I ran into Willie Nelson at the local laundromat. He was wearing a tuxedo shirt over cut-off shorts and flip-flops. His hair was cut into a stringy grayish bob kept in a stranglehold by a red headband. He looked old, I mean really really old, but not necessarily unhappy about that or, after talking with him some, about the way his life had gone.
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, along with Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, among others, had made a break to do their thing away from the cookie-cutter sound of country music that was coming out of Nashville in the 1950s and 60s and 70s. I knew this because I later looked it up on Wikipedia. It was called “outlaw country,” what they did, going down to Texas to make their new non-Nashville-like sounds.
While my clothes were drying, Willie pulled his dried clothes out of another nearby machine, including a number of black T-shirts, several thongs in a variety of neon colors and at least fifty headbands. While folding his clothes, he told me about what happened to Waylon sometime in the early 1990s on a bad coke night. He was, apparently, according to Willie, just two bumps into the evening when, before his third line, Waylon came up with a bloody nose and died.
“Died?” I said. I didn’t expect that.
“For a few minutes,” Willie said. “Have you ever heard of NDEs?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Near Death Experiences. Waylon had one of them that night that he later recounted to me. NDEs, although widely disputed, may be caused by the release of a psychoactive chemical upon death called DMT, which brings on hallucinations.”
While Willie was going through the chemistry of NDEs, so into the subject as he seemed to be, I was trying to remember one of the more famous songs of his. My parents had listened to it over and over in the car on cross-country road trips while I was growing up.
“I’ll spare you the details of his death experience,” Willie said, “which was fairly cliché bright light at the end of the tunnel sort of thing. But from this NDE, Waylon came back to this world, snapped back into his skin and finished his line of coke—still bleeding from his other nostril onto the back of the naked woman whose hip he was snorting it off of—with a new understanding of this world.”
It was strange, but while Willie talked I could almost hear a harmonica in the background, coming in over the lower frequency of the twirling machines, in beautiful, lonesome accompaniment.
“What Waylon learned, basically,” he said, “is that we are all actors—”
“Yes, I know,” I cut him off. “We’re all actors and the world is our stage. Or something like that, right? Shakespeare.”
Willie gave me a look, momentarily, that basically said how much he truly hated people like me, and said, “No. Maybe actors isn’t the best word. We’re all avatars is perhaps a word that you would more prefer?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Go on.”
“We’re all avatars inside this game of virtual reality. What we don’t realize is that we’re now being played by our truer selves on the other side of the screen, somewhere out there.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“None of this is real,” he said. “What’s there not to get?”
“Very Matrix-esque,” I said, but he didn’t seem to catch the pop reference. “Okay,” I said, trying a different route. ”You mean to say that we are only the animated graphical representations, or the avatars, of the real players sitting somewhere out there?” I pointed out the plate-glass window of the laundromat, at a kid going by on a skateboard with a skull tattoo showing through the short hairs of his frohawk.
“Not out there,” he said, “but out there.” He raised a neon-colored thong in each of his hands as he lifted his arms to the ceiling. “On the other side of the screen of this so-called reality.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Willie,” I said when he was done. “That seems kind of strange, doesn’t it? I mean, earth to Willie, earth to Willie, right? Hear what I’m saying? Let’s not get too far out there. Ha ha.”
Willie looked at me again as if why did he even bother, and wished me a good life as he picked up his basket of folded clothes and headed for the door.
“Wait,” I wanted to yell after him. “That ended wrong. Let me buy you a beer. Let me get a picture of you at least.” But the buzzer went off and I jumped. My clothes were done drying. And then it hit me: “On the Road Again.” That was the song. But by then, of course, he was already gone.