Beyond North of Wasteland
North of Wasteland: The Rest of the Story
The song “North of Wasteland” from the Eleventh Dream Day record Lived to Tell, was based on a true story that took place in South Central Florida in 1980 shortly after my college graduation. I have realized years later that the song tells just a fraction of the story and fortunately, I have lived to tell the rest.
North of Wasteland
There was a tree that grew outside my window
Amid the fields of cane and unanswered questions
It held a fruit of fatal mystery
And it soothed me to think that it grew so close to me
In the morning
There’s never any warning
Except the neighbor’s rooster
And the church bells ring
From north of the wasteland
I think back to the time
I lived in a trailer
Amid the fields of cane
And unanswered questions
It still seems so absurd
One night outside my door
A wild boar that seemed so lost
We both knew we were caught
In a wasteland
There was no time or place where we belonged
I was wrong
And I knew it from that night on
There’s that moment when waking up in a strange bed where you have absolutely no idea where you are; where your world is a late night test pattern of confusion. The crowing of a nearby rooster offered no clues. It was still dark and I couldn’t see a thing. But in the dank heavy air, I knew the space was small. A darting tickle on my leg startled me into full consciousness, and I saw the tiny cockroach scurry away as I lifted the sheet.
“Oh yeah,” I thought, and as quick as a dart thrown at a map, I realized where I was.
The drive in from the West Palm Beach airport the night before with Sherri in her old Karman Ghia was the start of a new life, a post-collegiate adult life, and now with the girl of my dreams.
As we dieseled past lit highways into the black pitch of a sticky Florida night, I looked at Sherri’s profile and couldn’t quite believe I was sitting next to her. With her green-tinted almond eyes and the start of a deep tan, she had the kind of exotic look that I thought was out of my league. And she had been well out of my league for some time now; hard-to-get couldn’t describe the last year and a half of my frustration at trying to win her over. I still wasn’t used to this new haircut though, a Hamillish bob, the result of a stormy spring when she took scissors to the hair that had never been cut. But the feeling in this verdant place where vines draped the trees was that love and hair would grow and keep growing.
The curtains began to color with the pastels of morning and I took stock of what brought me here. I thought back to the phone call that urged me to quit my job in Chicago, the voice on the other end as seductive as waves lapping gently on a tropical beach. But now I was on my back in an R.V. trailer, the kind that hitched to the back of a pick-up. From where I lay I could see the tiny kitchen sink, and beyond that a toilet visible behind a half-open accordion door. Sherri was close, though not with me; she was in the double wide trailer that sat on concrete blocks just twenty yards away. After whispered good nights following our late arrival we had kissed one last time, and she had shown me to my lodging—“The Rogue” decaled on its aluminum side.
I wondered when it would be appropriate to rise and make my way to the door of the big trailer, Sherri’s parent’s retirement abode. I noticed from the corner of my eye a couple more cockroaches scurrying on the faucet then into the cabinet. Their night shift was over, and I closed my eyes . Church bells tolled from some place unfamiliar, and I fell back asleep.
Two knocks and then too much light poured through the door as Sherri entered The Rogue with a steaming cup of Nescafe.
“Were you going to sleep all day?” she asked. “My parents will think you’re lazy! C’mon. Get dressed and say hi.”
I was slightly nervous as I clumsily navigated the too steep metal steps out of the trailer, but as I stepped into this novel space, the sun had an instantly welcoming embrace.
“Mister Rick Rizzo!”
A fifty something stocky athletic man with his hand extended emerged from the double wide with a greeting that was at the same time welcoming yet impersonal. His handshake pushed my knuckles together.
“How’d The Rogue treat you last night?” he half grinned.
“Just glad to be here sir,” I replied, partly a reflection on my well- mannered upbringing, but even more seeming like a private reporting to duty. Sherri’s dad was a retired army sergeant, my preconceptions of which were informed somewhere between Combat!and Gomer Pyle.
“C’mon in, let me show you around.”
As I stepped into this much larger trailer, I noticed it was tethered in four corners by steel cables, an attempt to keep it from flying away in the occasional hurricane winds that swept through these parts.
“Check it out,” he beamed; gesturing at what I had to admit was more space than I could have imagined. It was certainly bigger than any apartment I’d lived in—two bedrooms down the hall from a spacious kitchen, dining room and family room complete with working fireplace.
“You must be Rick,” Sherri’s mom entered cheerfully.
A retired high school English teacher, she reminded me of my own mother with her bright smile and short brown hair.
Nice to meet you. Formalities. I wanted to make a good impression. I realized that I had a weak reason for being there. A recent college graduate, but no ambition other than being with their daughter.
As the small talk began to sound even more forced, and Sherri’s parents moved on to their daily routines, I noticed the morning paper on the breakfast table. The West Palm local paper was typically thin, but I knew what I needed and went straight to the classifieds. The clock was ticking on my dead beat status and I needed to see what was out there.
My bachelor’s degree was in business administration with a focus on marketing. A number of my college friends already had found jobs, mostly through family connections, but this was 1980, a year of double digit unemployment, hostages, and high inflation. The meager list of job opportunities was worse than I anticipated. Drive a truck. Telemarketing. The best I could do was to call an employment agency and they setup an appointment for me the following morning. It was a start.
Walking out of the air-conditioned double wide into the stifling mid-morning heat, I surveyed the flat horizon of trailers and palm trees. A wasteland. A few miles to the west, the sugar cane factory let loose the by-product of its enterprise—a sickeningly beyond ripe rotting and somewhat burnt smell that quickly coated my nostrils.
That night after an all-you-can-eat pizza dinner at a franchise Sherri’s father had an investing interest in, I had trouble falling asleep knowing how the micro-fauna would soon be bustling around my restless torso. I must have dozed off at some point into the Floridian night
Minutes or hours later I was aware of the presence of a much larger creature and bolted upright. No matter how much I wanted it to not be true there was no denying that something was snorting and making guttural grunts just outside the thin aluminum of my walls. A choice—either lie on my back petrified and wait for death or face it and get it over with.
I slowly opened the screen door.
Somewhat darker than the shadows stood a beast. The tusks that stuck wildly from the sides of what looked like a head with legs told me this was some sort of wild pig or boar.
It looked at me and snorted.
I said nothing. It would have been weird.
What I thought though, and what the boar seemed to be thinking as well was clear. One of us doesn’t belong here.
What was invisible that first night driving in was now unveiled in the orange glow of morning as I drove to my first interview in Del Ray Beach. Route 441 was a single lane highway connecting Belle Glade to my future. Driving Sherrie’s VW, I passed horses in pastures, county fairgrounds, migrant workers stooped over baskets, and a turn off for Lion Country Safari. Pick-up trucks with gun racks and dogs with tongues lolling in their flat beds kicked up dust pulling onto the road. It all smelled green. When I hit the interstate though, time seemed to reset as I joined the rush of the morning commute of BMWs and Audis. As I pulled into Porter Paints on A1A, I checked my tie in the mirror poised to join the working world.
The interview went well enough, I got the job. I was now the assistant manager of a business I had no experience in, but I was willing if not able. The money was crap, but I knew the prospects were slim, and the feeling of going back to Sherri’s parents with a job was worth it. Work was work, and this was work in Florida! The beach was across the street; the Atlantic Ocean visible, a literal sea of possibility. I crossed the road, dress shoes sinking into the sand, unknotted my tie, and squinted into the morning sun.
That evening I enjoyed a cold beer with Sherri’s dad as we both watched the sun set over the trailer park. I sensed he was sizing me up, and I did my best to survey the landscape with authority.
“That’s an interesting apple tree,” I pointed toward a spiny looking tree with ripening fruit.
“That’s no apple tree, that’s a manctineel–the Spanish call it manzinilla de la muerta—little apple of death.”
He explained how Columbus had noticed that just a few drops from a leaf onto the skin would instantly blister.
“You know if you took a bite of one of those “apples’ you would drop dead within ten minutes. The interesting thing is that an autopsy wouldn’t turn up a thing.”
I fell asleep that night wondering why he added that last tidbit.
The next morning in Del Ray Beach at the paint store I was primed to start a new career. A clean cut preppy looking kid not much older than me would be training me before moving on to manage the Boca Raton store.
I got trained how to mix paint using a variety of pigments squirted into a can of white base. It was easy, and I enjoyed it. I knew I could do this job:
Keep the books. Check.
Receipts, register, check, check.
The first paint contractor came in. Bloodshot eyes. Painters are notorious alcoholics I would come to know, with gruff hung-over demeanors. I was intimidated which I’m sure was the intended outcome. The shift ended. I would survive to work another day.
My third day on the job, things weren’t quite so good. A rich lady with a brand new Lincoln Continental had me load a five gallon container of primer into the trunk. The trunk was deep though, and the container was heavy and awkward, and it tipped out of my grip. Five gallons of milk white paint burst out and coated the fuzzy black interior of her luxury car. I hadn’t put the lid on tightly enough in the store.
She was as nice as could be considering the mess, and didn’t get upset, although she asked me to stop trying to clean it up since I was only making it worse.
The days passed. It was a job. I was working poor, but now I had an apartment in Del Ray Beach and my girlfriend would soon be moving in with me.
Sherri moved in. Her parents didn’t know, so if the phone rang only she could answer it. The apartment was basically a studio converted from a coach house broken into two units. The owner was a widow who turned a blind eye to our sinful cohabitation and the immigration status of the two young Cuban fellows who lived behind us. There was a relief that the tiny cockroaches were out of my life, but here, gigantic Palmetto bugs, cockroaches on steroids, apparently thought the space was theirs.
Life was peaceful though and a routine developed. Work at the store, home for lunch, a downpour of rain at 12:30 which evaporated by 12:45, back home for dinner with Sherri, and an occasional walk to the beach past the Intercoastal waterway with its funky houseboats. The neighbors across the alley (not the friendly Cubans) blasted Eric Clapton’s Cocainelive version at regular intervals punctuating the day. Some nights we took a late night dip in the ocean which might have been romantic save for my crippling fear of man-o-war stings and shark attacks. It was worth the buoyant embraces and salt water kisses though and life seemed good. But then came the day Sherri announced she wanted to be an actress.
Yes, Sherri wanted to be an actress. This in itself should have been great news. I should have been happy for her. The thing is, in the last few months she also had wanted to be a nurse, a teacher, and a merchant marine. This last one was particularly troubling. Sherri’s ex-boyfriend was a merchant marine. I had noticed one day on her dresser a letter from this guy, Richard. I asked her about it. They had been high school sweethearts and she swore she was long over him, but there were little things I couldn’t let go. For one, Sherri’s favorite record was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There’s a song The Last Time I Saw Richard on that record. Her eyes seemed to go somewhere when it came on.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
My name Rick seemed so unsophisticated. Richard was a merchant marine. Traveling to distant ports. Tattooing girls ‘names on his biceps. A salty spray of ocean as he stood on the deck of a ship.
I was assistant manager at a paint store.
All good dreamers pass this way some day
That night I had a dream. I was back in The Rogue. Hurricane winds started to rattle it back and forth. Cockroaches streamed upward from the sink and toilet. The trailer walls ripped away and I was exposed to the storm. A wild pig ran out from behind the big trailer as the steel cables groaned. Cane snakes slithered beneath what was left of my trailer. The giant smoke stacks of the sugar factory crumbled. I closed my eyes and screamed silently into the gale.
When all had calmed, the sun was burning through the clouds. The boar asked me why I was still there. Sherri’s dad stood with a rake in his hands. Gathering the tiny apples of death.
The small theater culture of South Florida was vibrant in the early 80s, no doubt fueled by the presence of Burt Reynolds in Jupiter Beach and a bevy of retirees to fill the seats. The Florida Atlantic University Theater posted a notice for open auditions for a production of Moliere’s The Miser and Sherri figured it was a good place to start.
Auditions were held on a small campus stage in Boca Raton, and each hopeful was instructed to improvise a scene (unrelated to The Miser) based on a suggestion from the director. I’m not sure if that was standard procedure to try out for a play, but I was nervous for Sherri. I thought she nailed it though, and I was impressed.
After the mostly female group of hopefuls finished, Sherri and I were headed for the back of the theater, when I heard the director’s voice.
“What about you young man? Aren’t you trying out?”
I turned, not knowing it was me he was talking to, but I did seem to fit the bill.
I saw that he was addressing me.
“I’m just here for moral support for my girlfriend,” I replied somewhat sheepishly.
“We really have a shortage of males for this play, and I think you should give it a try,” he peered over his glasses.
Thankfully, he didn’t make me improvise. I simply had to read a short scene from a paperback copy of the play. I sensed he was lowering the bar. I did my thing, he said thanks to both of us, and we headed back to Del Ray.
The phone rang. It was late afternoon, Sherri was out shopping. I picked it up forgetting as I often did that I shouldn’t; I might have some ‘splaining to do to the Sergeant.
I was formulating an excuse for why I was there and Sherri wasn’t as I said hello.
“Hi, this is Joe Conaway, I led the auditions last week for The Miser.”
“Oh, hi” I replied. “Sherri is out right now, can I take a message?”
“No, that’s okay. I want to talk to you about being in the play.”
“But wait, what about Sherri?”
Nothing was registering for me, but he would quickly give me the necessary pieces of the puzzle.
“We thought she was really good, but we really have so few female parts for the play, and there were some more experienced actresses I wanted to cast.”
“I’d like to offer you a role though. I can actually see you as Cleante, Harpagon’s son.”
I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t no.
After we hung up, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. There was no way I could relay this news when Sherri got home. I don’t remember what I said, but my reply didn’t have the words, I’ll call him back, no, or sorry.
The Miser ran through the end of July. The rehearsals were a blast, and the rest of the cast was so fun to be around. I didn’t get the hefty role of Harpagon’s son, but I did get a line as one of the lackeys.
“I seem to have torn me breeches” delivered in a ripe Cockney got howls of laughter every night as Harpagon chased me off the stage with his cane.
By the time the play closed I knew I was leaving for Chicago. I wanted to find a band to join. Sherri had applied to Nursing School at the community college. We weren’t talking to each other much. We had one tearful night when I told her I was going home. I think she was relieved.
Sherri and her father drove me to the West Palm airport. There was a beautiful Florida sunset that night. Sherri’s hair had grown much longer now and she brushed long strands from her eyes. She kissed me on the cheek.
“Good luck, Rizzo. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Sherri’s father gave me one last strong handshake.
“Yes sir.” I returned it in kind and started for the plane heading north of the wasteland.