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Whatever's Clever

Black Smoke / Open Flue / Faux Wood Paneling

from My Life's Work by Ben Seretan

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I didn't know where we were when we pulled off to get gas. I had stretched out on the small backseat of the truck cab with my feet up on the window and my head resting on my sleeping bag. My buddies were up front talking about something but I felt heavy, like I was being pulled deeper and deeper into the truck. I felt physically incapable of paying attention. My ears were fried - I had spent all weekend with headphones on recording with these guys, 12+ hour days in that basement in the woods, with their cymbals and their basslines squeezed against my head. Rolling the same ten songs again and again, listening back to see if we got it, to see if we caught that particular firefly in that particular jar. We felt good about what we had done. I think we exceeded our expectations. We kept surprising ourselves. I kept telling everyone to stop thinking about it, I didn't want to hear any thinking on the record. And eventually we did stop thinking. We drank tea and listened and ran the songs. But they were long, sunlightless days and when we finally wrapped on Sunday I felt a real, physical distance between myself and the world around me. Depleted, at a remove, very tired and if it weren't for the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie I would have been cranky. So we got in the truck and started driving and as soon as my buddy rolled up the window when he finished his cig I fell asleep deep and heavy. Woke up at an Exxon station and wanted to pay for the tank so I roused myself and stood out in the cold, in the uniquely revealing fluorescent light of a fuel pump in the woods. The attendant came out to fill our tank - apparently we were in New Jersey and could not pump our own gas. So my buddy goes to open up the gas cap for the fella - there's a lock over the gas cap. He sticks the key in there and somehow, not that he was manhandling it at all, the thing snaps in half. Comes apart in his hand. The one key to lock the truck, to start the truck, to open the gas cap broke off in the lock at 2 in the morning in - where are we? look at the map, Hewitt, NJ - while we've got the back full of our all instruments. It takes a moment for us to realize the magnitude of this situation. We can't start the car. In fact, we can't even move the car because we can't get it in neutral. Even if we were to hotwire the truck - we watched videos on YouTube - we might not have enough gas to even get back to Brooklyn. In total denial I bought a pair of tweezers from the Tiger Mart and tried to pull the stem of the key out. To what end? Even if I got the key out it probably wouldn't work to start the engine, plus we still weren't able to fill the tank. So we called triple A. My one buddy's membership had expired. Well, okay, not a problem our other buddy has a membership, too. We call again. Find out what county we're in, get someone on the phone. We're told there's no locksmith available until 8am. Briefly we consider staying at the gas station until 8am, although I'm supposed to be at work in approximately 7 hours from now. Maybe we can stay with our buddy who runs the studio? But we can't lock the truck and we can't leave the truck at the pump and we can't leave our instruments unattended. We call everyone who has a spare key to the truck. We're only about an hour away by car and at this time of night there'll be no traffic. But no one answers. We call a few other people who might be able to come pick us up or help us or at least give me a ride to work. No one answers. At some point one of my buddies accidentally leans against the emergency shut off button that stops service to the whole gas station, forcing the guys working the overnight shift to turn it back on and reboot the pump computers. They only yell at us a little bit. In fact, they were really cool about the whole situation. They never got impatient about our truck taking up one of the pumps. So we decide to get the car towed to a motel and call a locksmith in the morning. AAA said there'd be someone available and we're freezing standing around. Not much else we can do. We call a tow truck, call the nearest motel and book a room at the closest one, and wait for the guy to show up. I frantically email my boss and my coworker as it seems really unlikely that I can be in Manhattan at 9am. We stand around the gas station drinking seltzer, bullshitting as best we can. We never get angry at each other or the situation, definitely resigned and defeated but we dealt with it really admirably, I think. I eat one of those super long slim jims, for whatever reason - it's 3 in the morning and it feels like my body needs sustenance and the options are pretty dire. Eventually the tow truck shows up. We work out the details with him, give him the address. We have to pay extra since the nearest motel is over 5 miles away. But fine, he starts getting the car up on the lift. We ask him if he can be cool and let us ride in the truck while he tows - he says no, he's had a bad experience before. We ask if we can ride in the cab of the truck, he says no, it seats only one. So we send my buddy off with the truck and ask the guys at the gas station if they know a cab. They know of one, they give us her business card and we call. The motel is 7 miles away as the crow flies but she wants to charge us 60 bucks. We don't have a choice, we say fine, come get us. We wait around some more, down a buddy who is texting us and seems a little spooked. Later we find out from him that the tow truck driver appeared to be drunk on the job and was sipping from something in a paper bag the whole drive over. Our cab - our minivan - shows up and we pile in, thanking the guys at the gas station who seem legitimately happy we're getting out of this predicament. We start driving. It smells very strongly of cigarettes and we try to make small talk. At one point my buddy asks the driver if she's heard anything in particular about the motel we've chosen and the driver says well it's a mixed bag, I've heard good I've heard bad. You'll hear knocks throughout the night - you know, drugs, working girls and their johns. Clean though. Although once I heard about somebody finding a hypodermic needle under the mattress. At that point it's like - why ya looking under the mattress? But the one thing I'd always do if I was staying at a motel is I'd check the creases for bedbugs (my buddy said this in unison with the driver - "check the creases for bedbugs" - which made me immediately reconsider his context and life experience). We finally got to the motel, our other buddy was there with the truck hauling in the gear. I hopped in the shower using soap that made me feel dirtier than before. I put on my long johns and got in my sleeping bag. At a certain point in the evening I begin to wonder, with an old and primal logic, whether or not I am being punished. For my vanity, for my indulgence. I am tempted to raise my arms to the heavens, I try to dip my toe into the warm bath of prayer while the heater above me whirrs. There is nothing there. We set an alarm for 8am so we could call AAA and we fell asleep. Alarm rings in the morning and we call AAA. They say okay, they take down our info, and they say that a locksmith will be there within 90 minutes. We fall back asleep, comforted by the fact that our long ordeal will soon be over. More than 90 minutes go by without word from either the locksmith or AAA, so I bug my buddy to call them again. He gets them on the phone and apparently they neglected to mention that the only AAA certified locksmith in the area wasn't actually available that day, we'd have to wait until tomorrow. No one had called us. They customer service rep said something about "we put a note in your file" but they neglected to actually call. So there we were sleeping, innocent and full of hope, while we could have been calling around. We got on our cellphones and started making calls. First guy we call tells us that AAA had already called him and he was unavailable because his truck was in the shop. Yes, the locksmith was unable to come help our broken down truck because his truck had broken down. He says maybe - maybe - he can help us around 4pm, depending on the garage. We decide to start calling around other locksmiths. We try many - many - but no one will come to our area. We've chosen a motel that abuts a national park through which the Appalachian Trail runs. We were really in the middle of nowhere. Finally someone says they can help us, they can send a guy out for 120 dollars. Great, we say, fine. Anything at this point. They say he'll call. We wait another 20 minutes, watching the Price is Right. Locksmith calls and quotes us at 240 dollars. We balk. What the fuck? Why double the price. So my buddy calls the original place back and manages to haggle it down to 190. Fine, whatever, let's leave before I roll over onto a coke spoon. We wait another hour or so, begging with the guy running the motel to let us just hang out until we can get back into our car (he gave us a hard time at first but ended up being cool about it). Eventually the locksmith shows up in what appears to be a normal honda cr-v, the kind of car you'd ride in via Lyft. But he's got a whole setup back there, he's brought a key to cut, and he gets to work. Within five minutes he's got a new copy. He tries it out and it doesn't work. My heart drops in my shoes but he is unflappable with a slick haircut and a bluetooth earpiece. He does a few more passes and eventually the car starts. Hooray, the wave of relief I feel is immense and powerful, like an opioid hitting the bloodstream. Wait, hold on, Eric (the locksmith) - can you open the gas cap? He tries and the key doesn't work, he gets out WD-40 and his lock pick tools and tries to get it open. No dice, it's busted, so he gives my buddy an angled screwdriver and he pops it off, the little piece of plastic that is the whole reason for this fucking disaster pops off with a satisfying snap. We give Eric a stack of cash - literally all of the money in our wallets, collectively, and finally get on the road. We stop for hamburgers from a tiny diner in Hackensack and they are delicious and pungent, the world feels fun and full of possibility again. We are no longer stranded, we are granted freedom, we can go wherever and do whatever what we want. We can see our loved ones (who did I think to call the moment we were in deep shit?), we can finish this album we started, we can sleep in our own beds, we can convey ourselves through and to the world. At some point on the way home my buddy points out that we were very lucky to be stranded as three white men, that many other types of people would have encountered even greater difficulty in the circumstances. This, so obvious, had somehow not occurred to me before that moment. I get to my house about 3 hours later after dropping off the drummer and dropping off our gear and my head hits the pillow and I sleep. I wake up 20 minutes later to my brother's family facetiming me. My niece sees that I am not wearing a shirt and says, with as much incredulity as she can communicate, "You're sleeping with no clothes on??????"

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from My Life's Work, released August 30, 2018

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Ben Seretan Troy, New York

**ECSTATIC JOY**

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