I knew a guy who couldn't stop smiling. Seriously. He couldn't not smile. It's like his lips were permanently twisted upward in this sort-a-grin. It made everyone think that he was laughing about something, or just being nice. Everyone liked him because, well, how could you not like someone who was smiling all the time? There was something wrong with him.
His name was Otha and we met for the first time at the Foxhead. I'd just finished playing a show at the Mill and wandered over with W and Z. They started playing a game of pool and then this guy in slacks and a button-up, black shirt walked over to me saying that he'd seen the show and liked it.
"So, you're Pete Doherty," he said.
"I'm not that Pete Doherty," I snapped. Fuck that guy.
"I didn't think you were," he said. That's when I noticed he was smiling. He probably was smiling before I noticed, too, but I didn't notice. So, maybe he wasn't. I'll never know, just like pretty much everything else.
"What the hell kind of name is Otha?"
"It's my name."
Then I smiled. "Catch-22," I said and didn't expect him to get the joke, but maybe he did because, well, he was still smiling. Then S walked up to me.
"I didn't know you were in town?" S said. He was wearing his tattered old brown leather jacket and looked ill.
"You never know I'm in town!" I said. And it's true, he never does.
"Because you're never in town," he muttered.
"If you just checked the damn website..."
"Or you could just fucking call me."
"Should I call you every time?" S is needy. He misses people. I sometimes think that he doesn't realize the world works without him.
"It'd be nice and infrequent. You're never in town. Did you just play a show?"
"Yeah, at the Mill."
"What's your band's name now?"
"Johnnie Licking Omar."
"You're serious?" Then he noticed Otha. I chuckled when he took a step back. "Oh, hi," he said.
S invited us back to the house around the corner. There was a party, he said, and it would be fun. So, after the drink, we all walked over, across the street, through Dirty John's parking lot and to the house on the corner. Otha followed. I wasn't surprised and, since S didn't object, didn't mind.
"So, what do you do?" Otha asked S.
"What do I do?" S asked, looking at him strangely. He was always doing that, looking at people strangely. "I breathe? I walk? I'm a student. I don't do much. What do you do?"
"I'm a traveler."
"I'm a travel writer."
That got S's attention. "A travel writer. What are you doing in Iowa City?" he asked.
"You repeat people a lot. And I'm just passing through."
"That's why everyone's in Iowa," S muttered. "But, seriously."
"I'm crashing with a friend. This is supposed to be a great party school and I wanted to see it."
The party was a gathering of about ten of S's friends. There was pizza baking in the oven and we walked in just as Waking Life was winding down. I knew some of the people there, they were acquaintances, people that I would talk to on the street. The place looked like every Iowa City apartment I had ever seen: old, off-white plaster, filled with character and scars from previous student crashers.
After the movie finished we all got drinks from the kitchen, PBR, and went out to the iron fire escape to smoke. All ten of us. S wondered what would happen if it fell and I asked him what would happen? Two of S's friends were conversing in French. They were majoring and had just returned from a year abroad. Otha joined in the conversation and I lost them for a while.
A few minutes later, one of the French majors switched over to English. "What's that phrase in French for the desire to jump off a cliff when you're standing at the edge?"
"L'appel du vide," said the other. "I love that they have a phrase for that."
"The French are all drama queens," Otha said.
The first French major turned to him, "Oh, you're English is excellent."
"Well, I'm glad," he said. "because that's my first language."
"But, you're French," said the second.
"No, I'm American."
"You're fucking with us," said the second. "You just talked about going to school in Lyon."
"I did. But I'm American."
"You're accent is great," continued the second, "but you don't have to pretend."
"No, seriously, I'm American. Look, I have a driver's license."
They argued for about ten minutes until finally the two French majors agreed that he must be American. The party lasted for hours after that. We talked about music and hipsters, all of them agreeing that, no, they couldn't be hipsters.
At the end of the night, as everyone was leaving, Otha and I walked down the stairs together. "Hey," he said over his shoulder, "you need a keyboardist?"
"What?" I said.
"For Johnnie Licking Omar?"
"Yeah, sure. But aren't you leaving town, like, tomorrow?"
"Nah, I'm staying for a bit."
He was still smiling like he was just remembering a joke. "So," I said. "Are you really American?"
"No. And I'm not French either." He waved and walked off. And that's how Otha joined the band.