but free of customers in the late morning. It’s quiet inside. Carrying my backpack and guitar case to the bar, the owner, I’ll call him Jerry, is glad to see me. He says his brother is the country singer Jim Ed Brown. No, Sara’s not here. She quit and moved home to Odessa. Jerry asks about my music. He asks whether I like Lone Star beer and gives me one to try. A girl named Robin joins us; she dances here at night. Attractive, a little worn, she’s wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. Jerry fires up the house PA and coaxes me to sing them some of my songs. I’m usually a one-beer guy, and only after 5 pm, but Jerry and Robin have me drinking a second beer just after noon while swapping songs with them. By the time I walk out into the harsh sunlight of mid-afternoon, I’ve learned two new songs and had five beers. I feel them.
I give up on seeing Sara, going all the way up to Odessa. I feel stupid but not crazy. Back at the Greyhound station, I can ticket myself east to West Virginia via New Orleans. But only eighty miles north is Austin, a new hotbed of singer-songwriter activity. The Armadillo World Headquarters has become famous. It seems a shame to be this close and not check it out.
When I open my eyes, the bus is stopped in front of a tiny depot on a side street of a Texas town. I focus on a small black and white flyer, 8½x11 copy paper, in the window of the depot, promoting a Willie Nelson concert. Willie’s just beginning to build a national reputation. I have three of his albums back home but have yet to meet anyone else who’s heard of him. I’m intrigued. The bus pulls away to continue its northward journey. Leaving town, I note a collection of tall buildings on the left, a college; on the right is a park, and a river runs through it. There are tall shade trees, spacious manicured lawns, and wide concrete walkways running down to and alongside a deepened river channel. There’s a diving board over the river, and a high platform. Some guys are skateboarding. Girls are sunbathing in small bikinis. A string of people is floating down the deep blue river on inner tubes.
The town quickly disappears out the windows. We cross another river as the bus accelerates back up the interstate, but the land rolls away flat as prairie to the eastern horizon. Thirty minutes later we cross yet another river, a big wide river just south of downtown Austin, and I’m deposited on the sidewalk in front of the bus station on South Congress Avenue. I fish in my pocket for a quarter, depositing it in a newspaper rack, then I lay out on the sidewalk the entertainment pages of the Austin American-Statesman. Flaco Jimenez, who I saw accompanying Ry Cooder at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip, is playing with his own band at the Split Rail Inn. Jimmy Buffett is playing at the Armadillo. I only know Buffett from one song on the radio. I call the Split Rail Inn and learn it’s a couple miles away. The Armadillo is just a half mile down Congress Avenue. I’m going to a Jimmy Buffett concert tonight.
The Capital Hotel, on West Seventh Street just off Congress, rents upstairs rooms for $7; the graying black man in the tiny downstairs lobby assures me my things will be safe. I worry for my guitar. I slide it under the bed, displacing cockroaches. It’s only for the one night.
Walking to the Armadillo, I arrive with an appetite and time to kill. I order a huge cheeseburger and fries in the Armadillo Beer Garden. Three college girls at the next table pull me into their conversation and later we wait in line together, then stake out a good spot on the Armadillo floor for the show. They share an apartment in San Marcos, a college town thirty miles south of here on the edge of the Texas hill country. A river runs through campus. I was just there! If I’m ever there again, they say, I should call them. One of the girls writes their phone number on a white beer napkin.
I call them at 9 the next morning, waking them. The Capital was not good for sleeping and there was an early Greyhound going south. “Where are you?” Sherry asks.
“I’m here at the San Marcos Greyhound station.”
“Oh! That’s only a couple blocks away.”
“Can I come over?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess so.”
The girls are half awake when I carry my things into their second-floor apartment; a fourth roommate has already gone to work. After rounds of coffee, Sherry walks up the street to get us all breakfast, returning with a paper sack full of foil-wrapped potato-egg-and-cheese breakfast tacos in soft warm flour tortillas.
That afternoon they call a friend over with his guitar. Terry Hale plays bass with a local country band called Ace in the Hole. He and I spend the afternoon swapping songs – Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, some of our own songs – and that night the girls take me down to a ramshackle dive called Cheatham Street Warehouse to hear Terry’s band. The girls take turns teaching me how to dance the two-step. A train roars by a few feet outside the tin walls, shaking the floor and making the singer’s words hard to hear. The singer is an undergrad Ag major named George Strait.
I slept on the girls’ couch for four nights. One night they took me to a college burger hangout called Grins which not only had the best burgers I’ve tasted yet, but a little signboard with cardboard slips telling who was playing free music Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. I didn’t know the names — Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Doug & David — but with unknown names like that I thought this might be a place I could play.
On my last night the girls took me to the Willie Nelson concert at Palmer Auditorium, a few blocks from the Greyhound station in Austin. The show was glorious. The band was amazing, Willie a stunning showman. The place rocked. When it ended, the girls dropped me on the sidewalk outside the Greyhound station. It was after midnight. I sat on a bench in the large waiting area. Aside from the ticket agent there were three other men spaced widely around the room; they looked like people you’d expect to see in an urban bus station at two in morning, like they weren’t going anywhere. The inside of a bus station is its own world, removed from the street outside. The clock on the wall ticked off another minute, but only one. Suddenly the outside door swung open and the girls paraded through. They hadn’t gotten a good enough goodbye, apparently. I got big hugs and kisses from all of them, thinking, well, for the moment, at least, I don’t look like the rest of these guys in here.
Pulling into New Orleans the bus driver used the PA to welcome us to town. He said locals call the city “New OR’lins” but we’ll call it “New Or-LEANS” because that’s how our wallets will feel: lean. I’d spent all my waking time thinking about San Marcos. There was a job waiting for me ahead in Bluefield, West Virginia, a job I’d created, as director/teacher at the new Windy Mountain Learning Center. In the month I’d been gone, the grant funding had come through. But I couldn’t get my mind off Cheatham Street Warehouse, Grins, all that music, those rivers, those girls. By the time I reached Bluefield I’d made a decision. I went to visit the new chairman of the Windy Mountain board. Then I packed my things. Ten days after the girls kissed me goodbye, I stepped off a different bus and became a resident of San Marcos.
I still have the receipt for my first week’s rent in San Marcos. It’s been in my copy of Leaves of Grass all these years. (Oh, confess: it’s tucked into “Song of the Open Road.”) “May 16, 1976. Received from Tim Keller for Bedroom #3 for one week. $1250. Signed M.E. Alexander.” Mrs. Alexander, age 88, rented bedrooms in her one-story white house on Travis Street. I had $87 left when I arrived in town. After one night on the girls’ familiar couch, I had to get a job and a place to stay. Sherry worked at a beautifully-landscaped German restaurant called Hansel & Gretel’s. Tall bamboo hedges formed walls around the building and a large outdoor beer garden. I entered the restaurant in mid-afternoon in hopes the boss wouldn’t be too busy. I would never forget the waitress who greeted me. She was beautiful, with a great smile and blond hair the length of her back. She scoffed at the notion of the manager, Casey, actually doing any work. Her name was Sue Greeley.
Cooking at Hansel & Gretel’s, I made friendships that lasted a long time. Joey was a dishwasher, Lisa and Frank the other cooks. Sue was an art major taking a painting class. She played guitar and sang. I pursued her. She wanted none of it. She’d been recently dumped by her boyfriend back home in Nassau Bay, home of NASA, near Houston. The last thing she wanted was a new boyfriend. But we worked up some songs together and I spent some nights in her garage apartment watching “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman” on late night TV, eating food we’d brought from the restaurant.
On my second day in town I’d walked into the offices of the San Marcos public schools to get a job application, expecting to see a secretary but instead finding myself face to face with the superintendent of schools. My hair was long and unkempt, my beard neglected. I walked from there straight to Shear Luck, a haircutting emporium with huge ferns, women barbers and a complimentary choice of Texas beers in the fridge. Now down to $75, my scruffy traveling look was a luxury I could no longer afford.
The social scene at the Hansel & Gretel’s overlapped with the one across town at Grins, where I became friends with Doug and David, one of Grins’ regular music acts. Many of Hansel & Gretel’s crew, including Lisa, Joey, Frank, Sue, and I, became regulars at Doug and David’s gigs, and we often gathered afterward to swap songs and sing. I envied Doug and David’s musicianship and the polished quality of their performances. Their playing was delicate, exquisite; they took turns singing lead, providing each other with gorgeous harmonies. Doug stood tall on stage, over six feet with curly sun-streaked dark brown hair, playing guitar or mandolin. David was much shorter, his blonde hair already showing signs of balding – his bushy beard may have been a compensation – but he sang lyrics of great depth and riveted our attention with his voice and Martin guitar. The flipside of my devotion to their music was the awareness of my own shortcomings in comparison. I was five years older than they were, but far behind them musically. I wondered whether I could ever catch up. I thought back to the third grade when my mother signed me up for guitar lessons. I chose an acoustic guitar over an electric. When the day of my first lesson arrived, Mom picked me up after school. In the car, I cried, intimidated by the prospect of entering this strange place, the responsibility of beginning something so new and foreign. Mom drove me home instead. If I’d gone into the lesson, I would’ve given myself a twelve-year head start on guitar. What then?
Doug and David’s repertoire focused on the growing number of Texas singer-songwriters, including patron saint Townes Van Zandt, and David was growing into a fine songwriter, too. I couldn’t write a song to compare to David’s, but I was learning. What they got from me was some great songs they hadn’t known. I was older, and I had traveled. I’d experienced other music scenes in far-flung parts of the country. Even as the Texas singer-songwriter cache grew increasingly rich, we added other songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits to the mix. Days, I got steady work as a substitute teacher, then landed my own teaching job at San Marcos High School. I took night classes, earning a master’s degree with certification in English. Sue and I rented a little house together out West Hopkins Street for $125 a month. We got a car and a dog, a German Shepard pup we named Griffin. Then we married. Life was good, and the good lasted awhile.
Joey comes up with the idea. Of course. We’ve been singing for a couple hours, the streets outside are dead and dark, our minds a little muddled, and Joey says, “Let’s go swimming.” The first reaction is general mirth all around. Doug tries to launch into Sea Cruise, faking the chords, but Joey says “No, really. Let’s go swimming.” This is like an actual idea. The music stops; the seven of us ponder. “Where?” David. “The ice house.” Joey. “The ice house? It’s two o’clock in the morning.” “So? Let’s go swimming!” Kay doesn’t want to go home for her bathing suit. “Who needs a bathing suit, it’s two in the morning!”
Crazy Joey. Joey Geaccone. When our friend Pam stopped by earlier, she’d never met Joey. He gently placed a bongo drum between her knees, squatting there himself, and said, “See? Wrap your legs around and squeeze.” It may have been the beers, it was pretty funny. Lisa now says she’s going to run home to get her suit – no one’s house is far here – and we follow her out. The streets are dark, quiet. We agree to meet at the ice house.
Between the north I-25 offramp and downtown San Marcos lie one million springs. Apparently someone counted them. Producing millions of gallons of cold clear water every minute, they form a small idyllic lake which has sprung a modest resort called Aquarena Springs. You may have seen the television ads for Ralph the swimming pig. There are glass bottom boats. Local college girls are hired to dress as mermaids and swim under the boats.
These millions of gallons of cold clear water every minute leave Aquarena Springs through a narrow concrete chute, blasting through the air ten yards to land in a violently swirling pool that sorts itself out to become the San Marcos River. A huge tree overhangs the pool and holds a long heavy rope for swinging the intrepid out over the swirl. Occasionally a brave or drunken soul will dive in from the top of the concrete chute; legend says some of these have drowned.
Occupying the rise near the chute is a working ice house, producing ice in blocks, cubes, and crushed. An ancient red brick building, the ice house will later be turned into a chichi restaurant called Peppers at the Falls. But for now it’s an ice house, on property just purchased by the college, Southwest Texas State University, which will itself later undergo a name change to Texas State University, San Marcos, and then acquire Aquarena Springs itself, converting the resort into an educational and environmental center. But that is then, in the future; this is now, the scruffy 1970s, when summer is still slow and ice is still produced on the banks of the San Marcos River.
We arrive at the ice house to find a shiny new gate blocking the pot-holed dirt parking area. Joey, arriving first in his old Karmann Ghia, has already parked on Sessom Drive next to the gate. He has the hood up and is writing sideways on a piece of college-lined binder paper. I look over David’s shoulder to see Joey snickering as he finishes off his note. “Waiting for parts from Germany.”
Kay, future teacher, chides Joey, “You can’t just leave your car here.”
Joey is insistent, “Why not?”
“Because the campus police will have your car towed.”
“Aw, come on, it’s only for a little while. Nothing will happen.”
Doug says he’s not leaving his truck here, Joey can do what he wants.
David offers an idea. “Why not drive over and park where they’re building the new gym. We can swim at Sewell Park.” This is the idyllic spot I’d seen on my first swing through town. It’s owned by the college, and though it’s still accessible from the parking area, officially it’s closed at night.
Joey pulls into the dirt lot behind Doug’s beaten old blue and white Ford pickup truck, but he’s the first to hit the water, leaving clothes strewn on the grass and launching a high cannonball before any of the rest of us even make it to the grass. Doug and David walk in conversation. They’ve recently changed the name of their act to the Beacon City Boys, then the Beacon City Band, after the name on an abandoned bank on the corner of the downtown square. Sam Peckinpah brought Steve McQueen to town to film The Getaway, leaving the fictional name Beacon City Bank on the corner. We’re all band loyalists, calling ourselves the Beacon City Bunch; after gigs we get together so often that our sessions have gained their own name – Choir Practice.
As musicians go, Doug and David are quiet guys. They sing poetic folk songs with acoustic instruments. They’re the last two in the water, David’s white chest obvious even in the dark of the night. Lisa and Kay got in quickly. Sue and I followed. Joey’s already high on the platform, striking a pose over the water. Sue taunts, “Hey, Joey, did that work for the girls in Italy?” Joey calls back, “Hey, everything worked for the girls in Italy.” Lisa responds, “It’s hard to imagine why you came back here, then. Let’s see you fly, big boy.” And Joey’s out over the water again, in his best imitation of a swan dive. Just before we can laugh he lands too flat and it looks like it hurts. He surfaces smarting but okay so we laugh anyway. “You ready for some more action, Tiger?” Lisa teases.
Out on University Drive a single set of headlights passes northbound, the first we’ve seen. The town’s population shrinks when, after Friday classes, most students drive the 200 miles home to Dallas or Houston for the weekend. San Marcos is a famed party college, but party night is Thursday, before everyone heads home, where apparently they party some more. The only action this Friday night was at Cheatham Street and at Grins, where owner and cook Tom Wassenich emerged from the kitchen during the Beacon City Band’s last set to sing his oft-requested “Twentieth-Century Daniel Boone” and his classic “Sweaty Betty”: Sweaty Betty, hold the mayo, Sweaty Betty, my sweet potato, do you really love this old slob, or do you just hate your job? It helps to see Tom sing it — bald, still sweaty and greasy in his end-of-shift apron, just before the closing lights come up.
A second pair of headlights passes and turns up Sessom just as Doug, laying on his back atop the diving board, comments on the lack of a moon. He and David start singing almost simultaneously a song about Texas summer nights. We join in. Joey asks Lisa if he can be her bongo. After the first chorus the song falls apart and Doug tries a handstand on the end of the diving board, flopping over for an inelegant landing. Sue points out that the car that turned up Sessom stopped at the ice house and came back down. She thinks it might have come around our way. We can’t see our cars from down in the river, nor any lights but the orange streetlamps.
We quiet for a spell as David voices the concern that it could be the campus police. Joey is skeptical and swims across the width of the river, climbing out and diving back in, swimming back to rejoin us. “What are they going to do, bust us for swimming?” Joey says. “Well, they might bust us for trespassing,” replies Kay. Joey fires back, “No way, it’s our school!” Doug offers that they might bust us for being drunk, but Joey says no way are we drunk.
By now most of us are floating or treading water and our voices are back up above whispers. If there was a coast, it would feel clear. Joey pulls himself up the concrete bank and starts up the ladder to the platform when, in one moment, we all notice a pair of flashlight beams ambling down the walk from the parking area. Everything stops — motion, breath, comfort. And then we can see two uniforms behind the flashlight beams. Campus police. They’re walking, casual but sure, down the concrete path toward us.
Only Joey has anything to say; he shouts under his breath, “Run! Run!” like the seven of us are going to vault barefoot over the six-foot chain-link fence to University Drive, racing across the asphalt to hide somewhere around the campus theatre, making our way slowly home through the shadows, leaving our cars back in the lot.
He’s still on the ladder when the officers reach us.
Dressed identically in full black police uniforms, one is slim, the other squat. Beside Joey, they look overdressed. Slim speaks first, directly to Joey, “You want to get down.” Then Squat, to the whole group, “Who’s got the pickup truck?” What? It takes a long moment for Doug to get it, then he responds, “It’s my truck.” Squat says, “You want to bring your clothes and come talk to us about the marijuana cigarette we found in the ash tray.”
Doug climbs out. There is no towel. He squeezes water from his hair and brushes more from his skin, then carries his shirt and shoes up the walk in Squat’s flashlight beam. Slim tells us all to get out of the water, then he follows Doug and Squat up to the parking lot. We’re worried for Doug. This is Texas, not California; San Marcos, not nearby Austin where official attitudes toward marijuana are more...modern. We dry ourselves the best we can, saying little, and ascend the walkway to the parking lot.
Doug is standing between Slim and Squat on his truck’s passenger side. Just beyond them is the patrol car. They’re talking low, the three of them in turn. Joey inches forward toward Doug’s truck. We’re right behind Joey. We make out random words, but we can’t tell what they’re saying. We keep inching closer until Slim finally takes notice, calling across for us to move back.
Another minute passes, Doug saying something we can’t hear. And then the officers climb into their cruiser and pull away as Doug walks around the tailgate of his truck, breaking into a huge but silent grin. He walks to us before anyone speaks.
“What happened?” David. “They said we have to go home. Now.” “No, about the joint!” Lisa. “Well, it was only a little roach. I told them the truth. It was Shawn’s. He left it in there a couple weeks ago and I forgot all about it.” “They’re not writing you up?” David. “Nah, they just warned me. And they said if they find us swimming here again at night, they’ll take us all in.”
Excitement all around. We walk around the cars talking about our luck. Joey says, “Hey, let’s go swimming!” Doug pushes him off balance and Joey pretends to hit the Karmann Ghia hard. Laughter and gab all around. Then Doug suggests, “Let’s go see if Herbert’s is still open. I could really use a combination plate right now.” Herbert’s Taco Hut is to Mexican food what Grins is to burgers, and it stays open weekend nights as long as there are customers. Tucked into a residential neighborhood near the interstate, it’s a frequent late-night haunt for our Beacon City Bunch. Doug’s truck leads onto University Drive and our little caravan crosses town. It’s a town you can cross in four minutes. The last question of my night is whether to order the combo plate or the migas, dinner or breakfast. I’ll bet one of us gets a song out of this.
Today I find northern New Mexico’s climate ideal. I love being outdoors. Christina and I live at 7000 foot elevation. We have four distinct seasons. Winter snows melt off quickly in the close sun. Humidity is low; the temperature rarely reaches 90° at summer’s peak. In sharp contrast, Texas summers are uncomfortably hot and drenching humid. Without air conditioning, I took two or three showers a day. No sooner would I get into a fresh t-shirt and shorts than I’d be sweating again. In those halcyon days when they were all students and we were all poor, we lived with windows open all summer and big box fans sitting inside the screens, one at each end of the house to keep the air moving. The car Sue and I shared was a brown 1964 Dodge Dart station wagon, handed down by my grandparents in California, more or less a wedding present. It had a pushbutton transmission, but no air conditioning. We drove with the windows open.
But things changed. Sue changed her major from art to education, then became a fifth-grade teacher at a San Marcos elementary school. We had two teachers’ incomes. Soon we had two cars, each with air conditioning. We drove with the windows closed. With my parents’ help on the down payment, we bought a large tree-shaded house with big front and back yards up on Hillcrest Street in the nice neighborhood of wide avenues above Grins. I built a stout porch swing, with built-in drink holders, to hang from the oak tree overlooking our backyard, next to the charcoal grill. But as I grew accustomed to living with central air conditioning, I found the sweltering heat, humidity, and mosquitoes of summer increasingly intolerable. Instead of holding hands with Sue on the swing, I came to prefer staying inside.
After Sue dropped her art major, I never saw her draw or paint again. My family had given her a Christmas present, a fine guitar. She has kept it these years, but it’s remained tucked away in its case since she became a teacher. Our friends in the Beacon City Bunch were growing up, too, graduating and moving on to careers in San Marcos or Austin or off into the world. We saw less of them. Doug became a school psychologist, David and Kay college English professors, Lisa a businesswoman, Frank a construction contractor. I haven’t heard of Joey since I dropped him to hitchhike on the highway leaving Santa Fe twenty years ago.
Musically, the San Marcos scene had taken off. Many of those unknown names playing at Grins when I rode in were now becoming famous. Some of them could still be seen playing occasionally at Grins. An anthology album of San Marcos music was released. Called Texas Summer Nights, the Beacon City Band formed its core. My own music hadn’t come far enough to be included. I wasn’t asked. In fact, I hadn’t been playing my guitar: it seemed to have gotten misplaced behind the wedding presents. The Beacon City Band released its own wonderful album. The large photo gracing its back cover shows the extended Beacon City Bunch, three dozen people, standing outside a Sunday afternoon BCB gig at Gruene Hall. Near the center of the group, I’m standing with Sue. If you look closely, you can see her belly pressing against a loose blouse. That’s our daughter, Darcy Day Keller, coming along.
By then, I’d long grown uncomfortable with myself. Increasingly, Sue and I fought. Money was the biggest issue, but we could fight over anything. Sue’s a fighter, I’m a flyer. I countered her emotional outbursts with my cold clear logic. That infuriated her, driving her deeper into anger. I withdrew, seeking self-preservation. On the worst nights, I slept on my classroom floor or at the highway rest area north of town. As our standard of living increased, I watched my own values falling aside. I’d wanted the artsy life; instead I was making payments on a yuppie life. I wanted to be out hearing music. I wanted to make music. I was doing neither. The music scene in San Marcos had exploded into professionalism and I wasn’t there. The day after moving into our new house in San Marcos, Sue and I had separated. I moved back into the garage apartment we had shared on the Blanco River downstream from bucolic Wimberley, fifteen miles into the hill country from San Marcos. I had an affair with Sue’s best friend from high school. After three months and marriage counseling, I moved back into the big San Marcos house with Sue. We had reached the middle class. Sue wanted to watch TV shows together but I’d get bored. She would invite a couple over for the evening and I’d get bored. When our daughter Darcy came along, things between me and Sue got worse. My grandmother came from California to provide child care until the school year ended but Sue ran her off in a fierce angry tirade. Sue didn’t feel we could afford a babysitter, so we couldn’t go out. When I asked to walk down to Grins to hear music by myself for a while – for the price of a tall 35¢ iced tea – or to take turns going, she exploded. We stayed in. I didn’t touch my guitar for two years.
We took a family vacation, visiting Sue’s sister in Little Rock and David and Kay, who had moved to Santa Fe. Sue and I fought incessantly, hour after interminable hour, strapped into the car together for whole days with Darcy, eighteen-months-old, in the back seat. When we got home I was so angry that I flew back to Santa Fe for a week, returning just in time for the new school year. Our marriage was a shambles.
We reunited with our marriage counselor. In the fateful third session, he asked each of us, “If you didn’t have Darcy, would you want to stay together?” No. No. Our agreement on this much was already an improvement. He asked us to think about that, and the following week we were to decide whether to use this counseling to try to glue our marriage back together, or to craft an amicable divorce. We came back and chose divorce. The following session Sue lashed out at me. She said that as we walked out the hall after deciding on divorce, I had broken into a big smile.
We walked through the kitchen door from the carport and I went straight for my guitar, pulling its case from the closet where it had sat so long untouched. I took it to the dining table and started playing. I played every night. It was an act of defiance.
One week before Darcy’s second birthday, I moved into a duplex a mile away. A few months later Darcy and Sue moved to Austin. I spent the school year getting up at five to practice guitar for an hour before going to school. I wrote songs as if my life depended on it. I set a goal. I would move to Santa Fe – no need for air conditioning, no mosquitoes – and start playing my own music gigs. I sent my application to the Santa Fe schools. David and Kay were already moving on: it would be the fourth time I moved somewhere knowing not a soul – Sonoma County, West Virginia, San Marcos, and now Santa Fe. That wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was leaving Darcy. It was a choice. In my life, only the Sonoma County year, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, ever found me so despairing as in the months I labored over this decision. One afternoon after school, when daytime long distance rates were still expensive, I called my grandma in California, only to cry unabated into the phone for thirty long uninterrupted minutes. I felt myself dying away here, but how could I leave Darcy?
It was Darcy who helped me. As she grew up she did not forgive me for leaving. But at two, she leaned over to rest her head on my right arm as I was driving us home one day, tearful again. She knew the issue. She leaned in to comfort me and said, “It’s okay, Daddy.”
New Mexico pulled hard. I’d been attracted to it sight unseen twelve years earlier, hitchhiking alone from my grandparents’ house on the ranch near San Juan Capistrano, but after holding my thumb up unsuccessfully for three hours on an eastbound onramp into the broad desert at El Centro, I walked across the underpass and got a quick ride back into civilization. Now the land in New Mexico, the culture, history, climate...and the fresh start – all drew me. A month before leaving, I wrote a song called “Sailing the Shiprock”: I’m leaving my friends, I leave them behind me, closing my eyes just to rest this heart...leaving tomorrow to make a new start...The light beyond the mountain cross bathes these hills in flame: I will go as far as I can see. The night is gone, the dark is lost, never be the same: I will go until the light finds me.
I’d been in San Marcos eight years. I felt battered. I moved to Santa Fe the day after school let out in May, 1984. Two weeks later I went back for Darcy, bringing her up for the first of many six-week summer stays in northern New Mexico. At summer’s end I started playing music regularly in several Santa Fe restaurants.
Two-and-a-half years later, Christina walked into Sweet Inspiration Coffeehouse on Friday night in downtown Santa Fe. She claims that she felt an instant magical connection with the emcee. I’d played all around Santa Fe, cashing my Texas teacher retirement fund to buy an expensive Martin guitar and a PA system, then playing in Taos and Las Vegas, New Mexico. My songwriting matured and was now my primary focus. I performed only my own songs. Now, too, I was running this performers’ weekend coffeehouse. I gave notice at work: in June, after my third year teaching at Capshaw Junior High School on Zia Road, I would leave to record an album of my songs in Austin, Texas, then strike off touring the country to support the album...and myself. My principal asked me to take a one-year sabbatical. I told her it would take longer than that. Starting from scratch, I was going to give it everything I had. I quit teaching. I was 36-years-old.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, from mid-1987 through 1991, I gave 469 solo performances and radio appearances in 32 states, from Seattle to Atlanta, Los Angeles to Boston, driving alone, playing in most states once or twice each year. At the end of the first tour I was so broke that I gave my landlord a week’s notice and moved in with Christina in a remote rural area fifty miles from Santa Fe. I was gone most of the time. I started in bars but worked my way onto what’s called the folk circuit, playing Friday and Saturday nights in good listening clubs and house concerts, places with a cover charge and good album sales. Lisa became my booking agent for a few months, until she saw that 15% of my income barely covered her phone calls. Performance fees and album sales kept me going – barely. Always barely. But I lasted more than four years – until, at 225,000 miles, my six-year-old Mazda hatchback finally came to rest one sweltering June afternoon on a rural two-lane outside Kerrville, Texas; I was too poor to get it fixed. By then we’d moved to Dallas to be closer to venues and audiences, and to Darcy. I returned to teaching full-time, now in West Dallas, but I assembled a trio and played around the region most weekend nights through the rest of the 90s. A 1995 album, Little Miracles, was my third and last, after No Stranger to Wishes and Live at Uncle Calvin’s; with it I attained a feeling of satisfaction that remains today.
Christina and I are on the porch together again. It is evening. Summer flowers grow in a profusion of colors; the vegetable garden is crowded with squash, peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce and spinach, basil and cilantro. Christina has opened her art studio and gallery on the highway in our village of 168. Plenty of people tell her she can’t make it. I tell her she can. That’s what she’s always told me.
By the time we returned to New Mexico, I’d grown tired of booking and promoting gigs, of being out late singing to small audiences after teaching all week. There are no venues out here. I’ve learned that I need to be creative – everyone does; for years I’ve filled that need with other loves like cooking, gardening, woodworking, and photography. Lately I’ve published a book of new poems. My guitar sits in its case in the guest room. Waiting.
Opening an art gallery in this remote corner is crazy. So was quitting my teaching career at 36 to make music full-time. But when we stop pursuing the possible, taking chances on what we might become, we may as well lie down. (They have TV for that.) I played some great rooms around the country – Caravan of Dreams in Ft. Worth, Cactus Cafe in Austin, the Bluebird in Nashville, the Speakeasy on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village – though it’s also true that I played many of the best only once. I sold three thousand albums of my own music – but finally that proved not enough to support myself. Yet I feel successful. Why? Because I did it.
Christina’s caterpillar didn’t make it. Robins got the other three. But two huge butterflies have emerged from our garden, their orange and black wings rich and glorious. I got a great close-up photograph of one. It’s now been 36 years since I bought my brother’s guitar and started writing couplets. Talking on the porch this evening about photography and writing, Christina catches me in mid-conversation.
“Did you hear what you just said?”
“You just said, ‘I’m an artist.’”
“I’ve never heard you say that.”
The sun has just set behind us, cumulus clouds standing miles high in deepening shades of red, when a butterfly rounds the corner and lights on the dill in the porch planter. It touches down for only seconds, then it’s back in the air, twisting south, then it’s gone.
©2007, 2013 Tim Keller/Chamisa Press
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