I ain’t never been to Texas,
a rocky mountain high’s just a dream.
I ain’t never seen an eagle fly—
or took a drink of water from a stream.
I’ve never slept beneath the stars,
away from sirens and honking cars,
Fate has clipped my wings …
My pop wrote that. Best song he’s ever written. The song’s hook is “I’m just a store-bought city cowboy and I long to live the songs that I sing.” He was born and raised in Los Angeles, and his heroes have always been cowboys. Not the redneck kind, but the ones in Westerns—guys like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Duvall, anyone with a swagger and a snappy comeback. And he doesn’t write them on an ol’ six string either. He writes them on a ukulele.
The uke-playing went from being a hobby my father enjoyed now and then to his life’s work. My mother, on the other hand, was busy raising his two daughters from a previous marriage and taking care of the three kids she and my dad had together, and since the country songwriting on the uke business wasn’t exactly lucrative for my father, my mother was forced to, as she said, “scrub toilets for a living.”
One night, after a long hard day cleaning the Bernsteins’ house, she’d finally had enough. We were all sitting in the living room listening to my dad’s latest, when she marched in, grabbed my father’s uke out of his hands, and put it on the floor. Then she jumped on it, smashing it into wood chips, screaming, “Get a fucking job.” But that didn’t stop him. A man with a true calling has got to follow his muse: afternoon Westerns on Channel Five. For Christmas that year, my brother and sisters and I, in a show of support for our father’s art, bought him another ukulele. I think that was the year we gave my mother a new washing machine.
My dad says they don’t make Westerns like they used to. It’s the reason he won’t go to the movies. So what happened to my dad’s heroes, those store-bought city cowboys? He likes to believe they each gave a wink and smile and rode off into the sunset. And twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to find out about one of them first-hand.
I was acting in an eighties version of a Western. The first night I rolled into town, the production threw a party for the cast and crew, where we were slated to judge a wet T-shirt contest at a local bar called Tequila Pete’s. I remember doing my favorite toast (with back-up singers): “Drinkmotherfucker, drinkmotherfucker, drinkmotherfucker. Drink!” and I have a vague recollection of dancing with Brittany-Lee, one of the wet T-shirt contestants, but after that, it fades to black.
The next morning, I woke up with a sense of foreboding, a sour stomach, and a bad case of cotton mouth. I did my standard hangover prayer: Dear God, when I open my eyes, please let it be my own bed I’m lying in. I took a deep breath and opened one eye. Relieved to see my own suitcase and last night’s clothes strewn across the floor, I opened the other eye. I slid over to the edge of the bed and let my pounding head hang off. I noticed in the rust-colored carpet some crumbs, cigarette ashes, and what looked like pieces of hay. I tried not drool and hoisted myself back on the bed. I let out a steaming beer-fart and flapped the covers up and down, wafting the stench, then searched for clues to what had happened the night before.
Beside an overflowing ashtray was a joint. A tiny roach, so I guess I smoked a little pot. Okay. Next to the joint was an empty bottle of white wine, and on the glass on the bedside table were smeared remnants of cocaine. All right, Fine. I lost count of my tequila shots, came back to my room, smoked a little pot, drank some wine, did a little blow. Great. I’d say I’d had a pretty stellar evening. Everything’s cool.
Then the gift basket caught my eye. I reached over and pulled it onto my lap. It was Western-themed; the stuffing was made of hay, a bandana was used as a ribbon holding the clear plastic wrap that had been ripped into. In it was an opened tin of caviar and a small box of chocolates, and hidden under some hay was a mutilated cheese ball, gouged by finger marks with cigarette butts poking out of the top.
It gave me the gags. I leaned over, swallowed hard, sucking back saliva, breathing deep, trying not to puke, when I heard a little phlegmmy noise. The sound only a nose can make. A snort? A snore? A sniffle? But maybe it wasn’t a nose. Maybe it was the cheese ball rustling in the hay at the bottom of my basket. I set the basket down on the end-table and held my breath, waiting for the sound again. This time it was rhythmic and distinct. Someone was in my bed—snoring. Oh, my holy shit. I closed my eyes and sank down into the covers. I’d done it again. Goddamnit.
“Cut to: him asleep in my bed, in all his swaggering glory with his thick gray mustache and bushy silver eyebrows, the first real movie star I’d ever slept with. Too bad I couldn’t remember any of it.”
I forced myself to turn my head. There, lying beside me, was one of my dad’s heroes from those old Westerns. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and did a double-take. Yep, it was him, all right. I didn’t even know he was in this shit movie. My next thought was, I can’t wait to tell my dad. And my next thought was, I can’t ever tell my dad. But what I couldn’t figure out was how this old Western movie star could possibly find someone like me appealing. Sober, a guy like that wouldn’t give a second look at a weird little punk-rock chick like me. What had I done to land this kind of prize? Did he fall for my usual pick-up line: “I’ll blow you but I won’t fuck you”? Did I act like a saucy dance-hall girl? Apparently, I’ve been told, I sometimes took on different characters during my black-outs. Maybe I’d decided to be Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke.
“Hey there, tough guy, care for a little pot, some cheap wine, a toot of coke, caviar? I’ve got a cheese ball to die for.”
Cut to: him asleep in my bed, in all his swaggering glory with his thick gray mustache and bushy silver eyebrows, the first real movie star I’d ever slept with. Too bad I couldn’t remember any of it. But, Jesus, he was cute. Symmetrical features, ruddy complexion, whiskers, and wavy salt and pepper curls.
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “Oh, shit,” he said, exhaling. “I haven’t slept with anyone but my old lady in a long time.” I cringed in the wind of his sour breath and his palpable disappointment.
I wanted to say, All right. So you have a girlfriend or a wife or an “old lady,” fine. I’m not looking to get married anyway.
“Listen,” he said. “I’ve got a wife and a kid. I don’t want them to ever find out about this. We’ve got to keep our mouths shut, okay?”
“Of course,” I said. “I won’t tell a soul. Besides, I don’t even know what happened. Last thing I remember was Brittany-Lee and her double D’s.”
He laughed a consumptive Marlboro-man laugh and rolled his great-big-man body toward me, spooning me as he reached over my face for a pack of smokes. Nice B.O., I thought, but Jesus, I’m sure I didn’t smell like a field of wildflowers, either. I panicked. A wave of humiliation came over me: Why couldn’t I have held in that smelly beer-fart? The thought of it gave me shortness of breath as I gazed into his white armpit hairs. Man, was he old. White chest hairs. I bet he’s got white pubes.
“How old are you?” he asked, sucking back half the cigarette in one drag.
“Nineteen,” I said.
“Damn, you’re young.” Smoke snuck out of his nose when he smiled. He handed me the pack and matches.
“Damn, you’re old,” I sassed back like Miss Kitty. “How old are you?” I tapped out a smoke for myself. My hands shook when I lit it.
“So what happened to my dad’s heroes, those store-bought city cowboys? He likes to believe they each gave a wink and smile and rode off into the sunset.”
“I’m old. You don’t want to know.”
I took a drag and blew a couple smoke rings.
“Forty-three,” he said.
“Wow.” I knew he was lying.
“Yeah,” he said, filling the awkward pause.
The phone startled us out of our uncomfortable spooning with a wake-up call letting me know a van was waiting outside to take me to the set. He pushed off from me, grabbed his Tahitian-themed parachute pants, Birkenstocks, and his “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt, and went back to his room to work on his lines.
We shot that lame movie with never a mention of our night together. And to this day, even the sight of a cheese ball makes me gag. My Dad—well, he still does bad impressions of my one-night-stand actor-cowboy. Only now, instead of smiling like, Wow, Dad, that’s great. You’re dead-on, I smile at him and think, Oh, if you only knew …