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Exit Wonderland is playing in a meadow near a Canadian glacier. The fans go on forever, and each of them holds a single orange gladiola. A dark-haired groupie rushes the stage to throw corn flakes over my head. Billy plays the intro to “Change.” When we hit the triplet at the end of the line, the crowd claps along. The triplet gets louder each time through, until I open my eyes and it all goes away. Except for the triplet, which is sounding from the front door. I pull on some clothes and wander downstairs.
I creep to the counter and scan the window. Mill Valley’s a pretty tolerant place, but still I’ve had some pretty nasty threats from so-called Christians. A woman appears at the glass, using her hands like blinders so she can peer inside. I walk to the door and undo the latches. I have barely opened it when she flattens her face to my chest and wraps her arms around my torso. She is sobbing violently.
The sensation of touch is overwhelming; it makes me realize how deprived I have been.
“Jasmina? What’s wrong?”
There’s no way she’s going to answer. She’s shaking, and gasping for breath.
“Well. Come in.”
I take a slow step backward and pull her inside, then I reach past her shoulder to redo the latch.
She has clamped on to me like a barnacle, and I’m not sure what to do. I wrap my arms around her back, lift her off the ground and carry her down the aisle to an armchair. I turn around and sit; somehow she ends up on my lap, her face pressed to my T-shirt. I find myself with a close-up of those amazing curls, serpentines that just keep going and going. I would like to touch them, but I’m unfamiliar with the protocol.
She is not going to stop crying, so I have all the time in the world to ponder my situation. Perhaps I am being punished for wishing too hard. A father catches his son smoking a cigarette, so he buys him a pack and makes him keep smoking until he gets sick.
Jasmina smells of flowers. Gardenia, magnolia. Shampoo, perfume. Her breathing begins to slow. She lifts a hand to my collarbone. Cars roll past, sending washes of light over Voltaire and Jefferson.
I wake up in Paul’s armchair, two wise men watching over me. A third appears and nudges me on the arm.
I sneak a hand to the crotch of my jeans. The pain is still there, but nothing fluid.
“I’m all right.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve got to get going.”
“Take me with you.”
“Well, you’ll probably be…”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.”
Behind the shop, Paul’s got an old pickup truck. The bed is packed with round black objects. He hands me a violin case and drives us to the freeway.
Marin County at night has the feel of an overgrown village, round hills speckled with houselights, boats grazing on the edges of the bay. We roll into San Rafael and take an eastward jag, ending up in a neighborhood of flat, straight avenues overgrown with trees. Paul turns into a dirt driveway stacked with cars. A truck at curbside has a sign that says Roamin’ Hounds.
The backyard looks like an outdoor rec room. A large tent shelters a ring of old sofas and camp chairs. A bar juts out from the house, lined with Christmas lights. Off in the corner is an old-fashioned detached garage, a strip of light seeping under the door. Paul motions me into a chair.
“Stay here. I just want to make sure this is okay. Protocol. Here.”
He takes off his jacket and lays it over me. I pull it up to my chin. A minute later, Paul returns and leads me into a side door. The garage is a chaos of equipment. Egg crates cover the ceiling; the floor is a motley of rugs. I see a guitar and finally make the connection: the black objects in Paul’s truck are drum cases. Paul takes me to a low vinyl chair and sits me down.
“I get the feeling I don’t have to ask you to keep quiet. We’ve got a gig coming up, so we might be a little intense.”
A small brown dog jumps into my lap.
“Well! Augur likes you.”
Augur gives me a sad look – likely his permanent expression. A nice-looking blonde lady hands me a beer.
“Hi. I thought you could use this. I’m Anne. Keyboards, backing vocals.”
“Whoops! Gotta check my mic.”
Once Paul assembles his drums, they jump into a run-through. Anne calls out the songs. The band is rounded out by the lead guitarist, Billy, a thin man with long brown hair, and the bassist, Smeed, a stocky man with long black hair and chiseled features with a touch of American Indian.
The singer, Pamela, is a svelte brunette. Her voice is not showy, but it’s got a soulful edge. Her delivery is marvelously direct, blue-collar. I suspect a lot of the lyrics are political, but I’m too exhausted to piece them together. The music sweeps over me, but I can tell there’s a lot of variation in rhythm and style: funk songs, rockers, surf songs, a bit of Ray Charles, a metal song, a power ballad. And a bit of three-part a capella from Paul, Anne and Pamela that shakes me out of a nap.
Most of the entertainment, however, comes from dog number two, a reddish-chocolate dachsund who seems bent on destruction. Pamela spends much of her time chasing Jasper from hazardous areas and pulling foreign objects from his mouth. Billy is halfway through a guitar solo when Jasper decides that his wah-wah pedal is a see-saw. Billy nudges him away and says, “Dachsund slipper!”
Thinking that things are under control, Pamela delivers her next song while striking various yoga positions. Jasper saunters by and pees on her mic stand.
“That was hilarious!”
We’re taking the back way through Larkspur, dark little houses flying past. I am re-energized, filled up with music. Paul looks like he’s about to ask me a question, so I ask one first.
“How did you get into this band?”
He finishes taking us through a long curve. “I started as a fan. Saw them one night in Sausalito and fell in love. Their songs are so straightforward and self-contained. They’re songs. So I got their schedule and went to every performance. There’s something very pure about being a fan; it’s an unselfish part of your being that you really need to exercise.
“I did, however, have a chink in my armor: I could see their fatal flaw. Just about every band in the world has one. I’m convinced that the bands that make it are the ones who have the cojones to get rid of that flaw. What’s worse, it was the drummer. Guy had chops – long, impressive fills, rapid snarework. But he belonged in a metal band. Exit Wonderland needed a no-nonsense type, a drummer who could create funky beats, throw in a snappy fill, a well-timed cymbal shot. Who could play the song. And that was me. But I couldn’t say anything, because I was trying to maintain the purity of my fanhood.
“Anne came by the shop one night and handed me a CD. Their drummer had a foot infection, they were playing a picnic the next day, and my job was to play it with them. Cold. Talk about adrenaline! But I drew on all the tricks I’d learned in jam sessions: stick to the backbeat, no big fills, follow the cues, play a little laid-back so you can react. I had the luxury of a couple rehearsals before a house party the next week, and I guess I planted a seed. Three months later, I got an email inviting me to be their drummer. I finally found a band that fired somebody, and that’s why we’re so good.”
“When’s your next gig?”
“This Friday, right here in town. The Sweetwater. We’re opening for the Baby Seal Club.”
“Baby Seal Club. You gotta see the Baby Seals.”
“I am so there. By the way, what the hell is a dachsund slipper?”
“That’s what you get when you put your foot up a dachsund’s ass.”
This has the effect of taking all of my great stress and turning it inside out. I giggle and cackle till I’m out of breath. This gets Paul laughing, too. By the time we recover, I realize that we’re nearing Mill Valley. I have to decide whether to divulge my place of residence.
“So are you going to tell me?”
It takes me a second to compute the question. “I’m sorry. No. It’s too… it’s embarrassing. I don’t know you well enough.”
“But you know me well enough to come crying to my door.”
I don’t actually know why I went there – I was pretty much out of my mind. It might have been simple geography. But I think Paul deserves something better.
“I feel comfortable with you. You’re very kind. And… I hope you take that the right way.”
He laughs. “I’d have to work pretty hard to take that the wrong way.”
I’m grateful when he pulls in behind his shop, removing the other dilemma. He takes me to the sidewalk, gives me a hug and a wave. Crossing over the creek, I rediscover my pain. Tony was no gentleman, he was much too big for me, and if it weren’t for the money I would have to say it was rape.
Photo by MJV.