Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Constance Squires’s novel Live from Medicine Park. It’s the follow-up to 2012’s Along the Watchtower, and focuses on a documentary filmmaker’s unexpected encounter with a rock musician making a comeback after a long absence from the scene.
THE SILVER SUN HOTEL
Medicine Park, Oklahoma
May 18, 2000
Maybe if Ray Wheeler were the kind of filmmaker to make big-budget sci-fi flicks instead of documentaries on a shoestring, he’d be rolling into Oklahoma to tell some high-concept escape story. Futuristic Oklahoma would be a deceptively idyllic penal farm where they’d send Texans for reconditioning. Screw-up Texans, like himself, would shuffle across a green lawn in hospital gowns and think on their sins. The scenario didn’t seem too far off the mark as he pulled out his camera and started shooting. A narrow main street and the sun-dappled creek that ran alongside it came into view. As he imagined the hero of his sci-fi plot making a run for it across the two-lane blacktop, a sun-faded billboardtoo big for the weed-choked side of road where it stood announced Medicine Park, Oklahoma, as the “Home of Rock Legend Lena Wells!”
Ah, Lena Wells. His real main character. As Ray and his producer,
Martin Parker, passed the sign, the subject of their upcoming documentary stared at them from under a curtain of long, black hair, hands in the pockets of her buckskin hip huggers. It was an old picture, as of course it would have to be. She hadn’t made an album since the end of the seventies.
“That’s overstating it a bit,” Ray said, nodding at the sign. “Legend.”
“You think a lot of famous people come from here?” Martin replied, steering Ray’s Jeep around a narrow turn. “We’re proud of her.”
Ray kept quiet. He didn’t give a damn about Lena Wells, but it didn’t matter. Love your subject. That had been one of his mantras in the classroom, and Martin, who had been his student before he became his producer on this project, was quick to remind him of it. Ray let the camera follow a red cobblestone promenade that ran along the water until it found a white metal bridge and a low waterfall with a strip of flat stones across the top where water streamed smooth as glass. Close to the banks, a line of tall, old catalpas stood like upright citizens dipping their bare toes in the healing water. The water must heal, or be rumored to heal, if the names on the map meant anything.
Medicine Creek. Medicine Park.
He was ready for some healing. Dunking or chanting, bloodletting or snake handling, he didn’t much care. He would gladly suspend disbelief for anything that promised to save his soul, shape him up, and set him back on his feet. Even if it kicked his ass. Even if it hurt a little bit. It was the new millennium after all. Time to start again.
Ray pointed at the name of the town in metal letters on a yellow-brick post office. Medicine Park sounded like a spot for druggies to meet and exchange soggy wads of bills for plastic baggies full of illegal what-have-you, but he knew that wasn’t the right picture. “What kind of medicine?”
“The good kind,” Martin said. He was from here, Comanche County, Oklahoma, and he knew all about the place.
“Do you think it will work for me?” Ray asked.
“No way.” Martin laughed. “You’re a hopeless case.”
On the edge of the water, its cylindrical roof curving down to the red dirt, sat a large Quonset building that Ray guessed was to be the site of the free Lena Wells concert—she was calling it the Medicine Ball—which they would be filming in five days. The only hint of the upcoming show was the presence of a few tents pitched near the building’s front doors and a banner strung between the tents with Lena’s name block-lettered in purple magic marker. A thin man loped around the impromptu campsite wearing what appeared to be head-to-toe silver lam., with headgear like the rings of Saturn bobbing around his ears. The early arrival of fans was a good sign. Maybe people remembered Lena Wells, enough, at least, to generate some interest in the documentary. Maybe by the time the concert started there’d be a line of fans snaking halfway to the highway. It didn’t hurt to hope. She had been pretty big for a little while. “I was thinking about the night she tanked on the Tonight Show,” Ray said. “I saw that.”
“Dude! No wonder you don’t like her.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I felt sorry for her. She was so wasted. I was watching with my mom and dad expecting, you know, Phyllis Diller or Richard Pryor. Some antic banter.” Ray slid his camera back into its case as they pulled into a gravel parking lot where a couple of cars and two white catering vans sat partially obscured by a stand of cottonwoods.
The Silver Sun Hotel, home of Lena Wells, emerged from behind waving tree limbs.
“Looks just like it did on the cover of Keep Your Powder Dry,” Martin said. The white frame building was three stories high, girdled by a covered veranda as wide as a highway lane, its columns peculiarly made from stacks of round, red stones shaped like cannonballs. Lavender-and orange-stained glass panels in a starburst pattern filled the center of heavy doors at the top of the veranda stairs. “It used to be a resort hotel,” Martin continued. “Bootleggers hung out here in the thirties. Bonnie and Clyde, too. Lena bought and refurbished it in like 1980. Maybe ’79.”
Nobody answered the door when they rang the bell. They stood around and pressed the buzzer again and again. Gusts of hot wind came along every few seconds and dried their sweat.
“They know we’re coming, right?” Ray walked to a window and tried to peer in. Wood blinds on the inside blocked the view.
Finally the door was opened by a small man with slicked-back blond hair dressed in a white catering smock. “The party begins at 7:00,” he said.
“We’re the film guys,” Ray said.
“I don’t know a thing about that,” the man said. “I’m setting up for the party.”
“Couldn’t you let us in?”
“I don’t think so. What if you’re bad guys?”
“Like thieves or something. Robbers.”
Ray turned to Martin. “Are you a bad guy?”
Martin tipped his hat back and scratched his hairline. “Isn’t anybody else here?”
“We did say 3:00, right?” Ray looked around. Lena’s son, Gram Wells, and his wife lived on the premises, at least Gram had said so.
Where were they? Ray was taking out his cell phone to call Gram when they heard the loud rumble of a motorcycle engine and gravel churning.
They turned around to see a big man ride into the parking lot on an old blue BMW motorcycle with a sidecar. He pulled right up to the stairs and swung off the bike, dropping the kickstand and hanging his helmet over a handle bar.
Obviously relieved, the caterer waved at the guy with the motorcycle and disappeared into the house, leaving the front door open.
“Hi there.” The motorcyclist climbed the stairs and offered his hand to Ray. He was every bit of six foot five, with oily braids and a long beard streaked with gray. “I’m Cy.”
Ray couldn’t visualize the spelling of his name. He only heard him say “sigh” and thought how poorly the wistfulness and resignation, the oh-mercy-me quality of the word fit the man. Sigh. “Hey there, Sigh. I’m Ray Wheeler, this is Martin Parker.”
Cy pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head to reveal white-blue eyes like a husky’s in a sun-darkened face. “I figured.”
Cy swung open the stained-glass doors and waved the two visitors into an open room. The Great Room, Cy called it. Gleaming pinewood planks reached sixty or seventy feet to the back windows, where sunlight poured in. Fireplaces big enough to park motorcycles inside, made of those same red cannonball-like rocks and ringed by leather furniture, faced one another from the side walls. From the back wall protruded a short stage covered with overlapping Persian rugs and rigged out with amps, microphones, a black Steinway piano with a red fiberglass tambourine discarded on its top, and a grouping of guitars.
“Looks like rehearsals are underway,” Ray said.
“Yeah. Wonder who plays that Hofner.” Martin nodded at a green electric bass leaning against the back wall.
When Cy shut the front door behind them, Ray’s eyes focused on white, twinkling strings of Christmas lights hung in long, horizontal rows across the ceiling. The main light in the room, though, came from an enormous chandelier made of elk antlers hanging from the middle of the low, wood-beamed ceiling, and a row of track lights trained on the stage. Several gold records, framed and hung along the back wall, grabbed the light and threw it back into the room. A drafting table lamp beamed over a mixing board set up at the old marble-topped reception desk to their right, where decades ago guests would have picked up their room keys. Good light was satisfying, like when a car starts right up on a cold day. He could film here with little-to-no additional lighting.
Who was this big guy? Lena’s husband? Boyfriend? Brother? Manager?
He felt right at home, that was sure. Whoever he was, the big man felt no need to explain. He gave Ray and Martin a broad smile, his white-blue eyes relaxed and merry. “Let me show you to your rooms.”
They picked up their suitcases and followed him. On the back of Cy’s leather riding vest a patch said Red Dirt Sober Bikers, and stitched across the bottom half of his jacket with purple thread were the words:
Heavy heavy blues
As my feathers are light
Midnight of the morning
Of American night
Ray remarked, “I know those words.”
“Of course you do,” Martin said, sounding embarrassed.
“‘Trip the Wind,’” Cy said, without turning around.
Lena Wells only had four or five hit songs, and this was one of them.
Once Cy said the title, Ray conjured Lena’s throaty alto laying down the words against a sidewinding guitar riff that invoked the smell of roasting meat at a barbecue joint in El Paso where he had worked his first summer job. The owner had played “Trip the Wind” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” twenty times a day on the jukebox while
Ray stoked an old black smoker in an unair-conditioned kitchen. He couldn’t remember whether he had ever liked the songs. Maybe he had, but now they were too tied up with sense memories of raw flesh and flies for him to feel anything but distaste when he heard them. “One of her best,” he said.
As they crossed the wide room, several people dressed in cooking whites came out of what he guessed was the kitchen, heading for the back door, carrying stainless-steel steam pans. “What’s with the caterers?” Ray asked.
“For the party,” Cy said.
“I hope we haven’t come at a bad time.”
Cy looked over his shoulder at him. “Didn’t anybody tell you? Lena’s throwing you a party tonight.”
Behind him, Ray heard Martin clear his throat. “Sorry, Ray, I forgot to mention it.”
“Hey, that’s real nice,” Ray said. He hated parties.
“You’ll be staying on the third floor,” Cy said. As he led the way, Ray and Martin followed him up the worn oak stairs, slick in the middle from use.
“What’s on the second floor?” Ray asked as they passed the landing.
“Lena,” Cy threw back, not turning around. Ray looked left and saw only closed doorways down a hallway dimly lit with amber sconces.
They took the next flight, and on the third floor, Cy drew two old-fashioned keys from a keychain on his belt and unlocked a door. “This is yours,” he said, nodding at Ray. “You’re across the hall,” he told Martin.
“It’s not the Hilton, but you know, it’s quaint and all, and we’re putting you right here on the premises like you asked.” He pointed down the hall at a brass-lined dumbwaiter. “Ring the bell and use the pulley, and Edith will help you out if she’s in the kitchen—she’s the housekeeper and she’s here till two or three. Send down a note. I wouldn’t ask her for a five-course meal or nothing, but if you need a Coke from the fridge, she’ll do it.”
Ray stepped into his room. A double bed covered in a peach-colored chenille bedspread took up most of the space. Mission-style furniture crowded the room: a nightstand, a marble-topped bureau, and, over by the window, a table, with two straight-back chairs tucked under it, with a black-and-orange Navajo rug underneath. In the corner, a TV with a DVD player sat on a small stand. The room smelled green and damp in a bacterial way that the sharp chill from the humming window unit suppressed but didn’t hide.
“See you at the party,” Martin called from across the hall as the door to his room slammed shut.
Ray stretched out across the bed and kicked off his boots, staring at the deep trowel marks in the stucco ceiling and walls. An enlarged sepia photograph of a leathery-faced American Indian leaning on his rifle, hair hacked off at his chin, hung next to the bathroom. Geronimo.
Lena had always claimed to be a descendant of the old warrior, but Ray assumed it was a tall tale. The photograph on the wall was one he had seen dozens of times; it seemed like every gas station west of New Orleans had a rack of vintage Wild West postcards, and this particular shot of Geronimo was usually among them. He got up and unpacked a stack of rock documentary DVDs he hoped would enthuse him about this new project.
He was uninspired so far—embarrassed to find himself on the rockumentary bandwagon, which was lumbering forward like a glittery parade float now that the year 2000 had arrived. Psychically, the start of the new millennium had left him in a crater the size of his life when it hit, but everything still looked the same, same grubby, uneven world, and as far as he could see, the millennium mark was nothing more than an occasion to rehash the past, rockumentaries being only one symptom of this tendency. For an art form dedicated to the new and the now, rock and roll leaned hard toward nostalgia. It worked on canonization as it went. And now he would be part of the narrative-forming machine, arguing for Lena Wells’s place in the big rock story. Why she was important, why we must not forget the vital contribution of Lena Wells. Rockumentaries. What a downer. If he were going to choose a rock musician from the seventies to profile, it would be somebody underground, not Lena Wells, an artist whose big-stadium shows and fringe-wearing, baroque style were exactly the sort of thing that had sent him and so many other people screaming into the arms of punk rock.
There was a knock at his door. He opened it to find a blond woman with long, wavy hair like she had just taken out braids. She wore cargo shorts and a green-and-white striped T-shirt, and was keyed up, her tan knees rocking back and forth like a kid who needs a bathroom. “Hi!”
She flashed a smile. “Are you lactose intolerant?”
She walked into the room, scratching her elbow. “I’m Jettie Waycross.
Ray stood back and let her pass. “I thought he was married?”
“Well, wife then. That just sounds so—I don’t know. Wife.”
Ray laughed. “I take it the marriage is new?”
“Just a few months. I’m mostly used to women, so the whole thing’s a trip. But fun!”
Full of energy and powerfully built, she was the kind of woman you find on cheerleading squads at the base of the pyramid in half-time shows. Strong thighs, dark tan, liquid brown eyes. The sun damage made it hard to guess her age—she had crow’s feet and smile lines but might have still been in her twenties. Had she just said she generally preferred women? He thought so.
She continued, “So you’re not a vegetarian are you?”
Ray remembered a brief meatless stint in his thirties that had quickly devolved into a diet of potato chips and cheese pizza. It hadn’t lasted. “No.”
“Any food allergies, anything we should know about?”
“I can eat anything. You might ask Martin, across the hall.” Ray wondered what she would have done if he had said yes to any of her questions. He could smell the food for the party from there on the third floor. It smelled ready to serve.
“They should have asked you before now, they’re just so”—her hands flew open like she was tossing confetti—“laid back around here. This party? Oh my god, so far out of their comfort zone. Never mind the concert.”
“You’re in the Black Sheep, right? Martin, the guy across the hall, saw you play in Austin. You rocked his face off. You particularly.”
“I play bass and sing.” She beamed. She had the kind of fair eyelashes that were only visible when they caught the light, and her left eyebrow had a blank space like it had been bisected by the world’s tiniest lawnmower.
“I write the songs, too. I—”
His cell phone rang in his pocket. “Excuse me,” he said, glancing at the caller ID on his phone. It was his ex-girlfriend. Now his attorney.
He sat on the edge of the bed and answered. “Lauren. How are things in Austin?”
“Are you there yet?”
“Just got here.”
“What’s she like?”
He glanced up at Jettie, who stood next to the open door bouncing one knee, the back of her flip-flop snapping against the wood floor.
“Lena Wells? Haven’t met her yet.”
“I just love her.”
“That’s why we broke up.”
Lauren laughed. “Keep telling yourself that.” In fact they had broken up when Lauren got involved with another attorney, whom she called a “grown-up” after trying for a few good years to make Ray quit making high-minded films that made no money. She had needed a more practical man, a materialist like herself. What could he do about a thing like that?
“I assume you have news,” Ray said. The room was freezing and he could see goose bumps raised on Jettie’s toned arms. He wished she’d leave, but she flashed him another wide-open grin when he locked eyes with her, so he stepped into the tiny bathroom for privacy, sitting down on the sliding lid of the toilet seat.
“Chester Lord has offered you a settlement.”
“Aha! He’s come to his senses!” Ray pushed the bathroom door so that it was nearly shut. “What’s his offer?”
“He’ll drop his lawsuit if you’ll pay for his rehabilitation—”
“Sure!” Ray said. “The man needs his arm. I get it.”
“Well, his arm is useless. Rehabilitation won’t change much about that.” Ray imagined Lauren pacing behind her glass-topped desk, pulling at a gold hoop earring while she stared out the window at the old Spanish-style church across the parking lot from her office. Our lady of something or other. She explained, “I spoke with his physician who continues to insist that the bullet tore the muscles of his bicep too severely for him to work as a security guard again.”
“Maybe he could learn to shoot with his left hand?”
It sounded callous, and Ray didn’t feel callous, but he did feel angry.
And innocent. “I’m just saying—”
“You didn’t let me finish. The other part of the settlement would require you to pay for his daughter’s college education. All of it, all four years.”
“What?” Ray grabbed the hair at the top of his head. “That’s insane!”
“Apparently she’s a smart kid. She’s gotten into Rice, but they can’t afford it.”
Ray laughed. “I can’t pay for that.”
“I think you should give it some serious thought, Ray.”
“Do you really? You’re supposed to be on my side.” He spun the roll of toilet paper and watched it unspool into a pile on the floor. “No way.
Tell him no way. Four years at Rice University? My god. I’ll never understand why he didn’t go after Johnny Reyes. He’s the one who shot him.”
“Johnny Reyes has no money. He’s a little thug. The shooting happened while you were filming. You’re a filmmaker.”
“A broke one.”
“Don’t I know it. But Chester Lord doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between documentary and feature filmmakers.”
“Any news on Johnny?”
“Stop worrying about him, Ray. He’s sitting in La Tuna serving his time, same as yesterday and a lot of days to come. Think about yourself.
You like the moral high ground. Pay for this kid’s college and I think you can start crawling back up to that rarefied air you like so well.”
“What do you mean—I like the moral high ground?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. She wasn’t going to answer. Finally, he said, “Forget it. It’s a terrible offer, Lauren.”
“That’s right, Ray. Keep doing things your way. Some day it just might work.”
He stared at the phone. A new lawyer, maybe? But Lauren gave him a good deal, the ex-sweetheart’s discount.
When he came out of the bathroom, Jettie asked, “What’s why you broke up?”
“So you weren’t listening at the door?”
“I mean, I didn’t have my ear to the door. I might’ve gotten pretty close, though.” She shrugged. “Couldn’t hear much.”
He laughed. “She’s my ex.”
“I could feel that. Who’s Johnny Reyes?”
Her eyes concentrating on Ray, Jettie walked back and began swinging on the front door handle, drifting in and out of the room like an oscillating fan while he told her how he was being sued in civil court by Chester Lord, a security guard at a pharmacy in Rio Marron, Texas.
Lord was shot by Johnny Reyes while Ray was filming a documentary called What’s in the Water? And Lord now had a withered right arm too weak to fire a weapon. Lord’s career, such as it was, was over, and he was looking to Ray for a payday. Upon hearing of the lawsuit, the university where Ray had taught classes for ten years without tenure “failed to renew” his contract.
“We were following him—Martin and I—with the camera running.
Johnny’s this charismatic little tweaker. I’d decided he was the face of Rio Marron’s type of drug crazy.”
“Your film was about drugs?” She swung into the room. “I got to say, old son, that sounds kind of done-to-death.”
He chuckled, surprised. “Not those kinds of drugs. Rio Marron is a town in West Texas where the city fathers decided back in 1962 to start putting lithium in the water supply.”
“Can they do that?”
“They were doing it.”
“But now the shooting—it wasn’t you who pulled the trigger, right?”
“Right.” He almost laid it all out for her, but he was afraid he might lose her apparent sympathy if they stayed on the subject too long. “I guess innocent is a relative term,” he said.
She reached up and patted him on the shoulder, giving him a warm smile. “Sorry, old son, I didn’t mean to get you upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
“You are, but anyway, I’m glad you’re here. Sounds like you shook up that little town. Maybe you’ll shake things up for us, too.”
“You say that like it would be a good thing.”
“I always like a little shake, rattle, and roll. See you downstairs after a while.” She stepped out into the hallway. Just as he was closing the door, she said, “Was that a no to the lactose intolerance?”
“Yes. I mean, that was a no.”
After she left, Ray tried to turn the air conditioner unit down but found the knob stuck in the high position. While he jiggled it, he sent something like a prayer out into the universe. To his surprise, the plea came in the form of lines from one of Lena Wells’s songs, one he had developed a grudging fondness for while listening to her CDs on the drive up from Austin, somewhere between Wichita Falls and Burkburnett.
It was called “Need”:
I’m a lone low gambler
Need a three-card miracle
I’d take a daybreak spiritual
I’d do a voodoo ritual
Done took the measure of you
I’ll take whatever you got.