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ESSAY: Storytelling with Edgar Oliver

On the Road with a Southern Raconteur

edgar oliver

Photographs by Andrew Von Goellner.

Edgar Oliver, the poet-playwright-actor, spent some unreasonable part of his boyhood in the car. His mother felt particularly safe there, and she would drive him and his sister Helen to Hilton Head or Statesboro or along the salt marshes that meet the Ogeechee River, or else to nowhere at all. They would drive 150, sometimes 200, miles a day in a hulking white Chevrolet like an overturned bathtub. A hole in the floor revealed the highway. She, the mother, often pulled over to the side of the road to sketch places in ruin, using the steering wheel as an easel. The children half-joked that every dilapidated house she rendered in paint promptly collapsed.

“Weeeell,” Edgar says, and this is how he handles questions—by inflating that word and then climbing inside it as if it were a life raft. “Mother had the soul of a restless wanderer, which I can understand. If I could drive now, I would do the same as she did. But I never learned. I guess we imagined that Mother would just always be there to do the driving.” 

In October, Edgar will star in a one-man show in which he’ll summon memories of his youth, in the sixties and seventies, in Savannah, Georgia. “I want to call it ‘Helen and Edgar,’” he intones. “Isn’t that a beautiful title?” I tell him I think it is. “Oh, goooody!” And then: “If I can convey Helen, I’ll be so happy.”

The production will run in New York. Edgar has lived and written and performed in that city for thirty-five years and earned himself as many epithets—“the East Village’s last bohemian,” “downtown New York’s avuncular eccentric.” But for all of his achievements in theatre and in verse, he is only now finding a more widespread renown. For one thing, the burgeoning live storytelling scene has embraced Edgar; he is particularly beloved by The Moth, an organization that has raised storytelling to performance art and that moves crowds with its events. For another, he occasionally appears on Oddities, a reality TV show about an offbeat antique store, the promotion for which features Edgar admiring a straightjacket.

“Edgar is, without doubt, the greatest raconteur in the world,” says George Dawes Green, founder of The Moth and a novelist, “but because he has this lugubrious voice, he often gets hired to play these macabre characters. He’s typecast as though he has some sort of identification with death. And I’m annoyed by this because Edgar is less interested in death than almost anybody I know. All of his true brilliance is thwarted by that view of him as an Allen Poe-ish character. Fortunately, the group of thoughtful admirers who do understand him is growing.”

George has made Edgar a fixture of his Unchained Tour, a traveling show of storytellers and folk musicians through the South and invariably Georgia, both men’s native state. There, increasingly, Edgar is known as the narrator of his own strange life and all of the epithets are reduced to one.

 


 

Saint Simons Island is about eighty miles on the I-95 South from Savannah, where we started out early this morning but still an hour late. Already, the school bus—a 1972 Bluebird painted with literary murals—is squealing and sighing like a pair of bagpipes, arousing a communal unease. There are fifteen people on board—five are performers, the rest have varied functions—and also a disheveled cabbage the size of a beach ball that was acquired roadside. On this, its second time out, the Unchained Tour will stop in nine cities in little more than a week. It’s day one.

unchained tour

Inside, the bus has been wrecked and reconstituted to look like someone’s living room. There are tables and working lamps, collapsible futons, and a reclining armchair that has almost enough space to recline. Edgar has claimed a bench at the front next to his droopy, wide-brimmed hat, which ties under the chin. He has wild, black hair and garbled teeth and is talking about his sister.

“Helen is probably the funnest person I’ve ever met, you knooow?” Twitchy, two-part chuckle. “A lot of people thought of us as twiiins.” His hands are folded over the jacket on his lap—Paul Smith, green plaid, procured at a Salvation Army. Peter, the show’s host and a man of remarkable girth and sideburns, nods and leans back into the armchair. Around the thick neck, from which his own twin—a tumor of hair and teeth—was once extracted, hangs the beaded necklace that he fingers to calm his nerves. Everyone is too tired to be nervous.

Joan Juliet Buck, the former editor of French Vogue, is stretched out on one of two white futons, wrapped in a dark coat with a hood, guarding against all sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. She reaches into a bag, rifles through Tiger Balm patches and homeopathic pellets and trail mix, and produces a bottle of smelling salts. “Here,” she offers it to Elna Baker, the young, blonde, ex-Mormon comedienne. “A flight attendant gave me these.” Elna leans in and then whips her head back as though thrust by an airbag. “It’s like a cat pissed in my mouth.” Joan grins: “But don’t you feel good now?”

unchained tour

A stroke of red paint at the speedometer’s forty-five mile per hour mark is less a suggestion than an order issued by the last mechanic who tinkered here. The bus is on its fifth engine that we know of. Our driver, Jose, is smiling into the rearview mirror, shaking the small, shaved head beneath his brown, army-style cap. “I don’t like the way it sounds,” he says. “Does anyone else not like the way it sounds?” George calls out to the rear. No one responds. The tour’s producer, Samita, bends from the seat she’s been sharing with the cabbage and reaches with a tattooed arm toward the floor. She knocks a fist against the wood, shrugs. “We didn’t even really have brakes the last time.”

George’s preferred storytellers are, in some ways, the most pained and the least polished. “Great raconteurs never tell stories about their successes,” he says. “They always tell stories about their defeats.” The idea is that you don’t expose much of yourself in recounting your own heroism; if anything, you gain layers. The Unchained Tour runs on vulnerability, imperfection, improvisation, undigested emotion. It moves by way of a thoroughly defective bus that will not be abandoned; it will play to any-sized crowds in any-sized places. Stories are rustled up in rehearsal, reinvented midstream. Storytelling is, by nature, more immediate than any other type of live performance, for the personal episode is not couched in anything—not the lyrics of a song, not a marketable script. But this show in particular asks its narrators to lay themselves open on the stage like pieces of ripe, ruptured fruit, and in this way you come very quickly to know them.

unchained tour

Though they share a founder in George, the Unchained Tour and The Moth (the juggernaut he ultimately left under care of a board) are unaffiliated. “When I started the Moth, we brought a whole array of stories out to the world,” he says. “A lot of them were about triumph and success and glowing revelation. But I wanted to work with stories that focused on loss and confusion more than on the stories that we had been doing there, and that they’re still doing. Anyways, the Moth knows what its mission is and right now it doesn’t have anything to do with driving broken-down school buses in the hinterlands of America.”

 


 

In performance, Edgar looks like the child of his stories. He cocks his head and raises his eyes slowly, like a boy caught delivering a Valentine. His hands he keeps close, sometimes turning his wrists outwards at the hips, sometimes tying his long, pale fingers together and pressing them to his huddled body. For a first, split second he seems at a loss. He sputters. But then he is in it, proceeding with an almost unearthly timing, the spasms of his voice deeply rhythmic. “I grew up… in Sssaavannah… Georgia… with my mother and my sister… Helen… in a house on East 36th streeeet. I never really felt the lack of a fauuthah. To me, a fauuthah was just something that had diiied.” Laughter. “All the men in my family were dead.”

unchained tour

For years, Edgar tells, he had a recurring dream (“I would dreeeam this dreeeam many, many nights and I loooved this dreeeam”) that would come as he slept in the front bedroom he shared with his mother and Helen (“We were all so tehhhrified of the daa-aahk that it never would have occurred to any of us to have a roooom of our own”). He dreamt of a “beautiful, drooowned maa-aan” who would rise from the frothy, oceanic depths of his bottom dresser drawer, naked. “But I could never see his face because it was always veiled by a pair of my fauuthah’s swimming trunks, which really were in the draaawer and were the only vestiiige of my fauuthah that I… had ever… found.” More laughter.

Edgar has an impeccable comedic sense, but it is hard to tell if he is trying to be funny. There are no real punch lines here, just the anomalies of his childhood stated without commentary such that you are startled into laughter. Only much later does it occur to you (or, possibly, just to me) that maybe it isn’t funny at all, maybe it’s the opposite of funny, maybe it’s terribly sad, this story of his dead father who left nothing behind but a bathing suit and a raving, girlish widow.

The sound is part Scottish, part Irish, part Southern and overwhelmed by syllables, syllables upon syllables that have left other people’s mouths to converge in Edgar’s speech. One can understand why the voice is so often pressed into the service of Halloween specials. But it is clearly and truly meant as a vehicle for this. It is part of the story. Indeed it is the story. Besides, Edgar is not so much frightening as he is frightened-seeming. Much of the time, he looks petrified of his audience; he clutches himself as he storytells, giving the impression that he stretches each letter so long because he’d like just to stay and take cover there. An Edgar performance begins as a spectacle, ends as a short symphony. By the time he gives his skittish curtsey, the people are never done. Everyone would gladly hear it all again.

“Edgar knows when he can simply let the room fill up with silence,” George says. “And it’s an anticipatory silence that may last for a long time without any nervousness. He has these lightning changes in going from great leaps of poetry down to very essential human humor—almost to childish humor and innocence. And there’s the great subtlety with which he constructs his stories, never nailing things on the head, but letting us find our way. Often he’ll bring back elements that he introduced at the very beginning, so that it really has the effect of the repetition of a theme in music. He’ll take such a strange path that often people will say, ‘I have no idea—where is this story going?’ They just laugh at individual items. But at the end suddenly you feel all these pieces begin to slide magically into place. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.”

Edgar says of his own process, “Weeeell… I just drunkenly write things down.”

The group storytells at Captain Stan’s Smokehouse in Woodbine, where Captain Stan, a once-model who played in One Life to Live, smokes hogs and sometimes gators in a great metal drum. An Orthodox Roman Catholic priest from Brunswick blesses the bus with holy water but still it has a terrible time pulling away. We take some of the water with us in a bottle, clearly marked so no one will drink it. The cabbage we leave with Captain Stan.

unchained tour

We are nearing the state line, and soon empty fields in Georgia will become empty fields in Florida. “We never went to Florida,” Edgar remembers, “except once or twice we drove to the booorder. Mother would stop the car and she would say, ‘That’s Florida.’ And then we would all look across the booorder. And after a few minutes Mother would say, ‘Florida is not the South.’ And then she would start the car and turn around and drive back to Georgia.” His eyes return to the window and we cross into Jacksonville.

 


 

In a Florida art gallery like a graffitied warehouse, Elna begins with her story of flying to Siberia to tell her Mormon parents that, at twenty-eight and before marriage, she had lost her virginity. It marries hilarity with a vast and persistent pain, and makes audiences fall in love with her. Which is just as well because, having started late, she is like a teenager in her affections—giddy and eager to lose her heart.

Edgar tells of the “iiivy” that consumed the house on East 36th Street (“We loooved the iiivy and it seemed like the iiivy loved us, tooo”) and of the scorpions (really just tiny lizards) that he, Helen, and Mother were convinced were swarming the climbing plants. He tells also of planting watermelon seeds in the soil with kitchen spoons, and then, once we’ve forgotten about them entirely, of the “albiiinooo waaahtehmelons” that they found pushing beneath their little iron swimming pool. “One day, we were seized with this mad urge to destroy the pooool and so we attacked it, all three of us. And what was lying underneath the pooool was more haaaahrifying than anything we could ever…have imaaagined.” Scarcely a word on his mother’s palpable insanity. He does, though, direct a torrent of dread and revulsion at the watermelons. “The thought of cutting one open to see what the flesh looked like inside was unbeeearable.”

Video by royatlvideo.

Edgar seems to find lunacy unremarkable. When I ask George about the misplaced drama of it, he says, “All the people Edgar has ever loved have been mad.”

The Jacksonville performance has ended and a man offers to cut everyone’s hair as a show of gratitude. We sit on folding chairs. He works first on Isaac—one of three young, male, adrenalized filmmakers documenting the tour—clipping the ruddy cloud of a beard that has been eclipsing his face. The offending strands fall to the concrete floor of the venue. Tina, a Savannah journalist and fellow Unchained performer, tells Edgar that she finds his newest book, a tome of construction paper bound with red string, beautiful and sad. “Oh, gooody,” he sings, and his hands fly out as if to contain some small explosion. “I looove that combination.” She says the book made her cry. “Oh, well, I’m glad that you did. I’m haaappy that you did.”

Tina and Joan move to a hotel, but the rest of us sleep on the ground among the hair, on half-deflated air mattresses and futons from the bus. Edgar drowses on his back with his arms folded across his torso, delicate hands pointing toward the corners of the room. I can hear from the shouting outside that someone has won the Super Bowl, but it’s unclear who.

We unload the bus on a mechanic and leave to our next destination in a cramped, criminal-looking, white van. There is no room for baggage, except for Joan’s paper sack of coconut water and other insipid snacks, and Edgar’s green tote, which holds big bottles of Italian red wine in various stages of depletion. Joan has a foot infection (“That’s why I have to eat like this vegan bitch,” she says, waving a celery stick). V.G., a photographer with a gust of black hair on the one side, has been made responsible for the driving.

“Have you ever seen The Grapes of Wrath?” Edgar asks, his instrument pitching and swelling like the sea. “We’re…like the Jooooads!” According to the mechanic, the bus needs a new alternator. Telephone reports reveal that the new alternator arrived, was installed, and promptly burst into flames. Our van smells strongly of menthol from Joan’s Tiger Balm patches.

V.G.’s destination is a farm in Live Oak, Florida, that has belonged to the family of George’s friend Jennifer for a couple of centuries. It seems, upon questioning, that the farm doesn’t have any barn animals or crops—just pine trees and a few cats. “It sounds like rehab,” Joan says. “Are you taking us to rehab?” Peter, who has been navigating, turns back to her. “Yes, we’re staging an intervention. When we get there we’re going to feed you white sugar and Wonder Bread.”

We eat the pulled pork and tour the forested grounds. Jennifer leads us to the old farmhouse, which was moved into the brush out back when the new one was built. Her father lived in that old house until he was three. Later, it became a studio for her ceramist, chain-smoking aunt (“I’m so tired of the anti-tobacco movement. I hope I die right here in the woods, smoking this cigarette and maybe drinking some chocolate milk”), and even later, Jennifer’s playhouse. Edgar’s legs and slight paunch move ahead, seeming nearly to forget the rest of him. He climbs gingerly through the doorway, which slants towards the grass. The farmhouse is pitched at a drunken angle. Felled trees dig into its sides and wooden boards shedding strips of paint jut out like broken ribs into what might have been the living room. Holes in the walls let in the sky; the floors are carpeted with broken pottery. In one room, an ancient baby pram has been tipped over and made to release its grimy little mattress. Edgar surveys the wreck. “Mother founded a society called the Society for the Preservation of Decay,” he says. “It consisted of Mother and Helen and me. Mother would have loved this house. And I do, toooo.”

 


 

Rest is scarce, but whiskey is not. We roll into a town, eat, perform, drink, sleep, wake, and then start over. There is the Thomasville motel where we learn that the bus, having ushered itself to the side of the road, possibly out of displeasure with its third alternator, was accosted by five or eight or ten police cars and one carrying a detection dog.

There is the Zebulon bookstore where George tells a story of his own and the band plays a song about unrequited love, even though the love between its members is very much requited. I sleep in Non-Fiction. The bus comes finally to meet us, but by the time it materializes, one tire is flat. And the spare rejects its rubber shell about twenty minutes outside of town, spewing chunks of black tread like a wrecked teenager. “It sounded,” Peter tells one audience, “like we ran over a basket of puppies.”

unchained tour

There is the roadside gas station where Joan and Peter buy fake gold grillz. They form an attachment over the gilded plastic that dams up their mouths—she, who once played opposite Meryl Streep in film, and he, a compulsive and longtime stealer of women’s underpants, with a mustache like a couple of crowbars. Further down the highway, Edgar samples his first Arby’s sandwich and his round, sad eyes brighten with the revelation of it. “The hooorrsseeey sauce! It’s luuusscious. It really is the key to eeeeverything.”

There is Athens, where the bus, newly arrived, piddles gasoline all over the parking lot of the bar. And there is Canton, where, late at night, Edgar plays “Shoot the Buck” on an old arcade machine, wielding a plastic gun and massacring baby turtles and howling, “Kiiilll! Kiiilll! Kiiilll!” The tour stops in big places and in small places and any place that will feed us is good. But there is something especially gratifying in playing to fifty people. They seem to know that you’ve spent in gas what you are making now in ticket sales. 

Often people recognize Edgar from Oddities. Once, he is approached by an effusive car-rental employee in the Avis lot. “I’m afraid it will drive me maaad,” he tells me. “I’m afraid that I’ll never be alone again. That there will never be any strangers anymore and that it will drive me insaaane.”

There is Savannah, and in Savannah, Helen. She has come from Wheeling, West Virginia, where she lives, to look for a house and also to see Edgar and watch him perform. But it feels as though so many stories about her have actually summoned the woman, made her material. I don’t know what any of us gaping onlookers expected of their reunion, but no queer and intimate ritual passes between them. Edgar says, “Helloooo Helen.” They hug each other lightly. He makes his way backstage.

Half of Helen’s long, wispy hair is piled high and her eyelids, under glasses, are lined in blue. She has a full, open face that must have once been very beautiful. And she is less alarmed-seeming than Edgar, a bit more at ease in the world, though not much more. Every other sentence trails into a fitful, wheezy laugh that stops only to start again, louder and more high-pitched. It sounds like one twittering bird echoing another—and then another, and then another. A hundred tiny, excited little birds in her laugh. A classic Savannah accent is tempered by some faint echo of Edgar’s speech patterns. Hers is more of a slurred and nasal muttering, but the expressions are the same—the “Weeeell” and the “Oh, gooody!” and the vast, Germanic “Yaaaa” used for affirmation. When they were young, people called Helen and Edgar “those Transylvanian children.” I had imagined her only as an extension of her brother. In his narratives they act together, they are “Helen and I.”

Edgar is always being asked if there were ever any storytellers in his family. His mother, Louise, maybe, or one of his grandmothers. He says that Helen is the one who would tell him stories. “Sometimes I wonder how many of my memories became memories through us talking about things that had happened.”

 


 

Louise, grew up in Allenhurst or Hazlehurst or possibly both, but in any case in some small, inland town outside of Savannah. She was the youngest daughter of Benjamin Harrison Gibson, a country doctor, and Edna, who was almost certainly a Jewess of Polish descent. Louise’s older sister, Elsie, was a childhood friend of a boy named Edgar, and when Louise was in her thirties, she and Edgar fell in love and were married. Elsie came to the wedding in mourning, trailing black veils. Louise never spoke to her again.

After the wedding, the couple left to Dallas. Louise stored all of her paintings, her life’s work, really, at her mother’s house, with the intention of retrieving them once she and her husband had settled into Texas. But when she came for the canvases a few months later, she couldn’t find them anywhere. Edna had thrown them away: “Now that you’re married, you don’t need those old things anymore.”

Dallas is where Helen was born and also where, a year and a half into marriage, Edgar (Sr.), a chemist, died from a morphine overdose. Louise was ten months pregnant with Edgar (Jr.) at the time. Later, she would tell the children that their father had had a fatal heart attack when they were both infants. This is how Edgar tells of finding out the truth: When he and his sister were sixteen and seventeen, respectively, they persuaded their mother to go with them to Paris for the summer. They got together their passports, gathered money from their grandmother’s estate. But as the weather warmed, it became clear that Louise was planning to take them to Washington, D.C., via train, as usual. She had never intended on traveling to Europe.

“And we were hahhhrified, and we stopped speaking to Mother. And we stopped even acknowledging her existence. That was really hard for Mother since Mother didn’t speak to anybody except us. Sometimes she would try and say things to us. And I’d say, ‘Did you hear anything?’ And Helen would say, ‘No, it must have been the wiiind.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, it was just the wiiind.’ And that went on for about two days. And then Mother had a complete breakdown and was following us around sobbing, saying, ‘You don’t know what I’ve been throoough! You don’t know what it’s been liiike! You remember when I told you how your father died? Well, I lied! It was of a morphine overdose two months before you were booorn!’ At which point we were delighted, we were so happy to find this out. We were so excited to learn about how our fauuthah had died, we sort of forgot about the trip to Paris.”

 


 

A purple van pulsing with the bass of some brute song turns the corner onto East 36th Street. A black man is dragging a cardboard box filled with packets of ramen down the sidewalk. The live oak trees are bleached and weary and the pavement is covered in thorned sycamore pods. Helen and Edgar amble, in their dark winter capes, toward their old house—the scorpion house, the site of Edgar’s lonely and recurrent dream. They insist that of the entire block, it is the only single thing that’s changed. “It was actually a beeeautiful house, which seemed quite big then,” Edgar says.

The place is still white, a muddied white, but the stately columns are now bare wood posts strung with colorless Christmas lights. There is aluminum siding where there wasn’t aluminum siding. Years ago, in what might have been a fatal visit, Edgar found that the house had become a cocaine distribution center. It’s unclear if this is still the case. Helen points out that the back windows have been made smaller and the yard abridged by a little fence, leaving a strip of dirt at the back just wide enough for a car. “Perhaps the cocaine overlord needed the space to make drug deliveries,” she says, laughing madly.

They tell about their mother, who used to climb onto the roof of the shed to “shriek and howl and sob with her wild hair flying.” Louise was so paranoid that she could not stand even to go shopping. The children bought their own holiday presents with her money. She never cooked, Edgar remembers, but one Christmas was intent on preparing a turkey. Only she couldn’t find the roasting pan anywhere. Eventually it turned up in the oven, full with the infested remains of a Thanksgiving bird (“It was green and aaallliiiiive!”). Sometimes their mother would convince herself that there were intruders in the house and once, after a long drive, she called the police to come. They found that the upstairs had been ransacked, but all they really witnessed was her hoarding. Other times Ouija board messages (“The Killer is coming tonight!”) drove the family to check in to the nearest Travel Motor Lodge.

They point to the homes of their former neighbors. One, a Mr. Perkins, would haul his shrieking daughter Miriam into the yard and drop the insects that populated his tomato plants down the front of her shirt. (But why? I ask. “Weeeell,” Edgar offers, “he was a cruel maa-aan.”) Across the street lived a hapless trio of sisters. One was retarded, one suffered from a vicious skin disease, and the last, the eldest, with teased hair, would paint her toenails in the street.

“The retaaahhded girl paid twenty-five cents to watch the puppet shows we put on in front of our house,” Helen recalls. “Oh yes, Helen made the most beaauutiful puppets,” Edgar says, conjuring a papier-mâché lion. “Yes,” she says, “I made them myself, but I must say, they were very beautiful.” But they left those puppets at grandmother Edna’s house and Edna threw them away, as she was prone to do.

Helen left for George Washington University after high school, but was so miserable there that her mother joined her. Edgar was left alone in Savannah that year. He didn’t know how to cook, so he ordered miniature, square burgers and chocolate cream pies from the Krystal drive-in. His mother only sent him thirty dollars a week in allowance, so he, student treasurer of his Catholic military college, embezzled money from the treasury. Later, he would join his family in D.C.; even later, he and Helen would escape their mother, with whom they lived in a Mr. Schweyer’s rooming house, and run away to France. French was their secret language, and it was only upon arriving in Paris that they realized that what they had been speaking to each other wasn’t really French at all. “But we spoke it passionately and quite fluently, whatever it was,” Edgar says. 

“Mother just seemed to really think that to have anything to do with other people was to open yourself up to potential horror and trouble. And she was really just content to be the three of us. And it was really fun, you knooow. So we didn’t really feel a lack of other people. I think Helen and I were sort of loooners, too. And we never felt like we needed to have other friends our age or anything until maybe I was seventeen. We started to feel a bit that way, and it wasn’t so much that we felt we needed other friends our age. It was just Helen and I were so close to one another and we wanted to go off without Mother. And Mother wanted always to be with us. Mother must have felt like she had created some sort of monster, these two people—Helen and Edgar—who just wanted to be alooone.”

The siblings moved finally to New York. Two years ago, Edgar published a stage work for the first time, the critical hit East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House, about the strange and, on occasion, perilously deranged neighbors with whom they shared a tenement building there. Edgar lived in that building for thirty-four years, the last fifteen of them entirely alone (“Which was incredible; I loved it”). But one year ago he was asked to relocate and moved to the Lower East Side. “The building was really starting to decaaay. I didn’t want to leave, but it seemed like it was time. Living in a building with other people will take some getting used to. It’s been a source of great dread to me,” he sighs.

unchained tour

“I still haven’t dreamt about 10th Street, but I did have a dreeeam about a week after I left. And my dreeeam was in this old house, this old deaacaying house, and it had daaahk green wallpaper and I thought, ‘This is such an old, decaaayed house. But I could live here. I could really live here.’ And I was starting to get excited about the idea of living there, and then I woke up. And I got up and then I thought, ‘Oh, that was Mr. Schweyer’s house. I was trying to get back to 10th street and I wound up at Mr. Schweyer’s house.’ ”

Louise would stay at Mr. Schweyer’s house for the rest of her life. (Mr. Schweyer found her dead in her room when Edgar was twenty-six years old.) She left her car behind in the parking lot of the Savannah train station. The sanitation department sent her letters saying that the vehicle was overgrown with vines and being consumed by cockroaches, but she refused to move it. Eventually, the police caught thieves stealing a good deal of furniture from her Savannah home and asked her to come and identify her belongings. She wouldn’t. “Mother would not…come back…to Sssaaavannah,” Edgar says. The housebreakers were released and they took the furniture with them.

 


 

The closing shows are in Atlanta at Manuel’s Tavern. Michael, of the folk-rock duo Shovels & Rope, gets behind the makeshift drum kit and raps the snare with a set of sticks in one hand and a maraca in the other, arms churning furiously, looking very much like a human bicycle. Peter antagonizes Michael, threatens to run off with Cary Anne, the nib-sharp, female half of the band. But he is no real menace; half the time they play, which is at opening, closing, and to usher the house into intermission, he is off crying to the side from the passion of it.

shovels & rope

After the performers have danced onstage to a final chorus, a group leaves to the tattoo parlor. Michael will ink a shrimp boat across his chest, and Peter will tattoo a Georgia peach modeled after his wife’s ass on the inside of his forearm. The rest of us make for a gay karaoke bar where Edgar intends on singing “Moon River.” But when we get there, the look on his face is one of panic and he staggers outside—the place has been overtaken by young men gyrating and shouting the lyrics to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” George says, “We should have known better than to come to a gay karaoke bar on the night that Whitney Houston died.” V.G. gives us a lift back to the hotel. Edgar turns to him before exiting the van. “That was beeeaautiful,” he whispers, and he is talking about the drive.

In the morning, we converge on the bus one last time, determined to ride it home through to Savannah. The futons are lengthened so we can stretch out, pray. In one tumbledown town, if it is a town, we stop for the worst Chinese food of our collective lives—fried chicken in some pinkish fluid and pools of chow mein—and then the engine refuses to start up again, until finally it does.

“I love being together for the duration of the journey,” Edgar says. “Because most of my life I tend to feel like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s time for me to gooo, maybe I’m overstaying my welcome.’ I just feel at a loss for words with people. I’m such a bad conversationalist. But when I’m on tour I feel like, ‘Weeeell, I shouldn’t be going because we’re all in this together until such time as we disbaaand.’ And that…is a really…fun sensation.”

It is dark, and every time I wake there are flashing lights and the bus is shaking and emitting a sound like the grinding of very large teeth. We blunder into Savannah, stop at a first traffic light. And here the bus wheezes once and dies, having recognized this light as a place of final rest. We leave it inert in the road and, with reluctance, move to the van that has been following behind, just in case. Our first call is to drop Edgar at the Thunderbird Inn, so that he can rejoin his sister. When she comes to the door we, in our sad white carriage, have already faded from view and it looks to her like he was delivered by the night.


Watch the promotional video for the tour here: Unchained from Matt Perry on Vimeo

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