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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes:'I’m gonna die. Jesus. Gonna die. Oh, lord'.

Stiff upper Lip
Albert Rouzie

It 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 OD’ed, Duane Allman killed on his motorcycle, not to mention MLK’s murder, the Panthers, and the riots. The country hadn’t been so divided since the Civil War over a hundred years before. Cambodia was being bombed.

The 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. A late 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.
"S’ok, we don’t 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, wasn’t 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, I‘m dead. I’m 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.
I’m gonna die. Jesus. Gonna die. Oh, lord.
"The army’s 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 the corners.

James said they drive all around the country, anywhere they want. We chatted about where they’d 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 you’ve 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 won’t be robbing nobody for a while, yessir!" I didn’t have any reason to doubt it. Stiff upper lip, though I was surely almost lipless by then.

James was securing the perimeter. I guess I had made him nervous sitting in the back.
"Oh, it’s loaded, all right. . . . You’re not gone try and rob us, are you, Al? Cuz . . . if you did I’d have to blow your kneecap off," he said, pointing the end of the barrel at my left knee.

No answer was expected, which was good because I couldn’t have said jack.

My hopes for longevity flickered and disappeared, a mirage on hot blacktop. I’m gonna die. Gonna die. Oh, Lord.
Finally, James stashes the gun back under the seat. I breathe again, maybe my last. I’m in a car with two Vietnam War veteran hero-psychos who probably think I’m a Jane-Fonda-Ho Chi Minh-loving-anti-war marching-pot smoking-anti-American college student. They’d be right on all counts except maybe Jane. Guilty as charged. I am truly fucked.
James must have decided I’m 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 that’s not a grin when he turns around to say something. Thank God James is the talker. Ronnie’s 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 we’ll be over the border into Carolina. Can’t buy no fireworks there. We’re gonna stop and get some."
James roars at this. Ronnie thinks it a fine idea. I don’t weigh in but I’m beginning to feel like it’s a joke I’m 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. I’m 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! What’re they, duds?" Ronnie swivels his head Jamesward: "They ain’t no fucking firecrackers and they ain’t no fuckin’ duds. They’re smokebombs. We got fucking smokebombs."
"Gaw-odd damn!"

© Albert Rouzie Jan 2008

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