During the drive up to Minneapolis, I'm trying to read this computer manual while Chris blasts Eminem.
It's been four months of This looks like a job for me... and he's showing no signs of slowing down. There's some other song he absolutely loves too—the one where Eminem promises a good ass fucking!—Chris turns up the lyric every time it comes around and laughs like it's the first time he's heard it.
We're going north from Chicago to visit our friend Sam. Sam has been living in Minneapolis for over a year. By all descriptions, he lives in a little hovel of an apartment and is scraping by working at Walmart. The idea is to cheer Sam up or something. Maybe talk him into moving back to Chicago. We're kinda worried about Sam.
The computer manual was written by someone with a nerdish sense of humor. There's a giddy geekiness to some parts of it that border on ultra dweeb. Every so often I'll encounter a line like, And your done faster than you can say 'I think I'll go home early.' or Now you're on the road to NO EXTRANEOUS DATA!
At first I was tempted to highlight these outbursts if for no other reason than to amuse myself, but I knew I'd only be wasting time. I've been putting off reading this manual for months and there's a site visit next week. One of the programmers (hopefully not the one who wrote the manual) is coming in from St. Louis and I have to pretend I know something about this install. Blah blah blah—the point being I have to get this fucker read and it's not supposed to be fun.
Chris smokes a near endless stream of cigarettes and when he bobs his head like he's doing now to the rap beat, he looks sort of like a homeboy version of Matt Damon.
"Oh my God! Did you SEE that!?" Chris shouts, "I just saw two cows fucking!"
I turn quickly and look the direction Chris is pointing over my shoulder and of course I missed it.
"They were fucking! I swear to God! He just dismounted as we were going past..."
I shake my head and make a crib in this small neon orange notebook.
"Man, that is so GAY!" Chris says, looking at the notebook. "Is that your Harriet the Spy notebook?"
"Fuck you," I say. "Give me a cigarette."
I've been taking shit all the way up here with my obsessive compulsion to read 98 pages of dry computer text. Clearly Chris wants me to bug out to Eminem or Crystal Method or whatever he's got up next on his mod MP3 player with the laser light show front piece.
- - -
I haven't been to Minnesota for four years or so—the last time being a camping trip where I was ruthlessly attacked by mosquitoes. I remember the drive back where six or seven adjacent mosquito bites on my right knee cap joined to form one huge throbbing mosquito bite. I vowed never to go back.
This time there's no camping involved though. It's just going to be me, Chris and Sam hanging out at Sam's apartment or at his real dad's house where Sam has set up a makeshift recording studio in the living room while his parents are on vacation.
When we get to Dave, Minnesota, we drive around 3rd Street looking for Sam's place but can't find it. Finally, Chris pulls over at a liquor store and calls while I stock up on provisions of Bud.
Back in the car, a cold case on my lap, Chris tells me there's two Dave, Minnesotas. We're in the wrong one.
"No fucking way!" I scream, fearing another two hours on the road, my new Budweisers turning to warm poison.
Chris laughs. "Just fuckin' with ya," he says, putting the car in gear. "It's a few blocks away..."
I relax and take another look through the manual—I've only got 40 pages to go.
- - -
Sam's place is somehow even more depressing than I imagined. It's a small one bedroom where the kitchen and living room merge together. You can almost touch the refrigerator sitting on the couch.
It's a basement apartment that gets almost no outside light. There's a tiny window in the bathroom, Sam says, that you can see sunlight (but only indirect) from 3 to 4 in the afternoon.
"I'm usually asleep then," he says. "I work the night shift."
On the wall behind the TV there's a huge green and red abstract painting. The green side is cool and smooth, the red side is garish and angry.
"Guess which side I did," Sam says.
"Red," Chris and I say together.
"No man, I did the green... My dad said the same thing—he thought I did the red. Jen did that. Check it out, doesn't it look crazy mad?"
We both nod our heads. Neither of us has ever met Jen, a girl Sam's been seeing for a few months. She's also out of town this weekend.
Sam tells us to relax. We kick back on the couch and open some beers and Sam tells us what it's like to live in the outskirts of Minneapolis, alone in a town where he hardly knows anybody.
"It sucks man," he says, "but I can afford it here... I get paid a little more for working the night shift stocking but the job itself sucks man... There's always some new company policy and shit. This year it's no overtime. They lied to us and told us it's because it's not fair to the other stores who don't get overtime. We know the profits are down. They're just too chickenshit to admit it's about money..."
Sam's been playing his guitar, writing some new songs. He's been playing guitar and writing songs for a long time—nine or ten years. He's recording some this week while the house is free, trying to get a demo done on the four track. You can tell by looking at his eyes, he's determined. He's never giving up on this. No matter what poverty he has to endure, what embarrassment. He doesn't need anything if he has his guitar.
Secretly, Chris and I hope that one day a record will release him from places he's stuck in. Places like Walmart and cramped apartments in Dave, Minnesota.
"Know what the saying is out here?" Sam says. "'Holy Buckets'. That's it—'Holy Buckets'. Everybody says it... It's the fucking state phrase..."
- - -
After a couple beers, we decide to drive over to Sam's dad's place to jam a bit. Chris and I have lugged our guitars and amps in the trunk of Chris's Intrepid. If needed, I can resurrect some long dormant drum skills on Sam's kit or I can throw down some simple bass riffs on this used bass I've been messing around with for the last few months.
I'm ten years away from my last band and I still sometimes wish I'd never quit. I was a competent drummer, by no means great, but I could have found another band had I bothered to try. At the time, I was so sick of the singers and the bullshit of being in a band, I sold the set and never thought I'd care.
Instead, I got out of college, got "a real job" that required 37.5 hour work weeks, lock step mentality and the occasional reading of computer manuals.
- - -
Sam's dad is a train engineer who makes $80,000 a year, he tells us. There are pictures of trains on almost every wall. There's a pretty cool one of a train blasting through snow.
Almost any job is favorable to my job and so I am instantly envious of this man's job. Really, I get that way when I hear of any job that allows one to afford a house and a family. I survive on pay that would hardly support a parakeet, much less a child.
We jam for a bit, letting Sam show us how to play his tunes which are decent. Call it white man's blues. Beckish but with more acid and cynicism. Later on we go out to the garage to smoke and Sam offers us some reefer which we have a few hits off of.
"I smoke every day," Sam tells us. "It relaxes me. I'm not much of a drinker. Everybody at work goes out to bars and stuff but that isn't my scene..."
I take a few hits, more to be polite than anything else. I quit regular pot smoking long ago and have never really missed it. When we go back inside, the music is more psychedelic and droning. We're just fucking around now, doing poor man's Sabbath but it's fun.
Sam's dad has a framed copy of The Beatles' White Album on the wall. There's some scattered pictures of Lennon around as well. That's cool. Train conductor hanging on to some of his past. Right on. But at the same time, in this climate-controlled house, on the darkened, quiet street with the garage bin brimming with new toys and sports equipment, this life seems sort of closed down and cut off—like the end of the line.
I'm stoned now, I realize. I'm wondering what the end of my life will be like again. Will I ever own a house? Have a wife? A family? Every year it seemed less and less likely. Going without those things would be O.K., but I have a dreaded image of myself living out my last years in an old folk's home in Uptown, watching a fuzzy TV and crapping my pants. I preferred to have my death come bounding—a lightning strike, a bus collision, a fallen electrical wire—anything but a slow creeping death, much less one that I could be held responsible for by smoking too much, eating too much fat, etc. I don't mind dying so long as it isn't my fault.
Each year I imagine a way to escape. A move to California. To New York. To the country. I can never get the funds together. I can understand Sam moving here—at least he made a change. He gave himself a new environment. A new chance.
Sam tells us he's playing the local open mikes around town and he's gotten some positive responses. The club goers seem to like him.
Problems of art don't concern Chris, a successful graphic designer. He can play guitar well enough but his inclination to play in a band never surpassed mine. We'd both been there and done that but with the difference that I sometimes regretted it where Chris doesn't seem to care.
"Let's go," Sam says, putting down his acoustic, "I hate hanging out here too long. I can't relax..."
We break the stuff down and head back to Sam's place and drink for the next few hours underground. It's quiet here, much more so than in Chicago and I feel vaguely threatened by the silence, like each passing second is another shovel full of dirt on my face. Eventually Chris and I pass out the couch and the floor respectively while Sam goes to his room to continue working on some songs.
The next day, Chris and I plan on driving into Minneapolis proper and getting a hotel, doing the night life thing a bit. We want to bring Sam along, but in the morning Sam tells us he's feeling sick—he's been up all night as is normal for him working the late shift and everything (we were drinking, I realize at the time he probably usually eats breakfast). He says he'll call us later.
Chris and I pull into the city and are amazed at how clean and still it is. It's like a model city more than an actual one. Like one they would use in a movie, populate with actors and blow apart. We check out a surgical instruments museum, eat at a steak restaurant and pass by the Mary Tyler Moore statue on the way to get some beer for the hotel.
We're saddened but not really surprised when Sam calls and tells us he's not up for the city. He's still feeling sick, etc. We put it down to that debilitating paranoia a lot of regular dope smokers seem to get— the fear of doing anything non-routine. We feel lousy for only seeing Sam one night but we've already got the hotel—there's nothing to do if he doesn't want to come out. We shrug it off and hit a local club where Prince supposedly used to play a lot.
We drink to excess, as usual, but it's not much fun with just the two of us and the specter of Sam in our minds sitting in his tiny apartment, trying to write a song good enough to get him out of this place.
The next day, hungover, Chris and I are driving back and I'm staring at the blue cover of the computer manual which I can't seem to pick up. Finally, I kick it under the seat so I don't have to look at it anymore.
"Those were some good songs," I say to Chris as we pass farmhouses and cows not having sex.
"Yeah, they're almost there," he says, then turns up this other Eminem song he can't seem to get enough of.
About the author:
John H. Matthews lives in Chicago. He's had fiction published recently in The Whirligig, The 2nd Hand, and Inkburns. See what else he's up to at famousdreams.com.