Last Train to Clarksville? First Boat to Saint Louis!
“What are you doing on the floor!”
“Get up! You got an audition in 5 minutes.”
“I know. I’m not going.”
“What!” He was aghast.
“I said I’m not doin’ it. I don’t want to be an actor anymore.”
“Dude! Listen, no! You’re good at this. You can’t give up acting. This is the Second City Conservatory – do you know how hard it is to get in here? You’re a shoo-in; Norm (the director of the school) loves you!”
“I don’t give a shit.” I got up off the floor. The taste of tile was in my mouth. A Mexican man with a smile on his face walked in with blue cleaners in plastic bottles. The janitor, I thought. I hate him; he looks so happy.
Simon brushed me off as I walked toward the elevator to get the hell out of there, to get away from acting forever. “No!” he screamed standing between me and the elevator. Two minutes and I was to go on. “You can’t!” he screamed. “You gotta audition! I mean… I mean just try it… Just go before Norm, do your audition and if you don’t want to stay in the school, you don’t have to, but don’t… don’t quit now…” I don’t know why it was so important for Simon that I audition. I think he thought I was out of my mind and not thinking straight. He certainly had that right – it’s not every day you have a nervous breakdown and collapse on the bathroom floor of the most sought-after comedy school in the country.
Simon picked me up then. He brushed me off. He looked like a mother hen, if a mother hen could be 6’5″, bearded, Middle-Eastern looking and worried as hell. He pushed me before Norm Holly. I gave a half-assed, half-hearted audition. Norm said I was in, and I’ve never felt like such a fraud in all my life. On my worst day, I could still act; but, I still didn’t give a shit about acting, and that was a problem. I emailed Norm the next day and told him my decision: Dear Norm, Thank you for admitting me into the Second City Conservatory program. I’m going to Europe for a year, so I won’t be attending. I’m very sorry for all this. Take care, Ryan.
Norm could care less. He said it was normal. He told me a year or so later that he had a similar nervous breakdown. He had been cast in a Shakespeare in the Park production and would stand outside the ticket line in full costume, a Roman soldier, imploring potential patrons to go home. “What’re’you doin’? Just go home!” “I didn’t want to do that to my cast members,” I told Norm in response. “That’s why I went to Europe.”
In Europe I would grab bystanders and ask them to hold the camera as I narrated what I was seeing and what I was doing. Little did I know these were the makings of what I would be doing today. Little did I know I would enjoy it so much. I’m glad to have had a nervous breakdown even if neither I nor Simon understood it at the time. And I’m glad Simon picked me up, both off the floor and from a tiny Missouri town, to take me to his brand new, St. Louis apartment. I’m glad to be here, with him now.
He’s married, to his college sweetheart. “I’ve always liked Amy,” I tell him. “You better, or I’ll kick your ass,” he says. We’re smiles. The drive home is rainy and I’m glad to be off the river. “So holy shit man,” he says, “this is like the craziest thing ever – you paddling down the river.”
I look at him. “Is it really crazy… for me?”
He looks at me. “Ha! No, no, no for you. Ha ha ha.”
His place is wonderful – spacious and woody. There’s a cat. “I’m alergic to cats,” I say remembering that Jody (from this post) said I’m not allergic to cats, I just think I am. I decided to take a deep breath. “You got any allergy medicine?”
“Perfect.” I pop one into my mouth and play the What If Game – “What if I’m not allergic? What if it’s all a game? What if my cells really believe this time that I’m not under attack from cat dander and I just chill and feel good and don’t have to wheeze and cough and rub my eyes? What if I feel great!” It worked. I didn’t wheeze or cough or rub my eyes all night. Claritin or spiritual guidance or both worked.
Where Simon Picked Me Up
It was a small town by the name of Clarksville. It had the most beautiful of all the riverfronts I’ve seen so far (and I think I’ve seen quite a few small-town riverfronts). A man sees me tying my boat up and eyeing the rainclouds. He is shirtless, 50 years old and powerful. He looks like he could bench press a bull. Hands on hips, he walks up to me and says nothing. It looks as though he’s searching for the words to say. His mustache is white when he looks down, not at my eyes. “Hi!” I say as enthusiastically as I can. Still nothing. Hands on hips. Looking down. Finally he says, “I, I saw your boat, that’s…” Long pause.
“Yeah!” I offer, “I’m paddling down the entire Mississippi River.”
“That’s…” Hands, hips, pause. “…wonderful.”
Mike Brewer, his name, takes me to his house. He has an old canoe he’s built himself. His wife? I believe at the time is rummaging around her SUV not 30 feet away and says nothing to me as Mike takes me through the birth and life of his canoe which has CLARKSVILLE, MISSOURI hand-painted on the side. “She’s (there’s that word again ‘she;’ I love it! I love calling physical objects ‘she!’) old, but she runs. I took ‘er down the Missouri River in a race. Lasted about 105 miles before I pulled out, so I know what you’re going through.” He runs his hands along the side of the wooden canoe as if he’s in love. It looks more like a kayak and I tell him so. “No, no,” he says. “It’s a canoe. This is an old design, the most popular design of its kind dating back to the turn of the the 20th century.” He looks closer, still in love.
“This is my significant other,” he says introducing me to Becky. She is strong and sturdy like Mike with giant biceps. Have I run into Jack LaLanne and his wife? She’s older (you can tell) but her skin is tan and smooth. She’s carrying organic chicken and cilantro and cabbage. Healthy, I think. Her, I mean, not the cabbage.
I think about hanging around till they ask me to dinner, but I don’t do this. I think I’ve pushed my luck a little too much with this little gambit. I don’t want to overdo this social engineering spell I use, so I tell them that I’m walking back to my tent and thank you. Mike says okay and covers his boat back up. “I’ll drive you down,” he says.
“You’re in law enforcement,” I say in the car.
“No cops in Clarksville,” he says.
“Really? I’m usually right about these little intuitions.” I smile.
“You’re not far off. I’m city alderman. When there is a dispute, guess who goes?”
Probably the guy who can bench press 5000 pounds, I think.
Mike drops me off and I go to setting up my tent. I think that maybe I should have asked to stay for dinner but just thought it wasn’t right. Before I can get to my tent some young fishermen stop me. “Goin’ down the river?” they say and “man, that’s crazy” and “wouldju like some Mountain Dew?” While I’m chatting, a catfish bites one of their lines and is pulled out. “Holy crap!” I say. “It’s gotta be 10 pounds!” It looks big to me, but they laugh.
“Naw, more like one pound.”
I grab him. He’s slimy and wiggly and I jump when he jumps. Indeed – only a pound. The biggest catfish to ever be pulled out of the Mississippi was 124 pounds. How freaking big do you think it looked! Mike sneaks in behind me now almost unnoticed. Where the hell did he come from? “Hi,” he says, hands on hips again. “I don’t know where my manners were, but I should have invited you over for dinner. I’m sorry,” he says. His arms have got to be 20 inches around. “We’re having chicken.”
“Much better than beans,” I say, and he smiles.
“This home,” he says outside his house, “is 150 years old.” The door is creaky and there is no air-conditioning. “We redid it,” Becky says to me smiling and “glad you came.” It smells good, I think, and Mike tells me about the blue metal cabinets from the fifties that used to be in the home and how there was a relic from each decade in the house:
Cabinets – 1950’s
Archway – 1860’s
Patio – 1910’s
I think the home is beautiful and say “as long as there’s Direct TV it can be a hobbit hole for all I care.” Laugh, laugh, laugh.
I chat and eat and talk about religion and the forbidden politics and how I don’t think it’s going to rain and that I will make it back to my tent before that thunder gets worse. After all, they’ve offered me dinner, but not their couch – I don’t want to push it. Soon the heavens open and it’s a downpour.
“Do you have anything that’ll get wet?” Mike asks.
“All of it’s getting wet!”
“Ha, ha ha. No, I mean that you don’t want to get wet.”
“I don’t want any of it to get wet!”
“No, Mike, thanks for being concerned. It’s all fine. Most of the stuff I need is here.”
“Sleep on the couch if you like,” Becky says and I don’t feel like a fraud or that I’ve socially engineered my way into this situation.
The rain comes down in sheets all night. I watch Two and a Half Men reruns and feel cozy. The dog sleeps under me and reminds me of my childhood dog. When the thunder barks, she nuzzles next to me and I protect her as she protects me. I flip the remote switch. Off. It’s dark and I’m in a stranger’s home. Becky has copies of Oxygen magazine all over the place and I thumb through one and find out how to get the sexiest abs ever. The dog howls, I pet her, she stops, I sleep.
Tomorrow, Mike is up. “Goin’ into the city,” he says and I shoot up in the couch trying to fake like I was already awake. I laugh on the inside because “going into the city” means a 30 second drive. “You need anything?” Mike asks not waiting for an answer. “There’s cantaloupe and cereal… coffee… make yourself at home,” he says with hands on his hips still searching for the words. I thank him, wait till he leaves and go straight back to bed. God, my shit’s gonna be wet, is the last thing I think before dozing off and waking at 10 o’clock.
Mike’s at the door an hour later. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, and I can’t remember what time he said he’d be back. I’ve eaten 3 bowls of Special K and have read 3 of Becky’s Oxygens and know now how to go green while flattening my tummy and having better sex all at the same time. Mike says, “Let’s, uhh, go down to City Hall and meet the mayor.”
The mayor is tall and older. She’s happy to have me in her town and is really proud of the city seal that Mike designed. Mike is embarrassed. He’s designed 90 percent of the signs in the town and they all look beautiful. Like I said, prettiest riverfront I’ve seen yet. She is stately yet kind, and pretty much what you might expect from a small-town diplomat.
Over lunch Mike tells me that he wishes that every citizen in the United States could be a city alderman for just one term to see what it’s like to work in governmet so they wouldn’t be like he was – a complainer who wished for government to magically solve every problem in the book, funds or no. “We get guys comin’ in here,” he says, “sayin’ ‘fix that pothole!’ and they don’t realize that we have one maintenance man for the whole town and that it’s going to cost money, because the next thing they’ll say is ‘don’t raise my taxes!’ ‘Well,’ I think, ‘where are we going to get the money to pay the maintenance guy who’s going to fix your pothole?’ Like I said – just one term to see what it’s like. It’d do every citizen good.” Amen.
Simon calls me. “I’m about an hour away,” he says, and Mike helps me get my stuff ready. We walk down to the riverfront. Yesterday I had pulled my boat 4 feet onto the shore. Now it is bouncing around 2 feet into the water. “Uhhhhh,” I say, “good thing I tied ‘er up!”
“Yeah!” Mike laughs. Mike tells me that the water line used to be halfway up the buildings during the flood. That FEMA and SEMA and other private/quasi-private organizations helped stack over 1 million sandbags last year to save the town. “We were the only town in this region to try and save ourselves,” he says. “The rest of ’em just let the floods come and figured they’d handle the damages later.” It cost the city forty thousand to do what we did, but I think we made the right decision.”
“You’ve got to make tough decisions every day,” I say.
He smiles. “Every day… every day.”
Simon is here.
He has a Jetta and I tell him I don’t know where I’m going to put my kayak. “You said it was an inflatable!” he says. “Yeah,” I say, “but it doesn’t deflate.”
“What the… what??? I…”
“Ha ha ha ha ha. Gotcha.”
“F—ing bastard!” he laughs and hugs me.
We pack my gear in and Mike looks a little sad. “It was so weird,” he said. “I was reading about river kayakers and thought about taking The Clarksville on the Mississippi, and here you show up!”
“We’ll be in touch,” I say and shake his hand. “Tell Becky thanks again.”
“Will do, will do.” Mike looks at the ground. His hands are on his hips again and I know why he looks down now. He has the whole city on his shoulders.
“Dude!” Simon says in the car and “where the hell have you been!” and “this is crazy!” and “good to see ya!” and “you bastard, this is farther than it looks.” Hug, hug, kiss, kiss.
The rain starts pouring again, but Simon is smiles. I am smiles.
“I’m glad to see you, Simon.”
“Dude, F in A, glad to see you!”
The rain clears up now and I can see the St. Louis arch. “Wow!” I say. “It really is amazing.”
“Oh, fuck yeah! You gotta see some stuff while you’re here.”
Simon, I think in his car, is probably the only person who could have made me audition. Anyone else and I woulda told ’em to go fuck themselves. What a good friend. He probably doesn’t even remember it, I think and decide not to bring it up. I decide not to tell him what a good friend he is directly but try to remain as jovial and thankful and as “goddamn it’s good to be off the river” as possible until he’s not only glad he picked me up off the river but off that bathroom floor in Chicago.
Dear Brother Simon,
Thank you for picking me up.