Ridiculous Adventures with Rational Anthem: a short story

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I’ve spent the better part of 2012 (along with parts of 2011 and 2013) in intensive inpatient mental health treatment. I’m doing a lot better these days, but no one in the punk community suffered more through what I used to be like than the kids in Rational Anthem. One day, while on tour with the band, I behaved so bizarrely I knew even then that I should start writing it all down. This story has been sitting on my hard drive for four years.

For more on my relationship and ridiculous “adventures” with Rational Anthem, check out my interview with the band in the latest issue ofRazorcake. Hell, while you’re at it, and you’re not already, isn’t it about time to subscribe to the zine

Oklahoma City was cancelled. Amarillo never really got booked. Flagstaff wasn’t looking good.

We were in Kansas City and it looked liked our next show was twenty hours away in Tempe. Chris Mason said we could stay with him in Cruces on our way out if we wanted. We’d be playing a show there but not until we had hit California and were on the path back to Florida. It’d be a two-hour detour to hit it on our way to Tempe, but the idea was starting to seem a lot less terrible.

Our clocks were all set to different time zones, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was 7 AM when we all regained consciousness somewhere in NewMexico. Noelle had been driving all night. She wasn’t happy. She pulled into a gas station to fill up.

“How much?” Noelle asked me, the designated tour accountant. 

“Let’s do forty dollars, but not here.” I pulled out the GPS. “There’s a Citgo half a mile away.”

 

Noelle was not having it. She was aggravated and I wasn’t helping. We were at a gas station and she wanted gas.

“Listen,” I tried to tell her, “it’s near a bunch of other stuff and we need to go get food anyway. Besides, it’s early and Mason is probably working all day. We don’t really need to get to Cruces for twelve hours so we’ve got time to kill.”

Every ideal I had once clung to had fallen to the wayside. I needed to hold on to something and, in the moment, not buying gas from Exxon-Mobil seemed like the way to go. Everyone else thought it was reasonable so Noelle reluctantly pulled away from the pump and back into traffic. Things were about to get bad. Noelle can hide anger. But—eventually—she explodes.

She pulled into a McDonald’s and we scurried inside with our toothbrushes and whatever else. I needed to charge my phone to call Mason later in the day. I hadn’t actually told him yet that we were coming. I figured I’d get at him midday and see if the offer still stood. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, sat alone at a table near an outlet, and ate a hash brown slowly as I sucked up electricity. I slipped outside to find someone to watch my phone while I smoked my first cigarette of the day. Dave and Chris Spillane were already smoking, so I turned to Chris Hembrough and Noelle who were sitting in the van.

They both said they were too tired to cooperate even if it meant we wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep that night. Eventually though, Noelle relented and went inside—furiously. When I relieved her of phone-watching duty she rejoined Hembrough in the van with a huff.

I wasn’t particularly excited myself. Not buying gas from an exploitative company or sitting by the phone for five minutes so I could have a cigarette—I didn’t feel that these were outrageous requests. Plus, there was still Indianapolis. I wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but if Noelle and Hembrough were going to throw a fit about this kind of trivial shit, maybe I should still be a little upset with them for standing by while drunk kids fucked up my shit as I attempted to sleep as best as possible for someone who had been coughing up blood.

I grabbed the phone and came back out to the van to find that the driver’s seat was the only one unoccupied. I sat down in it, feeling worn out and unappreciated. I had booked the whole tour and I wasn’t even in the band. Booking a sixty-day tour for a band that no one’s ever heard of isn’t easy. It took me hundreds of hours over the span of five months. I sat in the seat not wanting to turn the key. Ten minutes passed. Noelle and Hembrough had fallen asleep. Dave and Spillane flipped through zines or sat quietly not knowing what to say.

 

What I did next probably seems fucked up. What I did next was fucked up, but Hembrough and Noelle had thrown temper tantrums over the watch-the-phone request and I was angry. I was sort of hurt. In addition to booking this thing, in the months leading up to the tour, I had put out five records for this band: three split 7”s, a live cassette, and a reissue of their first CDEP. I had even recruited Spillane and Dave to play bass and rhythm guitar for the band after other members quit. I even made sure they practiced with the band regularly enough to get the songs down in time for tour. And after all of my time, money, and energy… sitting by a phone for the time it took me to smoke a cigarette was too much to ask? The last thing I wanted to do was drive these now-sleeping crybabies to a nice air-conditioned space—a space that I had arranged for them.

I looked to Dave and Spillane. “You guys want to go for a walk?”

We were in the middle of a desert in some small town. Who knew if there was anything worth seeing, but who knew that there wasn’t? We were only four hours from Las Cruces and I didn’t think we should really arrive for another ten.

I don’t know if their logic was the same as mine, but they were up for it. They were usually up for anything. Noelle and Hembrough may have been the talent in that van, but Spillane, Dave, and I were the fun. A walk in the desert was an adventure—one I knew they’d be down for and one that Noelle or Hembrough would never be interested in anyway.

We opened our doors and were about to step out when I paused.

“Hold on one second, guys.” I started the van and moved it about ten feet forward. 

Out of the shade of a tree and into the sun.

We got out and their puzzled expressions turned to smiles, seeing what I had done. I smiled back and clipped the van keys to my belt loop. Dave looked at me a little nervously. I was asking for serious trouble.

“Hey, they said they didn’t care if they had a place to stay or not. Well this shade’s gonna disappear anyway as soon as the sun gets a little higher. Let’s see if they really don’t mind hanging in the van all day in the desert with no place to go. Besides, as soon as the heat wakes them up they can go back inside McDonald’s, get a drink, set up their laptops, and fucking download movies to their hearts’ content. That’s all they ever seem to want to do anyway.”

I hit the lock button. We all knew what this meant. When they dideventually wake up, my locking of the doors from outside the van would ensure that the alarm would start blaring. And without the keys, they’d have no way to turn it off.

Spillane laughed off a little nervous energy. Dave gave his patented tight-lipped I’m not sayin’ nothin’ smile.

“We can’t leave the keys. They might just take off and go. As for the lock, I want them to be safe.” I was enjoying this, but I second-guessed myself.

“I don’t know,” I mulled aloud, “Is this too much? If you tell me not to, I won’t. I say we take the keys, but if either of you want to stand up and say, ‘No, leave them here. That’s fucked up,’ then that’s what I’ll do.”

More shrugs. More nervous smiles.

“Fuck it—let’s move.”

 

As we approached the road, we surveyed our options. In one direction, the main drag connected back to the highway. Beyond that, it seemed like miles of nothing. In the other, the road curved around a bend—probably to a town a few miles away where strip malls would appear if we walked for long enough, we conjectured. But if we crossed the road, straight ahead, there was a dirt road that—if nothing else—had a few fucked up looking old houses and barns. And so we went straight ahead.
 
Half-pleased with ourselves, half-frightened of their reactions when we returned, we joked about how the day would play out. It wasn’t long before I realized just how badly this could all go. I took the keys from my belt loop and clipped them to Spillane’s.

“Hey, you guys were full accomplices in this. You knew what was going on and you did nothing to stop it. And it’s better the keys are on you than me. They were already mad at me. We don’t need to focus their rage on me any more than it has to be. Let’s spread it out a little. Dilute it. Otherwise, Noelle just might fucking kill me. You know she’s capable of it.”

We came up on a cemetery. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but more than we anticipated. We walked through the gate and started looking around. A few rows in we found a grave covered in toys. The tombstone read “09/23/05 to 09/24/05.” The kid had only lived for one day. These were toys he never even played with. The parents must have bought them in anticipation of his birth and then set them here. Or, even worse, maybe they were bought just for the purpose of decorating the grave. And there were more. We realized that all of the graves in this row—and one other—were the graves of kids who only lived a day or two. And most of them were decorated with toys of some kind. In many cases, they were the kinds of toys you wouldn’t even give to a kid until he was a few years old. It was weird, but it was even weirder when Dave turned around and saw something that we had somehow managed to miss. It was a ten-foot iron arch and it read across the top, “BABYLAND.” Not “Children’s MemorialCemetery” or “Infant Resting Place.” This was “BABYLAND.”

After exploring the rest of the cemetery, wondering why graves had concrete slabs over them and iron gates around them (coyotes?) and Dave’s realization that the holes covering the ground were probably those of rattlesnakes, we walked back up to the road. We could have killed some more time there, but Dave was not interested in seeing any snakes. I guess it’s his one big fear and it didn’t help that he was wearing shorts.

Now, the question was whether to trek back to the van or move forward. At this point, had we not stumbled upon BabyLand, I probably would have returned. None of us had watches, but it had probably been an hour. Besides, it was a hundred degrees out and we hadn’t thought to bring water. Still, BabyLand gave me hope. There was more to be seen. We walked on.

We quickly reached the end of the road. No path forward. Only left, right, and the way we came. There was a sign for a park. “Seven miles,” it said. We summoned our math skills.

“If we walk five miles an hour, it won’t even take us an hour and a half to get there.”

That seemed sound enough. What none of us realized was that our pace was not five miles per hour. Another thing we didn’t realize was that there was no park seven miles down the road. We were already in the park—it just stretched out for the next seven miles. Looking back on it, that was one dull fucking park. It was a dirt road that crossed through absolutely nothing. To be fair, we did see a couple of really weird-looking rabbits. Dave says they were jackrabbits. That works.

I don’t know long it took us before we started to realize just how bad of an idea this was. Initially, Spillane and I had taken off our shirts—thinking that we might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get a tan. I put my shirt back on after what I figured must have been an hour so that my tan wouldn’t wind up a sunburn. Nothing could stop the sun from cooking the back of my neck. I tried to pull my shirt up or clasp my hands over it for cover, but the damage was already done and it was throbbing.

You know the part in the horror movie when one of the characters does something incredibly stupid and you scoff like, “No one would ever do that in real life”?

I thought back to the moment when I stepped out of the van—before we embarked on our mysterious desert quest without water. I also thought back to the moment when I picked up my phone but didn’t put it in my pocket. Instead, I held it in my hand and stared at it for a second.

“They can’t get mad at me for not answering my phone if I don’t have my phone,” I had thought. And I set it down.

Can I get a standing ovation please?

As we trudged along through what could have easily been the set of “The Hills Have Eyes”—or the setting of our untimely deaths at the hands of some desert hicks who mistook us for “faggots,” kicking the shit out of us and leaving us to rot in the sun out of sight in a ditch—we found humor in our predicament.

We also found humor in it when we finally came to a paved road and realized that there was no park. We had really been looking forward to a water fountain. If any of us had brought a phone, we could have called Hembrough and Noelle, told them the cross streets, and they could have punched it into the GPS and came to get us.

But we didn’t. So we had an important decision to make. Do we go up the paved road in the general direction from which we came, in hopes that it connects to the main drag somewhere near that McDonald’s or do we go back the way we came?

Spillane and Dave were done with adventure. They wanted to go back the way we came even though that meant that it would take us just as fucking long to get back as it had taken us to get where we were. I couldn’t handle that so I said I was gonna go with the paved road. Maybe we’d see something else worth seeing and what was the worst that could happen?

Won over, we all set off in our new direction, hiking up the hill as the road climbed. When we got to the top, we discovered that we would not be connecting to the main drag anywhere fucking near our starting point.

Hitch hiking was one option. The cars were few and far between but not allthat few and far between. But since we couldn’t envision, for the life of us, the sort of person who would pick up three kids that looked like us, we ruled it out. I was already eyeing the desert when Spillane said it.

“Do you wanna cut through?” The most direct path was through the desert. The actual desert. No roads, no paths—just desert. The more we talked about it, the more I was sure that it was the only choice we had. We had to pull Dave by the ear a little bit—you know—on account of the rattlesnakes, but as soon as the car down the road passed us and faded a bit, we were hoisting each other up over the barbed wire fence.

We learned something about cacti once we hit the ground and set off. They don’t just come in the big, two-armed variety. Most of them are small—and they cover the desert floor. Every step we took was a maneuver. If you looked up for even a second your foot was magnetically drawn to a cactus. The first one was the worst. It went straight up through my shoe and about half an inch into my foot. It hurt and I complained, but after a while it just became routine. Whether you were watching or not, you were going to step on some because a lot of them were practically indiscernible from the other desert weeds strewn across the sun-cracked earth. If you stepped on a cactus somebody else would come over so that you could hold their shoulder for balance as you pulled the needles out of your foot. And then you’d walk on to evade more cacti and just as many snake holes. Dave was thrilled.

About ten barbed wire fences, lots of cactus needles, and (what I think was) two hours later, the golden arches were not only in sight but almost upon us. As we crept through the last stretch of desert, the reality of what we were about to face started to sink in. We began to talk for the first time since the dust of the desert had left our throats too scratchy and dry to communicate anything other than “uggh—cactus.”

“How mad could they really be?” we wondered to each other. It was all in how they perceived it—and how long it had taken for them to wake up in the oven that was our van. If they woke up right after we left, that meant they’d been sitting around for at least four hours, with no idea where we are, no way to get in touch with us, and no way to go anywhere. Still, what could they assume other than, “They’ve gone on a walk and will be back at some point.” If we could present it like we were the victims—lost in the desert—maybe it’d be okay. We had already long ago decided that, should they realize we had moved the van into the sun, we’d play it off like we moved the van because we were going to drive somewhere, but then decided to just go for a walk instead (and that it had never occurred to us that, in the process, the van had been moved from shade to sun). They’d buy that, right?

Dave and Spillane seemed to think so. I was still uneasy. The tour didn’t need to end over this and Hembrough had a penchant for threatening to “buy a bus ticket.” Could this be the time that he’d really do it? He and Noelle didn’t enjoy touring as much as the three of us. Maybe this was it.

For damage control, we agreed that we’d all take responsibility. After all, it may have been my scheme, but the two of them had gone along with it every step of the way. I may have been more guilty, but they were far from innocent. If we wanted the tour to continue, Noelle and Hembrough couldn’t perceive this as being all my fault. Dave and Spillane would have to do some of the talking. It felt good to have them on my side.

We made it through the last of the barbed wire fences, hopped a ditch, and made our way up the little hill to the road. We decided that we’d sneak around to the entrance on the side of the restaurant opposite the van so that we could at least go in and get some water before we had to have the big showdown.

No. Such. Luck.

Noelle came storming out of the restaurant with Hembrough behind her.

“Where the fuck have you guys been?” she screamed at us. I had never seen her this angry.

I couldn’t be the first to respond. I looked to Spillane and Dave.

“We went for a walk,” Spillane said nonchalantly. Noelle was not contented.

“It was fucked up. We went too far down some road and then tried to get back by crossing through the desert, but we got turned around somehow and lost,” I stammered with a kind of disoriented feverishness that was at least three-quarters faked. 

“It was seriously fucked up,” I sputtered on. “We’ve been walking the whole time. We didn’t have any intention of being gone this long.”

“Where the fuck are the keys to the van? Why did you take the fucking keys?” She looked like she was ready to punch me out. I quickly grabbed the keys from Spillane’s belt loop and handed them to her. She was still furious, but we had rehearsed for this. I looked to Dave.

“We didn’t realize we had the keys until after we had already gone pretty far,” he explained.

“Yeah, and we would have called but we forgot the phone. Although it probably would have died on us before then anyway,” I added. Noelle stormed off.

Hembrough walked closer and shook his head. Not at us, but at me. He looked me dead on.

“You’re seriously fucked up, you know that?”

I reapplied my confused/concerned expression to the front of my head. “Dude, I don’t know why this is all on me and—in any case—what’s the big deal? We don’t have anywhere to be. We didn’t mean to be gone that long. We thought you guys would just sleep until we got back.” 

I desperately tried to reason in my why-are-you-mad, it-was-all-an-accident voice, but Hembrough wasn’t buying it and he walked away.

After trading wide-eyed, “shit’s fucked” expressions, we slunk inside and got cups for water. We filled up and went to the other side of the building to smoke and strategize.

“I knew it’d be bad, man. What’d I tell you guys?”

“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t see why they’re so upset. It’s not that big of a deal. Like we said, we don’t have anywhere to be,” Spillane said.

“I didn’t think it’d be this bad either, but we were gone for a really long time,” Dave responded.

“But considering the circumstances it wasn’t really our fault.” I was employing the method-style of acting; I couldn’t break character. If we were going to succeed here, we had to hook-line-and-sinker buy into the version of the story as we retold it.

“We didn’t mean to leave the phone or bring the keys and we didn’t want to be walking around the desert for that long,” I continued. That much was half-true. I could have happily finished that walk hours earlier.

Spillane and I were on the same page. Dave was sympathetic to the other kids though. Sometimes I kind of hate that about him—the way he insists on seeing both sides of every coin. I like to establish a truth based on the evidence and insist upon it until everyone is pretty much forced to choke on that “truth.” Spillane is the same way, but slightly less so because he’s not quite as full of shit as I am. Dave, on the other hand—even when he’s on your side—will always be understanding of the person on the other end. Even in an instance where I’m not full of shit and relying on make-believe evidence (an instance where the other person has no legitimate reason to believe the thing that he or she does) Dave is still sympathetic to that. It’s a good trait for a person to have and I’m sure it’ll make him a more successful human being than I’ll ever be, but it’s still annoying as fuck.Validate my bullshit, goddammit! Stop being reasonable.

More damage control was still in order. We already pitched our story about going on a walk innocently enough because we had so much time to kill. But, truthfully, the last time we talked about the game plan for the day as a group, I had never mentioned that I didn’t want to call Mason until later in the evening (after he’d have gotten off of work). For all Noelle and Hembrough knew, we should have started back on the road to Las Cruces as soon as we took the phone from the charger. This would have to be made clearer, to Noelle especially, if we wanted to keep the tour from falling apart. I went back inside to refill my drink and talk to Noelle. Dave and Spillane went and sat near Hembrough on the curb near the van.

Inside, I had some success bringing Noelle around. She was still mad, but if we were really lost and hadn’t meant to fuck up in so many ways, how mad could she really be? I headed outside and sat near the curb as well. I pulled out some baby wipes and the three of us started to clean off all of the thick orange dust that had accumulated across our bodies. We talked shit casually about what were already developing into pretty fucked up sunburns. And we did so in such a way as to communicate to Hembrough that (a) we did not have fun, (b) regretted ever walking anywhere, and (c)hey, don’t be mad at us ‘cause we’re dipshits, let’s be friends again. I didn’t realize at the time that just because they were all sitting together, did not mean that Hembrough had spoken a single word to either of them. He hadn’t. I tried to speak directly to him and he told me, in so many words, that he was not in the mood to have a conversation with me.

Noelle came back out and I took advantage of the bit of leeway I had made inside to try and change the subject a little bit and return the world to its normal state.

“Oh, shit, Noelle—you should have seen this fucking place we found,” telling her about BabyLand. “It was ten kinds of fucked up. We’ll fucking drive down there when we leave so you can check it out.” Dave and Spillane picked up on the vibe and continued to tell her about BabyLand as well as the jackrabbits. We all tried to address some of our comments to Hembrough to see if we could get a smile out of him, but he kept his gaze straight and refused to meet any of our eyes.

Noelle and Spillane went inside to get food or use the bathroom, leaving Hembrough, Dave, and I outside. I tried to start in on Hembrough again with the story and “I’m sorry” and “it was all just one big fuck up.” Nothing was getting through. He brought up the van being moved into the sun. Dave jumped in with the story we had concocted about starting to drive somewhere and changing our minds.

“Okay,” Hembrough responded, “except that I heard Sam talking about moving the van on purpose so that we’d be in the sun.” I clenched my mouth not knowing whether I should smile or throw in the towel and just walk away. Dave is one of the most honest people I know, but—in this situation—he knew that the truth was only going to fuck things up worse than they were. He had told my lie and gotten busted at point blank range.

If Noelle knows about this,” I thought, “then I don’t even know how to react.” It would change the meaning of every interaction we had had since the initial ambush when we first walked up. I wanted to ask if Noelle knew that he had heard me say that, but I couldn’t admit to it full force yet. I had to find another way to ask.

“Did you tell Noelle that?”

“No.”

Even Hembrough, mad as he was, wasn’t about to irreparably fuck everything up. He knew that, in the heat of that moment, if Noelle knew just how much we had schemed, that would be the end.

That meant a lot to me—his keeping that information to himself. I was sure they had been sitting around talking shit and being angry with us the whole time we were gone and he could have easily told her what he heard. But he didn’t. He held back—and he held back for a reason. He had seemed so flippant and unresponsive lately. Just knowing that he cared aboutsomething was enough to get me to drop the front and be honest about everything. I felt like we were friends again for the first time in a while. We talked about everything that had happened that day—both before the desert escapade and after. We talked about Indianapolis and for the first time actually understood each other’s perspectives on what happened. And we talked about all the subtle hostility and bullshit that had corrupted almost every exchange between us for the last month.

It was productive.

And then we all got in the van and drove to Cruces, where I would explain for the first time why I not only had no hair and only a little bit of my eyebrows, but why I was also bright red.

I think I also got skin cancer, but I probably deserve that.