The Engagement Party
My band left D.C. with the wipers on high and the gas gauge on E. Crossing the Key Bridge, our '82 Chevy van made the same death rattle it had been barking for two days: Clack-clack-clack. Our tour manager, Biggie, figured we'd thrown a rod. Maybe cracked a head gasket. The engine--which we'd pulled from a junkyard Nova--might take the terminal shit in five miles or five-hundred. Still Biggie was betting that with a full tank and the AAA gold card, he could limp us home to Columbus. We squinted through the rain for an open gas station, but the Parkway was dark as the Pennzoil we were burning by the case.
This was 1995. September. Earlier that night, we'd opened for New Orleans's Cowboy Mouth at The Bayou in Georgetown. A thousand ball-capped fraternity-types and their bead-wearing dates chanted our name: Watershed! We added fifty names to the mailing list. Sold a few hundred bucks in t-shirts--proof, in our minds, that Epic Records had been fools to drop us three months before. "You've had a nice run, guys," our high-powered manager had told us. We were twenty-six years old.
"Screw 'em," we said now, and we cracked open the Budweisers we'd stolen from Cowboy Mouth's dressing room.
We were good and loaded when the gas ran out. Biggie coasted to an exit, circled a cloverleaf, and the van coughed to a stop under the I-270 overpass. As the wipers squeaked, Herb, the drummer, reached into his backpack and opened a velvet box. A diamond sparked in the dome light.
Back on the cloverleaf infield, we'd seen a dozer and a backhoe. "Of course they run on gas," I told Biggie. "What else would they run on? Love?"
So while the rest of us drank to Herb's engagement, Biggie clipped the ends from a guitar cable. Then, using a razor blade and needle-nose pliers, he stripped out the electronics, leaving a hollow rubber tube. "Bottoms up, ladies," he said.
Biggie and I walked the tube and empty bottles to the construction site. He snaked one end into the backhoe tank and inhaled on the other. A virgin siphonist, he sucked too hard and got a mouthful, but he spat, wiped with a greasy bandana, and tried again--this time sealing the tube with his thumb to keep from gargling.
We brought six full bottles back to the van. Biggie was tilting the third into the tank when he stepped back and said, "This is goddamn diesel."
"How do you know?"
"I tasted it."
"Diesel's mostly gas," Herb said, grabbing for the bottles. He jammed the last 36-ounces down the hole.
We'd siphoned a diesel six-pack into a gasoline engine. What would happen when we turned the key? Would this be the lethal injection that ended the van's suffering? A mercy kill? Would it slip away peacefully or explode like a mob hit? We stood at shrapnel distance as Biggie cranked the ignition. Nothing doing. Herb pushed Biggie aside. Punched the dashboard Fonzie-style. Not a wheeze. His soon-to-be fiancée was sleeping three states away, but Herb looked lost as a man on Mars.
Then headlights. And a Plymouth Fury floated along side the van. The driver, thirtyish and paint-flecked, rolled down the window. "You look like a band."
When walking through Epic's Madison Avenue HQ, we'd always looked like a Future Farmers Club.
The driver said he'd take Herb and me to the station in Frederick. The car smelled like a bar rag, and the guy kept swerving from shoulder to solid yellow. "You ever have one of those nights where it feels like you're living a Hank Williams song?" he said, working the wheel with two fingers. "But you can't tell if it's Hank Junior or Senior?"
Herb and I laughed. And buckled up. Finally, the florescent glow of the Sheetz station. The third-shift clerk charged us eight bucks for the gas can.
Could the 87-octane outmuscle the beery diesel? Biggie pumped the pedal and pumped again and the engine eventually turned over: Clack-clack-clack.
We waved thanks to the Fury driver, but he didn't pull away. He sat dark and quiet, smack in the two-lane. "Fuckin-a, fellas," he said. "I'm outta gas."
Biggie hopped down from the van. "You take diesel?"
We pushed the Fury off the road and clack-clack-clacked to the Sheetz. No need to buy a gas can this time. Back under the overpass, we filled 'er up.
A few years later, Herb would quit the drums and become a realtor. He'd move his wife and button-cute daughters to the suburbs. The rest of us would keep the band running on something like love. Or stubbornness. But now, with the ring burning a hole in his Levi's, Herb reached into the Fury and handed the guy a Watershed shirt and a Budweiser.
"I'll be looking for you on MTV," the driver said, twisting open the beer. And he weaved into the Maryland night.
About the author:
For twenty years Joe Oestreich has toured the country as the singer and bass player for Watershed. An Ohio native, he currently lives in South Carolina, where he teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University. His most recent work appears in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Ninth Letter, and Fourth Genre. A book about Watershed's long stretch in the music biz minor leagues is forthcoming.