Diane E. Dees
The Smoke Clears
Last year, I attended my first writers' workshop, a week-long affair with intensive instruction and critique. On the second night of the event, I went to dinner with a dozen or so of my fellow classmates, a predictably verbal and colorful group. The food was good and the conversation was lively. One of the writers was a wine expert, and we happily placed her in charge of making the wine selections for the table.
After we had eaten and drunk a while, several different conversations sprang up. At my end of the table, people were talking about music and musicians, one of my favorite topics. I turned to the attractive, impeccably-groomed woman on my right and attempted to engage her in the conversation by asking her opinion of the musicians under discussion. She put down her glass of wine, smiled at me, and then uttered one of the most shocking things anyone has ever said to me:
"I don't care for music."
She proceeded to get on with her meal while I sat, fork in hand, in a state of disbelief. I made eye contact with the woman directly across from me, who had also heard the comment, and whose mouth was slightly open as she raised her eyebrows to signal me.
I don't care for music.
I am quite sure this was the first time in my life I had ever heard anyone say this, and she had said it as though she were expressing the most trivial of preferences.
"I don't care for cauliflower."
"I don't care for needlepoint."
"I don't care for music."
We stayed at the restaurant for a couple of hours -- eating, drinking wine, and assuaging our writers' anxiety with ceaseless chatter about everything from manuscript submission to what our spouses did for a living. When the meal was over, I was in the peculiar position of having to find my way home. The others were staying in a dormitory within walking distance of the restaurant, but I had decided to stay in a hotel about four miles away. I asked the waiter to call a taxi for me.
This was a small town with few taxis. It was a weeknight, though, so I didn't have to wait too long. After about fifteen minutes, a dirty, somewhat beaten up car with a "taxi" sign on it pulled up at the curb in front of the restaurant. A man sat in the passenger seat. He and the driver were smoking cigarettes, and the car smelled like an ashtray that hadn't been emptied for a month. The taxi sputtered rudely when I closed the door and announced my destination, and the driver and his friend puffed away furiously without a word.
The guys in the front seat were in their mid- to late twenties. They were both wearing jeans and old t-shirts that hung over beer-fed abs, and they had unkempt hair and three-day stubbles. Neither of them had a neck.
I had arrived in town the night before and had travel fatigue. I had also drunk too much wine, and the cigarette smoke was making me feel even woozier. I didn't think it would be a long ride, and my only objective was just to get out of my smoke-filled prison and climb into my king-size bed.
"How you doing?" I asked the two men in front of me, as much to entertain myself as to be polite.
"Awwright," the driver answered, then turned on the car radio to what had to be the only heavy metal station in a two-hundred mile radius. The radio speaker behind me was a cheap one, and the music sounded as though it were being broadcast from a tunnel.
They lit fresh cigarettes, then launched into a conversation about the car's exhaust system, which the passenger had tried to repair. Then they picked up a woman who was on her way to work the late-night shift at K-Mart. It was after eleven, and the only people on the streets were late-shift employees on their way to work or night crawlers headed toward bars and doughnut shops.
The K-Mart woman sat with me in the back seat and didn't say a word. The front-seat passenger turned up the volume on the radio and smoked vigorously. The taxi radio crackled, and the dispatcher directed the driver to pick someone up at the local Shoney's. We rode out of our way to make this stop, but there was no one there waiting for a cab, so we went back to the main highway.
After we dropped the other passenger off at K-Mart, we rode along the highway in silence. I was feeling kind of floaty, cruising around a small town late at night, my head full of anxiety, smoke, wine, and the knowledge that at I had just met a declared member of the arts community who felt no connection to the art form that got most of us through life.
Then I realized that I was swaying. I didn't know how long I had been swaying, but my shoulders were moving rhythmically from left to right and my fingers were extended toward the seats in front of me. The guys in front were swaying, too, and the one in the passenger seat was nodding his head.
Then it hit me -- Ozzy Osbourne's voice was seeping out of the bad speakers. I was singing with him, quietly, but with pleasure.
Your momma told you that you're not supposed to talk to strangers…
We swayed together, them in the front and me in the back.
I'd like to move on and make the most of the night…
We tapped on the dashboard and the door handle.
No! More! Tears!
On we went, past gas stations, discount stores and motels. The smoke was no longer bothering me, and a sudden burst of energy propelled me through the night as the driver cranked up the volume even more and moved us along the neon-splotched highway.
"Mind if we stop so I can go to the bathroom?" he asked me.
"Go ahead," I told him, and he pulled into the parking lot of an all-night grill. I watched him slap along in baggy jeans, then disappear into the diner.
Ozzy had stopped singing. The man in the passenger seat turned around and looked at me for the first time.
"You want to hear something really weird?" he asked me.
"I got this cousin who's never heard of Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne. I don’t' mean he doesn't like 'em, I mean he's never heard of 'em! Have you ever heard anything like that before in your life?"
Oh, yes, I wanted to tell him. I have most certainly heard of something like that.
But I didn't. I just shook my head and said "Wow. That is weird."
"Tell me," he mumbled, and turned back around in his seat.
The driver came back about then, and a few moments later, we dropped off his friend, who worked the night shift at Kroeger's. The next stop was my hotel, and by the time we got there, my fatigue had returned. I paid the driver and -- reeking of cigarette smoke -- entered my room and fell onto my bed in exhausted relief. I had talked to strangers. I had made the most of the night.
©2003 by Diane E. Dees