The only thing I remember about meeting Don (before he became Captain Beefheart) is that he, Frank, and my sister arrived at home after having spent some time together traveling about the town. I assumed they'd been showing the out of town visitor some of the sights.
They exploded through the front door, my sister walking quickly ahead. Soon, they were seated on the living room sofa, and my sister sat as far away from Don as she could, perched nearly on the edge of the divan with Frank squarely positioned between her and Don. She and Frank would talk. Don would not. My sister seemed hesitant to engage Don in direct eye contact. When he shifted on the couch, or looked at them, or seemed about to say something (which as I recall he never actually did), my sister would cast her gaze elsewhere. Then once his interest from them had shifted, she would glance sideways at Don, as if he were crazy. As I found out later, he and Frank had some sort of argument in the car. "A donnybrook," I offered as only a simple smartass could.
While greater minds in the distant historic past might talk of many things, of water cannons and telescopes, this was a day of small bits that no one found interesting, when no conversation could go forward. As it ended up, I took a ride with Don and Frank because we were out to find some food to make for lunch. We ignored the closer new supermarket in town, the one that had thrown Frank out. We drove south past an immense stretch of fields with grass so tall and dry it was falling back in on itself, looking like a spent cornfield. We went all the way into Pomona, a sprawling citrus town that boasted little other industry, to a small neighborhood market on a major thoroughfare.
This was like an inner city market, if Pomona were a city then, and everything displayed on the shelves seemed a bit second rate, out of date, and overpriced for what it was. And yet people in the neighborhood and for miles around were forced to shop there, as no supermarket would move into that central section of town. The shop was not airconditioned, the aisles were not wide, and there were no carts. It seemed expected that no one would buy more than could be carried in one hand. Cardboard cartons on the floor held small piles of yellow onions just pulled from the earth, with thick layers of translucent skin and long brown roots still attached. There were some dented cantaloupes. Packages of puffy white Wonder bread and giant sized Baby Ruths were on special for a dime.
It was the annual scorch called summer and it was hot, really much too hot to eat. And I couldn't find anything edible or appetizing in the whole place. After pushing in through the wide screen door, the more oppressive the environment became, the heat having built up in the building throughout the day. The farther I stepped into the blast furnace, the hotter it got, and the waves of heat were palpable. A few customers roamed the narrow aisles, but the store was quiet. Aside from the embarrassing and unrelenting squeak of my tennis shoe soles across the entire stretch of linoleum, there was only the sound of a ceiling fan whisking the air and the occasional buzz of an unseen flying insect.
And markets then were not as atmosphere-controlled and scent-free as today. Forget airconditioning, there wasn't any. Due to the lack of air movement and the searing summer heat, the place was intolerable enough. But there was an odure that grew with each step towards the center of the store, an unidentifiable mixture of unpleasant odors that forced me to fight back a gagging response. Until the combination was undeniable and recognizable, the place smelled like a slaughterhouse. Towards the rear and dimly lit was a butcher section, with sawdust thrown on the floor. And behind the glass on long expanses of pink paper was a huge mound of brains, and next to that a pile of shocking white stuff steeping in a pool that turned from bright red to crusty brown at the edges as if the liquid tide had ebbed or evaporated, and other organ meats for sale. And Don was moving about before this display as if he were browsing. Frank had disappeared.
When we reassembled in the car, Frank carried a small bag by the rolled up edge. After waiting what seemed to be a long heatsunk while, Frank had to go back in and locate his friend. I sat in the front seat riding shotgun while Frank drove and Don sat in the backseat by himself. I stared out the side window, not saying a word the whole way home, realizing that if my sister had come along, I would have been obliged to sit in the backseat with Don, and I knew if I were to find myself there, I would be staring out the window to keep from making eye contact with him or maybe glancing at him sideways. Our outing was not just unproductive, but dismal and somewhat horrifying. And the mission was a failure, what ever were we going to eat?
We arrived back to the smell of fresh perked coffee. My sister had fired up the shiny stainless steel coffeepot factory-etched with a graceful fleur-de-lis. Frank carried his small bag straight into the kitchen. And while my sister stirred the mixture in the saucepan, and prepared to ladle out the canned cream of mushroom soup into turquoise bowls, I went outside and picked a few lemons from the tree by the patio. And I gave Don a small tour of the backyard -- the bamboo, the dicondra, the maples, the peach tree, and the loquat (neither fruit was ripe at that time of year).
Once inside, all of us seated at the formica kitchen table with a pink paper napkin neatly folded into a triangle and placed at each setting, Don surprised me at lunch by refusing to eat anything set in front of him -- not soup nor saltine nor coffee would pass his lips -- he drank a glass of water. He cut a lemon in half and bit into it as if it were an apple. I guessed he was mad at my sister as well as Frank. He talked and smiled at lunch but I don't remember what was said. People are always in a much better mood when blood sugar is elevated.
Later, I heard Don apartment sat or took up temporary residence in a neighboring town, in a small courtyard of apartments built from smooth round rock (a common building material in our vicinity, the rock an historic byproduct of clearing land for orchards). I knew someone who moved in there later, during which time the apartment had been added to and stylistically modified by a succession of artistic tenants. By then, the walk-in shower still had a plain brushed concrete floor but some tiling had occurred on the walls, and directly under the showerhead was a mermaid in mosaic, with both faucet handles strategically placed. A person described as "(whew) that crazy guy" had stayed there previously. And before you jump to conclusions, I don't know for a fact if that meant Don, as a lot of weirdos seemed drawn to that courtyard because of cheap rent and their own artistic natures. It was because of the fact that Frank brought him by for a visit that I assumed Don had an artistic nature. Not until years later when Trout Mask Replica
came out did I learn he was a musician.