by Neil Shropshire
Not too long ago I lived on a tiny trailer just outside of Austin the lovely capital city of Texas. My trailer had no hot water, and the toilet didn't work. I was playing guitar in a fledgling country and western outfit. We spent most of our time either rehearsing or auditioning, so of course we didn't make much money, and that's why I couldn't afford a real place to live. (Oh, I could tell many a hair-raising tale of our scramble to get by if I wanted to - but not now). I was "paying my dues."
Green Earnie, or band's drummer, lived in a slightly larger trailer on the same ranch. He had a peculiar complexion, and was also "paying his dues."
It got terribly hot out there on that ranch. Green Earnie and I would sit outside all day (sweating) and run through our scales and paradiddles or whatnot, or else just talk about music until we couldn't stand it anymore. At the end of the day we'd spend half an hour or so picking ticks off hard-to-reach areas of each other's body.
It was a slow, ritualized sort of existence.
Green Earnie and I shared a telephone that was located in his trailer. "You gotta have a phone in this business," Green Earnie often said. "YOu never know when one lousy call is gonna change your life." We bought an automatic answering machine for our telephone, since we were out so much. Neither one of us could bear to spend much time in the trailers. Every three days or so we'd play the answering machine tape back, just to make sure.
We were a couple of real telecommunications experts.
One late afternoon we had completed our customary tick-picking early, and convince ourselves that we should make the twenty mile drive into Austin that evening. You know, we'd catch a couple bands and update ourselves on the local scene, career-wise.
We were sitting out in front of my trailer sipping Dr. Pepper (it's an acquired taste) and discussing the subtleties of Merle Haggard's early period. We heard the phone ringing across the way in Green Earnie's trailer. To rings. The answering machine was paying for itself.
Green Earnie took off toward the main ranch house to use the bathroom. His toilet didn't work either.
Pretty soon I heard something unusual, like a car in tune, and looked up at the ranch's dirt access road. A cloud of dust approached. Then a huge black limousine emerged from the trees that screened the ranch from the main highway. The limousine inched toward me, sticking to the center of the road so as to utilize the wheel ruts, responding with an exaggerated lunge to every pothole. Its dust cloud swarmed around it.
I looked back at Green Earnie, then at the approaching limousine. Back and forth. It was sort of like two matched slow-motion movies going on at the same time. I tried to figure out whether Green Earnie would get to the ranch house before the limousine got even with me. IT was a little game I was fond of playing. It helped me to avoid admitting that the appearance of a huge black limousine on the ranch was an event of rare wonder and interest. In tune or not. That was the sort of reactions I tried to leave to the ranch's indigenous personnel (so to speak).
The limousine stopped in front of me just as Green Earnie disappeared into the screened porch of the ranch house.
That was nice.
Well, a large, florid man in uniform got out of the limousine's driver seat, walked unsteadily to a point about halfway between the car and me, and stopped. He looked around briefly. Scattered garbage, outrageous weeds, broken-down lawn furniture, stolen music stands, complete drum set (cymbals and all), snail-like (terminal) Airstream trailer up on makeshift blocks, the works. Then he began to stare at me.
The hell with you, pal, I thought.
"What can I do for you?" I asked.
The rear window on the driver's side came purring down, revealing a soft, intensely-staring face.
"Ask him about Ze caves! Go on, ve don't haff all night!" the face ordered.
Must be from Europe, I thought. I'd get James Mason to play him (primarily for the quality of the voice, you see - this guy was no Mason in looks). That's another little game I played.
The uniformed man asked me where the main entrance to the caves was. That was the first time I ever suspected the caves might be real. Hatch, one of the ranch's native sons, first told Green Earnie and me about the maze of underground caves at one time when he came around to collect the rent. "Yessir," he said, "there 's hundreds of 'em. They go all under the ranch like a honeycomb. The old Indians built 'em because they came down from the north and couldn't stand the sun hereabouts. That's real strange for Indians, you know. There was a whole civilization down there." Sure. OK, Hatch. But we played along. "You been down there, Hatch?" He curled his lip; he was either insulted or scornful. "Why acourse. Played down there when I was a kid. Found all kindsa stuff down there."
I pointed along a narrow dirt path that branched off the main access road. That's where the main entrance to the caves was supposed to be. Ha!
"Vell, let's go, let's go, Sergeant," said the soft face in the back seat.
I watched the huge black limousine move slowly away from me like a line of troops in a Western movie, unable to escape its dust cloud.
All of a sudden I had to go too the bathroom. Or wash my hands in warm water. Or cool off in the ranch house's air conditioning . Or something.
I started off, wondering whether I'd get to the porch before the limousine moved out of sight. But I forgot to keep track of that - I started remembering things I'd heard about those caves.
It's a landing base for UFO's," Sarah Lee, Hatch's mother had claimed. She subscribed to all sorts of magazines like Alien Digest, UFO Monthly, Living Star Almanac, and The National Enquirer. "Seen one land myself one night."
Big Ben, Sarah Lee's third or fifth husband, believed the caves were "a training ground for special military units some time back." What? "Can't talk about it, he said. " I was as special advisor on survival tactics for a while."
"Dinosaur stomping grounds," was Hatch's little brother Warren's contribution.
"Part of a huge insect kingdom. Stretches all under Texas. Had a horse that was killed by a giant grasshopper over by Abilene one time," said a ranch hand.
" Thin men with dark, sunken eyes and black capes live down there. The sun kills 'em" added Hatch's little sister Charlene. "wanta go on down there sometime?"
"No, no," I'd answered. "That's all-right." SHe must have gotten into her mother's Alien Digests.
Anyway, you get the idea.
I entered the ranch house. IT was very dark and ominously cold, as usual. Big Ben and Charlene were looking at television. Green Earnie was nowhere to be seen. I went softly on through to the kitchen, where Sarah Lee puttered. She offered me some of her iced tea, the best I've ever had (even if it was a bit too sweet).
Bless that woman.
"Say, Sarah Lee," I said. "You know there's a huge black limousine with some German guy in it wandering all over the place. they asked me bout the caves."
"Yep. That' some big guy from Houston by the name of Brown. Called me up yesterday. Got a message from the alien critters. Wants to see 'em for himself."
Thirst quenched, I wandered back through the living room. Big Ben seemed to notice me for the first time. "Howdy, boy. YOu be sure and be nice to that big wheel Brown from Houston, now. He's scouting around to see if maybe they can't set a big underground missile base. Might put me on as an advisor. No matter what, we could make some money.
"OK, Ben. I helped them a little already."
On my way out I hooked up with Green Earnie on the porch. He was shuffling through an amazingly high pile of National Enquirers.
We did the slow-motion stroll back to my trailer. I wondered if we'd get there before the ant crawling up my wrist made it to my elbow.
"Here's how I figure it," said Green Earnie. "They're a bunch of big booking agents from Austin who just ant to check us out on the sly."
"But what about the uniforms and the German accent?" I asked calmly.
"Aw, hell, that's nuthin'. They just don't want to put us on our guard. They want the real thing. That's how those big boys operate. They're probably lurking around in the trees right now, waiting to hear us play."
Why not. I brushed that goddamn ant off my forearm.
So Green Earnie and I set up and started t play country tunes there in the Texas sunset. It never pays to question anybody too closely, even fellow dues-payers. After all, I reasoned, this hell-hole gets to all of us, one way or another. I'd begun to notice a peculiar quality to the light out there on that ranch at certain times of the day. And I couldn't concentrate on my playing that evening, either, because I was trying to come up with a halfway rational explanation for "Brown" and his huge black limousine the whole time.
I failed at that, miserably. But I did achieve some sympathy for Hatch's and Charlene's view - that whole thing was tied up with the sun somehow.
Well after Green Earnie and I stopped playing, the huge black limousine crawled back out of the trees. It stopped a little way beyond where we were sitting. One of its windows came purring down. I couldn't see anything inside.
Green Earnie suddenly remembered something. "Hey, can we catch a ride in to Austin with you guys?" he shouted.
The window purred back up and the huge black limousine crawled off toward the main highway, swimming like a fly in molasses through its dust cloud. It really looked like a cloud in that dusk.
"Hell," Green Earnie muttered, "it must be because I speeded up too much on 'Your Cheatin' Heart.'"
"Don't worry about it," I said.
You know something? It was true. I realized then and there for the first time, really, that Green Earnie had a consistently lousy sense of rhythm. That's a fatal flaw in a drummer.
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