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The hangover was waiting for me when the plane from Sydney landed in Los Angeles. Which was as it should be, because I’d started drinking in the Red Carpet Club, and hadn’t stopped until well after the International Dateline.
The looks the flight crew and fellow passengers rifled at me when I got off the plane had me thinking I’d been a less-than-model passenger, that I’d perhaps done something mortifying, but no one said a word, and I wasn’t about to ask. There was no vomit drying on my clothes that I could see, and I still had my pants on right way round, so whatever it was, it couldn’t have been that bad.
Certainly it couldn’t be any worse than what I’d left behind in Australia.
The vise really began tightening at each temple as I was waiting to pass through customs, and it was a bad one mostly because I was still tagging after the drunk pretty closely. The world was dull and dizzying, and maybe that was why I got pulled from the line, but then again, maybe it wasn’t. I took it without protest, just the way our manager, Graham Havers, had taught each of us in our little band to take it. Celebrity status has perks, but it also means that there’s always someone looking to take you down a peg or ten. It’s not as if musicians—or more precisely, musicians who play “popular music”—are known for living a Seventh-Day Adventist lifestyle.
The search was thorough, and the agents were, too. They asked if I had any contraband, specifically drugs. They asked it repeatedly, trying to trip me up. They had me turn out my pockets. They shook out my jacket. They patted me down. They even tore open my packet of cigarettes, checking each tube of precious nicotine to make certain it was filled with tobacco, nothing more.
When they’d finished with my bags I started to take off my shirt but the supervising agent stopped me, saying, “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t this what you want?” I asked. I impressed myself by not slurring. “I mean, isn’t this what, you know, what you want?”
His eyes went to flint. “No.”
“Oh,” I said, and tucked back in. “Well, then, my mistake. Right? My mistake?”
“I’d say so.”
I got my things together and he held the door for me out of the little examination room, letting me pass through. I impressed myself again by not wobbling.
“I’ve made a few,” I told him.
“Mistakes,” I said. “I’ve made a few.”
I had to stop in a ladies’ room before switching terminals, and I gave until it hurt. When I emerged, there was a photographer waiting outside—he must have picked me up coming through customs—and he shouted my name when I emerged.
“Mim! Bracca! Hey! Gimme something I can sell!”
I got my hands up before I heard the whirring of the speed-winder, one to shield my face, one to let him know just what I thought of him and his Minolta, and then I was shoving through clumps of fellow travelers, and that was the end of the encounter, such as it was. It made me feel a little better; if he ever bothered to develop the roll, he’d have some lovely close-ups of the calluses on the fingertips of my left hand, and of the middle finger on my right.
The flight was delayed due to fog in San Francisco, which has happened to me more times than I can remember, and which never makes any sense each time it does. I’m flying Los Angeles to Portland, why the hell does fog in San Francisco factor into that equation?
Between that and the security I was on the ground another six hours before boarding. I sucked smoke in the Cigarette Ghetto near the gate, an outdoor area ringed with stone benches and overflow- ing ashtrays, wishing I had one of my guitars with me. Of the five I’d taken on tour, four were being shipped back separately. The Telecaster was traveling as luggage. I spent most of the wait dozing, the kind of drunken nod-off that’s punctuated by alarming jerks of the head as you realize you might have slept through something important.
Somehow I managed to get on board at the right time, and once I was safely in my new seat, I fell asleep—or more precisely, passed out—again. I missed the safety spiel, which was probably just as well, because I had a dim memory of getting maudlin during it on the last flight. It wasn’t like I was denying myself lifesaving knowledge; I’d flown so much in the past year that I’d suffered nosebleeds from all the recycled high-altitude air.
It was the jolt-bounce-slide that accompanies every wet-weather landing in Portland that woke me, and I came to cotton-mouthed and with the headache worse than ever. I was finally sober, but I still wasn’t certain that was a good thing.
The terminal was mostly empty, and filled with the strange muted sounds that airports and hospitals share in the dead hours. I stopped at the restroom again, gargled with water from a drinking fountain, and by the time I was actually walking the concourse, I was doing it alone. The kiosk near the security checkpoint had an LED reader, and it welcomed me to the Rose City, Portland, Oregon, and told me it was one-sixteen in the morning Pacific daylight time, on October 22, a Monday.
That seemed important to me, but before I could remind myself why my eye caught something else, locked behind the secured gate of a closed newsstand.
The new issue of Rolling Stone, face out on display, between stacks of People and Entertainment Weekly. Nice cover photograph, typical crap Stone fare, vibrant color, big logo. Three twentysomethings standing on a rugged beach, wind snapping hair and fabric. Two women, one man, all of them staring at the lens, all with their own expressions.
Vanessa front and center, wearing her stage outfit, the outfit she wanted the world to think she wore every day, and not just during a gig: black leather pants that took her ten minutes to pull on; white half-tank with a small mushroom cloud parked between her breasts, cut off above the navel, revealing the stomach of someone who had starved herself for two days before the shoot; black bra straps showing a calculatedly feminine touch of lace; bright red lipstick highlighting her pout, leaning in at you, one hand in her hair, as if about to make an offer no red-blooded male could refuse. She can’t be older than twenty-four, you think, looking at that shot. Truth is, Van’s creeping up on thirty faster than she’d care to admit. If the wind has made her cold, it’s not like she’s noticed.
Over Van’s right shoulder, Click, the self-proclaimed token black man of Tailhook. Lean, looking someplace in his mid-twenties, head shaved, eyebrows pierced, tattoos visible creeping up the sides of his neck from beneath the collar of his Portland Winterhawks team jersey. His blue jeans torn as if they’re one wash away from losing the key thread, the one thread that’s holding that decrepit denim together. On his feet, mismatched Chuck Taylor All Stars, red on the right foot, green on the left. Each hand balled in a fist, like he’s ready to fight, but not eager. Like he’ll trade blows if that is what’s expected of him, nothing more. No malice on his face, just a trace of apathy, or maybe boredom.
And over Van’s left shoulder another woman, black ringlets styled like dreadlocks framing her face. Brown eyes on you, mouth closed, looking like she’s afraid she might swallow a bug. Lines of small hoops running from earlobe to cartilage on each side, starting big enough to fit a thumb tip, ending small enough that maybe a Q-tip wouldn’t slide through. Standing on a rock to give her a much needed boost in height, so that with the assist in elevation her head is almost but not quite level with Click’s shoulder. Black tank top revealing blue-black tattoos on each arm—right side a tribal band, left a howling wolf. Baggy olive drab cargo pants, and black Doc Martens. Made up to appear as if there’s no makeup at all. Her arms crossed over her chest, only because she doesn’t know what else to do with them when there’s no guitar for her to hold.
My bags were spinning lonely on the carousel when I went to claim them, and I put the strap to my duffel over my shoulder and took my guitar case in my hand. The flight case the guitar had traveled in looked none the worse for wear, but I was still relieved to have the Tele back in my possession. There’s no one I’d take a bullet for, but I’d jump in front of a bazooka to save my Telecaster.
Once outside I lit a smoke, then looked for the car. I didn’t see it anywhere, and was starting to get peeved when I realized that there wasn’t going to be one waiting, this time.
It bothered me that that bothered me.
So I went to the cab stand instead, where a Rose City Taxi driver was already opening his trunk in preparation for my fare. I put my bags in the back, laying the guitar case on the top, and the driver went around to his door, and I went around to mine. It was cold and raining, light but steady, and it felt nice. I stood there with the door open, enjoying the weather, and it was then that I realized why October 22 mattered, why it was significant.
It was the day we’d left on our tour.
It had taken me a year to come home.
As it happened, a man with a gun kept me from my bed for a little longer.
From the Hardcover edition.