The story you are about to read is true a memoir of a Road Trip From Hell that took place in 2002. It's full of psychic phenomena, odd coincidences, and unexplained paranormal weirdness. It's the first installment of two posts...enjoy!
My sister, my daughter…my daughter, my sister…
She’s my sister- and my daughter!
I was standing on my kitchen steps in a t-shirt and panties at 6:00am, punctuating my hysterics by slapping myself across the face and I had absolutely no idea why I felt the need to be play-acting the most infamous scene from Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir hit “Chinatown”. For some unknown reason, I’d woken up with this frenzy-in minute detail- running through my head. It was almost as though I was being manipulated by some unseen force.
My new boyfriend Pa regarded me affectionately-and a little curiously- as he handed me a cup of coffee.
“What are you doing?” he asked affably, as though this wasn’t such unusual display at the crack of dawn.
I explained that I was acting out both the Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson parts from the scene where Evelyn Mulray, under duress from sadistic private dick Jake Gittes, breaks down and admits to the incest in her family.
“Oh,” he said, nodding as though this was a perfectly logical answer,
“I never saw “Chinatown”, but I heard it was good!”
There was a reason Pa wasn’t fazed by my behavior. Even though we were in the throes of new love, we’d actually known each other for ages and had a lot of history together. We’d met in the 1990’s at the now-legendary Clown Party, an epic private even held at the Phoenix Iron Works warehouse in Oakland, California. Hundreds of people from every facet of the Bay Area’s alternative scene attended: punks, visual and performance artists, skateboarders, college students and mad scientists from Survival Research Labs - all dressed like clowns. Pretty much the whole party was tripping their brains out on massive amounts of the freshly picked psilocybin mushrooms that the host had thoughtfully left out as party favors. Like any rational, well-adjusted person, I detested clowns. But one glance at Pa, handsome in his crisp painstakingly applied whiteface and a professional-looking red nose changed that. He was the sexiest clown I had ever seen. The following day, sans make up, he was even sexier. He had a dangerous, brooding Bad Boy appeal and a beautiful smile. I was beyond smitten… also, I had a husband.
Pa’s real name was James. “Pa” was an old Army moniker, an abbreviation that had come from the first two letters of his last name. He’d been stationed in various Asian jungles for two years, and after being discharged he’d come to San Francisco to attend art school. It was a hot combination- he was a robust, ripped alpha male who could carry on conversations about classical literature and art theory. Though he’d grown his crew-cut out into a long, braided rat-tail the fell to his hips, some of his Army habits died hard; he was never without combat boots and still wore a bandanna tied around his head pirate-style, a habit he’d picked up Thailand to prevent leaches from crawling into his ears while he slept on the ground. He’d tell insane stories about getting fully suited up in HAZMAT suits and gas masks during all-night chemical drills, taking LSD to stay awake.
Whenever I’d come up to the Bay Area, he’d make special trips from his little ranch in Sonoma to see me, but nothing ever happened, so I couldn’t tell if he felt the same about me. We’d get shit-faced at Oakland dive bars like Esther’s Orbit room, but all we ever did was hold hands. Besides, both of us had always been with other people. When he married suddenly and disappeared, I was heartbroken. More than decade later I still thought of him constantly, so I worked my romantic demons out by writing a story about him called “Coco The Zombie Clown From Heaven, which was published in my memoir collection, “Escape From Houdini Mountain”.
In early 2002, years after his wife died and long after he’d broken up with the girlfriend who followed her, Pa was living in New Mexico. Someone had given him my book as a gift, asking if the story was about him. He read it and found me immediately, less than four months before the “Chinatown” moment unfolded.
For once, our timing was perfect- he was single and I was just beginning to get over a cougar-iffic love affair with a Euro-trash artist was fifteen years my junior. I was excited, but also extremely gun-shy. James had meant so much to me for so long, that the first time he came out to visit me, I decided I wasn’t going to sleep with him. No matter what happened, it would undoubtedly end badly-if it was awful, it would ruin our friendship; if it was great, I would be more in love than I already was. Because he lived in a different state, that would suck.
I held out for exactly seventeen hours.
Naturally, we slept together and of course it was amazing. The next morning, I was appearing as the principle dancer in a video for a hip-hop artist called Truth Hurts. Her song “Addictive” had Arabic and Indian samples in it, and I’d been hired to belly dance in the club scene. Because it was my birthday, I made the executive decision to bring Pa to the set with me. When we arrived at the location, we were shocked to see stars like Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, Eric B and Rakim, all of who were making cameo appearances. The set was so thick with reefer smoke it was like a ‘hood version of a Cheech And Chong movie, only it was real. The make up artist had to come around every five minutes to drop Visine into the guest star’s bloodshot eyes, it was that bad. After the shoot, we were as inseparable as was humanly possible, given our long-distance romance. The reason Pa and I were awake so early that “Chinatown” morning was because we were about to embark on a road trip back to his place in Santa Fe.
Pa loaded up his new ride- a dilapidated 1970’s pick-up truck, riddled with rust, its hideous yellow ochre paint sun-bleached and dotted with liberal amounts of Bondo and primer. The truck’s deck had a makeshift bed, a rotten piece of foam covered by old moving blankets, and was crowned with an ugly, rotting brick-red camper shell, awash with Fiberglass splinters. People were always giving Pa vehicles that were destined for the junkyard, and he’d drive them into the ground with screw drivers stuck into the ignition, their engines literally held together with plastic twist-ties from garbage bags. After making a picnic of sandwiches and snacks, I threw my computer and a baby blue duffle bag full of cosmetics, high heels and slutty undies into the backseat, and we took off heading east on Interstate 10.
The truck hiccupped and creaked along as we laughed constantly, discussing everything from our childhoods to what had happened to mutual friends from Phoenix Iron Works. With a dog-eared map spread on my lap, I recited the odd names of the tiny desert towns we’d pass through. In no hurry at all, we planned to drive til we couldn’t anymore and stay overnight at some shitty motel- it didn’t matter where- we’d just carry on with the 1,366-mile journey at our own pace. We stopped a couple of times for Slurpees and ice cream, browsing leisurely for souvenirs at truck stops, and wandering around rest areas in the arid air, inspecting the vintage adobe Visitor Centers, marveling at massive cacti and eavesdropping on the other motorists gathered around the wind-worn picnic tables.
The periwinkle desert twilight had long turned to cool darkness by the time we pulled into Kingman, Arizona, 318 miles east of Hollywood. As Pa fueled up the truck, I admired the Atomic Age motel next to the service station, before noticing that the total of the gas purchased was $9.11. Though usually pragmatic, I’ve always been superstitious, and with the September 11th tragedy in the very near past, I took this number as a bad omen. It crossed my mind that it might be a prudent idea to spend the night at the motel…but dismissed the notion without mentioning it to Pa, in case he’d think I was being neurotic.
We drove off into the night, and by the time we were traveling down Highway 40, on the remnants of what used to be Route 66, we were both in hysterics regaling each other with crazy teenage stories about getting wasted on Quaaludes and Boone’s Farm at house parties with absent parents, making out for hours at accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”. The highway was utterly deserted- we were the only vehicles on the road. It was also unlit and in the pitch dark, the sky was full of stars so bright you could see them clearly through the cracked, bug-splattered windshield.
Presently, down the road in front of us, we saw a dim radiant glow. This lead to a conversation about UFOs sightings. As we drew closer to the light, we realized it was coming from a gigantic truck that was spraying insecticide into the scrubby trees on the side of the road. The spewing poisonous mist formed a large cloud, illuminated by the truck’s headlights as we drove past. I told Pa about Jayne Mansfield’s grisly and untimely death in Mississippi on Highway 90, when a tractor trailer swerved to avoid a mosquito spraying truck, when suddenly, we heard sirens.
I’d actually noticed the parked cop car on the side of the road earlier, and assumed it had been accompanying the spraying truck, but the moment the red and blue lights began flashing, we realized we were getting pulled over. Since we weren’t speeding, both of us unsure what this was about.
Pa stopped the truck up on the shoulder and pulled out his license, instructing me to grab the registration from the glove box.
The cop took his time ambling up to our truck. The moment he shined his flashlight into the cab, he saw my nurse’s hat fall out of the glove compartment.
“Ma’am, “ he said, “Are you a nurse?”
Staring at the cap on the floor mat with the crooked, lipstick red vinyl cross sloppily glue-gunned to it, I mumbled in real embarrassment,
“Um…no sir… I’m not a nurse.”
The hat, of course, went with my bag full of slutty undies.
Shit! I thought, why did I ignore that 911-gas pump… we should’ve stayed in Kingman!
The cop directed his gaze at Pa.
“You know your license plate light is out?” he asked, as though it was a major felony.
He made both of us hand over our identification and took his sweet time calling it in. I watched the minutes ticking by on the dash clock- which miraculously, still worked- as we listened to the far-away static dispatch radio from the squad car. Finally, the officer returned, handing us both back our licenses.
He said in a monotone,
“Sir? Could you please step out of the truck?”
The moment Pa obliged, the cop swiftly bent him over the hood of the truck, clasping a set of cuffs on him with a loud clatter. I was halfway out of the truck’s passenger door, already yelling, when the cop barked at me to “sit tight” and ordered me to “shut up for my own good”. I watched mutely from the cab as he attached leg irons and a waist-chain that linked to Pa’s handcuffs. By the time he pulled his cruiser up, throwing Pa into the back seat and slamming the door, I was out of the truck.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, really agitated, “What’s going on?”
“I’m taking him in,” the cop said, deadpan.
I was beginning to shake uncontrollably; I didn’t understand what was happening, but I instinctively knew it was bad…really bad.
“Where are you taking him?” I shouted, starting to lose it.
“Why are you taking him?”
In an almost bored voice, the cop told me I really didn’t need to know why James was getting brought in, but that they were going to the jail in Prescott, Arizona, which was about an hour away. I could call the jail in two hours to find out the booking status.
The cop started getting into his car, and abruptly, in spite of my emotional upset, my self-preservation instinct kicked in and my mind began to race: How the hell could I call the jail when I didn’t own a cell phone? Even if I had one, it wouldn’t work out here…It would be completely impossible for me drive this jalopy for hours across the desert!
Without even realizing what I was doing, I practically jumped onto the cop, blocking him from the driver’s seat.
“You can’t just leave me here,” I wailed.
“By law, ma’am, I can” he said coldly.
“Call me a tow-truck,” I shrieked, “You cannot leave me in the middle of nowhere!”
“Ma’am, I don’t need to do that… we are leaving-now!” he said adamantly.
A potent adrenalin rush engulfed me so completely that I felt like I was outside myself. Suddenly I grabbed the cop roughly by the shoulders, and, in a voice I didn’t even recognize as my own, got right up into his face all wild-eyed and growled,
“Give me your fucking badge number then, because when they discover me raped and murdered out here, it’s gonna be in my fucking pocket!”
The cop stared in shock as I sprawled across the hood of the police car, gripping the open door of the drive’s side, preventing him from entering, screaming over and over like a banshee,
“CALL ME A TOW TRUCK NOW!”
Realizing he couldn’t go anywhere without the situation escalating even more than it already had, the cop got on the radio and called a wrecker.
When he informed me that it would take around forty five minutes to arrive, I went ballistic again, yelling like a maniac that he had to wait for me because there was no way I could be left in the desert alone. My screams echoed into the empty night like a funhouse soundtrack. Rolling his eyes, the officer radioed for another officer to come and wait with me for the tow-truck. The cop wouldn’t let me near James, not even to speak to him. I watched him forlornly through the window in the back of the squad car. The moonlight lit up the tears welling in his eyes; as he mouthed to me I’m sorry. With that, I burst into hysterical sobs.
After what seemed like ages, the other cop arrived, oddly enough with his teenage son in tow. He stepped out of his car so both officers could have a conference. By this time, I was leaning against the back bumper of Pa’s truck, tears rolling silently and steadily down my cheeks, my whole body heaving and trembling as I stared directly into the headlights of the second black and white. The lamps seemed to be dimming and getting brighter rhythmically, matching my jagged, uneven breathing. At first I thought this was an optical illusion caused by the tears from my eyes…then the squad car’s motor died.
I realized, with the deep sense of dread I always got when this sort of thing happens, that it was My Electrical Disturbance leaping into action. This might be hard for some people to comprehend, but My Electrical Disturbance has plagued my entire life. I routinely freeze computers, fry cell phones, disable cameras and cash registers, go through car batteries at the rate of, like, six a year, demagnetize credit cards and can’t wear a watch. It also gets very expensive…all that equipment getting ruined. My Electrical Disturbance only seems to occur when I’m extremely upset, really stressed out or very excited. When it starts happening, it scares me; I always experience even more anxiety and want to vomit. For years I tried to keep it a secret, but it got to the point that everyone around me started noticing. Thanks to Steven King, my close friends started calling me “Carrie” and “Firestarter”.
Ultimately, I found out that the strange affliction I have is called EPK or Electro Psycho-Kinesis. It is a phenomenon that hasn’t been studied much, because like me, the people who are “gifted” with it only experience it in times of extreme emotional highs or lows and generally, these actions cannot be reproduced at will, so it is impossible for researchers to collect much data on the subject.
The onset of My Electrical Disturbance was upsetting me even more, but snapped back into reality when I heard both cops arguing about the dead squad car.
“But I had it serviced this morning!” the second officer was exclaiming in frustration, “Look in the log book! I checked everything!”
The tow truck, a huge red vintage flatbed, arrived. The driver jumped out, and in the midst of my breakdown, I noticed that with his shaggy hair, five o’clock shadow and hulking frame, he looked like a cross between Chuck Norris in the ‘70’s and Sasquatch. After a POW wow with the cops, he hooked our dilapidated truck to the tow bar as the car with Pa in it took off swiftly, veering off the road and across the desert in a vortex of dust, headed for Prescott.
“Get in,” the tow truck driver said to me, tilting his head towards the wrecker’s cab before hollering over his shoulder to the second cop and his son,
“I’ll be back for you guys in about an hour!”
As we drove in silence, I tried valiantly not to bawl out loud.
“Rough night, huh?” the driver asked in a voice that was gruff but compassionate.
I couldn’t answer, so he wordlessly handed me some tissues.
Finally, we pulled into what seemed to be very small town. The driver stopped in front of squatty cement structure with a large neon sign depicting a panther- “The World Famous Black Cat Bar”. Jumping out of the truck, he undid a giant padlock a in the middle of a Cyclone fence and swung open the gate to his tow yard, declaring,
“We’re at the end of the line, hon!”
“Where are we?”
“Welcome to Seligman, Arizona, population 456, ” he said,
“There’s a motel across the street, you can spend the night there. I charge $25.00 a day for vehicle storage up front…but you can just give it to me in the morning.”
I decided that now wasn’t the time tell him that I didn’t have a credit card on me and was carrying only $28.00 in cash.
Grabbing my stuff from Pa’s pickup, I crossed the deserted street and composing myself, checked into the Supai Motel, trying to ignore the fluorescent buzz of a burned out light- and the suspicious look the Indian desk clerk was giving me. I got the last room they had for $16.00…and of course it was Number 13. It was Spartan, with indoor-outdoor carpeting, but at least it was clean.
Momentarily I thought of visiting The World Famous Black Cat Bar and getting shit-faced with my last twelve dollars. But at the rate things were going it kind of seemed like a horrible idea. Besides, I had other stuff to attend to… like using the old-school dial phone in the room to call the Prescott jail to check on Pa’s booking and getting in touch with my sister so she could wire me some money. In something akin to the promodal phase of schizophrenia, I became engulfed in a gigantic shame spiral. I seriously could not believe this chain of events was happening to me at the age of forty-three… Wasn’t this shit supposed to magically cease and desist some time during the early twenties?
And then there was the last task, one I really wasn’t looking forward to at all; introducing myself –for the very first time- to Pa’s mother via a frantic collect call at 1:45am. Gritting my teeth and steeling myself for the worst, I dialed her number.
Hello, is this Betty? My name is Pleasant. You don’t know me, but I’m your son’s girlfriend. Sorry to wake you up, but I’m stranded somewhere in the middle of Arizona, and James is in jail…
Pa had already processed through the Yavapai County Jail in Prescott, but the only information I could get besides the fact that they were holding him without bail and wouldn’t let me speak to him. My sister wasn’t home so I left a message. The phone call with Pa’s mom went, I suppose, as well as a phone call of that nature could possibly go… At least she didn’t hang up on me!
By then, it was 2:30 am, too late for The Black Cat, and I sure as hell couldn’t sleep. All there was left to do was chain smoke, cry, and maybe try to numb myself by watching TV. The ancient television, with its rabbit-ear antenna, took a long time to tune in, but when the picture finally materialized showing the Channel 10 station identification logo, the announcer’s deep voice boomed:
WE NOW RETURN YOU TO OUR MOVIE “CHINATOWN”, STARRING JACK NICHOLSON AND FAYE DUNAWAY.
The film flickered onto to the screen at the very point where the “My sister…. My daughter” scene began.
Part Two coming soon!
This story excerpt is from my memoir Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage And On The Road, published September 2013 by Punk Hostage Press.
To get a signed copy of the book, please visit www.pleasantgehman.com