Racing one another to red lights, the cars swarmed past a big blue mailbox at the corner: the place where one small city became another. As the signal changed at one intersection, a vehicle jumped across. A white sedan waited reluctantly behind, its bumper and front end obscuring the crosswalk. When the light changed, the car lurched around the concrete island that ran up the middle of Westcliff, negotiating a frenzied U-Turn to get to the dentist’s office on the other side.
Rowdy Rob Robertson rarely brought his classic car above the posted speed limit. He was behind the white sedan. Rowdy Rob drove a 1957 Pontiac Super Chief, red and white, with original black and yellow license plates. He made a casual turn into an ‘L’ shaped parking lot, “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen buzzing through the speakers of the portable stereo on the seat beside him as he passed an Italian Deli, gliding into an empty space and letting the engine idle while he looked for something on the dashboard.
It was 4:40pm, his second trip of the day to Charley John’s Coffeehouse. Rowdy Rob lived alone, rising in the afternoons to make his way through the week of mail he hadn’t been bothered to pull from the mailbox, squinting in the light reflecting through his kitchen window, crow’s feet deepening as a cigarette smoldered in the corner of his mouth. Thin lips, a day and a half of stubble, reading glasses someplace else. The bedroom? Nothing more than the usual junk, he rolled the papers into something like a ball and looked for his shorts. Not needing to set an alarm, Rowdy’s bladder woke him; he proceeded toward the diner on 17th and a big plate of scrambled eggs with hot sauce. He took his time getting there, imagining the honking noises were compliments.
The sound of so many drivers anxious to get ahead of and around his own car set the tone for Colin’s mornings. It’s tough not to let it bother you, he told his mother when she asked him about his new life in California. He didn’t enjoy driving. And getting tailgated by monster trucks who lay on their horns—and shouted as they shot past—shortened his daily allowance of exuberance as he pretended to enjoy minimum wage. Colin worked an 11 – 3 shift, clocking out instantly, as he learned to do at the employee meeting, arriving at the coffee shop and getting in line.
Back to the sound and activity around him, he was glad to be pulled, happy to see someone he recognized. Colin nodded, smiling, his head turned toward the door.
Dennis took a seat.
“You just missed Alex,” Colin said.
“He’s in the parking lot.”
“He left half an hour ago.”
“Rowdy got him.”
The baristas called out the names of the drinks, punctuating the background music. Colin said that he woke up this morning and forgot where he was. And then, after realizing he learned that today marked one year since he relocated to Costa Mesa.
In the café, the man who sat near the windows was in his late fifties. The sun had weathered him; his goatee was the only part of his face that wasn’t a shocking pink. A profile view displayed a throat the color of rare steak, as he walked inside from an afternoon on the patio. In the time that Colin had been coming to Charley John’s, he noticed this man, on the periphery, always; and because no one else noticed him, Colin entertained the thought that he was looking at a ghost. Blue jeans were faded, he wore a black leather jacket with scuff marks to show he had broken it in a year or two before Reagan and Gorbachev’s summits. Maybe he’d been a cold war spy who retired to the land of sunshine. Maybe he was still undercover. The weathered spy spent his days reading the newspaper and patting his pockets for cigarettes.
Colin could remember, back home in the week or so that lead to the actual, official start of packing to come—that it was—he convinced his friends, his family and himself—going to be temporary.
The older woman near the window wore her grey-blonde hair in a bun. Her blouse, a cheap-looking discount polyester blend, was dark green with light green leaves and flowers. Her stretch pants were black and the soles of her dark tennis were white. Nearby was a beige crutch cane with a dark brown handle. The newspaper was spread across her table. When the phone in her purse called out (a call she had been waiting for) the older woman answered it in a measured tone, rubbing her eyebrow as she spoke in quiet tones. Her right arm stayed in the pocket of her blouse. After a hushed invective, the woman, in her late sixties, heaved the telephone into her purse like a piece of hot coal.
Colin told Dennis he could have begged his girlfriend to hop on a bus. But he thought he’d have a better chance here. “Her father liked me; he’d give us his blessing. I was looking at trying to find a way of bringing him with us, back to Seattle.”
“Rowdy Rob,” Dennis muttered. It was an acknowledgment as well as an announcement of the suspension of logical conversation.
“You guys goin Saturday?”
The friends stared.
Meanwhile, a clock began to tick, loudly; a proposal of marriage was overheard; a honeybee died; a larvae awakened, a butterfly; sea levels rose; a photograph left in the sun began to fade; a woman wondered what happened to all the grasshoppers she remembered as a little girl; a mining town went bust; North American maps were redrawn; the price of gasoline was raised and lowered; a teen popstar had a mid-life crisis and Rome shed another pope. They continued to stare as an airplane burbled overhead. Neither had any idea what Rowdy—frozen in sunglasses like a figure in a wax museum—was talking about.
“They’re fucking headlining!”
Dennis acknowledged that Rowdy’s favorite local band (of whom he knew nothing) had come a long way, “but we’re,” he aimed a thumb, “we’re both working late…”
Colin mentioned tonsillitis.
“Fuckers are gonna wish you called in for this one,” Rowdy assured them, a slip of paper between his pinkie and forefinger. It was a flyer.
The biggest reason Colin endeavored to occupy himself in Rowdy’s presence was the singular goal to which Mr Rosenberg applied himself: it never failed that the Rowdy One, aware that Colin’s brother played in a semi-successful musical group, would query the possibility of acquiring an opening slot on one of their upcoming tours for his friends. Colin tried explaining; Rowdy still asked, as if it were the only thing that he was authorized to discuss with the young Mr Harris. He haunted the regulars of Charley John’s. Rowdy Rob Robertson’s slouching hobble from the parking lot to the front doors sent people running, shielding their worried faces, hoping not to have given the impression that they were hungry for a one-sided conversation relating to his five beloved topics…
1) The Sex Pistols, and that night at the Starwood in Los Angeles on their first and final US tour. It was 1978, and a turbulent time, in particular for a band who juggled animus, bedlam, and conflict. Their bassist and songwriter quit. Sid Vicious, a kid, not a musician at all, took his place. According to Rowdy Rob, Sid spat blood on the audience during the song ‘Pretty Vacant’, while, in the front row, Rowdy Rob was handing Sid the beer and wine bottles that he smashed over his own head. Rowdy also supplied the lit cigarettes that Sid put out on his tongue while the rest of the band played ‘God Save the Queen’. Next came an onstage argument with the singer: Mr Vicious spat, threw his guitar into the audience and walked off, two fingers in the air. Unfortunately, fans and music historians are aware that this concert never actually took place. Hungry for scandal and publicity, the Pistols manager booked them into a series of rugged saloons in the South for the start of the tour. By the time they reached the West Coast to play what turned out to be their last concert in San Francisco, the band wasn’t speaking to one another.
2) David Bowie (pronounced “Buoy”), and his 1983 appearance at the US Festival. Breezy and tall, in a crème colored suit that complimented his blonde, feathered hair, Bowie sang his classic songs as well as what were to become his latest hits during his first American performance in five years. The crowd, who waited more than an hour for him to appear, roared. Rowdy loved to tell this story, embellishing when something made him realize that the person he was talking to had already heard it. Those in the audience on that May evening shook their heads at Mr Rosenberg, unconscious for the duration of Mr Buoy’s show. The only reasonable guess could be that he had observed the performances by a few of the other artists from one of several beer tents. Bystanders recognized the muffled honking sounds of Mr Robertson, snoring on a towel between numbers by the singer he had waited in the sun all day for.
3) His third favorite topic of discussion was the mysterious 1958 Gibson Les Paul that Rowdy Rob said was a gift from Ron Emory, guitarist for the band TSOL. Rowdy tells all and sundry that he was in charge of security for the band on their 1986 tour. And Mr Emory knighted a kneeling Rowdy Rob with this cherished instrument on the last night of the tour, inviting Rowdy up on stage for calisthenics at the end of the show. This same guitar was stolen from the backseat of Rowdy’s car before he got a chance to show it to anyone, though he had already jammed with Ron and the boys and was being considered as a new member.
4) Old School Orange County Punk Rock: a figurative cultural museum piece, and the position he liked to imagine himself occupying in the curatorial department thereof. What had gotten its start as a collection of local musicians, and the cross-pollination of ideas that became a regional sound when those musicians performed in the same night clubs and at the same college radio stations had the romantic odor of a bygone and regrettably underappreciated musical era. Rowdy longed to belong to the bad boy club. But he couldn’t play a thing. After a few botched attempts putting local concerts together in his high school gymnasium, it appeared as if he had been shunned from any dealings in the community to which he aspired to belong, and…
5) Jimmy & the Pumpboyz, an aggressively rude local blues outfit that was his favorite among these conversational subjects owing, for the most part to the band being populated by a gaggle of third-degree-grizzled Old School Orange County Punk Rockers, all of whom he looked up to, none of whom could remember his name.
“Robert, I’d be happy to call in sick if I didn’t have a landlord,” Dennis responded.
Rowdy Rob hadn’t taken notice of the old men seated under an umbrella out on the patio, and the old timers lowered the volume of their conversation, hoping the Angel of Death might pass with paper cup in hand. Like an old lawnmower engine, the conversation—this time about golf—was tough to keep going when you were shielding your face with your black poodle. The oldest fellow, the one with the poodle in his lap emitted a half-whispered expletive as the Rowdy One raised a thumb at them through the picture window and began to make his way outside.
Rowdy Rob Robertson began conversations as though he were picking up where he had left off: an important discussion suspended minutes ago, with the same level of familiarity that could suggest you had known him for years. The man with the black poodle likened him to the persistent gnats that his wife’s flowers attracted. He buttered the morning toast while she carried a tea cup full of vinegar to the sink, two or three Rowdys floating. The old guys did their best to ignore him. Without anywhere else to go, the crazy fool would place himself among them in the afternoon, hunching forward in his chair, cupping a cigarette, listening to their stories and butting in to insert commentary about things to which not a single one of them could relate.
Today he wore a dark pork pie hat and an olive green t-shirt advertising the virtues of a local drinking establishment, while a pair of black cotton twill shorts covered his shriveled, unused reproductive organs. Short white socks concealed yellow toenails as thick as the passenger windows of his car and black low top Vans sneakers adorned his crooked feet. A pair of Ray Ban sunglasses sat atop his skull, itself decorated with unwashed, uncombed and thinning grey hair. With the sunglasses on, he was a cadaver. With them off, passersby could make out what the decades of drink and tobacco had done to Rowdy Rob’s skin. Though he had just turned fifty, Mr Rosenberg was getting the senior citizen discount at the Omelet Parlor, up the street.
The sunburnt understudy was smoking at far end of the patio.
A lanky young man with a dark beard and a white t-shirt stood beside Dennis: “How did you get rid of him so fast?” he laughed, showing mouthful of straight white teeth, shaking hands across the table with Colin.
Colin told Alex that his shoe was untied, and Alex sat down beside him.
“You know, I said that once to a guy in cowboy boots.”
“Explains the scars,” Colin replied.