“WILLIE!” The sound jolted me awake from my catnap. I was momentarily disoriented: Where the hell was I? Apparently I had been seatbelted into the passenger side of an automobile traveling at a great speed … and here it came again: “FUCKIN’ WILLIE! YEEE-HAAA!”
It was of course my editor. He was a large man, hairy and volatile, emotionally unstable and easily distracted. At the moment he was trying to light a bowl, change the CD, and navigate his way down I-17 at close to 100 miles an hour, all at the same time.
The reality of our situation hit me. We were on assignment, he and I, headed down to the verdant Verde Valley to see the one and only Willie Nelson at the one and only Cliff Castle Casino. Our personal mission was to weasel our way backstage and get high with the red-headed stranger himself.
The back of the van looked like a decent Memorial Day weekend haul for the Arizona Highway Patrol, or the contents of any east Flagstaff motel room on any given Saturday night. We had five kinds of hydroponic bud, two ounces of psilocybin mushrooms, seventeen hits of ecstasy, enough crystal meth to keep half of Coconino County grinding their teeth all weekend, a vial of PCP, a rainbow cornucopia of pills (diazepam, lorazipam, adderall, valium, pure morphine straight from the Guidance Center, and a mystery grab bag I had gotten a screamin’ deal on), a fifth of tequila (top shelf), a fifth of whiskey (bottom shelf), a case and a half of Oak Creek Nut Brown, and a Ziploc bag containing a lone matzoh cracker upon which rested twenty heroic doses of Li’l Owsley Junior liquid LSD (of which my dealer had warned me: “Just break off a little corner and eat it, unless you really want to see Jesus dancing naked with Lester Bangs and E.T. on the set of Family Feud”). We couldn’t find anywhere in Flag that sold ether, so we had to settle for a half tank of nitrous oxide stolen by my dental hygenist ex from her boss’ office.
I was just about to strap the mask on when I saw them coming at me again. Flying kokopellis, dozens of ’em. I flailed at them with my flyswatter.
“You rotten sons-a-bitches, leave me alone!”
My driver was nonplussed at the sight.
“Chill out, will ya? We’re almost there. As your editor, I recommend you listen to this Andrew Jackson Jihad CD and load another bowl. What kind of weed was that?”
“Grape Ape. This one’s Chrysler Exhaust.”
“Solid. What else did we end up with?”
“Let’s see … an ounce of Zombie Jackoff and a halfer of Holly Hobbie. No wait, they were out of the Holly. I think it’s Aunt Jemima. Or Papa Smurf.”
“Which one you saving for Willie?”
“Outstanding. Pass me that mask.”
“Not around an open flame, dimwit. Finish the bowl first.”
“But I wanted to do a big ol’ nitrous hit and then a big ol’ Chrysler hit and watch them battle for supremacy in my lungs.”
“Hmm, that does sound like fun. Alright, but pull over, I have to take a leak. My money’s on the Chrysler.”
“Did we bring any food or just drugs? I’m starving.”
“There’s plenty of beer and fry bread where we’re headed, pal.”
“Mmm, fry bread.”
“Don’t blow your shit up. I paid for half these drugs and Goddamnit, I plan on doing ’em.”
The kokopellis renewed their attack while I was relieving myself and I had left my flyswatter in the car. I waved them off with one hand.
“Come on, you guys! Let a man pee!”
They followed me all the way back to the van. I got in and slammed the door.
“I said git! What the hell ARE you, anyway?”
My editor maneuvered us back onto the highway while picking crumbs out of his beard and eating them.
“The deity of fertility and music. In some cultures, those featherlike things on the head are replaced by a huge penis.”
“The Hopi believe they deliver babies, like the stork.”
“So … are they trying to get in my pants, or just hitching a ride to Willie?”
“Hard to tell.”
“Well, you’re just a fountain of info today.”
“Wikipedia, bro. As your editor, I strongly suggest you put on this Silver Jews CD and load another bowl.”
“Did you find any food?”
“Yeah. Here, I made you a little snack.”
I ate the morsel.
“It’s crunchy. What is it?”
“I left a jar of peanut butter in back a while ago. I put some on a matzoh cracker and broke it in two.”
“Umm … the cracker that was in a Ziploc bag?”
“Uh-huh. Was it yours?”
“Yeah, but no worries. You OK to drive?”
“Sure. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Sorry, just a little distracted. Who won the contest?”
“Chrysler. The nitrous put up a good fight, though.”
The acid was coming on strong as we took the Cliff Castle exit. My editor looked a bit pale.
“I feel funny.”
“That’s because Willie’s near. We will soon be in the presence of greatness, mon frere. It’s only …”
And then I saw it. I broke out in a cold sweat. I let out a screech, wormed my way onto the floor and tried to hide under my seat.
“Oh good Lord, there she is! The queen bee! The animal mother! Spiderman, help us!”
“World’s largest kokopelli, brah. The residents of Camp Verde must be awful proud. Why, that goshdarn thing’s over 20 feet high.”
I raised my eyes above the dashboard and peeked at it.
“Hey, at least there’s not a giant dick on its head.”
We were ushered into a dirt parking lot like so much cattle driving automobiles. As the cars piled up around us, reality sunk in: We were about to take the plunge into the land of old people. Not my silly “Hey, I can remember the ’70s” old, OLD old. Like older than my mom old.
We also realized that leaving the car meant leaving the drugs. We had no way of knowing what kind of security was at the venue or whether or not we would be treated like the VIPs we obviously were.
“But we’re going to have PRESS PASSES, man!”
“Are you sure about that?”
We HAD to get the drugs to Willie. But how? We decided to sample the Zombie bud while we pondered the question.
Sometime later, I regained consciousness. The air was so thick with smoke, I couldn’t see the lower half of my body. We appeared to be sitting in some sort of vehicle.
“We should go.”
“Because Willie’s out there.”
“Willie Nelson’s in Flagstaff?”
“No, Camp Verde.”
“Well hell, man … let’s go! I’ll drive the van, we can get a whole crapload of drugs and …”
“We did that part already. I think we’re here.”
“In Camp Verde?”
“Wow. That was quick.”
We exited the fuming car.
“Save that smoke for later. Keep the windows rolled up.”
“Which way do we go?”
My editor pointed up. I lifted my head and saw a great and holy altar nestled atop a hill in front of us. I knew we had to get there somehow. It took us several weeks. We trudged through the sedimentary layers of the earth, through limestone and red rock, and had many adventures along the way.
When we hit the summit, I was disappointed that it wasn’t an altar at all, just a half-assed casino with gaudy flashing lights and legions of geriatrics in tacky JC Penney double-knits hobbling along and (to lift a phrase from Tom Wolfe) tweezing their undershorts out of the aging waxy folds of their scrota.
We stood in the front doorway gazing at all the pulsing brilliance. The Zombie Jackoff bud was living up to its name. I felt like a zombie and we sure looked like a couple of jackoffs.
“Are we dead?”
“Nope, we’re just in the Verde Valley. Hey, is that Lester Bangs?”
“Why are we here again?”
“I thought you knew.”
“Weren’t we supposed to bring something to someone?”
“Yeah, but who?”
I looked around and my eyes fell on a giant poster of Willie Nelson’s smiling face. I pointed to it.
“Oh, right. Willie. WILLIE! FUCKIN’ WILLIE! YEEE-HAAA!”
Several yeee-haas responded from somewhere deep in the maze of slot machines. As we entered, I noticed a series of large ornately framed pictures of the casino management.
“Hey, get a photo of me with the Yavapai Nation Wall of Shame.”
“That’s mean. How are we going to find Willie? He blends in so easily with this crowd.”
I spied a casino employee behind a desk.
“You just leave that to me.”
I strode up to her.
“Waal, howdy there ma’am! Ah’m Rear Admiral Antoine De Bolles and this is mah editor. Would yew kindly deerect us to Mr. Willie Nelson’s room, poor favoor? Ah believe he’s expecting us.”
“Sir, I’m just the cashier. You need to talk to the concierge, they’re right over …”
“Now just hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute! Me and mah editor, we’ve been …”
I turned. He was gone.
I scanned the crowd and spied his fuzzy head bobbing toward the blackjack tables. I caught up with him.
“Dude, I think we’re in a casino.”
“That’s what the sign said. I need beer.”
“I need blackjack.”
“OK, but make it quick. We have a mission.”
“You should have told the drugs to just meet us backstage. It would have saved a lot of time.”
I sat him down at a table, then retired to the bar and ordered up a frosty one. I tried to play the poker machine in front of me but the slot kept moving and my quarter had turned into Silly Putty. Five minutes later he was back at my side.
“How’d it go?”
“I won 35 bucks. Then the dealer kicked me off the table.”
“For winning 35 bucks?”
“No, because I made a comment about his vest. I think I asked if his mother breast-fed him, too.”
“He couldn’t remember. As your editor, I recommend we listen to a Richard Hell CD and smoke another bowl.”
“I don’t think we’re in the car anymore.”
“Damn. Is it me or is the rug on fire?”
“Hey, this is just like that book.”
“You know, the one where the two guys are wandering around casinos all whacked out on drugs?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I miss the drugs. Can we go visit them?”
“Soon. We have to find Willie first.”
“That’s mean. Oh wait, she does look a little like him.”
We exited the casino and took in our surroundings. The crowd seemed to be moving to the left, so we followed. Pretty soon we were in a mass exodus of retirees trudging ever so slowly toward the place where Willie was. I’m only about 5’7, but I felt like Gulliver among this bunch. I kept hoping we were in one of those movies where all the old folks magically throw their canes and walkers away and start playing baseball and tag and stuff.
No such luck. As we neared the front gate, we came upon a ridiculously long line of people waiting to get in. Hundreds of them, not a one under the age of 90. We stopped in our tracks.
“Uhh … I don’t know if I can handle this, dude. I’m not half the man I used to be.”
“Let’s at least see if our press passes are here.”
We walked up to the ticket booth.
“Hello, can I help you?”
I was suddenly at a loss for words.
“I … I need to see Willie.”
“Do you have a ticket?”
“Are you here to pick up a ticket?”
“I think so.”
“What is your name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you OK, sir?”
“Hell yeah, I feel fuckin’ great.”
“All right, let’s start again …”
“Over here, bro!”
My editor waved at me from a small tent. The ticket lady smiled.
“Ah yes, media. Now I understand. Right over there, sir.”
I approached the tent right as a smiling man was handing something to my editor.
“Here you go. And one for you, too!”
He hung it around my neck.
“Have fun, guys! Enjoy the show.”
I held it in my hand. It was a shiny laminated card with a picture of Willie playing his guitar. Across the top it said:
WILLIE NELSON – IN CONCERT.
And on the bottom it said:
My mind almost blew itself sober. Year after year of mocking these people, and finally I was one of them.
I couldn’t believe it. The monthly we worked for was a fly-by-night rag, a real shoestring operation. Seat of their pants. The blind leading the blind. No one had updated the website since 2008 because no one cared, readers or publishers. Every time a new issue appeared, we were shocked the company hadn’t folded yet.
And they had actually pulled this one off.
My editor and I gaped at our passes.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Dude, Willie’s face … it … it’s glowing.”
“I see it too, man.”
We smiled at each other and high-fived.
“Wow, this writing gig is really starting to pay off.”
“You said it. WE’RE COMIN’ WILLIE! YEEE-HAAA!”
“Wait, what about the line?”
The guy at the media tent heard us and said:
“Y’all don’t need to stand in no line. Hell, you can even bypass security. Just go right in.”
I looked at my editor, then at the media tent guy.
“We’ll be back in a minute.”
We calmly walked away from the gate until we were out of his field of vision. Then we broke into a crazy scrambling run towards the car. I tripped and fell and rolled halfway down the hill, giggling like a lunatic. We got to the van and yanked open the back hatch. Stale pot smoke billowed out as we stuffed our pockets and clothes full of drugs.
“I think those little flying bastards got into the speed.”
My editor was trying to strap the nitrous canister onto his back.
“You think they’ll let me in with this if I say it’s a gift for Willie?”
“Just tell ’em it’s camera equipment.”
“Hey wait, the tank’s empty!”
We chugged about six beers apiece in celebration of our reunion with the drugs. By the time we returned to the venue, nature was calling long distance. We lurched through the front gate, past the old folks and security, holding our media passes in front of us like talismen. Once inside we made a beeline for the port-o-potties and grabbed the furthest two.
“Hey, these things aren’t so bad before people use them. They’re kind of nice.”
“Damn, I forgot the ecstasy.”
“I have it. Want one?”
“Better give me a couple, it may be a long night.”
I passed him two through the air vent.
“Well I don’t know about you, but I’m hotboxing this sucker.”
“I’m down, brah. Got a lighter?”
“Just kidding, here you go.”
“That’s not funny. That’s not funny at all.”
Once fortified, we emerged and staggered stageward. I glanced back at the port-o-potties and it looked like the furthest two had bonfires inside.
After claiming our seats, we decided splitting up was our best option to get backstage. I took the left-hand side, my editor the right. I strolled leisurely down the lawn, displaying my Willie talisman all casual like.
To my horror, the backstage area was guarded by a muscular seven foot kokopelli with a SECURITY pass around his neck. I did a 180 and high-tailed it back to our spot. My editor was already there, digging into deluxe fry bread with a plastic fork and drinking Budweiser from a can.
“Nope. I told the guy who I was, but it didn’t seem to make any difference.”
“Damn it. The mission, man, the mission!”
“As your editor, I strongly advise you to forget about the mission and grab a cold one and some of this fry bread. It’s delicious.”
“OK, but I’m not giving up yet.”
“Don’t stop believin’, brah. Hey, aren’t you glad we’re here to see Willie and not Journey?”
“Good Lord, yes.”
“Oh man, I ate that too fast. I’m feeling bloated.”
I went to the fry bread stand and ordered a deluxe. While they were making it, a guy ran up and breathlessly told the owner:
“I just talked to Willie and he said, ‘You go get me some of that fry bread now.'”
The owner took it coolly in stride.
“Does he want onions?”
As he handed over my order, the guy gave me a look that said: “Yep, that’s right. Willie Nelson wants some of my fry bread.”
I gave him a look that said: “You the man.”
I started back to my seat and then came to a halt. Through my drug-addled confusion an idea arose, lucid and clear. It was almost too simple. I reversed direction and went behind the fry bread stand. I took out every drug I had in my pockets, crumbled them up and sprinkled them all over my food. I waited for Willie’s toady to come around the corner and then ran smack into him. I managed to knock the fry bread out of his hands and onto the ground.
“Aw man, that was Willie’s fry bread!”
“Gosh, I’m sorry. Here, take mine.”
“Well, that’s mighty nice of you.”
“No sweat. Tell him it’s from a fan.”
I bought another fry bread and a beer and went back to my seat on cloud nine.
“Nope. And it’s all thanks to the wonder of fry bread.”
“Is there anything it can’t do?”
“Well, I think our man Willie is about to discover something he never thought fry bread could do. Like get him high.”
“You’re a bleedin’ genius.”
“I have my moments.”
We toasted our beverages and then I turned to dinner. Unfortunately, my fry bread had mutated into a giant blinking eyeball with lettuce for lashes. I tore into it anyway.
It was the best damn eyeball I had ever eaten.
**** for Hunter S. ****