Dinner was a formal affair, on flat cushions at a low table like the ones they had in the back room at the fancy sushi places in Boston. The waitresses were all in traditional kimonos, and they refilled the sake and plum wine in our glasses whenever they dipped under half full. As a result, everyone was too plastered to care that the seats weren’t that comfortable.
I thought the whole scene was kind of cool–the rustle of the kimonos, the rice paper walls… It felt like we were inside a samurai movie. It occurred to me it had taken until that day for the feeling that we were in Japan to really soak in. (No hot springs pun intended.) So much of the time we could have been anywhere: hotel, sound check, van. In Tokyo, we’d gone to the temple and to Guitar Street but it was like I’d needed to recover from jet lag and from cramming before I had the brain capacity to absorb anything.
The group was pretty jocular. Any animosity about Cray’s blow up seemed to be gone. In fact, he and Mitch had a bottle of some special sake between them and seemed to be having a great time.
Speaking of sake, I’m not sure to this day if it’s really strong or if the reason it gets you so drunk is that it seems so mild, you drink more than you realize. The way they keep refilling the tiny cups doesn’t help, either. I went up to my room rather tipsy, and by tipsy I mean the kind of drunk where when you lie down you swear you can feel the Earth turning. I then had what felt like a very long, peaceful time lying on the low futon bed (hey, just like home… how weird is that…) not thinking too deeply about anything. Yeah, it was like the hot tub relaxation and calm finally caught up to me. How about that.
I have no idea how long I had been lying there when there was a knock on the door. I answered it without thinking.
Cray was standing there looking like his usual wound up, surly self. “Can I come in?”
“Sure.” I went to look for a glass to put some water in, but in a Japanese hotel like that there were only tea cups. Good enough. I filled one from the tap, then realized there was a pot, too, and filled the whole thing with cool water. I put the pot and both cups on the low table and sat down. He came and sat and took a teacup of water and drank it without comment. Either he agreed that it was perfectly sensible to serve plain water using the teapot as a pitcher or he didn’t actually notice what I gave him wasn’t cold tea.
Alcohol had made his eyelids droopy. “I want your advice.”
“Okay.” I leapt to the conclusion that Cray had a crush on him, then immediately decided that was crazy.
Cray’s idea of dressing for dinner was he’d put on a kind of string tie, and now it was half-undone. He tried to pull it the rest of the way off, failed, and unbuttoned his collar anyway. I was pretty sure that was all stalling from actually saying what he was there to ask, but it’s not like I was in a hurry.
“What’s the secret,” he finally asked, “to getting along with him so easy?”
“Vaseline,” I said, without missing a beat. “Makes everything smooth.”
It took him a moment to realize I’d made a joke. Actually it took me a moment to realize I’d made a joke and there was this half second where I thought he was going to be furious at me. But, like a good joke should, it hit him unexpectedly enough that he started laughing before he could help himself. Which made me laugh, and then the two of us were cackling like fools for a while before we could get ourselves under control.
“Okayyyy,” he said when he was done wiping tears out of the corner of his eyes. “Sorry. That was kind of a dumb way to put it. But do you get what I’m asking?”
“Cray, I get along with everyone better than you do, Remo’s no exception. Hell, I even get along better with YOU than everyone else. I’m just a more easy-going person than you are. There’s no secret.”
“I’m not saying it’s bad to be so intense, but you seem like you’re mad at everybody all the time.”
He sipped water out of his cup and when he put it down I poured more into it. Rehydration was probably a good idea. “Well, you guys are making fun of me all the time.”
“Cray, this group makes fun of each other all the time. Fun is supposed to be fun, not painful.”
“Okay, but seriously, it didn’t bother you when Mitch acted like we’d… we’d…” He sputtered and got red in the face.
“Hang on. First of all, if he was serious, then what’s the big deal? He’s wrong. And if he was just joking, why should it bother me?”
“Well it wasn’t supposed to bother you. It was only supposed to bother me. And it did.”
My turn to take a sip of water because I felt like the argument had just made a loop and I couldn’t figure out how to get back inside the circle. “Look. I know how it feels to be upset when someone makes a joke or hints or even just says something the wrong way so it could be construed that they’re saying that you’re gay. I know because I was in the closet and I used to overreact to that shit all the time. And this looks like a pretty classic overreaction to me.”
“You’re saying I’m an asshole.”
“I’m saying take a chill pill and don’t worry that people are judging you all the fucking time, whether they are or not. Most of the time they’re not, and when they are, fuck ’em. Unless they’re signing your paychecks.”
He nodded with his eyes closed like he was trying to make that sink in. “That’s exactly how I feel though. Like everyone’s judging me constantly.”
It took me a second to realize what the unspoken part of that sentence was. “You mean like everyone’s judging you and they think you suck, you mean.”
“Cray, Flip told me you might be the best lap steel player in the country. In the States, I mean. That doesn’t sound to me like he thinks you suck.”
“Flip said that?”
“Yeah. In fact I think you were sitting there when he did, weren’t you?” I couldn’t remember.
Neither could Cray. “I probably thought he was just joking around.”
“See what I mean about you being mad at everyone all the time? So if someone gives you a compliment you’re still looking for how it could be a backhanded joke at your expense. Is it really not possible for you to just… calm down?”
He shook his head. “Not with Remo breathing down my neck all the time.”
“Okay, now you can just take a hike. Remo is the least–” I tried to get the word “judgmental” to come out but it wouldn’t work with my sake-swollen tongue, so I fell back to “–judgey person in the world.”
“You don’t know him like I do.”
“I think I know him pretty fucking well.”
“He didn’t fuck your mother and decide that gave him the right to treat you like you’re his kid.”
Actually, I kind of think maybe he did–or wanted to–I thought, but I managed not to say it. Instead I just raised an eyebrow.
Cray’s memory caught up with his mouth then and he shut it because he didn’t know what to say.
“Yeah, I’m the one who grew up playing the guitar on Remo’s living room floor.” I poured water into the cups. “My own father is a piece of work, too, so I guess it was a good thing I had a decent role model around.”
Cray blew air out his nose like he was steaming. “My mother kicked my father out of the family band when I was four. He moved to Nashville, drank too much at a gig a few years later and died in a car crash on the way home.”
“Don’t be. He was a jerk who beat my mother.” Cray shrugged.
“So Remo’s a step up…?” I hazarded.
“I guess.” He drank some water. “He’s a pain in my ass.”
“Okay, that may be true, but you came here to ask me how to get along better with him.”
“Right.” Cray looked at his hands. “Maybe it’s a lost cause.”
“Hang on a second, I just finally put two and two together. So your mother’s the one Remo was going to all those folk festivals to see?”
“And you resent that he, what, tried to be overly parental toward you?”
“I guess. I mean, where does he get off?”
“Maybe he was just being nice?”
“So that’s why I’m here? Because Remo’s being nice?”
“Stop skipping ahead! One thing at a time.” Damn sake. “Is he still going with your mother?”
“I don’t think so. They couldn’t make it work.”
“Then what incentive does he have to ‘be nice’ to you? I’m pretty sure he hired you because he likes the way you play.”
“Maybe,” Cray grudgingly admitted.
“This song we’re working on, Cray. What’s that about.”
He shook his head. “Forget it. That was a stupid idea.”
“No, it wasn’t. He’s going to love it. And he’s going to make us do it in the show if he loves it, you know. Isn’t that what you’re hoping?”
“So you want to impress him. That’s okay. What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know.”
“The problem is that on the one hand you are hanging on his approval like you think you’re never good enough and you think this time you’re going to get it, and on the other hand you want to tell him fuck you, I don’t care what you think, you’re not my father.”
He stared at me. “Um. Yeah.”
“We’re the closest thing to kids he’s ever going to get. But he doesn’t want us to act like his kids. He just wants us to be family. If you don’t want to be part of Remo Cutler’s traveling circus family, don’t take the gig the next time he offers it. But why don’t you just try relaxing a little and roll with it?”
“Yeah.” He let out a long breath. “It’s easier now that you’re not on my case, either.”
“When was I on your case?”
He rolled his eyes. “Okay, not on my case exactly but you know. You waltzed in like the king of the universe.”
I was about to argue but I realized he was kind of right. “Yeah, I did. But we’re each the king of our own universe, Cray.” I doubt a lot of things about myself, but it came home to me again that when it came to my talent, my artistic ability, that I almost never doubted. I had some rocky moments when I was pushing myself, when Moondog Three did that shakedown tour, but that was more about developing a stage presence, and about me and Ziggy, than about my performing ability.
“I don’t want to come across as a spoiled brat.” He had gone from looking surly and suspicious to looking tired.
“There’s a difference between acting like you want everyone to kowtow and earning everyone’s respect. I earned this group’s respect a long time ago.”
“What do you think I should do, then? To get the respect of the group?”
“Bust your ass in rehearsal, blow the doors off during the shows, and just be nice to people the rest of the time. How’s that?”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“I kind of think it is. You also might want to apologize to Mitch for jumping him and to everyone else for being a pill.”
“You think so?”
“Or just try the being nicer thing and maybe everyone will take that as a kind of apology anyway. You know. Make up for it.”
“Yeah. Okay. I might still lose it if there are too many jokes about anal sex, though.”
“Wait, have I been missing the jokes about buttfucking?”
“Oh come on! You’re the one who mentioned Vaseline! And what Mitch said! And–”
He went on with a bunch of other things that to ME were clearly not about anal sex unless you really were stretching the implications. But I think I’d done about all I could for Cray’s state of mind that night. Adjusting his attitude about Remo I could do. Curing him of his obsession about gay sex was outside my purview. Way, way outside.