Yancy in the Afternoon
It took the whole day to get from St. Paul to the western edge of South Dakota. The Minnesota landscape outside our windows was so green it was almost fluorescent. Johnny drove us through it in his '72 AMC Matador four door. It was green, too, the same color that they painted their army jeeps and their Javelins. The driver's seat recliner broke three nights before, while driving around Milwaukee to score weed for the trip. Johnny jammed a suitcase behind the seat back to keep it upright and we left the next morning.
We crossed a bridge over a stream in the middle of the Badlands. Johnny pulled the Matador to the side of the road and we climbed down the bank to bathe. We stood in the water, naked except for our shorts, gamey with Midwestern summer sweat. All around us, the tall prairie grass fringed our world. Johnny pulled a disposable razor and a can of shaving cream out of his pack.
His narrow chest and long skinny arms all covered in black hair made him look like a spider.
"I like to shave on road trips," he said, "plus the L already makes you look like enough of a madman."
Johnny stubbornly still dropped on occasion. He planned to drop later. He finished final exams for his second year at Medical College of Wisconsin a week before. I followed him through the long anatomy floor hallways to pick up his grades. One hallway had human brain section shavings mounted on both sides for the entire hundred-foot walk. Second-year students had to memorize them, Johnny told me.
"But next year's going to be really intense," he said.
Back on the road, Johnny handed me the stash and I rolled one up. The air outside was simmering. June in the Midwest reminded me of summer in New England, the air dense with moisture and the next afternoon shower looming. It hadn't rained yet when we rolled the Matador into Deadwood, South Dakota. The streets were deserted. Big bright signs were everywhere, blaring invitations for tourists who hadn't come. Walking through town, we passed a plaque that told us this was where Wild Bill Hickok got it. Johnny stopped in front of the plaque and offered me a tab. I wasn't up for it. He shrugged and placed the little square on his own tongue.
Down the street, we passed an open patio with people drinking at wagon wheel tables surrounded by a real split-rail fence. The sign said The Deadwood Inn. Inside the restaurant that led to the patio, a lone man sat at the bar, directly across from the bartender. A Stetson corralled the curly hair that covered his cowboy shirt collar. His face wore the thickening leather of advanced alcoholism. He held a glass with mixed dark liquid in it, and he rattled the ice when he wanted a refill. He was tanned bronze, and looked like he was from somewhere else.
Outside on the patio, we sat down at one of the wagon wheel tables with a plywood circle set into it. I ordered a pitcher.
"Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Deadwood Inn."
A man stood in front of a mike stand on a stage fifty feet away. I hadn't seen the stage 'til he started announcing from it.
"And now, the Deadwood Inn is pleased to present Yancy Deerwood!"
The tanned alcoholic with the curly hair and the cowboy hat from the bar stepped up. He wore a strapped-on acoustic guitar and he reached down to punch buttons on a flat electronic box sitting behind the mike stand.
The strings and rhythms of the opening bars of Buffett's "Changes in Latitudes" floated out over the patio. Yancy strummed along on his guitar and sang over the karaoke. More folks trickled in and sat down at the wagon wheels.
The song ended and the growing audience clapped with gusto, happy to have live entertainment in the middle of nowhere.
"Alright! Taking Deadwood by storm!" Yancy chortled into the mike.
A young couple sat down at the table in front of us. We were young as they were, but they were tanned, fit and well groomed. She wore a black, flat-brimmed cowgirl hat identical to Madonna's hat in that "La Isla Bonita" video.
Feeling threatened by their clean beauty, I asked Johnny loudly if that was the same hat, and where did he think she got it, since Rodeo Drive was so far away?
Johnny was coming onto the L and he made feeble, paranoid gestures to cool it. The guy sitting with Madonna Hat Girl turned his tanned, muscularly clenched jaw to look at us. We must've been a sight even after our stream bath. I hadn't shaved yet, and we both wore clothing unfolded from suitcases. He turned back to his date quickly. A few minutes after that, they moved to a wagon wheel across the patio. She put her hands up to her Madonna hat and cocked it defiantly at us. With our neighbors moved out, my focus turned back to Yancy. He punched out one Buffett tune after another.
"What the fuck?" I said to Johnny, "how did we come across a Jimmy Buffett tribute band in the Great Plains?"
Yancy heard the remark, and he looked over at me.
The sun headed towards the Black Hills. Humidity hung over us like a mosquito net. I couldn't get the beer down fast enough. Being drunk on a hot, muggy day is no better than being sober. It just makes it easier not to move a lot.
This week was a getaway for me, too. I thought about moving out to Wisconsin, and even told Johnny I was going to do it. But a week in the Midwestern summer and dullness of the scenery turned me against the idea. And the slow steady drive toward San Diego already felt too much like going home.
Two very ugly girls landed at the vacant table in front of us.
The night before, I had eyed two nineteen-year-old corn-fed convenience store behemoths who talked loudly and listlessly about how nothing was happening while Johnny and I dug in their cooler for beer.
"Hey, they had cute faces!" I told Johnny as he drove us away fast, grimacing.
So my standards were low, but those two girls at the wagon wheel table in front of us were freakish. Both of them were short; both wore blue jeans. One was skinny, buck toothed and had an afro of wild curly brown hair. The other girl looked like a toad. She was short and squat with a face as shapeless as mashed potatoes. She had moles all over her face skin. Still, we were two guys alone in a strange new town.
On stage, Yancy was between Buffett songs, idly tuning his guitar, chatting with the audience about the balmy weather. He noticed me looking at the two creatures.
"You know guys, it's pretty warm here in Deadwood during the daytime, but it still gets pretty cold at night if you know what I mean," Yancy winked broadly out over the crowd.
The skinny one with buck teeth and the afro grinned brightly at us.
"Sure, ladies, go on over. Two of them, two of you, what could be more perfect?" Yancy crowed.
The rest of the crowd was catching on. Madonna Hat Girl tittered at us from across the patio.
More laughter followed. Johnny suddenly came alive at the wrong time. He raised his spidery arm to motion the two ugly girls over. They grinned like they were guests on Hee Haw and came over to sit down. This drew scattered clapping from the crowd.
Yancy smirked at us and launched into a tune he wrote called "Fujiyama Mama," about an Asian beast nailfest in Hawaii. At our table, things quickly got cozy. We exchanged names, and the girls told us they both had "fiancés" currently away on detail with the army. I flirted listlessly with the skinny one while Johnny slipped back into his stupor. Occasionally, he made a comment about the string of lights over the stage that grew more visible in the twilight.
"What's wrong with him?" asked my date.
"Self-induced dementia," I told her.
She stared back brightly.
Up on stage, Yancy was talking about some cassettes he had for sale down in front.
"Oooh, I want to get one of those," the other girl said, and they both got up quickly and walked down to the foot of the stage. Yancy segued into "Hotel California."
Our dates stood over the table in front of the stage, studying the merchandise. Yancy finished his Eagles tribute and looked down at the girls.
"C'mon now, Darlin', you stared at those tapes all through last night's show too. I didn't add anything new since then."
Gifted with drunken invincibility, I decided Yancy was a bastard.
"More music, man," I yelled, "you've got a serious bar tab to pay for!"
The crowd laughed.
"And you've got to drink your second beer ever," Yancy clipped back.
About a hundred people sat around inside the patio now. It was fully dark and it was the only show in town. The girls were paying up for their cassettes when I shifted in my seat, caught the damn wagon wheel table with my knee and launched a full pitcher onto the patio's southwestern tile floor.
Beer everywhere; open laughter all around us. I made feeble and useless efforts to squeegee it off the table with a bar napkin and my arm. The waitress had to come and nurse me out of it. Yancy laughed at us from the stage.
"Better get back to your boyfriends, ladies," he chuckled, "looks like they're in trouble."
The potato-faced one piped up.
"They're not our boyfriends!"
So they came back down and sat at a different table behind us in the darkness. It had cooled down enough to go and sleep it off. With some effort, I got Johnny up and we started the long walk.
Yancy grinned down triumphantly as we passed the stage. He began crooning his farewell.
"Goodnight sweetheart, now it's time to go."
He was a true talent.
In the morning we were heading out towards California, and he was staying there to drink and sing two karaoke shows nightly. We walked unsteadily down the empty main street. We needed to find a bed out under the stars. I noticed it was turning cold, just as Yancy said it would.
Published January 2006