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gonna die. Jesus. Gonna die. Oh, lord'.
was a few years past the Summer of Love. Every year since 1967 had
seemed a refutation of whatever that time might have meant: Woodstock,
the wake; Altamont, the funeral. Jimi choked on vomit, Janis ODed,
Duane Allman killed on his motorcycle, not to mention MLKs
murder, the Panthers, and the riots. The country hadnt been
so divided since the Civil War over a hundred years before. Cambodia
was being bombed.
Summer of Love had become the summer of the fuck you lookin at.
I was nineteen, nearly twenty, long-hair tied back, and hitch-hiking
with my guitar from outside of Charlottesville, Virginia to my parents
house in Winston-Salem. It was almost the fourth of July.
sixties, blue Ford four-door sedan rolled up, fat guy at the wheel.
His side-kick rolled down the window. "Where you headed?"
His voice was pitched unnaturally high, as if he had just sucked on
a helium balloon.
I affected a slight twang. "Winston. Winston-Salem."
The driver deliberately annunciated each syllable, "Win-ston-Sa-lem.
Cigarettes!" They could take me there. "Get in."
I thought there was something a little odd about this couple, a whiff
of sadism with the tobacco smoke, but I needed the ride. I hesitated
a moment at the inner voice telling me to walk away.
"Sok, we dont bite?" The way the driver raised
the pitch on "bite" seemed to leave it an open question.
I tossed the guitar case in the back seat, got in next to it. We exchanged
names and handshakes. The driver, James, wasnt just fat; he was
large, well-dressed in a blue dress shirt and slacks. James sported
a manly grip and a military buzzcut on a bowling ball head. His partner,
Ronnie, was his opposite: short, skinny, deathly pale, with a black
leather jacket that matched his plastered down black bangs, a limp handshake,
no upper lip.
My head, an echo-chamber: Jee-zus Christ what am I doing? Jeezus, Im
dead. Im dead. Stay cool. Stay cool. Might be all right. All right.
Gonna be all right.
Ronnie was the kind of guy who probably looked freaky with an upper
lip, but without one, he looked like some kind of perverted ghoul. As
he spoke, what there was left of his upper lip wiggled a little over
the permanent death grin of his grey teeth and red gums. I tried not
to let my eyes focus on where his lip should have been. Scanning the
back of James head, I noticed a birthmark like a map of France
beneath a prominent role of buzzcut fat. A large boil was where Paris
should be. I thought it wise to keep this fact to myself.
James took off down the road fast, faster, very fast, and began telling
me all about their trip.
Im gonna die. Jesus. Gonna die. Oh, lord.
"The armys paying. Uncle Sam pays for the car, gas, meals,
hotels, pussy, the whole nine." James goes on to describe the many
surgeries required to reconstruct his destroyed right knee, the rehab,
the months with Ronnie in the VA. There was still quite a bit of shrapnel
in James other leg. Ronnie had got too close to a mortar round.
I suspected that an upper lip might not have been the only piece the
war took from Ronnie.
James let all this sink in a minute, while I stared at the smoke rising
from the Winston lodged between the chubby fingers of his right hand,
draped easily over the steering wheel. Ronnie smoked, for obvious reasons,
from the side of his mouth and exhaled the smoke, dragon-like, from
James said they drive all around the country, anywhere they want. We
chatted about where theyd been and places to go. The atmosphere
in the car was pleasant enough, a partly cloudy day, but with a storm
front moving in, slow but inexorable, every time James took another
swig on a tall can of malt liquor.
I thought of the British expression, stiff upper lip, what? I began
to feel irrational optimism on my chances of making twenty.
James pulled the car off onto the shoulder. I thought maybe the ride
was over and not too sorry at the prospect, but he just wanted me and
Ronnie to switch places. Under way again with me riding shotgun, James
starts to talk about the trouble they had when a hitchhiker tried to
rob them. Without a word James reaches under the seat and pulls out
the most enormous pistol youve ever seen, a 357 magnum, and starts
waving it around. James announced matter-of-factly, "I blew his
fuckin knee cap off," checking my reaction. "Surprised
the hell out of that motherfucker!" He went on, "He wont
be robbing nobody for a while, yessir!" I didnt have any
reason to doubt it. Stiff upper lip, though I was surely almost lipless
James was securing the perimeter. I guess I had made him nervous sitting
in the back.
"Oh, its loaded, all right. . . . Youre not gone try
and rob us, are you, Al? Cuz . . . if you did Id have to blow
your kneecap off," he said, pointing the end of the barrel at my
No answer was expected, which was good because I couldnt have
My hopes for longevity flickered and disappeared, a mirage on hot blacktop.
Im gonna die. Gonna die. Oh, Lord.
Finally, James stashes the gun back under the seat. I breathe again,
maybe my last. Im in a car with two Vietnam War veteran hero-psychos
who probably think Im a Jane-Fonda-Ho Chi Minh-loving-anti-war
marching-pot smoking-anti-American college student. Theyd be right
on all counts except maybe Jane. Guilty as charged. I am truly fucked.
James must have decided Im not going to try and rob their army
money. We pull over. Ronnie and I switch places again. Bad news, because
now I have to look at his death grin thats not a grin when he
turns around to say something. Thank God James is the talker. Ronnies
quietness makes him even creepier, if you can imagine that.
James asks if I like fireworks, you know, cherry bombs n shit.
"Sure," I tell him, "me and my brothers used to blow
up our battleships on the creek down from the house until they were
all little plastic chips." So James says "Soon well
be over the border into Carolina. Cant buy no fireworks there.
Were gonna stop and get some."
James roars at this. Ronnie thinks it a fine idea. I dont weigh
in but Im beginning to feel like its a joke Im not
in on. We stop and get beer, cokes and chips and they buy a bagful of
minor incendiary devices. We are on our way to becoming a public nuisance.
Im on a death march back to the car.
Rolling again, James slows up to better victimize cars behind us, light
the fuses and toss them out the window. He throws out a few little bombs,
one at a time, and nothing. No POW, no blast, no BOOM. I look out the
back window and see multi-colored smoke shooting up from the asphalt.
James is livid, his neck roll and France reddening. A drop of sweat
forms a moat around Paris. "Motherfucker! Whatre they, duds?"
Ronnie swivels his head Jamesward: "They aint no fucking
firecrackers and they aint no fuckin duds. Theyre
smokebombs. We got fucking smokebombs."
© Albert Rouzie Jan 2008
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