When I was in college, I sang in a choir, which toured every spring. We performed concerts in the evenings and had most of our days free. We lodged with host families in groups of two or four, and the experiences could be luxurious or challenging depending on your luck of the draw. After each concert, we’d take our seats on one side of the auditorium while the host families sat on the other. Everyone was thrilled to have college students under their roofs, but these varied experiences had tongues wagging each morning when we returned to the bus. Someone would begin by boasting about his or her accommodations.
“You won’t believe this! They had a hot tub! I’m so glad I brought my suit! They had a sandwich tray and all the soda you could want! They told us to enjoy the Jacuzzi for as long as we wanted, and they showed us how to use the satellite TV before they went off to bed. We had our own wing in the house, and could stay up as late as we wanted without disturbing them. The maid came in to wake us this morning for breakfast. You wouldn’t believe how much food they had!”
Another pair of choristers would brag about their stay with graduate students who’d invited all of their friends over for a party. Another pair had been taken out for steak, and another pair had simply sat around a mahogany paneled library in a big mansion, visiting with their elderly hosts who’d placed overflowing bowls of candy everywhere in the house.
Each night was a surprise. You never knew where you’d end up. There was a nice house in Indianapolis, the San Angelo family took us to the movies, the Louisville couple baked homemade cinnamon rolls and discussed politics all night, and the Houston college kids took us out on the town.
There was one city where the person taking the count of boys and girls had miscalculated, and after all the families had taken their singers, there were four of us left with nowhere to go. A young college girl volunteered to bring us to her parents’ house. They’d volunteered to keep four girls, and Bad Betty was none too thrilled the next morning when four young men straggled into breakfast with her in her robe while her sweet daughter had slept across the hall un-chaperoned.
Hospitality was strained, and on that particular tour, our visit was a two-night stay. While she was not rude, she was never thrilled by our presence. I was not sad to leave such a beautiful house, nor those awful banana pancakes, which pleased her husband so much.
Each time you waited to be selected, you found yourself eyeing the people who’d volunteered to host. Without making eye contact, you gauged how much fun any of them might be. You’d be with them for the next 11 hours, which meant a minimum two hours of conversation unless everyone went to bed the second they got home. I’d once been made to listen to a four LP collection of the Shirley Shivers Handbell Choir performing hymns from The Sacred Harp after our hostess shared the results of her recent colonoscopy. I’ll never forget our arrival. The architecture indicated elegance, but Lily Munster had decorated the interior what with the canopy of cobwebs stretching from wall to wall over my bed.
The most unforgettable experience, however, took place one night in the South where we’d performed a great concert at an earlier hour than usual. Due to the late bus departure the following morning, we’d be with the family for about 13 hours. Being college kids, we could expect about six hours of sleep, so the hope was to get a really fun family.
My roommate on the trip and I were seated together, and we commented quietly as to which people on the other side looked like fun. As each group of singers was selected, the host families thinned out considerably. We spotted a nice looking blond woman who was full of energy and anticipation. However, she wanted girls. There was the church’s youth minister, and though I don’t care for youth ministers in general or long conversations about the politics of local interfaith softball leagues, at least they were about our age.
Finally, our names were called, and our family stood up. The husband was tall and wore a fleece-lined overcoat even though the April evening temperature was in the low seventies. The wife was much shorter, and the kids were bursting with energy. They appeared to be about elementary school age, and on a Wednesday night, they’d be off to bed early.
We piled into their car with our luggage on our laps as they’d forgotten to clear space in the trunk. Both kids rode up front, seated between their parents without seatbelts, and they turned to face us and ask questions. As we drove away, my roommate and I were quietly surveying the neighborhoods we drove through. You were never rude enough to ask where someone lived. Part of the experience was being surprised. You could drive through slums before a final turn revealed an estate where Kentucky Derby contenders were bred.
I had my doubts about the family of four. We weren’t terribly far from the parking lot when I smelled something. Had someone forgotten to put on deodorant? The windows were rolled up tightly because the husband was apparently too cold, considering he was still wearing that fleece-lined overcoat. I gave a sideways glance to my roommate who indicated that he, too, could smell what I smelled. As we rode out of town, I prayed the drive would be brief for I couldn’t last much longer without fresh air. I’d already started breathing into my sleeve, which was awkward with two young children fixing their gazes on our every move.
The car slowed down, and I sensed we were near. There were some lovely brick homes in the neighborhood, and some were set far back from the road. Might there be a heated swimming pool in our future? With young kids, there would surely be food, which would be welcome after having had our supper at 5:00. I was seated behind the driver so I could only hear the blinker when he flipped the switch. We made a left onto a dirt road.
Well, they don’t live in those houses back there, I thought. There’s probably another group of houses just ahead. That’s when I realized they lived in a trailer park of sorts. It was more of an encampment with water and electrical hookups. Theirs was the first one on the right, and the side of it was emblazoned with “Honk if you love Jesus!” painted in a font I call Hippie Wagon Script. The husband gave two quick toots of his horn before slipping the car into park.
Even though the house looked like Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, I didn’t care what they’d written on the side of it as long as I was able to get oxygen into my lungs. The possibility of that B.O. smell permeating their mobile home had never occurred to me. The family must’ve been used to it, for the house wreaked as if the odor had settled into every fiber and porous manufactured wood surface. There were 12 hours remaining until I had to get back in that car if I were able to endure the night. My survival was in question since I’d begun breathing as though I were trapped in an airtight chamber.
Even with kids, the family had no plans to sleep anytime soon. The wife asked if we would like anything to eat. She was offering dessert, and I rarely refuse anything with sugar. A few moments later, she returned with a serving platter containing six Oreo cookies: one for each of us. The small cookies were dwarfed by the enormity of the platter, which could have held a 20-pound turkey. I’d hoped for a slice of chocolate cake but better not to eat too much since someone had switched the TV to professional wrestling.
“Do you fellas like wrestling?” asked the father.
“We don’t get to see much TV because studying takes up most of our time.” That particular moment was when I realized I have the ability to make myself yawn so convincingly that anyone witnessing my performance can believe I’ve suffered weeks of sleep deprivation.
I excused myself, leaving my roommate to plan his own escape. I was relieved to discover the B.O. had not settled into the Disney themed sheets. In the days before smart phones and other electronic devices, I laid awake for hours with nothing to distract me from my thoughts. I must’ve slept at some point because the alarm woke me at 6:30. I staggered to the shower in the adjoining bathroom and turned on the water. Once it was to the right temperature, I pulled the switch to send the water from the tub’s faucet through the showerhead. It came off in my hands. There’s no quicker way to wake up than standing naked in a stranger’s house trying to repair their plumbing before the bathroom floods.
© 2015 by Patrick Brown
Visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1 to learn about my books “Moral Ambiguity” and “Tossed Off the Edge.”