Basement Songs: Chris Isaak, “Wicked Game”
The wind blew through my grimy hair as I lounged in the back of the pickup truck. Drunk on the youthful feeling of invincibility, and also the four beers I’d had at lunch, work was the furthest thing from my mind. I was thinking about school, a new apartment, making movies and saying goodbye. As I wound down my final hours as an employee of the North Olmsted Board of Education, I was thinking about the future.
It had been three straight summers of waking to the orange glow of the sun over the horizon and the dampness of the night’s dew. Some days Steve and I rode our bikes, full of vigor; while others we dragged our sorry asses into cars, sometimes still reeking from the mass quantities of alcohol we’d consumed the night before. We never drank on the job, though. The thought of getting reprimanded by our boss was uncomfortable enough to keep us straight during work hours. We may have been lazy and a little irresponsible but we tried to walk the straight and narrow.
This day, however, was different. This was the end. That fall, Steve was heading into his senior year of college and had no plans of coming back to the summer work crew. If he’d had his way, I don’t think he would have returned to North Olmsted, either. As for me, plans were in motion for me to take a summer internship the following year, just before I became a senior. Bouncing along in the back of the beat-up pickup that belonged to the NOBOE; I realized that the city I’d known since my childhood would no longer be the same. I would return for holidays and eventually spend another year under my parents’ roof, but the people I cared for most, in particular Steve, my best friend, would not always be there to get together on a moment’s notice, as had been the way of our formative years. Those spontaneous moments of friendship and brotherhood would never happen again. We were moving on.
I don’t recall who was driving, but our guide was “Z,” a former jock turned stoner who’d joined our crew that summer. After an extended lunch at Pizza Hut, one that included a couple pitchers of Budweiser, Steve, Z, our crew chief, Bruce, and I loaded into our pickup to finish off the work day. However, Z insisted there was something he had to show us, prompting us to drive the back streets out of North Olmsted and into one of the neighboring cities. I’d tell you where we were going but I wasn’t paying attention, too wrapped up in my own thoughts to really care. We entered a quiet subdivision filled with large houses. When the blue Ford slammed into park, Z hopped out and we pulled ourselves up out of the bed of the truck to take a look.
Before us was a magnificent stone house under construction. It was being built, slowly,
stone by stone, by its owner, who had been collecting boulders from wherever he came across them- on the road, in fields- and conforming them until they fit into their place in his glorious rock structure.
As luck would have it, the owner was home and gave us a brief tour. We moved through each room, wide eyed and stumbling; a glow filled the house from the sun beginning its descent in the sky. This was one of the most surreal moments of my life. The beer buzz, my eagerness to get back to school, and my sentimentality over spending my last day with my best friend, had my head swirling. Moreover, there was the awe of the house. It was a marvel to behold. How one man could construct a mansion by himself was beyond me. I admired his passion, dedication and the fact that he may have had a couple screws loose in his head. Could I someday achieve something this grand? Could I someday achieve my own dreams? It would only be a matter of time before I found out.
After roughly thirty minutes, our group loaded back up into the pickup truck and we finally returned to the shop to sign out for the rest of the day and, hopefully, the rest of our lives.
That night, after I quickly packing for my return to Bowling Green, Steve and I, along with several old friends from our high school days, got together to go see David Lynch’s newest film, Wild at Heart, opening that night. Lynch was riding a wave of critical success due to his cult TV show, Twin Peaks, and the fact that Wild at Heart had won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier that year. Anticipation was high for his new movie, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern.
If you recall, Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” was used to great effect in the film. The music plays during the pivotal scene in which Cage’s “Sailor” and Dern’s “Lula” drive along the highway at night. Speaking in an Elvis accent, Sailor reveals the dark secret he’s been keeping from Lula. As he talks, Lula recalls the night her father died; and then she sees an image of her mother as a wicked witch floating above the desert brush.
Hearing “Wicked Game: felt like a coda to the three summers of listening to cassettes playing in my black boom box while we painted or hauled lumber or lounged on the bleachers during breaks. Throughout those years I was introduced to so much new music by Steve and our good friend, Jeff. They Might Be Giants, Living Colour, Ben Vaughn, The Connells, The Pursuit of Happiness, The Jack Rubies, Indigo Girls, The Sundays and Bel Biv DeVoe immediately come to mind. Now, here was one last song to mark an occasion. Chris Isaak’s dreamlike melody was not only allowing us to bid farewell to the summer, but also to each other. Like Sailor and Lula, the open road was in front of us and the future was uncertain.
Our gang of friends left the movie theater in a state of wonder and bafflement, once Wild at Heart had ended. After we left the Cineplex and said our goodbyes, I went home and collapsed into bed, dreaming of Laura Dern, Elvis Presley, Chris Isaak’s music and stone houses built somewhere in the middle of suburbia.
By mid-morning the next day, Steve and I were en route to Bowling Green, his parents’ car packed full of my crap. With the windows down, we drove past cow pastures and old barns, through small Ohio towns where cornfields seem to grow in every direction and the old trees reached into the sky, grasping for sunlight. Soon after dropping me off, Steve and I hugged goodbye. He had his own journey to prepare for, his own dreams to pursue. For years, whenever the two of us met up in North Olmsted for the holidays of some rare summer excursion, we would talk about how searching for that house never being able to find it. I suppose I could track down Z and ask him if he remembers our excursion. However, I don’t think I ever will. I’m afraid that finding it will lead to disappointment, like watching an old movie you loved as a child and realizing that it was a piece of crap. Instead, I choose to preserve my fuzzy memory of that moment, a small window of time when the world was almost perfect and anything was possible, whether it was falling in love forever, making movies, or building houses one stone at a time.